The Gospel of John (Part One)

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

THE GOSPELS OF Matthew, Mark, and Luke are remarkably similar, while John is quite different. This does not mean there are four “versions” of the Gospel. Through the four gospels the Good News is told from the perspective of four different writers. Why four unique explanations of the Gospel? Each of the writers had a specific audience in mind as they addressed the ministry of Jesus. Also, each gospel shows a unique relationship or experience with Christ. The writers expressed that element through targeted arrangements of the historical data of Jesus’s life. Given the immense amount of information in the Gospel of John, I will divide this article into two parts.

A Brief Look at The Synoptic Gospels

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are considered synoptic, meaning they include many of the same stories, often in a similar sequence, with similar or sometimes identical wording. The Greek word for “synoptic” is συνοπτικός, which means “seeing all together.” Regardless, the priority of each of the gospels was to focus on the message of the Good News. For example, Luke’s gospel correlates with the Book of Acts. There are seven corresponding themes in Luke and Acts: (1) salvation to the Gentiles; (2) progression of the Gospel throughout the ancient world; (3) the Holy Spirit; (4) the importance of prayer; (5) wealth, poverty, and marginalized society; (6) Christianity as the true Israel; and (7) treatment of Christians under the Roman Empire.

Why Did John Write His Gospel?

The Gospel of John presents an amazing exposition on Jesus Christ, and is perhaps the most succinct and elevated view of God found anywhere in literature. John presents a record of our Savior’s profound teaching, convincing arguments, and declarations of His divinity and relationship with the Father. This differs from Matthew, Mark, and Luke in that there is no genealogy of Jesus’s birth or childhood; nor does John list the numerous miracles, parables the ascension, or the Great Commission.

While some New Testament scholars believe the purpose of John’s gospel was to combat Docetism—the doctrine, important in Gnosticism, that Christ’s body was not human but either a phantasm or of real but celestial substance, and that therefore his sufferings were only apparent—and to oppose those who retained loyalty to him. John clearly states, “…but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31, RSV). John tells about how Jesus dealt with individuals, what He preached to the crowds, how He trained the disciples, His debates with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, and a wonderful explanation of the gift of eternal life. John also describes the gathering storm Jesus would face soon as a result of his confrontation of “established religion” and its leaders. John’s gospel account has been received by believers worldwide as the best recitation of the way of Jesus—not just the way in which we are able to come to the Father, but also the way we are to interact with the fallen world in which we live.

At the outset, John chose to introduce Christ as the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3, RSV). John tells us, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (v. 4). He is clear that Jesus is the Word incarnate who brings truth, grace and salvation. Jesus is God.

John was a personal witness to the ministry of Jesus. His gospel is an inspired record of the teachings, miracles, and crucifixion of Jesus as he saw them. His purpose was to set forth the evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, and that it is only through faith in Christ alone that we are saved. John repeatedly cites events that support this claim, often using words such as “witness” and “testimony.” He identifies many who can corroborate the acts of Jesus: Andrew, Philip, Nathaniel, Thomas, and Nicodemus to name a few. John’s gospel also provides details on Jesus’s arrest, trials before Pilate and Caiaphas, the scourging, His crucifixion and resurrection, and accounts of those who saw the risen Jesus before His ascension.

A Detailed Exposition

The first eighteen verses are sometimes referred to as the prologue—a somewhat misleading designation in that it tends to suggest the material covered in these verses is more introductory than substantive. John’s presentation of the Logos in the opening paragraph serves as an historical and theological summary of the entire book. He tells of  Jesus’s preexistence (prior to creation), His work in Creation, His incarnation, and His rejection by the world. John teaches of Jesus’s gift of eternal life to all who will receive Him. The Gospel of John is a sound and critical foundation on which to begin building our relationship with Jesus. The prologue is a poetic overture that combines the major theological principles that form the foundation of the entire Gospel.

In The Beginning

John begins with a majestic announcement regarding the very essence of Jesus Christ: “In the beginning was the Word.” Jesus was, is, and forever will be the Word—existing before time itself. The Word was not a created being. Rather, the Word is God and was with God at the moment of Creation. Heraclitus of Ephesus mentions “the Word” in his secular writings. He lived near Miletus, the birthplace of philosophy, and is best known for his belief that things are constantly changing (universal flux), that opposites coincide (unity of opposites), and that fire is the basic material of the world. He stated that God was always present: “Having harkened not to me but to the Word (logos) it is wise to agree that all things are one. Greek philosophers specifically believed that logos was the principle of reason or order in the world” [emphasis added]. This dovetails quite nicely with the doctrinal principle that Jesus was the Logos, co-creator with God the Father, and that He sustains (orders) all things.

John states that it was through the Word that all things were made. Remember, Genesis 1 tells us “God said” and it came to be. Words were spoken. Jesus (the Word) was the active agent in Creation. Paul writes in Colossians 1:15-17 that Jesus is is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; that in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, adding, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (RSV). Hebrews 1:2 reminds us that through Jesus God created the whole world. Life (zôê) is one of John’s favorite words. Zôê refers often to the supernatural life that comes from God, and which Christians share through faith in Jesus Christ. John says God (in His relationship with believers) is both the “bread of life” (6:35) and the “light of life” (8:12). John wants us to see Jesus as the light of men.

The True Light

It is important that we see Jesus as the light of men. It enables us to see God at work in the world. God gives “light” in the sense that He has endowed mankind with reason, intelligence, and the ability to discern between right and wrong. But the coming of the true Light has a far more important purpose. This light is given that we might comprehend the difference between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. Had Jesus not come, bringing light to all, the human race would still be wandering the earth in spiritual darkness, cut off from fellowship from the Father following the expulsion of our first parents from the Garden of Eden. Some biblical scholars believe the primary meaning of “bring to light” includes illuminating man’s true nature outside of Christ.

John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (RSV). This a remarkable assertion of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. I would not be surprised if this is the point where most secular philosophers of the First Century took exception. Although these learned men believed in logos as a representation of eternal Reason, a claim that this eternal concept became flesh would give them much pause. By declaring that “the Word became flesh,” John answered the Docetics who, while acknowledging that Jesus was divine, could not bring themselves to accept the fact that He was also fully human. They would claim that Jesus only appeared to be a real man.

