THE CASE FOR CHRIST #3
The Documentary Evidence
Were Jesus' Biographies Reliably Preserved for Us?
As a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, I was a "document rat"—I spent countless hours rummaging through court files and sniffing for tidbits of news. It was painstaking and time consuming, but the rewards were worth it. I managed to scoop the competition with front-page stories on a regular basis.
For example, I once stumbled upon some top-secret grand jury transcripts that had inadvertently been put in a public file. My subsequent articles exposed massive bid-rigging behind some of Chicago's biggest public works projects, including the construction of major expressways. But the most eye-popping cache of documents I ever uncovered came in a landmark case in which Ford Motor Company was charged with reckless homicide for the fiery deaths of three teenagers in a sub-compact Pinto. It was the first time a U.S. manufacturer had been criminally charged for allegedly marketing a dangerous product.
When I checked the court file in tiny Winamac, Indiana, I found scores of confidential Ford memos revealing that the automaker knew in advance that the Pinto could explode when struck from behind at about twenty miles an hour. The documents indicated that the automaker decided against improving the cars safety to save a few dollars per vehicle and to increase its luggage space. A Ford lawyer, who happened to be strolling through the courthouse, spotted me making photocopies of the documents. Frantically he rushed into court to get a judicial order sealing the file from the public's view. But it was too late. My story, headlined "Ford Ignored Pinto Fire Peril, Secret Memos Show," was bannered in the Tribune and then flashed throughout the country.
Authenticating the Documents
Obtaining secret corporate memos is one thing; verifying their authenticity is another. Before a journalist can publish their contents or a prosecutor can admit the documents as evidence in a trial, steps must be taken to make sure they're genuine.
Concerning the so-called Pinto papers, could the Ford letterheads on which they were written be counterfeits? Could the signatures be forgeries? How could I know for sure? And since the memos had obviously been photocopied numerous times, how could I be confident that their contents hadn't been tampered with? In other words, how could I be certain that each copied document was identical to the original memo, which I didn't possess?
What's more, how could I be positive that these memos told the whole story? After all, they represented just a small fraction of the internal correspondence at Ford. What if there were other memos, still hidden from the publics view, that would shed a whole different light on the matter if they were revealed?
These are significant questions, and they're equally relevant in examining the New Testament. When I hold a Bible in my hands, essentially I'm holding copies of ancient historical records. The original manuscripts of the biographies of Jesus—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John —and all the other books of the Old and New Testaments have long ago crumbled into dust. So how can I be sure that these modern-day versions—the end product of countless copying throughout the ages —bear any resemblance to what the authors originally wrote?
In addition, how can I tell if these four biographies are telling the whole story? What if there were other biographies of Jesus that have been censored because the early church didn't like the image of Jesus they portrayed? How could I have confidence that church politics haven't squelched biographies of Jesus that were every bit as accurate as the four that were finally included in the New Testament, and that would shed important new light on the words and deeds of this controversial carpenter from Nazareth?
These two issues—whether Jesus' biographies were reliably preserved for us and whether equally accurate biographies have been suppressed by the church—merited careful consideration. I knew that there was one scholar universally recognized as a leading authority on these matters. I flew to Newark and drove a rental car to Princeton to visit him on short notice.
THE SECOND INTERVIEW: Bruce M. Metzger, PhD
I found eighty-four-year-old Bruce Metzger on a Saturday afternoon at his usual hangout, the library at Princeton Theological Seminary, where, he says with a smile, "I like to dust off the books."
Actually, he has written some of the best of them, especially when the topic is the text of the New Testament. In all, he has authored or edited fifty books, including The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content, The Text of the New Testament, The Canon of the New Testament, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible; Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Introduction to the Apocrypha; and The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Several have been translated into German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malagasy, and other languages. He also is coeditor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha and general editor of more than twenty-five volumes in the series New Testament Tools and Studies.
Metzger's education includes a masters degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and both a master's degree and a doctorate from Princeton University. He has been awarded honorary doctorates by five colleges and universities, including St. Andrews University in Scotland, the University of Munster in Germany, and Potchefstroom University in South Africa.
In 1969 he served as resident scholar at Tyndale House, Cambridge, England. He was a visiting fellow at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, in 1974 and at Wolfson College, Oxford, in 1979. He is currendy professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary after a forty-six-year career teaching the New Testament.
