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HAS GOD SPOKEN?Memorable Proofs of the Bible's Divine Inspiration
By Hank Hanegraaff
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Hank Hanegraaff
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCopyist Practices
The Bible is the chief moral cause of all that is good, and the best corrective of all that is evil, in human society; the best Book for regulating the temporal concerns of men, and the only Book that can serve as an infallible guide ... the principles of genuine liberty, and of wise laws and administrations, are to be drawn from the Bible and sustained by its authority. The man therefore, who weakens or destroys the Divine authority of that Book may be accessory to all the public disorders which society is doomed to suffer. —Noah Webster
Writing a book is an arduous process. In the early years all I had at my disposal were a yellow pad and a Pentel with an eraser invariably worn down to the nub. Thankfully, those days were short-lived. Greg Laurie, one of the best evangelists on the planet, dropped by my office and sold me on "the gospel according to Mac." I instantly converted, enrolled in typing classes at a community college, found my way to the nearest Apple store, purchased a computer, and never looked back. Today, more than two decades later, I can't even imagine going back to writing a manuscript with a pen and a yellow pad.
Yet for thousands of years a Pentel and a piece of paper would have been considered a luxury. Throughout history people etched their words on materials ranging from stone and silver to papyrus and parchment. Paul references his etchings on parchment when he implores Timothy to bring "the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments" (2 Timothy 4:13), and John mentions the use of "paper and ink" in his second epistle (2 John 1:12). Someone writing some seven centuries before Christ etched the priestly benediction found in Numbers 6 on silver amulets uncovered in a burial chamber outside the Old City of Jerusalem at Ketef Hinnom—these tiny, rolled-up silver sheets representing the oldest of all extant Hebrew manuscript fragments. And Joshua, son of Nun, one of two legendary figures who survived the wilderness wanderings to lead the Israelites into the promised land, "copied on stones the law of Moses, which he had written" (Joshua 8:32).
Those who copied the autographs of biblical writers likewise faced an arduous task. Imagine being an Old Testament copyist engaged in the practice of hand-copying biblical manuscripts prior to the invention of computers. Perhaps you were one of the exiles who had just exited Babylon and reentered the land of promise. Your hero might well have been Ezra—the Michael Jordan of scribes. Thrilled to be back in the homeland, you coupled yourself to a community of copyists committed to the preservation of the sacred text. In your wildest imagination you could not have conjured up the image of movable type—much less a Mac computer or a mechanized copier.
Each day, you engaged in the tedious process of hand-copying an Old Testament missive—letter by letter by letter. No letter could be inscribed without looking back at it and verbalizing the text. As a Sopher (literally, a counter), you had to tally the words and letters to make certain that nothing was amiss. You must ever remain aware of the middle letter of the middle word of the manuscript so as to have an enduring reference point by which to make certain that not a jot was found missing. You must even allow for a prescribed number of letters and words in each column of the painstaking practice. Should the most exalted dignitary address you during your labors, you must ignore him, for you are a copyist in the employ of the King of kings and Lord of lords. And you must not so much as hazard to write the sacred name YHWH with a freshly dipped reed lest it blotch and desecrate the name of your God. Indeed, as part of the Jewish Sopherim, you would have had such an exalted view of the Old Testament text that you would perceive the missing of a mere tittle—a microscopic appendage at the end of a Hebrew letter—to be an affront to the holiness of your Creator. In short, you would make certain that your copy was as good as the copy that preceded it.
In time the Jewish Masoretes would succeed you. And they would be ever as vigilant. As underscored by professor of Old Testament Dr. Kenneth Barker, the Masoretes developed a system of checks and balances to ensure that every copy produced was as perfect as humanly attainable.
To make certain they had not added or left out even a single letter, they counted the number of times each letter of the alphabet occurred in each book. They noted and recorded the middle letter of the entire Old Testament. They recorded the middle letter on each page and the number of letters and words in each column. They examined every copy of the Old Testament and withdrew from circulation all copies in which any error was discovered. These carefully copied Hebrew texts have remained virtually unchanged since about 600 to 700 AD. In 1947 the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls yielded copies from all the major sections of the Old Testament, except Ruth, dating back more than a century before Christ. When compared to these ancient copies, the Masoretic texts were found to be virtually identical.