There is a critical explanation in John 1:18—”No one has ever seen God.” Jesus made Him known. The Old Testament states that God appeared to man at various times, but such appearances were always partial and incidental. God said to Moses in Exodus 33:20, “No one may see Me and live.”) While no one has seen God Himself, John tells us that Jesus is “at the Father’s side.” Some scholars see this verse as “close to the Father’s heart” or “in the intimate presence of the Father.” This is precisely why Jesus could say that when the disciples saw Him they saw the Father. Jesus was a living interpretation of the Father—the means by which the heart and the will of Father was made known.

Initial Ministry

The second chapter of John’s gospel brings us to a wedding in Cana of Galilee where Jesus turns water into wine. This act has become a bone of contention among many atheists, scoffers, and doubters. They see it as a cheap parlor trick. This miracle is provided to set forth a sign—Jesus performed a wondrous deed that points beyond itself to reveal some aspect of the person of Jesus and to evoke faith on the part of those to whom it is given. The Greek word sêmeion (“sign”) indicates that the miracle at Cana showed Jesus’s “self-manifestation.” Hillsong Worship performs a song called “New Wine.” I believe some of the lyrics provide an insight regarding Jesus’s miracle at the wedding. Lyrics include, “In the Crushing, In the Pressing, You are Making New Wine… Make Me Your Vessel, Make Me an Offering, Make Me Whatever You Want Me to Be… Cause Were There is New Wine, There is Power.”

John retells the day when Jesus cleansed the temple. Arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus went to the temple courts. The Greek word hieron used by John refers to the entire temple area with its buildings and courts. This is where He found men selling animals for sacrifice (undoubtedly at a profit) and exchanging foreign money so visitors could pay the temple tax. This seems to be a type of forced tithe. In comparison, when the pastor at my church announces the collection of offerings and tithes, he says, “If you are visiting with us today for the first or second time, this is not for you. We just want you to enjoy your visit with us today.” Tradition during the First Century, however, was that, for any Gentile who came up to the temple to worship, prayer had to be offered in the middle of a cattle yard and money market. This entailed purchasing an animal to be sacrificed. Jesus was appalled by the commotion connected with the marketing of these animals and the changing of currency in His Father’s house. Accordingly, he chased the men and their animals from the temple and set their birds free.

The New Birth and Living Water

In the third chapter we are introduced to a Jewish Rabbi called Nicodemus. This Rabbi was among many who were attracted by Jesus’s miracles but not openly committed to following Him. The religious leaders saw Jesus as a heretic rather than the central figure of Christianity. Nicodemus was likely an honest seeker who wanted to know more about Jesus. He could have chosen to see Jesus at night because he didn’t want other rabbis to see him talking to this so-called heretic, or perhaps he wanted to meet with Jesus away from the pressing crowds in order to have His undivided attention.

Nicodemus addressed Jesus with the honorable title “Rabbi.” Regardless of his personal doubts about the ministry of Jesus, Nicodemus chose to be respectful. He correctly saw Jesus as a teacher sent by God. He intended to ask Jesus how he could inherit eternal life, but Jesus broached the subject first. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:5, RSV). Nicodemus was confused. This did not make sense. How could a man return to his mother’s womb and be born anew? Jesus explained, saying that which is born of flesh is flesh, but that which is born of Spirit is spirit. He told Nicodemus that man must be lifted up to the Father as the Son is lifted up. He told Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (v. 16). Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand that the heart of the Gospel was not a philosophical observation about God’s character, but a declaration of redemptive love in action.

John sets forth further insight regarding eternal life in chapter four. When Jesus arrived at Sychar (possibly at ancient Shechem or the village of Askar), He stopped at a well where He met a Samaritan woman who was drawing water. Jesus asked the woman for a drink from her container. She was shocked that He would drink from her vessel because Jews were not to associate with Samaritans. They were considered to be “unclean.” Ignoring the woman’s comment about custom, Jesus said that if she knew who He was she’d have asked for “living water.” He spoke of “streams of living water” that will flow from within the believer, which we also know is the Holy Spirit we receive when we accept Jesus as the Christ.

Jesus’s Healing Ministry and Other Miracles

Jesus encountered a royal official in Capernaum whose son lay sick. When this man learned that Jesus had come to town he went and begged Jesus to come heal his son who was at the point of death. Jesus challenged the man, saying, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (4:46). The man insisted that unless Jesus came to his home right away his son would die. Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live” (v. 50). The man believed the words of Jesus and headed home. Amazingly, the man professed his believe (v. 51) to his servants before he saw evidence that his son was well. As a result of his faith, his son was healed.

John recalls Jesus’s healing of a paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda (5:1-18). Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead at Bethany where Mary and her sister Martha lived (11:1-44). Mary is the same woman who anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume. Admittedly, this is an incomplete listing of the healing and miracles of Jesus.

The account of Jesus feeding the five thousand (6:1-15) has been deemed as a “miracle” that took place in people’s hearts. They overcame basic human need and selfishness, choosing instead to share what they had. This meal is also considered by some New Testament scholars to be sacramental in nature. Each person received a fragment of the bread and fishes. It constitutes a miracle—something wonderful that actually happened. Those who are uneasy to accept this event as a genuine miracle are likely an example of the natural mind denying God as Creator’ One who has absolute authority to act within His own creation as He chooses.

Some time after the feeding of the five thousand the disciples set out for Capernaum by boat (6:16, 21). The trip was said to be about five miles. The crossing was extremely difficult. The Sea of Galilee lies approximately six hundred feet below sea level. Cool air often flowed over the Sea, displacing warm moist air hovering over the water. Violent weather conditions occurred rather quickly. The original Greek for the phrase “started across the sea” (6:17, RSV) is êrchonto, and is translated “they were trying to cross the lake” [emphasis added]. Jesus appeared on the water “during the fourth watch of the night” (Mark 6:48), which is between the hours of 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. The disciples had been attempting to sail the rough seas for at least nine hours. They had rowed three or four miles when they saw Jesus walking toward the boat on the surface of the raging sea. His appearance frightened them—they did not recognize Him immediately and perhaps thought He was a ghost. Jesus said, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20, RSV). Scripture tells us that immediately after Jesus declared His identity the boat reached its destination without further incident.

We’re told in John 21:25, “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (RSV).

Jesus Claims Divine Authority

Jesus said in John 5:19, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise” (RSV). He added, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will” (verse 21). Jesus said He only did what He saw the Father doing. This does not mean that He merely imitated the Father. Rather, it shows the continuous relationship that exists between the Father and the Son. Jewish leaders believed the prerogative to raise someone from the dead belonged solely with God, and they did not see Jesus as God. Jesus claimed that the Son makes anyone live whom He chooses. This was not arbitrary, but is consistent with what we read throughout the New Testament (see Romans 9:18). Jesus later commissioned the disciples, and indeed all believers, to go forth and do these same things in the Name of Jesus.

