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Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Weight of Two Greek Letters and other Musings on the Biblical Text

A commonplace of anti-Christian writing apologetics holds that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are corrupted through a line of manuscript transmission and the ecclesiastical interests of those entrusted with the task. The grains of truth in this error are that the New Testament was, until the 15th century A.D., transmitted via hand-written manuscripts and that the ecclesiastical authorities of Christendom have been at times unscrupulous and power-hungry men (and now in our liberal age, unscrupulous and power-hungry women and transgendered persons have been added to the mix). Further, church history offers a sad parade of power-hungry wolves in sheep’s clothing, stupidity, and a sin identified by the Puritans as “vain credulity” (we would probably call it gullibility). Yet it does not necessarily follow that church leaders and scribes have treated the Bible text as a plaything to advance their own agendae, introducing corruption after corruption until the words of Christ and His apostles are unknowable.

Even the most virulent heretics have preferred to introduce new “Scriptures” rather than tamper with the Bible text itself—a noteworthy exception being Joseph Smith, the 19th century founder of Mormonism, whose Inspired Version contains large interpolations which are without a shred of textual support antedating Smith’s own times. In ancient times, the various Gnostic sects were prolific publishers of new Gospels, Wisdom literature, Epistles, and Acts; some of which are themselves testaments to the canonical New Testament text on which they drew liberally—and, incidentally, witnesses to the greater antiquity of the canonical writings, which would have to predate the Gnostic writings in order to be copied in them.

The New Testament itself offers a wealth of circumstantial evidence suggesting that the churches have always found it too sacred for tampering; for the biblical text speaks against the cherished practices that grew up in the churches long after the New Testament was completed and published. In fact, the purveyors of works like The DaVinci Code, Five Gospels, and other challenges to the integrity of the New Testament reveal that they are the ones dependent on ignorance, gullibility, and special pleading for dubious agendas; and that the New Testament texts remain the final and reliable witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

*Plurality of Bishops

Few expect church polity to have a bearing on issues of textual transmission. But perhaps it says something for those entrusted with transmitting the text either by copying the originals or producing translations when they perpetuate a witness against their own extra-biblical tradition.

Today, when most people think of a bishop, they think of a robed man with a miter on his head and crosier in hand who singly directs the affairs of all the churches in a given geographical area. There is one Roman Catholic Bishop for the Washington area; one Episcopalian bishop; one Eastern Orthodox one. For much of Christian history, something like this was indeed the case. Even at the end of the first century, the bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch seems to witness that his was a monarchial office, with himself presiding over the presbyters of his city of Antioch and its environs. This system is called monarchial episcopacy, and is followed by the Roman, Constantinopolitan, Anglican, Coptic, Lutheran, and other churches today.

Yet in the middle of the first century, as the church was being founded and the New Testament being written, the terms “bishop” and “presbyter” were synonyms. Leaving Ephesus, Paul speaks to the elders (presbyters) of the church as a group, and calls them “overseers” (επισκοποι=”bishops”) in Acts 20. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul also addresses a plurality of bishops in one city—a striking contrast to the practice of later Christian centuries:

Paul and Timotheus, the servants of jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons (Phil. 1:1).

However, despite this difference between the tradition of the churches and the words of the New Testament, the textual apparatus of Aland-Metzger Greek New Testament knows no variant “with the bishop (singular) and deacons”. In their Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, the same authors reject the possibility that Paul meant “fellow bishops” instead of “with the bishops” on the grounds that it destroys the grammatical sense of the verse.

During the Reformation, many Protestants, especially in the Reformed camp, appealed to Phillipians 1:1 and Acts 20 for a reform of church order which placed the churches under graded councils ranging from a local church session made up of the pastor and lay elders to presbytery (or classis) to synods, in which each member, whether lergy or lay, had an equal vote. This system became known as the Presbyterian system of church government, and was adopted by the churches of Switzerland, Geneva, the Low Countries, and Scotland. English Puritans also hoped to further reform the church government of the Anglican church along such lines. The Presbyterian or related Congregational system of church government, with a plurality of elders, is also used by most churches which conscientiously use Scripture rather than tradition as their organizational model.

