Biblical Authenticity: The Apocrypha

BibleThe last blog I posted — “Biblical Inerrancy and Textual Criticism” — has been by far the most popular blog I’ve ever written.  It got a few comments on WordPress, but got 53 comments (so far) on Facebook, some of which continued into fairly involved debates.  The most I can say from the feedback I’ve received so far is that I may have overstated the case against the authenticity of the long ending of Mark, but my position on the issue remains unchanged.  However, the most popular question I received on that blog is with regard to which books are included in our current Bible, and how those decisions were made.  Especially since the publication of The Da Vinci Code, this is an issue that cries out for some clear thinking!

This topic — which books are included in our Bible — covers not only the differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Bibles (the Apocrypha), but also the so-called “Gnostic” gospels, the role of the Council of Nicea, The Da Vinci Code, and several other closely-related events that collectively call for a blog to address the question.  I’ll try to cover all these issues with some clarity in the next few blogs.  Let’s start with the Apocrypha.

  1.  The Apocrypha.  Plainly stated, some Christian denominations — specifically, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestants — add six or seven books to the Old Testament canon, as well as additions to the books of Esther and Daniel.  These additions are called the “Deuterocanon” (second canon) by those denominations, and the “Apocrypha” (hidden writings) by nearly all others. These additional books and edits to Esther and Daniel are normally included in the Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible, and include:

The First Book of Esdras
The Second Book of Esdras
Tobit
Judith
Additions to the Book of Esther
The Wisdom of Solomon
Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach)
Baruch
The Letter of Jeremiah (often combined with Baruch as a single book)
The Prayer of Azariah (normally added to Daniel 3)
Susanna (normally added as Chapter 13 to the book of Daniel)
Bel and the Dragon (normally added as Chapter 14 to the book of Daniel)
The Prayer of Manasseh
The First Book of the Maccabees
The Second Book of the Maccabees

These books range from 300 BC (The Letter of Jeremiah) to about 30 BC (The Wisdom of Solomon), are not included in the Hebrew Bible, but remain in dispute.  Even this list itself is not agreed upon by all.  For example, the Roman Catholic Church accepts this list as canon, with the exception of 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh.  Eastern Orthodox accepts the list as canon, but includes both books of Esdras and Manasseh.  This expanded (“second”) canon was proclaimed as the divinely inspired Word of God at the Council of Trent in 1546, though previous councils (including some in the first four centuries) rejected them.

But are these books Scripture?  Are they inspired, are they canonical?  This is the question.  The answer is we simply don’t know, and there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the debate.  Some of the early church fathers accepted the Apocrypha as canonical (Augustine, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement), others rejected them (Athanasius, Josephus, Cyril, Origen, Jerome).  Our earliest Greek manuscripts — Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Siniaticus, and Codex Vaticanus — include portions of the Apocrypha, interspersed throughout the Old Testament.  Some believe that the tortures mentioned in Hebrews 11:35 are referring to the torture of the Maccabees recorded in 2 Maccabees 7 and 12, so advocates have at least one potential New Testament reference to the Apocrypha.  However, the New Testament never directly quotes from any book of the Apocrypha, and never refers to any of them as Scripture, authoritative, or canonical.

Modern scholarship remains sharply split, largely along Catholic/Protestant lines.  Great Protestant theologians and scholars (Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, Bruce Metzger, William Nix, F. F. Bruce) continue to strongly reject the Apocrypha, citing many of the reasons here.  Geisler, in particular, vehemently rejects these additional books based more on their content, which he calls unbiblical, heretical, extra-biblical, fanciful, sub-biblical, and even immoral.  For those interested in further study, I’ve included a bibliography below.  Next up — the Council of Nicea!

References:

Bruce, F.F., The Canon of Scripture, InterVarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, IL, 1988
Geisler, Norman and Nix, William, A General Introduction to the Bible, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1986
Hauer, Christian and Young, William, An Introduction to the Bible:  A Journey into Three Worlds, Second Edition, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1990
Metzger, Bruce, An Introduction to the Apocrypha, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1977

Textual Criticism and Inerrancy

P52-2-450hGreetings once again, and welcome to a fun and controversial topic!  Rest assured, as usual we will ensure we think clearly about it.  Over the past few months, I’ve been taking a New Testament Textual Criticism course from Dr. Dan Wallace, who is likely one of the greatest New Testament scholars and textual critics alive today.  Textual criticism is not simply criticizing the New Testament text, it refers to the science and the discipline of trying to recover the original text of the ancient autographs (original writings themselves).  I thought I’d share a few lessons learned and observations from this fascinating course (link above if any would like to take it).

