2. The Reliability of the New Testament (Textual Corruption)

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Is the New Testament reliable or is it based on dated copies and filled with errors. This video addresses these claims and refutes objections variants affect Christians doctrine.


  • Dethroning Jesus – Darrell Bock & Dan Wallace
  • Fabricating Jesus – Craig Evans
  • A General Introduction to the Bible – Norman L. Geisler & William E. Nix
  • Trusting the New Testament – JP Holding
  • Misquoting Jesus – Bart Ehrman
  • The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts – Phillip Comfort & David P. Barrett
  • The Text of the New Testament – Bruce Metzger & Bart Ehrman
  • Prescription Against Heresy – Tertullian

Bart Ehrman vs. James White Debate:

Dan Wallace Lectures:

See PART 1 here –

1. The Reliability of the New Testament (Introduction)

VIDEO by InspiringPhilosophy

What Is Inerrancy? (William Lane Craig)

william lane craigThe doctrine of inerrancy doesn’t mean that everything in the Bible is literally true. What inerrancy, properly understood means is that everything that the Bible teaches is true. Or, that everything that the Bible teaches or affirms to be true is true.

Inerrancy is viewed as so important because if the Bible has mistakes in it, then how can it be inspired by God?

The doctrine of inspiration, I take to mean that the Scripture, as it was originally written was exactly what God wanted to be His word to us, that what those human authors wrote, under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit was His word to us, and therefore is inspired, in that sense. Now, whether or not inerrancy is an implication of that, or not, might be something that one might debate. But, I think, typically, one might think that inerrancy would be a corollary of inspiration, because it is God’s word to us, and God is truthful. Therefore, whatever the Bible teaches or affirms is true. It is God’s word to us.

Bart Ehrman’s own evangelical faith was undermined, initially, at least he claims, by his abandonment in his belief in inerrancy. He had a strong view of inerrancy, as a student at Moody Bible Institute, and then Wheaton College. And when he went to Princeton to do his graduate work, apparently when he was doing the exegesis of a certain passage, that looked to have an error in it, and when he tried to think of all sorts of ways to interpret the passage, so as to explain away this mistake, and apparently, his professor returned the paper to him and said, „Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” And Ehrman said this was like the scales falling from his eyes. With that simple comment, his belief in inerrancy just began to collapse. And he thought, „Yeah, maybe the author just made a mistake.” And the problem for Ehrman was that once inerrancy went, it was like the finger in the dyke being released and the whole of his faith disintegrated.

And I think there’s a lesson in this. And it’s this: Inerrancy is a corollary of the doctrine of inspiration. And as such, it’s important to the Christian faith, but it doesn’t stand at the center of the Christian faith. It’s not one of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. If we think of our theological system of beliefs as like a spider’s web, at the core of the web, where the center is there will be things like

  • belief in the existence of God. That will be absolutely central to the web of beliefs.
  • a little further out would be the deity of Christ and His resurrection from the dead.
  • a little bit further out from that would perhaps be the penal theory of the atonement, the substitutionary death for our sins.
  • and even further out than that, somewhere at the periphery of the web will be the belief in the inerrancy of Scripture.

What that means is that if one of these central beliefs, like the belief in the existence of God or the resurrection of Jesus goes, that part of the web is plugged out, the whole web is going to collapse because if you take something out of the center, the rest of the web can’t exist. But if you pull one of the strands out that is near the periphery, that will cause some reverberation in your web of beliefs, but it’s not going to destroy the whole thing. And the problem with a person like Bart Ehrman, and I think, many people today, is that they have at the very center of their web of theological beliefs, the belief in inerrancy, so that if that belief goes, the rest collapses, and they are really in danger of committing apostasy.  They’re teetering on the brink by having this belief be at the very center of their beliefs.  And that, I just think is clearly mistaken. If inerrancy isn’t true, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. If inerrancy is not true, does that mean that Jesus of Nazareth was not the second person of the trinity, that He didn’t rise from the dead? That He didn’t die for persons? Obviously not.