The point here should not be missed. The Dead Sea Scrolls predated the earliest extant text—Masoretic—by more than a millennium. Yet when compared to one another, differences in style and spelling were noted but no significant difference in substance. The Great Isaiah Scroll (c. 100 BC), discovered in the first of the Qumran caves, is an apt illustration. When compared to the text of the Masorites (c. AD 1000), it was found to be virtually identical—despite the passage of eleven hundred years. The famous fifty-third chapter contained only seventeen variants from the Masoretic text. Ten were a matter of spelling, four a matter of style, and three accounted for by the Hebrew letters in the word light. None substantially alters the meaning of the text.
Even where copyist errors exist in the text, they are generally relegated to mere matters of mistaken names or numbers. A classic case in point is 2 Chronicles 22:2—riveted in our minds due to a memorable address as well as the political intrigue involved. Some translations of 2 Chronicles, such as the King James Version and New King James Version, identify Ahaziah—youngest son of Jehoram (fifth king of the Southern Kingdom)—as forty-two years of age. The parallel passage (2 Kings 8:26) has him exactly twenty years younger when he mounted the throne. Thus, the problem. Was Ahaziah twenty-two or forty-two when he became king? As with other copyist errors, this question is easily resolved by a cursory look at context. Two verses prior to the error, we read that Ahaziah's father, Jehoram—whose death, like that of Judas, includes a description of spilled-out bowels—was forty years old when he died (2 Chronicles 21:20). Thus, the "aha" moment. Ahaziah would, obviously, not have been older than his father!
In sum, Old Testament scribal luminaries ranging from Ezra to the Masorites set an unimaginable standard of excellence in their copyist practices—a standard that should provide us with complete confidence in the Old Testament canon. Says Barker, "Bible students of today can be confident that the text available to us is not significantly different from the texts which Jesus and his disciples read twenty centuries ago."
In contrast to Old Testament copyists, New Testament counterparts were not constrained by the same systematized copyist practices. Instead they were rather like you and me. They likely loved the Lord and thus willingly sacrificed themselves to the tedious practice of copying the sacred text. And considering the hardships involved, copying the text was more than a career; it was a considerable calling.
Some stood at writing desks, and others worked in unbearable cold. One New Testament copyist describes the physiological effects in daunting terms: "Writing bows one's back, thrusts the ribs into one's stomach, and fosters a general debility of the body." Another adds a marginal warning akin to that found in the Apocalypse of John: "If anyone adds anything [words] to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book" (Revelation 22:18–19). Guided by the admonition "Do not add to it or take away from it" (Deuteronomy 12:32), New Testament copyists engaged their copyist practices with reverential awe akin to their Old Testament predecessors.
Did they make mistakes? Of course! While they engaged their craft with care, they were far from infallible. Unlike preprogrammed automatons, they were subject to all the frailties that are part and parcel of the human condition. The beauty from a biblical perspective, however, is the wealth of manuscripts by which textual critics can sort out their errors even apart from context and common sense.
While fundamentalists on the left obsess over their many errors, textual critics render them trite, trivial, and easy to resolve. What is more difficult to resolve is public sentiment to the contrary. People en masse are being deluded by books such as Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, in which Bart Ehrman alleges "mistakes and changes that ancient scribes made to the New Testament and shows the great impact they had upon the Bible we use today." Says Ehrman, "The more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realized just how radically the text had been altered over the years at the hands of scribes, who were not only conserving scripture but also changing it." Worse yet, according to Ehrman, were the dark and sinister motives of the copyists. According to Ehrman, "the anti-Jewish sentiment of early Christian scribes made an impact on the texts they were copying." For in text after text, "it was anti-Jewish sentiment that prompted the scribal alteration." In evidence he offers the following copyist variant from Matthew 27:26:
Pilate is said to have flogged Jesus and then "handed him over to be crucified." Anyone reading the text would naturally assume that he handed Jesus over to his own (Roman) soldiers for crucifixion. That makes it all the more striking that in some early witnesses—including one of the scribal corrections in Codex Sinaitius—the text is changed to heighten even further the Jewish culpability in Jesus' death. According to these manuscripts, Pilate "handed him over to them [i.e., to the Jews] in order that they might crucify him." Now the Jewish responsibility for Jesus' execution is absolute, a change motivated by anti-Jewish sentiment among the early Christians.