Metzger is chairman of the New Revised Standard Version Bible Committee, a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, and serves on the Kuratorium of the Vetus Latina Institute at the Monastery of Beuron, Germany. He is past president of the Society of Biblical Literature, the International Society for New Testament Studies, and the North American Patristic Society.
If you scan the footnotes of any authoritative book on the text of the New Testament, the odds are you're going to see Metzger cited time after time. His books are mandatory reading in universities and seminaries around the world. He is held in the highest regard by scholars from across a wide range of theological beliefs.
(AND HE WAS A BIT OFF THE WALL, AND STILL DIDN'T UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE AND ALL ITS TRUTHS - HE SUPPORTED THE TWO GREEK MSS THAT NEARLY ALL MODERN BIBLES STAND WITH - THE CORRUPT VATICANUS AND SINAITICUS - SEE THE STUDIES ON MY WEBSITE "HOW WE GOT THE BIBLE" - Keith Hunt)
In many ways Metzger, born in 1914, is a throwback to an earlier generation. Alighting from a gray Buick he calls "my gas buggy," he is wearing a dark gray suit and blue paisley tie, which is about as casual as he gets during his visits to the library, even on a weekend. His white hair is neatly combed; his eyes, bright and alert, are framed by rimless glasses. He walks slower than he used to, but he has no difficulty methodically climbing the stairway to the second floor, where he conducts his research in an obscure and austere office. And he hasn't lost his sense of humor. He showed me a tin canister he inherited as chairman of the Revised Standard Version Bible Committee. He opened the lid to reveal the ashes of an RSV Bible that had been torched in a 1952 bonfire during a protest by a fundamentalist preacher. "It seems he didn't like it when the committee changed 'fellows' of the King James Version to 'comrades' in Hebrews 1:9," Metzger explained with a chuckle. "He accused them of being communists!"
Though Metzger's speech is hesitant at times and he's prone to replying in quaint phrases like "Quite so," he continues to remain on the cutting edge of New Testament scholarship. When I asked for some statistics, he didn't rely on the numbers in his 1992 book on the New Testament; he had conducted fresh research to get up-to-date figures. His quick mind has no problem recalling details of people and places, and he's fully conversant with all the current debates among New Testament experts. In fact, they continue to look to him for insight and wisdom.
(THEY WERE LOOKING AT THE WRONG GUY….SHOULD HAVE BEEN LOOKING AT J.P. GREEN AND HIS HEBREW AND GREEK BIBLE AND TRANSLATION - Keith Hunt)
His office, about the size of a jail cell, is windowless and painted institutional gray. It has two wooden chairs; he insisted I take the more comfortable one. That was part of his charm. He was thoroughly kind, surprisingly modest and self-effacing, with a gentle spirit that made me want to someday grow old with the same mellow kind of grace.
(WELL CAN HAVE ALL THAT AND STILL BE OFF THE WALL IN THEOLOGY AND BIBLE TRANSLATION - Keith Hunt)
We got acquainted with each other for a while, and then I turned to the first issue I wanted to address: how can we be sure the biographies of Jesus were handed down to us in a reliable way?
Copies of Copies of Copies
"I'll be honest with you," I said to Metzger. "When I first found out that there are no surviving originals of the New Testament, I was really skeptical. I thought, if all we have are copies of copies of copies, how can I have any confidence that the New Testament we have today bears any resemblance whatsoever to what was originally written? How do you respond to that?"
"This isn't an issue that's unique to the Bible; its a question we can ask of other documents that have come down to us from antiquity," he replied. "But what the New Testament has in its favor, especially when compared with other ancient writings, is the unprecedented multiplicity of copies that have survived."
"Why is that important?" I asked.
"Well, the more often you have copies that agree with each other, especially if they emerge from different geographical areas, the more you can cross-check them to figure out what the original document was like. The only way they'd agree would be where they went back genealogically in a family tree that represents the descent of the manuscripts."
"OK," I said, "I can see that having a lot of copies from various places can help. But what about the age of the documents? Certainly that's important as well, isn't it?"
"Quite so," he replied. "And this is something else that favors the New Testament. We have copies commencing within a couple of generations from the writing of the originals, whereas in the case of other ancient texts, maybe five, eight, or ten centuries elapsed, between the original and the earliest surviving copy. (THE COPIES HE'S REFERRING TO ARE THE CORRUPT VATICANUS AND SINAITICUS MSS - Keith Hunt)
"In addition to Greek manuscripts, we also have translations of the gospels into other languages at a relatively early time—into Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. And beyond that, we have what may be called secondary translations made a little later, like Armenian and Gothic. And a lot of others-—-Georgian, Ethiopic, a great variety."