So, inerrancy isn’t a doctrine that belongs at the center of your beliefs, it belongs on the periphery. What happened to Bart Ehrman was a misconstruction of his theological system. He set himself up for a fall by having a disoriented theology. If inerrancy is not true it weakens the Christian faith, because you would be prepared to say that various Scriptural authors have erred in things that they have said. And then the questions would arise, „Well, then, where do those errors lie?” And this would reduce your confidence and certainty in the teaching of the Scripture. So, absolutely, this is an important doctrine, and one that one would not give up lightly. (10:00)

However, it is a huge mistake to make the focus of evangelism inerrancy instead of Christ. It’s Christ that is the center of the Gospel. And so, He ought to be the stumbling stone, not the doctrine of inerrancy. Inerrancy is an in-house debate for someone who is already a Christian. It’s an in-house argument to what corollaries are there to the concept of inspiration. (10:00)

Suppose somebody did demonstrate an error in Scripture, does that invalidate the Christian faith? I am saying: No. It would mean that you’d have to adjust your doctrine of inspiration, you would have to give up inerrancy of the Scripture, but it wouldn’t mean that Christ didn’t rise from the dead. , and it wouldn’t even mean that you wouldn’t have good grounds for believing Christ rose from the dead. So often, christian apologists give lip service to this idea that if you approach the New Testament documents as you would any ordinary historical document, that they are reliable enough to show, for example, that Jesus thought He was the Son of God, that He did miracles and exorcisms, and that He rose from the dead. But, they don’t really believe that, because the minute somebody point an error, they go up in arms as though to admit this one error it would completely undermine the historicity of the records of Christ. No historian approaches his documents like that. Indeed, the very task of the historian is to sift through the chaff and to find the historical nuggets of truth amidst the errors and mistakes that are typically found in historical writing.

What I’m suggesting is that if you approach Scripture as you would historical documents, and you find in them mistakes, contradictions and errors, that still wouldn’t undermine the general historical  credibility of the Gospels for example. , including things like the miracles and exorcisms of Jesus, His radical self understanding, His resurrection from the dead. Those things don’t hang on the affirmation of biblical inerrancy. (15:00)

So, I am not arguing for biblical errancy. I do believe in inerrancy, myself, properly understood.

The passage in Matthew 27 is that at the time of the crucifixion, there were some, not resurrections, but revivifications of some saints who actually came out of the grave, and who appeared to people, much like other resurrections or revivifications in other Gospel accounts. And, whether that’s historical, or whether that’s language to illustrate  the profundity of it, we don’t know. Whether this looks like an error to some critics, it would be really quite irrelevant to either the historicity of the crucifixion or the historicity of the resurrection. It is just a red herring to try and distract people.

I’m happy to say, about this passage in Matthew that I’m not sure what it means, and that’s perfectly consistent with believing in biblical inerrancy. Believing biblical inerrancy doesn’t mean that you understand everything. I don’t understand the Book of Revelation. When I read the Book of Revelation, with all these various symbolic figures and images, I am not sure what it’s saying. But, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that it’s inspired by God or inerrant in what it teaches. That’s perfectly consistent.

Scholars have given good explanations on this passage that it was the first fruit of the dead in Christ and that we would expect phenomenon like this to go on at such a profound event, at the crucifixion and the resurrection. So, it’s not a knock down error. For me it’s a triviality. It doesn’t prove anything. This is an addendum to the crucifixion story of Christ. It’s not part of the resurrection account. This is a part of the account of the crucifixion. And yet, no historian denies the truth that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. So that even if you regard this a piece of apocalyptic imagery on Matthew’s part, and not something that literally, historically happened, nobody thinks it does anything to undermine the fact that Jesus of Nazareth died by Roman execution, by crucifixion. So, it is just a triviality, a red herring.

Norman Geisler is very encouraging to those that are disturbed at the longer ending of Mark not being authentic, not being in the oldest manuscripts, and he just says, „So what? So we have some extra material that we don’t quite know what to do with. Well, textual criticism helps us sort these things out. But, that’s quite a different answer than inerrancy. As we said before: Inerrancy is the view that whatever the original Scriptures, the original documents teach or affirm is true. But the question of textual criticism is: What were the original documents? So on discrepancies, an informed inerrantist won’t be upset by that, on the contrary, he’ll be involved in textual criticism, because he’ll be anxious to understand what the original text really did say, lest he me misled by copyist errors. So, somebody like a Daniel Wallace, for example, who is a fine New Testament textual critic at Dallas Theological Seminary is an inerrantist, but he’s also very much involved in establishing the original text in the New testament. And he, like other text critics would say the longer ending of Mar, as well as the shorter is spurious, it’s an accretion by some later author. That the original Gospel of Mark either ended with verse 8 of chapter 16, or else the original ending has been lost and has not been recovered. This is not really relevant to inerrancy at all.

What we need to understand is that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy  is a corollary of the doctrine of inspiration. As such, it is an important doctrine, but it is not a central doctrine to the christian faith. You can be a christian and not affirm it. And, if one does give it up, it will have some reverberations in your theological web of beliefs, but it won’t be destructive to that fundamental web of  Christian beliefs because it stands somewhere near the periphery. 

