Breaking discoveries from third century?

This story from NPR ran in mid-July but was only sent to us recently. Here’s how it begins:

How Bible Stories Evolved Over The Centuries

Many Christians believe that the words of the New Testament are set in stone. But scholars at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary are chronicling just how much those words have evolved over time.

See, it’s that kind of story. Of course “over the centuries” means “over the first three centuries after Christ.” Do the reporters think that this is news to “many Christians” that the Scriptures weren’t written in English and handed down to Protestants in their present form, I guess. I’m not entirely sure what “set in stone” means at all.

Later we’re told:

Variations in the early Greek manuscripts may seem like a cause for alarm for many Bible literalists, but the majority of the discrepancies the project documents, Warren says, were caused by early transcribers doing their best to clarify the text.

Let me just quote from the reader who sent the story in:

“Variations in the early Greek manuscripts may seem like a cause for alarm for many Bible literalists …” Really? Who thinks this? Besides the author of this piece? What is a literalist?

Is this about a new database? Or about a couple of well-known textual issues (long ending of mark, woman caught in adultery) that are treated like breaking, controversial discoveries?

The article gives this example of what it’s talking about:

Take the story of Christ’s resurrection. As the gospel of Mark tells it, on the third day after the crucifixion, Jesus rose from the tomb and appeared to various people, including his disciples.

But Bill Warren, the professor leading the project, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that in the original manuscripts for Mark, the story of Jesus visiting the disciples is nowhere to be found.

“We actually have more than one ending in the manuscripts, and then we have some with no ending,” Warren explains, “So what we think probably happened there is that as soon as you see the other Gospels with the resurrection stories, early in the 2nd century at least, someone says, ‘You know, we need to put some of this material into Mark to round it off better.’ “

NPR doesn’t explain what it means by literalists. My church doesn’t use that term, and for particular reasons. We do believe that Scripture is inerrant and inspired by God. So while we don’t count as part of the group that’s supposed to be shocked and appalled by this truly ancient news, I wonder if the reporter understands the distinction.

I opened up my Lutheran Study Bible to see the notes for the end of Mark. Here’s what it says:

Mark’s Abrupt Ending: As the ESV text note for 16:9-20 shows, these verses do not appear in a number of early Greek manuscripts. This likely means they were not part of Mark’s original composition, which may have used a “suspended” ending that left readers wanting to learn more about Jesus and His disciples. The longer ending was perhaps added later to satisfy people’s interests.

The reader who submitted this has a great point. Is this entire article premised on a couple of well-known textual issues that are treated like breaking, controversial discoveries? And why?

Image of Saint Mark via Wikipedia.

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  • Ryan K.

    Maybe it is a new fad for the media: breaks ancient stories and think you have a scoop.

    Same model as the Lutheran Catholic story from a few weeks ago.

    It really does a do a good job though in exposing the overall ignorance of many in the media in regards to religion.

    I could only imagine if this happened in other fields. Its almost the doppleganger of breaking a story…maybe we could call it “reading history.”

  • Frank Lockwood

    Forgive me for being a contrarian again, but I liked this story and thought it was well-done.

    Yes, there are millions of American Christians out who believe the Bible is “inerrant and infallible.” Some of them would say the Bible is inerrant “in its original autograph”– i.e. the very first written version was perfect. Then there are Americans who believe that the Bible is inerrant and infallible — in the original King James Version. Others would say that any English version is imperfect because it’s a human translation of a divine text, but they’d argue that the New Testament, in its original Greek, is free from error.

    The problem that NPR addresses is that we don’t have “the original Greek” — and the earliest Greek versions we have
    are nearly (but not entirely) identical.

    The thing about this story that struck me as really interesting is that it’s a Southern Baptist seminary that is tracking the variations in the original Greek. I’d like to know more about the Southern Baptist perspective on the doctrine of inerrancy and how it is reconciled by these researchers.

  • Sarah

    But the fact Frank you find it interesting for a SBC seminary to be looking at textual criticism is revealing.

    I personally attended two evangelical seminaries, and have talked to people who ave attended pretty much every major evangelical seminaries out there. All of them teach textual criticism to their students.

    In fact, most work in this field is being done by evangelicals including guys like Dr. Daniel Wallace and manuscript preservation.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    To be fair to NPR, the story says this about the Pericope Adulterae:

    ‘”The early church canonized books and not stories,” he says, “and so when they had authentic stories from Jesus in the oral tradition that was circulating, they had to find a way to put it in the text. And so the church is trying to save this story even though its not part of John.”‘

    They’re implicitly accepting that the story is authentic and genuine (even though it may not have originally been in the first draft of John) which is to their credit, since it’s more than a lot of cultural liberals would acknowledge.

  • Frank Lockwood

    I’m not surprised that these really bright, dedicated folks at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary are looking at textual criticism. (I’ve been to the campus and I’ve met with some of the folks there.) But I am a bit surprised that they’re compiling and publicizing all the different variations in the early Greek texts and that they’re comfortable discussing their findings with NPR.

    There is often a disconnect between the people in the pews and the professors at the seminaries — and not just at evangelical seminaries.

    But I still would like to know — how does textual criticism and “error-spotting” coexist with Biblical inerrancy.

    How does it co-exist with the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) which states:

    “The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.”

  • Dave G.

