textual criticism

How and why will your New Testaments be changing in the computer era?

How and why will your New Testaments be changing in the computer era?

THE QUESTION:

How and why will a new technique for computer analysis of ancient texts affect the New Testaments you’ll be reading?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A revolution now under way will gradually change every future English translation of the New Testament you’ll be reading.

Translations are based upon some 5,800 hand-written manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek that survived from ancient times, whether fragments or complete books. Scholars analyze their numerous variations to get as close as possible to the original 1st Century wordings, a specialty known as “textual criticism.”

Books by Bart Ehrman at the University of North Carolina tell how such differences turned him from conservative to skeptic regarding Christians’ scriptural tradition. Yet other experts see the opposite, that this unusually large textual trove enhances the New Testament’s credibility and authority, though perplexities persist.

Two years ago, a good friend with a science Ph.D. who closely follows biblical scholarship alerted The Religion Guy to the significance of the “Coherence-Based Genealogical Method” (CBGM). What a mouthful. The Guy managed only a shaky grasp of CBGM and hesitated to write a Memo explaining it.

But he now takes up the topic, prodded by an overview talk by Peter Gurry, a young Cambridge University Ph.D. who teaches at Phoenix Seminary, video posted here (start at 33 minutes). The Guy won’t attempt a full description, but you can learn details in Gurry’s article for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (.pdf here), or his co-authored 2017 book “A New Approach to Textual Criticism.” (Gurry’s doctoral dissertation on CBGM is available in book form but pricey and prolix.)

If it’s any encouragement, Gurry confesses he himself needed a year to comprehend CBGM, which he says “is not widely known or understood, even among New Testament scholars.”

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Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

How can we get people informed about the results of academic biblical scholarship, work that completely undermines the ordinary popular conception of Christianity and faith? Why are Christians not interested in the truth?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

“What is truth?”, Pilate asked Jesus. Or did he? America’s “Jesus Seminar” claimed the Roman tyrant never spoke those famous words and, for that matter, much else in the New Testament never happened either. Norman worries that people aren’t “informed.” Sunday School and CCD may not teach  doubts, but people who don’t know about media promotion of biblical disputes must be living under a rock.

Various degrees of skepticism usually characterize the “higher criticism” conveyed at U.S. colleges. The Jesus Seminar represented the radical wing. Even liberals scoffed at the theatrics when Seminar panelists voted on the authenticity of each verse. The verdict: “82 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him” while there was a “16 percent historical accuracy rate” for the 176 recorded events in Jesus’ life.

At least Jesus was indeed crucified, the Seminar said. However, two panelists doubted he even existed. They had to discount not only the Gospels but Paul’s letters 20 years after the crucifixion, Roman and Jewish writers (Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus), and other documents.

Skepticism is nothing new and originated in Europe’s “Enlightenment” era, especially in Germany.

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Why were some verses removed from the New Testament?

Why were some verses removed from the New Testament?

CASSANDRA’S QUESTION:

I’m just shocked by the information I just received about the N.I.V. Bible, that many verses of the Scriptures have been removed. So I’m searching for a reliable version of the Bible to study from. Any suggestions?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Guy reassures Cassandra, who’s been reading the Bible for 21 years, that well-qualified translators produced the many modern English editions on the market, and that includes her New International Version. Inevitably, translators will make different word choices and most of these variations are unimportant. But she’s correct that the N.I.V. and most other recent Bible editions omit certain verses that are familiar from the revered “King James Version” authorized by the British monarchy 404 years ago. The following discussion assumes Cassandra is concerned mainly about the New Testament, not the Old Testament.

Why we get the specific wordings in today’s Bibles involves a specialty known as “textual criticism,” which analyzes all available materials to render the Scriptures as closely as possible to the original writings. The Religion Guy relies especially upon “The Text of the New Testament” by the late Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton Theological Seminary. Cassandra should know that Metzger (1914-2007) was not only a top expert in these technicalities but a judicious one and known for strong faith in the Bible’s reliability and authority.

