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”.

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When Jesus Meets Sceptical Minds . . .

“Get over your scepticism and just have faith.” This might be what we would have expected Jesus to say to the Sadducees regarding their disbelief. They had come to him with an intellectual challenge to the prevalent Jewish belief that the dead would someday be raised to life. They were very conservative in their thinking, preferring the scriptures handed down from Moses, and not paying attention to the revolutionary “wishful thinking” of the later prophets and writers. Moses, they figured, did not have much to say about a resurrection of the dead. So an intellectual challenge is issued to Jesus. What does Jesus say? “Get over your scepticism and just have faith”? Actually, no. Since this might be something we are tempted to say today to someone who demonstrates a scepticism toward Jesus, we should really pay attention to what he does say.

Before we do, let us recognize that scepticism is a necessary and important gift. We all ought to be sceptics. In fact we all tend to be. For example, if I were to tell you that you can fly and that all you need to do is run down the middle of the street shouting “I can fly! I can fly!” would you? Of course not. Why not? Because you are a sceptical person and your scepticism has kept you from doing something foolish. Scepticism often keeps us safe from physical harm, not to mention from delusion and the potential for intellectual harm. A sceptical mind is a gift.

So what does Jesus say instead?

24 Jesus said to them, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” Mark 12:24 (NRSV)

According to Jesus, the Sadducees do not have a scepticism problem, they have a knowledge problem. Specifically, they do not know the scriptures or the power of God. This gives us some important insight as to why people reject Jesus today. A sceptical mind may not be the problem. Let’s take a closer look.

The Sadducees do not know the scriptures. As the Sadducees revere the writings from Moses more than any other, Jesus asks them to consider what God said to Moses at the burning bush where God first revealed Himself to Moses:

And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.” Mark 12:26-27 (NRSV)

God did not say “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before they turned back to dust,” but rather “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” that is, “I still am. . . “ So they have not disappeared never to be seen again as the Sadducees assume. Jesus is telling the Sadducees that with their assumptions in place they are not doing a very good job of reading the scriptures. This kind of thing can be said today. There are people who have rejected Jesus because they have not handled the scriptures very well.

Consider, as one example, a common objection I hear to Christianity: “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” A good question, but when you know the scriptures, the wrong question. Consider what we learn from Genesis:

  • Chapters 1 and 2 – God created everything including humanity which he marked out for a special relationship.
  • Chapter 3 – Humanity sinned, breaking that relationship.
  • Chapters 4 through 11 – Though God would have been right to, He has not shut the door on humanity.
  • Chapter 12 – God has a plan to bless humanity and it will be worked through a special people.
  • Chapters 13 through 50 – Hang on, this plan may take a while, but God is involved along the way!

Through Genesis God has communicated exactly the things we need to know. As the Bible says about itself elsewhere, the scriptures “are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2nd Timothy 3:15 NRSV). To expect God to tell us everything and to expect Genesis to read like some super-sized cosmic Twitter feed is to not know the scriptures.

Additionally, many have rejected Jesus without knowing much at all about Him. Many think they have rejected Jesus when they have rejected a caricature of Jesus. This is not scepticism, but a lack of knowledge, specifically, knowledge of the scriptures. When we encounter deep scepticism toward Christianity, a sceptical mind may not be the root problem, but rather a lack of knowing the scriptures.

The Sadducees do not know the power of God. They are stuck in the rut of “we have seen people die and turn to dust.” They do not know the amazing things God can do with dust. Their minds are not open to the activity and potential activity of God the Creator. Again, the problem is not with scepticism, but with knowledge. There are people today who reject Jesus, not because they have sceptical minds, but because they don’t know the power of God; Virgin birth? Impossible! The resurrection of the dead? Can’t happen! A genuine record of revelation? How could we ever trust it hasn’t changed? But if God, Who created everything from nothing, exists, then then these things are possible. Consider the love of God and these things become more than mere possibilities. Keep in mind that no one has ever given good evidence that God does not exist. And of course miracles are a matter of history, not science. When we encounter deep scepticism toward Christianity, a sceptical mind may not be the root problem, but rather a lack of knowing, or being open to, the power of God.

There is something else here which Jesus does not say, but which is implied. The Sadducees do not know the thrill of a Jesus revolution. The Sadducees do not know the power of God to make the dead live, but they do know the power of Rome to make the living dead. They like the Status quo of Roman power, in fact a revolution could threaten their own power. And here is another reason people reject Jesus; they are not ready for a revolution. A God honouring, Jesus following, Spirit filled life is revolutionary. Anyone can sin. It takes courage to be righteous. Anyone can follow the crowd along a broad path. It takes courage to think different and stay on a narrow path. Anyone can live the status quo. It takes decisiveness to make a change. While most parents hope and pray their teenagers are not rebellious, I hope and pray that mine are. Jesus loving teenagers are the most rebellious and courageous teenagers out there today. When we encounter a deep scepticism toward Christianity, a sceptical mind may not be the root of the problem, but fear of a revolution.