    This happens more and more, and I wonder why. Time and again over the last few years, I’ve caught news shows, magazines, and educational channels having this sort of ‘now we know’ approach, when it’s usually nothing more than a first year student in a college course would have learned. Sometimes it’s even more commonly known than that. I saw on an MSNBC story a few months ago that we are supposed to be the most informed and educated generation in history, taking in more information than anyone can imagine. All I can say is, someone is missing something if that’s the case. Either these producers and journalists don’t really know just how informed our modern world is. Or worse, they do.

  • CarlH

    Unfortunately, this story suggests that what seems to have become a tradition for Easter, especially as a Time magazine cover story–some supposedly startling “new” information that will, the experts claim, rock the foundations of Christianity–may be spreading to a year-round exercise. Those of us who care about religious stories may rejoice that media is actually paying attention to all the data that suggests that the public would like more religious reporting. But it’s also clear that some reporters’ limited understanding of religion generally–and especially that religious people actually believe something vastly different from the a-religious reporters’ own preconceived notions of those beliefs–needs some serious broadening. This could have been an excellent, and interesting story, especially if more focus had been given to the issues Frank has highlighted (and I’m sure that the very people interviewed at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary could have provided some answers!).

    Given my cynicism about the outlook of NPR generally, however, the tone of the article to me seems pretty well tailored to NPR’s expectations about its audience’s own perspective on religion generally, and “literalists” (whatever, or whoever, that may mean within the received wisdom of the cohort of NPR regulars) in particular.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Carl H. has a good point about the media always wanting to “rock the foundations of Christianity” with stuff that is already well-known or completely out-of-date and off the wall.
    As a retired history teacher I love to read historical fiction-especially books that have a religious angle. But I am sick and tired of only being able to find religious fiction books in major “mainstream” bookstores that use as a selling point on the cover “This book will rock the foundations of Christianity.” Every author seems to want to be the next writer of a “DaVinci Code” even though many of its religious premises and facts were garbage.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Well, at least it wasn’t a new “gospel”.

    A few years ago they made a movie about the Vatican striving mightily to keep a recently found “gospel” from being published because it would threaten the Church. The flick was a tedious cloak-and-dagger in which the Freedom Fighters finally defeated the evil Church and published (wait for it) The Gospel of Thomas. This rang a bell. Sure enough, the text was on my shelves and had been for 20 years in an edition of gnostic texts published shortly after they were found (I think in the late 40s).

    Texts get lost for a reason: the communities that produced them and used them die. Other communities reject them. Textual changes occur because the community that produced and uses the text encounters and accepts alternate tellings, and ultimately a definitive telling.

  • Chuck D.

    But I still would like to know — how does textual criticism and “error-spotting” coexist with Biblical inerrancy.

    It exists perfectly. The issue about verbal inerrancy in the original autographs isn’t so much a claim about manuscripts we don’t have as it is a statement about what we do have. Nobody has ever claimed that all the copies of the original manuscripts are 100% accurate. The claim is that the *only* inspired documents are the originals.

    No, we don’t have the originals, but we don’t have to possess them to formulate a doctrine of inerrancy. Inerrancy isn’t about what the original documents say but about their nature.

    Textual criticism does precisely the opposite of what you are suggesting. It is a scholarly endeavor that ensures that the published Greek new testaments that are the basis for our English translations are very, very accurate indeed. The reality is that the very fact of having so many manuscripts with small differences actually ensures that we have accurate texts. Textual criticism shouldn’t undermine anyone’s faith. It should give them string confidence that the Bible we have is the most accurate collection of documents possible.

  • Anthony Sacramone

    Molly: You’ve just described Bart Ehrman’s entire publishing career: foist on an uneducated public the notion that something any Christian already knew from reading the notes in his or her Bible is actually breaking news or a grand episcopal conspiracy unmasked.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Nobody has ever claimed that all the copies of the original manuscripts are 100% accurate. The claim is that the *only* inspired documents are the originals.

    Interesting perspective. Personally I’m actually less interested in ‘the originals’, and more interested in the texts as they developed over time (and yes, in some cases that means they were added to). That’s part of why I prefer the KJV for my go-to Bible (though the NRSV is invaluable as well). Whether the Pericope Adulterae was in the first edition of John or not is irrelevant to me, the only relevant question is ‘did it happen?’ (Obviously, I believe it did.)

  • C. Wingate

    A big problem in all of these stories is that reporters are rarely clued in on the degree to which these fields are laden with controversy, an ignorance which is not at all helped about by the tendency of a lot of the controversialists to pretend that there is more agreement (with them, of course) than actually exists. Most reporters are at least up to date on the general argument over use of textual and higher criticism, at least I’d like to think that, but they don’t understand that there is really no conclusion of textual criticism, for instance, that isn’t still argued (e.g. the two source solution to the synoptic problem: there’s still a pretty strong minority view that Q never existed).

    I found a different version of the story, in this case by Bruce Nolan of the Ecumenical News International and Religious News Service (whoever they are). It’s not wildly different from the NPR story, but it doesn’t play up the “this is going to change everyone’s thinking” angle either.

  • Dan Reid

    This struck me as a non-story when I first read it, and so it remains. Evangelical engagement in textual criticism has a long legacy and today it is fully and critically engaged with international scholarship. To get a taste for evangelical text-critical scholarship, visit:

  • Jon in the Nati

    Just for everyone’s continued edification, the film to which Passing By refers in #8 was STIGMATA, starring Gabriel Byrne. As (s)he says, it was very poorly done, and the tacked-on reference to the Gospel of Thomas made no sense whatsoever.