Based on surviving manuscript evidence, if we understand that Athanasius’ list (as a ‘table of contents’) did not become widespread until the 13th century, then we must wonder what kind of ‘inspired’ New Testament people of old were actually reading. It should be remembered that people of centuries past did not live in the ‘digital’ age, where identical copies of a given document could be reproduced without error and read simultaneously on different sides of the planet.
In the early periods of Christianity when scripture was not readily available, one had to look to public libraries, homes of influential people, recognised institutions, churches and synagogues, for the copies of scripture they had noted themselves. Copies were made from copies which were made from copies albeit not always accurately.
The written scripture could not be verified against one’s oral recitation of scripture, as (literal) memorisation of scripture was never of primary importance. Also, during the critical period of Christianity’s formation, starting with Emperor Nero (64 – 68 CE), there was intense persecution from the pagan Roman Empire. Towards the end of a series of distinct periods of Roman persecutions, during the latter period of the Roman emperor Diocletian (284 – 305 CE),
an imperial decree was issued all over the Empire that called for Churches to be razed and scriptures to be confiscated and burned. The other ancient religious people, the Jews, who also suffered under the Romans, harboured extreme enmity towards the Christians, whom they saw as blasphemous and idolatrous.
Given the availability of disparate forms of written and oral scripture, the numerous forms of ‘heresies’ spread amongst the Christian communities – ‘heretics’ who had no problem in producing their own version of scripture and forcefully propagating it – and the generally altogether unfavourable social circumstances, the question arises as to what kind of ‘inspired’ New Testament the early Christians were reading.
Christianity in the second and third centuries was in a remarkable state of flux. To be sure, at no point in its history has the religion constituted a monolith. But the diverse manifestations of its first three hundred years – whether in terms of social structures, religious practices, or ideologies – have never been replicated.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the realm of theology. In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed in only one God; others, however, claimed that there were two Gods; yet others subscribed to 30, or 365, or more. Some Christians accepted the Hebrew Scriptures as a revelation of the one true God, the sacred possession of all believers; others claimed that the scriptures had been inspired by an evil deity.
Some Christians believed that God had created the world and was soon going to redeem it; others said that God neither had created the world nor had ever had any dealings with it. Some Christians believed that Christ was somehow both a man and God; others said that he was a man, but not God;
others claimed that he was God but not a man; others insisted that he was a man who had been temporarily inhabited by God. Some Christians believed that Christ’s death had brought about the salvation of the world; others claimed that his death had no bearing on salvation; yet others alleged that he had never even died.
Moving forward, we know that critical editions of the Bible have never existed in the history of Christianity. So when the missionaries state that the Bible is ‘inspired’, making reference to their version of the Bible (i.e., the Protestant Bible), what do they actually mean by such a statement? What about the majority of Christians who never got the opportunity to read today’s Bible? Did those Christians of the 4th century CE who relied on the ‘canon’ and ‘content’ of Codex Vaticanus think they were reading an ‘inspired’ Bible or a somewhat ‘inspired’ Bible?
Interestingly, we know that Codex Vaticanus is different in both ‘canon’ and ‘content’ from modern day Bibles, which are based on the ‘table of contents’ as stated by Athanasius (39th Festal letter, 367 CE). Consequently, the missionaries in defending their canon of the Bible (which consists of 66 books) state that these additional books may be profitable and good to read; crucially however, they are not to be used to establish any doctrine and they are not to be considered as ‘inspired’.
It is the understanding of the word ‘inspired’ which draws our attention. Is believing in the doctrine of ‘inspiration’ important? What does ‘inspiration’ actually mean? Did all Christians agree on a universal understanding of the doctrine of ‘inspiration’?
Who has the right to produce ‘inspired’ writings? Is one allowed to modify another’s ‘inspired’ writings and still claim them to be ‘inspired’? Do the modern day textual critics play any part in the final literary form of these ‘inspired’ writings? Given such propositions, can we claim that the New Testament is ‘inspired’? These questions will be addressed in the following sections.
“The doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is of immense importance. This is at once apparent when one considers that all evangelical Christian doctrines are developed from the Bible and rest upon its authority. L. Boettner is correct when he calls the Biblical teaching of inspiration the mother and guardian of all the others.
A useful place to begin is with a general definition of biblical ‘inspiration’,
In theological language, inspiration signifies the operation of the Holy Spirit upon the writers of the Bible, by which the Bible becomes the expression of the will of God binding upon us, or the Word of God. The term originated from the Vulgate version of II Tim. iii. 16, Omnis scriptura divinitus inspirata.
The Greek word theopneustos—of which it is at least doubtful whether divinitus inspirata is an accurate translation—belongs only to Hellenistic and Christian Greek, and may have been coined by Paul. Other post-classical uses of it show that it signifies “filled with the Spirit of God” or “breathing out the Spirit of God,” from which it follows that the Scripture so designated has come into being under the operation of the Spirit.
Continuing, the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge frames the discussion on the historical understanding of ‘inspiration’ into distinct periods: Jewish Doctrine, Early Christian Doctrine, the Scholastic Period, the Reformation, Post-Reformation Development, Modern Development and, lastly, Modern Tendencies and Development. However, let us turn our focus to the nature and method by which the Bible is ‘inspired’.
Inspiration As Natural Intuition, Inspiration As Illumination, Concept Inspiration, the Dynamic Theory Of Inspiration, the Neo-Orthodox Theory Of Inspiration, Partial Inspiration, Verbal Dictation and Verbal Plenary Inspiration, but to name some of the titles termed by today’s theologians when explaining the different viewpoints on the nature and method by which the Bible, and by implication, the 27 books of the New Testament, became ‘inspired’. Nevertheless, almost all of these theories of ‘inspiration’, both modern and ancient, may be grouped in two general classes:
The theory of Plenary Inspiration,
Advocates of plenary inspiration hold that the writers of Scripture had the immediate influence of the Spirit to such an extent that they could not err in any point; every statement is accurate and infallible, whether “religious, scientific, historical, or geographical” (Charles Hodge, Theology, i. 163; cf. F. L. Patton, Inspiration, p. 92). Besides Hodge and Patton, Gaussen, Shedd, Given, and others represent this view. It is admitted, however, that there may be errors in the Scriptures as we now possess them and infallibility is asserted “only for the original autographic text” (A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield in the Presbyterian Review, ii., 1881, p. 245).
