Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Matt 24 watch, 86: BBC Dan Brown-ises a news item on the digitalisation of Codex Sinaiticus

On October 6, 2008, under the banner BBC News, Roger Bolton published an article on the recent digitalisation of the well-known Codex Sinaiticus; which was discovered in 1844 by Tischendorf in a pile of old manuscripts in St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai -- intended to be fuel for heating cold rooms!

A minor item, hardly worth noticing, you would say.

Until you read the sensationalistic headline: "The rival to the Bible."

For, a la Dan Brown et al on steroids, the article -- duly presented as "news" -- asserts:

For those who believe the Bible is the inerrant, unaltered word of God, there will be some very uncomfortable questions to answer. It shows there have been thousands of alterations to today's bible.

The Codex, probably the oldest Bible we have, also has books which are missing from the Authorised Version that most Christians are familiar with today - and it does not have crucial verses relating to the Resurrection . . . . the Codex contains two extra books in the New Testament.

One is the little-known Shepherd of Hermas, written in Rome in the 2nd Century - the other, the Epistle of Barnabas. This goes out of its way to claim that it was the Jews, not the Romans, who killed Jesus, and is full of anti-Semitic kindling ready to be lit. "His blood be upon us," Barnabas has the Jews cry . . . . Had this remained in subsequent versions, "the suffering of Jews in the subsequent centuries would, if possible, have been even worse", says the distinguished New Testament scholar Professor Bart Ehrman.

And although many of the other alterations and differences are minor, these may take some explaining for those who believe every word comes from God . . . .

The Bible we now use can't be the inerrant word of God, he says, since what we have are the sometimes mistaken words copied by fallible scribes.

"When people ask me if the Bible is the word of God I answer 'which Bible?'". . .

Unsurprisingly, Islamic advocates swiftly pounced on such a convenient item, e.g. one forum has a contributor boldly declaring (based on Q 9:29 - 35 etc):

This only enhances what Muslims around the world have been arguing for centuries. I would hope, in a perfect world, that our christian friends will open there minds to the truth and reject the falsehood that has hijacked the teachings of Jesus(Peace be upon him). Sadly many will just ignore these facts that continue to open, crushing falsehood but muslims will not cease to argue and spread the truth of islam regardless. The Proof is there, The bible has many alterations/versions and the true teachings of Jesus(Peace be upon him) are lost and can only be found in islam.

A little "deconstruction" is plainly in order, as the item is highly revealing on not only current trends in radical Bible criticism (and on how Islamic advocates often pounce on such works to advance their own agenda), but also on what is happening to the former gold standard of world news, the BBC:

1--> That the only Bible scholar of consequence consulted and cited in details is a well-known radical skeptic, agnostic and former Evangelical should immediately warn us that this news item is anything but:
a well-informed, easily readable report on a noticeable and significant current event; presented in an accurate, fair, balanced, factually based fashion; and, with enough background context to give the viewer a basis to make up his or her own mind.
2 --> For instance, the article starts by setting up a strawman distortion of the informed conservative position on inerrancy: "those who believe the Bible is the inerrant, unaltered word of God." But, this is sharply divergent from the actual long since publicly declared position taken by, say, Article X of the Chicago statement on inerrancy:

WE AFFIRM that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

WE DENY that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.

3 --> Now, from the very first Greek New Testament copies a seminary student will use in Greek 101, theologians are all familiar with the textual critical apparatus resting on the study of 5,000 manuscripts. So, the actual Chicago statement makes a clear distinction between the original letters and books, and the state of particular copies that have been handed down or have survived across the ages. Those careful remarks are unfortunately not reflected in the caricature set up by the article (and evidently by its source, Mr Ehrman).

4 -->
Reflecting 2 Peter 1:20 - 21 -- "Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" -- the Chicago statement therefore:
(a) affirms God's inspiration of the Apostles and closely associated apostolic men [such as Mark, or Luke] involved in writing the documents in the New Testament (which would thus reflect God's perfection of knowledge, goodness and character),

(b) noting also that such inspiration clearly primarily relates to the autographs. And,

to address the actual copies we can access -- manuscripts, translations and versions -- the statement then adds that God has made adequate provision that the Bibles (providing they are responsible translations) we have in hand adequately reflect the actual original text; sufficiently so that we can use such versions and copies with high confidence.

(d) So, it concludes that this overall result holds, even though of course any one copy or manuscript -- including Codex Sinaiticus --may have in it various textual critical problems (by far and away, mostly mis-spellings, duplicated or omitted words and the like).

[NB: For more detailed background, cf Enc. of NT Textual Criticism here, Theopedia on the general issues of Bible criticism here, the personal perspective by a recently educated Singaporean Evangelical theologian here, the survey and summary here, and Arlandson's remarks here. Also, for useful survey discussions on the technical, theological and philosophical issues raised by Mr Ehrman, cf the blog exchange with N T Wright here, and the Mark D Roberts essay series on inspiration of the text and textual criticism here. Ben Witherington -- who also studied under Bruce Metzger -- has a very useful short and sharp summary here.]