Jesus said the Father had given to Him the authority to execute judgment. He adds, “And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me. His voice you have never heard, His form you have never seen” (v. 37, RSV). God turned judgment over to the Son because through His incarnation Jesus learned what it means to be human, faced with temptation. In addition, He had been given the authority to judge because He is God’s Anointed One. Jesus noted in verses 28 and 29 that the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.

Opposition in Jerusalem

It is clear from Scripture (7:1-52) that Jesus was aware the Jews wanted to take His life. We read in chapter five that the Jewish leaders held an intense hostility toward Jesus, and were eager to kill Him. Their indignation stemmed from Jesus’s claim that God was His Father, thereby equating Himself with God (5:18). The disciples thought that if Jesus wanted to carry out a public ministry He should go to the capital city and make Himself known (7:3-5). In response, Jesus said His time had not yet come. The word “time” in this verse is from the Greek word kainos, meaning “a right or favorable time.” It was not necessarily a moment in time from a chronological standpoint.

The Feast of Tabernacles began in Jerusalem (7:1). As crowds gathered, there was an undercurrent of discussion about Jesus. Some called Him “a good man,” and remarked that they believed His teachings were positive and helpful. Others claimed Jesus was a heretic who was deceiving the people and leading them away. Gonzalez (2010) said that Christianity was not deemed a new religion in the early days, but a heretical sect within Judaism. After the crucifixion of Jesus, many Jews believed Christianity was a heresy that was spreading from town to town, tempting “good Jews to become heretics” (p. 42). Sentiment among the Jewish population was that Christians might once more bring the wrath of God upon Israel. This attitude had really root during the latter part of Jesus’s ministry and played a part in His trial and execution.

Jesus waited until the Feast was well underway before He went into Jerusalem (7:14). It is possible He waited several days until the initial excitement of the Feast had subsided so His followers would not be as likely to put on a ceremonial demonstration. Such display would have been met with serious consequences, and it was not yet time for Jesus to be taken and tried. In any event, the crowds at the Feast marveled at the knowledge Jesus had concerning Scripture, especially because He had not received formal teaching. He publicly stated that His teaching came from God, adding that anyone who speaks on their own authority does so for their personal benefit. Of course these words came as a stinging rebuke to the Pharisees and high priest. Jesus reminded the crowd that even Moses did not speak for himself, but was a representative of God the Father.

We see in verses 21 through 24 that Jesus continued to speak out against the established “religion” of the day. He saw the Pharisees as hypocrites. John reminds us that the Jewish leaders were outraged when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, telling him to pick up his mat and walk (5:8). However, these same religious leaders were known to break the Law when it suited them. For example, they performed circumcisions on the eighth day after the birth of the child (the age at which the procedure must be done) even if it fell on the Sabbath. Because the law regarding circumcision was given to the Jews as part of the Abrahamic Covenant, the church leaders thought circumcision took precedence over the regulation regarding “work” on the Sabbath.

It was on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles that Jesus boldly announced, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water” (7:37-38). This remark about the thirsty recounts Isaiah’s ancient summons: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost… Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David” (Isaiah 55:1,3, NIV)). Jesus’s claim that He could supply those who were spiritually thirsty with streams of living water. This made quite an impression on the crowd gathered at the temple. When some in the crowd said Jesus must be a prophet, someone said, “‘This is the Christ.’ Still others were saying, ‘Surely the Christ is not going to come from Galilee, is He?'” (7:41). It was believed that nothing good could come from Galilee (see John 1:46).

Jesus Offends the Religious Leaders

When Jesus spoke again to the people, He said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12, RSV). This remark was made before a group of religious leaders. John 8:3 notes that the Pharisees brought before Jesus a woman accused of adultery. The NIV footnote indicates “the people” is an arbitrary interpretation of the Greek word autois, or “them.” The RSV translates autois “them,” referring to the Pharisees present when the woman was brought forth.

The Old Testament contains many examples  of “light” as a metaphor for spiritual illumination and life. Psalm 27:1 says, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (RSV). Darkness was often thought to represent ignorance and death. Jesus essentially told the Pharisees, “I have come to be the light of the world.” The religious leaders decided that they must discredit the godly claims of Jesus. One of them said, “You are bearing witness to yourself; your testimony is not true” (John 8:13, RSV). In other words, they said Jesus’s claims were nothing but his opinion. Perhaps they were been concerned that Jesus might be right—stating a theological truth—but they believed He could not possibly prove it. This might be why Herod and the religious leaders taunted Christ: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” (Luke 23:37, RSV).

When Jesus said, “I bear witness to myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness to me” (8:19), the Pharisees began to use ridicule to discredit Jesus. One of them sarcastically asked, “‘Where is your Father?'” Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father; if you knew me, you would know my Father also'” (v. 20). In essence, they told Jesus, You’re living in a fantasy world. They did not understand that Jesus spoke to them of the Father (v. 27). Jesus further riled the Pharisees when He claimed to be the One who will set men free from the wages of sin (v. 31). He tells the crowd, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God; I came not of my own accord, but he sent me (v. 42). To know God as Father is to love the Son who was sent by Him. The religious leaders could not allow Jesus to stand before the temple courts and declare His divinity, so they challenged His pedigree. They said, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (v. 48).

The Pharisees thought it was incredulous that Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (10:10-11) [emphasis added]. He was basically stating that His entire life was sacrificial. Jesus was saying He was “the perfect sacrificial lamb.” This caused great division among the Jews, both the religious leaders and the crowds.

Jesus encountered His Jewish adversaries at the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem. The crowd asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (10:24). In response, Jesus said the works He does are done in the Father’s name, and they bear witness to Him [Jesus]. He told the crowd they do not believe Him because they are not His sheep. He said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (v. 27-28). Certainly, this enraged a number of Jews, especially the Pharisees. Jesus boldly remarked, “and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (v. 30). The crowd took up stones to stone Him. He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John at first baptized, and there he remained for some time.