This class of views has in its favor
(1) the difficulty of conceiving how the thought could have been suggested by the Spirit without the language; and
(2) the support it gives to the authority of the Scriptures as a system of truth and a guide of action. On the other hand, the following objections are urged:
(1) It is hard on this general theory to account for the individual peculiarities of the writers. The style of Hosea differs from that of Isaiah, that of John from that of Paul, although the same Spirit suggested the language of each. It is urged, however, that the Spirit accommodated himself to the peculiarities of the writers.
(2) There are differences of statement in the Scriptures concerning the same facts (cf. Gen. xxxiii. 18-19 with Acts vii. 16; Num. xxv. 9 with I Cor. x. 8).
(3) The theory makes it hard to explain the divergences in the Gospels (cf. the four forms in which the superscription on the cross is given and Matt. viii. 25-27 with Mark iv. 39-41).
(4) It is difficult on this theory to understand why the New Testament writers usually quote the Septuagint translation, and not the original Hebrew of the Old Testament. In many cases the divergence from the Hebrew text is great (cf. Acts xv. 16-17, other passages of the Acts, and many passages of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which always quotes from the Septuagint).
(5) The autographs of the sacred writers are lost, and the variations in the copies which have been preserved seem to be inconsistent with this theory; for, if a literal inspiration were necessary for the Church, God (so we should expect) would have provided for the errorless preservation of the original text. Moreover, the great mass of Christians has to depend upon translations for none of which infallible accuracy is claimed.
The theory of Partial Inspiration,
The theory of partial inspiration is, that the writers of Scripture enjoyed the influence of the Spirit to such an extent, that it is the Word, and contains the Will of God (Luther, Calvin, Baxter, Doddridge, Wm. Lowth, Baumgarten, Neander, Tholuck, Stier, Lange, Hare, Alford, Van Oosterzee, Plumptre, F. W. Farrar, Dorner, and others). It admits mistakes, or the possibility of mistakes, in historical and geographical statements, but denies error in matters of faith or morals. In favor of this view it may be said:
(1) that it lays stress upon the sense of Scripture as a revelation of God’s will, and leaves room for the full play of human agency in the composition.
(2) It helps to understand the divergences in the accounts of our Lord’s life, and the inconsistencies in historical statement of different parts of the Bible.
(3) It is more in accord with the method of the Spirit’s working in general.
The apostles were not perfect in their conduct and judgment as rulers and teachers of the Church (Acts xv. 39, xxiii. 3; Gal. ii. 12; I Cor. xiii. 12; Phil. iii. 12).
(4) It removes a hindrance out of the way of many who would gladly believe the Bible to contain the word of God,
if it were not necessary to give their assent to all its historical statements. Many can believe the discourses of our Lord in John (xii. sqq.) to be divine who can not so regard the list of the dukes of Edom (Gen. xxxvi. 15-43), or all the tables of the Books of Chronicles.
(5) This view makes the absence of an absolutely pure text intelligible.
Focussing on the Renaissance and the increasing awareness regarding the precepts of biblical textual criticism, drawing toward the end of the 16th century, Protestant apologists were already making some striking conclusions with regard to how the concept of ‘inspiration’ was to be understood in the light of imperfect manuscripts.
Propagating the Roman Catholic view as dictated by the Council of Trent (1546 CE), St. Roberto F. R. Bellarmino (1542 – 1621 CE), Rector of the Roman College and Professor of controversial theology, held that the Latin Vulgate was ‘authentic’. Countering this view, Dr. William Whitaker (1548 – 1595 CE), Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, suggested that it was in fact only the original Hebrew and Greek autographs that could claim to be authentic and ‘divinely-inspired’.
This view, shared by many of Whitaker’s Protestant contemporaries at the time, was echoed later by Dr. Archibald A. Hodge (1823 – 1886 CE) and Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield (1851 – 1921 CE), both professors at Princeton Theological Seminary. Warfield’s chief opponent was Dr. Charles A. Briggs (1841 – 1912 CE). A Professor at Union Theological Seminary,
Briggs had studied in Germany and was well versed in the principles of higher criticism. Briggs, rejecting the historical reliability of the position asserted by Hodge, Warfield and their followers, stated that this doctrine, which drew a distinction between inerrant autographs and errant copies, was an innovation generated by “modern scholastics.”
Specifically, the theory of verbal (plenary) inspiration and the consequent inerrancy of scripture drew strong condemnation from Briggs. On being appointed to the Edward Robinson Chair of Biblical Theology at Union Seminary, Briggs inaugural address was peppered with scathing criticism of the ‘conservatives’. Describing the ‘conservative’ theory of inerrancy as a “ghost of modern evangelism to frighten children”,
Briggs sought to limit ‘divine-inspiration’ to matters concerning faith and morals. The ‘conservatives’, convinced that Briggs was guilty of heretical conduct, drew up six charges of ‘heresy’ against him. Of these six charges of ‘heresy’, five were concerned with Biblical ‘inspiration’ and authority. Although the charges against Briggs were twice dismissed, he was eventually brought to trial but was later acquitted. However, the verdict was appealed and in 1893 Briggs was convicted of ‘heresy’ and defrocked.
Even as recently as some 30 years ago, we can observe the establishment of an interdenominational gathering of hundreds of evangelical Christian scholars forming the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI); they saw it as their duty to expound what they thought was the ‘correct’ view on biblical inerrancy, against others who they thought tended toward ‘liberal’ and ‘neo-orthodox’ views. One major outcome of the ICBI was the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978 CE). Seeking to clarify and correct what they saw as unbiblical views on ‘inspiration’, Article VI, from the articles of affirmation and denial, states,
We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.
We deny that the inspiration of Scripture can rightly be affirmed of the whole without the parts, or of some parts but not the whole.