5 --> When we turn to the Old Testament, we may at once gain perspective and balance by following John Wenham's example: pointing to the example of Jesus (whose position as Prophet and Son of God was confirmed to us by his resurrection from the dead with 500+ eyewitnesses [cf Habermas and Licona's The Case for the Resurrection]).

6 --> For, we may easily see that -- simply taking the NT texts (especially the gospels) as "reasonable" classical era historical sources -- Jesus confidently used the manuscripts of his day as the Word of God. Indeed, in Jn 10:35, we see him addressing a theological challenge, and succinctly stating as a premise: " . . .
the Scripture cannot be broken . . ."

7 --> In the C1, the Old Testament, Hebrew Scriptures had been handed down over the generations and centuries since Moses and the Prophets [NB: cf. here, here, here, here, here and here for a "101" on historical and archaeological credibility despite many other current media, Internet and academic critic attacks], and had similar variants as are currently noted for the NT; with a significant variation in the case of the texts handed down and in use by the Samaritans, a half-Jewish, somewhat schismatic group living in Samaria.

8 --> Cutting to the chase: notwithstanding such minor concerns, Jesus was supremely confident in the Bible of his day as the Word of God, and confirmed its authenticity by fulfilling its prophecies, including those of Isaiah 53 (which foresaw a Messiah who would bear our sins, carry our sorrows, provide healing for us though his stripes, make his soul an offering for our sins, and then prolong his days and see the light of life; having plainly risen from the dead).

9 --> This attitude apparently includes the Septuagint [the "King James Version" translation of that day], as the Apostles he sent out
freely made use of this famous -- and famously loose! -- Greek translation as the Word of God. (E.g., something like 2/3rds of the 300 OT cites in the NT are based on the Septuagint.)

10 --> Indeed, the general apostolic attitude to the 'in-hand" Bible of the C1 can be summed up in Paul's counsel to Timothy in 2 Tim 3:14 - 17:
2 Tim 3: 14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work
11 --> When it comes to the emerging documents that would form our New Testament, we hear Peter saying, in counsel and warning to his readers shortly before his martyrdom c. 65 AD:
2 Peter 1: 16We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."[a] 18We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. 19And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. 21For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit . . . .

3: 13But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. 14So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 15Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. 17Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. 18But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.
12 --> Let us note how Peter speaks of the OT: "men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." Similarly, he describes the Gospel tradition recorded in our four canonical Gospels: "We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty." And, in describing Paul's epistles, he observes and warns that: "[they] contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction."

13 --> This attitude, plainly, sharply contrasts with that of Dr Ehrman and others of his ilk. Now, further to this, and as James Arlandson summarises in his critical review of Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman argues as follows:
(1) If God inspires his original words in the New Testament, then he should miraculously preserve those original words.
(2) If God miraculously preserves his original words, then we should have them now.
(3) But we do not have those original words now (for they were changed by scribes, not miraculously preserved).
(4) Therefore, God did not inspire any original words in the New Testament.


(i) As the Chicago statement highlights, this sets up a convenient strawman: what is practically required is that the substantial matter be accurately communicated, not the miraculous preservation of all copies from copyist errors etc (not to mention willful distortions by the likes of a Marcion etc) in all cases across 2,000 years.

(ii) As a matter of the fact of having carefully investigated 5,000 Greek manuscripts and others amounting to 24,000 altogether, we have high confidence that the substantial text has been preserved. (As the Chicago statement notes.)

(iii) In particular, there has been no manipulation of central doctrinal claims or creedal; statements such as Acts 17:16 - 34, Rom 1:1 - 5, 1 Cor 15:1 - 11 , Heb 1:1 - 14, or Phil 2:5 - 11 etc.

(iv) In addition, we have well founded confidence that -- as the Christian faith spread in a more or less unorganised way across threee continents -- it is plain that no central authority was able to recall and willfully modify all texts. (NB: Such recall and modification seems to have been attempted with the Quran, which was standardised on Hafsa's copy; through Caliph Uthman's orders. Even so, divergent manuscripts were preserved down to the current times; and the historical record preserves the protest against the attempt.)

(v) Thus, there is no pattern of overall willful alteration and distortion of the text of the key NT canonical documents and/or of the core faith commitments they teach. (As for the OT, the current Protestant OT is a somewhat differently arranged version of the Hebrew Scriptures.) We can thus identify a central, common-core C1 rooted Christian Faith "once for all delivered to the saints" as Jude 3 describes; rather than Mr Ehrman's claimed competing cluster of irreconcilably conflicting "Christianities."

