Over the last two weeks we have been looking at the fact that God expresses himself through his Word. We can only know God because he expresses himself. You’ll no doubt remember that he has expressed himself in creation, in the bible, in the gospel and most fully in his Son Jesus.
After last week’s blog, someone asked to me, “I believe that the bible is God’s Word, but how do we know that we are interpreting it correctly?” This is an excellent question and so I thought I’d write about it for the next few blogs. This question goes right back to Adam and Eve. Do you remember how Adam and Eve fell into temptation, sinned and were cast out from the presence of God? It all started from doubt being cast over the authority of the Word of God. We read,
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1)
When the Serpent asked, “Did God really say…?” Adam and Eve became tempted to doubt the clarity and the authority of God’s Word. The result? They rejected God’s authority, did what they wanted and the rest is history as they say. People have been doing the same since and the consequences for us personally, for family and society as whole clear for the Christian person. We might search and search for solutions to the problems we face but as long as we doubt the authority of the Bible, consequences will be the same. The question of whether we can trust the bible in what it says is therefore a vitally important question.
There are many areas of Christian thought this question relates to: It relates to history as we consider how the bible was first written and then copied by scribes. Do we know that the bible we have today is actually God’s words originally given to the apostolic human authors? It also relates to biblical clarity. Theologians who study the clarity of scripture work in the doctrine of the ‘Perspicuity of Scripture’. Or sometimes the doctrine is more helpfully termed the ‘Clarity of Scripture’. Thirdly, this question relates to hermeneutics which is the discipline of working out what the text of scripture actually says and how to interpret them accurately as they are intended.
For this blog, I’m going to deal with the first one: The historical question of whether we can trust how the bible has come down to us.
As I hold my bible, how can I trust that the words I have in my hand are actually the words given to the apostles and prophets? If the Word of God was given to the Apostles and there is a global case of ‘Whispers’, then what we have now might not be the Word of God anymore. How tragic that would be. The good news is that we can be very sure that the words we have have been faithfully passed down to us. The scriptures were indeed ‘God breathed’ as God carried the writers along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21). God did not simply dictate what they should write however. God used their personalities, backgrounds, cultures and history to shape what they would write. This is hard to understand but what it means is that humans genuinely authored the texts, while God was superintending at the same time. Like Jesus is fully man and fully God, the scriptures are genuinely written by men while they are genuinely and authoritatively God’s Word.
The question remains though: Is the lovely bible in my hand today genuinely the Word of God or has some been lost in translation through the generations?
An enormous amount of work has been done in this area. In fact one of my New Testament lecturers, Dr. Alan Mugridge who is also recognised as a Papyrologist studied how the early texts were copied with a particular focus on scribal practices. His work is deeply encouraging because it demonstrates how meticulous the early scribes were. Having said that, like in any discipline there were some scribes who were quite clumsy. Alan has a meticulous personality and so slowly and steadily studying copy after copy of the New Testament manuscripts was incredible. Us students often wished Alan wasn’t so meticulous when he was marking our work! We used to call him Captain Details.
What this area of study teaches us is that we have a massive number of very early copies of the Bible. The discrepancies between copies are very small in number and in importance. In fact, you can read the discrepancies at the bottom of your own bible pages. You can read things like, “Some manuscripts have….”, or “The earliest manuscripts omit…” etc. We can be sure that 99% of what we read in our bibles is what the original human authors wrote.
We can have some fun with this too. Alexander the Great (300s BC) is an undisputed person of history who had a whirlwind career. What we know about him is understood from 36 manuscript copies of Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander, all of which depend on a single manuscript of the work copied out around the year 1200! That’s 1500 years after his death! You can read about this in “Is Jesus History” by John Dickson. Dickson goes on to say that “there are 5500 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament”.
Another example is Caesar, of whom we largely trust what we know. However, Darrell Bock who is a world leader in New Testament studies teaches that only 12 manuscripts are essential for determining the wording of Caesar’s account. The earliest manuscript is from the 9th century – a full 900 years removed from the events! You can read about this here:
The original manuscripts of the New Testament are within one generation of the actual events and the copies are literally in the thousands. Clearly the greater the number of manuscripts, the easier it is to detect a variant. From these experts and others, we can trust that we have a far better and more reliable text of the New Testament than of any other ancient work whatever, and the amount of uncertainty is pretty small.
So in terms of history, we can trust that when we read the Word of God, we are reading the words that we are meant to read. Where there is doubt, we have notes to allow us to study the differences and we’ll see time and time again that the variances make no real difference to the plain reading of the text.
Next week we’ll explore the ‘Clarity of Scripture’ and simply understanding the plain reading of the words on the page. For now, my prayer for each and every one of you is that God might strengthen your faith in His trustworthy Word. I pray that we would follow the Psalmist in “delighting in [God’s word] and meditating on it day and night” (Psalm 1:2)
Your brother in Christ,
2nd May 2020