Metzger noted that only one manuscript survived of the first six books of the “Annals” by Tacitus, an important history of the Roman Empire, and it was copied nine centuries after the original writing. By contrast, far closer to the 1st Century originals we have some 50 ancient manuscripts of the entire New Testament and 5,000 or so partial texts and fragments. The earliest is the celebrated P52 papyrus with verses from John’s Gospel, that was written in early or mid-2nd Century Egypt.

Such rich resources greatly authenticate the New Testament.

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Are there different versions of Islam’s Quran?

DUANE ASKS: Are there different versions of the Quran or just different interpretations of the one version? THE GUY ANSWERS: Since early in the history of Islam, only one Quran text in the original Arabic language has been fully authorized. However, as with most religious matters, the story is complicated. The religion teaches that the Quran existed eternally in heaven before angels gradually revealed the words little by little to the Prophet Muhammad between the year 620 C.E. (“Common Era”) and his death in 632. A tradition that the Prophet was illiterate is said to show the Quran’s miraculous nature and that Muhammad was a passive transmitter who did not produce the words himself. (By contrast, Jews and Christians see their Bible as God’s Word but written by humans.)

The orthodox view of the Quran’s transmission is depicted in English by such scholars as Muhammad Mustafa al-Azami of King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, pioneer English translator N.J. Dawood, Majid Fakhry and Mahmud Zayid of the American University in Lebanon, and A.S. Abdul Haleem of the University of London. Muhammad dictated the revelations to his “Companions,” who preserved them by memorization in an ancient oral culture skilled in accurate preservation that way. (Christian conservatives say that’s also true for materials about Jesus collected in the New Testament Gospels. For instance, see the brand-new The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority by John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy.) Quran passages were also said to be written down by the Prophet’s secretaries.

Orthodoxy holds that all the material of what became the Quran existed in writing during Muhammad’s lifetime, though oral recitation remained important. A non-Muslim expert, W. Montgomery Watt, judged it “probable” that “much of the Quran was written down in some form” while Muhammad was still living. Al-Azami even contends that the Prophet arranged the final order of the verses and chapters (“suras”), though western scholars disagree.

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Are there different versions of Islam’s Quran?

DUANE ASKS: Are there different versions of the Quran or just different interpretations of the one version? THE GUY ANSWERS: Since early in the history of Islam, only one Quran text in the original Arabic language has been fully authorized. However, as with most religious matters, the story is complicated. The religion teaches that the Quran existed eternally in heaven before angels gradually revealed the words little by little to the Prophet Muhammad between the year 620 C.E. (“Common Era”) and his death in 632. A tradition that the Prophet was illiterate is said to show the Quran’s miraculous nature and that Muhammad was a passive transmitter who did not produce the words himself. (By contrast, Jews and Christians see their Bible as God’s Word but written by humans.)

The orthodox view of the Quran’s transmission is depicted in English by such scholars as Muhammad Mustafa al-Azami of King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, pioneer English translator N.J. Dawood, Majid Fakhry and Mahmud Zayid of the American University in Lebanon, and A.S. Abdul Haleem of the University of London. Muhammad dictated the revelations to his “Companions,” who preserved them by memorization in an ancient oral culture skilled in accurate preservation that way. (Christian conservatives say that’s also true for materials about Jesus collected in the New Testament Gospels. For instance, see the brand-new The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority by John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy.) Quran passages were also said to be written down by the Prophet’s secretaries.

Orthodoxy holds that all the material of what became the Quran existed in writing during Muhammad’s lifetime, though oral recitation remained important. A non-Muslim expert, W. Montgomery Watt, judged it “probable” that “much of the Quran was written down in some form” while Muhammad was still living. Al-Azami even contends that the Prophet arranged the final order of the verses and chapters (“suras”), though western scholars disagree.

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