The Uncertain Gospel

The editing done to purge the crimes of the Romans and to delete references to Jesus’ rebellion against them was an intricate and difficult job. Part of it was left incomplete. Remember, thousands of manuscripts were circulating around. Not all could be completely purged. Flashes of accuracy remain. “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be the Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:2 NIV) This statement in Luke indicates that corrupt priests delivered Jesus to his oppressors, the Roman administration, because he was a rebel against Roman rule pure and simple. Because it is so different from other statements throughout the rest of the Gospels, which take great pains to make Jesus non-political, it is an obvious piece of real history that slipped through, contrary to the intent of editors publishing Paul’s concept of a strictly spiritual Jesus.

-Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
“Chapter 8: Jesus Never Claimed to Be Divine” pg 51
Kosher Jesus

This is bound to be a part of Rabbi Boteach’s book that will be a major problem with most Christians. Boteach insists that the Gospels were heavily edited to remove any (or most) traces of not only the “Jewishness” of Jesus, but the “fact” that he was executed by the Romans for being a rebel and attempting to lead the Jewish people in a revolt against their Roman occupiers. The portions of the Gospel that seem to support Boteach’s position, he declares as “real history,” while anything that denies his perspective is considered to have been significantly changed by later editors to make the New Testament more palatable to Rome.

You might easily conclude, as a Christian, that Boteach is writing to support a strictly Orthodox Jewish viewpoint of Jesus and “to heck” with the inerrancy of the Gospels. However, he’s not the only one to suggest that the Bible we have today is not completely consistent with the actual, original texts. Amazing? Unheard of? Consider this:

It was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century. If this is true, it would be the oldest fragment of the New Testament known to exist. Up until now, no one has discovered any first-century manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest manuscript of the New Testament has been P52, a small fragment from John’s Gospel, dated to the first half of the second century. It was discovered in 1934.

How do these manuscripts change what we believe the original New Testament to say? We will have to wait until they are published next year, but for now we can most likely say this: As with all the previously published New Testament papyri (127 of them, published in the last 116 years), not a single new reading has commended itself as authentic. Instead, the papyri function to confirm what New Testament scholars have already thought was the original wording or, in some cases, to confirm an alternate reading—but one that is already found in the manuscripts. As an illustration: Suppose a papyrus had the word “the Lord” in one verse while all other manuscripts had the word “Jesus.” New Testament scholars would not adopt, and have not adopted, such a reading as authentic, precisely because we have such abundant evidence for the original wording in other manuscripts. But if an early papyrus had in another place “Simon” instead of “Peter,” and “Simon” was also found in other early and reliable manuscripts, it might persuade scholars that “Simon” is the authentic reading. In other words, the papyri have confirmed various readings as authentic in the past 116 years, but have not introduced new authentic readings. The original New Testament text is found somewhere in the manuscripts that have been known for quite some time.

Daniel B. Wallace
“Dr. Wallace: Earliest Manuscript of the New Testament Discovered?”
February 9, 2012
DTS.edu

Many Christians don’t realize that there is an ongoing debate over just how accurate our Gospels really happen to be. Do the Gospels you read in your Bible every day tell you the true story of Jesus of Nazareth? Do they accurately capture his teachings to the Apostles and to us? If we could find and read an actual first century manuscript of the Gospel of Mark, for example, would we be shocked and dismayed at how different (assuming we could translate it from the ancient Greek) the Jesus chronicled on the recently discovered 2,000 year old papyri, is from the person we’ve come to know in our 21st century Bibles?

Dr. Wallace seems confident that not only are these papyri valid documents, but that they will confirm to a high degree of fidelity, that the Gospels of today are the Gospels of yesteryear. However, Jeffrey García in his blog post More the First Century Gospel of Mark isn’t so sure.

In a previous post I mentioned that Dr. Daniel Wallace referred to a hitherto unknown first century manuscript (now fragment) of Mark in a debate with Dr. Bart Ehrman. As I noted before, the blogosphere sparked with suspicions regarding the Wallace’s claim. We are currently lacking any announcement as to its discovery, the so-called world renown paleographer who has dated the fragment remains anonymous, and the Brill publication is still, according to Wallace, about a year away. Unfortunately, Wallace’s new post on this has not alleviated any of these concerns. Texts that remain “hidden” texts are regarded with a significant degree of hesitation, especially when the information is disseminated through one person (a bit gnostic if you ask me). If the long history of the Dead Sea Scroll publications is any indication, when texts remain privately held and controlled for so long, some crazy things begin to leak out or are simply invented. Hopefully, the identification of this text is not based on the conjugation “kai” a la initial claims of the some scholars who thought gospel manuscripts were found in the caves. In any event, see the post quoted below (again, hopefully this text will be released shortly for other scholars to chime in)”

García is primarily dubious regarding the validity of this find, rather than whether or not it will substantiate our current understanding of the Gospel of Mark, but New Testament scholars such as Bart D. Ehrman aren’t convinced that our Gospels tell us an accurate story about Jesus. In his book Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and many other of his works), he contends that there are numerous internal inconsistencies contained within the New Testament and that it is no where near a seamless, flawless record of the life of Jesus and the origins of the first century church.

