Review: The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures

This week and next, I will post my review of the massive volume, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, edited by D.A. Carson. This week we will start with an overview and the positives of this work while next week I’ll cover what I consider some important weaknesses along with some brief concluding remarks.

img_0087-1The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Edited by D.A. Carson. Grand Rapids, Michigan : Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016) sets out to provide, in one rather large volume (over 1200 pages!), a defense of, not so much the authority of the Christian Scriptures, but of their inerrancy. The book contains numerous essays on Historical, Biblical, Theological, Philosophical and Epistemological topics, along with a handful of essays regarding Comparative Religions as it relates to the authority of the Bible. In the introduction, which in itself contains a wonderful bibliography of non inerrantists’ works, the editor, D. A. Carson, surveys a wide variety of fairly recent (and some not so recent) monographs on the nature of the Bible. His overarching concern seems to be that these recent works “go beyond” the fundamentals of the doctrine of scripture and “for better or for worse, break fresh ground” (Kindle location 383; all locations are Kindle locations unless otherwise noted), which I take to mean denying inerrancy.

As others have remarked, it is telling that the book does not start by developing a doctrine of scripture, but rather dedicates the first section to looking at the historical development of the authority of Scripture within the church in an attempt to show that church luminaries throughout history not only understood the Scriptures as authoritative, but inerrant. This is indicative of what the book is: An attempt to defend a predetermined understanding of the nature of Scripture, namely Inerrancy. However, this is not simply The Battle for the Bible redivivus; the essays in this volume attempt to bring fresh insight into current debates about the nature and importance of biblical authority usually in the form of inerrancy.  For those who already agree with this understanding of Scripture, it will be a welcomed addition to their library. However, it almost feels like a lost opportunity to look at just what does the Bible claim for itself, how has that been understood in the past and how might we understand those claims today. As a result, for those with differing views on the nature of scripture, even those who hold to a high, but not necessarily inerrant view, the essays will often be found lacking in evidential support, sound argumentation, or both.

First the positives

Overall, this compendium of essays brings together a variety of voices, not all of whom appear to agree with each other. This is to be admired for a volume whose chief purpose is defensive.  Hill’s essay on Scripture in the Patristic Period, Lane’s on Catholic perspectives since Vatican I, Vanhoozer’s on whether we may move beyond the text and Rea’s on Authority and Truth were especially insightful. Also helpful for non-specialists is Glaser’s essay on Qur’anic Challenges for the Bible Reader in the Comparative Religions section. One of the more interesting aspects of this work as a whole is that some of the individual authors seem to distance themselves from particular aspects of inerrancy as defined in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. For instance, Webb’s essay on “Biblical Authority and the Diverse Literary Genres” acknowledges inner-canonical contradictions (or “tensions,” in his words) between James and Paul, something that, on the surface at least, challenges “the unity and internal consistency of Scripture” spelled out in Article XIV of the CSBI.

We will begin our more detailed look at specific essays with Charles E. Hill’s chapter, “’The Truth Above Demonstration’: Scripture in the Patristic Period to Augustine” which gives a very helpful overview of how the church fathers viewed scripture. This essay is full of helpful quotes from the primary sources. In it, he acknowledges that Origen, a very influential early church father, believed there were errors, at least as it relates to history and some facts, in the Scriptures. It is very helpful for Hill to acknowledge what appear to be contradictions to the belief that the church has always understood the Scriptures as inerrant. Hill then attempts to explain this contradiction by looking at Origen’s larger theological project, that of delving into the “spiritual realities” of the Scriptures.  According to Origen, “A desire to showcase the benefits of spiritual exegesis can open one’s eyes to literal contradictions where others may not see them” (1977-1978). In essence, Hill seems to be saying that Origen understood there to be errors based on his “Spiritual” hermeneutic but it seems that perhaps the reverse is true: That Origen developed his spiritual/allegorical hermeneutic in response to what he perceived to be errors in the narrative of the text. Still, overall Hill’s essay does an excellent job of surveying the early church fathers and their views on the authority of the Scriptures, if not necessarily connecting that authority to inerrancy.

Bookending Hill’s essay in the Historical Topics section is a fine summary of Roman Catholic thought by Anthony N. S. Lane, “Roman Catholic Views of Biblical Authority from the late Nineteen Century to the Present.” After a brief overview of Trent, in which he highlights the importance of changes made from the early drafts where the final draft removed the word “partly” from the clause, “partly in written books, partly in unwritten traditions” (9401), Lane goes on to give a thoroughly helpful overview of the formal development of Catholic thought regarding Scripture from Vatican I (c. 1870) through the end of the 20th century. The bulk of his essay, however, focuses on one of the dogmatic constitutions from the Second Vatican Council, Dei verbum (c. 1965). Lane helpfully notes that official church teaching spelled out in Dei Verbum contradicts Protestant assertions that Catholics subordinate the Bible to the teaching office.  More importantly, apparently under the influence of Hans Küng, it moved the church away from more dogmatic approaches to Scripture. The next section covers the commemorative work, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (c. 1993), in which Lane reviews how the changes represented in Dei Verbum, especially the new found emphasis on the “genuine human authorship” of the Bible, freed Catholic scholars to employ critical methods that are usually considered anathema by Fundamentalists. (And I would add, to many of the gatekeepers of Evangelicalism, including some of the authors in this volume.) Overall, this essay gives a very informative overview of recent Roman Catholic work and dispels several protestant misunderstandings, making it a worthwhile read in itself.

