Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Trusting the Bible - A Response to John Piper

John Piper
          Earlier this week, the following question was addressed at the Desiring God website/podcast:  “How can I trust the Bible if there have been so many add-ins, such as Mark 16:9–20 and John 7:53–8:11 and First John 5:7–8?”
          John Piper, in his response, not only took for granted that all three of those passages are spurious, but he also linked the validity of his response to the validity of his view that all three passages should be rejected:  “If there is a science that can spot these three texts that he mentioned as not part of the original biblical manuscripts, then that same science, in the same way, can perform the same function for all the other passages. There is the answer.”
          It is not that simple.  When I look at the methods used by some textual critics to present their cases against Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11, I don’t see a lot of detached, disinterested balance in how the evidence is handled.  Instead, authors often mold and manipulate the evidence so as to produce one-sided propaganda, and important evidence for the opposite position never gets mentioned.  As an example, just look in the NET Bible’s notes about John 7:53-8:11 and try to find any mention of the testimony of Jerome and Augustine about that passage.  Look in the ESV Global Study Bible’s note about Mark 16:9-20 and try to find any mention of Irenaeus’ specific quotation of Mark 16:19.  (Irenaeus wrote in the 170’s/180’s, over a century before the production-date of the earliest existing manuscript of Mark 16, so his testimony is extremely important.)   
          But Piper’s answer would still be problematic even if commentators and Bible annotators were not seasoning their evidence-presentations with gallons of bias in favor of the Nestle-Aland compilation.  It is problematic, first, because although one of the basic axioms of textual criticism is that manuscripts should be weighed, rather than merely counted, the first thing that Piper did, in his reply, was to count manuscripts: 
          “Here is the reason we may have strong confidence that the science of textual criticism is successful in discerning the original wording of the manuscripts:  There are over 5,800 Greek manuscripts.”
          If it were merely a matter of favoring textual variants that are supported by over 80% of the manuscripts, then Mark 16:9-20 would be universally accepted (with support from over 99.8% of the Greek manuscripts), and so would John 7:53-8:11 (with support from 85% of the Greek manuscripts).  Clearly, the quantity of manuscript-support is not very important to the textual critics who reject those two passages.  In the Nestle-Aland compilation, two readings are in the text even though they have zero support among Greek manuscripts.

