Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Is the New Testament reliable?

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I have received the following comment.
“Explain 1 john 5:7-8 and why roman church admittedly added this idolatry to the koine Greek original scriptures? Why was Mark 16:9-20 and hundreds of other passages added into the bible by roman church fathers? Maybe James was belittled since he said to maintain all the laws as did Jesus.
Jesus says in Mathew 15:24 and 10:5-6 his movement was for Jews only…not for gentiles or Samaritans …Paul comes along and re invents the entire movement into “Paulianity” calling all laws of God a curse …Many people are now asking these questions.”

The commentator seems to be saying that the New Testament isn’t reliable. This post addresses the topics raised by the commentator and concludes that the New Testament is a reliable document.

Explanation of 1 John 5:7-8

6This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7For there are three that testify: 8the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement” (1 Jn. 5:6-8NIV).

The author, the apostle John wrote this letter in about 90 AD to combat Gnostic heresy whose central teaching was that the spirit is good and matter is evil. Gnostics believed that the human body (being matter) is evil and God (being spirit) is good. Salvation is the escape from the body, which is achieved not by faith in Christ but by special knowledge (gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge). They denied Christ’s humanity. Some believed that the divine Christ joined the man Jesus at baptism and left Him in the Garden of Gethsemane before He died. This means that it was only the man Jesus who died.

John opposed this heresy by stressing that Jesus was truly divine and truly human (1 Jn. 1:1; 2:22; 4:2-3; 5:1; 5:5). Then he says that Jesus “came by water and blood” (5:6). Water probably symbolizes Christ’s baptism and blood symbolizes His death. Jesus was just as much Christ when He died as when He was baptized.

In verses 7-8 John mentions three sources of testimony for believing the divinity of Christ. These are the Holy Spirit, Christ’s baptism and Christ’s death. The witness of the Holy Spirit is the message of the apostles recorded in the New Testament. The witness at His baptism was when God the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). The witness of Christ’s substitutionary death is that it fully paid the penalty for our sins. No one took His life from Him; He gave it up by Himself. If He was only a man, He couldn’t have done this. All of these witnesses are united in their testimony of the divinity and work of Christ.

Addition to 1 John 5:7

A few very late manuscripts of the (Vulgate) Bible add to the end of v.7 “in heaven—the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth”. Erasmus added these words about the trinity to later editions of his Greek New Testament under pressure from the Pope (they occur in the official Roman Catholic Latin Bible, the Vulgate). These words are included in the Textus Receptus Greek text (e.g. NKJV), but not in the Critical (e.g. most modern translations) or Majority Greek Texts. But this passage isn’t found in any Greek manuscript before the fourteenth century AD (see Appendix A). Please note that the doctrine of the trinity does not rest upon this single passage because, as shown below, it is mentioned in many other Scriptures.

The commentator calls the late addition of the trinity to 1 John 5:7, “idolatry”. So is belief in the trinity of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and the God Holy Spirit, Scripturally correct or heresy? Here’s what God says (2 Tim. 3:16) about this topic:
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, He went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he (John) saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him. And a voice (of God the Father) from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:16-17).
“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:18-20).
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, He has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).
“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God (the Father), and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14).
“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better” (Eph. 1:17).
“How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal (Holy) Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God (the Father), cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Heb. 9:14).
“who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ” (1 Pt. 1:2).

As each of these seven Bible passages refer to the members of the trinity as being part of the triune God, the trinity is a fundamental belief of the Christian faith. So, it’s not idolatry to believe in the trinity. Instead, it’s heresy to claim to be a Christian and not believe in the trinity.

Other additions to the Bible

The commentator askes, “Why was Mark 16:9-20 and hundreds of other passages added into the bible by roman church fathers?” The original manuscripts of the Bible are no longer in existence. What we do have is tens of thousands of copies of the original New Testament manuscripts dating from the 1st to the 15th centuries A.D. There are many more manuscripts than for any other ancient document and the oldest manuscripts are closer in time to the original than for all other documents. This means that the Bible is the most accurate document we have from antiquity. Yet historians believe the account of other ancient documents, which are not as reliable as the New Testament.

In these manuscripts, there are many minor differences. Textual criticism is the linguistic study of these manuscripts in an attempt to determine what the original reading actually was. For example, see a discussion of Mark 16:9-20 in Appendix B. This is the only addition to the New testament that involves several verses. All the others only involve one or a few words. Consequently, the New Testament available to us today is a reliable reconstruction of the original manuscripts.

It is important to keep in mind that even though there are textual variations in the Bible manuscripts, they are all of minor significance. None of the discrepancies affect the Bible’s crucial teachings. No significant Christian doctrine is affected by any textual variants. Even if all the “additional” verses were completely removed, the Bible’s message would not be altered.

