The Impression of Authority

I’ve been reading about end notes and their use.  These are interesting because they give a research paper or book the appearance of authority without actually making the information readily available.  An author can make a claim, followed by an end note, and though we likely won’t take the time to turn to the end of the chapter or book to look at what the note says, it gives the impression of authority.  We think: “Clearly, he knows what he’s talking about.”  Or does he?  A couple of years ago I was reading a particularly unpleasant book that questioned the reliability of ancient New Testament manuscripts.  At one point it asserted that most textual errors that involved doctrine were deliberate, and then inserted one of those end notes.  At that time I was beginning to look at all of the end notes in this book (which is not convenient) to see what evidence he was providing for the problems with Bible manuscripts that he was claiming, so that I could try and prepare a response.  I was expecting a citation from an authoritative book, or other evidence.  But that’s not what I found.  Instead, there was just a note, explaining that what he had just written was just an opinion.  How cleaver.  If it had been a footnote, I could have quickly glanced at the bottom of the page and seen that what he affirmed at the top of the page had been cancelled out by what was confessed at the bottom.  But no, it was an end note, and double checking took time and effort.  I’m not saying that he did this deliberately.  But if he had confessed to not knowing right after stating his opinion, the impact would have been greatly reduced.  This has made a fundamental change in my reading habits.  When I read a confident claim, I turn back to the end note to double check.

I remember many years ago talking with a young couple in Salt Lake City about the topic of baptism.  I had dropped off a Bible study on the topic, and since they were also talking with another church about the same topic, they had also dropped off a Bible study on baptism.  The conclusions in that Bible study clearly contradicted just about everything I was saying.  How could that be?  Both had many Bible references, giving the impression of Biblical authority.  But then I started to look up the references in the other Bible study.  Oddly, only a couple of the passages had anything to do with baptism.  Again, a lesson to be learned.  If we look to Bible passages that are not actually on topic, we won’t get reliable answers.  It’s important not to be impressed by end notes or Bible references that don’t actually back up what’s being said.  When people play such “smoke and mirrors” games with us, we should speak up and say “Well, you haven’t actually given me any reason to agree with you.  Is there something else you can show me?”  An impression of authority just isn’t enough.  When it comes to doctrine, there needs to be answers from clear and sufficient scripture or we have no reason to agree with what’s being said.

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Ancient New Testament Manuscripts

You may have noticed that recently I posted a picture of a page from an ancient New Testament manuscript.  It’s called “Codex Sinaiticus.”  “Codex” is another word for “book” (as distinct from scroll).  The name “Sinaiticus” reminds us that it was discovered at St. Catherine’s monastery on Mt. Sinai.  This is the oldest complete New Testament manuscript.  It also contains a large portion of the Old Testament in Greek.  The page that I posted includes John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have everlasting life.” Good news.

Last night I finished reading another book that questions Christian teachings.  The book was “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan.  Born in Iran, his family moved to the USA and he came to faith in Christ as a teen.  He later returned to the religion of his homeland and now looks at Christianity as misunderstanding who Jesus is and why he came.  He actually finds little support for his current perspective from the New Testament.  It is all really very sad.  To believe and have hope in Christ, and then to later lose that hope for no good reason.

Manuscripts like Sinaiticus remind us that our faith in Christ is built on the firm foundation of Scripture, and that contrary to people who claim that the Bible has been tampered with, we have many early manuscripts that provide the same message as the Bibles we have today.  As of 350-375 A.D. (only 25-50 years after the Council of Nicaea), when Sinaitius was made, we have all of the New Testament.  Prior to that, we have many ancient manuscripts and fragments from before the Nicaea council.  The number catalogued is now approaching 6,000, though most are rather fragmentary.  In fact, prior to Nicaea, only about 58% of New Testament verses are represented.  That may not sound like a lot, but it is really quite reassuring.  Where portions are missing from these manuscripts, we can compare what is missing with is present in other Greek manuscripts using stichometry.  “Stichometry” (standardized numbers of characters and lines that were printed on a page) lets us estimate whether these gaps in some manuscripts “fit” what we have in other manuscripts.  Not even one Christian doctrine is in doubt because of differences between ancient manuscripts.

We can also compare various ancient translations of the New Testament.  Long ago, a monk traveling through Spain and visiting monastery libraries estimated that we have over 30,000 ancient copies of the Latin Vulgate (translated by St. Jerome in about 400 A.D.).  Nearly two thousand years after Jesus died for our sins and rose again, we can still confidently affirm that  because of Christ, we are forgiven and bound for heaven.  We know this, but that’s what God wrote in the Bible.