The Puritans hoped that when James VI of Scotland became James I of England on the death of Elizabeth in 1603, he would carry the practice of Scotland to his southern realm. Their hopes were disappointed when the king declared at the Hampton Court Conference that “A Scotch presbytery as well agreeth with monarchy as God with the devil,” and “I will harry you out of the land.” The result was several generations of conflict for British Protestants and a migration of Puritans to the New World.

Yet the Bible translation which the same King James commissioned, which was produced by a group of scholars loyal to the monarchial episcopacy of the Anglican Church, made no changes in Acts 20 and Philippians One. Even more strikingly, the Roman Catholic translation made at Rheims also has Paul writing to several bishops in the single city of Philippi. Yet in those same years, the Reformed actively contended against the monarchial episcopacy that both Rome and Canterbury supported; and surely could have been at least partly silenced among the common people had the Anglican and Roman translators either forged a textual variant to support their own position or falsified the text in translation. However, the plain light of history and the texts they published show that they did neither.

Why did church authorities fail to alter Scripture when it was plainly in their best interest to do so? The conclusion is that they were far more scrupulous and honest about the sacred text itself—regardless of how they might have interpreted it—than the secular scoffer allows.

*Paul’s rebuke of Cephas

The Roman Catholic church is a favorite target of many secularist writers, the most recent and notorious of whom is Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code. The premise is that the hierarchy of the Roman Church and its “control” over the New Testament canon has hidden the “truth” that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, and started a long lineage.

The willingness of the Roman church to “cook” miracles and canonize unhistorical saints is well known. Statues of the “weeping virgin” are made using air pressure, a hollowed head of a statue, and pinpricks in the eyes to simulate tears. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s was famous for throwing out a vast catalogue of saints, relics, and supposed miracles that had no basis in historical fact. Overnight, faithful Catholics who had prayed to St. Christopher for protection during journeys discovered that their patron was only a medieval legend.

But the modern radical secularists target not only things which Christians—including many Roman Catholics—have jettisoned through a process of reflection and study. The claim is made that not only were the Medieval Donation of Constantine and other documents forged (a discovery established by the painstaking literary, and orthodox Christian, scholarship of Lorenzo de Valla back in the 15th century), but that the New Testament itself is a forgery designed to support the claims of an epsicopal hierarchy. It is said that throughout the Middle Ages, Popes and their lackeys ensured that the Scriptures would include nothing embarrassing to papal claims.

Yet in the Vulgate Latin version of the New Testament, declared as the canonical, official version of Western Catholicism by no less authority than the Council of Trent, the letter to the Galatians 2:11-16) still has Paul rebuking Peter (called Cephas in both the Greek and Latin versions, after Keipha, the Aramaic word for a stone), the supposed first Pope, for refusing table fellowship with Gentiles. Not even the Protestant reformers’ use of this passage to support their doctrine of justification by faith—which the Council of Trent had anathematized—could persuade the unscrupulous Roman Catholic hierarchy to alter the text of their official Bible. The common reader who knows no Latin may consult the Rheims New Testament or other accepted Roman Catholic translation.

Yes, the Roman hierarchy can and does find ways to make merchandise of gullible lay people. However, in its treatment of the biblical text, it has certainly failed to make alterations that would be far more beneficial to its cause than the book that emerges from its own copyists and presses.

*The Siblings of Christ

Early in the Christian centuries, many Christians came to believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 made Mary’s perpetual virginity an article of faith accepted by both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers. The early promulgators of this doctrine doubtlessly reasoned that a womb that had once borne God Incarnate would be degraded to carry any other child.

Yet the New Testament again testifies against large and powerful churches—even in the versions that those churches read!

