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The Bible says 1

bibleSomeone stands up and and addresses a group: “The Bible says,…” and proceeds to quote.

Recent comments on this site encourage me to write a series of blog posts to help nuance such a declaration.

We do not have a single original biblical manuscript. We have copies. And, careful as we know that those who copied have been, the different copies do not all agree with each other. There have been errors and alterations made in the process of copying. This is so for other ancient texts as well, not just the Bible. In the plethora of biblical manuscript copies we have there are many minor and a few somewhat major differences.

Textual Criticism

The process of trying to establish, as closely as possible, the original text is called “textual criticism”. This is not an exact science. Scholars will disagree.

Some of the tools a textual critic would use include examining in how many manuscripts a particular text occurs, the dates for these manuscripts, where these manuscripts were found, theorising about possibilities that could have caused varying texts, and attempts to explain the origin of other texts.

An example of Textual Criticism

Read John 5:1-9. In the King James version of this text there is, verse 4:

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

This verse is obviously present in some manuscripts but it is absent from our earliest and best manuscripts and witnesses. This verse is present in some texts where it is marked with asterisks or obeli indicating that it is spurious. This verse includes words not normally used by John elsewhere, including three words found nowhere else in the whole New Testament. Verse 4 actually comes in a wide diversity of forms. It is easier to account for a scribe adding an explanation like this, than why many scribes would remove such an explanation. Most textual critical scholars, hence, would suggest that this verse was not present in the original text of John.

I hope this nuances, for example, someone who stands up and says: “The Bible says in John Chapter 5 verse 4, “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”…”

This series is to be continued…

Part 2 of the Bible says

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20 Responses to The Bible says 1

  1. This verse is obviously present in some manuscripts but it is absent from our earliest and best manuscripts and witnesses.

    Just because a manuscript is old does not make it good let alone “the best”, it is something that has survived that is all.

    It is my opinion the Scriptures we have, we have because the Holy Spirit has guided the Church in what is canon and what is the best version.

    The verse you use in example is in the Byzantine text as approved by the Patriarch of Constantinople around 1904 or so which of course is the version used by the Church for as long as can be determined.

    Explain this, why are you happy to ditch the Scriptures used by the Apostles, the Septuagint, in favor of a Jewish canon not even defined until AD 90 or so and using texts that are no older than 1000 years or so and yet are prepared to ditch NT verses which have clearly been in use by the Church and there is evidence for their existence from the early days of the canon.

    A simple explanation for the missing text in some versions is that the Evangelist himself may have decided to add it after re-reading early copies of his Gospel and added it or had it added himself.

    Just as you might amend a blog post or second editions and later of a book vary can from the first to enhance clarity.

    I trust the Church to get it right, not so called biblical scholars. cf the Jesus Seminar.

    • Thanks for your invitation to clarify, Andrei. Earliest and best are not synonyms in that sentence, they are two separate adjectives – I am sorry you found that unclear. I haven’t written about the Septuagint yet, and asked a similar question to yours in a recent thread, so your question appears to be based on an assumption, not on anything I have written here.

  2. I think you have written a very good and clear explanation of Tsxt Criticism.

    I have a thought concerning Andrei’s comments: Biblical Scolars are most often trained in church seminaries, ordained by the church, and teach at church seminaries and universities so I fail to understand the claim that biblical scholars are not part of the Church. Two of my seminary professors were both part of the Jesus Seminar, one was ordained, one was not; both taught at a seminary paid for and endorsed by a church; both were active members of local congregations; both regularly led worship in chapel. I fail to understand your idea that we should trust the church not biblical scholars.

    Thank you for your website Bosco.

  3. Actually, I’ve never heard anyone discourse on John 5.4 (only footnoted in NIV, NRSV, ESV etc; haven’t checked NKJV), though maybe somewhere the Doctrine of Therapeutic Angelic Hydrotarachy (just made that up – feel free to steal!) is important (possibly in Utah). But I have heard John 7.53-8.11 (or 11a) cited time without number (usually in support of the Doctrine of Sexual Nonjudgmentalism). And Mark 16.18 is no doubt still precious for opichiropractors in Appalachia.

  4. Yes, Kevin, NKJV has John 5:4 in the text, just as KJV does. I chose this verse to illustrate the process precisely to introduce textual criticism without that introduction being distracted by the prejudices you bring up about other texts.

  5. OK look at it this way.

    The Greek Church has maintained the scriptures in the original language for the last 2000 years, preserving them intact from then to now.

    Starting with Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius they were translated into Slavonic 1200 or so years ago and the Slavic churches have maintained them in that language (Church Slavonic) ever since.

