Investigating Jesus. A Reliable Bible?

How do we know the Bible has not been changed?

During an investigation there is a danger that valid evidence can get mixed up with things which do not point the investigator in the right direction. J. Warner Wallace in his book Cold-Case Christianity tells of a cigarette butt collected as evidence for a murder case which was used by the defence to cast doubt upon the guilt of the defendant. His DNA was not found on the cigarette. However, that cigarette was collected as evidence simply by being within the area marked out by the police. Had the police marked out the crime scene a few feet shorter on one side, it would not have been considered at all. It was irrelevant to the case. Such things are known by investigators as “artifacts”, which can also include things like materials left by paramedics or footprints of the first people on the scene.

When it comes to the Bible, how do we know that the evidence has not been contaminated with “artifacts”? Before the invention of the printing press in the 1400’s the books of the Bible were copied by hand, again and again and again. How do we know that they were copied accurately? How do we know that the wording has not been changed as copies are made from copies of copies of copies . . .?

We have good news in that we can answer that question with great certainty; Yes, we do know that changes have occurred. Not what you expected from a Bible believing Baptist pastor I’m sure, but it is true. Look to the bottom of most modern English translations and you will see footnotes that say things like “other ancient authorities read. . .” Yes, there are “artifacts” which have found their way into the genuine evidence.

While knowing that artifacts have mixed into the evidence may not sound like good news to you, we do have some better news to share; we have so much material to work with, we are able to determine how the texts have been changed. We have the tools and the materials to help us separate the artifacts out from the evidence. Rather than asking if the texts have been changed, we can ask when and why in an effort to reconstruct the originals. This is a process called textual criticism. To do this scholars consider the external evidence, for example, comparing the age of manuscripts. They also examine the internal evidence, that is, the choice of words within the manuscripts. To give an example, let us consider a verse from two different translations:

And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 1 Corinthians 11:24 (KJV emphasis mine)

. . . and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 11:24 (NIV)

The words “Take, eat” are not in most modern translations because scholars have determined that they are, to use Wallace’s language, “artifacts” that don’t belong. The manuscripts lacking those two words are older and considered to be more reliable. That is the external evidence. Also, those two words are found in Matthew’s account (Matt 26:26) of the Lord’s Supper. It is not hard to imagine a scribe at some point adding those two words as a result of being familiar with Matthew’s Gospel. That is the internal evidence. Copies made from that copy, and all the copies to follow would also contain that “artifact”. Copies made before that change, and copies within a different “family” of copies would not.

When it comes to the New Testament Greek texts, we have thousands of manuscripts to compare, not to mention translations into other languages, quotations in the writings of Christians over the first few centuries, and early lectionaries. This process of determining the most original wording is something that is done with all ancient texts. however, when it comes to the New Testament, there is a far, far greater amount of manuscripts to work with. Also, the gap time-wise between the originals and the copies we have is so much smaller. The process called textual criticism gives us great confidence in the reliability of the Bible. To quote Wallace:

The same process that revealed to me (as  skeptic) the passages that couldn’t be trusted also revealed to me (as a believer) the passages that can be trusted. Textual criticism allows us to determine the nature of the original texts as we eliminate the textual artifacts. This should give us more confidence in what we have, not less. (J. Warner Wallace “Cold-Case Christianity

We have more good news. Even if we left all the artifacts in place, we would still come to the same conclusions and the same convictions. In investigating Jesus, you could go with the “artifact” every time and you would still have the same Saviour saying and doing the same things, including dying and rising from the dead. The variants are all minor things, mainly spelling and the like. Theology is never affected. I first learned of this fact, not at seminary, but from the head of the classics department at a liberal arts university where I did my undergraduate studies and began my journey of learning to read the New Testament in Greek.

How do we know that the New Testament is reliable given how often the writings had been copied over the years? Textual criticism points to the reliability of the scriptures. Theology also points to the reliability of the Bible. On this Sunday of Pentecost we celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit. In reading through the book of Acts we see God being very involved in even the very details of how the Good News of Jesus was being shared. If God is so involved in such details for His Kingdom purposes, He is not going to allow His Word to be lost or corrupted!

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV)

If all scripture is God breathed, we can depend on it being God protected also. When we study the Biblical texts using textual criticism in the same way we study other ancient works, we discover that the texts are reliable. We are not surprised, for so is God.

Today we have continued in our series “Investigating Jesus” to follow the lead of cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace in looking at the evidence for Jesus. As per usual, we have only scratched the surface here and I encourage you to read chapter 6 of  “Cold-Case Christianity” called “Separating Artifacts from Evidence”.

Responding to Terrorism

With the news of suicide bombings we may just wonder how to respond to terrorism. Here are some ideas:

1. Pray. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a good one.

2. Understand. To some, Western activity in the Middle East does look like a crusade. It can look like the “Christian” West is bombing and often occupying the Muslim Middle East. In our minds, Western secular and multicultural societies are targeting terror networks with precision strikes helping protect, not just the world, but Muslims also from certain other Muslims. In the terrorists’ minds true Muslims are being killed by Christians allied with “fake” Muslims.

3. Remember how Islam began. At its beginning Islam was not just a personal religious thing, it was also a tribal political thing. There are those who point out that young Muslims are radicalized when their lives in Western democracies seem pretty bleak, so if we can just make their lives better the terrorism problem will go away. While that may help, young Muslims are also being radicalized because there exists a version of Islam to be radicalized to, a very political version, with strong claims to being closest to the original. Muhammad was a political and military leader in stark contrast to Jesus, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NIV).

