Apologetics: Can We Trust a Copy of a Copy?
by Timothy Jones
I slumped in an unpadded pew, half-listening to the morning Bible study. I wasn’t particularly interested in what the Bible teacher in this small Christian high school had to say. But, when the teacher commented that the Gospels always reported word-for-word what Jesus said, I perked up and lifted my hand. This statement brought up a question that had perplexed me for a while.
“But, sometimes,” I mused, “the words of Jesus in one Gospel don’t match the words of the same story in the other Gospels—-not exactly, anyway. So, how can you say that the Gospel-writers always wrote what Jesus said word-for-word?”
The teacher stared at me, stone-silent.
I thought maybe he hadn’t understood my question; so, I pointed out an example that I’d noticed—-the healing of a “man sick of the palsy” in Simon Peter’s house, if I recall correctly (Matthew 9:4-6; Mark 2:8-11; Luke 5:22-24, King James Version). Still silence.
Finally, the flustered teacher reprimanded me for thinking too much about the Bible. (In retrospect, this statement was more than a little ironic: A Bible teacher in a Bible class at a Bible Baptist school accused me of thinking too much about the Bible!) What I was doing, he claimed, was similar to what happened in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent asked Eve if God had actually commanded them not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.
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I didn’t quite catch the connection between my question and the Tree of Knowledge—but I never listened to what that teacher said about the Bible again. I knew that something was wrong with what he was telling me. Still, it took me several years to figure out the truth about this dilemma—a truth which, just as I suspected, had everything to do with the teacher’s faulty assumptions about the Bible and nothing to do with Eve or the serpent.
Here’s what my Bible teacher assumed: If the Bible is divinely inspired, the Bible must always state the truth word-for-word, with no variations. To question this understanding of the Bible was, from this teacher’s perspective, to doubt the divine inspiration of Scripture.
::”WE HAVE ONLY ERROR-RIDDEN COPIES”::
Oddly enough, when it comes to differences between biblical manuscripts Dr. Bart Ehrman, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, seems to follow a similar line of reasoning in his book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why–but with opposite results. Ehrman, unlike my high school teacher, is fully aware of differences not only between different accounts of the same events but also between the thousands of New Testament manuscripts. Because these variations between biblical manuscripts do undeniably exist, the New Testament cannot be—in Ehrman’s estimation—divinely inspired. And this is where he expects from Scripture the same as what my teacher expected but with opposite results…