  1.  I suspect most Christians think we are more sure than we actually are about what the originals said.  Now, I am a Biblical inerrantist, but I may have to adjust my view to encompass the autographs only.  That is, do our current translations accurately reflect what was originally written?  The fact is, we just don’t know.  We do not have any of the originals, and within the first few decades after the originals were written, we see differences in the texts.  Which (if any) accurately reflects the original?  We can’t be sure.
  2. The Bible we have today is sound in its history and its doctrine, but likely contains text that was not in the original.  Let me tell you what I mean by this.  We know, with a high degree of certainty, that there are passages in our Bibles today that were almost certainly not in the originals.  Some of the passages may have been in the originals, but have been edited or altered.  However, all of these variations make absolutely no difference whatsoever in the core doctrines and history of Christianity.  Textual critics today have categorized all variants (there are literally hundreds of thousands of them) into viable and not viable, and into meaningful and not meaningful.  Many of the variants are viable (they are actual variants, real no-kidding differences in the texts), but are meaningless.  An example here might be the spelling of the name “John,” which in some manuscripts has one “n” (Ioanes) and in other manuscripts has two (Ioannes).  This is a viable variant, but it is meaningless.  Those that concern us today are those variants that are both viable and meaningful, which Dr. Wallace says encompass less than one half of one percent of all known variants.  Of all these meaningful and viable variants, only two are longer than a word or a phrase — the long ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) and John 7:53 – 8:11.  Let’s look briefly at these two.
    1. Mark 16:9-20.  If you have a Bible handy, turn to this passage and it is almost sure to have a caveat — after verse 8, mine (NET) says, “The Gospel of Mark ends at this point in some witnesses [manuscripts], including two of the most respected manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus)…”  It goes on for several paragraphs, in quite some detail.  My NIV also says, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9 – 20.”  According to Dr. Wallace, there is not a textual critic alive today who thinks that these verses were in the original.  However, there are many scholars who think the case against these verses is weak, and many believe firmly that they belong in the Bible.  Without the original, there is no way to be sure — but this is a prime example of a meaningful and viable variant.
    2. John 7:53 – 8:11.  This portion of the Bible, called the pericope adulterae (story of the adulteress) is well known to most Christians.  “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!”  We’ve all heard the story.  But, like the long ending of Mark, this is not in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts we have, and most textual critics today do not think it was part of the original text of John.  It is another meaningful and viable variant, but again without the original we cannot be certain, and it makes no difference in the core doctrines of the Christian faith.

These are the two most famous textual variants, but there are many more.  Others are shorter — only a word or two in many cases — but they cast additional shadows on how sure we can be that we have an accurate representation of the original texts.

The last verse of Luke is likely a conflation (combination) of two different texts (text types) — my NIV and NASB say the disciples went about “praising God,” but others say “blessing God.” What did the original text of Luke say?  Again, we don’t know — and many modern translations today simply say, “…praising and blessing God.”  They combine the two.

We also see differences in the Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5:7.  The oldest and most reliable manuscripts are missing the Trinitarian formula, called the Comma Johanneum, they say simply, “For there are three that testify, the Spirit and the water and the blood” (NET).  Some translations (KJV) have added a second trinity to read, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost:  and these three are one.  And there are three that bear witness in Earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood:  and these three agree in one.”  However, this longer trinitarian formula was likely added by the church at a later date, to solidify the doctrine of the Trinity in Scripture.  It is almost certainly not in the original.  The longer reading is absent from nearly all manuscripts, only present in a few very late ones.

The list is actually quite long — in Phil 1:14, 1 Thess 2:7, Mark 14:65, Luke 5:30, Mark 1:1 and Mark 1:2, John 14:17, Rev 1:4, and numerous other places in Scripture.  However, we’ll stop here, as I think the point stands.  So, where does that leave us?