VIDEO by drcraigvideos

How badly did the early scribes corrupt the New Testament? Daniel B. Wallace

Reminder: One primary reason I transcribe important lectures is because of our international readership. You can pass along this article to non English speaking readers, as they can use the Google translate widget in the sidebar (first widget at the top, on the right side of every page of this blog).

Daniel Wallace:

The New Testament has been under a barrage in the last few years. The Old Testament has been sieged. The biggest apologetic question used to be: „Is it true?”

Now, the question that is on the horizon, and is increasingly so, is: „Did God really say that?” „Is that what the Bible really says?”

Daniel Wallace, answers 4 important questions:

  1. How many textual variants are there?
  2. What kinds of textual variations are there?
  3. What theological beliefs depend on textually suspect passages?
  4. Is what we have now what they wrote then?

Daniel Wallace is a professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary and the founder of The Center for the Study of the New Testament Manuscripts, an institute that seeks to study and preserve the manuscripts of the New Testament. Wallace is an expert in biblical Greek and in textual criticism, the academic study of ancient manuscripts. Daniel Wallace’s personal website – http://www.danielbwallace.com/ The following lecture was given at Watermark Community Church of Dallas Texas on September 29th, 2012.

Here are some points from the lecture:

  • Dr. Wallace begins with a preliminary question: Don’t we have the original New Testament anymore? The answer is ‘no’. It turned to dust… probably by the end of the second century. These were originally 27 documents, sent to a variety of churches in the ancient world, that got collected later on. But, the originals must have worn out within 100 years of the writing of them. The reason I say that is because they were all written on papyrus. Papyrus doesn’t last real long. It’s actually stronger than paper. It’s kind of got the consistency of a paper grocery sack (bag). Now, these papyrus texts, they would have been copied and copied, and handled. The early church would have disseminated these documents, they would have worn out. So, we don’t have the original New testament anymore.
  • But, of the copies we do have, don’t they all say exactly the same thing? Our 2 closest, earliest related manuscripts have between 6 and 10 differences per chapter. Because of the disappearance of the originals and the difference in the manuscripts we cannot say that we have the original New Testament. Textual criticism is necessary because of these differences and because the originals don’t exist anymore.

Definition of textual variance: Any place among the manuscripts in which there is variation in wording, including word order, omission or addition of words, even spelling differences.

The quantity of Variants:

  • In the Greek NT we have approx. 140,000 words
  • Textual Variants in the manuscripts approx 400,000

So for every word in the NT we have about 2 1/2 textual variants. The reason we have a lot of textual variants is that we have a lot of manuscripts.  If there was one copy of the New Testament today, it would have no variants. As soon as you have a second copy, you will have variants. (Yet) the more manuscripts we have, the better we are in getting back to reconstructing the original. And the reason we have a lot of textual variants is that we have a lot of manuscripts. There’s nothing in the ancient world that compares to the number of variants that we have for the New Testament, nor to the number of manuscripts. (11:19)

Let me go back 300 years ago to the famous scholar- Richard Bentley, and author of the book  „Remarks Upon a Discourse of Freet Thinking” (1713). He said:

If there had been but one manuscript of the Greek New Testament at the restoration of learning about two centuries ago, then we [would have] had no various readings at all… And would the text be in a better condition then, than now [that] we have 30,000 [variant readings]?

It is good therefore… to have more anchors than one; and another MS, to join the first would give more authority, as well as security.

  • Greek manuscripts: The latest number of how many Greek New Testament manuscripts we have: 5824 By the way, the average sized Greek New Testament manuscript is more than 450 pages long. We’re not talking of little fragments. Yes, there are some that are little fragments and there are some that are huge manuscripts. But, the average size is over 450 pages.
  • Latin manuscripts: The New Testament was translated into various languages as well, early on- latin swept across Europe and starting in the second century, the New Testament was translated into Latin. We have more manuscripts in Latin than we do in Greek: The count is over 10,000+.
  • Ancient languages manuscripts: It (NT) was then translated into other ancient languages- Syriac, and Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, and Gothic and Old Church Slavonic, Arabic, the list goes on and on-Our best guess is that there is at least 5,000 manuscripts in these other ancient translations.
  • Quotations from NT: Even without these manuscripts, there are over 1 million quotations from the New Testament by church fathers.The New Testament itself has just under 8,000 verses in it. We can sometimes reproduce the New Testament many times over just by the quotations of the church fathers.