          When the textual critics who made the Nestle-Aland compilation sat down to do their work, they did indeed have access to the readings of thousands of manuscripts to consult and compare.  But they ignored most of them.  Most Greek manuscripts closely agree with one another, and this large collection of manuscripts, displaying the Byzantine Text, has been treated as a very large family that descended from a single ancestor-manuscript, and for that reason, their collective weight is regarded as the weight of that ancestor-manuscript.  This is why, in the apparatus of the UBS Greek New Testament (the text of which is the same as the text in the Nestle-Aland compilation), these hundreds of manuscripts are not listed individually; they are given a single emblem, “Byz.” 
          Meanwhile, the flagship-manuscripts of the Alexandrian Text – Vaticanus and Sinaiticus – are consistently listed individually, along with whatever allies for them can be found.  And with astounding consistency, when a textual contest occurs between a reading attested by a smattering of Alexandrian manuscripts, and a reading attested by over a thousand Byzantine manuscripts, the compilers of the Nestle-Aland text preferred the Alexandrian reading.    
          In other words, the text-critical method that is used by the editors of the compilation that John Piper uses (i.e., the NT base-text of the ESV) does not support his position:  the textual critics do indeed have thousands of manuscripts to consider, but their method routinely operates on the premise that thousands of manuscripts can contain a spurious reading where only a few contain the original text. 
          Daniel Wallace, as John Piper mentioned, has claimed that “New Testament scholars face an embarrassment of riches compared to the data of classical Greek and Latin scholars have to contend with.”  However, when one examines Wallace’s own approach to the text, it becomes obvious that he believes that in some passages – at the end of Mark, and at Mark 1:41, for example – almost every coin in the royal treasury is counterfeit. 
          When the medieval Byzantine manuscripts are treated as descendants of a single early edition of the text, numbers mean nothing, and thus the claim that the New Testament has “1,000 times the manuscript data” as the average Greco-Roman author, while true, is pointless.  The Nestle-Aland compilers favor earlier manuscripts, especially early Alexandrian manuscripts.  Maurice Robinson provides a sobering observation:  “Even if the text-critical evidence is extended through the eighth century, there would be only 424 documents, mostly fragmentary.  In contrast to this meager total, the oft-repeated apologetic appeal to the value and restorative significance of the 5000+ remaining Greek NT MSS becomes an idle boast when those manuscripts are not utilized to restore the original text.” 
          If John Piper used a text that he considered to be historically authenticated by virtue of the massive support of its contents in Greek manuscripts, then he could confidently assure his listeners that there is no likelihood of significant changes in its contents:  the readings that are supported by the overwhelming majority of Greek manuscripts today will be supported by the overwhelming majority of Greek manuscripts until Judgment Day.  However, as Bill Mounce has confirmed, John Piper uses a text that he considers to be critically authenticated through the analyses of the Nestle-Aland compilation-committee (which presently includes David Trobisch, a member of the secularist Center for Inquiry). 
          John Piper should not convey that the Nestle-Aland compilers will never change their minds about significant, translation-impacting textual variants.  Some of the thirty-two changes introduced in the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland compilation have an impact on translation.  (Textual changes in the 28th edition were limited to the General Epistles – the rest of the text is the same as it was in the 27th edition.)  
          The introduction of a conjectural emendation into the text of Second Peter 3:10 reverses the meaning of the sentence.  And consider the contest between ὀλίγως and ὄντως in Second Peter 2:18.  In 1966, ὀλίγως was adopted and the UBS committee gave it a “C” ranking, meaning, according to the UBS Introduction, that “There is considerable degree of doubt whether the text or the apparatus contains the superior reading.”  Metzger’s Textual Commentary, however, stated, “ὄντως is far more likely to be secondary than ὀλίγως.”   By the time the fourth edition of the UBS Greek New Testament was printed, the editors were more confident; the reading ὀλίγως was ranked as an “A” reading – meaning, according to the Introduction of UBS4, “the text is certain.”  But in NA28, that was thrown out the window:  ὄντως appears in the text.   
          The Nestle-Aland compilation (and English translations that depend on it, such as the ESV) is not as stable as John Piper wants it to be.  He wants to assure his listener that the text of the New Testament is not going to drastically change.  Yet he says that 7% of the New Testament’s text is in question – subject to revision in the event of new discoveries or a change in the compilers’ views. 
          John Piper also wants the passages that constitute that unstable 7% to be inconsequential.  This seems about as realistic as saying that if a person has 100 dollars, and knows that 93 dollars are genuine, but he is not sure about the remaining seven dollars, he has nothing to worry about; he is free to claim that he has 100 dollars, and may use every dollar as if it is genuine without hesitation.  
          There are some important textual contests within that 7%.  (By the way, I do not accept the claim that this proportion accurately represents the amount of instability in the New Testament text – but I overlook this detail in the interest of brevity.)  Their outcomes are not likely to erase sentences from the Apostles’ Creed, but they definitely have an impact on how one interprets the passage in which they occur.  Consider:
          ● The first half of Luke 23:34 says, “And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”  John Piper used these words as Scripture in a sermon he preached on January 27, 2002.  (Perhaps he was convinced of their genuineness by “peculiar glory” emanating from them.  More about that in a moment.)  But in NA-27, these words are double-bracketed, just like Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11.  The UBS4 Introduction says that these double-bracketed passages “are known not to be a part of the original text.”  That is not trivial.    
          It is difficult to see how the doctrine of inerrancy would survive if the compilers of the Nestle-Aland/UBS text decided to adopt (as Eberhard Nestle did) the reading of Codex Sinaiticus in Matthew 13:35, since it says that Isaiah is the author of Psalm 78.  It is also difficult to see how the doctrine of inerrancy would survive if the NA/UBS compilers decided to adopt the reading shared by Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (and some other witnesses) in Matthew 27:49. 
          What would happen to the doctrine of the Virgin Birth if compilers decided (as Von Soden did) to adopt the reading in Matthew 1:16 in the Sinaitic Syriac:  “Joseph, to whom was betrothed Mary the virgin, begot Jesus who is called the Christ”?  
          In Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29, does it have no impact whether or not Jesus said that a particular kind of demon will not be exorcised except by prayer and fasting? 
          ● In Mark 7:19, does Jesus refer to a bodily function, or does Mark comment that Jesus thus declared all meats kosher? 
          ● Does it make no difference to interpreters whether Mark 1:1 does (as in the ESV, and in almost all manuscripts) or does not (as in the TNIV, and a smattering of manuscripts) include the words, “the Son of God”? 
          ● Does it have no theological impact whether Acts 20:28 refers to “The church of God, which he bought with his own blood,” or to “The church of the Lord, which he bought with his own blood,” or to “The church of the Lord and God, which he bought with his own blood”? 
          ● Is it likely that the same message will be preached from the opening verses of the Epistle of Jude regardless of whether the fifth verse refers to “The Lord” (Κυριος) or “Jesus” (Ιησους) or “God Christ” (Θεος Χριστός)?   
          In the angelic proclamation in Luke 2:14, did the angels say, “And on earth peace; goodwill toward men,” as the vast majority of manuscripts (and the KJV, NKJV, and MEV) say, or “And on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (as the ESV says, allied with the Alexandrian text)?  On December 24, 2011, John Piper preached from this passage and stated that the KJV’s rendering “was not an accurate translation.”  However, this difference between the KJV and the ESV is not a matter of translation; it is a textual difference – the difference between εὐδοκία and εὐδοκίας.  The theological nuance of the sentence pivots upon this small difference.