Hence today we can observe two main camps: those who affirm the theory of Plenary Inspiration (with the important qualification that this was observable in the original autographs only); and those who affirm the theory of Partial Inspiration, that is that ‘inspiration’ extends to faith and morals but admits mistakes or the possibility of mistakes in other aspects of the message. Given the viewpoints stated above, one may find himself bewildered as to what theory of ‘inspiration’, if any, is the correct one. Indeed, popular conservative evangelical theologian, Dr. Charles Ryrie, notes:
Although those holding many theological viewpoints would be willing to say the Bible is inspired, one finds little uniformity as to what is meant by inspiration. Some focus it on the writers; others, on the writings; still others, on the readers. Some relate it to the general message of the Bible; others, to the thoughts; still others, to the words. Some include inerrancy; many don’t.
These differences call for precision in stating the biblical doctrine. Formerly all that was necessary to affirm one’s belief in full inspiration was the statement, “I believe in the inspiration of the Bible.” But when some did not extend inspiration to the words of the text it became necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible.” To counter the teaching that not all parts of the Bible were inspired, one had to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible.”
Then because some did not want to ascribe total accuracy to the Bible, it was necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary, infallible , inerrant inspiration of the Bible.” But then “infallible” and “inerrant” began to be limited to matters of faith only rather than also embracing all that the Bible records (including historical facts, genealogies, accounts of Creation, etc.), so it became necessary add the concept of “unlimited inerrancy.” Each addition to the basic statement arose because of an erroneous teaching.
One must ask the question: can it be demonstrated that any person in the history of Christianity, from the advent of Jesus(P) until the present day, has read any of the original autographs of the 27 books of the New Testament considered ‘inspired’ by today’s missionaries?
Consider that none of the original autographs exist today; also consider that it has not been recorded anywhere in Christian history that anyone has conclusively referred to the original autographs let alone actually read any of the original autographs. Ah, but what about the authors of the books themselves, obviously they read the original autographs as it was they who wrote them.
Seemingly glaringly obvious at first glance, but not so much so when we consider the historical evidence we have available to us today. Can anyone prove from the textual evidence we have today, that a single uniform textually pure book of the New Testament existed back to the period of time when it was originally penned by the author? The answer, of course, is no.
This is evidenced by the fact that there are many textual variations from within the text as documented by the manuscripts collected from all corners of Christendom by today’s textual critics. This can be illustrated by the fact that, in terms of historicity, we know incredibly little about the text of the New Testament before 200 CE – a long way away given that the 27 books of the New Testament were estimated to have been originally written from c. 50 CE – c. 100 CE.
… there is a stumbling block that remains, that is the history of the text before AD 200. There are only indirect witnesses for this period: a few Patristic quotations, early variants preserved in the Greek or in some versions which can be dated with some uncertainty using internal criticism, versions of the Diatessaron which are of varying degrees of trustworthiness, and that is about all. On this meagre foundation, two contradictory theories about the history of the text still find supporters: the theories of Westcott-Hort and of von Soden.
The above mentioned dates become critically important when they are understood in conjunction with the textual transmission patterns of texts in antiquity. The textual critics of classical texts inform us that the most serious textual corruptions occur in the first century of the text being transmitted. Professor Helmut Koester of Harvard Divinity School, in a paper presented at the 1988 Notre Dame University conference on Gospel Traditions in the Second Century, makes the following observations:
The problems for the reconstruction of the textual history of the canonical Gospels in the first century of transmission are immense. The assumption that the reconstruction of the best archetype for the manuscript tradition is more or less identical with the assumed autograph is precarious. The oldest known archetypes are separated from the autographs by more than a century. Textual critics of classical texts know that the first century of their transmission is the period on which the most serious corruptions occur. Textual critics of the NT writings have been surprisingly naive in this respect.
Quite simply, we are forced to conclude that our knowledge of the original autographs is essentially non-existent. Professor Christian-Bernard Amphoux, based at the Protestant Faculty of Theology in Montpellier where he established the ‘Centre de documentation sur les manuscrits de la Bible’, informs us that,
Of the autographs of the New Testament, nothing is known precisely, other than that, if they existed, they soon disappeared. The early Apologists who sometimes discuss the contents of the biblical text never refer to the originals.
Is there any significance in the fact that the earliest Christian apologists never refer to the original autographs? The early apologists never referred to the original autographs not because they had no reason to appeal to them – rather there would have been many motives for appealing to them had they been forthcoming  – but simply because they didn’t exist.
The secular polemist Celsus (lived during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, 161–180 CE) accuses the early Christians of changing their scriptures simply to improve their arguments against their opponents, “Some of the believers … have changed the original text of the Gospels three or four times or even more, with the intention of thus being able to destroy the arguments of their critics.”
Origen (c. 185 – c. 254 CE) does not dispute the existence of such changes, but counters Celsus argument seeking to soothe the importance of these changes by stating that such changes to the text were initiated by ‘heretics’ such as Marcion, Valentinus and Lucanus. Without any recourse to the original autographs,
Origen aptly observes, “It is an obvious fact today that there is much diversity among the manuscripts, due either to the carelessness of the scribes, or to the perverse audacity of some people in correcting the text, or again to the fact that there are those who add or delete as they please, setting themselves up as correctors.” Origen is known to have sought out information regarding the variant readings in the Greek New Testament.
In fact, in some passages that presented specific exegetical problems, Origen suggested that perhaps all of the manuscripts that were available may have been corrupted! Certainly not the first to display puzzlement over the text of the New Testament, Origen is followed by a host of other prominent Church fathers who grappled with the differences in the biblical text.
For example, Jerome (c. 347–420 CE) and Augustine (354–430 CE) were known to have practiced textual criticism due to the fluidity of the biblical text. Simply stated, without any recourse to the original autographs, the earliest ecclesiastical writers were unable to distinguish between the ‘inspired’ text which, according to the Christians, came into being as a result of the “… operation of the Holy Spirit upon the writers of the Bible, …”, and other corrupt fabricated texts.
