Here's the paper's train of thought.
1. Nothing to worry about
- Despite the sensationalism of some like Bart Ehrman, even he isn't really too worried about whether we pretty much know what the original text of the New Testament actually said.
- I'll review the basics of our situation in regard to manuscripts
- The one in all our Bibles ("Alexandrian" text)
- One that is 10% longer, the so called Western text? It's not really in any translation out there, so everyone can relax. KJV and NIV fans alike will pretty much be on the same page on this one--the Alexandrian one.
3. The most famous variation - Acts 8:37
- Not in modern translations, not because some conspiracy to take it out but because it isn't in the "oldest and most reliable" manuscripts. In this regard, the NIV is based on manuscripts that are about 700 years older than the KJV used (Actually, it wasn't even in the text of the manuscripts Erasmus used to compile the Greek behind the KJV. It was in the margin of one of them and Erasmus figured some copyist had carelessly omitted it).
- Best explanation is that it was added out of the sense that the Ethiopian eunuch would have made some verbal confession of faith at his baptism.
4. Lesser known Western interpolations
- Omission of "strangling" and addition of the Golden Rule in Acts 15 to the list of things the Gentiles need to do. In general, some (clearly Gentile) reviser has universalized what was originally a list about table fellowship between Jew and Gentile believer. Big clue.
- Addition of details about Paul's detainment at Caesarea in Acts 25. This material further exonerates Paul and perhaps added details of Paul's legal process that seemed reasonable to the copyist.
- Some variations are like all the variations in the New Testament. There was some freedom felt in the earliest church to clarify the biblical texts when copying them. We can make sense of this phenomenon in that these were "oral texts," texts meant to be read aloud to Christian assemblies in worship. In some contexts, the goal was apparently more clarity than preservation of exact wording. The Bible was God's living word, not an artifact. I do this sometimes when I am reading the Bible to my children, paraphrasing the text to help them understand. Eugene Peterson did this on a much more extensive scale than we are talking about here in The Message.
- The text of Acts has a strand of revisions that are unlike what we have in relation to any other NT book. One explanation is a very educated, early second century, Gentile reviser who clarified the text somewhere on a quite significant scale. This position is at least superior to the alternatives: 1) that Luke made two versions (Leclerc at first, Blass, Strange) or 2) that the Western text was original and the Alexandrian a shortened version (e.g., Clark).
- Finally, the most significant manuscript of the Western tradition, Codex Bezae, may have added another layer of variations that were particular to it and passed on from it. Bezae dates to around AD500.
I put a lot of faith in scholarly consensus, especially those that have stood for as long as this one has. The consensus is at least that the Western is not original. We should welcome the occasional outlier like W. A. Strange to keep us honest. But usually these consensuses hold. For further reading, see Peter Head's excellent treatment of this issue. The current majority probably does not see a single editor for the second bullet...
I might add that working on this paper confirmed in my mind that my own church, The Wesleyan Church, might be intentional about guiding a small cadre of biblical and theological students to be our "reference works" in Bible, theology, and church history. These would be individuals "on call" when we get into contemporary issues. For example, when my denomination looks at issues like divorce or alcohol or homosexuality, we really need experts in Scripture, theology, and church history as part of the input.
The number we need of such scholars is relatively small. There is a sizable minority of individuals whose personalities are interested in these areas but who are not necessarily gifted in them. Thus the benefit of coaching a few who are truly gifted (and objective) with the mechanics, yet who are also Spirit-filled and local church loving.
But we do need a few, a small number, that are actually experts in Greek, Hebrew, textual criticism, critical scholarship, the history of interpretation, contemporary theology, historical theology, philosophical theology. We need them on retainer for when we are talking doctrine and ethics as a denomination. None of our schools is in a position to train scholars on this level or are likely to be so for the foreseeable future.
Where are good places for this very small number to train? I continue to think that the British schools are quite good and faith-friendly, places like St. Andrews, Edinburgh, King's College-London, Durham... We have a Nazarene connection in Manchester. Asbury now has a PhD in Biblical Studies. Duke will do, although it's not really training so much these days in historical exegesis.
Something at least someone should be thinking about, I think...