If anything, Ehrman succeeds only in demonstrating his own anti-Christian bias. Had copyists genuinely been motivated by anti-Jewish sentiments, the very next words (Matthew 27:27) would attribute the stripping, mocking, and crucifying of Jesus to Jews, not Romans. Moreover, it is instructive to note that the variants in question occur only in two manuscripts and are at best ambiguous.
While the public has taken a significant bite out of this poison apple, textual critics are well aware of the fact that Ehrman has presented the skin of the truth stuffed with a lie. Even if Ehrman has rightly judged copyists as anti-Semitic, the notion that their sinister motives lie undetected in modern Bibles would be laughable if it were not so tragic. The sheer volume of extant manuscripts is more than sufficient to retrieve the original message of New Testament authors.
This, however, has not deterred the sophists. A new generation of scholars is now disseminating the notion that not just copyists, but the gospel writers themselves were singularly anti-Semitic. As noted, William Klassen (Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus?), like Ehrman, suggests that John wanted "to vilify Judas," thus his gospel gets "caught up in anti-Jewish propaganda." Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, took it one step further by suggesting that Judas might well have been invented as an anti-Semitic slur. As we have seen, Funk claims the story of Judas's betrayal of Jesus was "probably a fiction because Judas looks to many of us like the representation of Judaism or the Jews as responsible for His death. If it is fiction it was one of the most cruel fictions that was ever invented."
The problem here, of course, is not anti-Semitism but ahistorical sophistry and vindictive prejudice. New Testament writers and their copyists clearly proclaimed that salvation through the Jewish Messiah was given first to the Jewish people and then to the rest of the world (Matthew 15:24; Romans 1:16). Additionally, Peter's vision followed by Cornelius's receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 10) and the subsequent Jerusalem council (Acts 15) clearly demonstrate both the inclusive nature of the church as well as the initial Jewish Christian resistance to Gentile inclusion (Galatians 2:11–14).
Far from being anti-Semitic, New Testament manuscripts simply record the outworking of redemptive history as foretold by the Jewish prophets who foresaw that one of Christ's companions would betray him (Psalm 41:9; John 13:18). There is nothing subtle about the crucifixion narrative. The Jewish gospel writers explicitly state that it was their leaders who condemned Christ of blasphemy (Matthew 26:57–68; Luke 22:60–71; John 19:1–15). There would be no motive to fabricate a fictional Judas to represent the quintessential Jew.
As is obvious to any unbiased person from scholar to schoolchild, the New Testament is anything but anti-Semitic. Jesus, the twelve apostles, and the apostle Paul were all Jewish! In fact, Christians proudly refer to their heritage as the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the book of Hebrews, Christians are reminded of Jews from David to Daniel who are members of the faith hall of fame. Indeed, Christian children grow up with Jews as their heroes! From their mothers' knees to Sunday school classes, they are treated to Old Testament stories of great Jewish men and women of faith from Moses to Mary and from Ezekiel to Esther.
The Bible goes to great lengths to underscore the fact that when it comes to faith in Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:28) and that Jewish people throughout the generations are no more responsible for Christ's death than anyone else. As Ezekiel put it, "The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son" (Ezekiel 18:20). The "cruel fiction" referred to by Funk is not Judas but the notion that Christian copyists were anti-Semitic. Truly, such scholars owe the world an apology for an idiosyncratic brand of fundamentalism from the left that foments bigotry and hatred by entertaining the absurd notion that the biblical accounts of Judas were fabricated because "'Judas' meant 'Jew.'"
While biblical authors and their copyists were clearly not anti-Semitic, they were, as previously acknowledged, far from perfect. Thus Ehrman's contention that "there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament" is factually defensible. The notion that these copyist changes "dramatically affected" everything from the "divinity of Jesus" to the "divine origins of the Bible" is not. While such assertions make for great rhetoric, they are clearly ridiculous. Most copyist variants are mere matters of spelling and style and as such are easily discernable. Where the text was altered by copyists, no essential teaching of the faith was compromised. Moreover, as I will demonstrate shortly, the quality and quantity of manuscripts is sufficient to ferret out copyist slips and supplements.
Excerpted from HAS GOD SPOKEN? by Hank Hanegraaff Copyright © 2011 by Hank Hanegraaff. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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