But were the accusations of corrupting and fabricating ‘scripture’ limited to pagan philosophers such as Celsus? What were the prevalent circumstances in early Christendom that forced Origen, speaking barely two hundred years after the departure of Jesus, to conclude that, “It is an obvious fact today that there is much diversity among the manuscripts… ?” Historians of early Christianity now acknowledge that there was no established “orthodoxy” during the first two and a half centuries.
Ehrman, discussing Walter Bauer’s analysis of specific geographical centres of early Christendom, such as, Edessa, Egypt, Antioch, Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Rome, reports that, “the earliest and/or predominant forms of Christianity in most of these areas were heretical (i.e., forms subsequently condemned by the victorious party).”
Although widely and strongly condemned, forgery was also a frequent occurrence in early Christendom; notably, the practice of forgery was not limited to the “heretics”. For example, an “orthodox” presbyter of Asia Minor owned up to forging the Apostolic Constitutions and III Corinthians. In his defence the deposed presbyter claimed that he did it “out of love for Paul.”
In fact, the textual history of the first three hundred years of the New Testament is described by the textual critics as “the period of relative freedom” or “the period of relative creativity.” During this period the majority of changes to the text of the New Testament, both accidental and intentional, originated:
The majority of textual variants that are preserved in the surviving documents, even the documents produced in a later age, originated during the first three Christian centuries.
This conviction is not based on idle speculation. In contrast to the relative stability of the New Testament text in later times, our oldest witnesses display a remarkable degree of variation. The evidence suggests that during the earliest period of its transmission the New Testament text was in a state of flux, that it became standardized in some regions by the fourth century, and subject to fairly rigid control (by comparison) only in the Byzantine period.
According to the Christians, “… inspiration signifies the operation of the Holy Spirit upon the writers of the Bible, …“; however, this seemed to be of no importance for these early scribes, both “orthodox” and “heterodox”, who were intent on stamping their mark on the biblical text to bolster their arguments pertaining to the theological position they advocated,
While these christological issues were under debate, before any one group had established itself as dominant and before the proto-orthodox party had refined its christological views with the nuance that would obtain in the fourth century, the books of the emerging Christian Scriptures were circulating in manuscript form.
The texts of these books were by no means inviolable; to the contrary, they were altered with relative ease and alarming frequency. Most of the changes were accidental, the result of scribal ineptitude, carelessness, or fatigue. Others were intentional, and reflect the controversial milieux within which they were produced.
Thus, in the earliest Christian periods, the professed followers of Jesus were engaged in intense polemics against each other. In this highly charged atmosphere, accusations of moral, ethical and theological corruption rifled back and forth, with various parties accusing the other of corrupting and fabricating ‘scripture’. Significantly, throughout each and every one of these encounters no-one appeals to the ‘inspired’ original autographs.
Thus the general claim that the original autographs of the 27 books of the New Testament are ‘inspired’ is a misnomer when we understand that we have no reference (or access) to the original autographs from which any claims of ‘inspiration’ can be made.
Consequently we are left with the contradictory situation whereby the missionaries start by affirming ‘inspiration’ for the original autographs – that not a single person in Christian history has conclusively referred to let alone actually read – based on a modern critically reconstructed eclectic text which is supposed to be based on the original autographs.
A curious situation indeed! Maybe we can recover the original autographs sometime in the future? A forthright assessment by Erwin Nestle, one of the foremost biblical textual scholars of the 20th century, informs us that there is no hope of ever finding the originals.
Interestingly, when being ‘witnessed’ to by missionaries, I always seem to remember them clutching their Bible in English, telling me, “The Bible is inspired”; strangely, I can never once recall them saying to me “The Bible is ‘inspired’ only in the original autographs“. This I believe is probably the case for the vast majority of Muslims who are ‘witnessed’ to by the missionaries. So let us focus on what people actually have available to them today. Are the 27 books of the New Testament we have today ‘inspired’? Many Christians today believe that the New Testament we have today is ‘inspired’. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646 CE), Chapter I, Article VIII, states,
The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical;….
Seen as one of the cornerstones of reformed theology, and as a result the lifeblood of proper biblical understanding for the missionaries, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646 CE) makes some strong claims with regard to the ‘canon’ and ‘content’ of the Bible and thus by implication, the New Testament.
Stepping away from the raging debates as to what ‘inspiration’ and ‘purity’ actually mean to a Christian, there are many Christians the world over who believe that the Bible, and by implication, the New Testament, has been “…kept pure in all ages …“. Rev. T. Lyro, Assistant Professor of Theology and Bible, in a paper discussing the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646 CE), referring to Article VIII cited above, states,
Although we don’t have the autographs, we do have the correct, inspired text because God preserved for us as he promised he would. Interestingly enough, he chose a way that is contrary to what most of us would have chosen. Instead of preserving one set of manuscripts that would be the standard for everybody, God preserved the original text in thousands of different manuscripts.
What at first seems counterintuitive becomes obvious when one thinks about it. Instead of preserving the autographs, which would probably become the object of sinful worship, God kept the text protected by providing so many copies of it that no one can effectively change the reading of the text and get away with it.
He then goes on to quote G. I. Williamson, who states,
At first sight it would appear that with the disappearance of A [autographs] (probably worn out with use) the text would be doomed to progressive corruption thereafter. But such is not the case. The reason is that God has exercised control over all the elements and agencies concerned with the preservation of the sacred text. We see that God determined that early copies of the original would be made. True, each erred in a slight degree, but they did not all err in the same points. Being human, the copier of manuscript B would make a mistake here and there. Likewise would the copiers of C and D.
But they would each err in a different individual way. So that where B erred, C and D would not err. In effect, C and D would thus bear witness against the error of B. And so, while the true (or perfect) original text would not be entirely reproduced in any single copy, yet it would not be lost or inaccessible because by the majority testimony of several copies, error would always be witnessed against. The true text would be perfectly preserved within the body of witnesses.
Consequently, he affirms that,
Thus, when the science of textual criticism has been correctly applied, we can truly say that we have today the inspired and inerrant text of God. Now, keep in mind that this is true of the text in the original languages.