Please join me in the next day or two for the second half of this crucial topic;

References

Gonzalez, J. (2010). The Story of Christianity Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

 

 

 

 

The Other Texts

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EACH OF THE WORLD’S major religions have sacred texts that form the cornerstone of their belief. These tomes typically instill laws, morals, character, and spirituality in its followers. As with the Bible, a religious text might be considered the inerrant Word of God. Texts can be literal, metaphorical, or both. Christianity has combined the Jewish Old Testament with the New Testament, which Christians refer to collectively as the Holy Scriptures. These words are regarded by Christians as sacred.

SACRED TEXTS OF THE FIVE MAJOR RELIGIONS

  • Christianity. The Holy Bible.
  • Judaism. The Talmud, Tanach, Mishnah, and Midrash.
  • Islam. The Qur’an and the Hadith.
  • Buddhism. The Sutras.
  • Hinduism. The Vedas.

THE CANONIZED JUDEO-CHRISTIAN TEXTS

The Old Testament

Old Testament Scroll

The Old Testament was fixed by a synod of rabbis held at Yavneh, Palestine about 90 A.D. The “other” semi-sacred texts were labeled the Apocrypha (“hidden away”). There are, however, many non-canonical texts relative to Christianity. Where no religious body has provided sanction or authorization, sacred writings have had to stand on their own authority. This is the case with Islam. Muslims believe the Qur’an does this easily. The Qur’an is said to authenticate itself by its internal self-evidencing power—just what that means I have no idea. Muslims base this claim on their contention that the Qur’an is composed of the very words of Allah communicated to Muhammad and recited by him without addition or subtraction.

Biblical accuracy has repeatedly been confirmed by subsequent physical findings to be razor-sharp. The first two chapters of Genesis contain the divine record of how the universe and life began. Though it was written as 66 separate books over thirty-five centuries ago, there is not a syllable in the biblical account of creation that is at variance with any demonstrable fact of science. Here is something interesting to contemplate. The Genesis account affirms that all creation activity was concluded by the end of the sixth day (2:1-3). On this issue, science agrees. According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, nothing new is being created today. Additionally, Genesis 1 affirms that biological organisms replicate “after [their] kind.” It is noteworthy that modern pseudo-science (i.e., the theory of evolution) is dependent upon the notion that in the past organisms have reproduced after their non-kind. The biblical account, however, is in perfect harmony with the known laws of genetics.

The New Testament

The New Testament Cover Page

There are several ways we can demonstrate the reliability of the New Testament and the four Gospels. First, we can look at the number of manuscripts or fragments of manuscripts available around the globe for comparison. Second, we can examine existing manuscripts and fragments to see if they stand the test of time. Evaluation would include looking for serious contradictions, omissions, additions, errors, and the like. Third, we can compare original or older copies of manuscripts and fragments with copies we have today to determine if there have been recent archeological findings that challenge or change what has been told in the New Testament.

COMPARISON OF CHRISTIAN AND OTHER ANCIENT MANUSCRIPTS

Regarding the New Testament, we literally have thousands of complete manuscripts and multiple thousands more fragments of manuscripts available for comparison. More than 5,000 copies of the entire New Testament or extensive portions exist today. We also have several thousand more fragments or smaller portions of the New Testament. If these numbers don’t impress, consider this: Compared to other works of ancient history, the manuscript evidence and copies for the New Testament far outweigh that of any other ancient works. For instance, there are less than 700 copies of Homer’s Iliad and only a handful of copies of any one work of Aristotle.

As a comparison, let’s visualize how the number of available classic manuscripts and biblical manuscripts stack up against a New York City icon:

  1. Average Classic Writing. 4 feet.
  2. One World Trade Center. 1,776 feet.
  3. New Testament Copies and Fragments. 1 mile.
  4. Old Testament Copies and Fragments. 1.5 miles.
  5. The Bible. 2.5 miles.

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CHRISTIANITY AND HISTORY

In addition, Christianity and history get along well. McDowell and McDowell (2017), in Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth For a Skeptical World, note that the facts backing Christianity are not part of a special “religious truth.” They are the cognitive, informational facts upon which all historical, legal, and ordinary decisions are based. Luke, the Bible’s first-century historian, demonstrates the historical nature of Christianity in his introduction:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainly concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4, ESV).

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a bona fide historical event. Luke says the resurrection was validated by Jesus Himself through “many proofs” over a forty-day period before numerous documented witnesses (see Acts 1:3). Certainly, the Book of Acts records much church history as well. New Testament scholar Craig Keener says, “Acts is history, probably apologetic history in the form of a historical discourse, with a narrow focus on the expansion of the Gospel message from Jerusalem to Rome. Luke’s approach focuses on primary characters and their words and deeds, as was common in the history of his day.

LUTHER AND THE WORD OF GOD

Martin Luther sought to make the Word of God the starting point and final authority for his theology. A professor of Scripture, Luther felt the Bible was of paramount importance, and it was there that he found the answer to his anguished quest for righteousness and salvation. (See “Martin Luther and the Righteousness of God.”)

In its primary sense, the Word of God is literally God Himself. We see this in John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (NIV). The Bible declares that, strictly speaking, the Word of God is none other than God the Son, the Second Person in the Holy Trinity, the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us. Accordingly, when God speaks, it is not simply about imparting information; also, and above all, God acts through His very words. This is what is represented in Genesis, where we see the spoken word of God as a creating force: “God said…” and it was so.

THE BIBLE IS ALIVE!

What’s unique to the Bible is that in addition to telling us information we need to know about our religious doctrine, it also creates. This is true in the lives of believers and in all of Creation.

The Word of God is living and active because God is still moving through it today to speak to us, direct us, challenge us, inspire us. The Bible tells us that Jesus, the Word in the Flesh, came to dwell among us. To me, if anyone reads the Bible and somehow does not find Jesus in it, they have not truly encountered the Word of God. This notion of Jesus being the living Word allowed Luther to further counter objections raised by the Catholic church to his proposed doctrinal authority of Scripture above the church. Popes, cardinals, bishops, and priests argued that, since the church herself decided which books should be included in the canon of Scripture, the church had authority over the Bible. Luther said, “No way!” He believed it was neither the church that made the Bible, nor the Bible that made the church; rather, the Gospel—that is, Jesus Christ—made both the Bible and the church.

Hebrews 4:12a says, “For the Word of God is alive and active…” (NIV).