Matthew 1:25 says that Joseph “Knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son, and he called his name JESUS.” This quotation, from the King James Version, reflects the reading found in both the Greek original and the Latin Vulgate. The Roman Catholic translations offer no competing translation.

Mark 6:3 names Jesus as the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. Even the Latin Vulgate, accepted and unchanged by Rome, uses the common term for brother, or frater (the root of our English words fraternal and fraternity).

Usually, thanks to the pervasive influence of Roman Catholicism in modern American religious life, discussion of Jesus’ siblings is presented with strained “Aha!” and “Gotcha!” tones in public television documentaries and popular writing. Yet biblically informed Protestants do not find mention of Jesus’ siblings detracting from Jesus' virgin birth, sinless character, and unique union of a fully divine nature with a fully human one in one person. But if the Roman and Constantinopolitan churches which put so great a stress on Mary's virginity will not alter the New Testament text that causes them embarrassment even when they held a near-monopoly on the transmission of the New Testament text, it is unlikely that they altered much else.

*Mary’s Confession of her need for a Saviour

The sinlessness of Mary, including her freedom from original sin, is another dogma of Rome. It was promulgated in the 19th century as the immaculate conception of Mary. Yet again, the Roman Catholic version of the Magnificat, Mary’s Song of Praise in Luke 1:46-55, retains her confession of a need for a saviour. Again, let the libraries of polemics between Romanists and Protestants over whether Mary is sinless or not testify that the text had been free of tampering.

*What of King James?

We may now withdraw from Roman Catholic ground and examine claims commonly made about the King James Bible, long the official Bible of English-speaking Protestantism.

Simple unbelievers and purveyors of new translations "know" that there are bold interpolations on the part of the Jacobean translators at the end of Mark, in the Johannine Comma (I John 5:7), and other places. It is charged that King James' translation team knew less Hebrew and Greek than translators of today. Sometimes a political question may be raised about the choice of David’s “league” with the elders of Israel in II Samuel 5:3—especially at a time when the English word “covenant”, the more common translation of the Hebrew b’rit, had taken on anti-monarchial and anti-episcopalian connotations from Puritan pens (and was present in the Geneva Bible, which the Authorized Version supplanted after 1640).

Actually, the most legitimate complaints against the King James Version are two: one is that its language is that of five centuries ago; the other is one of textual base. Indeed, the latter is an argument whose veracity is hardest for the lay reader to judge, since textual criticism is a very specialized branch of scholarship. It involves the relative weights of minute variants in the manuscript evidence—none of which have a bearing on the doctrinal controversies of either the first Christian centuries or the Reformation. At points Launcelot Andrews and the team of scholars he led at the behest of James VI and I sacrificed strict fidelity to elegance of sound, for far more than most Bible translators, they considered how the Scriptures would sound when read aloud to a congregation. Yet, at the same time, they provided alternative translations of most of these passages in the marginal notes of their version.

But if the King James Version represents political, doctrinal, and ecclesiastical special pleading, what is to be made of its acceptance by Puritans after 1640, when the last edition of the Geneva Bible was printed? The Authorized Version served the polemical purposes of the revolutionary Puritans who wished to either tame the British monarchy’s claim to absolute power or abolish it altogether; and to establish Presbyterian or congregational forms of church polity to replace the episcopacy which James had supported. It even served the more radical purposes of Levellers, Ranters, and Quakers. From the mid-seventeenth century onward, it has served predestinarian polemicists no less than it has served the Arminian heirs of Archbishop William Laud of Canterbury.