In not knowing the scriptures, the power of God, and the thrill of a revolution, the Sadducees also miss out on knowing the love of God. The resurrection of the dead will not just be a display of the power of God in fulfillment of the promises of scripture. It will also be a display of the amazing love of God. We do not want anyone to miss out on that love so we will want to always be ready to point people to Jesus. When we encounter scepticism our role is not to tell people to stop thinking and just have faith. Our role is to help people know the scriptures, the power of God, and the necessity and thrill of the revolution, and so to point them to the love of God.

The Bible’s Proper Place

Imagine this scenario: The teenagers of our church have grown up into their twenties and have left town to attend colleges and universities elsewhere. Meanwhile society has shifted and governments have changed so that there is now a hostile climate for Christianity. In fact, officials have stormed our church service, rounded us all up and sent us to prison. We learn that we are all to be executed. We also learn that while things are not as bad for our youth away in other towns, things are not good there either. We can send a letter to them. What would you write?

This is not unlike what we have in the book of 2nd Timothy where Paul is in prison in Rome awaiting execution. He has the opportunity to send a letter to a young pastor in Ephesus named Timothy. What does he write?

Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. 12 Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13 But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. 2nd Timothy 3:10 – 17 (NRSV)

Let us summarize: “Timothy, you will be surrounded by bad people, but as for you, be good, keeping the scriptures central.” This is just as important a message for us in our day. In fact we can consider how “be good, keeping God’s revelation front and centre” is proper for us as individuals, families, churches, and as a nation.

For individuals – Be good, keeping God’s revelation central.

When Paul speaks of “the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” in verse 15, we may immediately think of salvation in terms of what it means for us when we die. The Scriptures do instruct us on such things as they help us see our need for, and God’s provision of, grace and mercy in Christ Jesus. But salvation is a two-sided coin. On the one side we may think of the destination, eternity with God. On the other we can consider the journey, life with God now. The Scriptures also instruct us for the salvation journey as the Holy Spirit transforms us step by step along the way. This second side of the salvation coin, the journey, is in mind when Paul goes on to say that

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work

So as individuals, be good, keeping God’s revelation central!

For families – Be good, keeping God’s revelation central.

It is sometimes said that faith is a private and personal thing. This is actually a ridiculous statement for how can it be? As I respond to the call to be good, keeping God’s Word central, how can my family be unaffected? As God transforms individuals, He also transforms the experience of those in relationship with those individuals. There is a direct impact on my family and friends when I seek to be good, keeping the wisdom of the Bible central in things like avoiding drunkenness, alcoholism, gambling, adultery, pornography, and the like. There is also a direct impact when I seek to be good like Jesus, as I read about him in the Bible, learning to bear a cross, learning how to love and forgive, and the like. There is a direct impact on my family, friends, and even enemies, when my life evidences the fruit of the Spirit:

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23 (NRSV)

The Holy Spirit uses scripture to awaken in us a greater desire for such fruit than the kind of fruit Adam and Eve went after. It is good for families, indeed all relationships, to be good, keeping God’s revelation central.

For churches – Be good, keeping God’s revelation central.

Ask what makes for a good church and you can get a wide variety of responses like good parking, good facility, great speaking, great music, great programming and so on. You can  build a great organization without ever cracking open a Bible. However, to form a good people you will need to open the Bible. The Church is not an organization that happens to made up of people, it is a people who happen to get organized. Though not very organized sometimes! To have a great church, we will want to be good, keeping the Bible central.

For our nation – Be good, keeping God’s revelation central.

What makes Canada great? Some people will say that it is our multiculturalism. However, are we really all that multicultural? There are things that appear to be acceptable, or even promoted in some other cultures that we would think barbaric here. Even the most ardent proponent of multiculturalism in Canada has their limits. So we are not as multicultural as we think we are, for there is a sense of Canadian culture, of limits in what is not acceptable. Where do we get this from? Though we are moving away from it, our culture still owes a great debt to Christian ethics. The Bible has given us a good foundation on which to build a nation. We should not be surprised by this as we are told the Bible is useful for “training in righteousness” (verse 16). Consider, for example, how the opening chapters of the Bible teach us about the dignity of every human being. Those who who would push us to become a fully secular state have difficulty accounting for why, objectively, we ought to value every person. This is just one example of many.

I am a secularist in the sense that I do not think a person should ever be compelled to be a Christian to be a Canadian. Nor should a non-believer be forced to pray a believer’s prayer. However, I also see how Biblical values have served our nation well. We are a nation that enjoys a bit of multiculturalism and a bit of secularism. We can appreciate that. But our nation has also been marinating in Christianity for a long time. So as a nation we can appreciate what Paul tells Timothy; be good, keeping God’s revelation central.

What Paul knew to be good in a time of crisis is good for all time including our time. Don’t be like the rest when the rest have lost their way. Be good, keeping the Scriptures central, sticking close to Jesus who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). And remember, we have the presence of the Holy Spirit. We also have the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ for when we fall on the journey and need to get back on our feet, dust off our Bibles, and start again.