One of the criticisms against Ehrman is that he was a Christian who lost his faith, not based on his studies of the New Testament, but over his inability to understand why there is such terrible suffering in the world created by a loving God. I’ve written several blog posts including Faith and the Book of Bart as a response to Jesus, Interrupted, and find Ehrman to be a gifted scholar and (like the rest of us) a flawed human being. That the Bible or life doesn’t line up with our preconceived expectations or our personal desires, doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t the Messiah and that God is a fantasy. It more likely means that we suffer from our own human misconceptions and probably are victims of centuries old teachings and interpretations that are at best mistaken, and at worse, deliberately falsified to satisfy an agenda.

This is something I’ve just recently discussed and perhaps may even be part of God’s intricate plan for how history is supposed to unfold between the first and second appearance of the Messiah. I know, it seems cruel. How can God make us struggle, not only in our day-to-day lives, but in our attempts to understand a Bible that is not guaranteed to be completely, totally, and supernaturally accurate?

I’m no Bible scholar, so I can’t comment with any sort of authority on this matter, but I do find it fascinating that within the realm of Christian scholarship, there are questions being investigated that the majority of the people in our churches never, ever hear about. Matters of scholastic contention and mystery are presented as absolute fact from the pulpit, which I suppose is the way most people like it, since dancing on the head of uncertainty is no way to become comfortable with your faith. When I first encountered these sorts of questions, I wondered how my faith could possibly endure, and yet God made it possible. The Bible doesn’t have to be perfect to be inspired. The Bible translations I read from don’t have to represent an absolute fidelity to the original texts in order to mean that the Messiah exists and that faith in God is not in vain.

If I admit to a certain “fallibility” in our current Bible translations, am I then living a fantasy and pretending the object of my faith is real? Not at all, although I can certainly see how an atheist or a person weak in the faith might perceive it that way. God works with human beings using supernatural methods, but it doesn’t mean that the Bible you can purchase in any book store in this country is supernaturally accurate and describes, word for word, every single detail of the life of Jesus with no errors or mistakes whatsoever.

Like so many of my other “meditations,” I’m not writing this to give you answers but to make you ask questions. If faith cannot tolerate a few really hard questions, then its foundation must be sand and not rock (Matthew 7:24-27). No, I’m not being critical of anyone, because when I first met this challenge, I was thrown for a loop, too (which is an understatement). But if we don’t ask these questions, how will we ever know if we can endure the answers, if they exist, or the uncertainty if they don’t? How will we ever know if we really have faith?

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “The Uncertain Gospel”

  1. For the record, I disagree with Ehrman and agree with David Flusser who stated, “when studied in light of their Jewish background, the Synoptic gospels do preserve a picture of Jesus which is more reliable than is generally acknowledged” (Flusser and Notley, Jesus, [Jerusalem: Magnes, 2001], 21). I don’t think that the date of a document necessarily discounts it from preserving older or more accurate sources. So the fact that we have documents from 2nd century CE and on does not mean that they do not reflect a reliable, even accurate picture, of Jesus and the early messianic community. Interestingly, such questions about historical reliability of Plato are rarely asked when our primary sources for his work are removed at least 700-years+ from when they were written.

    Best,
    Jeff

  2. Jeff, I appreciate you stopping by here and sharing your insights. I admire and respect the work you do on your blog.

    “Interestingly, such questions about historical reliability of Plato are rarely asked when our primary sources for his work are removed at least 700-years+ from when they were written.”

    For me at least, there isn’t as much riding on the reliability of Plato as there is on the Bible.

  3. James,

    I have struggled over the years with this very problem and have come to the conclusion that, although I can live with some “inconsistencies” in scripture, I would have an extremely difficult time living with inaccuracies. In fact, I, as all of us do, live with inconsistencies in almost every facet of life, and yet we do not toss out living. It has been interesting for me to re-visit the final chapters of the Gospel of Yochanan and see that Yeshua plainly instructed the disciples to rely upon the Spirit of Truth whom He would send to them in the Father’s name. Not once in that final evening of His life on earth did He command or suggest to them that they needed to place their dependence upon any written words. Only the words He had spoken to them. I’m sure there is more involved, but that seems to be the theme of the discourse on that particular occasion.

    Scholars, many of them deeply committed and possessing abilities far exceeding my own will wrestle with these questions until the final day and the Shofar of heaven sounds its final blast. If only it were easier to access their work and then have the time to study the results of their efforts.