4. Read the Bible. Learning, as we wonder at creation, that all people are created in the image of God and therefore are worthy of dignity and respect. Learning, as we travel in a fish with Jonah, that we are to be ready to join God in reaching out to those we may consider enemies. Learning, as we walk with Jesus, that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. Learning, along with Stephen the first martyr, that we are to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. Learning, along with the apostles, that we are to share the Good News of what God has done in Christ with everyone. Yes, this means sharing with the Muslim that no expression of Islam, whether peaceful of full of terror, could ever do what Jesus did for us at the cross. The cause of Christ is worth being radicalized to.

5. Recognize the valid and important role of those who provide for our security. Loving your neighbour is not inconsistent with providing security to your loved ones when your neighbour threatens. We depend on our police forces to serve and protect us locally. We depend on our military to do likewise globally. There is little doubt that we are at war requiring a military response. However, our wisdom in deploying the military needs to exceed the might of our military more than ever.

6. Keep Praying. The victims of terror need it. World leaders responsible for our collective response need it. We need it. And the people who want to terrorize us need it too.

Investigating Jesus: Attention to Detail

The Gospel of Mark was not written by an apostle, by someone who was actually there for the events described. Why wouldn’t God have directed someone like Peter, who was there, to write a Gospel instead? Can we trust that Mark is preserving eyewitness testimony about Jesus when he was not an eyewitness himself?

Early Christian writers tell us that Mark’s Gospel basically was Peter’s eyewitness testimony. We have been investigating the evidence for Jesus following the lead of cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace, and his book “Cold-Case Christianity”. To summarize Wallace’s findings on what was said about the Gospel of Mark:

  • Papias (70-163), the bishop of Hierapolis said “Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ.”
  • Irenaeus (115-202) said “Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.”
  • Justin Martyr (103-165) referred to the Gospel of Mark as an early “memoir” of Peter.
  • And finally, Clement of Alexandria (150-215) said that those who heard Peter preach “were not satisfied with merely a single hearing or with the unwritten teaching of the divine Gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, who was a follower of Peter and whose Gospel is extant, to leave behind with them in writing a record of the teaching passed on to them orally.”

But why should we trust these early Christian writers? Is there any way to verify that what they say about Mark and Peter is true? J. Warner Wallace encourages us to pay attention to detail, or as the title of chapter 5 has it, “Hang on Every Word.” Wallace gives an example of a case where an ex-boyfriend said of a victim, “I was sorry to see her dead.” Though this may have been his normal way of expressing himself, it led the investigators to put some focus on him as a suspect. Eventually enough evidence was found to convict him of the murder. The words we use are important. To quote Wallace:

. . . all of us choose the words we use, and we’ve got lots of words to choose from. Our words eventually give us away. (J Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity)

As an atheist Wallace began paying attention to detail in the Gospels:

I had been interviewing and studying suspect and eyewitness statements for many years before I opened my first Bible. I approached the Gospels like I would any other forensic statement. Every little idiosyncrasy stood out for me. Every word was important. The small details interested me and forced me to dig deeper. (J Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity)

So what did Wallace find? We are only scratching the surface here and you may prefer to get the greater detail found in  “Cold-Case Christianity”. But by way of summary, Wallace points out the following:

  1. Peter is a major character in Mark’s gospel: Mark refers to him 26 times in a much shorter account than Matthew who only mentions him 3 extra times. He is the first and last to be mentioned.
  2. Mark writes about Peter as a friend, as someone with whom he was familiar. For example, only Mark never refers to Peter with the more formal “Simon Peter”.
  3. Mark treats Peter kindly, gives him respect. Mark does not include Peter’s failure when Jesus walked on water. Where other Gospels speak of Peter saying something foolish, in Mark, it is always just “one of the disciples”. Mark gives the least embarrassing account of Peter.
  4. Mark shares little things only Peter would know. Mark alone shares many additional and “seemingly unimportant details”, like when Peter was the one who said or did something whereas the other Gospels just refer to some of the disciples in general.
  5. Mark seems to know a lot about Peter’s preaching. It is interesting to compare Mark to Peter’s preaching in Acts 2 and 10 which feel like outlines for the book of Mark.

When paying attention to detail Wallace discovered that the Gospel of Mark points to the validity of what ancient Christian leaders said; Mark preserves for us the eyewitness testimony of Peter.

We can note also that later “gospels” written in the second century to promote gnostic thinking were always clearly attributed directly to apostles. The writers knew their fabrications would carry no weight if the name of an apostle was not attached. Contrast this to the Gospel of Mark where the early church preserved the knowledge of Mark’s authorship even though he himself was not an apostle. This speaks to the genuine nature of Mark’s Gospel which was written during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses.

Now that we are into our sixth week of investigating the evidence, you may be asking at this point; “Why do we need to provide evidence for such things? Why this whole sermon series?” Here are four reasons:

  1. Commandment. In 1st Peter 3:15 we are instructed to “always be ready to give the reason for the hope that you have.” We are learning from Wallace that we have good evidential reasons to continue growing in our hope even when objections are raised.
  2. Confidence. When people insinuate or state that “Christians are naive and stupid” we can have confidence that to trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour is neither naive, nor stupid, but reasonable. We may not count ourselves among them, but there are brilliant thinkers, experts in many different fields of study, who are followers of Jesus.
  3. Correction. If we as Canadians travel to another nation and someone asks how we like living in igloos, we would naturally correct them. How much more should we be correcting false ideas about Jesus!
  4. Call to Repentance. There are many methods of evangelism, and God uses many different means of drawing people to Himself including wonder, tragedy, testimony, Scripture, preaching, and even dreams. God also uses the investigation of the evidence!