Trustworthiness of Scripture
by Leland M. Haines
It is clear that Christ and the apostles treated Scripture as authoritative and as constituting truth. The question that needs answering is, Are the Scriptures we possess today worthy to be treated as Christ and the apostles treated them? We know that through the historical-redemptive events Scripture was "breathed of God." This applies to the originals and not to copies. The originals were made by men moved by the Holy Spirit. The copies were made by ordinary men. But does this mean a great loss to us? Are our present-day copies so poor they are untrustworthy? When we realize that God revealed His plan of redemption to men through historical events, and that we know about these events only through Scripture, we will also realize that these Scriptures must be trustworthy, otherwise we would not know of His plan of redemption. It is beyond comprehension that an infallible and loving God would let His plan of redemption be lost or corrupted through untrustworthy copies of the Scriptures. Also, when we realize that God prevented errors from entering the originals by guiding the writers by the Holy Spirit, we will realize that God would also have prevented significant errors from entering through copying.
The New Testament manuscripts were probably written on papyrus; and because papyrus readily decomposes, the original documents did not last long, but their message was transmitted to us through a long line of copies.
The Jewish copyists had a heritage that placed high importance on the Scriptures, which resulted in their carefully copying them. This heritage influenced Christian copyists with both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds to handle the Word carefully as they copied.
The Jews made two grades of copies depending on how they were to be used. The synagogue rolls were considered "sacred copies" and were made following strict rules. Samuel Davidson described their procedures. The Jewish scribes would copy only on skins obtained from clean animals that contained the same number of columns, no word or letter could be written except by looking at the word being copied (i. e., they would not write from memory); the copyist should take no notice of anyone entering his work area or addressing him while writing, etc. The other type of copy was the "common copy," which was used by individuals. They were good copies, although not made according to the strict rules used for the synagogue copies.
Not only were Christian copyists familiar with the above rules, they also knew it was important to copy accurately because of the source of the Word. Many knew of the type of adjure or appeal at the end of the Book of Revelation, that "if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book" (Rev. 22:1).
The early Christian author of Clement's first letter to the Corinthians states that "the apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus the Christ was sent forth from God. So then Christ is from God, and the apostles are from Christ. Both therefore, came of the will of God in good order.
. . . they [the apostles] went forth with the firm assurance that the Holy Spirit gives, preaching the good news" (I Clement 42). Later the author wrote, "Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the apostle. What did he first write to you in the 'beginning of the gospel?'" (this refers to Phil. 4:15). "Truly he wrote to you in the Spirit about himself and Cephas and Apollos, because even then you had split into fractions" (I Clement 47; cf. I Cor. 1:12). Apparently the Corinthian church had a copy of the Book of Philippians and, of course, either the original or a copy the books of I and II Corinthians. At least the first-mentioned book was a copy, and surely the Corinthians had the assurance that their copy contained the Word inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Irenaeus (120-202) was a bishop in a church located in Lyons in present-day France. In the 182 to 188 time period he wrote a series of books titled Against Heresies. In the third book he wrote,
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospels has come to us, which they did one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scripture, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. 1:441
Later when Irenaeus became involved in a dispute over the number 666 found in Revelation (some heretics were saying the number was 616), he wrote, "This number is found in all the most approved and ancient copies" and that the number was attested to by those who knew John. Irenaeus apparently did not know where to find the original manuscript, but he could settle the matter by referring to copies he had full trust in.
The emphasis on the importance of accurate copying can be seen in Eusebius' remarks about how Irenaeus at the end of his treatise titled Ogdoad wrote, "I adjure thee, whoever thou art, that transcribest this book, by our Lord Jesus Christ, and by his glorious appearance, when he shall come to judge the quick and dead, to compare what thou last copied, and to correct it by this original manuscript, from which thou has carefully transcribed. And that thou also copy this adjuration, and insert it in the copy." If a church leader had such an attitude toward his own writing, how much more would a copyist work to copy the Word correctly.
Tertullian, toward the end of the second century, challenged the heretics to maintain their claim by evidence traceable to apostolic sources. He wrote, "Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity . . . run over the apostolic church, in which the very thrones [Cathedrae] of the apostles are still preeminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read." They could find Corinth in Achia, Philippi and Thessalonica in Macedonia, Ephesus in Asia, Rome in Italy, and learn "how happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth their doctrine." The apostolic writings were available for them to see. Because these Scriptures were present, "it is as incredible to every man of sense that we should seem to have introduced any corrupt text into the Scripture."