"How does that help?"
"Because even if we had no Greek manuscripts today, by piecing together the information from these translations from a relatively early date, we could actually reproduce the contents of the New Testament. In addition to that, even if we lost all the Greek manuscripts and the early translations, we could still reproduce the contents of the New Testament from the multiplicity of quotations in commentaries, sermons, letters, and so forth of the early church fathers."
While that seemed impressive, it was difficult to judge this evidence in isolation. I needed some context to better appreciate the uniqueness of the New Testament. How, I wondered, did it compare with other well-known works of antiquity?
A Mountain of Manuscripts
"When you talk about a great multiplicity of manuscripts," I said, "how does that contrast with other ancient books that are routinely accepted by scholars as being reliable? For instance, tell me about the writing of authors from about the time of Jesus."
Having anticipated the question, Metzger referred to some handwritten notes he had brought along.
"Consider Tacitus, the Roman historian who wrote his Annuls of Imperial Rome in about AD 116," he began. "His first six books exist today in only one manuscript, and it was copied about AD 850. Books eleven through sixteen are in another manuscript dating from the eleventh century. Books seven through ten are lost. So there is a long gap between the time that Tacitus sought his information and wrote it down and the only existing copies.
"With regard to the first-century historian Josephus, we have nine Greek manuscripts of his work The Jewish War, and these copies were written in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries. There is a Latin translation from the fourth century and medieval Russian materials from the eleventh or twelfth century."
Those numbers were surprising. There is but the thinnest thread of manuscripts connecting these ancient works to the modern world. "By comparison," I asked, "how many New Testament Greek manuscripts are in existence today?"
Metzger's eyes got wide. "More than five thousand have been cataloged," he said with enthusiasm, his voice going up an octave.
That was a mountain of manuscripts compared to the anthills of Tacitus and Josephus! "Is that unusual in the ancient world? What would the runner-up be?" I asked.
"The quantity of New Testament material is almost embarrassing in comparison with other works of antiquity," he said. "Next to the New Testament, the greatest amount of manuscript testimony is of Homers Iliad, which was the bible of the ancient Greeks. There are fewer than 650 Greek manuscripts of it today. Some are quite fragmentary. They come down to us from the second and third century AD and following. When you consider that Homer composed his epic about 800 BC, you can see there's a very lengthy gap."
"Very lengthy" was an understatement; it was a thousand years! There was in fact no comparison: the manuscript evidence for the New Testament was overwhelming when juxtaposed against other revered writings of antiquity-—works that modern scholars have absolutely no reluctance treating as authentic.
My curiosity about the New Testament manuscripts having been piqued, I asked Metzger to describe some of them for me.
"The earliest are fragments of papyrus, which was a writing material made from the papyrus plant that grew in the marshes of the Nile Delta in Egypt," he said. "There are now ninety-nine fragmentary pieces of papyrus that contain one or more passages or books of the New Testament. The most significant to come to light are the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, discovered about 1930. Of these, Beatty Biblical Papyrus number one contains portions of the four gospels and the book of Acts, and it dates from the third century. Papyrus number two contains large portions of eight letters of Paul, plus portions of Hebrews, dating to about the year 200. Papyrus number three has a sizeable section of the book of Revelation, dating from the third century. Another group of important papyrus manuscripts was purchased by a Swiss bibliophile, M. Martin Bodmer. The earliest of these, dating from about 200, contains about two-thirds of the gospel of John. Another papyrus, containing portions of the gospels of Luke and John, dates from the third century."
At this point the gap between the writing of the biographies of Jesus and the earliest manuscripts was extremely small. But what is the oldest manuscript we possess? How close in time, I wondered, can we get to the original writings, which experts call "autographs"?
The Scrap That Changed History
"Of the entire New Testament," I said, "what is the earliest portion that we possess today?"
Metzger didn't have to ponder the answer. "That would be a fragment of the gospel of John, containing material from chapter eighteen. It has five verses—three on one side, two on the other—and it measures about two and a half by three and a half inches," he said.
"How was it discovered?"
"It was purchased in Egypt as early as 1920, but it sat unnoticed for years among similar fragments of papyri. Then in 1934 C. H. Roberts of Saint John's College, Oxford, was sorting through the papyri at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. He immediately recognized this as preserving a portion of John's gospel. He was able to date it from the style of the script."
"And what was his conclusion?" I asked. "How far back does it go?"