    Now how come the Greek and Slavonic scriptures agree with one another after all this time if what you are saying about copying errors is true – they should have diverged but haven’t!

    Of course I maintain that Holy Scripture as we have received it is what it is because the Holy Spirit has guided its transmission and preservation.

    Tim just because someone has been ordained and lectures in a seminary does not mean they are not a heretic (and at least some of them clearly are) and of course Biblical Scholars don’t even agree with each other, let alone the Church at large.

    I think that what may have been forgotten with continual new translations and revisions to western liturgies along with other novelties is that there is a rhythm to worship, which if broken is noticeable to all who worship regularly.

    Thus is a Scriptural reading in Church is at variance with the past it will jar and be picked up, particularly so in monasteries and presumably be corrected.

    I am going to trust the Scriptures as maintained by the Church over innovations based on bits and pieces culled from scraps of texts which have survived for unknown reasons and the use of which is entirely at the discretion of the scholar who may well have an ax to grind one way or another.

  6. “I know of no manuscript that queries Mark 16:18.”

    I don’t follow your comment here; I understood that many textual critics were uncertain about the originality of the ‘longer ending’ of Mark (Mark 16.9-20); see NRSV ad loc (footnote, p. 52 NT section in my edition). My commentaries on Mark follow this as well.

  7. My Friend: on another note, you have identified an example very important to me in another way. In examining in America, African-American theology, I have long argued the spirituals created and sung by those enslaved were more than just social codes or historic memory. I vigorously contend they were the collective, evolved theology of communties of believers, transmuted and shared in song, since reading and writing were prohibited and punishable offenses.

    I have argued the oral traditions of Africa enhancing the listening skills of those enslaved, and that these listening skills were used to identify nusances of behavior transmitted through the spoken word, allowing the enslaved to adjust, adapt, and survive.

    But most importantly, these listening skills allowed for the sophisticated transmission of Biblical lessons, both by verse and meaning. The spirituals are commentaries on these verses and meanings, encoded for the community to affirm and support their faith.

    One of the most well known spirituals is “Wade in the Water,” whose verse sings, “wade in the water, children; God gonna trouble the water . .” I have long argued that often the verse or experience being sung about is a masked misdirection for the verse or experience which is unsung, not mentioned. That within the oral tradition, those enslaved made the leap from the words of the song to the unspoken, unsung text where the real meaning lay, outside of the ears and insight of the planters.

    Your citation of John 5:4 hits this on the head! No where in the verses of Wade in the Water is it said that thse next to step in the water will be whole and free (a liberal interpretation of illness/sickness/disease), but obviously that what the spiritual points to as it exhorts those “children” (of God), to wade in the water, that God is going to trouble the water; they are not stepping into trouble, by stepping where God has stirred the water (the times; the Red Sea; the Sea of Gailee, et. al.), they by conviction and faith and steadfastness will be free, delivered, even as others hesitate in fear, or tremble in doubt.

    This unspoken correlation is a striking example that supports my insights about the African-American spirituals and the depth of insight those enslaved brought to their sung witness, conceived in song under conditions that did not allow for direct expression of a faith tied to freedom. Not only by escape, but by God’s hands.
    –Walter Rhett

  8. Thank you, Bosco–your post is a good example of why textual criticism matters, and why it’s worth all who study scripture understanding something of the background behind textual and translation issues before trying to discern how God continues to speak to us.
    Another good example of interesting textual issues, one I’m particularly fond of, hinges on a single letter. Does Luke 2.14 say “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (KJV) or “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (NRSV)? The answer hinges on which manuscript(s) one chooses to translate from, and the difference is a single sigma, in the word “eudokias” or “eudokia”–a sigma which changes the case of the word to genitive or not, and the meaning seems quite drastically different.
    The older manuscript families–Alexandrian, Western, and most of the Byzantine texts–favour the option the NRSV uses, as do three of the most trusted codices (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Bezae). Each of these suggests the more limited message of good will we find in the NRSV’s translation. Yet there’s more than a small scattering of examples supporting the version the KJV uses (the Ceasarean family and one example in the Byzantine grouping).
    On the strength of the presence or absence of a single letter, we’re left wondering if good will is being sent to all or if this is a message of good will to some for whom God bears special favour. Did a scribe mishear when taking dictation, and drop the sigma at some point? However the change crept entered some manuscript groupings, it’s a small change in terms of physical content on the page and a large change indeed for how one reads Luke’s gospel and how one comes to understand part of the import of the Incarnation.