‘… perfectly preserved within the body of witnesses?‘ One should be slightly hesitant of this bold assertion when we realise that the textual critics’, in a paper announcing the creation of the International Greek New Testament Project, when referring to the body of witnesses they have available (i.e., manuscript evidence), speak of increasing their knowledge of the original New Testament, not perfecting their knowledge of the original New Testament. However, we shall continue with some examples to illustrate the problem with ascribing ‘inspiration’ to today’s critically reconstructed biblical texts.
Is modern day biblical textual criticism, whose job it is to reconstruct the Greek New Testament, able to preserve the ‘true text’ and as a result the ‘inspired’ text? Much can be said about the purpose of biblical textual criticism, however, the most basic and fundamental concept of this text-critical process is the detection and rejection of error. Such is the importance of this process, the Christian theologians inform us that textual criticism is basic (i.e., foundational) to all other biblical and theological study.
The textual critics are involved with problems ranging from the “simple omission or substitution of a single word to highly complex textual questions involving lengthy clauses or sentences.” This inductive methodology can be illustrated by the following small example. The example below discusses the Committee deliberations concerning the verses Luke 3:32 and 3:33:
An example of Committee deliberations concerning Luke 3:32 and 3:33. The variants of these verses are dealt with in detail at A Student’s Guide to New Testament Textual Variants.
Discussing the “Praxis of New Testament Textual Criticism“, the Alands (both of whom are members of the UBS-GNT4 committee) state that the first of the twelve basic rules for textual criticism, is:
1. Only one reading can be original, however many variant readings there may be. Only in very rare instances does the tenacity of the New Testament tradition present an insoluble tie between two or more alternative readings.
Given the Alands’ first rule of textual criticism, we can thus infer that only one reading can be ‘inspired’. So when the eclectic text of the Greek New Testament (UBS-GNT3corr) has 126 ‘A’ rated verses which are ‘virtually certain’, 475 ‘B’ rated verses which display ‘some degree of doubt’, 699 ‘C’ rated verses which display a ‘considerable degree of doubt’ and 144 ‘D’ rated verses which display a ‘very high degree of doubt’, just on what basis can we be absolutely certain that any of these 1,444 verses are ‘inspired’ given that our understanding of their certainty is a product of the editors’ judgement?
One of the Greek editions in use today (UBS) has taken up this system; the problem is that, even when a variant is in the highest category, this does not guarantee of its representing the original text; what then of those in other categories? In the case of the UBS Greek New Testament, the degree of certainty accorded to them is, as much as anything, an indication of the presuppositions concerning the history of the text shared by the five members of the editing committee (see Metzger 1975, Preface, pp. xv-xxiv).
Thus can we conclude that these 1,444 verses, all of which contain some degree of ‘doubt’, have come into being under “…the operation of the Spirit“? Can we conclude that the Greek New Testament Text has been “…kept pure in all ages…“? Does any bibliological theory of ‘inspiration’ allow someone, who is not the original author of the work, to decide on what parts of that document (whether they be words, sentences, paragraphs or sections) are to be kept, added, modified or removed, and still claim that text to be ‘inspired’?
As the UBS Greek New Testament is not a single continuous Greek text that someone can just pick up and read, the situation is further exacerbated when we understand that we still have an additional layer of decision-making before the Greek text is agreed. Dr. Elizabeth G. Edwards, Interregional Translations Research Associate of the United Bible Societies, discussing the textual critical apparatus of the UBS-GNT, explains to us that:
The very fact that the UBS/GNT incorporates a textual critical apparatus, rather than simply presenting a particular Greek text, is proof of the UBS’s conviction that a translator should be involved in the textual criticism, whether actively as a potential challenger of the readings within the text or only as a mere observer, aware of the “how” and “why” of the decisions made. And the ways in which the UBS/GNT simplifies the situation for the translator is actually what allows him to be involved, yet still have time to translate the text, instead of only determining it.
So now these 1,444 verses, whose certainty was decided upon by editorial judgment, are now passed on to be evaluated by personal judgment as someone else (whether that person be the translator of the text into a foreign language or someone able to read biblical Greek) has to decide whether the recommendations of the editorial committee are to be followed or not! Can we say that these verses from scripture have “…come into being under the operation of the Spirit“?
One could say, well it is just the message that is important, no core doctrine of the New Testament has been altered. Generally speaking, this view is advocated by those falling under the heading of Partial Inspiration theory. This however leaves us with some curious conclusions to make about the current critical editions of the New Testament – surprisingly the same New Testament that the advocates of this view rely upon! Do we say that biblical textual criticism is unimportant? Indeed, the text critics will tell you it’s vitally important.
This begs the question as to why then the textual critics consider it so important when no core doctrine of the Bible is at stake? What is the point? Some would suggest, ‘It is to have the most accurate Bible possible’ – but have we not just said it is the message that is important? Can we then infer that it is to have the most accurate Bible possible except for the core doctrines –
after all the core doctrines are not at stake, so the text-critical process would not even touch upon such matters, let alone improve them or make them more accurate. This begs the question: Can the authoritative message of the New Testament (whether it be historical matters of those to do with faith and morals) be transmitted when all of the words behind such messages are not considered ‘inspired’?
If we adhere to the standards applied by New Testament textual critics, almost all books in antiquity to a greater or lesser degree would be shown to have variations in text, whether it be by additions, subtractions, intentional and unintentional alterations, etc. However, we miss the essence of the argument. The last time I checked, Tacitus did not claim to be “…breathing out the Spirit of God …“.
Aristotle did not describe to us that he was “…under the operation of the Holy Spirit.” Plato has not informed us that his writings have become “…the expression of the will of God.” Also whether we are unable to reconstruct with certainty some of Aristotle’s work does not have an effect on our understanding of God. Thus if the claim is made that the Bible, and by implication the New Testament, is ‘inspired’, these claims require rigorous proof, rigorous criteria and rigorous authentication.
