Tag Archives: textual criticism

A Variant of One Letter

Can one letter make a difference?

Over the years I have demonstrated various textual issues with the New Testament. One of the more common questions I am frequently asked is to what extent a variant of one letter can impact the reliability or lack thereof, of the New Testament. Today I’d like to answer this question with a simple example.

The letter η (eta) is a defining article.

Consider the case of saying “the boy” and “a boy”, in the case of the letter η (eta) it means “the”, which specifies a noun. The car, the boy, the house all refer to something specific and not something general. Thus, we read from John 5:1 (NIV) –

“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals.”

Some translations render the section in bold as “a feast”, however there is a variant in Codex Sinaiticus which renders the text as “the feast”, thus specifying this feast as not a general feast but as a specific feast. By inserting the letter η (eta) before the noun “feast” (ἑορτὴ), the context of this passages changes entirely. The NET Bible’s commentary explains:

“The textual variants ἑορτή or ἡ ἑορτή (Jeorth or Jh Jeorth, “a feast” or “the feast”) may not appear significant at first, but to read ἑορτή with the article would almost certainly demand a reference to the Jewish Passover.”

In other words, while at first it may not appear significant, by referring to the feast as “the feast”, it therefore indicates that this was the feast of Passover. This presents several problems. The initial problem is that if this feast refers to the Passover it would mean that Jesus preached for 4 years and not 2 1/2 years. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges states:

“He gives us three Passovers; to make this a fourth would be to put an extra year into our Lord’s ministry for which scarcely any events can be found, and of which there is no trace elsewhere.”

Thus, it would either mean that the timeline presented for Jesus’s ministry according to the Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke exclude one year of Jesus’s ministry or that the Gospel attributed to John has created an additional 4th year (more than 3 years) which would stand against the testimony of the other Gospels. If the former is true it would mean that the authors of the synoptic Gospels chose to exclude and ignore an entire year’s worth of teaching by Jesus, thereby bringing into question the reliability of their collective testimony. Why would his followers want to exclude an entire year of his public ministry? Surely if he chose to preach at that time it must have been for a reason, therefore on what grounds can an author ignore or prevent other Christians from reading and learning from 25% of Jesus’s ministry?

However, if the latter is true, it would mean that the authors of the Gospel attributed to John created and attributed an additional year of preaching to Jesus’s ministry. This would then indicate that the Gospel attributed to John lies about Jesus and thus brings into question its authenticity, reliability and accuracy. The Pulpit Commentary expands on this issue a bit more:

“Now, “the feast” of the Jews could hardly be any other than the second Passover, while John 6:4 would indicate a third. “The feast” referred to in John 4:45 undoubtedly means the first Passover. “A feast” would leave the question open, though by no means excluding positively the second Passover, as the anarthrousness of the word might be chosen with a view to call special attention to it. However, the indefinite ἑορτη has been identified by commentators with every feast in the calendar, so there can be no final settlement of the problem.”

So far, commentators on this verse describe it as being “significant” and a “problem”, yet we need to keep in mind that this is the consequence of one letter being present in one manuscript. The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary explains to what extent this variant affects the harmony of the Gospels:

“1. a feast of the Jews—What feast? No question has more divided the Harmonists of the Gospels, and the duration of our Lord’s ministry may be said to hinge on it. For if, as the majority have thought (until of late years) it was a Passover, His ministry lasted three and a half years; if not, probably a year less. Those who are dissatisfied with the Passover-view all differ among themselves what other feast it was, and some of the most acute think there are no grounds for deciding. In our judgment the evidence is in favor of its being a Passover, but the reasons cannot be stated here.”

Addendum:

It should be noted that commentators have not randomly decided that the phrase “the feast” refers to the Passover, this is a conclusion drawn from the Church Father Irenaeus from the 2nd century who writes in Against Heresies (Book II, Chapter 22) the following:

But it is greatly to be wondered at, how it has come to pass that, while affirming that they have found out the mysteries of God, they have not examined the Gospels to ascertain how often after His baptism the Lord went up, at the time of the passover, to Jerusalem, in accordance with what was the practice of the Jews from every land, and every year, that they should assemble at this period in Jerusalem, and there celebrate the feast of the passover.

We can see the variant by comparing the same passage from Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus. In the image below, we see folio 249 (recto) from Codex Sinaiticus:

1

The variant can be seen here, it reads as “Η ΕΟΡΤΗ” (the letter Η is the capital letter equivalent of η) :

The image below is from Codex Alexandrinus, we see folio 69 (recto):

3

The variant can be seen here, it reads as “ΕΟΡΤΗ” (the letter Η is the capital letter equivalent of η) :

4

6

What therefore, can we conclude from this difference?