I found the essays in the Biblical and Theological section to be largely bland and sometimes even outright unhelpful.  An exception to this is Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s chapter, “May We Go Beyond What Is Written After All? The Pattern of Theological Authority and the Problem of Doctrinal Development.” In this essay he seeks to do several things. One, he makes a case for the on-going task of constructive theology, what he refers to as Christian Doctrine. Second, he encourages a movement beyond what he calls naïve biblicism (which he claims is actually the target of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible) and accept instead a “critical biblicism” (emphasis his). He then seeks to delineate ways that we can move beyond the text “with a limited degree of extrapolation” (23859), while still putting boundaries on that movement. Vanhoozer spends the remainder of this essay spelling out how this could be done, using a narrative, or (theo)dramatic context. This approach will likely resonate with readers of N. T. Wright.  Vanhoozer’s essay is thoughtful and worth reading more than once.

Some of the most interesting essays were among the Philosophical and Epistemological Topics. R. Scott Smith’s essay, “Non-Foundational Epistemologies and the Truth of Scripture” points out that there are many foundationalisms, so at the very least, critics must be willing to define what they are critiquing when it comes to foundationalism (which he claims neither Grenz nor Franke do in their works). Smith shows a willingness to move toward a soft foundationalism, although his overarching concern seems to be that we can know reality in itself accurately, albeit not exhaustively, as opposed having simply “our interpretations or conceptualizations” of reality (26560-26561). His primary exemplar for the need to maintain some sort of foundationalism is Paul’s (so-called) conversion.  He says that Paul’s “Pharisaical grid” could not have provided the framework for Paul to come to know Jesus as Lord without somehow coming to see “Jesus for who he truly is” (26566-26567). The concern is that “if we cannot access reality (even Scripture) directly, albeit in ways that are accommodated to our finite minds, we will not know reality” (26559-26560). But this seems to break down in at least two important ways. First from the biblical witness, it appears that at least Nicodemus, with a similar Pharisaical interpretive grid, also became a follower of Jesus (John 3:1-10, 7:50, 19:39) so this supposed interpretive grid did indeed provide the necessary conceptual framework. Second, from a linguistic standpoint, cognitive linguistics points to all language being metaphor so that we don’t have any way to interpret reality, except through conceptualization. It’s ironic in a way, then, that in an essay on epistemology, Smith’s foundational assumptions here seem inadequately grounded. All that said, I still found this essay very helpful in attempting to spell out a more chastened foundationalism.

Probably one of the most profound chapters in this volume, and one that non-inerrantists and inerrantists may read quite differently, is Michael C. Rea’s “Authority and Truth.” In this essay, Rea argues that authority and truth do not need to be inherently linked, but instead, it depends on the domain in which the text is authoritative and the centrality of the errors to the main subject of the text. “No ascription of authority to a text is complete without the specification of the domain within which it has authority” (27014). Indeed, if this is the case “then no text — and certainly not the Bible — is authoritative simpliciter” (27010-27011), meaning authoritative in everything. He then goes on to discuss different kinds of authority (practical and theoretical), what makes something or someone an authority and authority defeaters. “Authorities are sources of information or directives” (27032-27033). Authorities are defeated when we have conflicting authorities. In other words, we come to learn that one authority has priority over another. For example, if I say a particular Hebrew word means X and you go look it up in the dictionary and it says, Y, then you are more likely to give the dictionary priority over me. (Which is not to say I may not be correct, but simply that by default, an academic Lexicon has priority.)

The next section of this essay covers truth. After a very brief acknowledgement that defining truth is much too unwieldy for such a short essay, Rea goes on to give a high level overview of some of the categories in the literature (realist/anti-realist, epistemic/non-epistemic and correspondence theories vs. everything else). Here we get to some of the key questions of the essay: How can a text can be considered true if it contains falsehoods? His answer: If “the falsehoods simply aren’t central — that is, they are not part of ‘the most important message’ of the text,” then they do not falsify the text (27417-27418). This, of course, requires that we must be skillful interpreters of the text in order to determine what the central message is, as well as the domain in which it exercises authority. Rea then draws six conclusions, which I will quote at length:

  1. To say without qualification that a text is authoritative is to say nothing definitive about whether it is true. (27439-27440)
  2. if a text has theoretical authority over an individual in some domain, then the text’s assertions within that domain must be reliable enough to warrant belief in the absence of defeaters (27452-27454).
  3. if a text has foundational theoretical authority over S in D, then it must be at least as reliable as any other authority for S in D (27465-27466).
  4. (β) G is the author of the Bible, and, necessarily, for any text τ authored by God and for any individual S other than God, τ has foundational authority over S in the domain defined by the text itself (27496-27498). If God is the author β implies that the Bible is perfectly reliable within the domain defined by the text itself. Thus, if β is true, then every proposition that the Bible semantically asserts or intentionally conveys must be true, and all of its directives constitute decisive reason for action (27499-27501).
  5. it is not clear that any (non-question-begging) assumption weaker than β will forge the same link between authority and inerrancy. We have already seen that a text can be foundationally authoritative for an individual in a domain without being perfectly reliable in that domain (27522-27524). So it seems that those interested in maintaining a connection between scriptural authority and scriptural inerrancy will be best served by devoting their philosophical-theological energies to a defense of β (27527-27529).
  6. Our views about the nature and scope of biblical authority shed, all by themselves, relatively little light on the most interesting questions about the truthfulness of problematic passages in Scripture. Consequently, it is a mistake to treat the topic of biblical authority as somehow lying at the heart of debates about the reliability and inerrancy of Scripture. Far more pertinent to these latter debates are questions about the nature of God and divine authorship: In what sense is God an (or the) author of Scripture? What are God’s aims in Scripture? What might be God’s aims in this or that part of Scripture? Is God the sort of author about whom β is true? (27540-27545, emphasis added).

