Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Blomberg: Copies of the Bible Corrupt?

Today kicks off a blog "book review tour" for Craig Blomberg's new Can We Still Believe the Bible?-An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions, put out by Brazos Press. Blomberg is a New Testament professor at Denver Seminary, where he's been since 1986. He is a leading evangelical scholar.

The first chapter is "Aren't the Copies of the Bible Hopelessly Corrupt?" I think for most of us who have studied the New Testament, this is an easy question with an obvious answer--"No, we pretty much know what the New Testament said originally."

But there have been some recent nay-sayers like Bart Ehrman who, if you read his footnotes, pretty much agrees with the rest of us too. But he caused a little stir with his book Misquoting Jesus. Did you know that we don't have any of the first copies of any biblical text? The ones we have are often hundreds of years later. How do we know what the original text said?

Again, this is ho-hum stuff to anyone who has actually studied the New Testament. Blomberg addresses the ambiguity that really isn't ambiguous: "What Ehrman doesn't make clear is that the number and nature of manuscripts we have make it extraordinarily unlikely that we shall ever again find variants that are not already known" (16). In other words, just because the 1800s took some people off guard with some big manuscript surprises, it's likely that we're pretty much surprised out now.

The New Testament
Blomberg goes on to explain some of the issues that can be startling in relation to the New Testament text. There are chiefly two: Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11. If you have grown up with these verses, say in the King James Version, it can be alarming to find that the majority of experts on the original text do not think they were originally part of Mark and John respectively.

But Blomberg makes it clear that these are the most shocking of all the shocks. There are no more big bomb shells to drop once you have passed these. "There are no other places in all 25,000+ manuscripts where any other passages like these two appear" (21). Furthermore, the evidence for these two not being in the original text is solid, both in terms of the way the earliest copies of the New Testament read and the most logical way of explaining how the various copies we have have ended up the way they are.

There are a few other interesting variations, but "the vast majority of textual variants are wholly uninteresting except to specialists" (27). Are there a lot of variations among manuscripts? Sure, maybe as many as 40,000. But they are spread out among 25,000 manuscripts and in the overwhelming majority of cases it is completely obvious what happened. Blomberg rightly concludes, "no orthodox doctrine or ethical practice of Christianity depends solely on any disputed wording."

The Old Testament
Blomberg finds it interesting that skeptics rarely mention the Old Testament when questioning the biblical text. There are some unknowns and variations about how some parts of the Old Testament read originally. The best known manuscript tradition is that of the Masoretic Text (MT), which is usually the starting point when a translation is working on the Old Testament. Then other manuscript traditions are brought into play, like the Greek translation (Septuagint), the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so forth.

When the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were discovered, the most impressive observation was "how similar they were to the Masoretic texts of a millennium or more later" (29). In general, Blomberg finds no evidence that there was ever a time when those who copied the Hebrew Old Testament were not careful in their copying (34). Nevertheless, there have been some interesting instances where the DSS confirmed a Greek reading over the MT or where a new reading was discovered that had never been known.

Were There "Originals"?
Some have questioned recently whether it even makes sense to speak of an original version of a biblical text. Some think that some of the books in the Bible came together in stages. If so, which one should be considered the final form and thus the original text?

Blomberg first notes that such theories are entirely speculative (33). Nevertheless, he is willing to say that, in some Old Testament cases, it may make sense to speak of the "earliest attainable" form. But he also points out that "the original copy of a biblical book would most likely have been used to make countless new copies over a period of several centuries, leading to still more favorable conditions for careful preservation of its contents" (34). We can fantasize about all sorts of wild changes, but in the end they are exactly that--fantasy (35).

Comparatively Speaking
Blomberg helpfully takes a couple pages to show how much better a situation we are in with regard to the text of the Bible than we are for other ancient texts. Homer's writings come the closest, and there we're looking at 2,500 manuscripts in comparison to 25,000. For some old texts, we may only have a single copy from the ancient world. If we are to question the Bible, then we have to question all ancient writings on any topic (36)!

The Opposite Extreme
Finally, he addresses those who insist the Greek behind the King James Version is the only accurate text. He is quite blunt about how few scholars there are who actually think anything like this. He points out that Christians throughout the centuries have never claimed that the transmission of the text was inerrant. Indeed, neither those who worked on the Greek text behind the KJV nor those who translated the KJV thought that they had the perfect text.

Modern translations are not removing words from the biblical text. They are restoring the way the text originally read. Christians should rejoice in the fact that the Bible is in the hands of ordinary people in the English language. The alternative is not the KJV but to make everyone learn Greek and Hebrew to read the "real" text, like Muslims who insist on only reading the Qur'an in Arabic.

Conclusion to Chapter 1
Blomberg concludes that the Bibles we have are remarkably close approximations to the inerrant originals God inspired. We need not worry about knowing what the Bible says. They have not been inerrantly preserved, but this is not a problem for faith. They have been accurately preserved.

Neither is the topic of the next chapter something about which to worry--whether the sixty-six books in the Protestant Bible are the right books.


James E. Snapp, Jr. said...

I'll be glad to defend the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 in a formal debate against Craig Blomberg, anywhere, anytime.

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.

James E. Snapp, Jr. said...


Blomberg wrote, "There are far more textual variants within these twelve verses than within any comparable span of text elsewhere in Mark's Gospel."

That is not true. Blomberg is either misinformed or is making stuff up.

And he walked right past the mistake in the ESV's footnote.

Anonymous said...

With all respect you are challenging one of the top scholars backed by many other top scholars--who agree. Don't think of yourself more highly than you ought...Your offer to debate Blomberg while quaint, is a joke. Instead of trying to make a name for yourself, perhaps you ought to spend more time serving those in your care.

Ken Schenck said...

James, I made Blomberg sound more dramatic than he actually is on this point. Sorry for that, I was trying to be interesting. On the other hand, I did find it interesting that he did not give any space for scholars such as yourself.

Anon, I do think James could do as well as anyone I know at arguing for the Majority Text of Mark 16.

James E. Snapp, Jr. said...


I stand by my statement, and my invitation to debate Dr. Blomberg about Mark 16:9-20 is completely serious.

In 2011, Dr. Blomberg stated that the first time Mark 16:9-20 shows up is in the third century (that is, the 200's). Do you believe him, just because he is "one of the top scholars backed by many other top scholars"? Or do you believe your own eyes when you read Irenaeus' "Against Heresies" Book 3, where Irenaeus specifically quotes Mark 16:19?