The Bible’s text has a history

Recently I mentioned to some friends the fact that Mark 16.9-20 should not be used as a proof text for anything given the near certainty that it was a later addition to Mark. One close friend responded that he’d give the benefit of the doubt to that passage under the professed belief that the Church has been using it for two millennia. I responded that this particular passage was not even explictly affirmed as canonical until Trent, which took place after our own tradition of Protestantism had rejected other of the Church’s more central beliefs that also go back to antiquity.

Even conservative Christian apologist James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries, who has debated Bart Ehrman on the subject of the Bible’s reliability vis-à-vis text-critical issues, made this important observation on Unbelievable (3/6/2010):

Most Christians tend to think the Bible floated down out of heaven in a calfskin cover with gold edges and thumb, replete the first time it appeared. That’s not how it came to us. That’s not how it’s been transmitted to us…Any book that has come to us from antiquity has a history to it.

…and a little later,

The books of the New Testament had a life of their own before they became collected into one edition.

Now, my friend knows all this in his head, but in practice, most of us tend to trust whatever our editions of the Bible lay before us and default to a distrust of any further revision to them. But there’s a justified collective facepalm among these same Christians when that very tendency results in KJV-onlyism. The fact is, unless you’ve got a KJV, you’re probably reading a text that significantly depends on the discipline of textual criticism from the last couple centuries, scholarship that has virtually rendered unanimous judgment against Mark 16.9-20’s status as original to that Gospel (although many conservatives propose the credulity-straining caveat that this passage was an accurate historical document itself that just got tacked on to Mark in later centuries).

None of this is a secret among those who pay attention to respected evangelical scholars like Dan Wallace, but given White’s quoted remarks, it bears pointing out to a wider audience. Even “inerrant in the original manuscripts” is only of value if we have a reasonable assurance that what we’ve got is representative of original manuscripts, and we do that by coming to grips with scholarship on textual criticism.

I think every church should have a Sunday School class that discusses (perhaps among other things) textual criticism. I’m sure it would be geared in most churches to demonstrating the “reliability” of Scripture based upon the consistency of the bulk of the texts, as White and Wallace are very much interested to affirm, but at very least it would scale back misconceptions and emphasize the need for a little humility in our assumptions about the text.

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