Reliable: Why the Original Text is Attainable by Abidan Shah, PhD

RELIABLE – 2 by Dr. Shah, Clearview Church, Henderson, NC

Introduction:  How many of ya’ll love the Indiana Jones movies? In the one starring Sean Connery as Henry, the father of Indiana Jones, the clues to find the Grail were in the diary. Everyone wanted to get their hands on the diary, especially the Nazis. Again, these are all far fetched stories. Sometimes, that’s how people think about the Bible, especially the New Testament. It was this book that everyone wanted to get their hands on, but it was stolen or lost forever. Such was not the case at all. Last weekend, we answered the question “Why the original text of the New Testament is important?” This weekend we will answer the question “Why the original text of the New Testament is attainable?” Main point: If the original text of the New Testament is the breath of God, inspired by God, then it is vital that we use every available Christ honoring means to seek and establish it. Contrary to what skeptics claim, the original text of the New Testament is not stolen or lost forever. In fact, most of it, if not all of it, is already in our hands.

Opening Scripture: 2 Peter 3      15 “and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.”

Context: Last week, I heard from so many people about how much they appreciated the message on the importance of the original text of the New Testament. Some admitted that they were not even aware that there were questions regarding the original text! They were grateful that now they were able to stand on a much more educated and informed foundation of the Word of God. I appreciate them saying that because all this study and understanding has not rattled my faith. To the contrary, it has strengthened it. I am far more confident and solid on the Word of God today than ever before. No one can throw anything at me that will cause me to doubt this book. I hope you can say the same as we go through this message.

I want to begin this message by reading again the question raised by Bart Ehrman (Professor at UNC Chapel Hill, agnostic, author, and outright challenger of biblical Christianity) in his book Misquoting Jesus – “[H]ow does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes—sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.” In the brief time we have, I want to focus on the 4 allegations in the last two lines: “We don’t have the originals!” “We have only error-ridden copies…,” “the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals…,” and “and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.”

To start with, Ehrman is right that we don’t have the originals, sometimes called the “autographs.” It would be wonderful to have the originals, but as I explained the last time, more than likely, every one of the original documents were written on papyrus.  They did not last because of the durability of papyrus, especially in the Mediterranean climate. That’s not a problem for us because it wasn’t the first documents that were inspired, just the words on the first document. It is assumed that once the document was lost, the text was lost with it. The text on those first documents were copied again and again. As I explained to you last time, just like if the perfect ruler were to be stolen from the Smithsonian, we would not have any problem determining an inch, because there are plenty of rulers from various factories and time periods lying around. All we have to do is to put a sample together and we can easily determine the average inch. The way Ehrman makes it sound, we can no longer know for sure if the original inch was 1 mm or 1 meter or 1 mile! See how ridiculous that is!

Ehrman’s second allegation is that “We have only error-ridden copies…” Again, he is partly right, but mostly wrong. There are 2 kinds of mistakes:

  • Unintentional (faulty eyesight, faulty hearing, errors of the mind, errors of judgment)
  • Intentional (Spelling and Grammar, Harmonizing, explaining history and geography, doctrinal – very minute)

Most of the mistakes are unintentional and insignificant. Ehrman even tries to give a count of these mistakes, 400,000. This is misleading. It only serves to shock and jar those who are unaware. One reason he and those like him make such wide estimations is because we have so many copies! Truth is that all such estimations are inaccurate and unhelpful. What is far more significant is that scribes were not as careless or crooked as they are made out to be! They had different levels of skills and abilities. Overall, they were operating from a perspective that they were handling the Word of God, similar to how the original writers were writing. To begin with, the New Testament writers were writing in the context and background of the Old Testament scriptures and the Jewish people. They were continuing or completing the story of God’s redemption. Listen to how each of the gospels open:

Matthew 1        1 “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham: 2 Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers.” In other words, the gospel was grounded in the story of God’s people, going back to their great King David and past him to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Mark 1       1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the Prophets: “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.” 3 “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight.’” Mark begins by quoting from Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3, two prominent prophets of the Jewish people.

We’ll skip over Luke and go to John, but we’ll come right back to him. John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What does that remind you of? Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”John was telling us that a new beginning had happened.

Luke 1        1 Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. 5 There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Again, the point is that these gospel accounts were written from different perspectives but with a common setting and background – Old Testament and Jewish people. The same can also be said about the rest of the New Testament writings:

Paul’s writings: Romans 1        1   Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God 2 which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, 3 concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, 4 and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.

Peter’s writings: 1 Peter 1:1 “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia…” Peter was writing to encourage Jewish background believers who were scattered all over the known world.

What’s the point? The writers of the New Testament books were continuing the story of the Old Testament. In fact, we have a couple of proofs that the NT writings were being referred to as Scriptures very early. 1 Timothy 5      17 “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. 18 For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’” Paul uses 2 references for “Scripture,” the first from Deuteronomy 25:4 and the second from Luke 10:7This means that the gospel of Luke was being treated as scripture already. Also, in 2 Peter 3      15 “and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” 

Three important deductions here: 

1. Paul’s letters are already floating around as a possible unit. 

2. They are being treated on the same level as Scriptures (in this context, OT writings). 

3. They are being twisted by those who are “untaught” and “untrained.” Already, in the New Testament, we can see evidence that they had to safeguard the writings! This was not an afterthought that the scribes had to come to the rescue.

According to church tradition, both Peter and Paul were martyred under the evil Roman emperor Nero (before AD 70). This means that the New Testament writings were being held up as God’s Word on the same status as the Old Testament writings before AD 70, that’s 30 years after Jesus ascended. Also, they were aware of those who were heretics and corruptors of the gospel: 2 Thessalonians 2        1 “Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, 2 not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come.”

The last book was probably the Book of Revelation, which was completed by AD 95. Listen to the strict message towards doctrinal purity and guardedness. Revelation 2        1 “To the angel of the church of Ephesus write…2 “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars… 6 But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate…8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write…9 “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan…12“And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write, ‘These things says He who has the sharp two-edged sword: 13 “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas wasMy faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. 15 Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. 16 Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth…18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write…19 “I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience…20 Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. 21 And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. 22 Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds. 23 I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts…Revelation 3         7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write…9 Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie—indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you.

Revelation 22       18 For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

Does this make any difference to our understanding of the original text/autographs of the New Testament? Yes! Not only were the New Testament writers aware that they were writing the Word of God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but the scribes were also warned not to tamper with it, and they didn’t! They copied it as faithfully as possible. They knew the curse that was upon any who would try to add or take away from the book of Revelation, and the other NT books. Corrections were made before handing over a manuscript or by later scribes. The core textual tradition is stable. No doctrine is in jeopardy. Most errors were actually early, but easily explainable. Very few that would be doctrinally significant.

You can hold the Bible in your hand and say with absolute confidence that you hold in your hand the Word of God without any error.

Invitation: How do you see the Word of God, especially the NT? Are you saved? Are you submitted to the authority of God’s Word through his Spirit?

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