If the Gospel attributed to John (from Codex Sinaiticus) is correct, it would mean that the Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke excluded more than 25% of Jesus’s ministry from those Gospels, and thus brings their reliability into question.

If the Gospel attributed to John (from Codex Sinaiticus) is wrong, it would mean that the authors of this Gospel invented an additional year of Jesus’s ministry, thus bringing into question the reliability, authenticity and accuracy of the Gospel itself.

If the authors of the New Testament’s Gospels cannot be reliable enough to determine whether Jesus preached for 3 years or 4 years, how could we trust them otherwise? One letter can make a very big difference and this is but one example of such a case.

and God knows best.

Evangelical Textual Critic Debunks Common New Testament Reliability Myths

James E. Snapp Jr. makes some quite candid points with respect to the reliability, preservation and transmission of the New Testament in a response to some of these misconceptions being part and parcel of the recent movie, “The Case for Christ” based on the book sharing the same name by Lee Strobel. Here are some of those points:

He starts off with pointing out the obvious, having a single early partial manuscript of one book of the New Testament does not mean we can misjudge all of the New Testament’s book as being equally as early as that one fragment. Rather, it is judged book by book:

For example, the earliest New Testament manuscript is probably either Papyrus 52 or Papyrus 104 – but they are both small fragments.  They tell us nothing about the accuracy of the transmission of the books of the New Testament that they do not represent.  So, comparisons between “the New Testament” collectively, and single compositions from the ancient world, are sort of unfair; it would be better to separate the individual New Testament books, and go from there when making  comparisons.

The number of manuscripts rarely matter, as I have duly pointed out before, on more than one occasion. The current reconstruction of the New Testament isn’t based on which manuscripts agree with each other the most. It’s a very common misconception to say the least:

Most English translations of the New Testament are based on minority-texts at points where the Byzantine and Alexandrian text-types disagree with one another.  The New International Version, the English Standard Version, the New Living Translation, and the New Revised Standard Version are all based primarily on editions of the Nestle-Aland compilation, which, despite being compiled via a method called “reasoned eclecticism,” almost always rejects the majority-reading (that is, the Byzantine reading) in favor of the reading in the flagship manuscripts of the Alexandrian family of manuscripts.

My point being that it is inconsistent to argue for the reliability of the New Testament by an appeal to the existence of 5,843 manuscripts, and then turn around and reject 85% of those manuscripts by consistently favoring minority-readings, which is precisely what one does when using the NIV, ESV, NLT, etc.

Furthering his point, he then goes on to critique Lee Strobel’s misuse of the number of manuscripts argument, as well as the argument that the differences are, “as minor as a few typos in a few insignificant words”:

In his book, Strobel states that the differences between New Testament manuscripts are “as minor as a few typos in a few insignificant words in an entire Sunday newspaper.”  That is simply not true.  He also compares the transmission of the New Testament text to a game of telephone in which, at the end of the game, 29 out of 30 telephone-game players say the same thing.  The problem is that the illustration does not hold, as far as the base-text of the NIV is concerned:  in the base-text of the New International Version New Testament that Lee Strobel uses, 29 out of 30 manuscripts are routinely rejected in favor of Alexandrian minority-readings.

He then goes on to debunk the very common misconception, that given we possess early partial manuscripts from the 2nd century that it means they must have been written during the 1st century CE several decades after Jesus, and that the New Testament’s books are the earliest between extant (still surviving) manuscripts and their initial date of composition. He indicates that this is probably not true:

The relatively recent claim that the New Testament’s manuscript-support is closer to its composition-date than any other literary work of ancient times is probably not true.  When Papyrus 52 (also known as John Rylands Greek Papyrus 457) was identified by C. H. Roberts as a fragment of the Gospel of John, some apologists began crowing about how this new discovery confirms that there is only a 40-year gap between the production of the New Testament, and its earliest extant manuscript – a gap far less than there is for any other work of ancient times.  However, this is not all that significant.

Papyrus 52 was assigned a production-date in the first half of the second century due to palaeographical considerations – that is, via a comparison of its script to the scripts used in other manuscripts in various eras.  But if we reckon that a copyist’s handwriting stayed relatively the same, and that we have no means to deduce how old a copyist was when he made a particular manuscript, and if we also reckon that a copyist might live another 50 years after the beginning of his career as a copyist, then there is potentially a 100-year swing, 50 years each way, built into palaeographically assessed estimates of when a manuscript was made.  That is, when other factors are not in the picture, a production-date deduced exclusively from palaeographic evidence could be off by 100 years.  So in the case of Papyrus 52, saying that it was made “in about 125” could mean that it was made 50 years earlier (although that is precluded by the point that the Gospel of John itself is traditionally given a production-date around AD 90), or 50 years later.