          It is not my intention here to tour all the textual contests that affect interpretation.  I merely mention these few as evidence that any promise that the scientific evidence demands confidence that the text of the New Testament will not ever materially change is poorly grounded as long as the text under discussion allows a few manuscripts to outweigh all the rest.  The product of the text-critical methodology that has yielded 28 editions of Novum Testamentum Graece is, and will always be, inherently non-definitive.  
          That approach does not preclude that in the event of the discovery of several very early manuscripts, the text of the New Testament could change, as we saw the text of Novum Testamentum Graece change significantly in Luke 24 after Papyrus 75 was discovered.  The same methodology that presently assigns overwhelming weight to Codex Vaticanus and its Alexandrian allies is likely to assign overwhelming weight to newly discovered early manuscripts.  Thus there is no scientific reason to absolutely preclude significant textual shifts.
          How, then, can one confidently maintain that the compilation that one can hold in one’s hands contains nothing but the original text?  Piper’s solution:  ask if you see “the peculiar glory of God shining through those words and confirming to your own mind and heart that these are the very words of God.”  That is a spectacularly bad idea.  
          Such a misapplication of Second Corinthians 4:6 renders textual criticism superfluous and replaces it with subjective contemplation.  Many Bible-readers see the glory of God shining through the words, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to all creation.”  Many Bible-readers see the glory of God shining through the words, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”  Advocates of the KJV claim to see the glory of God shining through the Comma Johanneum.  Mormons claim to see the glory of God in their Book of Mormon, and Roman Catholics claim to see the glory of God in the book of Tobit, and so forth.  I don’t think we really want to make subjectivism the crucial factor in textual contests.

          But how else can one answer the listener’s question, as long as one agrees with the methodology of the compilers of the NA/UBS text?  How can one believe that the NA/UBS text, in its present condition, is the Word of God, considering that in the future, its compilers might reject many of its present readings?  It’s a question which I leave to advocates of the NA/UBS compilation to answer. 
          In the meantime, I close with an observation and a suggestion.  First:  scientifically speaking, the Byzantine Text does not have the instability problem that the Nestle-Aland text has.  Even at points where the Byzantine Text is unstable – where there is no clear-cut majority reading – the options are limited to known variants with significant manuscript support.  Meanwhile the Nestle-Aland compilation is susceptible to the introduction of readings which are presently unknown in Greek manuscripts.  (Of course one could argue that this aspect of the Nestle-Aland text is not a bad thing – if a large second-century papyrus manuscript of the Gospels were discovered tomorrow, wouldn’t you want the compilers to pay attention to it?)      
The Byzantine Text
          Second:  theologically speaking, I suggest that most Christians, instead of insisting on confidently possessing the exact form of the text of the autographs, should be content to possess the message that was conveyed by the original text.  (This is how almost everyone, except Greek-readers, encounters the New Testament’s message.  It was even the attitude of copyists of New Testament manuscripts; they routinely used abbreviations and contractions, thus altering the text’s form but not its message.) 
          And while the Byzantine Text does not constitute the exact form of the original text, the advocates of the Nestle-Aland compilation relentlessly insist that the textual differences between the Byzantine Text and the Nestle-Aland text do not affect the general message.  Everyone thus seems to agree that the message conveyed by the Byzantine Text is the definitive message of the original text, even if the form of the words conveying that message is not always the original form.  So, in response to the listener’s initial question, I would say that it does not require very much faith to confidently believe that no future discoveries, and no valid methodology, will ever introduce material into compilations of the New Testament text that conveys a significantly different message than what is conveyed by the Byzantine Text. 


Dempy said...

In Mark 7:19, the difference between the Nestle-Aland text and the others is not a manuscript difference but a punctuation difference in that edition.

James Snapp said...

Please consult the UBS apparatus: KaqarizWn versus KatharizOn.

Hugh McCann said...

James, shouldn't the link to Piper be:


James Snapp said...

Hugh McCann,
That is where the embedded link goes to when one clicks "Desiring God" in the post.

Peter Gurry said...

James, I had similar questions when I first saw this Q&A. But I think you've misread Piper. Scripture's "peculiar glory" is a separate question for him from the question of whether we have the original text. As the final paragraph says:

"So, the real question becomes, then — and here is where I would leave us — the real question becomes not, Do we have the original words of the biblical authors? Virtually all of us agree that we do with the variance that we are not sure about affecting no manner of doctrine or ethics. The question now is: Do you see the peculiar glory of God shining through those words and confirming to your own mind and heart that these are the very words of God? That is the crucial question."

In other words, once TC confirms that we have a credible-enough text from the human authors, then we still need to ask whether we think that text has any "peculiar glory" that shows that text to be divine. It's a two-step process, not one. I get that you don't like the gait in his first step, but that doesn't affect how he takes the second.