We have shown that the bibliological doctrine of inspiration has never been agreed upon by Christians. Each sect has their own doctrine of inspiration to suit their interpretation of the Bible, and to what extent, if any, they perceive errors to be present therein. Those who fall under the general heading of Plenary Inspiration insist that each and every word of the Bible is ‘inspired’ – with the caveat that this can be observed in the original autographs only. They also state that there may be errors in the scriptures we now possess.
Those who fall under the general heading of Partial Inspiration state that it is the ‘message’ of the Bible that is ‘inspired’, i.e., those matters to do with faith and morals. This theory however admits mistakes, or the possibility of mistakes in other matters, such as those to do with history, geography etc. These mistakes can occur in the original autographs as well as the scriptures we possess today.
We have demonstrated that modern day Bibles, many of which base their New Testament on the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament are not to be considered ‘inspired’ if we understand how the text is reconstructed. These textual critics, some 2,000 years removed from the ‘original authors’, are deciding on what is and what is not part of the Bible.
These decisions are made by an editorial committee who mark many verses as ‘doubtful’ – verses which are then chosen by personal judgement – relative to what extent you concur with the committees’ recommendations. Both the editorial committee and subsequently the individual (who decides if he wants to follow their recommendations), are not, as we know, the original authors of the books of the New Testament. The importance of this can be realised when we understand that according to the Christians, ‘inspiration’ “…signifies the operation of the Holy Spirit upon the writers of the Bible.”
Finally, let us conclude with an observation from Professor Paul Ellingworth, Honorary Professor of New Testament at the University of Aberdeen and a UBS translation consultant, who provides for us a useful framework in which the concept of biblical ‘inspiration’, or should we say lack thereof, can be properly emphasised:
2. In theory, a second and opposite view of the relation between textual criticism and the life of the church could be an equally dogmatic positive statement. One might expect that a group of Christians who believed that every word of the Bible was inerrant and/or infallible would give the highest priority to establishing what the exact wording of the Bible was; in other words, to textual criticism. In practice, however, this rarely seems to be the case; and it is interesting to ask why.
A clue to the answer may be found in a formula often used in statements of faith: a declaration of belief in the infallibility of the word of God “as originally given”. From one point of view, this is a speculative statement, since the biblical writings, especially the Old Testament, are no longer extant “as originally given”. From a more positive point of view, it is an expression of faith, as the nature of the documents in which it is generally used confirms. That is, it is a theological statement about the Bible, not a scientific statement summarising the results, or the current position, of textual research.
And herein lies the problem. Where do Christians take their theology from… the Bible! One need not look much further than the 1st sola of the Protestant Reformation, sola scriptura, to know this. Thus we are left with the absurd situation: the Christians are making a theological statement about the Bible’s inerrancy and/or infallibility and by implication its ‘inspiration’,
knowing that this theology has been constructed from exegeting a non-inspired eclectically reconstructed biblical text, which is a product of editorial judgment followed by personal judgment. An illogical position that makes the ‘inspiration’ of the Bible paradoxical in understanding.
And Allah knows best!
References & Notes
 D. D. Schmidt, “The Greek New Testament As A Codex”, in L. M. McDonald and J. A. Sanders (eds.), The Canon Debate, 2002, Hendrickson Publishers, p. 478.
 G. N. Stanton, Jesus And Gospel, 2004, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge (UK), pp. 165-206; Some discussion regarding these issues can be found in Chapters 8 & 9.
 E. Nestle, “How to Use a Greek New Testament”, The Bible Translator, 1951, Volume II, Issue II, p. 50. Talking about the reasons for differences of text, Erwin Nestle states:
Therefore, we only have copies of the Biblical writings, and copies of copies, and copies of copies of copies, etc. And we all know what often happens in copying: errors, misunderstandings, omissions, etc. creep into the copy; then intentional alterations: obsolete terms are replaced by modern ones (as in our Hymnbooks); additions, little explanations in the margin are inserted in the text by a later copyist; the text of the second or third Gospel was adapted to the first (harmonization); difficult passages were smoothed, etc.
 A good example of this is the early Church Fathers’ quotations from Scripture. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether a Father is quoting from memory, making an allusion to the text or adding his own interpretation to the text that he is quoting (or thought to be quoting). See L. Vaganay & C-B Amphoux (Trans. J. Heimerdinger), An Introduction To New Testament Textual Criticism, 1986, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge (UK), p. 92,
Another cause of variants was the all too common disregard for literal accuracy.
Many times St. Jerome points out that the Christians of the first centuries, including the Apostles and Evangelists, in quoting the Old Testament, did not regard the letter of the sacred writings with the same superstition as was beginning to characterise the Jewish attitude. They realised that the letter only had value through the meaning and that ‘the Book was made for man not man for the Book’. (Durand 1911, vol. 126, p. 311)
This way of viewing the text of the Scriptures is already apparent in the rare occurrences of New Testament quotations in the writings of the early ecclesiastical authors, the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists. Not only do they quote from memory, in an approximate fashion, but they also often use allusions rather than precise quotations. It seems clear that what they saw in the text was a deeper meaning which could not be affected by any kind of textual alterations.
On a side point, the popular statement that the New Testament can be reconstructed solely from the citations of the early Church Fathers is rather far-fetched when we understand what role the Church Fathers’ citations actually play in today’s critical editions of the New Testament.
They play no more than a ‘supplementary and corroborative function’ according to the Alands. See the 5th of the 12 basic rules of textual criticism in, K. Aland & B. Aland (Trans. E. F. Rhodes), The Text Of The New Testament: An Introduction To The Critical Editions And To The Theory And Practice Of Modern Textual Criticism, 1995 (2nd Revised Edition), William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids (Michigan), p. 280.
5. The primary authority for a critical textual decision lies with the Greek manuscript tradition, with the versions and Fathers serving no more than a supplementary and corroborative function, particularly in passages where their underlying Greek text cannot be reconstructed with absolute certainty.