THE “OTHER” BIBLE

The word Bible ( from the Latin biblia) simply means “the books.” It appears to be from the root biblos, which is another word for papyrus or scroll. Because the Scriptures are believed to be inspired by God, the ancient Bible was considered to be a sacred tome. After completion of the Old Testament, and during the first centuries of the Common Era (C.E., also known as A.D., or “in the year of our Lord”), inspired authors continued to write sacred “scriptures.” These texts were written by Jews, Christians, Gnostics, and Pagans. Most are from the third century B.C. to the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.

The Jewish texts are in large part called pseudepigrapha, which includes the Dead Sea Scrolls; the Christian texts are called the Christian apocrypha; the Gnostic scriptures were considered by their orthodox rivals to be heretical. The phrase “The Other Bible” refers to holy texts that were not included in the official version of the Holy Bible. Of course, many people—believers and atheists alike—have wondered why certain Jewish and Christian texts failed to find a place in the Bible. Was it a question of divine authority or doctrine? Who made the decision to exclude these so-called “other” texts? God or man? Some have mistakenly concluded that Constantine simply made the decision of what to include when he commissioned 50 copies of the Bible for churches in his capitol city, Constantinople.

Because Judaism and Christianity canonized or authoritatively affirmed the Scriptures, the first Christians included seven books in the Old Testament that were not in the Jewish canon. The Old Testament and the Jewish scriptures were different until the Protestant Reformation, when reformers revised the Old Testament canon to agree with the Jewish canon. The Catholic Bible now refers to these seven books as deuterocanonical (as noted above, this translates to “belonging to the second canon”), while the Protestant Bible refers to them as apocryphal (or “outside the canon”). Some Protestants do not recognize them as having any kind of canonical status.

The canon wasn’t a quick decision by one man, but the product of centuries of reflection by the Church. 

Here is a listing of “other” texts that did not make it into the canonical text of today:

  • The Apocrypha. These are biblical writings that did not become part of the accepted canon of Scripture. Moreover, they are believed to not be inspired by God and only added by the Church. The apocryphal books include the following: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, I and II Maccabees and sections of Esther and Daniel.
  • Deuterocanonical Apocrypha. These are books which are included in some version of the canonical Bible, but which have been excluded at one time or another, for t0extual or doctrinal issues. These are called Deuterocanonical, which literally means the secondary canon.
  • The Forgotten Books of Eden. This is a collection of Old Testament pseudepigrapha. The list included such books as The First and Second Books of Adam and Eve, The Book of the Secrets of Enoch, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, The Testament of Joseph, The Odes of Solomon, and others.
  • The Lost Books of the Bible. A collection of New Testament apocrypha and pseudepigrapha.
  • The Biblical Antiquities of Philo. An alternative pseudepigraphal narrative of the Hebrew Bible from Genesis through 1 Samuel, written in the first century A.D.
  • The Gospel of Thomas. This is reportedly the writings of Thomas, the “doubting apostle.” This text contains a collection of the sayings of Jesus. Thomas was, of course, the twin brother of Jesus.
  • The Didache. A very early Christian apocryphal text.
  • The Sibylline Oracles. The Sibylline books were oracular Roman scrolls; these are the pseudo-Sibylline Oracles. There many similarities to early Christian writings, and they were quoted by the Church Fathers.
  • The Book of Enoch. This is one of the more critical and notable books of the apocrypha. Enoch introduced such concepts as fallen angels, the Messiah, the Resurrection, and others.
  • The Book of Enoch the Prophet. An earlier and very influential 19th century translation of Enoch 1.
  • The Book of Jubilees. A text from the 2nd century B.C. It covers much of the same ground as Genesis, with some interesting additional details. It may have been an intermediate form of Genesis which was incorporated into later versions.
  • The (Slavonic) Life of Adam and Eve. This apocryphal book (also known in its Greek version as the Apocalypse of Moses, is a Jewish apocryphal group of writings. It recounts the lives of Adam and Eve from after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden to their deaths. It provides more detail about the Fall, including Eve’s version of the story. Satan explains that he rebelled when God commanded him to bow down to Adam. After Adam dies, he and all his descendants are promised a resurrection.
  • The Books of Adam and Eve. This is the translation of the Books of Adam and Eve from the Oxford University Press Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.
  • The Book of Jasher. The title of this book translates to The Book of the Upright One. It is included in the Latin Vulgate. It was likely a collection or compilation of ancient Hebrew songs and poems praising the heroes of Israel and their exploits during battle. Interestingly, the Book of Jasher is mentioned in Joshua 10:13: “So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.”
  • Excerpts From the Gospel of Mary. This fragment, of disputed authenticity, puts the relationship between Mary Magdalen, Jesus and the Apostles in a radically different perspective than traditional beliefs.

IS THE APOCRYPHA WORTH STUDYING?

Early Christians of the second and third century found the apocryphal books to be helpful resources for studying alongside the books of the Jewish canon. It helped them with articulating their faith and for determining questions of ethics. The general attitude, however, was that these so-called apocryphal books should not be read in public worship as Scripture; rather, they should be “tucked away” for private use only. Jewish scribes did not believe the apocryphal books of the Old Testament were divinely inspired. This was a critical factor in evaluating these extra texts for inclusion in the canon.

According to an article by Don Stewart on blueletterbible.org, the Apocrypha contains different doctrines and practices than the Holy Scriptures. For example, these texts teach the doctrine of salvation through works and purgatory. However, the Bible says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible” (Hebrews 11:3, NKJV).

The Apocrypha is not a well-defined unit. These books were rejected by a large number of biblical scholars up to the time of the Reformation. Protestants have always rejected the divine authority of the Apocrpyha, citing demonstrable historical errors. This hesitation is sometimes based on the presupposition that the church has weighed these books and found them to be without value, and therefore justifiably discarded and forgotten. This is often based on a belief that the writings included in this collection are full of false teachings that will jeopardize a reader’s grasp of sound truth.

When Martin Luther set about translating the Bible into German, he also translated the books of the Apocrypha. Although he took care to separate them out from the books of the Old Testament and to print them in a separate section—indicating they were not on a level equal to that of canonical Scripture—he still recommended in his preface to the translation that they’re “useful and good for reading.” The degree to which Luther valued these writings is reflected above all in the fact that he took the time and the trouble to produce a German translation of the Apocrypha. 

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Although most Christians agree that only those books included in the original Hebrew canon have “canonical” authority, here’s my takeaway. These books help us understand the Hebrew Bible. They give us insight into how the Old Testament may have been interpreted by first-century readers. These volumes provide many details pertaining to roughly four hundred years of history that transpired from the date when the last book of the Old Testament—the Book of Malachi—was written until the time of Christ. In addition, they help explain the cultural, political, and ideological milieu during the time just before Christ was born, which can only help aid our understanding of the Scriptures and the Christian doctrine.