The result of the early Christian work was good copies, although not perfect copies. As we will see later, there are many spelling errors, trifle changes in word order, etc., but over 99% of the text is known to us. Robertson estimated that there is concern only with a "thousandth part of the entire text." Schaff states that only 400 variations out of the 150,000 known in his day affected the sense. Of these, only 50 had any real significance and not one affected "an article of faith or a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other and undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of Scripture teaching." Geisler and Nix estimate that are only about forty lines or four hundred words of the New Testament are in doubt. Warfield sums up by stating "the great mass of the New Testament, in other words, has been transmitted to us with no, or next to no variation." Summing these witnesses up, the variations that exist in our New Testament text has no significant affect on its meaning; today we have good copies.
Christ and the Apostles' Position
Our confidence in today's Scriptures is also supported by the attitude of Christ and the apostles toward them. They did not hesitate to trust the Old Testament Scriptures; these too were not originals. If they had faith in the accuracy of their copies and never questioned them, we should have even more faith in our New Testament copies as being trustworthy.
Many of the copies we possess are bound to contain slight variations due to the numerous copying and recopying the manuscripts have gone through. Although the copying process did introduce a few errors, it also increased the means for finding errors. The errors that were introduced here and there in some of the copies are found by comparing the many manuscripts, making it possible to very closely approximate the original. This approximation can be considered as inerrant and infallible; that is, it can be held as a reliable authority (never deceiving or misleading) and is free from error (always giving the thought of the original). This does not necessarily mean that we have a slavish, verbatim copy of the original down to every small word. The fact is no one knows the exact New Testament Greek text word for word. There might be trivial variations in spelling, wording, etc., but these are so minor that there is no doubt about the authors' thoughts not being known to us, and in most cases there is little doubt about not knowing the words they used to communicate the thoughts.
It is not within the realm of this book to discuss the alleged discrepancies in Scripture, but some comments will be made. First, it should be said that many of the so-called discrepancies are the result of convictions that they exist and an eager search for them. They are not necessarily the result of an honest and scientific inquiry. Too often the desire to find discrepancies has resulted in passages being cited as discrepancies when they could have been harmonized. Scientific methods do not treat a difficulty immediately as a discrepancy, without first seriously studying to see whether it can be reasonably and naturally explained. This does not mean that all apparent discrepancies can be harmonized. But this is not serious. In all probability, if more was known about the events surrounding such difficulties, we could readily understand them. Our difficulties are often the result of a lack of knowledge. Actually, it is difficult to prove a discrepancy, because if any reasonable explanation can be found, a discrepancy cannot necessarily be claimed.
Questions have been raised about the above view. Some say it should be admitted that discrepancies exist. But before this is admitted, one should examine the implications of such a move. The implication would be that God has presented a faulty revelation of His plan of salvation, but how could an all-knowing God have "breathed" words that contain errors or faulty information? Man could do it, but not God. Also, if God allowed errors to arise in Scripture, can we trust any part of it? Logic would say that if errors exist in minor details, the major teachings could not be trusted. In light of these considerations, one may well take the viewpoint that there are no errors in our Scriptures (of course, there may be spelling and grammar variations that doesn't invalidate the writer theme). This can be done honestly. As said before, if alleged errors are closely examined, most can be explained. The few which cannot in all probability could, if all the details surrounding the events were known. It is honest to admit we do not know enough rather than hastily proclaim that errors exist.
Although it is beyond this book to discuss alleged discrepancies, let us examine one frequently mentioned one. The first three Gospels tell of Jesus' restoring the sight to blind persons near Jericho. Some treat these accounts as one event, enabling them to point out discrepancies between the accounts. The problem with their interpretation is that there is no reason to treat these accounts as one event. Let us review these three accounts and see how they show that God was revealing Himself through Jesus.
Luke wrote that "as he come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the way side begging: And hearing the multitude pass by, he asked what it meant. And they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by." The blind man then called out for mercy, having undoubtedly heard that Jesus had healed many. Jesus asked him what he wanted, and he told Him. "And immediately he received his sight, and followed him, glorifying God: and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise unto God" (Luke 18:35-43).