 Eusebius of Caesarea (Trans. G. A. Williamson), The History Of The Church, 1989, Penguin Classics, pp. 258-259. Throughout Eusebius’s (260 – 339 CE) History Of The Church he describes the various stages of persecution by the pagan Roman Empire that the Christians endured. Eusebius, describing the plan of his work, informs us that there are 5 chief matters to be dealt with.
Considering that one of the chief matters is titled ‘The widespread, bitter, and recurrent campaigns launched by unbelievers against the divine message, and the heroism with which when occasion demanded men faced torture and death to maintain the fight in its defence’, we can surmise that life as a Christian in the earliest periods of Christianity was at times a colossal struggle. It should be remembered that Eusebius’s account is the only surviving historical record of the Church during its crucial first 300 years.
 B. D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption Of Scripture: The Effect Of Early Christological Controversies On The Text Of The New Testament, 1993, Oxford University Press: London & New York, p. 3.
 Editorial Board (E. A. Nida), “A New Edition of the Greek New Testament”, The Bible Translator, 1959, Volume X, Issue I, New York, NY: The American Bible Society, p. 29. Referring to the production of the first UBS’s Greek New Testament the editor says:
For the first time in the history of Christendom it has been arranged that a committee of New Testament textual scholars should undertake to study all the available evidence and prepare a new Greek text, which would represent the latest discoveries, a careful evaluation of existing data, and the presentation of relevant evidence on all points involving significant exegetical problems. …
 The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646 CE), Chapter I, Article III states,
The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.
See an online edition of the full original version of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646 CE) complete with scripture proofs.
 M. F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary, 1966 (3rd Edition), Moody Press: Chicago, p. 527.
 “Inspiration”, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1953, Volume VI, Baker Book House: Grand Rapids (Michigan), p. 12.
 ibid., pp. 12-19.
 M. J. Sawyer, Theories Of Inspiration, available online (1st January 2005).
 “Inspiration”, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia Of Religious Knowledge, op. cit., pp. 17-18.
 ibid., p. 18.
 It is not being suggesting that biblical textual criticism started at this point, merely that the formative ‘critical’ editions of the Bible roughly coincide with the Renaissance. See E. J. Epp, “Issues In New Testament Textual Criticism: Moving from the Nineteenth Century to the Twenty-First Century”, in D. A. Black (ed), Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism, 2002, Baker Academic: Grand Rapids (Michigan), pp. 75-76. He says:
Since its beginnings in the Renaissance with Erasmus, during its youth throughout the Enlightenment (with Mill, Bentley, Bengel, Wettstein, Semler, and Griesbach), and during its young adulthood (with Lachmann, von Tischendorf, and Tregelles) and its early maturity (with Westcott and Hort and the host of scholars since then) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, New Testament textual criticism actually has remained much the same in terms of its goals, its arguments for priority of readings, its grouping of manuscripts, and its motivation and general procedures for producing critical editions.
Also see B. D. Ehrman, “Text and Tradition: The Role of New Testament Manuscripts in Early Christian Studies. Lecture One: Text and Interpretation: The Exegetical Significance of the ‘Original’ Text,” TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism [http://purl.org/TC] 5 (2000): par. 5.
 J. D. Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: A Critique Of The Rogers/McKim Proposal, 1982, Zondervan Publishing Company, pp. 81-82.
 G. L. Bahnsen, “The Inerrancy Of The Original Autographa”, in N. L. Geisler (ed), Inerrancy, 1980, Zondervan Publishing Company, p. 157.
 American Presbyterian Church (official website), Charles A. Briggs, available online (31st January 2005).
 M. J. Sawyer, Inspiration, Authority & Criticism In the Thought of Charles Augustus Briggs, available online (31st January 2005); Also see, M. J. Sawyer, Hardening of the Categories: Why Theologians Have Opposed “New Knowledge”, available online (31st January 2005).
 W. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 1994, Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester (UK) and Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids (Michigan), p. 1205.
 C. C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth, 1999, Moody Publishers, p. 76.
 L. Vaganay & C-B Amphoux (Trans. J. Heimerdinger), An Introduction To New Testament Textual Criticism, op. cit., p. 90.
 ibid., p. 168.
 H. Koester, “The Text of the Synoptic Gospels in the Second Century” in W. L. Petersen (ed.), Gospel Traditions In The Second Century: Origins, Recensions, Text, And Transmission, 1989, University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame (Indiana), p. 19.
Those textual critics that adhere to the principles of “Thoroughgoing Eclecticism”, such as G. D. Kilpatrick and his pupil J. K. Elliot, state that by around 200 CE most of the deliberate changes (and virtually all variants) to the text of the New Testament had been inserted into the textual stream. See M. W. Holmes, “The Case For Reasoned Eclecticism”, in D. A. Black (ed.), Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism, op. cit., p. 92. Also see B. M. Metzger, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission Corruption,
And Restoration, 1992, Third Enlarged Edition, Oxford University Press: Oxford (UK), pp. 177-178. We can also note that the canons of criticism goes back to at least as far as Irenaeus (c. 120 CE – c. 202 CE). For example, Irenaeus prefers a reading in the Apocalypse 13:18 “found in all the good [or weighty] and ancient copies”. See E. J. Epp, “Issues In New Testament Textual Criticism: Moving from the Nineteenth Century to the Twenty-First Century”, in D. A. Black (ed), Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism, op. cit., pp. 20-21.
 L. Vaganay & C-B Amphoux (Trans. J. Heimerdinger), An Introduction To New Testament Textual Criticism, op. cit., p. 90.
 B. F. Westcott & F. J. A. Hort, Introduction To The New Testament In The Original Greek, 1882 (1988 reprint), Hendrickson Publishers Inc., p. 4.
 L. Vaganay & C-B Amphoux (Trans. J. Heimerdinger), An Introduction To New Testament Textual Criticism, op. cit., p. 96.
 B. M. Metzger, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission Corruption, And Restoration, 1992 (Third Enlarged Edition), Oxford University Press: Oxford & New York, pp. 151-154.