Finally, if King James’ “league” in Second Samuel is suspect, his translators’ “shall be justified and shall glory” at Isaiah 45:25 is certainly closer to the Hebrew than the 20th century Revised Standard’s “shall triumph and glory”. The Authorized Version’s “propitiation” in Romans 3 and First John 2 requires less special pleading than the Revised Standard’s change to “expiation.” King James’ “generation” rather than the New American Standard’s “race” in Matthew 24 is also closer to the meaning of the Greek term used. At the end of the day, it can only be said that the King James Version is one excellent translation among several; superior to a plethora of recent translations into modern English when it comes to fidelity to the original texts, suitability for public worship, and suitability for serious study; and remains an incomparable monument of classical English prose. This should not be taken as a plea for "King James Only", but as a criticism of unwarranted criticisms leveled at the traditional English version.

*What of Alternative Gospels?

In recent years, many have seized on the recently discovered Gnostic writings to “prove” that an alternative Christianity to the kind represented by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and traditional Protestantism has been “suppressed”. A pioneering work in this genre was Elaine Pagels’ Gnostic Gospels, which appeared in the late 1970’s; and the work of the Jesus Seminar. The presupposition is that the canonical New Testament marks a bid by bishops and their clergy to lay claim to being the heirs of the apostles against a more “free form” tradition going back to Jesus himself—a tradition which, supposedly, is recoverable from various apocryphal New Testament texts an, coincidentally, favorable to late 20th century’s feminism and new age mysticism.

This is perhaps a more sophisticated attack on the traditional New Testament text than attempts like William Hone’s _Apocryphal New Testament_ of 1820 (perennially reprinted as _The Lost Books of the Bible_) to suggest an alternative canon. Hone drew on a collection of texts which had never been truly “lost”; for works like the Letters of Clement and Epistle of Barnabas were long known and recognized as orthodox; only they were never recognized as having the same weight and importance as the known writings of the apostles. The works bearing the names of Clement and Barnabas (both mentioned in the canonical New Testament) clearly accept the traditional Gospels and Epistles as prior to their own works, and authoritative. As for the Acts of Paul and Thecla, a charming second century romance highly reflective of a creeping asceticism in the church, its author’s pleading that he wrote “in honor of Paul” got him defrocked by his fellow presbyters of Roman Asia—an incident which in itself calls into question the common assumption that early church leaders were highly superstitious and gullible men disinclined to question writings that came their way and supported their doctrines.

Today, the favored apocryphal works are those recently discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, especially the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, which the Jesus Seminar would canonize as a “fifth Gospel”. Yet these writings, mostly in the Coptic language, again clearly post-date the New Testament. The language in which they were written, Coptic, was a development of the old Egyptian language adapted into a basically Greek alphabet to abet the propagation of Christianity; and by the time the Nag Hammadi texts were written, more than one Coptic literary dialect had arisen. The writings themselves abound with echoes of the canonical New Testament, again testifying that they postdate them. Coptic “Thomas” shows none of the interest in the historical life and work of Jesus the Messiah so present in the Four Gospels and New Testament epistles;

*Conclusion: Whose Credulity? Whose Special Pleading?

The charge that the Bible represents a strange ecclesiastical swindle of clerics out to press their own agenda against an equally ancient and “legitimate” tradition of free-form, proto-liberal Christianity depends on the ignorance and credulity of moderns. The fact that the canonical New Testament contains a number of points that challenge traditions and doctrines dear to the hierarchical churches of Christendom suggest a far greater number of scruples on the part of those hierarchical bodies had a near-monopoly on the transmission of the New Testament text.

The fierce squabbles over the interpretations of doctrines which did not appear prior to the age of print (Marxism, for example) further remind us all that texts regarded as sacred generally stand as given by their authors; and that sects and divisions arise from interpretation rather than textual transmission.


Metzger, Bruce M. 1971. A Texttual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. United Bible Societies

Scott, James M. 2003. “A Question of Identify: Is Cephas the Same Person as Peter?” Journal of Biblical Studies. 3:3:1-20.

Bible, New Testament. 1934. Novum Iesu Christi Testamentum: Vulgata Editionis Iuxta Exemplar Vaticanus. Mechliniae, M. Dessain.

The Greek New Testament (1970); New York and Stuttgart, et. al., United Bible Societies.

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