It is important to note that the Roman Catholic Church has often stood on the deuterocanonical books to support certain doctrinal and theological points, including purgatory and praying for the dead, that are found nowhere in canonical Scripture. In short, during the Reformation, debates over doctrine were integrally tied to debates about which books were authoritative. Not only did the Protestants affirm that Scripture alone is the ultimate authority in faith and practice, but they were zealous to preserve the integrity of the canon, only recognizing the authority of those books affirmed throughout the history of the Christian church.

 

 

 

Why We Know New Testament Writers Told the Truth

“Why would the apostles lie? If they lied, what was their motive, what did they get out of it? What they got… was misunderstanding, rejection, persecution, torture, and martyrdom. Hardly a list of perks!” —PETER KREEFT

I came to know Christ at a critical time in my life. I was just thirteen years old, in dire straits, always at odds with my father. You could say I had a difficult time with obedience, controlling my base impulses, telling the truth, and keeping my hands off other people’s property. The more my father tried to correct and redirect me, the more I rebelled. We were a church-going family. I thought the message from the pulpit made sense. I basically fell in love with Jesus. I responded to an alter call, accepting Him as Lord and Savior. I was baptized shortly after.

Unfortunately, my walk with Jesus was rather short. My family had a falling out with the church, and I strayed. By age eighteen I was smoking weed, drinking, and committing petty crimes. Before I could grasp what was happening to me, I got caught up in some serious felonies. I served three years in a state prison, followed by seven years on state parole. I had only been out of high school a year and a half before my whole world fell apart. Even after jail time, I continued to struggle with active addiction for over forty years before renewing my relationship with Jesus Christ. It was only through the power in the Name of Jesus that I was able to turn away from that life and break the chain of active addiction.

I have  completed my undergraduate degree in psychology at Colorado Christian University. In addition to classes in my major, I also took courses on worldviews, integration of Christian theology and psychology, Christian doctrine, church history, Pauline literature, and ethics. I developed a passion for apologetics and Christian doctrine. Many of my recent blog posts have focused on this topic. Although I remain focused on  my ministry counseling teens and young adults struggling with mental illness and addiction, I will always have a particular affection for Christian apologetics.

SOME RATHER POWERFUL EVIDENCE

We have seen very powerful evidence that the documents comprising the New Testament were written by eyewitnesses and their contemporaries within 15 to 40 years of the death of Jesus. Moreover, secular documents and archaeological evidence has established that the New Testament is based on historical fact. Yet many skeptics ask how we know the authors didn’t exaggerate or embellish what they say they saw?

Lee Strobel, in his seminal book The Case For Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, recounts his interview with Craig Blomberg, one of the country’s foremost authorities on the biographies of Jesus—which we know as the four gospels. Blomberg’s books include Jesus and the Gospels, Interpreting the Parables, and How Wide the Divide? and a commentary on the gospel of Matthew. Blomberg told Strobel that Matthew (also known as Levi, the tax collector and one of the twelve disciples) was the author of the first gospel in the New Testament; that John Mark, a companion of Peter, was the author of the gospel we call Mark; and that Luke, known as Paul’s “beloved physician,” wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Blomberg said there are “no known competitors for these three gospels.”

According to Papias, a Christian writer from A.D. 125, early testimony is unanimous that John the apostle—the son of Zebedee—wrote the gospel of John. Blomberg also informed Strobel that Irenaeus, writing about A.D. 180, confirmed the authorship of the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. He said Irenaeus wrote the following words,

Matthew published his own Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast, himself produced his Gospel while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.

THE CONSISTENCY TEST

Skeptics of the gospels like to point out that they are hopelessly contradictory with each other. They say, “Aren’t there irreconcilable discrepancies among the various gospel accounts? And if so, then how can we trust them?” Strobel said Blomberg acknowledges these inconsistencies, ranging from very minor variations in wording to the most famous apparent contradictions. He said, “My own conviction is, once you allow for the elements I’ve talked about earlier—of paraphrase, of abridgment, of explanatory additions, of selection, of omission—the gospels are extremely consistent with each other by ancient standards, which are the only standards by which it’s fair to judge them.” Interestingly, Strobel admits if the gospels mirrored each other word-for-word, it would seem to hint at collusion, which would give us pause. Blomberg agreed.

historical-jesus.jpg

It’s important to note that each Gospel writer had a particular intention and focus. They set out to accentuate a unique aspect of the ministry of Jesus. Through their individual gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—they focused on particular elements of Christ’s ministry and message that they felt illuminated their narrative. Despite their varied focus, the gospels exhibit a remarkable and important cohesiveness. They all bear witness to Jesus and his ministry, but approach the story from an individual perspective. These four viewpoints take nothing away from our understanding of Jesus. Rather, they give us a richer, deeper, clearer look into the mystery of Christ.

There were a number of languages spoken during the 1st century when Christ walked the roads of the Holy Land spreading the Good News and calling on men to follow Him. You were likely to hear Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, which was thought to be the primary language spoken by most Jews throughout Palestine during this era. So when we consider the fact that the gospels were written in Greek, the fact that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic becomes quite significant. Most of his words had to be translated into Greek—making every quote an interpretation. Languages don’t necessarily have equivalent words or phrases to support transliteration. Each gospel writer had to interpret Jesus’ words and sayings in order to find equivalents in an entirely different language. In other words, translation is interpretation.

This is the basis for scholarly claims that we have the authentic voice (ipsissima vox) of Jesus but not necessarily his exact words. We can trust the essential meaning of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels even though we never know precisely how He said what He said. The writers of the four gospels, as interpreters of Christ’s message, meant that their translation—paraphrase, if you will—would focus on the theology of the Gospel. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), but Matthew records him saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). Now it could be Jesus said both of these things at different times, but it’s likely that Matthew felt it was extremely important to clearly communicate the spiritual significance of Jesus’ words.

RELIABILITY OF NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

It is paramount that we consider the historical reliability of the New Testament separate from its inspirational properties. Such reliability should be judged by the same criteria used to evaluate all historical documents. Because the Christian faith is intimately connected to very specific historical events, those who are determined to prove or disprove Christianity outside the realm of faith find the historical soundness of its documents is an appropriate starting point.

