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by Joel Furches
There is a widespread belief among both professional scholars and laymen that the Bible now used by Christians is significantly altered from the historical documents upon which it was based. This, they say, is because of the Church’s agenda to make Jesus a divine figure. Understandably, the claim that God came to earth in the form of a man is a tough pill to swallow. So, it could also be argued that those scholars who work so hard to discredit the authenticity of scripture are pursuing an agenda as well. The question becomes, which claim has the better support?
While this is an old debate, much of the current controversy over the accuracy of the Bible can be linked to the recent popularity of Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code. Despite the fact that the novel is clearly fictional, the author himself states in his online FAQ’s
In an interview with Mary Richardson on the television show Chronicle, Brown stated
When I started researching Da Vinci Code I really was skeptical, and I expected on some level to disprove all of this history that’s unearthed in the book[s]. But after three trips to Paris, and a lot of interviews, I became a believer.
With the sensationalism that followed Dan Brown’s novel and movie, television shows and books about The Da Vinci Code have been released by the dozen, adding to the supposed authenticity of Dan Brown’s claims.
These claims include:
- until the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Jesus was viewed by His followers as only a mortal prophet (Da Vinci Code 233)
- Jesus’ establishment as ‘the Son of God’ was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea which was a relatively close vote (Da Vinci Code 233)
- Many scholars claim that the early Church literally stole Jesus from His original followers, hijacked His human message, shrouding it in a cloak of divinity, and used it to expand the Church’s power (Da Vinci Code 233)
- almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false (Da Vinci Code 235)
- the early Church needed to convince the world that the mortal prophet Jesus was a divine being so any gospels that described earthly aspects of Jesus’ life were omitted from the Bible (Da Vinci Code 244)
Brown is not the only person discrediting the authenticity of the Bible. In his book Misquoting Jesus, author and Bible scholar Bart Ehrman makes the claim that the scribes that copied the Bible for 1,500 years altered the text to fit an agenda.
Does all of this evidence make it a historical fact that the Bible has been altered? The answer is no. There is a very strong case to be made that the Bible used currently by Christians everywhere is remarkably accurate.
Ehrman, the same biblical scholar that wrote Misquoting Jesus, also wrote a book entitled The Da Vinci Code: Fact and Fiction. In an interview on the book, Ehrman makes the statement
The problem I have with the Da Vinci Code is that it gets so much of its information about these matters wrong.
Clearly, Ehrman is no believer in biblical accuracy, but even he cannot embrace the outlandish claims Dan Brown makes in his fictional novel.
History and Development of Scriptural Authority
Church Historian Dr. John Hannah, in his book Our Legacy gives a detailed look at the history and development of scriptural authority within the church. In brief, Hannah divides the church age up into stages. The first stage, “The Apostolic Period,” covers the first century C.E. during which the books in the currently accepted New Testament were written. The second century, “The Church Fathers Period,” is detailed by writings of the direct successors to the Apostles. These include such men as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch.
Hannah, who has meticulously studied the surviving writings of the Church Fathers, says that they lived in an age when there was general agreement about the doctrines passed down to them from the Apostles mere decades before. While they did cite as many as 19 out of the 27 currently accepted New Testament books, they lived in an age of vast illiteracy, and so the oral tradition was held as equally authoritative to scripture.
The next period of the Church that Hannah describes he calls the age of “The Apologists.” During this time (150 to 300 C.E.) overt hostility toward Christianity from the culture and governing powers was on the rise. Worse, disagreements and challenges were coming from within the Church itself.
How Did the Spread of Early Christianity and the Persecution of the Early Church Impact the Text of the New Testament?
These challenges forced the Church leaders of the time to have to define what their source of authority was so that they could address the many conflicting opinions regarding doctrine and beliefs. In defining their authority, the oral tradition became marginalized, largely because the Gnostic sect was claiming a different oral tradition to support their views. Church Fathers began to look to the writings of the Apostles as alone being authoritative, and the idea of a canon of scripture began to emerge.