  9. Thank you, kind Rector. Two further points: remembering that the American slaves are singing original songs based on one verse which point to other, unsung verses requires keen concentration, a community system for teaching the Bible and its meaning as well as teaching this method uniquely used to communicate in song, and a shared collective memory. The community is a true church. Faithful who share a belief in salvation (the spiritual: “Lay down, body; lay down for a little while . .”) and the power and presence of the spirit (demonstrated by the exhortation to “wade in the water.” (also baptism, Africans loved double entrendres and multiple meanings)).

    This keen attention to Biblical meaning and verse is seen in another spiritual, “Keep your hand on the plow and hold on,” which puts in the positive one of the few negatives Christ cites, that is, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Knowing that Christ is the Head, the spirit turns the verse to the affirmative, adding to its power by telling what must be done to be fit: “hold on.”

    The spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead,” is a powerful piece of textural analysis in the American slave tradition. Referring to Jeremiah 8: 22, “Is there no balm in Gilead,” and God’s admonition to the Egyptian woman that even if she goes to Gilead, in will be in vain, “there is no healing for you” (Jeremiah 22:6). Not a common or popular text, and even less so in the American South of the 1700s and 1800s, during services held for a planter’s slaves. Yet from some strand of attention, from keen focus and a powerful faith, those enslaved come to understand that the wrath of God’s divine justice has come to be tempered in the New Covenant by mercy: “there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole . .”

    Lastly, “merci’trust!” This was the greeting of the Gullah (the name given to the people in the communities of African slaves of South Carolina and Georgia’s sea coast who grew rice for Europe, especially Germany and the Middle East, and as a staple in the West Indies). “Merci’trust!” “I trust in God’s mercies.”

    The answer: “Merci’forgive!”

    “It is through his mercies that He forgives.”

  10. The KJV’s Textus Receptus predates use of Sinaiticus, but ‘eudokias’ is almost certainly the correct reading, and is already reflected in the Vulgate (‘hominibus bonae voluntatis’). ‘eirene en anthropois eudokias’ is a Semitic (even Septuagintal) idiom like much of the Greek in Luke 1-2, which backtranslates readily enough into Hebrew or Aramaic (“anshe rezono”) but may have sounded strange to a Greek scribe unfamiliar with Hebrew objective genitives. I have long believed that the Semitic character of much of Luke 1-2 points to an early Judean provenance, probably from the church in Jerusalem – all the more reason to include the Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis and Benedictus in our worship! That Cranmer knew what he was doing …

    • Thanks Kevin – your suggestion that the Magnificat derives from the church in Jerusalem or the question if it records the words of Mary may be more appropriately addressed in a future post in this series, rather than one on textual criticism. IMO the Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and Benedictus are not in daily worship because of their provenance – these are part of daily prayer in the Benedictine tradition so significant in English spirituality which Cranmer and Anglicanism continued.

      Thanks so much for that link, Peter – that whole blogsite complements this post. I hope by “available electronically” they mean online. It appears to me unusual that they do not distinguish between different versions of the NIV!

  11. Andrei: the historicity of a document doesn’t make it “best”, either. Another factor that comes into play is how “hard” a reading is – say, when a passage supposed to be words of Jesus is being translated, the shortest form or most pithy saying is the most likely to have survived oral tradition before being written.

    These principles stand on their own as logically good. They are not measured by whether they produce the same words as past translations do. I firmly believe they are more likely to produce truth than not.
    The rhythm of worship does not (just, if at all) rely on particular phrases – witness not just bibliolatry but KJV-iatry too. Worship is *fluid*, because ideas are fluid; if it has a rhythm then it can derive that from other aspects in its structure.

  12. `Someone stands up and and addresses a group: “The Bible says,…” and proceeds to quote.’

    They do, often, but I suggest that textual criticism is the least of your worries when they do, actually. Before you get anywhere near the nitty-gritty of whether John 5:4 is original or not, you should really consider whether they are referring to “the bible” as some group of documents in their original forms, or just to the sense of the book in their hands; couple this with the fact that 99% the time I’ve heard that phrase uttered, it’s a gloss for “the way *I* read this…” – personal interpretation, usually biassed, usually devoid of scholarly understanding of surrounding context.

    These days the phrase gives me a gut-reaction of “no it b***** doesn’t!”.

  13. Tim, I found both your comments in the spam filter – I suspect because of the link to your site. I understand the filter “learns” – so I hope that my approving them means that this is not repeated.

    As to your point that textual criticism is the least of our worries, I thought I had made it clear this post is the first in a series. The second in the series is up now. Not to have introduced textual criticism in this series IMO would have been surprising.

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Rev. Bosco Peters

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