"He concluded it originated between AD 100 to 150. Lots of other prominent paleographers, like Sir Frederic Kenyon, Sir Harold Bell, Adolf Deissmann, W. H. P. Hatch, Ulrich Wilcken, and others, have agreed with his assessment. Deissmann was convinced that it goes back at least to the reign of Emperor Hadrian, which was AD 117—138, or even Emperor Trajan, which was AD 98-117."
That was a stunning discovery. The reason: skeptical German theologians in the last century argued strenuously that the fourth gospel was not even composed until at least the year 160—-too distant from the events of Jesus' life to be of much historical use. They were able to influence generations of scholars, who scoffed at this gospel's reliability.
"This certainly blows that opinion out of the water," I commented.
"Yes, it does," he said. "Here we have, at a very early date, a fragment of a copy of John all the way over in a community along the Nile river in Egypt, far from Ephesus in Asia Minor, where the gospel was probably originally composed."
This finding has literally rewritten popular views of history, pushing the composition of Johns gospel much closer to the days when Jesus walked the earth. I made a mental note to check with an archaeologist about whether any other findings have bolstered the confidence we can have in the fourth gospel.
A Wealth of Evidence
While papyrus manuscripts represent the earliest copies of the New Testament, there are also ancient copies written on parchment, which was made from the skins of cattle, sheep, goats, and antelope.
"We have what are called uncial manuscripts, which are written in all-capital Greek letters," Metzger explained. "Today we have 306 of these, several dating back as early as the third century. The most important are Codex Sinaiticus, which is the only complete New Testament in uncial letters, and Codex Vaticanus, which is not quite complete. Both date to about AD 350.
(THESE ARE THE TWO CORRUPT MSS: BOTH WERE NOT DISCOVERED UNTIL THE 18TH CENTURY. BOTH ARE NOW USED FOR MOST NEW TRANSLATIONS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT. THE QUESTION TO ASK IS: "DID WE NOT HAVE THE NEW TESTAMENT BEFORE THESE TWO MSS WERE DISCOVERED?" THE ANSWER IS OF COURSE WE DID!! THE SINAITICUS WAS DISCOVERED IN A WASTE BASKET IN THE MONASTERY AT SINAI; THE MONKS THERE AGREEING IT WAS GARBAGE, AND SHOULD BE THROWN AWAY. THE VATICANUS WAS FOUND ON SOME BACK SHELF IN THE VATICAN, EVEN THE ROMAN CHURCH THOUGHT IT WAS WORTHLESS - Keith Hunt)
"A new style of writing, more cursive in nature, emerged in roughly AD 800. It's called minuscule, and we have 2,856 of these manuscripts. Then there are also lectionaries, which contain New Testament Scripture in the sequence it was to be read in the early churches at appropriate times during the year. A total of 2,403 of these have been cataloged. That puts the grand total of Greek manuscripts at 5,664."
(AND ALL THIS IS WHERE THE PROOF OF THE NEW TESTAMENT RESIDES - SEE THE STUDIES ON MY WEBSITE "HOW WE GOT THE BIBLE" FOR A FULL INDEPTH STUDY OF THE SUBJECT - Keith Hunt)
In addition to the Greek documents, he said, there are thousands of other ancient New Testament manuscripts in other languages. There are 8,000 to 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, plus a total of 8,000 in Ethiopic, Slavic, and Armenian. In all, there are about 24,000 manuscripts in existence.
"What's your opinion, then?" I asked, wanting to confirm clearly what I thought I was hearing him say. "In terms of the multiplicity of manuscripts and the time gap between the originals and our first copies, how does the New Testament stack up against other well-known works of antiquity?"
"Extremely well," he replied. "We can have great confidence in the fidelity with which this material has come down to us, especially compared with any other ancient literary work."
That conclusion is shared by distinguished scholars throughout the world. Said the late E F Bruce, eminent professor at the University of Manchester, England, and author of The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?: "There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament."
(AND THAT IS INDEED IS VERY TRUE - Keith Hunt)
Metzger had already mentioned the name of Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director of the British Museum and author of The Palaeography of Greek Papyri. Kenyon has said that "in no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament."
His conclusion: "The last foundation for any doubt that the scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.'"
However, what about discrepancies among the various manuscripts? In the days before lightning-fast photocopying machines, manuscripts were laboriously hand-copied by scribes, letter by letter, word by word, line by line, in a process that was ripe for errors. Now I wanted to zero in on whether these copying mistakes have rendered our modern Bibles hopelessly riddled with inaccuracies.