    Russ

  4. It is an article of faith (not a scientific conclusion) that “all Scripture is God-breathed” and fully human at the same time. IMO, we can better understand the God-breathed nature of Scripture hand in hand with a better understanding of the human elements in its production, editing,ordering, and transmission.

    The sooner we come to grips with the characteristics of ancient texts, the better. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but manuscripts and internal inconsistencies exist in all texts that have passed through centuries of pre-Gutenberg transmission, including the sacred texts of every religious tradition. (The one seeming exception is the Koran, but I understand that conflicting manuscripts were burned early on and the death penalty awaits anyone who approves a variant of the official text.) Also, like all texts, ancient texts were produced in cultural contexts and with presuppositions very different from our own. We err when we read them as if people just like us produced them.

    (Note: I am fully aware of the objections that can be raised against what I’ve written here. I have no intention to further explain what I’ve written apart from questions that you, James, might ask.)

  5. For Rabbi Boteach
    We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be the Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:2 NIV) This statement in Luke indicates that corrupt priests delivered Jesus to his oppressors, the Roman administration, because he was a rebel against Roman rule pure and simple. Because it is so different from other statements throughout the rest of the Gospels, which take great pains to make Jesus non-political, it is an obvious piece of real history that slipped through, contrary to the intent of editors publishing Paul’s concept of a strictly spiritual Jesus. -Rabbi Shmuley Boteach “Chapter 8: Jesus Never Claimed to Be Divine”

    COMMENT: Rabbi, I can affirm with you: Jesus Never Claimed to Be Divine”.
    But I can likewise affirm with a Christian, the very opposite. This paradox is resolved by redefining the terms: ‘Never’, ‘Claimed’, ‘Divine’ in accord with the other’s interpretation.
    For your claim reads to me as follows: “This statement in Luke indicates that POLITICALLY corrupt AND SPIRITUALLY SELF_SERVING priests delivered RABBI Jesus to his AND THEIR oppressors, the Roman administration.
    NOT because he was a rebel against Roman rule pure and simple, BUT BECAUSE HE WAS A REBEL TO THE PRIESTS’ POLITICALLY CORRUPT AND SPIRITUALLY HYPOCRITICAL RULE.”
    And would-be Rabbi Paul was for me just as politically corrupt and spiritually self-serving as the priests, unlike the Rabbi Jesus.

    For Russ:
    It has been interesting for me to re-visit the final chapters of the Gospel of Yochanan and see that Yeshua plainly instructed the disciples to rely upon the Spirit of Truth whom He would send to them in the Father’s name. Not once in that final evening of His life on earth did He command or suggest to them that they needed to place their dependence upon any written words. Only the words He had spoken to them.
    COMMENT: Yes, but apart from Yochanan and the women, the others did not understand the Rabbi Jesus. Especially the would-be Rabbi Peter and latter Paul.
    Indeed Jesus understanding of Peter’s understanding of Jesus teaching was symbolized not by his mode of death; but by his choice of orientation.

    For Carl:
    manuscripts and internal inconsistencies exist in all texts that have passed through centuries of pre-Gutenberg transmission, including the sacred texts of every religious tradition. (The one seeming exception is the Koran, but I understand that conflicting manuscripts were burned early on and the death penalty awaits anyone who approves a variant of the official text.)
    COMMENT: But even the Koran has Sunni and Shiah versions. They didn’t start the executions early enough

    Also, like all texts, ancient texts were produced in cultural contexts and with presuppositions very different from our own. We err when we read them as if people just like us produced them.
    COMMENT: But in essence these people are spiritually similar. The error is when we read the texts with non-spiritual presuppositions, which are ours alone. Rabbi Jesus taught us a universal, a-temporal, spiritual empathy to overcome this problem

  6. @Carl: Actually, I agree with you.

    “Also, like all texts, ancient texts were produced in cultural contexts and with presuppositions very different from our own. We err when we read them as if people just like us produced them. “

    This statement really needs to be examined by many Christians who believe that every little thing stated in the New Testament is some sort of eternal truth. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 where Paul addresses head coverings, is this God’s eternal truth for all men and women in the church, or was Paul discussing a situation within one particular community? If the latter, then it may have no relevent application in the body of the Messiah today. This is something about the text that is concerning and even frightening to some people.

    I recently had a series of exchanges with another gentlemen where I finally realized he believes that every single book and story in the Old Testament (Tanakh) symbolically talks about the mechanics of Christian salvation, taking what we to believe are literal events and allegorizing them far outside of their contexts. To me, this reverses what we are supposed to be doing with the Bible. We need to stop projecting our theologies and our desires onto the Bible and allow the Bible to tell us about itself and its message.

    JMHO, of course.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.