The King James Bible was translated over 400 years ago and many Biblical manuscripts have been discovered since then. Many of the more recent discoveries are older than anything the KJV translators had access to and are considered more accurate. So, today’s Bible translators have the benefit of greater knowledge and better manuscripts than the translators of the KJV had in the early 1600s.

Contradictory or consistent?

The commentator also says, “Maybe James was belittled since he said to maintain all the laws as did Jesus. Jesus says in Mathew 15:24 and 10:5-6 his movement was for Jews only…not for gentiles or Samaritans …Paul comes along and re invents the entire movement into “Paulianity” calling all laws of God a curse …” These comments relate to the Jews, the Jewish laws, and alleges contradictions between different characters and authors of the New Testament. The answer depends on an understanding of the old Jewish covenant and the new Christian one. The Old Mosaic covenant applied until the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s death. Jesus lived under this covenant and His ministry was to Jews, and not to Gentiles. So Jesus kept the old Mosaic covenant.

But the letter of James was written under the new covenant. James was a leader in the early church in Jerusalem. James mentions some of the ten commandments (Jas. 2:8-13). But Christians are not under the law of Moses. Believers are delivered from the law and its penalty through Christ’s death. However, 9 of the 10 commandments are repeated in letters written to the church. They are not given as laws but as instructions in right living. And they affect one’s reward, but not one’s salvation. So it’s wrong to claim that James urges Christians to follow the laws of Moses. There is no record of him doing this. This means that he wasn’t belittled by Judaizers.

Like James, Paul’s letters were also written under the new covenant. That’s why he condemned those who were trying to live under the old covenant.

The main differences between James and Paul relate to the place and time of their ministry. James ministered in Jerusalem where there were more Jews than Gentiles and Paul ministered in countries around the Mediterranean Sea where there were more Gentiles than Jews. And James wrote in about 50 AD, whereas Paul wrote in about 50-68 AD.

Conclusion

If “many people are now asking these questions”, then they need to read these answers. Because of linguistic studies of the numerous ancient New Testament manuscripts, the New Testament available to us today is a reliable reconstruction of the original manuscripts. This means that it’s reliable and can be trusted.

When reading the New Testament it’s important to realize that the Christian church commenced after Christ’s death. So the books of Acts to Revelation cover Christianity, whereas the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) describe a period when the Jews were the people of God. So, the gospels record events under the old covenant and the change of covenant needs to be taken into account before we can apply their principles to the church today. When this is taken into account, and there is competent exegesis (interpretation), the messages brought by different characters and authors of the New testament are consistent and not contradictory.

Appendix A: NET Translation notes on the late addition to 1 John 5:7-8

This passage is found only in nine late manuscripts (mss), four of which have the words in a marginal note. Most of these mss (221 2318 [18th century] {2473 [dated 1634]} and [with minor variations] 61 88 429 629 636 918) originate from the 16th century; the earliest ms, codex 221 (10th century) includes the reading in a marginal note, added sometime after the original composition. The oldest ms with the passage in its text is from the 14th century (629), but the wording here departs from all the other mss in several places. The next oldest mss, 88 (12th century) 429 (14th) 636 (15th), also have the reading only as a marginal note. The remaining mss are from the 16th to 18th centuries. Thus, there is no sure evidence of this reading in any Greek ms until the 14th century (629), and that ms deviates from all others in its wording; the wording that matches what is found in the Textus Receptus (TR) was apparently composed after Erasmus’ Greek NT was published in 1516. Indeed, the passage appears in no Greek witness of any kind (either ms, patristic, or Greek translation of some other version) until a.d. 1215 (in a Greek translation of the Acts of the Lateran Council, a work originally written in Latin). This is all the more significant since many a Greek Father would have loved such a reading, for it so succinctly affirms the doctrine of the Trinity. The reading seems to have arisen in a 4th century Latin sermon in which the text was allegorized to refer to members of the Trinity. From there, it made its way into copies of the Latin Vulgate, the text used by the Roman Catholic Church. The Trinitarian formula made its way into the third edition of Erasmus’ Greek NT (1522) because of pressure from the Catholic Church. After his first edition appeared, there arose such a furor over the absence of the passage that Erasmus needed to defend himself. He argued that he did not put in the passage because he found no Greek mss that included it. Once one was produced (codex 61, written in ca. 1520), Erasmus apparently felt obliged to include the reading. He became aware of this ms sometime between May of 1520 and September of 1521. In his annotations to his third edition he does not protest the rendering now in his text, as though it were made to order; but he does defend himself from the charge of indolence, noting that he had taken care to find whatever mss he could for the production of his text. In the final analysis, Erasmus probably altered the text because of politico-theologico-economic concerns: He did not want his reputation ruined, nor his Novum Instrumentum to go unsold. Modern advocates of the TR and KJV generally argue for the inclusion of the passage on the basis of heretical motivation by scribes who did not include it. But these same scribes elsewhere include thoroughly orthodox readings – even in places where the TR/Byzantine mss lack them. Further, these advocates argue theologically from the position of divine preservation: Since this verse is in the TR, it must be original. (Of course, this approach is circular, presupposing as it does that the TR = the original text.) In reality, the issue is history, not heresy: How can one argue that the passage goes back to the original text yet does not appear until the 14th century in any Greek mss (and that form is significantly different from what is printed in the TR; the wording of the TR is not found in any Greek mss until the 16th century)? Such a stance does not do justice to the gospel: Faith must be rooted in history. Significantly, the German translation of Luther was based on Erasmus’ second edition (1519) and lacked the passage. But the KJV translators, basing their work principally on Theodore Beza’s 10th edition of the Greek NT (1598), a work which itself was fundamentally based on Erasmus’ third and later editions (and Stephanus’ editions), popularized the passage for the English-speaking world.