Stetzer (2012) writes in an article for Christianity Today titled “A Closer Look: The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” that “…we have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts representing all, or part, of the N[ew] T[estament]. By examining these manuscripts, over 99 percent of the original text can be constructed beyond reasonable doubt.” Stetzer also remarks that the authors of the gospels and the Acts were in an excellent position to report reliable information. It is also important to note that these five books were written in the first century, within sixty or seventy years of Jesus’ death—most likely A.D. 30. The amount of time separating the historical events and the composition of the five books is very short as compared to most ancient historical and biographical accounts, where many centuries could intervene between events and the books that narrated them.

Other tests for historicity have been used to test the accuracy of the New Testament. For example, a document written as a personal letter has a high probability of reliability; it is also likely accurate if it is intended for small audiences, written in unpolished style, or contains trivia and lists of details. The absence of such features does not necessarily mean the document is unreliable; however, their presence makes the prima facie acceptance of the document stronger. Much of the New Testament, especially the apostolic letters and some of the sources behind the Gospels, is made up of personal letters originally intended for individuals and small groups. In addition, much of the New Testament is in unpolished style, containing examples of inconsequential detail in the Gospels. These considerations show when general tests for historicity are applied to the New Testament documents, they pass them quite well.

ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT

Strobel interviewed John McRay, author of Archaeology and the New Testament. McRay consulted on the National Geographic Network TV special Mysteries of the Bible. McRay studied at Hebrew University, Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem, Vanderbilt University Divinity School, and the University of Chicago. He has been a professor of New Testament archaeology  at Wheaton for more than fifteen years. McRay told Strobel, “Archaeology has made some important contributions, but it certainly can’t prove whether the New Testament is the Word of God. If we dig in Israel and find ancient sites that are consistent with where the Bible said we’d find them, that shows that it’s history and geography are accurate. However, it doesn’t confirm that what Jesus Christ said is right. Spiritual truths cannot be proved or disproved by archeological discoveries.”

It’s Strobel’s contention that if an ancient historian’s incidental details check out to be accurate time after time, this increases our confidence in other material that the historian wrote but that cannot be as readily cross-checked. Strobel asked McRay, “Does archaeology affirm or undermine the New Testament when it checks out the details in those accounts?” McRay quickly responded: “Oh, there’s no question that the credibility of the New Testament is enhanced, just as the credibility of any ancient document is enhanced when you excavate and find that the author was accurate in talking about a particular place or event.” As an example, McRay recounted his own digs in Caesarea on the coast of Israel, where he and others excavated the harbor of Herod the Great.

There is an obvious allure to archaeology. It’s a discipline I’d considered as I neared the end of high school. I can see no better useful tool for uncovering and proving aspects of ancient civilizations, their origins, and their religions. Ancient tombs, cryptic inscriptions etched in stone or scribbled onto papyrus, pieces of broken pottery, old coins—these are clues for persistent scholars and investigators. Perhaps on of the most tantalizing clues of the biblical past are the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1947 in an obscure cave west of the Dead Sea, Bedouin shepherds discovered some scrolls carefully placed in ten tall jars. They did not know what they had come upon, but they sold the scrolls to a nearby dealer. This was the opening chapter to an astonishing archeological find; eventually some 800 different manuscripts would be found in eleven caves near the valley called Wadi Qumran. In all, some 60,000 fragments, portions, or complete scrolls of these 800 manuscripts were retrieved, covering many subjects.

Many of the documents contained biblical texts. Either fragments or complete copies were found of every book in the Old Testament except Esther. They had been placed in these caves around the middle of the first century A.D., and the amazing fact is that they had lain there undisturbed for 1900 years! But why are these Dead Sea Scrolls so important for us? The reason is that before this discovery the earliest manuscripts of biblical texts dated from the ninth century after Christ. They were copies of earlier copies which were long lost. The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Hebrew, with some fragments written in the ancient paleo-Hebrew alphabet thought to have fallen out of use in the fifth century B.C. But others are in Aramaic, the language spoken by many Jews—including, most likely, Jesus—between the sixth century B.C. and the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In addition, several texts feature translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which some Jews used instead of or in addition to Hebrew at the time of the scrolls’ creation.

It has been said that it would be foolish to hold on to the illusion that the gospels are merely fictional stories like the legends of Hercules and Asclepius. The theologies in the New Testament are grounded on interpretation of real historical events, especially the crucifixion of Jesus, as a particular time and place. Beyond the manuscript evidence, archaeological evidence helps to authenticate the gospel narratives. Frankly, if the New Testament gospels were nothing more than fictions and fables about a man who never lived, one must wonder how it is they possess so much verisimilitude and why they talk so much about people we know lived and about so many things we know happened. After all, the gospels say Jesus was condemned to the cross by a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate. Not only is this man mentioned by historical sources outside the New Testament but there is an inscribed stone on which his name appears. Indeed, it appears archaeologists have found the name of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who condemned Jesus, inscribed on a bone box. It seems these people were real.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Both Christian and secular scholars from a large cross section of theological schools have concluded that the evidence uncovered over the centuries provides an adequate basis to affirm with confidence that Jesus truly existed. It seems every single author who mentions Jesus—pagans, Christians, or Jewish—was fully convinced that He at least lived. Even the enemies of the Jesus movement thought so; among their many slurs against the religion, His non-existence is never one of them… Jesus certainly existed. And most historical scholars (Christian or not) find the attempt to explain away all apparent references to Jesus in Roman writings, much less New Testament espistles, to be an unconvincing tour de force that lapses into special pleading.

From the historical evidence, we can reject the critics charge that the gospels are mere legends about the life of Jesus Christ. There is an abundance of internal and external evidence that support an early date of the gospel writings. There are numerous archaeological and historical records corroborating the events of Jesus’ life. Finally, the manuscript evidence assures us that we have a copy accurate to the originals. Having established the historical and archaeological soundness of the gospels, we are now free to examine the theology of the Gospel.

Is the New Testament Authentic?

The following is based upon information taken directly from David Limbaugh’s “The True Jesus: Uncovering the Divinity of Christ in the Gospels,” chapter two, “New Testament Basics Building Blocks of the Revelation.” I recently added this book to my personal library and highly recommend it, along with Limbaugh’s “Jesus on Trial.” Both are available at Amazon.com through this link: David Limbaugh

The authenticity of the New Testament documents is shown by dating the original documents – none of which still exist – and determining how much time passed between those writings and the events they record, assessing how many copies we have of those writings, and examining them for accuracy, measuring the time gap between the original writings and the oldest copies we have, and then comparing our findings with those of manuscripts of ancient secular history.

