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?