How does this compare with other ancient literature?

  • The average classical Greek writer has less than 20 hand written copies of his works still in existence. If you were to stack them up they would be 4 foot high.
  • If you were to pile all the existing New Testament manuscripts they would be 1 mile high.

Skeptics will say: How can you possibly tell what the New Testament originally said? It’s been translated, copied so many times?

Yes, but, we are not relying just on the latest versions of it? We can go back in time and we can see earlier copies and see many, many, many copies. If we’re gonna be skeptical about what the New Testament originally said, that skepticism, on average, needs to be multiplied at least 1,000 times any other classical Greek or Latin author.

Herodotus was the historian of Alexander the Great. Suetonius was one of the 3 historians on the Caesars. If we don’t have the New Testament texts, or if we have doubts about that, we should be 1,000 times more skeptical about these other texts. Maybe Julius Caesar never existed. Maybe there never was an Alexander the Great. Let’s play fair with the evidence. The New testament is phenomenal in terms of how much we’ve got in manuscripts. But, it’s also earlier than these other texts.

In the first millennium, till about AD 1,000 we have about 15% of our New Testament manuscripts. We have multiple copies of the entire New Testament within the first 300 years.

Has the Bible been translated and retranslated so many times that we don’t know what it originally said? If we go back to 1611, when the first King James Bible was published, we discover that the New Testament was based essentially on 7 Greek manuscripts that a scholar had published about 100 years earlier. The earliest of these manuscripts is from the 11th century. Today, in 2012, we have over 5800 manuscripts, almost 1000 times as many manuscripts and our earliest go back to the second century.

As time goes on, we are not getting farther and farther away from the original texts. We are actually getting closer and closer to them. 

We haven’t lost those manuscripts that the King James translators used.

The nature of the variants: What kind of variants are there?

  • 99% of the variants make virtually no difference at all. They are spelling variants that don’t change the meaning.

One of the common variants that we have among the manuscripts is the use of the article, the word „the”. (With) proper names, you would see in Luke chapter 2 ‘the Joseph and the Mary left Jerusalem’. Well, that’s in Greek. We don’t translate it that way. The word ‘the’ occurs 20,000 times in the Greek New Testament.

  • The smallest group of variants are those that are both meaningful and viable, that do affect the meaning of the text and they have a good chance at being authentic.
  • Less than 1% of all textual variants fit this group. Actually the number is approximately 1/4 of 1%.

I’ll give you a couple that are pretty meaningful texts:

  1. Mark 9:29 –  Jesus’s disciples try to cast out a demon and they can’t. So they come to Him and He says: „This kind can come out only by prayer [and fasting].” Well, I put ‘and fasting’ in brackets because the earlier manuscripts don’t have ‘and fasting’. But, most of the manuscripts which are later, do have ‘and fasting’.  This is a meaningful variant and a viable variant and it is the only place in the New Testament that says that fasting may be required to exorcise demons. So, it’s meaningful ad viable and it does change the text. But, how significant is it?
  2. Here’s one that may be more relevant to you: Revelation 13:18- „Let the one who has insight calculate the beast’s number, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.” Now, everybody knows the antichrist’s number is 666. Not so fast. In the middle of the 19th century, in Paris, a manuscript was deciphered that had never been deciphered before, by a scholar who spent 2 years on it had found that Revelation 13:18, the number of the beast was 616. Now, I had the opportunity to examine that manuscript a couple of years ago and sure enough it says 616. Well, that’s just one manuscript. But, it turned out to be our second most important manuscript for Revelation. It’s text is terrific in almost all of Revelation. Maybe it’s one that was wrong, for there were no others that said 616, until 1998 when at Oxford University, the papyrologists were going through all these papyri that for the majority had never been published and they came across a small fragment, actually 26 fragments  that spread out over 9 chapters, one of them the size of a postage stamp with this verse on it. And it had the number of the beast as 616. Well, that’s just one manuscript. But, it’s also our earliest manuscript for Revelation.  Now, even with all that evidence which is really significant, most scholars today would say, „We believe that the number of the beast is 666. When all the dust will say, we will probably say, „We’re not sure”.  But, here’s the point about Revelation 13:18: I know of no church, no denomination, no Bible college, no theological seminary of any sort that has as its doctrinal statement: We believe in the virgin birth, We believe in the deity of Christ, and we believe that the number of the beast is 666. It may be important, but not that important.

What theological beliefs do depend on textually suspect passages?