This has important ramifications for the nature of authority. First off, we can see that authority need not be tied to inerrancy, as is done in so many of the essays. Second, it leaves the door open on how to understand the Bible as authoritative but not necessarily inerrant although I’m not sure that was Rea’s intention. But if, say Genesis, is not meant to be authoritative in the scientific domain, then reading Genesis 1 as a type of etiological poetry would not weaken the authority of Scripture, contrary to Article XII in the CSBI (“We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”)

All in all, I have devoted the most time to this essay because I think it provides the philosophical groundwork on how to understand a non-essential correspondence between authority and inerrancy. Next week we will proceed to some of the less satisfying essays in the book.

What are your thoughts? Does the Bible have to be inerrant to be authoritative? Does a high view of Scripture necessarily entail inerrancy?

A brief start on the nature of Inspiration

In my previous post, I laid out several factors to consider as far as the nature of inspiration in light of the phenomena of the Bible. Today we will look at the first of these, although admittedly, very briefly.

  • Scripture is clearly written by people who were culturally and linguistically bound to their own time and place.

That Scripture was written long ago, by a people very different from us, in a culture very different from ours shouldn’t need much explanation. We are products of modernity, shaped by its way of thinking (even post-modernity is a direct reaction to and hence, shaped by modernity), its technological innovation and its priorities. The people who wrote the books that eventually became what we call the Bible were shaped by very different ways of thinking, different kinds of innovation and different ways of understanding the world and their place in it.

One of the tasks of translation is to make the source language understandable in the target language. So at times, cultural references are translated into meaningful references in the target language. As a result, some of the “alienness” of the original is intentionally translated out. And that is at should be. But in the case of ancient texts like the Bible, one of the side-effects  is that it can leave us reading our own circumstances and understandings into the text, since it all sounds so familiar. Take, for example, Psalm 37:3.

בְּטַ֣ח בַּֽ֭יהוָה וַעֲשֵׂה־ט֑וֹב שְׁכָן־אֶ֝֗רֶץ וּרְעֵ֥ה אֱמוּנָֽה

We will look at a couple words in this verse. The Hebrew word amun(ah)  has the connotation of faithful or true. It’s used of relationships, both between people and between people and God. The second word we will look at is shekan, which means to dwell and is rooted in the word for “tent” or “tabernacle” (a particularly large tent). The NRSV renders the Hebrew:

Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security

A more literal rendering might be

Trust [in the sense of “rely”] in/on the Lord and do good. Dwell [possibly in tents]  in the land and pasture [or cultivate] faithfulness.

Do you see how the translation has removed the cultural alienness of the text? This is based in an agrarian society where people lived a semi-nomadic life. Since we don’t live in tents anymore, the translation simply renders the word shekan as “live.” Likewise, we are not semi-nomadic shepherds, moving our flocks around in the land looking for hospitable grazing land.   Now don’t get me wrong, this is a reasonable translation (although not without its particular linguistic problems). But the point is, we don’t live in tents doing seasonal field labor and most of us don’t pasture sheep or grow things on a farm. So the idea of cultivating faithfulness is translated as enjoying security, something that is much more understandable to us but largely removed from the alien circumstances of the Ancient Near East.

Another area that is more controversial is the multi-tiered understanding of the cosmos. This is clearly identified in Proverbs 3:19-20 (CEB).ancient_science_diagram_giberson

19 The Lord laid the foundations of the earth with wisdom,

establishing the heavens with understanding.

20 With his knowledge, the watery depths burst open,

and the skies drop dew.

יְֽהוָ֗ה בְּחָכְמָ֥ה יָֽסַד־אָ֑רֶץ כּוֹנֵ֥ן שָׁ֝מַ֗יִם בִּתְבוּנָֽה

בְּ֭דַעְתּוֹ תְּהוֹמֹ֣ות נִבְקָ֑עוּ וּ֝שְׁחָקִ֗ים יִרְעֲפוּ־טָֽל

Here we see multiple tiers explicitly grouped together: The earth on its foundations, the heavens above, the watery depths below and the water that comes from the sky. When Genesis 1 talks about the firmament or dome (רָקִיעַ), we tend to read it metaphorically. But that’s probably not how the ancients understood it. The sky really was a structure that separated the waters above from the waters below. Based on ancient carvings and writings, the idea that the sky was a solid dome does not appear to be merely poetic imagery or metaphor.  Hence, in Job 22:14, God walks on the dome (חוּג, an admittedly different word, but the same imagery). This is just how they seem to have understood the cosmos.

These multiple tiers are seen in other ANE literature as well, albeit in somewhat different form. For example, In the Epic of Creation (Enuma Elish), after Marduk has slain Tiamat (tablet IV), he splays her body in two, with half of her “put up to roof the sky” (Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, 257). Similarly, in several Egyptian texts and funerary inscriptions, we see reference to the primordial waters. In the book of Nut, it says “The upper side of this sky exists in uniform darkness, the southern, northern, western and eastern limits of which are unknown, these having been fixed in the Waters” (Trans. James P Allen, The Context of Scripture, Vol 1, 6). Here we see several references that correspond to the ideas found in Genesis 1, “And the land was tohu vbohu (usually translated formless and void but with the connotation of chaos and a lack of any organization) and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” For our purposes, the important thing to note is the idea that the deep, or primordial waters, make up one of the levels of the cosmos, just as they do in Genesis, exemplifying this broader, multi-tiered cosmological worldview of the biblical context.

This view of the universe is significantly different from ours and we pretty much can’t help but think of it as metaphorical or poetic. In fact, that’s probably why it hasn’t been translated out, as we saw in the passage from the Psalms. But the idea of the Earth orbiting around the Sun, suspended if you will, by nothing, is completely alien to the Ancient Near East. This is not to say these people  were ignorant. It’s just to say that their understanding of the universe was distinctly pre-scientific and the multiple tiers was how they envisioned the cosmos.