Most scholars – liberal and conservative – agree that Christ died between 30 and 33 A.D., and that all the gospel accounts were written in the first century between twenty-five and fifty years after those dates. This is a short period considering this was an oral culture in which people would have memorized these accounts before reducing them to writing. Many scholars believe the gospel writers may have referred to earlier written accounts for some of their material. As noted, Christians agreed on and shared much creedal information about Jesus well before the New Testament writings, and many references to this “Jesus tradition” appear in Paul’s epistles, some of which predate the writing of the gospels. You might be thinking that such an oral tradition, combined with scribes writing down information over hundreds of years in various geographic locations, would lead to errors in the text. You’re correct. But, as we’ll see later, these were minor spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors that had no impact whatsoever on the doctrine itself.

The original twenty-seven New Testament manuscripts probably perished within decades of their composition because the writers didn’t write on bricks, rocks, or wooden tablets, but on paper – Egyptian papyrus (see John’s reference to his writing tools in 2 John 1:12; 3 John 1:13). What remains are handwritten copies called manuscripts. Inevitably, mistakes occurred in the copying process, no matter how meticulous and skilled the scribes were. To evaluate the accuracy of manuscript copies for the New Testament writings – or any other ancient books for that matter – textual critics study the differences in wording to determine the precise composition of the original manuscript. New Testament manuscripts are so plentiful that, according to Professor Craig Blomberg, textual criticism enables us to reconstruct what the New Testament authors wrote with a high degree of accuracy.

There are more than 25,000 New Testament manuscripts in existence, some 5,800 of which are in the original Greek (kione – common Greek vernacular spoken on the streets during the time of Jesus), which range from the early second century to the sixteenth century. Though we don’t have a complete manuscript dated before the third century, many fragments exist that include a substantial amount of the New Testament. There are also a million-plus New Testament quotations in the writings of the early church fathers. The number of surviving New Testament manuscripts dwarfs those of ancient secular writings. There are one thousand times as many existing manuscripts of the New Testament than of the average classical author’s works (between ten and twenty copies). Homer’s Iliad is the exception, but even those copies are limited to about 1,800, which is less than ten percent of the total amount of New Testament copies.

What about the “errors” in the New Testament? Aren’t they terribly problematic for those who maintain the Bible is inerrant? In a word, no. Inerrancy  only pertains to the oral or written proclamation of the originally inspired prophets and apostles. As such, it does not exist. Not only was their communication of the Word of God efficacious in teaching the truth of revelation (there is literally power and life in the Word), but their transmission of that Word was error-free. David Limbaugh relates that he was skeptical about the issue of errors, especially as it might relate to doctrine. His research led him to the discovery that nearly every error was relative to spelling, style, and other grammatical trivialities, and that only about one percent of the variants – differences in wording – bear on the meaning of the text, with none affecting any major Christian doctrine. (Limbaugh notes this refers to one percent of the errors, not one percent of the entire text!) Richard Bentley, a classical English biblical critic, confirms that these minor errors do not pervert or set aside “one article of faith or moral precept.”

Even Bart Ehrman, the most famous manuscript scholar who has been skeptical of orthodox Christianity, affirms that “the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by actual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” Evangelical scholars Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace observe, “Any uncertainty over the wording of the original New Testament does not have an impact on major teachings of the New Testament. They certainly do not affect the deity of Christ. There is simply no room for uncertainty about what the New Testament originally taught.” What matters, says Carl Henry, is whether these variants corrupt the substantive content of the original and whether they “convey the truth of revelation in reliable verbal form, and infallibly lead the penitent reader to salvation.”

As an aside to David Limbaugh’s work, I want to note that it is not uncommon for Muslims to claim that the Bible is corrupted, and therefore not trustworthy. It is their contention that the angel Gabriel came to Mohammad and dictated to him – and only him over a period of twenty-three years in a cave – and that the Qur’an is the corrected truth. We should ask when this supposed corruption occurred? The Qur’an actually states that the Bible is the Word of God (Surah 5:43, 44, 46, 68; Surah 4:136; Surah 10:91; Surah 15:9; Surah 6:34; Surah 10:64). If the Bible was corrupted, was it before the time of Mohammad? Why then would God (Allah) tell Mohammad to look to the Scriptures for guidance and light? If the corruption occurred after the time of Mohammad, then why don’t Muslims accept the Bible as authoritative as our current translations are based upon manuscripts that predate Mohammad by hundreds of years? The earliest textual evidence we have for the Bible (the Dead Sea Scrolls and thousands of partial and complete Greek New Testament manuscripts dating back to within the first three centuries A.D.) simply does not allow for the claim of widespread corruption of the Bible.

The gap between the earliest New Testament manuscript fragment – the John Rylands Fragment (117-138 A.D.), which contains five verses from John 18 – and the original is less than fifty years. Another New Testament fragment, the Bodmer Papyri, which contains most of John’s books and Luke, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Jude, is dated circa 200 A.D., so there is a gap of between 100 and 140 years between the manuscript and the original. Even more impressive is the Chester Beatty Papyri (circa 250 A.D.) – a gap of 150-plus years from the completion of the originals – which contains most of the New Testament. The Codex Vaticanus (325-350 A.D.) contains the great majority of the New Testament and the Greek Old Testament. The Codex Sinaiticus (340 A.D.) – found on the Sinai Peninsula – is the oldest existing manuscript of the entire New Testament, and contains much of the Old Testament. These date some 250 years from the originals. Again, compared to existing manuscripts for ancient secular texts, the gap between the original and the copies is much smaller for the New Testament. The time gap between the original Iliad and the oldest existing manuscript of the work is between 350 and 400 years, but for most other secular works the gap exceed a thousand years.

The New Testament documents are copied accurately, and there are more copies, with many earlier copies, than any other book from the ancient world. As British paleographer and biblical and classical scholar Sir Fredric Kenyon states, “The interval between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”

I never had any doubt.

REFERENCES

Carlson, J. (Mar. 19, 2014). Responding to the Muslim Claims That the Bible is Corrupt. [Msg. 1] Message posted to: https://www.chess.com/clubs/forum/view/responding-to-the-muslim-claims-that-the-bible-is-corrupt

Limbaugh, D. (2017). The True Jesus: Uncovering the Divinity of Christ in the Gospels. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing