Until 1947, the earliest Hebrew manuscripts available to serve as the basis for Old Testament study and translation were the Massoretic Texts of eastern European Jews. These texts of the Hebrew Scriptures date from around 900 AD. The translators of the Authorized Version (King James Version) used these texts as the basis for their Old Testament translation.
Besides the Massoretic texts, the Christian Church had always used the Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic Old Testament made around 200 BC. The Septuagint was used to compare with Hebrew Massoretic Texts to check meaning and accuracy. In the 1800 and 1900s other early Old Testament documents were discovered, adding more textual information.
Add to all of this, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran) in 1947, and the huge impact made on biblical scholarship by these very ancient documents. The Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls of Qumran date from the 200s BC to the 100s AD and include every book of the Old Testament except Esther, as well as other kinds of writings. These have been compared with the Massoretic Texts, the Septuagint and other manuscripts to discover how much the text of the Hebrew scriptures may have changed over time as manuscripts were copied.
The result was the amazing fact that little or no significant variation occurred in more than 1,000 years of copying from 200 BC to 900 AD. The only major differences in the texts were the Massoretic invention of Hebrew vowel points as a refinement over the mainly consonantal biblical Hebrew.
So, the tradition that Jewish scribes used extreme care in copying the scriptures proved to be correct and those who study and live by the Old Testament can do so with confidence.
The philosophical movements of the Enlightenment (roughly the 1700s) were a fundamental questioning of the certainties of the Middle Ages and a reaction to the clashes over truth during the Protestant Reformation. Traditional views in religion and culture came under severe inquiry and even open attack. For example, Rene Descartes questioned everything, except his own existence, then built the philosophy of Rationalism from one presupposition. “I think, therefore I am.”
Enlightenment thinkers reasoned that unless something made rational sense (rationalism) or can be tested and proved to the senses (empiricism), it should not be accepted. The Cosmos was seen as merely “the product of cause and effect in a closed system.” Enlightenment thinking obviously had a dramatic impact on religion, excluding the supernatural as a factor in real human experience. Religious dogma and doctrine were often questioned and discarded, not only by those of marginal religious commitment, but by some in both Christianity and Judaism.
In the early 1800s the philosophy of George Hegel took the next logical step. Hegel asked some basic questions: If the supernatural is not a factor in the routine workings of the Cosmos, how did things arrive in their present state? Are things moving in the direction of progress? If so, what mechanism causes things to progress?
Hegel’s answer was his dialectic process, which stated that the Cosmos is a closed system of cause and effect, driven by the conflict of thesis with antithesis (opposite forces, ideas, etc.). The interaction of these forces produces a blending of the two, which Hegel called synthesis. This process was thought of as a manifestation of Absolute Mind, which was thought to be the source of reality (similar to Brahman of Hinduism). Hegel’s basic philosophy quickly became the dominant theory in Western intellectual and academic circles. Variations of the Hegelian Dialectic were adapted to other disciplines, such as:
- Politics, in which Karl Marx preached the Communist theory of history and social change (1848).
- Biology, in which Charles Darwin posed the theory of Evolution as the explanation of life in its diversity (1858).
- The study of the Bible as a document in the Higher Critical Movement (beginning in the late 1700s).
Higher Criticism. The Higher Critics were led by German scholars such as K.H. Graf and Julius Wellhausen, who studied the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) using a theory called the Documentary Hypothesis, which was based on Hegel’s basic theory of progress and development. The premise of the Documentary Hypothesis was that the Pentateuch couldn’t possibly have been written in the form in which we now know it. The documents must have “evolved” over time into their present form, through a process similar to Hegel’s Dialectic, from primitive religious ideas and practices, ancient oral stories and legends and early written fragments of questionable historical value.
These diverse sources were then woven together over time by various editors, who blended and changed them into distinct religious documentary traditions (Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly) within Israelite tribal groups. Finally, these four documents were further edited and combined into the current form of the Pentateuch. The Documentary Hypothesis opened the door to other Critical approaches to studying and understanding the biblical documents of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
The basic flaw of the whole Critical approach is in making certain arbitrary assumptions:
1. History and religion should be understood as fundamentally naturalistic. True to its Enlightenment roots, the Critical view explains reality in purely naturalistic terms, dismissing the possibility of the supernatural. Miraculous accounts in the Bible are seen as embellishments made to gain credibility and power by certain groups and individuals, or merely legends perpetuated by simple tribal people.
2. Critical methodology is assumed to always be superior to other approaches. Wellhausen and other early critics took almost no notice of archaeological discoveries in their day, which sometimes disproved their assertions. Since then, the basic gist of Higher Criticism has never been revised despite a wealth of new information and findings, many of which have tended to support the accuracy of the biblical accounts.