Appendix B: NET Translation notes on the ending of the gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark ends at Mark 16:8 in some witnesses (א B 304 sys sams armmss Eus Eusmss Hiermss), including two of the most respected mss (א B). The following shorter ending is found in some manuscripts (mss): “They reported briefly to those around Peter all that they had been commanded. After these things Jesus himself sent out through them, from the east to the west, the holy and imperishable preaching of eternal salvation. Amen.” This shorter ending is usually included with the longer ending (L Ψ 083 099 0112 579 al); k, however, ends at this point. Most mss include the longer ending (vv. 9-20) immediately after v. 8 (A C D W [which has a different shorter ending between vv. 14 and 15] Θ Ë13 33 2427 Ï lat syc,p,h bo); however, Jerome and Eusebius knew of almost no Greek mss that had this ending. Several mss have marginal comments noting that earlier Greek mss lacked the verses, while others mark the text with asterisks or obeli (symbols that scribes used to indicate that the portion of text being copied was spurious). Internal evidence strongly suggests the secondary nature of both the short and the long endings. Their vocabulary and style are decidedly non-Markan (for further details, see TCGNT 102-6). All of this evidence strongly suggests that as time went on scribes added the longer ending, either for the richness of its material or because of the abruptness of the ending at v. 8. (Indeed, the strange variety of dissimilar endings attests to the probability that early copyists had a copy of Mark that ended at v. 8, and they filled out the text with what seemed to be an appropriate conclusion. All of the witnesses for alternative endings to vv. 9-20 thus indirectly confirm the Gospel as ending at v. 8.) Because of such problems regarding the authenticity of these alternative endings, 16:8 is usually regarded as the last verse of the Gospel of Mark. There are three possible explanations for Mark ending at 16:8: (1) The author intentionally ended the Gospel here in an open-ended fashion; (2) the Gospel was never finished; or (3) the last leaf of the ms was lost prior to copying. This first explanation is the most likely due to several factors, including (a) the probability that the Gospel was originally written on a scroll rather than a codex (only on a codex would the last leaf get lost prior to copying); (b) the unlikelihood of the ms not being completed; and (c) the literary power of ending the Gospel so abruptly that the readers are now drawn into the story itself. E. Best aptly states, “It is in keeping with other parts of his Gospel that Mark should not give an explicit account of a conclusion where this is already well known to his readers” (Mark, 73; note also his discussion of the ending of this Gospel on 132 and elsewhere). The readers must now ask themselves, “What will I do with Jesus? If I do not accept him in his suffering, I will not see him in his glory.”

Written, December 2016

Also see: Can we trust our Bibles? How the Bible came to us
Mind the gap

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2 responses

  1. George,
    The NET’s notes about Mark 16:9-20 are flawed in several ways. I recommend reconsidering the entire question about this passage, with a fuller grasp of the evidence which you will not be able to acquire if you trust the NET’s one-sided and inaccurate notes.

    http://www.thetextofthegospels.com/2013/04/the-net-and-ending-of-mark.html

    December 30, 2016 at 7:07 pm

    • Thanks for the comment James.
      I see you have done a lot of research on this topic.
      I did a brief online investigation of Tatian’s “Diatessaron” but was unable to come to a conclusive conclusion as the text is largely reconstructed from medieval translations; there is no complete (extant) manuscript and the oldest non-fragmentary manuscript appears to be Codex Fuldensis (about AD 546).
      I would be interested to hear the views of other textural critics.

      December 30, 2016 at 7:40 pm

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