Teabing, the character in the Da Vinci Code says that Constantine, the emperor actually invented the deity of Christ in A.D. 325. Dan Brown actually believed this. It was based on another book that said (that) there are no New Testament manuscripts form before the 4th century. Well, there were at least 48 of them before the 4th century, but, they didn’t do their research. There’s a lot of misinformation that’s going on nowadays. But, here’s the point. Here in this book, they’re claiming that the deity of Christ came later, 300 years after the time that Jesus lived.

There is a papyrus # P66, written about A.D. 75. It is the first leaf of John’s Gospel. It says in John 1:1- „In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Every New Testament manuscript says that. Every single one in every single language. It’s not just the deity of Christ, we see go all the way back to the original. But, it’s all of our essential doctrines. In fact, here’s some evidence. In Bart Erhman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’ paperback edition, in the appendix the publishers wrote this: „Why do you believe these core tenets of Christian orthodoxy to be in jeopardy based on the scribal errors you discovered in the biblical manuscripts?”

Ehrman’s response is: „Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants  in the manuscript tradition of the New testament.” This is a skeptic saying this. This is the guy on whose works, Moslems and atheists are basing their wild flames that the orthodox have so corrupted the texts, that it must not have been orthodox at all originally. They don’t know what they’re talking about. But, they’re basing it on Dr. Ehrman’s work.

In conclusion: When it comes to essentials, we have absolute certainty that this has not been affected.Even a skeptic like Bart Ehrman could not deny that. No essential Christian belief is jeopardized by any viable variant.

Why We Believe The Bible part 3 of 5 Pastor John Piper at Samuel Zwemer Theological Seminary

View Part 1  here– Inspiration, Inerrancy & Authority of the Bible

View Part 2 here- Which Books Make Up The Bible And Why? The Old and NewTestament Canon

You can read the notes here on the Desiring God site including Seminar Notes for the entire (5 part) series

Part 3 below: Do we have the very words written by the Biblical authors? and Does It Matter Whether We Affirm the Verbal Inerrancy of the Original Manuscripts?

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1st collector for Why We Believe The Bible part 3 Pastor John Pip…
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4. Do We Have the Very Words Written by the Biblical Authors?

Do we have any of the original manuscripts of the New Testament?

We do not have the actual piece of paper or papyrus or parchment that a Biblical writer actually wrote on.

How were the manuscripts of the New Testament preserved?

The first printed Greek New Testament was published 1516 by Erasmus. Before that, all copying was by hand. We owe our Bible to the meticulous love and care given by countless monks and scholars of the first 1500 years of the Christian era.

How many manuscripts of the New Testament writings do we possess today?

Over 5,000

As of 1967 the statistics were:

266 uncial texts
2,754 minuscule texts
2,135 lectionary portions
81 papari
5,236 TOTAL

How does this amount of evidence compare with other ancient writings of the same era?

We have no original manuscripts of any other writers from this period of history.
Moreover the textual evidence of other writings cannot compare with the wealth of New Testament manuscripts. For example:

Caesar’s Gallic Wars (composed between 58 and 50 bc). There are about 10 manuscripts available and the oldest is 900 years after the event.

Parts of the Roman History of Livy (composed between 59 bc and ad 17) is preserved in about 20 manuscripts, only one of which, containing only fragments, is as old as the fourth century.

The Histories and the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus (composed around ad 100) are preserved (partially) only in two manuscripts, one from the ninth and one from the eleventh century.

The History of Thucydides (who lived 460-400 bc) is known to us from only eight manuscripts, the earliest belonging to ad 900, and a few papyrus scraps from the beginning of the Christian era.

The same general picture is true of Herodotus (who lived about ad 480 – 425).

Does this small number of manuscripts cause secular scholars to despair that we can know what these writers wrote?

As F. F. Bruce says:

No Classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest manuscripts of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals. (Are the New Testament Documents Reliable, pp. 16-17)

So are you saying that the New Testament is the unique in having so many manuscripts?

Yes. No other ancient book comes close to this kind of wealth of diverse preservation.

What are some of the oldest manuscripts?

The oldest is a papyrus and comes from about ad 130 and contains John 18:31-33, 37f.

Two of the only full early manuscripts of the New Testament comes from ad 350, called Codex Sinaiticus because it was discovered in a monastery on Mt. Sinai.

Are manuscripts the only source of our knowledge of the original wording of the New Testament Writings?

No. In addition to manuscripts, there are quotations from the New Testament in very early writers outside the New Testament. For example, in the Didache and The Epistle of Barnabas and Clement’s letter to the Corinthians were produced around ad 100, and quote extensively from the New Testament writings.

