Are we having fun yet? If you are still reading…let me just say “thanks” and I hope you have found some of this helpful. Maybe even some of this can serve to build your faith stronger in the reliability of the gospels!
To trace where we have been – we started with an Introduction and laid the questions and objections on the table and have been systematically addressing each of them. In Part 1, we engaged with the issue of illiteracy. Meaning, if hardly anyone could read or write, isn’t it impossible that they could have recorded the events of gospels, in writing, in a reliable way?
In Part 2, we looked at the question of the integrity of the gospels. Meaning, wasn’t stuff changed in the time between when the events happened and the time they were written down?
Hopefully, you will not be surprised that the answer of both of those two questions is NO. It is not impossible that a mostly illiterate culture could accurately record the events of the gospel in writing, and those events were not changed by the time they actually did write them down. Definitely read those other posts if you haven’t already.
So now onto our last question that we will look at, in the hopes of getting to the bottom of this question of the reliability of the gospels. Since we don’t have the original manuscripts, and all we have are copies – what about the thousands of differences in the text between all the manuscript copies? Doesn’t all the differences between the manuscripts indicate mistakes? And therefore, doesn’t this prove that the gospels are not reliable? [OK, so that was more like four questions, but same idea…]
It’s something we’ve probably all heard. “The Bible has mistakes.” One of my favorite responses is to ask “Can you show me one?” A lot of times, people won’t know any. But there are also times where people WILL be able to identify a few “mistakes” in the Bible.
Here’s what I mean. The Bible says that upon the death of Jesus, the curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. In Mark’s gospel, the curtain rips the moment after Jesus dies, but in Luke’s version it rips when he is still living.
What about the account of the baptism of Jesus, recorded in all the gospels. In Matthew, the voice says something different than in Mark. Matthew 3:17 says “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Mark 1:11 says “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
There are countless other differences/mistakes. Doesn’t this prove the gospels aren’t reliable?
No. And actually, they aren’t countless. Most of them are counted, critiqued and catalogued. This is the discipline of Textual Criticism of the manuscript copies.
You see back in the first century, let’s say you wanted a copy of the gospel of Matthew for yourself. Well, you would hire a scribe to copy one for you. Scribes would make many copies of the manuscripts and there would inevitably be differences. Maybe they skipped a word, or misspelled a word, or even maybe they added a word or two to clarify. So yes, there are differences between the manuscripts, lots of them, and they are referred to as “variants.” But are these variants/mistakes that take away from the credibility of the gospels if we have identified them all?
No, not at all. Reason being is the massive number of copies of the manuscripts that we have. It’s hard to get an exact count on the number of manuscripts due to a host of issues like manuscript types [fragment or full copy?], potential double counting, and not to mention the constant discovery and loss of items in any collection. So it’s hard to land on a solid number, let’s just say there are thousands of them – and that’s a lot and really important for three reasons.
First reason is that is noticeably more than other literature. Again, I’m not going to go into numbers here for the same challenges noted above, but the takeaway is that as James Prothro writes, “the New Testament has a better textual basis for scholars to work with than classical works.” [Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Criticism, 86]. What does that mean? It means that we have a lot of source material to work with in doing textual criticism and that only increases reliability. Especially when we are talking about the second reason.
The second reason is that we can compare these thousands of manuscripts and partial manuscripts to each other and see what they all are saying. When scholars spot a variant, they investigate. Do you know what they find the majority of the time? A simple copying error that sticks out like a sore thumb. Meaning, if you have hundreds of copies where a word is spelled one way in the Greek and five copies where it is spelled another way, what does that say about which is right? And what does it say about the critical importance of the mistakes? That brings us to our third reason of support…
In all the variants that are found and studied, time and time again it is clear that there is no theological doctrine that is in question. The overwhelming majority of variants [“mistakes”] are very minor and have no effect on any major doctrine whatsoever. Gurry writes “we are safe then, to claim that neither the Christian faith nor the Bible’s inspiration is threatened by textual variants. The words of Stephen Neill from half a century ago remain true: “Indeed, I think it is no exaggeration to say the the very worse Greek manuscript now in existence…contains enough of the Gospel in unadulterated form to lead the reader into the way of salvation.” [Hixson and Gurry, 209]
And that’s where all of this has been leading us to – the question of reliability of the gospels is really a question of salvation. We’ll tackle that final topic in our last blog post. Stay tuned!