With the crux of his argument being one I have previously espoused and argued many times upon:

Thus, while Papyrus 52 might have been made just two or three decades after the Gospel of John was composed, it is also true that Papyrus 52 might have been produced in the 170’s.  To ask for greater precision in the estimate is like asking researchers to tell us the age of the copyist.

Very recently, Br. Yahya Snow shared a very impactful quote regarding the traditional Christian history of the Gospel attributed to Mark and the disparity between that history, our current reconstructions and its earliest manuscript 𝔓45.

and God knows best.

A Brief Insight into the New Testament’s Prototyping

The New Testament of today is described as follows regarding the NA28 GNT:

“The intention of this edition lies not in reproducing the “oldest text” presented in the oldest manuscript but in reconstructing the text of the hypothetical master copy from which all manuscripts derive, a text the editors refer to as the initial text.”1

We should therefore understand the New Testament not to be the word of God, but the hypothetical reconstruction of the “word of God”, a prototype, a possibility of what the reconstruction of the initial text may have looked like. When one examines the earliest manuscripts, we quickly find a trend that cannot be sidelined or ignored, the earliest witnesses place us in the late 2nd to 4th centuries CE:

New Testament Diagram Final (1)

The graph above concisely breaks down what books of the New Testament have as their earliest surviving (extant) witnesses. It also conveniently breaks down the New Testament into its genres and text types. The vast majority of manuscripts are from the 3rd century CE, meaning that the reconstructed prototypes give us a picture of what these completed texts may have looked like during or beyond the 3rd century CE. What is most notable, is that one of the earliest surviving sources attests to 9 books. That does not bode well for multiple attestation. Other books find their earliest witnesses in the 4th century including 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, 2 John and 3 John. These all indicate an intermediate or initial text projected into the 3rd century, some may say the 2nd century. Scholars have long noticed this trend of a later developed text, with one notable scholar explicitly stating:

Our critical editions do not present us with the text that was current in 150, 120 or 100—much less in 80 CE.2

Regarding new methods and changes in the NA28, a 2016 publication by the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society confirms the following:

The application of the CBGM resulted in 34 changes to the main text of
the Catholic Epistles and a slight increase in the number of passages marked as
uncertain. In most cases the changes are of minor significance for interpretation
or translation, but in several cases the changes should not be ignored. At the
difficult variation in Jude 5, for example, the text now reads that it was “Jesus”
(Ἰησοῦς) who once saved a people from Egypt instead of “the Lord” (ὁ κύριος). In
another important change, 2 Pet 3:10 now prints a reading that is not found in any
known Greek witness. Where the previous edition read that the last days would
mean that the earth and all that is in it “will be found” or perhaps “exposed” (εὑρεθήσεται), the text now reads the opposite: the earth and all that is in it “will not
be found” (οὑχ εὑρεθήσεται). The latter reading sits much easier with the surrounding context, but is only attested in a few Coptic and Syriac manuscripts.3

What the data, methods and current status of New Testament Textual Criticism indicates is that we have a text that is much later than is traditionally espoused. The stemmata indicate we currently have reconstructions of a textual form between the late 2nd to 4th centuries CE. There is now an increase in uncertainty regarding the variant units, in other words confidence has been lost in several cases. In other cases we find texts that affect theology or which textual critics indicate are important changes which are labelled as “difficult”, the consequences of which cannot and “should not be ignored”.

We also see in the aforementioned quote that texts now essentially teach the opposite of what they once said! All exegeses commentating on the previous reading have now been rendered invalid by a text reading in the opposite direction altogether. In one other notable case, we also now find a reading in the text that has no manuscript support whatsoever among any known Greek witnesses. All of these trends do not paint a good picture for the state of the New Testament’s reliability. The text of the New Testament today, is not the text known to those at any other time in the past, which brings into doubt their salvation. If  believing in scripture is a criterion for salvation, and the text believed then is not the text now, can we say those in the past truly believed in and embraced the “living word of God”? If the text that penetrated them for guidance is not the text of today, then does it matter at all what the New Testament says?4

Sources:

1 – Trobisch, David. A User’s Guide to the Nestle-Aland 28 Greek New Testament. 9th ed. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 10.