The letters of Polycarp and Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, from about ad 120 contain many quotes from both Gospels and letters.

Do all these manuscripts create problems or solutions for getting back to the original writings?

The huge numbers of manuscripts of the New Testament results in two things: 1) there are many variations in wording among them because they were all copied by hand and subject to human error; 2) there are so many manuscripts that these errors tend to be self-correcting by the many manuscript witnesses we have to compare.

F. F. Bruce:

Fortunately, if the great number of MSS increases the number of scribal errors, it increases proportionately the means of correcting such errors, so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the exact original wording is not so large as might be feared; it is in truth remarkably small. (The New Testament Documents, p. 19)

Is there a branch of Biblical Studies that focuses on this problem of getting back to the wording of the original writings?

Yes. The branch of Biblical Studies that works with all these sources to determine the best manuscript of the Bible is Textual Criticism.

Illustrations of Discrepancies and How They Came About and Are Resolved:

Misreading: Revelation 1:5

Marginal glosses: 1 John 5:7

Harmonization: Acts 9:6

Does the doctrine of inerrancy in the original manuscripts matter?

From our Affirmation of Faith:

We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, fully inspired and without error in the original manuscripts. . .

Yes, it matters, because it affirms the reality of objective, historical inspiration. There is an objective measuring rod for us to return to. To the degree that we come close to the wording of the original we come close to the very words of God. We are there for all practical purposes.

B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort:

The proportion of words virtually accepted on all hands as raised above doubt is great; not less on a rough computation than 7/8ths of the whole. The remaining 1/8th … formed in great part by changes of order and other comparative trivialities constitutes the whole area of [textual] criticism … The words in our opinion still subject to doubt only make up about 1/60th of the whole New Testament. Substantial variation is but a small fraction of the whole residuary variation and can hardly form more than 1/100th part of the entire text. (The New Testament in the Original Greek, pp. 2-3)

F. F. Bruce:

The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affects no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice. (The New Testament Documents, p. 20)

5. Does It Matter Whether We Affirm the Verbal Inerrancy of the Original Manuscripts?

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–>Neither Do I Condemn You by John Piper (The message he gives every 10 years) Essential sermon from John 7:53-8:11

from DesiringGod.org March 6,2011

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Neither Do I Condemn You

John 7:53-8:11

[[They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]]

This message is the kind I may give once every decade or so. The reason it’s so rare is that the situation with our text is so rare. In most of your Bibles, you notice that John 7:53 to John 8:11 is either set off in brackets or is in a footnote. The reason for this is that most New Testament scholars do not think it was part of the Gospel of John when it was first written, but was added centuries later.

For example…

  • Don Carson, who teaches at Trinity, and is in my view one of the best New Testament scholars in the world, writes, „Despite the best efforts . . . to prove that this narrative was originally part of John’s Gospel, the evidence is against [them], and modern English versions are right to rule it off from the rest of the text (NIV) or to relegate it to a footnote (RSV).” (The Gospel According to John, 1991, p. 333)
  • Bruce Metzger, one of the world’s great authorities on the text of the New Testament until his death in 2002: „The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the periscope of the adulteress is overwhelming.” (The Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 1971, p. 219)
  • Leon Morris: „The textual evidence makes it impossible to hold that this section is an authentic part of the Gospel.” (The Gospel According to John, 1971, p. 882)
  • Andreas Köstenberger: „This represents overwhelming evidence that the section is non-Johannine.” (John, 2004, p. 246)
  • And Herman Ridderbos: The evidences „point to an unstable tradition that was not originally part of an ecclesiastically accepted text.” (The Gospel of John, 1997, p. 286)

I think they are right. And this gives us a chance to spend a little while on the branch of Biblical Studies behind these judgments called Textual Criticism, and its implications for the trustworthiness and authority of the Scriptures. So let me summarize the reasons these scholars give for thinking this the story of the woman taken in adultery was not originally part of John’s Gospel, and then give some general thoughts about the science of Textual Criticism that helps make sense of the arguments.

Reasons This Section Isn’t Original to John’s Gospel

The evidence goes something like this:

  1. The story is missing from all the Greek manuscripts of John before the fifth century.
  2. All the earliest church fathers omit this passage in commenting on John and pass directly from John 7:52 to John 8:12.
  3. In fact, the text flows very nicely from 7:52 to 8:12 if you leave out the story and just read the passage as though the story were not there.
  4. No Eastern church father cites the passage before the tenth century when dealing with this Gospel.
  5. When the story starts to appear in manuscript copies of the Gospel of John, it shows up in three different places other than here (after 7:36; 7:44; and 21:25), and in one manuscript of Luke, it shows up after 21:38.
  6. Its style and vocabulary is more unlike the rest of John’s Gospel than any other paragraph in the Gospel.