3. The ancient Israelite peoples were ignorant nomads. For instance, the early Critics asserted that writing was extremely rare in ancient times and unknown to ancient Israelites. Yet ancient writing and documents are routinely uncovered by archaeologists. Egypt, Sumer, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Meso-America all had writing early in their histories. However it was expedient for the Critics to take the position that ancient Hebrews had little or no access to writing so that they could argue that, if figures like Moses and the other greats of the Scriptures existed at all, they couldn’t possibly have written a document of the stature of the Bible.
4. The Patriarchs are essentially legendary figures. Critics see Abraham, Jacob, Moses and the others as folk heroes, developed by people who needed to see their founding fathers as larger-than-life. Critics believe that the biblical stories of the Patriarchs actually tell us nothing about the Patriarchs themselves (including whether they actually existed). All that can be learned from the biblical accounts is what the times may have been like when the stories were first told, and what the composers of those stories thought life may have been like in earlier times.
Traditionalist Reactions to Higher Criticism. Traditionalists were initially caught unprepared by the critical onslaught of the late 1800s. At first, those loyal to the inspiration of scripture simply responded with vehement opposition to Critical views and denouncements of these new theories. This initial emotional reaction was followed in the mid and late Twentieth Century by more thoughtful scholarship, factual defense of the Bible and interaction with the views of critically-oriented academia.
Jewish Reaction. The more conservative groups within Judaism either defended the divine origins of scripture or took the approach that the origins of Scripture were irrelevant because the traditions have become a time-tested glue holding Jews together. The more liberal elements of Judaism have been influenced to large degree by Critical thought. Hence, they are freer to redefine traditional observance of the Law and accomodate the society around them.
Roman Catholic / Eastern Orthodox Reactions. The Vatican and the various Eastern Orthodox bodies have maintained their longstanding positions on the divine inspiration of scripture, though there is much internal debate on unofficial levels. The issue has not been quite as major among Roman Catholics or Orthodox as for Protestants, because both of these groups have other sources of divine authority besides the Bible. For example, both groups also accept the decisions of various ecumenical church councils on a par with the teachings of the Bible. Roman Catholics further accept the pronouncements of popes as binding.
Protestants. Protestant Christianity has been deeply divided on the issues raised by Higher Criticism.
Fundamentalist groups have flatly denied the arguments of the Critics, refusing to become involved in academic debate and becoming increasingly isolated culturally.
Evangelicals have been more willing to dialog with the larger culture. They have attempted to defend scriptural inspiration and reliability based on the disciplines of textual criticism and manuscript study. Since the mid Twentieth Century, Evangelicals have entered the debate over the reliability of scripture with growing confidence. However, the ascendancy of postmodern thought in the years just prior to the dawn of the Twenty-first Century has changed the focus of the debate away from the factually-based defense which Evangelicals have labored so hard to assemble.
Modernists have attempted to accommodate Christian faith and doctrine to the viewpoints of academia and of the larger society. In doing so, they have become culturally mainstream, but have tended to lose some of their Christian distinctiveness. This trend is attested to by their dramatic losses in church membership, as people have either ceased to think of themselves as particularly Christian, or have migrated to churches which emphasize distinctive Christian teachings.
The increasing influence of Postmodernism is moving all of the parties in this controversy toward a larger debate over the nature of reality itself. It will be interesting to see how each of them.
From time to time talk shows, articles in popular magazines, blogs and columns in newspapers feature the subject of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. These types of things often cite experts who claim that the evidence of history denies that Jesus’ resurrection took place. Using various arguments the culture and history of the times, they argue that Jesus of Nazareth (if he even existed) stayed dead after the crucifixion and that his remains lie in some obscure tomb somewhere in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
While some may dismiss this assertion as merely one point of view in a scholarly debate, actually issues of enormous weight are highlighted by the interaction over the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. For one thing, on the answer to this question hangs the entire Christian faith. If it is true as these scholars claim that Jesus Christ never rose from the dead, then the central tenets of Christianity are proven to be nothing more than wishful thinking. The teachings of Jesus, cherished for a couple of thousand years, are outdated and idealistic, and the hopes of millions of believers are misplaced for personal resurrection when Jesus returns.
Other religions can survive the deaths of their founders. Buddhism admits that the Buddha is dead and gone without being threatened in the least because it is built around the man’s teachings, not the man himself. Muslims are not disturbed that Muhammad died in 632 AD because it is the legacy of the prophet which is important, not the man.