Examining the Errors
"With the similarities in the way Greek letters are written and with the primitive conditions under which the scribes worked, it would seem inevitable that copying errors would creep into the text," I said.
"Quite so," Metzger conceded.
"And in fact, aren't there literally tens of thousands of variations among the ancient manuscripts that we have?" "Quite so."
"Doesn't that therefore mean we can't trust them?" I asked, sounding more accusatory than inquisitive.
"No sir, it does not," Metzger replied firmly. "First let me say this: Eyeglasses weren't invented until 1373 in Venice, and I'm sure that astigmatism existed among the ancient scribes. That was compounded by the fact that it was difficult under any circumstances to read faded manuscripts on which some of the ink had flaked away. And there were other hazards—inattentiveness on the part of scribes, for example. So yes, although for the most part scribes were scrupulously careful, errors did creep in.
"But," he was quick to add, "there are factors counteracting that. For example, sometimes the scribe's memory would play tricks on him. Between the time it took for him to look at the text and then to write down the words, the order of words might get shifted. He may write down the right words but in the wrong sequence. This is nothing to be alarmed at, because Greek, unlike English, is an inflected language."
"Meaning ...," I prompted him.
"Meaning it makes a whale of a difference in English if you say, 'Dog bites man' or 'Man bites dog'-—sequence matters in English. But in Greek it doesn't. One word functions as the subject of the sentence regardless of where it stands in the sequence; consequently, the meaning of the sentence isn't distorted if the words are out of what we consider to be the right order. So yes, some variations among manuscripts exist, but generally they're inconsequential variations like that. Differences in spelling would be another example."
(IF YOU BUY OR HAVE J. P. GREEN'S HEBREW/GREEK/ENGLISH INTERLINEAR YOU WILL SEE EXACTLY WHAT THE ABOVE IS ALL ABOUT, BUT IT DOES NOT ALTER THE SENSE OF THE PHRASE OR SENTENCE - Keith Hunt)
Still, the high number of "variants," or differences among manuscripts, was troubling. I had seen estimates as high as two hundred thousand of them. However, Metzger downplayed the significance of that figure.
"The number sounds big, but it's a bit misleading because of the way variants are counted," he said. He explained that if a single word is misspelled in two thousand manuscripts, that's counted as two thousand variants."
I keyed in on the most important issue. "How many doctrines of the church are in jeopardy because of variants?"
"I don't know of any doctrine that is in jeopardy," he responded confidendy.
"None," he repeated. "Now, the Jehovah's Witnesses come to our door and say, 'Your Bible is wrong in the King James Version of 1 John 5:7- 8, where it talks about 'the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.' They'll say, 'That's not in the earliest manuscripts.'
"And that's true enough. I think that these words are found in only about seven or eight copies, all from the fifteenth or sixteenth century. I acknowledge that is not part of what the author of 1 John was inspired to write. But that does not dislodge the firmly witnessed testimony of the Bible to the doctrine of the Trinity. At the baptism of Jesus, the Father speaks, his beloved Son is baptized, and the Holy Spirit descends on him. At the ending of 2 Corinthians Paul says, 'May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.' There are many places where the Trinity is represented."
(HERE WE SEE METZGER'S POOR THEOLOGY. THE POPULAR TRINITY IDEA [AND IT VARIES WITH DIFFERENT CHURCHES, TO ONE GOD WHO CAN MAKE HIMSELF THREE, TO THREE INDIVIDUAL PERSONAL BEINGS AS GOD IN HEAVEN. BOTH THESE "TRINITY" IDEAS ARE WRONG. ALL EXPOUNDED IN STUDIES ON MY WEBSITE - Keith Hunt)
"So the variations, when they occur, tend to be minor rather than substantive?"
"Yes, yes, that's correct, and scholars work very carefully to try to resolve them by getting back to the original meaning. The more significant variations do not overthrow any doctrine of the church. Any good Bible will have notes that will alert the reader to variant readings of any consequence. But again, these are rare."
So rare that scholars Norman Geisler and William Nix conclude, "The New Testament, then, has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book-—-a form that is 99.5 percent pure?"
However, even if it's true that the transmission of the New Testament through history has been unprecedented in its reliability, how do we know that we have the whole picture?
What about allegations that church councils squelched equally legitimate documents because they didn't like the picture of Jesus they portrayed? How do we know that the twenty-seven books of the New Testament represent the best and most reliable information? Why is it that our Bibles contain Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but many other ancient gospels—the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary-—were excluded?
