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The New Testament

Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white. —William Blake, The Everlasting Gospel
Of course, Blake’s sentiment in the quote above is nothing new. The New
Testament contains enough inconsistencies to have spawned a dizzying variety of
interpretations, beliefs and religions, all allegedly Bible­based. And so, we find one
author offering the amusing observation:
You can and you can’t,
You shall and you shan’t,
You will and you won’t,
And you will be damned if you do,
And you will be damned if you don’t.

Why such variance in viewpoints? To begin with, different theological camps
disagree on which books should be included in the Bible. One camp’s apocrypha is
another’s scripture. Secondly, even among those books that have been canonized, the
many variant source texts lack uniformity. This lack of uniformity is so ubiquitous that
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible states, “It is safe to say that there is not one
sentence in the NT in which the MS [manuscript] tradition is wholly uniform.”192
Not one sentence? We can’t trust a single sentence of the Bible? Hard to believe.  Maybe.
The fact is that there are over 5700 Greek manuscripts of all or part of the New
Testament. 193 Furthermore, “no two of these manuscripts are exactly alike in all their
particulars…. And some of these differences are significant.”
194 Factor in roughly ten
thousand manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, add the many other ancient variants (i.e.,
Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Nubian, Gothic, Slavonic), and what do
we have?
A lot of manuscripts.
A lot of manuscripts that fail to correspond in places and not infrequently
contradict one another. Scholars estimate the number of manuscript variants in the
hundreds of thousands, some estimating as high as 400,000. 195 In Bart D. Ehrman’s now famous words, “Possibly it is easiest to put the matter in comparative terms: there are
more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”
196
How did this happen?
Poor record keeping. Dishonesty. Incompetence. Doctrinal prejudice. Take your
pick.
None of the original manuscripts have survived from the early Christian
period. 197 /198 The most ancient complete manuscripts (Vatican MS. No. 1209 and the
Sinaitic Syriac Codex) date from the fourth century, three hundred years after Jesus’
ministry. But the originals? Lost. And the copies of the originals? Also lost. Our most
ancient manuscripts, in other words, are copies of the copies of the copies of nobody­
knows­just­how­many copies of the originals.
No wonder they differ.
In the best of hands, copying errors would be no surprise. However, New
Testament manuscripts were not in the best of hands. During the period of Christian
origins, scribes were untrained, unreliable, incompetent, and in some cases illiterate. 199
Those who were visually impaired could have made errors with look­alike letters and
words, while those who were hearing­impaired may have erred in recording scripture as it
was read aloud. Frequently scribes were overworked, and hence inclined to the errors that
accompany fatigue.
In the words of Metzger and Ehrman, “Since most, if not all, of them [the scribes]
would have been amateurs in the art of copying, a relatively large number of mistakes no doubt crept into their texts as they reproduced them.”
200 Worse yet, some scribes allowed
doctrinal prejudice to influence their transmission of scripture. 201 As Ehrman states, “The
scribes who copied the texts changed them.”202 More specifically, “The number of
deliberate alterations made in the interest of doctrine is difficult to assess.”
203 And even
more specifically, “In the technical parlance of textual criticism—which I retain for its
significant ironies—these scribes ‘corrupted’ their texts for theological reasons.”204
Errors were introduced in the form of additions, deletions, substitutions and
modifications, most commonly of words or lines, but occasionally of entire verses. 205 206
In fact, “numerous changes and accretions came into the text,”
207 with the result that “all
known witnesses of the New Testament are to a greater or lesser extent mixed texts, and
even several of the earliest manuscripts are not free from egregious errors.”
208
In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman presents persuasive evidence that the story of the
woman taken in adultery (John 7:53­8:12) and the last twelve verses of Mark were not in
the original gospels, but added by later scribes. 209 Furthermore, these examples “represent
just two out of thousands of places in which the manuscripts of the New Testament came
to be changed by scribes.”

In fact, entire books of the Bible were forged. 211 This doesn’t mean their content
is necessarily wrong, but it certainly doesn’t mean it’s right. So which books were
forged? Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 and 2 Peter,
and Jude—a whopping nine of the twenty­seven New Testament books and epistles—are
to one degree or another suspect. 212
Forged books? In the Bible?
Why are we not surprised? After all, even the gospel authors are unknown. In
fact, they’re anonymous. 213 Biblical scholars rarely, if ever, ascribe gospel authorship to
Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. As Ehrman tells us, “Most scholars today have
abandoned these identifications, and recognize that the books were written by otherwise
unknown but relatively well­educated Greek­speaking (and writing) Christians during the
second half of the first century.”
214 Graham Stanton affirms, “The gospels, unlike most
Graeco­Roman writings, are anonymous. The familiar headings which give the name of
an author (‘The Gospel according to …’) were not part of the original manuscripts, for
they were added only early in the second century.” 215
So what, if anything, did Jesus’ disciples have to do with authoring the gospels?
Little or nothing, so far as we know. But we have no reason to believe they authored any
of the books of the Bible. To begin with, let us remember Mark was a secretary to Peter,
and Luke a companion to Paul. The verses of Luke 6:14­16 and Matthew 10:2­4
catalogue the twelve disciples, and although these lists differ over two names, Mark and Luke don’t make either list. So only Matthew and John were true disciples. But all the
same, modern scholars pretty much disqualify them as authors anyway.  Why?
Good question. John being the more famous of the two, why should we disqualify
him from having authored the Gospel of “John”?
Umm … because he was dead?
Multiple sources acknowledge there is no evidence, other than questionable
testimonies of second century authors, to suggest that the disciple John was the author of
the Gospel of “John.”216 217 Perhaps the most convincing refutation is that the disciple
John is believed to have died in or around 98 CE. 218 However, the Gospel of John was
written circa 110 CE. 219 So whoever Luke (Paul’s companion), Mark (Peter’s secretary),
and John (the unknown, but certainly not the long­dead one) were, we have no reason to
believe any of the gospels were authored by Jesus’ disciples.
To this end, Stanton poses a compelling question: “Was the eventual decision to
accept Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John correct? Today it is generally agreed that neither
Matthew nor John was written by an apostle. And Mark and Luke may not have been
associates of the apostles.

 

 

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