The cannons of the day varied. There was near-universal agreement about the Old Testament, which remained the same as the Hebrew canon, this being the 39 books in the current Old Testament. As far as the New Testament went, various churches had access to certain books while others did not. As a result, all 27 books of the currently accepted New Testament were held as sacred in one or another of the churches, but few if any had access to all of them. Some churches included books, such as The Shepherd of Hermas, and The Epistle of Barnabas that are not now considered to be canonical, and there were others such as James, and Jude, now held to be cannon that was disputed at the time. It is important to note that, even if all of the books that were disputed at the time were removed, the core doctrines of the current Church are still affirmed by the remaining books including the Gospels and the epistles of Paul. This, then, cannot be regarded as a change made to scriptures in order to advance an agenda.
The books of the current Bible were canonized officially in 397 AD. But the current cannon of scripture was unofficially recognized long before that. It is important to keep in mind that this was an age when mass communication was non-existent.
But what of the claim made by Bart Ehrman that scribes changed the Bible as they copied it? Wheaton College New Testament professor, Gary M. Burge writes:
What Ehrman fails to tell us is that most of the scribal errors he likes to list are incidental. And when they do have substance, the thousands of Greek manuscripts we possess permit us to reconstruct the original by making minute comparisons of their discrepancies. For instance, the shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:2-4 is notorious for its many “variants” (textual discrepancies or anomalies) in Greek manuscripts. However, it quickly becomes evident that scribes were harmonizing this prayer with Matthew’s longer version in Matthew 6:9-13.
On other occasions, scribes heard dictation wrong (in Rom. 5:1, “let us have peace” and “we have peace” sound the same in Greek) or they sensed a problem they wanted to solve. Mark 1:2 quotes from both Malachi and Isaiah, but Mark wrote, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet.” Some scribes sought to correct this by amending the text: “As it is written in the prophets.” In most cases, scholars can quickly restore the original. To be sure, some textual problems are hotly contested, and solving them is thorny (the story of the woman caught in adultery is a case in point, see John 8), but none of these variants jeopardizes a single major teaching of the New Testament.
As Burge points out, there are thousands of manuscripts, in addition to manuscript scraps and quotes of the Bible manuscripts in the writings of the early church leaders. By comparing the thousands upon thousands of sources, Bible Scholars can spot minor textual errors and have a very accurate idea about what the originals said.
Does this settle the debate? Yes. However, it is best that the Bible student has a basic understanding of how the Bible has come down to us, so as to formulate his own conclusions.
There are, however, several things to keep in mind. First is, with so many serious scholars who have studied the writings and manuscripts from the first four centuries of Christianity specifically, as well as the following centuries and are in agreement as to the accuracy of the current Bible, it can be taken as historical fact that some scribes took liberties with the text, adding or taking away material. However, seventy-five percent of the text has not been touched with variants; twenty-four percent of the textual variants are very minor, such as a misspelled word, with a mere handful of occasions, where the scribe altered the text for doctrinal reasons. Those few occasions are very easily corrected by the art and science of textual criticism. In other words, we are certain of the original reading. Secondly, there is disagreement even between those who are attempting to dismiss the accuracy of the current canon, as with Dan Brown and Bart Ehrman. Finally, it is important to note that, at present, there are no surviving manuscripts of the Greek New Testament of any kind from the first century C. E.
What Is the Synoptic Problem of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and What is the Hypothetical So-Called Q Document?
As with the Bible, the only thing scholars have to go on are manuscripts that were copied and re-copied for generations. That said, there are far more copies of the Bible than any other document from the same time period, making it the most historically verifiable ancient document if judged by the same standard as other historical documents. Yet, Historians rarely voice doubts about the authenticity of other documents from the same period. Also, there are surviving scraps from Biblical manuscripts dating to within mere decades of the original copies, closer than any other first-century manuscripts.
Consequently, there is far more evidence supporting the authenticity of scripture than there is against it. The real issue becomes, not the documents themselves, but rather the claims that they make. Agendas are not always conspiracies to support lies. If the Church has the “agenda” of supporting the claim that Jesus was God, it might be because that claim is true.
 Seven New Testament papyri had recently been discovered—six of them probably from the second century and one of them probably from the first. These fragments will be published in about a year.― http://csntm.org/