It was time to turn to the question of the "canon," a term that comes from a Greek word meaning "rule," "norm," or "standard" and that describes the books that have become accepted as official in the church and included in the New Testament. Metzger is considered a leading authority in that field.
(LEADING AUTHORITY BY WHOM IS THE QUESTION; BY MISGUIDED PEOPLE LIKE METZGER HIMSELF - Keith Hunt)
A High Degree of Unanimity
"How did the early church leaders determine which books would be considered authoritative and which would be discarded?" I asked. "What criteria did they use in determining which documents would be included ir the New Testament?"
"Basically, the early church had three criteria," he said. "First, the books must have apostolic authority—that is, they must have been written either by apostles themselves, who were eyewitnesses to what they wrote about, or by followers of apostles. So in the case of Mark and Luke, while they weren't among the twelve disciples, early tradition has it that Mark was a helper of Peter, and Luke was an associate of Paul. Second, there was the criterion of conformity to what was called the rule of faith. That is, was the document congruent with the basic Christian tradition that the church recognized as normative? And third, there was the criterion of whether a document had had continuous acceptance and usage by the church at large."
"They merely applied those criteria and let the chips fall where they may?" I asked.
"Well, it wouldn't be accurate to say that these criteria were simply applied in a mechanical fashion," he replied. "There were certainly different opinions about which criterion should be given the most weight.
"But what's remarkable is that even though the fringes of the canon remained unsettled for a while, there was actually a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater part of the New Testament within the first two centuries. And this was true among very diverse congregations scattered over a wide area."
"So," I said, "the four gospels we have in the New Testament today met those criteria, while others didn't?"
"Yes," he said. "It was, if I may put it this way, an example of 'survival of the fittest.' In talking about the canon, Arthur Darby Nock used to tell his students at Harvard, the most traveled roads in Europe are the best roads; that's why they're so heavily traveled.' That's a good analogy. British commentator William Barclay said it this way: 'It is the simple truth to say that the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them doing so.'
"We can be confident that no other ancient books can compare with the New Testament in terms of importance for Christian history or doctrine. When one studies the early history of the canon, one walks away convinced that the New Testament contains the best sources for the history of Jesus. Those who discerned the limits of the canon had a clear and balanced perspective of the gospel of Christ. Just read these other documents for yourself. They're written later than the four gospels, in the second, third, fourth, fifth, even sixth century, long after Jesus, and they're generally quite banal. They carry names-—-like the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Mary—-that are unrelated to their real authorship. On the other hand, the four gospels in the New Testament were readily accepted with remarkable unanimity as being authentic in the story they told."
(THE TRUTH OF THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT IS COVERED IN A BOOK PUBLISHED ON MY WEBSITE "THE ORIGINAL BIBLE RESTORED" - THE BOOKS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT WERE CANONIZED BY THE APOSTLES OF THE FIRST CENTURY, NOT BY THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH THAT CAME ALONG STARTING IN THE SECOND CENTURY - Keith Hunt)
Yet I knew that some liberal scholars, most notably members of the well-publicized Jesus Seminar, believe the Gospel of Thomas ought to be elevated to equal status with the four traditional gospels. Did this mysterious gospel fall victim to political wars within the church, eventually being excluded because of its unpopular doctrines? I decided I'd better probe Metzger on this point.
The "Secret Words" of Jesus
"Dr. Metzger, the Gospel of Thomas, which was among the Nag Ham-madi documents found in Egypt in 1945, claims it contains 'the secret words which the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.' Why was it excluded by the church?"
Metzger was thoroughly acquainted with the work. "The Gospel of Thomas came to light in a fifth-century copy in Coptic, which I've translated into English," he said. "It contains 114 sayings attributed to Jesus but no narrative of what he did, and seems to have been written in Greek in Syria about AD 140. In some cases I think this gospel correctly reports what Jesus said, with slight modifications."
This was certainly an intriguing statement. "Please elaborate," I said.
"For instance, in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says, 'A city built on a high hill cannot be hidden.' Here the adjective high is added, but the rest reads like Matthew's gospel. Or Jesus says, 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, render to God the things that are God's, render to me the things that are mine.' In this case the later phrase has been added. However, there are some things in Thomas that are totally alien to the canonical gospels. Jesus says, 'Split wood; I am there. Lift up a stone, and you will find me there.' That's pantheism, the idea that Jesus is coterminous with the substance of this world. That's contrary to anything in the canonical gospels. The Gospel of Thomas ends with a note saying, 'Let Mary go away from us, because women are not worthy of life.' Jesus is quoted as saying, 'Lo, I shall lead her in order to make her a male, so that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter into the kingdom of heaven.'"