2 – Petersen, William Lawrence., and Jan Krans. Patristic and Text-Critical Studies: The Collected Essays of William L. Petersen. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 410.

3 – Gurry, Peter J. How Your Greek NT Is Changing: A Simple Introduction to the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM). Vol. 59. Series 4. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 2016, 684-685.

The title of this journal’s essay should not be ignored. The text of the New Testament is indeed changing, to say otherwise is to ignore the very existence of the critical editions.

4 – Hebrews 4:12.

Many commentators have said that the Bible is the living word of God, a scripture that penetrates us spiritually and guides us. If that is the case, then if the text changes, we have to ask, what form of the text is actually the living word of God? If an edition previously caused spiritual changes but is now changed, does that invalidate its spiritual guidance or does it indicate that the changes are wrong and the edition is correct? It’s a dilemma either way, which definitely brings into severe doubt the ideas of scripture, salvation and the work of a living word of God among Christian believers.

Missionary Mishap: Literacy is a Problem

Edit: Steven has apologized for his behaviour.

Our favourite duo, Steven Tilley and Vladmir Susic made an extremely awkward 8 minute video with a few insults and name calling (something we do not engage in), they should probably read the Gospel where it says to “love your enemy”. At the end of this 8 minute video they had a young missionary “exposing” me (Br. Ijaz), by claiming I had made an error:

cc-2017-jm-stevenvladmirinsultsga23-5

In the video, they premised their claim that we had given them the wrong manuscript name. However, they’ve made quite a simple mistake. They themselves don’t know what the manuscript is called. They first refer to it as “GA zero-two-three” then as, “GA (letter) O 23”. To begin with, the manuscript is not named either. It’s actually entitled, GA Ο23. It’s neither a number (zero) or the letter (o). So, we encourage them to keep trying. Hopefully they’ll figure out the name in the near future. Well, we hope they do before they get the name wrong again.

and God knows best.

The New Testament Today

The New Testament Today – What is it? Where did it come from? Can we rely on it?

These questions and more are answered, as our journey into 2017 begins. Let this year, be a year of guidance for our Christian brothers and sisters.

YouTube Mirror if above Facebook video is not available.

Thanks to Dr. Chris Claus for inspiring this video and this series of videos that will be coming out on various pages, YouTube channels and Islamic TV channels shortly.

 

Second Response to Dr. James White on John 9:38 and John 20:28

Apologies – I thought I had already posted this video to the site since it got more views than the original video that brought about the discussion in the first place! A few people duly pointed out that the second response hadn’t yet made its way to the main website and already had 4x the views of the original video. 10 days late, but here it is:

There are some interesting comments that came about due to this discussion which I’ll have to write about later on, but at the end of it all, this was a healthy discussion about New Testament Textual Criticism between a Muslim and a Christian. Not many people can fully appreciate how in-depth the discussion got, but it’s a start.

and Allah knows best.

Between Ehrman and Error

Recently on Blogging Theology I posted a video on the tenacity of the proposed ausgangstext which filled the lacuna of John 20:28. The vast majority of Muslims (expectedly) were enthusiastic about discussing the tenacity of Doubting Thomas’ alleged statement. The vast majority of Christians were not, which was also understandable. Then there were those caught in-between, educated enough to know that there had to be, or that there was more evidence behind what I had published, and there were others who were incredulous as to what that evidence could have been. Upon release of my second response video, I took a little more time, some 20 minutes and expanded on the rationale leading to the conclusions I mentioned in my first video on the topic.

Everyone knows about Dr. Ehrman’s famous statement, “copies of copies of copies of copies”. Yet the only two arguments I received in return were quite amusing. The first of which was that some people were curious as to whether Dr. Ehrman had commented on this passage or not. For some reason I have yet to discover, some Muslims’ hold on simple textual criticism of the New Testament is limited to only what Dr. Ehrman says, yet at the same time they are fully willing to simultaneously argue against his famous aforementioned quote. I duly provided a list of scholarship that not only knew of the work I gained the reference from John 20:28 on, I also provided the name of a seminary which uses the work itself, while also foregoing to mention that the scholar in question has been cited by Dr. Ehrman himself – one of the Muslims who opposed me in those comments had perhaps not yet read Dr. Ehrman’s references to this scholar (and his conclusions).