The point being, that the people who wrote the books we now call the Bible wrote from within their own distinct culture(s) and were just as much a product of their times as we are of ours. This becomes our first point about inspiration. The Bible was written and sometimes updated by people in specific times and specific places and those times and places are very far from where we are today. To ignore or minimize this fact would be to dismiss one of the most basic understandings of where and when Scripture comes from.

So what does this mean for inspiration? To start with, it means that we need to understand the books of the Bible in their ancient context. Nothing too controversial there. But to understand that, we need to look at the the broader literature and other artifacts from the Ancient Near East and use it to compare and contrast with the Bible. I’m sympathetic to a grammatical and historical grounding of our interpretations, even though it’s clear the Church has not always used that method, especially in light of the traditional four-fold senses of Scripture (literal, allegorical, tropological, anagogical). The multiple layers allowed the Church to read the whole Bible as inspired, even when they felt the literal sense could not be describing the God they saw revealed in Jesus.

The Bible is a very human work and that means we can’t just interpret the Bible by the Bible, but that we need to bring in external sources, not just literary and archeological, but also other disciplines whether sociology, linguistics,  or even musicology to help us understand it and act as a control on our interpretations. It also means that it will be very helpful to ascertain the times and places the books were written. We need to understand the history of the books and their textual history. The texts have a past, sometimes a very checkered past, and to understand the texts we need to come to grips with that past. It will no longer do to simply say the originals were inspired when we know that what we treat as inspired aren’t the originals. In fact the very idea of originals, at least as far as the Hebrew Scriptures are concerned, is dubious. Whatever inspiration may be, it must be rooted in God acting upon and through some very human works, works that have changed to one degree or another over time.

So what about you? What are ramifications of the Bible being a human book, albeit not merely human? Does that diminish its authority? Do you see problems with using extra-biblical literature to help us understand the Bible?

How might we understand what the Bible is?

As we’ve seen, the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures (aka, the Old Testament), is a complex phenomena, with different authors, from different times. The text was demonstrably not static, likely up until at least the second century after Jesus. And these revisions do actually affect the meaning at times. Additionally, different books in the Bible appear to speak contrary to that of other books. So what we have is a collection of works from different, occasionally contrary voices built up over centuries. Again, this is not some sort of literary theory. This is what the physical manuscript evidences tells us. (Although, as we saw with Judges 6, the textual evidence does indeed at times support the assertions of higher criticism).

If we are to understand the Bible as having some sort of authority in the life of both the Church and the individual believer, how might that look? For the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, authority is inextricably bound up with inerrancy, as the conclusion to the initial five statements declares,

5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

But to tie authority to the inerrancy of scripture ends up being unsustainable.  As the past several posts have argued, authority can neither rest on the belief that the specific words were inspired, since the words of the books have never been consistent, nor on some putative original, in whose words that authority would reside since there often never was an original in the sense that the CSBI needs there to be.

Now some may argue that this makes the Bible merely a human book, a collection of writings that are no different than those of other ancient authors, whether Homer or the semi-anonymous scribes who recorded and updated the Gilgamesh epic.  But even if the Bible is a collection of works by human writers, it does not need to be merely human. So the question becomes, what does inspiration mean in this situation? Is inspiration conveyed by the qualitative (what it is) or the quantitative (lack of errors) nature of scripture?

While the authors of the CSBI assert both, in truth we see that for them the nature of inspiration dictates that it be inerrant. In the short statement after the preface, we see that scripture is understood to be a derivative of God himself.

1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture…

2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word…

3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author…

4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault…

The progression is pretty clear. God is true and he inspires Scripture, which makes scripture God’s own Word, with the Holy Spirit as its Author. Therefore, Scripture must be without error or fault. But inerrancy is an assertion based on a particular understanding of what the authors of the CSBI think inspiration should mean in turn based on the presupposition that God is not just the ultimate author, but the proximate one.

Article VIII, which we have already looked at in a previous post, asserts that even though God may have utilized human authors, “causing them to use the very words that He chose,” He somehow does not override their persons to do so.

God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.

We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities. (Article VIII).

This actually makes sense when viewed from a perspective in which God is absolutely sovereign over all things and yet somehow does not override the individual will. This is, however, self-contradictory. It is not a mystery but rather, incoherent (cf. Roger Olson’s recent post, A Crucial but Much Ignored (or Misunderstood) Distinction for Theology: “Mystery” versus “Contradiction”). So how else could we understand what inspiration means, especially in light of the the phenomena of Scripture?

Going forward, we will sketch out aspects of inspiration that better fits the Bible we actually have.

  • Scripture is clearly written by people who were culturally and linguistically bound to their own time and place.
  • By the very nature of classic literature, its impact goes far beyond its original time and place.
  • What we find, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, is a description of how those people experienced phenomena they understood as God. As such they faithfully recorded their experience of God and what they understood Him to be doing. Because that understanding changed over time, it was also updated over time. But their understanding was limited and is distinct from the reality that is God. If this were not the case, revelation would not need to be progressive by its nature.
  • The job of the Holy Spirit, then, is to breath God’s life into human writings. Inspiration becomes about how God took very human works and used them in the process of revealing himself, making them more than what they were, but still limited by their earthiness.
  • The authority of Scripture, then, cannot rest on its “very words” because that limits God’s self revelation which can never be contained in written words but is most fully expressed in the incarnation of His son, Jesus.

That’s enough for now. We will start to unpack each of these going forward.