 B. D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption Of Scripture: The Effect Of Early Christological Controversies On The Text Of The New Testament, op. cit., p. 4.
 ibid., p. 7-8.
 ibid., p. 23.
 ibid., p. 28. Also see L. Vaganay & C-B Amphoux (Trans. J. Heimerdinger), An Introduction To New Testament Textual Criticism, op. cit., pp. 89-111
 B. D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption Of Scripture: The Effect Of Early Christological Controversies On The Text Of The New Testament, op. cit., p. 275.
 E. Nestle, “How to Use a Greek New Testament”, The Bible Translator, 1951, Volume II (Issue II), p. 50. He says:
The originals written by the Apostles themselves, are all lost; and there is no hope of finding them one day.
 An appraisal of the principles of translation theory informs us that as soon as the text is translated, the resulting translated document is the interpretation of the person who has produced it. See sub-section “Interpretation in Translation” in E. A. Nida, “The Translator’s Problems”, The Bible Translator, 1950, Volume I (Issue II), p. 41-42.
 An online edition of the full original version of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646 CE) complete with scripture proofs.
 T. S. Lyro, “The Confession, Inspiration and Translation”, Western Reformed Journal, 2003, 10:2, p. 2. See online edition.
 ibid., p. 2-3.
 ibid., p. 3.
 Editorial Board, “Proposed Publication Of The Manuscript Evidence For The Text Of The Greek New Testament”, The Bible Translator, 1950, Volume I (Issue IV), p. 170.
 B. F. Westcott & F. J. A. Hort, Introduction To The New Testament In The Original Greek, op. cit., p. 3.
 D. A. Black, New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide, 1994, Baker Academic: Grand Rapids (Michigan), p. 12. He says:
The second reason why textual criticism is necessary is because there are numerous mistakes in the extant copies of the New Testament. These mistakes must be identified, and the correct reading deduced, before exegesis can take place. New Testament textual criticism is, therefore, basic to all other biblical and theological study. Interpretation, teaching, and preaching cannot be done until textual criticism has done its work.
 R. P. Markham, S. C. Neill & H. K. Moulton, “A Symposium on the Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament”, The Bible Translator, 1967, Volume XVIII (Issue I), p. 3.
 B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary On The New Testament: A Companion Volume To The United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 1971, United Bible Societies: London & New York, p. 136.
 K. Aland & B. Aland (Trans. E. F. Rhodes), The Text Of The New Testament: An Introduction To The Critical Editions And To The Theory And Practice Of Modern Textual Criticism, op. cit., p. 280.
 K. D. Clarke, “Textual Certainty In The United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament”, Novum Testamentum, 2002, Volume XLIV (No. 2), p. 116.
 1,444. One should not place any special emphasis on this numerical figure. It should be remembered that we have used the UBS-GNT as an example to highlight the issues of modern day textual criticism and biblical ‘inspiration’. For instance, referring to the forthcoming 3rd edition of the UBS GNT, Dr. Keith Elliot stated:
Another major advantage of this text is that we are enabled to share (in a way impossible for most other editions of the Greek New Testament) the decision-making of the editorial committee. In B.M. Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament reports are given of the reasons which led the editors to adopt certain variant readings for inclusion in the text and to relegate certain others to the apparatus. Metzger provides a comment on about 2,000 sets of variants, of which about 1,400 are cited in the apparatus of the forthcoming 3rd edition.
And herein lies one of the major criticisms of the UBS text. A Pocket edition can only present a select apparatus, but the extremely restricted apparatus of this text makes it less useful than say Nestle-Aland (25) which cites about 10,000 variants of the 9th edition of Merk which gives even more. E. C. Colwell in the Wikgren Festschrift sets out certain reservations of a limited apparatus such as UBS provides, and his views are shared by many other critics of this edition.
See J. K. Elliott, “A Second Look At The United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament”, The Bible Translator, 1975, Volume XXVI (Issue III), p. 325. In response to this paper see, M. Black, “The United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament Evaluated – A Reply”, The Bible Translator, 1977, Volume XXVIII (Issue I), p. 116-120.
 L. Vaganay & C-B Amphoux (Trans. J. Heimerdinger), An Introduction To New Testament Textual Criticism, op. cit., p. 88; Also see B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary On The New Testament, 1975 (2nd Edition), London, pp. xv-xxiv. A comment regarding the problem with a “committee text” is also addressed by K. Aland & B. Aland (Trans. E. F. Rhodes), The Text Of The New Testament: An Introduction To The Critical Editions And To The Theory And Practice Of Modern Textual Criticism, op. cit., p. 34. Similar views are echoed by D. C. Parker, The Living Text Of The Gospels, 1997, Cambridge University Press, p. 3.
 E. G. Edwards, “On Using the Textual Apparatus of the UBS Greek New Testament”, The Bible Translator, 1977, Volume XXVIII (Issue I), p. 123.
 For some examples of translators expressing their opinions with regard to this issue, see G. Ch. Aalders, “Translator Or Textual Critic?”, The Bible Translator, 1956, Volume VII (Issue I), p. 15-16; also see, I. Larsen, “Variant Readings in 2 Corinthians”, The Bible Translator, 2000, Volume LI (Issue III), p. 342-348.
 Not so, according to the advocates of the Plenary Inspiration theory. See C. C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide To Understanding Biblical Truth, op. cit., p. 85,
Some are willing to acknowledge that the concepts of the Bible are inspired but not the words. Supposedly this allows for an authoritative conceptual message to have been given, but using words that can in some instances be erroneous. The obvious fallacy in this view is this: How are concepts expressed? Through words. Change the words and you have changed the concepts. You cannot separate the two. In order for concepts to be inspired, it is imperative that the words that express them be also.
Some seem to embrace concept inspiration as a reaction against the dictation caricature of verbal inspiration. To them if inspiration extends to the words, then God must have dictated those words. In order to avoid that conclusion they embrace the idea that God inspired only the concepts; the writers chose the words, and not necessarily always accurately. But God’s intended concepts somehow came through to us unscathed.
 P. Ellingworth, “Theological Reflections On The Textual Criticism Of The Bible”, The Bible Translator, 1995, Volume XLVI (Issue I), p. 122.