When it comes to Christianity, however, everything stands or falls upon the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. His physical resurrection from the dead has always been the prime verification of that central doctrine. Therefore, no resurrection means no Christianity. It’s that simple. Yet if the resurrection is a fact of history, then the reverse is also true: all Jesus’ claims are shown to be true as well, leaving the world to deal with him, not merely as a teacher, but as God become man.
The Church’s proclamation that Jesus is Lord, and that people must humbly submit it his lordship in their lives, is a very logical conclusion if his resurrection is factual. Perhaps that explains why for twenty centuries some have earnestly attempted to explain away the very strong evidence for the resurrection. Consider the powerful facts which the early church presented to substantiate their announcement that Jesus is alive:
First is the evidence of the women. According to the gospel accounts, a group of women who had been followers of Jesus had observed his hasty burial on Friday afternoon. Early on Sunday morning, after the Sabbath was over, they went to the tomb to finish preparing the body for final burial. As they walked to the tomb, they seemed to have no inkling that their beloved rabbi would rise form the dead. Upon arrival they found the stone, which had sealed the tomb and which weighed several tons, cast aside from the entrance. The guard placed there under Roman orders was in shock and the tomb itself was empty. Mary and the others were completely bewildered by what they encountered and could only conclude that perhaps someone had removed Jesus’ body without telling them. They then encountered angels who told them Jesus was risen. They were told to inform the disciples of this fact. On their way to do so, these women were the first to actually see and touch the risen Christ.
The evidence of the disciples confirms that of the women. They did not have a clue to the resurrection either. So when this news was relayed to them, they dismissed it in the very same way many critics of the resurrection dismiss it today: as hysteria. Peter and John decided to see the situation at the tomb and so they ran the short distance to investigate. Like the women, they saw the stone removed, the Roman guard dispersed and tomb empty. Peter actually went inside and found the linen bands which the body had been wrapped in still in place and glued with the spices—but empty of the body. This still did not convince these men that Jesus was alive. It was not until later that Jesus appeared to them and demonstrated the reality of his physical life by eating food and allowing them to touch him.
How about the evidence of the soldiers who had guarded the tomb against the eventuality that Jesus’ followers might fake a resurrection by stealing the body? They left the tomb unguarded after less than 36 hours and reported to the Sanhedrin (the Jewish leadership council) that there had been an earthquake and that the tomb was open and empty. According to the gospel accounts, these men were bribed by the Sanhedrin to spread the story that the disciples had succeeded in stealing the body.
Though it has been popular among critics of the gospel accounts, this story falls apart under examination. It simply boggles the mind that the disciples, who were clearly terrified for their own lives, could overcome a detachment of experienced soldiers, enter a sealed tomb, remove the body—carefully re-wrapping the burial cloths and leaving them in place. They were then able to successfully conceal the body elsewhere without anyone getting injured or killed in the process—- and all this so that they could fake a resurrection they didn’t believe in! Yet the story of the theft of Jesus’ body was evidently the best explanation that could be invented on the spur of the moment. The enemies of Jesus could not deny that the tomb in question was where Jesus had been buried or that it was now empty.
Consider this as well: the early church preached the resurrection of Jesus in the weeks and years following these events in the very place where they occurred. There were many people still alive who testified to having actually seen and touched the risen Jesus. The empty tomb was a matter of public knowledge. It could be verified by anyone who wished to do so. If the body had been removed and hidden, surely someone would have observed it. The soldiers or other eyewitnesses could have tipped off the opponents of the gospel to the hiding place and the body could have been produced as evidence against the rumor of the resurrection. No body was ever found, which is hard to imagine given the very public and sensational nature of these events. Unless of course —the resurrection really happened. Tens of thousands living around Jerusalem in the years following these events rendered their verdict by believing in Jesus and paying the high price of that belief.
Finally, for those who still harbor doubts, consider the evidence of subsequent history. What is the explanation for the millions of people whose lives have been changed by the power of a risen Christ? Wishful thinking? Pure indoctrination? How about the cheerful martyrdom of the very men and women who supposedly faked a resurrection they knew never happened or the almost inconceivable survival and spread of the early church under extreme persecution?
It would seem, then, that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is extremely compelling. In view of such strong evidence, the sarcasm and ridicule of certain skeptics today is a small price for us to pay to side with the truth.
The traditional claim of the Christian Church is that the Bible represents the Word of God handed down through the centuries by God’s people. Judaism has, likewise, regarded that portion known to Christians as the Old Testament as having divine authority. Of course there is much more to Judeo-Christianity’s understanding of the nature of the Bible than this, but for the purposes of this article we will begin by assuming the truth of these simple statements.