Now saying all that assumes a lot of facts that many of you simply don’t have at your fingertips. And nobody expects you to. This is a hugely technical field of scholarship that at the upper levels requires not only the ability to read ancient languages, but the ability to read them in kinds of ancient handwritten scripts that are very demanding. So let me give you just enough so that you can make sense of these reasons.

The Science of Textual Criticism

The New Testament that we know was originally written in Greek. The first printed Greek New Testament—that came off a printing press—was published by Erasmus in 1516. It turned the world upside down. If you want a great glimpse of this period and the heroism it produced, read David Daniell’s biography of William Tyndale.

This means that for 1500 years the manuscripts of the biblical books were passed down to us through handwritten copies. This is how we have access to the actual words that the New Testament writers wrote with their very hands. None of those first, original manuscripts is known to exist. Which is probably just as well, since we would probably turn it into an idol and charge money for people come worship.

So the books of the New Testament were preserved for us by faithful, hardworking copyists. Some of these copies were in a script called uncials (referring to manuscripts with all capital Greek letters), others were in a script called minuscule (referring to manuscripts with small Greek letters). A smaller number are called papyri because they are very early and written on the special paper-like material made from the Papyrus plant that was prevalent in the Nile Delta. One last group of manuscripts is the lectionaries—which were collections of texts for reading in public worship.

What’s Simply Staggering

Now here is what’s amazing. The abundance of these manuscripts of the New Testament, or parts of the New Testament, as compared to the number of manuscripts for all other ancient works is simply staggering.

  • There are 10 existing manuscripts of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.). And all of these date from the tenth century or later.
  • There are 20 manuscripts of Livy’s Roman History written roughly during the time when Jesus was alive.
  • Only two manuscripts exist for Tacitus’s Histories and the Annals which were composed around A.D. 100—one from the ninth and one from the eleventh century.
  • There are only eight manuscripts of the History of Thucydides who lived 460-400 B.C.

Compare those numbers with the manuscripts and partial manuscripts for the New Testament. These numbers are from the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Muenster, Germany, which is the most authoritative collection of such data in the world. There are 322 uncial texts, 2,907 minuscule texts, 2,445 lectionary portions, and 127 papyri, for a total of 5,801 manuscripts. These are all hand-written copies of the New Testament or parts of the New Testament preserved in libraries around the world and now captured electronically. No other ancient book comes close to this kind of wealth of diverse preservation.

Problems and Solutions

What that wealth does is create problems and solutions at the same time. These copies do not all agree on what the wording was in the original manuscripts. So the more manuscripts you have, the more variations you find. On the other hand, the more manuscripts you have, the more control you have over which readings are the original ones. The more manuscripts you have the more variations you find, and yet the more they tend to be self-correcting.

For example, if you had only two ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of John and one has the story of the woman taken in adultery and the other doesn’t, you would be hard put to choose. But if you have a hundred manuscripts of John, even though you may find more variations, you will be able to tell by the number and age and geographical diversity of the manuscripts whether the story was there or not. This is what the science of Textual Criticism has done with hundreds of variations in the manuscripts.

Here’s the way F. F. Bruce put it a generation ago: „If the great number of manuscripts increases the number of scribal errors, it increases proportionately the means of correcting such errors, so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the exact original wording is . . . in truth remarkably small” (The New Testament Documents, p. 19).

No Doctrine Threatened

But what is most significant for the reliability and authority of the New Testament is that the variations that Textual Critics are unsure of are not the kind that would change any Christian doctrine. For example, in our passage from John 7:53–8:11, no truth that this Gospel teaches is changed by omitting this story. Bruce says, „The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affects no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice” (The New Testament Documents, p. 20).

Nothing on this score has changed in the last generation since F. F. Bruce wrote in 1943, except, perhaps, that people like Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina, have become very popular in questioning the reliability of our New Testament to give us what the original authors wrote.

Reason to Worship God

In 2006, Paul D. Wegner reaffirmed F. F. Bruce’s assessment (A Student’s Guide To Textual Criticism of the Bible, Downers Grove: InterVarsity): „It is important to keep in perspective the fact that only a very small part of the text is in question. . . . Of these, most variants make little difference to the meaning of any passage.”

