The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Biblical Text

One of the disconcerting things seminary students learn that generally doesn’t get shared with their parishioners once they stand in a pulpit is that the sacred text of the Bible didn’t get transcribed directly from the mouth of God into standard modern English.

What? You didn’t know that? Oh. Sorry.

Ministers generally don’t share what they’ve learned about the “transmission” (the technical term) of the text from Hebrew and Greek words written on parchment thousands of years ago to whichever of the dozen or so English translations there are out there these days. They don’t talk about it partly because it’s pretty tedious stuff. But also because they don’t like to talk about the differences – dare we say “errors” – that crept into the hundreds of copies of the ancient manuscripts scattered across the world.

Naturally, the layman wants to know: Which one is the right one? Well, there’s the problem – there isn’t one.

Scholars have always known that the copies of the New Testament texts don’t always match. When copies of lengthy documents are made by hand, mistakes will be made. Sometimes a scribe believes the text should be a little clearer.

Here’s a famous example. The earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end at chapter 16, verse 8, with the women fleeing in terror from Jesus’ empty tomb, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s it. That’s how some versions say the Gospel ends. If you read on, you’ll find a lengthy footnote attached to verses 9 through 20 in some English versions, explaining that this is a section of doubtful authenticity. My New Revised Standard Version even gives an alternative ending.

And that story in the Gospel of John in which Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”? Probably not part of the original Gospel.

When you figure that even the oldest manuscripts date from about 300 A.D., about 200 years after the originals were written, it gets more confusing. Sorting out which text is the more authentic, looking at it from almost 2,000 years later, can be daunting and requires a lot of skill and patience.

On my shelf is my copy of the Greek New Testament, the Nestle-Aland edition of the New Testament, to be precise. It doesn’t represent just 27 manuscripts, one for each book in the New Testament. Rather it’s a compilation, a picking and choosing, kind of a painstaking best guess as to what among all those variations best approximates the original manuscripts, which are known as “autographs.”

I mention all this because there was a recent story by Bruce Nolan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune (read it here

St. Jerome in His Study, by Ghirlandaio

from Religion News Service via the United Methodist Reporter) about a new project by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to track – verse by verse, word by word, letter by letter – the changes that have occurred in the manuscripts of the biblical texts over the centuries.

The seminary’s Center for New Testament Textual Studies is halfway through the 20-year effort. They’ve compiled 17,000 pages worth of detailed notes, and the idea is that this fall, they will publish their results so far on the Internet.

It’s a worthy project, and no doubt will prove helpful to scholars in getting to a more authentic text. However, I kind of have a hunch that there’s something more to this project than a better New Testament text.

It has long been a tenet of fundamentalism that the biblical texts are inerrant “in the autographs.” That is, this position says that the biblical texts as originally written were without error. This doctrine always puzzled me, because of course, we don’t have the autographs, and even if one turned up, how would we know it was in fact the very first manuscript, written with the pen of Paul or Peter or whoever?

But I suspect that the seminary – part of a denomination that insists on the inerrancy of scripture – is trying to recover the autographs by detective work, or at least as close as they can get. It would be a way of bolstering, in their minds, the claim of the inerrancy of the text.

I don’t think that claim will ever hold water, because there are too many variables ever to be sure. But if it helps sort out some of the disputes over whether this or that manuscript is more reliable, well, God bless ‘em.

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