Metzge' s eyebrows shot up as if he were surprised at what he had just uttered. "Now, this is not the Jesus we know from the four canonical gospels!" he said emphatically.
(INDEED SOME OF THE WORDS OF THIS THOMAS GOSPEL ARE FROM PLANET PLUTO, [NOT A PLANET ANY MORE THEY SAY] FROM ANOTHER CRAZY MINDED WORLD OF DEMONIC INSANITY - Keith Hunt)
I asked, "What about the charge that Thomas was purposefully excluded by church councils in some sort of conspiracy to silence it?"
"That's just not historically accurate" came Metzgers response. "What the synods and councils did in the fifth century and following was to ratify what already had been accepted by high and low Christians alike. It is not right to say that the Gospel of Thomas was excluded by some fiat on the part of a council; the right way to put it is, the Gospel of Thomas excluded itself. It did not harmonize with other testimony about Jesus that early Christians accepted as trustworthy."
(AS BEFORE SAID, THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT WAS DONE BY THE APOSTLES THEMSELVES IN THE FIRST CENTURY A.D. AND WAS ACCEPTED BY CHRISTIANS CENTURIES LATER AS BEING THE TRUE NEW TESTAMENT - Keith Hunt)
"So you would disagree with anyone who would try to elevate Thomas to the same status as that of the four gospels?" I asked.
"Yes, I would very much disagree. I think the early church exercised a judicious act in discarding it. To take it up now, it seems to me, would be to accept something that's less valid than the other gospels," he replied. "Now, don't get me wrong. I think, the Gospel of Thomas is an interesting document, but it's mixed up with pantheistic and anti-feminist statements that certainly deserve to be given the left foot of fellowship, if you know what I mean. You have to understand that the canon was not the result of a series of contests involving church politics. The canon is rather the separation that came about because of the intuitive insight of Christian believers. They could hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in the gospel of John; they could hear it only in a muffled and distorted way in the Gospel of Thomas, mixed in with a lot of other things. When the pronouncement was made about the canon, it merely ratified what the general sensitivity of the church had already determined. You see, the canon is a list of authoritative books more than it is an authoritative list of books. These documents didn't derive their authority from being selected; each one was authoritative before anyone gathered them together. The early church merely listened and sensed that these were authoritative accounts. For somebody now to say that the canon emerged only after councils and synods made these pronouncements would be like saying, 'Let's get several academies of musicians to make a pronouncement that the music of Bach and Beethoven is wonderful.' I would say, 'Thank you for nothing! We knew that before the pronouncement was made.' We know it because of sensitivity to what is good music and what is not. The same with the canon."
(YES THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT WAS MADE BY THE APOSTLES OF THE FIRST CENTURY - IT WAS ALREADY SEALED AND SECURE - Keith Hunt)
Even so, I pointed out that some New Testament books, notably James, Hebrews, and Revelation, were more slowly accepted into the canon than others. "Should we therefore be suspicious of them?" I asked.
"To my mind, that just shows how careful the early church was," he replied. "They weren't 'gung ho,' sweeping in every last document that happened to have anything about Jesus in it. This shows deliberation and careful analysis. "
(NOW METZGER IS TAKING ABOUT WHAT BECAME THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH AND ITS THEOLOGICAL INFIGHTINGS; BUT FOR TRUE CHRISTIANS THEY KNEW THE BOOKS OF THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT IN THE FIRST CENTURY A.D. - Keith Hunt)
"Of course, even today parts of the Syrian church refuse to accept the book of Revelation, yet the people belonging to that church are Christian believers. From my point of view, I accept the book of Revelation as a wonderful part of the Scriptures."
He shook his head. "I think they impoverish themselves by not accepting it."