The other two writers describe men receiving their sight as Jesus and His disciples and the crowd left Jericho. Apparently Jesus and His disciples spent the night there (Luke 19:1-10). Accepting these two accounts as written would make them different events since Matthew writes about two men and Mark about one man named Bartimaeus. It is credible to believe that Jesus healed these three because the blind man who received his sight as He came to Jericho created a lot of attention. Other blind persons in the area, hearing about this man receiving his sight, would have come to the road leaving Jericho, hoping to find Jesus there so they too could receive their sight.
Matthew wrote that "a great multitude followed him. And, behold, two blind men sitting by the way side" cried out for help. The crowd rebuked them for doing so, but they cried out again, and Jesus stopped and asked them, "What will ye that I shall do unto you?" They asked to have their eyes opened, and Jesus "touched their eyes: and immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed him" (Matt. 20:29-34).
Mark wrote about Bartimaeus receiving his sight "as he went out of Jericho." He was sitting by the roadside, and "when he heard that it was Jesus," he cried out for mercy. Jesus stopped and asked him what he wanted, and he answered, "Lord, that I might receive my sight." Jesus told him, "Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole. And immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus in the way" (Mark 10:46-52).
These accounts of the healings at Jericho are held up by many as a discrepancy, yet the above shows the alleged discrepancies can be harmonized. It only becomes a discrepancy if the reader does not interpret the accounts literally and interprets them with a preconceived notion that discrepancies do exit.
Variations in the Gospels
When we compare the numerous parallel passages found in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we can find quotations that vary slightly in wording, a few events that are listed in different order, etc. If the humanity of the writer and the first-century writing styles are not considered, we may get the impression that these accounts are not accurate. But this is not the case when we consider the accounts more carefully.
Since some have majored on these few minor variations or discrepancies between parallel passages found in the Gospels, we need to clarify this area. The humanity of the writers caused these variations by several means. First, the New Testament writers God used to record His revelation, as mentioned earlier, were common men enabled by the Holy Spirit to make an accurate written record. They were not highly educated journalists according to today's standard, and therefore they may not have recorded things in a verbatim manner as today's scholars may wish they had. As Johnson pointed out, "Contrary to our modern practice of precise documentation, exact, verbatim citation was not common in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century A.D." Also, sometimes their writings are imprecise, and in some cases they may even appear ambiguous. Both of these are trademarks of ordinary first-century writing and thus cannot be made a point of criticism.
Papias (c. 70-155), the bishop of the church in Hierapolis, knew the Apostle John and "others who had seen the Lord." Papias's comments about Mark's writing style can help us better understand the first-century writing style. He wrote,
Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.
This statement makes it clear that the early Christians were aware that there could be variations in the Gospels, but they knew these did not affect the accuracy of the Lord's teachings. No words were added to or taken away from His teachings.
Another factor to remember is that New Testament Greek, as other early writings, did not use quotation marks, ellipses, or brackets. Thus we do not know when the New Testament writers were making verbatim quotations of Jesus' words, as the quotation marks indicate to the modern reader. Also, since ellipses were not used, we do not know whether the writer shortened the quotation by leaving out words or whether he added editorial comments into the quotation since brackets were not used. Everett Harrison writes that "verbatim reporting was not expected on the part of a faithful disciple." Even though the New Testament writers often quoted Jesus' words freely, they did not lose the accuracy of His sayings. As Harrison stated, "Reason and experience teach us that the same can be stated in more than one way without loss of accuracy."
The absence of quotation marks means it is not always possible to identify Jesus' words exactly; thus the variations may not be due to the writers' incorrect reporting of Jesus' words but only to variations in their style. The writers' used a freer form of quoting than we generally use today. This can be seen in their Old Testament quotations found in the New Testament. This freer form sometimes uses different words to convey the thought, which clearly shows the writers did not always give a word for word quotation, that our English quotation marks imply.
Also, Jesus generally spoke in Aramaic and occasionally in Hebrew. Since the New Testament was written in Greek, it was necessary to translate His sayings. These translations may have been done differently by the various gospel writers. These, along with the later translations to English, introduced some more variations.
Finally, some of the slight variations we think exist may not exist at all because they may relate to different events or different parts of the same sermon. Jesus undoubtedly repeated many of His messages, and what we may think is a parallel account may not be. He may even have repeated some things in the same sermon or in different sermons at the same locations. We cannot always know for certain that these passages are parallel because of lack of detailed knowledge and therefore we should be slow to claim that they are errors.