What would you add to or subtract from this list? Is there anything here that disturbs you?

What is an original when it comes to the Bible, Part Tres


via Wikimedia Commons

Previously we looked at some of the main textual traditions for the Old Testament: The Masoretic Text (MT), composed in the middle ages and exemplified by Codex Leningradensis and the Aleppo Codex; the Septuagint (LXX) text, which is the Greek translation(s) of the Old Testament books (defined loosely); and the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP), the textual tradition of the Samaritans containing the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scroll (DSS) found at Qumran, although not actually a textual tradition, give us a glimpse into relatively early forms of the text, with individual scrolls witnessing to each of the main textual traditions and possibly others that are no longer  extant.  This week, we will look at a handful of examples of how the manuscript evidence points to a much more complicated situation when it comes to the idea of an autographic, or original, text.

First, though, a brief reminder that the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy says about the transmission of the biblical texts.

Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appear to be amazingly well preserved, so that we are amply justified in affirming, with the Westminster Confession, a singular providence of God in this matter and in declaring that the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free.

We will save a more detailed analysis of this particular paragraph for later. For now, what’s important to note is how favorably the CSBI understands the “science” of text criticism. It is, in fact, necessary for their project, since they acknowledge the obvious fact that there are variants in the manuscripts.

The question for our purposes is, what do these variants tell us?  How well do these manuscripts agree and how do they reflect on our understanding of a purported original? In this post, we will look at four different examples: Judges 6, which shows evidence of late textual additions, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, both of which show evidence of multiple editions, and finally, a comparison between Stephen’s martyrdom speech in Acts 7:4 with the texts of Genesis 11 and 12.

Judges 6.

Going back at least as far as Wellhausen (Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, 234), verses 7-10 have been thought to be a late addition, with the original going directly from verses 2-6 to 11-13. The ostensibly added verses here serve as an apologetic for why the Medianites were able to oppress the Israelites. The suspicion that these verses were late additions was confirmed with the discovery of the manuscript 4QJudgesa (4Q49). While fragmentary, this document does not have space to have contained the verses in question.  Line 5 has the end of verse 6 and line 6 of the manuscript contains the last view words of the first half of verse 11 (אשר ליואש האביעזרי), so it is clear that there isn’t space for the additional verses found in the MT.  This evidence not only tells us that the text we have in the MT has changed, but that it was changed relatively late in the transmission process.


The MT of Jeremiah is roughly 1/6 longer than the LXX. But not only is the LXX shorter, leaving out passages in places, it also presents the narrative of the book in a different order. For instance the MT Jeremiah 25:15 – 26:24 show up in chapters 32 and 33 in the LXX whereas chapter 46 shows up in the Chapter 26 in the LXX. Passages that are missing in the LXX include verses 39:4-13, 48:45-47 and 49:7-22, just to name a few. The generally accepted conclusion based on text critical criteria (remember, text criticism is understood as necessary and good by the CSBI) is that the numerous additions and alterations in the MT compared to the LXX point to the book of Jeremiah circulating in multiple editions from a very early time, with the Greek being based off a now lost Hebrew edition (or vorlage). Esteemed DSS scholar Eugene Ulrich (c.f. “The Evolutionary Composition of the Hebrew Bible” in Editing the Bible, eds. John S. Kloppenborg, Judith H. Newman, 36) believes that the fragment(s) 4QJerb shows strong evidence of this Hebrew vorlage. However, Karen Jobes (Introduction to the Septuagint, 173-77) points out the tentativeness of this conclusion, given the fact that this fragment contains only around 300 Hebrew letters and that the eminent DSS scholar Emanual Tov concludes that these fragments didn’t even come from the same scroll. So we are left without any direct evidence for the Hebrew vorlage of the Greek version of Jeremiah, but nonetheless, clear evidence that there were at least two distinct editions.

It is possible that the book of Jeremiah itself evidences an early tradition acknowledging multiple editions. In Jeremiah 36 (MT, LXX 43) Baruch is told to write all the words of Jeremiah on a scroll.  This scroll is eventually read to king Jehoiakim, who cuts it up and burns it. Afterwards, Baruch is told to rewrite the scroll and does so (36:32), adding many words to the text (וְע֨וֹד נוֹסַ֧ף עֲלֵיהֶ֛ם דְּבָרִ֥ים רַבִּ֖ים כָּהֵֽמָּה), demonstrating that the new scroll was an expansion of the original. Of course, in Jeremiah 36, the original scroll was burned up. But it may be possible by implication that it had been secretly copied by Elishama the scribe when it was in his possession (36:20) prior to it being read to the king and subsequently destroyed.  Either way, we are left with possible evidence supporting multiple text forms, which does not fit neatly into the category of a single original.


The book of Ezekiel also shows evidence of having circulated in multiple editions. Our earliest, nearly complete manuscript of Ezekiel is papyrus 967, which dates back possibly as far as the second century AD. This predates our Hebrew editions by around 700-800 years.  While there are fewer discrepancies between the Greek and the Hebrew editions than we find in Jeremiah, the ones that are there are very instructive. In P967, the end of chapter 36 (17b-35) is missing (this is an Eden text in the MT). In addition, chapter 37 has been moved to after chapters 38 and 39 relative to the MT. Chapter 37 is the famous dry bones chapter and chapters 38 and 39 contain the narrative about Gog and Magog. The belief is that by moving chapter 37 before chapters 38 and 39, as we have in the MT, the revivifying of the bones signifies an historical horizon for the restoration of Israel, one in which they are currently in the land, albeit oppressed on all sides and looking for a Davidic ruler to rise up militarily, whereas the Greek text of P967, with the dry bones coming after Gog-Magog, posits an eschatological horizon, without the need for the Davidic ruler to be a military champion (c.f. Ashley S. Crane, Israel’s Restoration, 250-257). The meaning, then, changes rather dramatically depending on which version you read.