Then he closes his book by quoting Fredric Kenyon: „It is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all these discoveries and all this study is to strengthen the proof of the authenticity of the Scriptures, and our conviction that we have in our hands, in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God” (Frederic G. Kenyon, The Story of the Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), p. 113, quoted in Wegner, p. 301).

So when I agree with the vast majority of scholars that the story of the woman taken in adultery was not in the Gospel of John, you should not think: „O my everything is up for grabs now.” Or: „How can I count on any text?” On the contrary, you can be thankful that God has, in his sovereign providence over the transmission process for 2,000 years, ordered things so that the few uncertainties that remain alter no doctrine of the Christian faith. That is really astonishing when you think about it, and we should worship God because of it.

What’s a Preacher to Do?

Now the question is: What should I, the preacher, do with this story? Both Don Carson and Bruce Metzger think the story probably happened. In other words, they think this is a real event from Jesus’s life, and the story circulated and later was put in the Gospel of John. Metzger says, „The account has all the earmarks of historical veracity” (Textual Commentary, p. 220). And Carson says, „There is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred” (The Gospel According to John, p. 333).

Perhaps. I would like to think so. Who doesn’t love this story? But that does not give it the authority of Scripture. So what I will do is take its most remarkable point and show that it is true on the basis of other parts of Scripture, and so let this story not be the basis of our authority, but an echo and a pointer to our authority, namely, the Scriptures, that teach what it says.

The Most Remarkable Point

The most remarkable point of this story is that Jesus exalts himself above the Law of Moses, changes its appointed punishment, and reestablishes righteousness on the foundation of grace. I don’t doubt that this is why the story was preserved. It is an amazing story. Let me show you where I get that lesson and why I think it is a faithful echo of the rest of the New Testament.

The woman is caught in adultery and brought to Jesus. In verses 4–5, the scribes and Pharisees put Jesus to the test. We have seen this before in the Gospels. This has the ring of truth. Here’s what they say, „Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” So this is a blatant test to see if Jesus will contradict the Law.

Pharisees Taking Aiming at Jesus

The law said, „If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die” (Deuteronomy 22:22; see Leviticus 20:10). There is already something fishy going on here that only the woman is brought forward. There is no such thing as adultery where only one party is guilty. But there she is and no man. So how committed are these scribes and Pharisees really to the law? Or is the law a pretext for their prejudice against Jesus?

Verse 6 makes explicit what their motives were, and so we don’t expect a great deal of justice: „This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.” They were using her, and using the law, to get rid of this troublemaker.

The Law Fulfilled in Love

In verse 7, Jesus says, „Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Now of course, that won’t work as a basis for social justice. No criminals would be brought to justice if judges had to be sinless. That’s why I said Jesus is going to reestablish righteousness. He’s going to do it on the foundation of grace. For now there is zero grace, zero humility, zero compassion. Which means there is zero law-keeping.

Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus standing against the Pharisees’ view of the law and saying in effect, „Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice'” (Matthew 9:13; 12:2). Or: „If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?” (John 7:23). In other words, „the Law is fulfilled in one word: Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Galatians 5:14; cf. Matthew 7:12).

Jesus Reestablishing Righteousness

So Jesus forced them to expose their own misuse of the law. They all walked away. The point is not that judges and executioners must be sinless. The point is that righteousness and justice should be founded on a gracious spirit, and if it’s not, what you get is the heartlessness and hypocrisy of Pharisaism. That’s the point throughout the Gospels, not just here.

When they are all gone, Jesus ends the story saying to the woman, „Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (recall John 5:14). Not: Neither do I condemn you, so it doesn’t matter if you commit adultery. But: I am reestablishing righteousness in your life—and the for Pharisees, if they will have it—on the basis of an experience of grace. Don’t commit adultery any more. Not mainly because you fear stoning. But because you have met God, and have been rescued by his grace—saved by grace!

Come for Grace—And Sin No More

The story may not belong to John’s Gospel. In fact, the story may never have happened. But this point of the story is unshakably true. This is the pervasive message of the New Testament. Jesus exalted himself above the Law. He wrote it! Jesus altered some of its sanctions. He pointed to its main goal of Christ-exalting love. And he reestablished righteousness on the basis of an experience of grace.

The story points us to the message of the whole New Testament: We are called to be holy as God is holy. God hates sin. But pursuing holiness without a profound experience of grace in our own lives produces hypocrisy and doctrinaire cruelty. Jesus came into the world to provide that grace through his cross, and to establish holiness, righteousness, and justice on the foundation of our experience of his grace. So come to him for grace, and set your face to sin no more.

© Desiring God. Website: desiringGod.org

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