As mentioned earlier, most of the "errors" are the result of our own misinterpretations, but some areas still present difficulties for us today. We do not always know enough about the events to explain or harmonize them.
But even in light of the above, we should follow Jesus' example and treat the Scripture as fully accurate and trustworthy. When we closely compare Old Testament passages, we can find situations that we cannot completely explain or harmonize. Since Jesus did not make these into big issues, neither should we. As He accepted the Old Testament Scriptures as error free, we should also accept the New Testament Scriptures as error free. And as Jesus did not major in finding errors in the Old Testament, or spend much time seeking to harmonize every Old Testament passage, we too should center on understanding the "good news" and not let alleged "errors" disrupt the "good news" to us.
In summary, God entered into men's lives, and through special events He revealed Himself. Because God used common men to record His revelation, sometimes we may find it hard to harmonize their records because of the above reasons. The slight apparent variations that occur in a few parallel passages show the humanity of the Bible writers. The variations do not affect the message of the Bible or any doctrine. It is far more important to live and proclaim what we know than to get absorbed in trying to justify or rationalize what we don't understand. Also we should not allow slight variations to become a difficulty for us but instead use them to give us an additional reason to accept the Bible as God's revelation. The lack of monotonous detail in the writings shows that the writers did not collaborate between themselves when they wrote. They wrote independently, and the similarities are the result of writing about the same events and the same Holy Spirit guiding the authors in their writing. The differences are due to the authors' different styles of writing.
The Method of God
The fact is, God chose the method He used, and it should not be criticized or questioned today. The biblical record of the historical events and God's interpretation of them gives us clearly and precisely the thoughts of the writers. We should study to understand this message and not major on minor variations. The important thing is not that there is a word-for-word agreement, or an event-for-event agreement, in every minor and unimportant detail, but that the Gospel message is truly conveyed to us.
Perhaps this method of recording revelation does not always meet with modern men's or the scholars' approval, but we must not think that God had to act according to human understanding to effect revelation. Modern man may have wanted God to use very logical and precise documents written by the learned men of the day to contain revelation, but God did not do this. God had the wisdom and power to effect revelation using ordinary, easily understood circumstances in man's history, and He used ordinary men filled with the Holy Spirit to record and interpret their meaning.
Parallel passages in the Gospels might not be as precise as some today would like them to be, but these small variations should not be blown out of proportion as some do when they criticize the Bible, claiming it contains errors and inaccuracies. Much of this criticism is really the result of a person's philosophical views rather than the result of sound scientific studies. This criticism is used by many today to free themselves from the Bible's message and it claims, and enables them to make up their own speculative views.
It is a common practice among liberals to go from the recognition of variations to assertions that they show the Bible is full of errors and therefore must be screened to recover the original. This allows them to freely accept or reject the passages as they see best, resulting in their creating their own badly distorted "revelation." As has been pointed out, "there is an irresistible temptation to reconstruct the teachings of Jesus on the basis of this select material, and the results cannot possibly be other than a massive distortion." The result of their approach is their failure to understand the only type of revelation that counts, the revelation God has recorded for us in the Bible.
1 Geisler and Nix, op. cit., p. 241.
2 J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer. The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids: Baker, p. 50.
3 Lightfoot and Harmer, op. cit., p. 55.
4 Irenaeus Against Heresis, Book 5, Ante-Nicene Fathers, I:558.
5 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966, p. 204.
6 On Prescription Against Heretics, Anti-Nicene Fathers, III:260.
7 Ibid., III:260.
8 Ibid., III:262.
9 A. T. Robertson, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, Nashville: Broadman, 1925, p. 22.
10 Philip Schaff, Companion to the Greek Testament and the English Version, third edition, New York: Harper, 1883, p. 177.
11 Geisler and Nix, op. cit., p. 367.
12 Benjamin B. Warfield, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, n. p.: London, 1886, p. 154.
13 S. Lewis Johnson, The Old Testament in the New, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980, p. 54. 14 The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:155.
15 Johnson, op. cit., p. 54.
16 Carl F. H. Henry, Revelation and the Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958, p. 247.
17 Henry, op. cit., p. 244
This is Chapter 5 of The Authority of Scripture, © copyright 2000 by Leland M. Haines