It’s not, however, entirely clear anymore whether the version in P967 is actually earlier than the edition represented in the MT. For years, scholars have treated the Greek P967 as the primary text of Ezekiel, representing the earliest version of the book. But with the publishing of the Masada Ezekiel fragments, which as we saw above, date to no later than 70AD and are probably at least several decades older, the conclusion that P967 represents an older form of the text is no longer beyond question. This is because the Masada Ezekiel fragments contain chapters 36-39 in the MT order. Since we clearly have an older manuscript that supports the MT, it makes it difficult to conclude with any level of certainty that P967 represents an older text form of Ezekiel. Not that it’s impossible; it’s just much more difficult to assert.

These differences, do however, support the conclusion that two distinct editions of Ezekiel circulated from an early date, both of which likely preceded the Christian era. (See Ingrid A. Lilly’s published dissertation, The Two Books of Ezekiel, for a well argued and detailed look at the broader reasons for considering P967 and the MT as representing two distinct editions.)

Acts 7:4 and Genesis 11:26 – 12:4:

In Stephen’s martyrdom speech in Acts 7:4, he says “So Abraham left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After Abraham’s father died, God had him resettle in this land where you now live” (CEB, emphasis added). Why is this interesting in terms of the Hebrew Scriptures? Well, it turns out that a minor discrepancy with Gen 11 and 12 points to the idea that Stephen used a different version of the Genesis account than what modern Christians consider canonical. In Genesis 11:26, we read that Terah was 70 years old when Abraham was born. And in 11:32, we read that Terah died when when he was 205 years old. Now note that Stephen says that after Abraham’s father died, he left Haran to settle in Canaan. So that would mean that Abraham was at least 130 years old when he left Haran (205 – 75). However, Genesis 12:4 says that Abraham was 75 when he left Haran. So how do we reconcile these two different chronologies?

The short answer is, we don’t! At least not in the traditional sense. This is a definitely a case where it doesn’t seem to make a difference to the meaning of the narrative. After all, Stephen was in the process of being martyred for his faith, so we might not expect him to have gotten every detail right in the heat of the moment. Some, then, say that Luke inerrantly recorded Stephen’s errant speech.  However, there’s a much more reasonable explanation, although one with significant theological ramifications. It turns out the Samaritan Pentateuch matches Stephen’s narrative. The SP records Tarah’s age as 145 in verse 11:32 instead of 205, as in the MT. This matches up perfectly with Stephen’s narrative (70+75). But it causes problems for the doctrine of inerrancy since it implies that Stephen accepted the SP, a textual tradition that is not considered canonical by Christians. Yet if it was apparently considered sacred scripture to Stephen (and presumably Luke didn’t see it as a problem, either), how can adherents of inerrancy logically reject it? What if it turns out that the SP is actually a better exemplar of the supposed original?


This post has already gone on quite long enough. We have seen that the idea of an original, or autographic, text is difficult if not impossible to sustain in light of the evidence. In fact, using the very techniques of textual criticism that the CSBI relies upon, we find the idea of an original likely cannot mean what the authors of the CSBI need it to mean. As Eugene Ulrich notes, “everything we know about the biblical text prior to the end of the first century C.E. … indicates that the text was pluriform” (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origin of the Bible, 9). He goes on to point out that

The principal evidence we have for confirming that the texts of the books as found in the medieval manuscripts of the Masoretic Bible are closely faithful to the ancient texts is the evidence from Qumran. And that evidence from Qumran, when seen in perspective, demonstrates that there were multiple editions of the biblical books in antiquity” (11).

What gets even more intriguing is that with the book of Jeremiah, we may have support within the canon itself for textual diversity. If this is the case, then I do not see how the kind of verbal, plenary inspiration based on a putative original in the CSBI could be maintained, since the textual traditions themselves would not support it.

We have seen from our examples four things. One, that texts assumed to be canonical have clearly been changed and updated, throwing the idea of an original into confusion since texts considered canonical end up having been updated from earlier versions. Two, that translations were considered inspired by the NT authors, as opposed to how the CSBI understands inspiration. Three, that in some cases the editions that the NT authors apparently considered inspired would be rejected by the authors of the CSBI. And four, that several of the Old Testament books circulated in multiple forms and that this plurality of texts was not considered a problem. In fact, we have almost the opposite situation where Jeremiah may provide validation for differing textual versions. So, the foundation for our understanding of what the Bible is and its authority cannot rest on the concept of a single, inerrant original when the phenomena of the Bible strongly mitigates against it. Not only that, but if the very books that must be inerrant do not support the foundational assumptions of inerrancy, then inerrancy in this form is incoherent.

If this is the case, how does it affect your faith?  Is there a way for the Christian to understand their faith apart from an inerrant Bible?

Next week we will look at the idea that scripture never contradicts itself, which is a logical consequence of the CSBI, but actually ends up constraining the diverse voices within the canon.

What is an original when it comes to the Bible, Part Deux

Aleppo Codex
Aleppo Codex – Courtesy WikiCommons

Last week, we briefly looked at some of the textual difficulties with the Book of Acts and the fact that the early church essentially considered two distinct versions as canonical.  If this was case, how does one decide which recension is the actual inerrant version? This question is frequently answered by saying something to the effect that the differences don’t make any real difference in the meaning. That may or may not be the case and unfortunately, we’ll have to hold off dealing with that until later. Suffice it for now to point out that if it is “the very words,” as stated in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, that are inspired, then the differences do matter. But again, we must hold off dealing with that for a bit.  This week and next we will turn our attention to the Hebrew Scriptures and the difficulties they display in determining an original. Today we will begin by focusing on a brief overview of the earliest groups of textual witnesses.