(OF COURSE THEOLOGICAL IN-FIGHTING OF A SO-CALLED "CHRISTIAN GROUP" MEANS NOTHING TO TRUE CHRISTIANS WHO HAVE ALWAYS FROM THE FIRST CENTURY, KNOWN THE ACCEPTED INSPIRED BOOKS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT - Keith Hunt)
The "Unrivalled" New Testament
Metzger had been persuasive. No serious doubts lingered concerning whether the New Testaments text had been reliably preserved for us through the centuries. One of Metzger's distinguished predecessors at Princeton Theological Seminary, Benjamin Warfield, who held four doctorates and taught systematic theology until his death in 1921, put it this way:
"If we compare the present state of the New Testament text with that of any other ancient writing, we must... declare it to be marvelously correct. Such has been the care with which the New Testament has been copied—a care which has doubles grown out of true reverence for its holy words. TheNew Testament [is] unrivalled among ancient writings in the purity of its text as actually transmitted and kept in use."
In terms of which documents were accepted into the New Testament, generally there has never been any serious dispute about the authoritative nature of twenty of the New Testaments twenty-seven books—-from Matthew through Philemon, plus 1 Peter and 1 John. This of course includes the four gospels that represent Jesus' biographies. The remaining seven books, though questioned for a time by some early church leaders, "were finally and fully recognized by the "church generally," according to Geisler and Nix.
(AS SAID, THAT WAS THE IN-FIGHTING OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH. TRUE CHRISTIANS ALREADY KNEW WHAT THE BOOKS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT WERE, AS THEY HAD BEEN ACCEPTED BY THE FIRST CENTURY APOSTLES - Keith Hunt)
As for the 'pseudepigraphia,' the proliferation of gospels, epistles, and apocalypses in the first few centuries after Jesus—including the Gospels of Nicodemus, Barnabas, Bartholomew, Andrew, the Episde of Paul to the Laodiceans, the Apocalypse of Stephen, and others—they are "fanciful and heretical... neither genuine nor valuable as a whole," and "virtually no orthodox Father, canon or council" considered them to be authoritative or deserving of inclusion in the New Testament.
In fact, I accepted Metzger's challenge by reading many of them myself. Compared with the careful, sober, precise, eyewitness quality of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, these works truly deserve the description they received from Eusebius, the early church historian: "Totally absurd and impious." They were too far removed from Jesus' ministry to contribute anything meaningful to my investigation, having been written as late as the fifth and sixth centuries, and their often mythical qualities disqualify them from being historically credible.
With all that established, the time had arrived for my investigation to advance to its next phase. I was curious: how much evidence is there for this miracle-working first-century carpenter outside the gospels? Do ancient historians confirm or contradict the New Testaments claims about his life, teachings, and miracles? I knew this required a trip to Ohio to visit one of the country's leading scholars in that field.
As we stood, I thanked Dr. Metzger for his time and expertise. He smiled warmly and offered to walk me downstairs. I didn't want to consume any more of his Saturday afternoon, but my curiosity wouldn't let me leave Princeton without satisfying myself about one remaining issue.
"All these decades of scholarship, of study, of writing textbooks, of delving into the minutiae of the New Testament text—what has all this done to your personal faith?" I asked.
"Oh," he said, sounding happy to discuss the topic, "it has increased the basis of my personal faith to see the firmness with which these materials have come down to us, with a multiplicity of copies, some of which are very, very ancient."
"So," I started to say, "scholarship has not diluted your faith-—" He jumped in before I could finish my sentence. "On the contrary," he stressed, "it has built it. I've asked questions all my life, I've dug into the text, I've studied this thoroughly, and today I know with confidence that my trust in Jesus has been well placed."
He paused while his eyes surveyed my face. Then he added, for emphasis, "Very well placed."
Questions for Reflection or Group Study
Having read the interview with Dr. Metzger, how would you rate the reliability of the process by which the New Testament was transmitted to us? What are some reasons you find this process trustworthy or not?
Scan a copy of the New Testament and examine some of the notes in the margins that talk about variant readings. What are some examples you find? How does the presence of these notations affect your understanding of the passages?
Do the criteria for determining whether a document should be included in the New Testament seem reasonable? Why or why not? Are there other criteria you believe should be added?
What disadvantages do modern scholars have in second-guessing the early church's decisions concerning whether a document should be included in the Bible?
(IF BY CHURCH YOU MEAN "ROMAN CATHOLIC" IT IS NOTHING TO SECOND-GUESS. THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT WAS DONE BY THE FIRST CENTURY APOSTLES THEMSELVES - Keith Hunt)
For Further Evidence
More Resources on This Topic
Brace, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 1988.
Geisler, Norman L., and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. 1968; reprint, Chicago: Moody Press, 1980.
Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
The Text of the New Testament. New York Oxford Univ. Press, 1992.
Patzia, Arthur G. The Making of the New Testament. Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity Press, 1995.
TO BE CONTINUED