Nonetheless, the second argument I received was that no other variant of John 20:28 existed post p66, although I did point out that this was the case in Codex Bezae, as minor of a variant as it is, the challenge that not one variant exists has thoroughly been debunked (for those unread, the manuscript was eventually edited by a scribe).

bezae1

Following from this ignorant argument, was the case that since we know what every text post p66 said, then we must know what p66 itself said. This again, coming from those who agree with Dr. Ehrman’s aforementioned statement. We are therefore left with the following problem. Hence the title, Between Ehrman and Error. We have the following from the gracious Dr. Ehrman (emphasis mine own):

My point has always been (for example, in Misquoting Jesus) that we can’t know with absolute complete certainty what was said in each and every passage of the NT. That point – which I think cannot be refuted – is principally directed against fundamentalists who want to claim that every word of the Bible is inspired by God. How can we say the words were inspired if we don’t know in a lot of cases what the words were???Source.

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to these questions.  But they shouldn’t be ignored, as they ALWAYS are (in my experience) by people who want to assure us that we “know the original text in 99% of all cases.”   Really?   Which original?

If it were just up to me, I would say that the “original” is the first form of the text that was placed in circulation.  But since that in fact is not the oldest form of the text, maybe we shouldn’t call it the original. – Source.

One very interesting piece of evidence for this view involves a fact that is not widely known outside the ranks of the professional textual critics.  It is this:  new papyri manuscripts – relatively very old ones – do show up all the time (several in the past few years).  Whenever a new papyrus turns up, it almost NEVER contains a textual variant that is completely new.  The variants are almost always variants that we know about from our later manuscripts.  This shows, the argument goes, that variants were not created later.  Our later manuscripts preserved variants, they didn’t create them.  And this shows, it is argued, that all of the earlier variants are to be found even in the later manuscripts.

This is a terrific argument, and very interesting.  On the surface, it seems pretty convincing.  But in fact, in my view, it does not actually show that we have the original reading or that we can know that we do.  I will explain why in the next post. – Source.

I don’t think our New Testaments are likely ever to change much.  And I don’t think we know in a lot of places what the originals said.  Where’s the contradiction?  I’m not saying that we *know* that we have the original text in 99.9% of the passages of the NT.  I’m saying we *don’t* know – for a wide variety of reasons that I haven’t gotten into very much here.   But I’m emphasizing the word “know.”  We simply don’t know.

Do I *suspect* that most of the time we are pretty close or even there?  Yes, that would be my guess.  But it’s just a guess based on scholarly assumption and suspicion. – Source.

During those 300 years, Mark was being copied, and recopied, and recopied, by scribes.  Until we get our first full copy.  Can we know that this copy from 300 years later was 99% like the version that came directly from the pen of the author?  Of course we can’t know.  How would we know?Source.

Between Ehrman and Error. It’s really as simple as that. Dr. Ehrman used the word “guess”, I used the word “guesswork”. Dr. Ehrman used the word “suspicion”, I used the word “speculation”. Dr. Ehrman repeatedly points out that we cannot know what the original text said. He repeatedly points out that most variant units are decided on guesses and suspicion. So the question begs itself, how far are the conclusions in my video, different from that of Dr. Ehrman’s himself?

The problem presents itself, as he described regarding Mark, we don’t know what version of what copy we received. Given that basic, common sense principle, extend that to John 20:28, given that p66 is our earliest and we have no intermediate text (that is, the text between what the original author(s) wrote and the text of p66 itself), and that it has a lacuna or gap for the famous, “and my God” – then there is no way of certainty of knowing what p66 itself said or what the intermediate text(s) said, what the archetypal text said, or what the autographic text said. To require that we must need a variant before being able to dispute what a missing text says, is essentially self-refuting, the gap itself presents us with a problem, we don’t know what it said and we don’t know if any of the intermediate texts said something variable. We simply cannot know, just as Dr. Ehrman says.

So between Ehrman and Error, I agree with him, we cannot know, it involves guessing and suspicion. Those who disagree, disagree with the very goodly Dr. they appealed to in the first place and are as such, in error.

and Allah knows best.

Ijaz Responds to James White’s Video on Textual Criticism

Here is my response to Dr. White’s criticism of my video on the unreliability of the Bible. Of note are incorrect claims made on his part, conflating my statement of lacunae with his misrepresenting that statement as a ‘textual variant’ for over 40 minutes. Also his facetious and incredulous disregard for the science of higher criticism which he labeled as ‘mind reading’, along with citing or basing his arguments on misdatings of both p52 and p66.

There were a lot more errors on his end, and there was not a single rebuttal to the claims I presented and I was extremely disappointed to see negative comments about my character throughout his video despite both at the beginning and at the end of his video he said that this behaviour should not be condoned.

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