Methodologically, the problem of determining an original text of the Hebrew Scriptures is distinctly different from that of the New Testament. With the NT, we have many manuscripts (relatively speaking) and fragments of manuscripts written in Greek, sometimes going as far back as the second century. We also have citations from many early Christians to compare to.  With the Hebrew Scriptures, however, outside the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), we have almost nothing older than the 10th century AD (almost 1000 years after Christ!) written in Hebrew.  Two of the oldest relatively complete Hebrew manuscripts we have are Codex Leningradensis and the Aleppo Codex. Both of these come out of what is called the Masoretic tradition, which is the scribal tradition that added vowel points to help with vocalization. (And for whom I and seminary students everywhere are eternally grateful, since without them, learning Hebrew would be extraordinarily more difficult!) These medieval texts are collectively referred to as the Masoretic Text (MT), which is the basis for virtually every English language translation.

Now, we do have manuscripts from much earlier written in Greek, such as those that are part the great uncials, Vaticanus (B) and Sinainiticus (א), dating back to the third or fourth centuries after Christ. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures is usually referred to as the Septuagint (LXX), although technically, the LXX is only the translation of the Pentateuch. However, these are translations, which according to the CSBI, are ruled out, a priori, from being inspired even though they appeared to be treated that way by the NT writers. In fact, it brings up an interesting question in that, how can translations not be inspired when the inspired NT writers relied upon them? A sticky issue for sure! For our purposes, though, what is interesting is that they show clear evidence that the texts have indeed changed, often in small ways, but not always. In fact, there are times where these changes are indicative of distinct versions. And sometimes the small changes end up having profound ramifications. More on that next week.

A final witness to the Hebrew Scriptures is what is known as the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP). While the textual tradition is not so well known, many may be familiar with the Samaritans from the references in the Gospels such as the famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30) or story of the Samaritan Woman (John 4:4).  They were (and still are) a branch of ancient Israelite religion. The most well known divergence between the them and the Jews regards the location of the Temple, which the Samaritans believe God ordained to be on Mount Gerizim (Dt 11:29) as read in their textual tradition. The SP is written in a descendant of paleo-Hebrew script instead of the square script of the MT and is vocalized quite differently than is the Hebrew of the Masoretic tradition as well (although vowel points were not added to the SP tradition). Neither Christians nor Jews have recognized the SP as canonical.

Up until the middle of the last century, the LXX manuscripts were our oldest witnesses to the Old Testament. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran in the 1940s and 50s gave us access to much older witnesses to the Hebrew Scriptures than we’d previously had and many of these were not translations, but written in Hebrew. The discovery literally revolutionized our understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. Additionally, there was a treasure trove of sectarian writings in Aramaic and a few Greek Old Testament manuscripts giving us insights into the theology and culture of the Qumran community. After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls a more methodical search of caves and excavations was commenced. Excavations at Masada, although much less well known, subsequently uncovered more scrolls (or at least scroll fragments) that can be dated to no later than the fall of Masada in 70AD.

That’s a summary of the main witnesses to what Christians call the Old Testament. Our next post will look at how the text critical issues presented by such diverse witnesses affect how we understand the complications of determining an purported original text.

What are your thoughts about the different manuscript traditions? How does the wide variety of textual witnesses affect your understanding of what Scripture is?

What is an Original? – Part 1


4 book of Maccabees (Codex Sinaiticus).jpg

Codex Sinaiticus via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, we looked at problems with considering the very words of the Bible to be inerrant, what is also known as verbal plenary inspiration. This week and next (and maybe beyond) we will get into some of the problems presented by having different texts. In all honesty, looking at this stuff is what started me down the path toward a full-blown faith crises, but I recognize that a lot of people just don’t care that much and I’m fine with that. Please feel free to skip ahead.

The one caveat the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy applies to inerrancy is that it only applies to the originals. Here’s what the CSBI has to say in Article VI.

We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.

First off, a point that is acknowledged by every one is the simple fact that we don’t actually have any originals! Not one. Not even close. At best we have copies of copies of copies (of copies of copies…). So in one sense, referring to purported originals to satisfy any potential problems isn’t very helpful, since we don’t have any of the originals to help arbitrate.  The CSBI attempts to mitigate this in Article X.

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appear to be amazingly well preserved

Ignoring the very real question of why God would choose to inspire an inerrant original without superintending its transmission, the second question is, just how well does what we have today actually preserve the words of this original. But of course before we can deal with that, we have to deal with what exactly is an original? Now maybe it seems obvious to you what an original, or in somewhat more academic speak, an autographic text, is. But is it?

In some cases it probably is pretty straightforward. For instance, the original of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be the first edition of the book published in 1884. But what about Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist? This was originally a “serial-novel,” meaning it was published in installments. But Dickens was known to also change the earlier chapters as he went along. So, just what is an original in this case? If Oliver Twist were inspired, what would be the original that could be considered inerrant?  Would it be each chapter as it was published? Or would it be the final product, brought together in a single volume, including all the changes? Likewise, what is an original when it comes to the books in the Bible?

So the question becomes, which model fits the individual books of the Bible better, the Huck Finn model or the Oliver Twist model? I am convinced that for most of the Hebrew Scriptures (AKA, the Old Testament or, the First Testament), the Oliver Twist model works better much of the time. In the New Testament, however, many, although not all of the books, seem to follow more along the lines of the Huck Finn model. In saying that, I also recognize that this is disputed among biblical scholars who find multiple sources, especially in the Gospels, as well as in other books. But for the other books, at least, we have very little hard (textual) evidence.

