The Bible has flaws. They are on every page. And I can prove it.
How does this statement make you feel? Nervous? Angry? Defensive?
Is that because you were taught that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant, authoritative Word of God? Is it because you’re not a Bible scholar or language expert, and couldn’t possibly make a substantial argument against it? Is it because the Bible is the bedrock of everything you believe, and if the Bible is full of holes, your faith might sink along with it?
No more Creation. No more flood. No more Jesus. No more heaven.
What if you got a letter from a foreign friend about a childhood encounter with God? She misspelled a few English words, but that’s to be expected. She also repeated a line by accident. Probably tired. Some of her memory seems fuzzy, but the general details of the story and the point comes across.
Would you throw out the letter because of these flaws? Of course not. Transmission flaws are a natural part of the human experience, especially when time and culture are involved. And the letter still makes sense.
But what if you believed that the letter was inspired by God? Would you still be comfortable with it? Or, even scarier, what if you believed that the letter was actually written by God?
No one really thinks that the Biblical authors sat down with quill and parchment, blacked out, then woke up a few hours later to read what God wrote through their puppet bodies. No one actually thinks that the Holy Spirit possessed their human authors. At least I hope not.
Let me assure you, the work of the Biblical scribes is the least of our concerns.
Even if the text was perfect, read in the original languages, our contemporary American brains could not help but tweak the information as it passes through our unique neural networks. There is just too much cultural dissonance. And we’re not computers.
What about the interpretation of our favorite pastors and Christian authors? We put so much stock in the opinion of people like CS Lewis, Tim Keller and John Piper. Are we worried about their human flaws? Don’t they have pews to fill and books to sell?
What about all the different English translations of the Bible? We choose the one we prefer, rarely asking how reliable it is, feeling very little anxiety about the variances between them. Sometimes we even choose a translation that best fits our point of view without a single hesitation. Others stick with whatever translation they believe is closest to the original Greek or Hebrew.
Here comes a scary statement: there is no such thing as an “original” text of the Bible. We just don’t have one.
In fact, there is a whole profession in biblical studies called Textual Criticism. The job of these scholars is to take all the variant texts of the Bible and try to Sherlock Holmes their way back to the most original reading possible.
Passing down the Old Testament:
This morning I spent a half hour working through five verses of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Or, as cool people call it, the BHS. Some call it the Masoretic Text. This is the Hebrew Scripture that is used for most of our current English translations.
Take a look at the first page:
You’ll notice the tiny notes on the left side of the page and the bottom. These are scribal notes, helping translators to get past any speed bumps as they work through the Hebrew text. Jewish scribes made the marks on the left, taking note of the frequency of certain words, or clarifying errors in spelling or accenting. The notes at the bottom of the page are collected from textual critics throughout the centuries, using shorthand Greek, Latin and Hebrew to mention how other translations dealt with a troublesome word or phrase.
The story of how the OT was written and passed on is fascinating and worth your time. But in the interest of word count, I’ll simply mention that around 500 AD a group of Jewish scholars called the Masoretes made it their mission to collect all of the various copies of the Hebrew Bible and come up with a definitive version. They worked with the passion, humility and care of people that had been given a divine task, and their 500-year effort yielded a text that has essentially been sealed in wax until today.
If you’re worried about the reliability of such an ancient text, let the Dead Sea Scrolls put your mind at ease. In 1946 a Bedouin shepherd threw a rock in a cave, heard the crunch of a clay jar, and the world discovered an Old Testament text that predated their earliest copies by a thousand years.
What did we learn? The Old Testament that we have today is extremely close to the text that Jesus and his apostles used in the first century.
Passing down the New Testament:
My last post mentioned a New Testament scholar named Bart Ehrman, a man who lost his fundamentalist faith when he poked his head behind the curtain of academia and saw the wizard. Today he is one of the most published and recognized scholars in New Testament studies. My academic dean gave me a sample of his recent college textbook. Here are some excerpts from the second chapter:
Throughout the Middle Ages, scribes did not realize just how different the manuscripts they were copying were from one another. It was not until 1707 that scholars began to realize the enormity of the problem. . . . Based on his thirty years of study, Oxford scholar, John Mill, cited some 30,000 places where there were differences among the manuscripts. . . . Today we have nearly fifty-seven times as many manuscripts as Mill had. The differences that we now know number in the hundreds of thousands. . . . The vast majority of these differences are completely unimportant and immaterial, but it is also important to know that some of these differences are extremely important, affecting how significant passages—or even entire books—are interpreted.
Again, let me put your mind at ease. Though Ehrman is absolutely correct about the variant texts, having been passed through many cultures over many centuries without the convenience of Xerox, the message of the New Testament cannot be dismantled so easily.
Let’s say we were able to fix all the small errors—misspellings, mistranslations, repeated words, deleted words, and all that—and focus on the larger passages. Scholars would agree that the original Gospel of Mark ended at 16:8 with the words, “. . . for they were afraid.” Apparently future scribes were not thrilled about that ending. Like the engineers of Jurassic Park, they synthesized other biblical material to create a more suitable ending.
Be honest, does this verse sound more like a first century author or a medieval scribe? “These signs will accompany those who believe . . . they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them . . .” Lifting snakes? Drinking poison? Okay Quasimodo.
The story of the the woman caught in adultery is also problematic. Translating through John, I came to chapter eight and stopped. Suddenly the words were different, the style had changed, it was harder to translate. Obviously my Greek skills were not up to an author that did not start his career as a fisherman.
Come to find out, this story doesn’t show up in the book of John until about the ninth century, 700 years after the original.
So what if we throw out the end of Mark and the story of Jesus drawing in the dirt? Do we lose Jesus? Do we lose the Gospel? What have we really lost? Only our faith in the integrity of the book, not in the integrity of the message. The same holds true for any other addition or subtraction I have come across.
I’ll be honest. When I first learned about these things, I was nervous. But the more I study, the more I translate, the more amazed I am at the cohesive message of the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation, the story arc holds together on so many levels. The deeper I go, the more profound it gets. Beneath all the divots and potholes of human fumbling is a bedrock that is grounded in a person, not a perfect text.
If God wanted his book to be perfect, he would have found himself a Joseph Smith or a Muhammad to write it down. Instead, he inspired an organic process, using many authors over many centuries from many cultures, to record and transmit their revelations and thoughts and observations, chronicling the events of a real relationship between an eternal, inerrant God and millions of finite, fragile human beings.
Apparently, he’s not threatened by human freedom. And we shouldn’t be either.