(vi) In the case of 1 Cor 15:1 - 11, that core gospel teaching traces to the mid 30's AD, and to the circle of 500+ core witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, especially the 20+ member identified inner circle of the Apostles and close associates:
1 Cor 15:1Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importancea: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
(vii) So, Mr Ehrman's attempts to knock over the strawman he set up notwithstanding, once we see the implications of the resurrection of Jesus, in light of the prophecies that pointed to such a suffering, dying and rising messiah, we have every good reason for confidence that the NT preserves the counsels of God to us.
14 --> By further contrast to the teachings of such modernist skeptics, it is helpful to note that Paul Barnett reports in his Is the New Testament History? how the very first circle of church fathers whose writings [AD 95 - 115] survive -- Clement of Rome, Ignatius and Polycarp -- cite or allude to 25 of 27 of our canonical NT writings as scripture ( they happened not to mention two of the shortest, Jude and 2 John).

15 --> That is, right from the time of those who were the disciples and immediate successors of the Apostles, the main body of NT documents were already accepted by the living church as God-inspired, authoritative and authentic scripture. And since then, these works have continued to be read, accepted as scripture and cited as the Word of God from generation to generation, right up to the invention of printing (which allowed each of us to hold a copy of these precious documents in our own hands).

16 --> In addition, the immediate successors to the apostles, speaking in their own voice, taught as follows:
(i) Clement, 95: Let us fear the Lord Jesus (Christ), whose blood was given for us. The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent from God. He made the Lord Jesus Christ the firstfruit, when He raised Him from the dead.

(ii) Ignatius, 110 – 115: Be ye deaf therefore, when any man speaketh to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was born of the race of David, who was the Son of Mary, who was truly born and ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven and those on earth and those under the earth; who moreover was truly raised from the dead, His Father having raised Him . . .

(iii) Polycarp, 110+: . . Jesus Christ who took our sins in His own body upon the tree, who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth, but for our sakes He endured all things, that we might live in Him . . . . For they loved not the present world, but Him that died for our sakes and was raised by God for us . . . . who shall believe on our Lord and God Jesus Christ and on His Father that raised Him from the dead.
17 --> We may thus easily see from these excerpts just how Scripture-saturated their thoughts and teachings were.

18 --> Now, Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas, are similarly Scripture-saturated familiar works of Christian antiquity. But, while they were viewed by some Christians as worthy of inclusion with -- or at least being appended to -- the corpus of recognised Scriptures (alongside, e.g. Didache), it was in the end concluded that they were not provably apostolic (and sometimes had questionable materials that were arguably inconsistent with the tone and/or teachings of the known apostolic works), and so on the "if in doubt leave it out" principle were not accepted as a part of the foundational canon.

19 --> It is easy, of course, to play the antisemitic card in order to poison the atmosphere for discussion; e.g by citing how Barnabas, echoes the rent- a- crowd in Matt 27:25: All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!" But in fact it should be noted that the NT writers were -- apart from Luke -- Jews. However, on a fairer reading, the recorded NT debates were over the attitude and conduct of the Judaean leadership and their supporters [quite parallel to the many strong denunciations of earlier generations of leadership of Israel in the OT!], not over hostility to Jewishness as such. (NB: Jesus' base of strongest support was in Galilee, dozens of miles to the north. This probably best explains the contrast between the welcoming crowd of pilgrims to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the destructive crowd on Good Friday morning.)

20 --> Indeed, Paul is shockingly vehement on the issue of respect, love for and support of Jews in general:
Rom 9:2I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4the people of Israel . . . .

11: 17If some of the branches [of God's Olive Tree of blessing] have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19You will say then, "Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in." 20Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. 21For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
21 --> Somehow, those who are ever so eager to brand the foundational Christian Faith with the scarlet letter of antisemitism never seem to cite these passages, which just happen to also be pretty explicit on the dangers of apostasy! (Yes, Christians over the ages -- Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant -- have said and done horrible things to Jews, but in light of the just above, the NT can hardly be fairly blamed for such sinful misbehaviour that it goes to great lengths to warn against.)


In short, Mr Bolton has inappropriately sensationalised the significance of the Codex Sinaiticus, and in so doing has failed to consult and give us the counsel of informed experts on both sides of the questions.

Had he done so, a very different picture would have emerged.

That is bad enough, but it is compounded by the emerging pattern that reveals the flawed editorial policy of the BBC in our day: such gross errors and bias SHOULD have been caught at the first step of editorial cross-checking. (After all, Bishop N T Wright of Durham, England, is probably the leading conservative theologian today!)

That it was not, and the fact that a follow up inquiry by this blogger to the head of the relevant Editorial Committee in the BBC, has been unanswered for coming on a fortnight now, speaks volumes about this once gold standard media house. (I treated this issue as a follow up to an earlier complaint on an entertainment programme -- the July 8, 2008 episode of The Bonekickers -- that grossly slandered evangelical Christians as potentially violent, racist terrorists.)

All of which is ever so sad.

Let us hope that BBC will wake up and do better in future reports. END


UPDATE, Aug 5 - 7:
Additional information and links; due to the significance of the topic.

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