For this post, though, I want to only focus on the textual issues in the book of Acts, in part for brevity and in part, because it highlights the difficulty of identifying an original in one of the New Testament books. To summarize the textual issues with Acts, we have two distinct recensions, or versions, commonly referred to as Western and Alexandrian (Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 222-235; Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary, xviii-xix). The Western text is nearly 10% longer than the Alexandrian text and Comfort describes it as “more colorful and filled with added circumstantial details.” But the changes are not limited to descriptions alone. As Metzger notes, “sometimes the shorter form contradicts the longer form” (Metzger, 225).

There are several theories about how to explain the two distinctive editions we find that circulated in the early Church. One is that the author, who we will call Luke, following tradition, wrote two distinct editions: an earlier one (although it is unclear which recension might actually be earlier) and a later one. If this were the case, then which text should be considered the original? They were both written by Luke. They were both accepted as scripture by the early Church. From the standpoint of the CSBI, we cannot consider both as originals and they contain contradictory details in places (e.g., Acts 21:16), anyways.  Most English Bible translations follow the Alexandrian text, usually considering it the earlier and therefore, superior edition. Some, such as the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) and, to a lesser extent, the New English Bible (NEB), are more heavily influenced by the Western recension.

Other theories have later scribes, maybe even some of Luke’s close colleagues, adding to the text, possibly just after Luke’s death or possibly more than a century after the initial edition. Regardless of the theory, one thing is clear: Both editions circulated widely in the early Church, with some of our oldest papyri as well as such luminaries as Cyprian and Augustine attesting the Western recension, whereas the great uncials (Greek texts in all capital letters – lower case hadn’t been invented, yet) Vaticanus (B) and Sinaiticus (א), our oldest copies of the New Testament, as well as several very early papyri, reflect the Alexandrian text.

My intent here is to highlight that the issue of originals is not straightforward and the CSBI, while appearing to deal with the issue, does so quite inadequately. And from my perspective, this gets far more complicated in the Hebrew Scriptures, which we will look at next week.  For now, though, we’ll leave it at that.

Does the issue of originals concern you? Does the transmission process undermine your confidence in Scripture? Which do you think is the original of Acts? Why?

Leaving Inerrancy

Trying to understand what the Bible is (and is not) frequently becomes a significant stumbling block for many Christians. I know it has been for me. When I was a young Christian, I heard people say things like, “If you can find one error in the Bible, the whole thing is worthless.” Now, after close examination, what’s a believer to do who finally decides that there are several problems and inconsistencies? Well, in short, their faith can all fall apart because if you’ve been taught that the Bible is the core of your faith and has to be inerrant to fulfill that role, there’s little alternative except to either ignore the problem or watch the foundation of your faith crumble. And when it crumbles, do you completely walk away or do you struggle to find a way to rebuild your faith? From my perspective, the problem has to do with how an inerrant Bible is the center of faith for Evangelicals.

What is it about biblical inerrancy that leads Evangelicals and Fundamentalists to say “that to deny it is to set aside the witness of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit and to refuse that submission to the claims of God’s own Word?” At it’s core, it’s a foundationalist claim about what we can know. But when I see how the doctrine of inerrancy is used, it serves more as a shibboleth to determine who is in and who is out. While it is meaningful to those who accept a host of presuppositions, those presuppositions lack evidential support. At least as articulated in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, the presuppositions are simply ungrounded assertions. The purpose of this series will be to look more closely at problems with the doctrine of inerrancy as described in the Chicago Statement and to propose some solutions that better fit the phenomena of the Bible itself.

First off, I should probably let it be known that I’m okay with the idea the Scriptures are the norming norm for the Church. My problem is not necessarily with the Bible, but more with how it’s understood, what exactly it is, and its role in the formation of the faith community and the individuals who inhabit that community.

The place I see the biggest issues with inerrancy, as defined in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and one which I believe undermines inerrancy as a coherent doctrine, begin to show up in article VI.

We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.

There are several questions with this statement. What is meant by “the whole of Scripture?” Who determines what that is? It’s as if there were uniform agreement on which books make up the Bible. Yet Protestants and Catholics disagree on this issue and other Christian communities through history have had a variety of Canons.  If it is the “very words” that are inspired, how do you justify translations? It seems the very act of translation tells us that it’s not the words themselves that are inspired, but, at best, the message they convey. And if the very words are given by God, what does this mean for the author(s) of the biblical books?

Article VIII does nothing to help clarify this.

We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.

What do these two articles logically imply? I find the implication that God dictated the scriptures inescapable. If the “very words” that God wanted written is what’s in the Bible, then how can it be otherwise? And if the very words were God’s words, then how can he not have overridden the author(s) personalities? The answer, which is really nothing more than a fideistic assertion, and a weak one at that, is “The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us.”

In other words: Punt.  The men who drafted the CSBI seem to recognize that this is logically incoherent, but it has to be this way, otherwise they end up with a God who overrides human agency. It also causes problems when there are multiple narratives of the same event and they don’t happen to match up in every detail.  How can this be if the “very words” are what God determined should be written? I’m not saying that we can’t learn about God from these narratives, only that they cause problems for those who hold to this particular doctrine of Scripture.

I will leave off for now, but next week, I want to look at the issue of “the original” and the “autographic text.” There are assumptions regarding what an original is that I don’t believe are consistent with the evidence we have of the phenomena of the Bible, by which I mean how the the texts actually come into being (as opposed to descriptions of phenomena in the Bible).

What roll has the Bible played in your faith? Have you run into problems that you found insurmountable? What were they? What did you do?