3.  We can have confidence that our text reflects the original in well over 99% of cases, but there are some that remain in question.  So, what’s the bottom line for the Christian? We can have confidence in Scripture, and in our history and our core doctrines, but we need to be careful in our definition of inerrancy.  Our Bible today, no matter which translation you use (NIV and NET are my favorites), contains text that likely wasn’t in the original, contains additions and deletions and adjustments by scribes, and includes mistakes (scribal errors).  Does this mean Jesus didn’t exist?  No.  Does this mean the Bible is unreliable?  No.  Does this mean Christ wasn’t raised from the dead?  No.  Does it mean Christianity is false?  No.  But I think it’s important for Christians to realize that our beloved Bible is subject to the same “messy” process of transmission and translation as any other ancient work.

For further study, look at the course referenced above, or the book “The Text of the New Testament” by Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, check out the website for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts or the Evangelical Textual Criticism website.

Why Do We Suffer?

polycarpIn the prior blog, we presented the logical problem of evil — how can evil and suffering exist if God is perfectly loving and all-powerful?  Upon closer examination, there is no contradiction here.  It simply means that God allows man free will, and God allows Satan some degree of freedom to tempt and to act.  In other cases, God causes what seems evil to us in order to accomplish some greater good.  In short, God may — in fact, God must — have a morally sufficient reason for allowing suffering.In some cases, suffering works to glorify God.  We know from Romans 8:28 that all things (not just good things) work together for the glory of those who know the Lord, and are called according to His purpose.  There are also times when what man intends to be an evil act can be redeemed by God for good, such as when Joseph was sold by His brothers to slave traders and then to Pharaoh (Genesis 50:20).  Of course, the ultimate example is Jesus Christ Himself — tremendous evil was done to him, and it was the greatest act of goodness (love) in all of history.  In my case, I know that my cancer will glorify God.  I may never see it, and I may die not knowing exactly how my cancer brought Him glory, but I know that it will because Scripture assures me so.

So given that evil and suffering exist, and we are promised that we are going to suffer (1 Tim 3:12, elsewhere), why does God allow it?  We know that he must have a morally sufficient reason, and that it will eventually glorify Him.  But Scripture is even more explicit.

  1.  Suffering is necessary for conforming to Christlikeness.  We are all in the process of sanctification, the process of conforming to Christlikeness (Romans 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18).  But we also know that Christ suffered tremendously, and therefore to be like Christ we must suffer as well.  Fortunately, that’s not all…
  2. Suffering brings us closer to God.  As Paul outlines in 2 Corinthians 1:9, “Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death, but this happened that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.”  Yes, there are times God allows us to suffer in order to bring us to reliance on Him.  I believe this is the case in my own life.  In fact, I have received “the sentence of death” four times, with four separate cancer diagnoses, each one supposedly “terminal.”  And, like Paul, I think it happened to force me to rely on God rather than myself.  C.S. Lewis agrees, calling pain “God’s megaphone,” and explaining in both “The Problem of Pain” and “A Grief Observed” how pain and suffering (his own, and his wife’s) initially drove him away from the faith, and then back to it in even stronger faith.
  3. Finally, suffering not only conforms us to Christlikeness and brings us closer to God, it can be a tremendous evangelistic tool.  It reaches unbelievers.  We see this throughout Scripture — Jesus didn’t heal blindness, He healed the blind man.  He didn’t eradicate leprosy, He healed the leper.  Why?  Because in both cases, and in many others, those who were healed then went back to their families, towns, and villages to tell them what Christ had done.  Even the way Christians handle suffering — not just Christ and Paul, look at the history of the Christian martyrs from Polycarp forward — has been used to change the hardened hearts of unbelievers from the earliest centuries.

So, did God give me cancer?  I’ve struggled with this one for almost two decades.  I think He did.  His goal in causing or allowing my cancer was to knock props out from under our hearts so that we rely utterly and only on Him.  It has worked for me!  Paraphrasing John Piper, cancer doesn’t win if I die — that’s going to happen anyway.  Cancer wins if it succeeds in turning me away from Christ.