Flowing from the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of God in the writing of Holy Scripture is the question of the historical transmission of those documents. In other words, can we trust the copying process? Confidence in the Bible depends to a large degree on our confidence that the documents scholars use for modern Bible translations are faithful to the original writings. As far as anyone knows, none of the original manuscripts of the Bible written by the actual authors are still in existence. This fact leads to the very legitimate question of whether what we read in the Bible is really what was written down by Moses or Isaiah or Paul.
Because of the lack of proven original material, scholars must therefore rely on a comparison and analysis of manuscript copies to reconstruct the contents of the original text of the Bible. Scholars trained in the discipline of manuscript study study the various ancient copies available in order to sift out the small percentage of variant texts and synthesize the original content of the source document penned by the original writer. Without going into detail, the cumulative effect of decades of this study has yielded a very high degree of confidence in the texts of both the Old and New Testaments.
The manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Scriptures is quite strong (as already mentioned, Christians refer to this body of material as the Old Testament). While it might seem obvious that most of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures were written in the Hebrew language, a few of the later portions are in a related language called Aramaic. This material of the Hebrew scriptures was probably composed sometime between 1400 and 400 BC by several dozen different authors, including Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon, Ezra, and others.
Until 1949, the best and earliest manuscripts for the Hebrew Scriptures were known as the Masoretic Texts. These documents were copies of a chain of earlier manuscripts (now lost) made by Eastern European Jews between AD 800 and 1000. These texts had been the main source for the material used by both Jews and Christians for the Hebrew portions of the Bible. From the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment until the mid Twentieth Century, many critics of the biblical text argued that the accuracy of these fairly late manuscripts is likely to be very poor because of the long time-span (at least 1,300 years) from originals through a series of copies to the Masoretic Texts.
However, in 1947, through what some would call the providence of God, the textual integrity of the Hebrew Scriptures was overwhelmingly confirmed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This large collection of miscellaneous scrolls, some of which date from as early as 200 BC, included very ancient copies of each of the book of Hebrew scripture, except for Esther. The scrolls were found carefully preserved in desert caves in the Qumran area of the Dead Sea. What scholars have discovered in studying these manuscripts is that, apart from a few very minor discrepancies, there had been virtually no change in the text of the Scripture in well over 1,000 years. Almost overnight, the argument that the manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Scriptures was doubtful suddenly became much less convincing.
In addition to the Hebrew manuscript copies, there is also an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made around 200 BC known as the Septuagint. A study of this translation in comparison with the Hebrew text further confirms the it manuscript integrity. So, based upon the evidence of the meticulous care with which the Jews copied their scriptures, as well as the insight provided by the Septuagint, we can have confidence that the material of the Hebrew Scriptures has a high degree of accuracy.
When it comes to the New Testament portion of the Bible, the evidence is even better. The books of the New Testament were written in Koine Greek (a kind of trade Greek) between AD 45 and 100, with the very earliest still existing manuscript portions dating from just after AD 100.
For example, there is a fragment of chapter 18 of the Gospel of John, which dates from around AD 110. Since the Gospel of John was likely written around AD 95, that puts the time from original to the earliest known copy at about 25 years. An even earlier manuscript portion, known as the Chester Beatty Papyrus, dates from the years just after AD 100. Since Paul probably wrote this portion some time during the years 55-65, this puts the time lapse from original to copy at less than 50 years. These examples illustrate the amazingly high quality of New Testament manuscript evidence compared with other examples of ancient literature. All told, there are something like 5,000 early Greek manuscript portions of the New Testament in existence today. Add to this evidence the many ancient Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic and Armenian translations from the early centuries of the Christian Church. Working with these manuscripts, scholars are able to do intensive comparisons of the available manuscripts in order to “weed out” any copying mistakes and synthesize the original text of the New Testament.
Beyond the manuscript evidence, there exist a very large library of writings leaders of the early Christian Church (before 500 AD) which quote so extensively from the New Testament that it can be virtually reconstructed from those writings alone. One expert estimated that only one half of one percent (.05 %) of the New Testament is in any doubt as to the original wording, and most of the uncertainty has to do with word order, rather than content. So, just as with the Hebrew Scriptures, the text of the New Testament is highly accurate.
All of this points to the conclusion that the Bible available to us is extremely reliable. It has lost very little, if anything, in its transmission from the original writings of its authors. While none of this by itself proves the Bible’s inspiration, it does lend credence to Judeo-Christianity’s ancient conviction that the Scriptures are the word of God, fully inspired and authoritative for the ages.