Weizenfeld mit Sonnenuntergang

The Canon of the New Testament – Part 14: Interim Results

By Christian

In the last 13 parts of this series on the canon of the New Testament, we have learned quite a lot of facts. Historical facts about the development of the canon and Christianity and those about the text and manuscripts themselves.

Maybe you’ve already asked yourself these questions throughout this series. If not, I’m doing it now:

  • And what am I supposed to do with this?
  • Can I still believe that I can find God’s thoughts in the Bible?
  • Why do some people come to different conclusions? They are the same facts for everyone. Is there no objective answer?

This brings us back to the idea that a personal evaluation is crucial here. This is not about personal preferences, like the favorite color. But rather the same as with the question: Is this picture beautiful? One says not unjustly: Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. The question, which fits our theme, is more difficult: Is this picture good?

Vincent van Gogh - Dr
Vincent van Gogh „Portrait of Dr. Gachet“

Can the question “Is this painting by van Gogh good?” be answered simply? With yes or no? Already by this example we see that such a question does not make much sense. Should all the paintings in the world be divided into two groups, ‘good’ and ‘bad’?

In the same way, the question of whether the Bible is true or false does not make sense.

As for the question, “Is this painting by van Gogh good?”, you may think that there are objective criteria for that after all:

  • Finish (colors, details, technique)
  • Expression
  • Authenticity
  • Age of the picture
  • Artist
  • Conservation status
  • etc.

Wait a minute, why is the age of a painting an objective criterion for whether it is good? Let’s compare millennia-old drawings in a cave with a similar-looking chalk drawing by children on the street. There is a huge difference, isn’t there? But this is a slightly different question: What is the value of this picture?

And this is also the question that really interests us in relation to the Bible: What value does the Bible have for us?

However, this also brings general and personal evaluation factors into play. In the case of the image, for example:

  • How important do you think the artist is?
  • How important (for you) is the state of preservation? Small damages, aging of colors, etc.
  • Do you still like the picture, even if it is not the original but an almost perfect copy?

But you can of course also take the position that this picture must be valuable because it was sold in 1990 for 82.5 million US$ … This corresponds more or less to the thought that the Bible is valuable for one because first of all experts and secondly millions of others appreciate it. But since there are also experts and many millions of others who do not value the Bible at all, this does not necessarily help us.

But why is it possible to come to completely different conclusions when the facts are the same?

Facts and their Evaluation

An example from another area of life helps us here. You want to buy a house. The notary tells you: I’ve already drawn up the contract, just sign it down here. Would you do that? At least you would want to read it through in peace. In the process, you discover a few things you don’t understand, and sometimes there seems to be something wrong with the text. When you ask, you find out: The seller has sent his text in several parts to his lawyer. To be more precise, there were even different versions. Unfortunately, a few errors occurred during the transfer to the notary and the transcription there. But the notary corrected this to the best of his knowledge and also changed a few other things that could not have been correct. Nothing essential, just a few small things. Would you sign now?

Hardly anyone would do that with a contract. But when it comes to one’s own faith, life and hope for the future, that’s what many do with the Bible: sign blanketly. And even tend to be afraid of the facts we have considered so far, to ignore them or even deny them altogether. Why, in fact? Many other factors seem to play a greater role here than a rational evaluation of the facts.

To stay with the analogy: If you have known the notary personally for a long time, as competent and absolutely trustworthy and his office works very reliably, then you will have no problems with checking the documents received and their revisions. And then this analogy is lame: you have to sign a contract completely or not at all. And perhaps this has also been an unconscious assumption of ours with regard to the Bible.

The Facts

So, as far as the Bible is concerned, the Old and New Testaments, we want to know how reliable our sources are for this or that text. And there, research, historical and biblical criticism, as we have seen, instead of unsettling, has brought certainties:

The autographs are lost, but these and the copies were constantly read and used. Together with the oral tradition, Christians at the time of the first copies could still compare them.
Of course, a certain uncertainty remains because we cannot check the condition of the first copies against manuscripts.

There are about 5,800 Greek manuscripts and many thousands more in Latin and other languages. From the first four centuries, however, very few manuscripts have survived, and of these, very few are complete. There are early translations.

There are probably over 400,000 discrepancies between the manuscripts of the New Testament, which itself has only 140,000 words. But most of them are spelling mistakes and can be eliminated this way.

There are intentional changes: For good intentions, because marginal notes were thought to be original, for example. But there were also those with the intention of defending or preventing a certain doctrine. Much of this we know by now. Others will still lie dormant in the text as yet unrecognized. So we know that there may still be surprises. But the fact that a comparison of the texts is possible at all shows that there are also very great similarities.

The canon of the New Testament consolidated itself only after about 300 years after a history full of trials and errors. Nothing speaks against the fact that God has influenced this process, even if the human hand can be seen only too well. What has remained, however, are writings that are convincing above all because of the quality of their content, especially in comparison with those that are not in the canon.

If God inspired the text, it was by being the ultimate source. This often leaves room for formulation by the human author. And accordingly he may have supervised the work of those who revised, compiled and copied the texts. This was not done flawlessly – which was never promised – but well enough to serve the purpose.

Looking at the Gospels, the writings of Paul, the other writings in the New Testament canon, writings that were not included in the canon, the writings of the church fathers and councils in chronological order, one can see how doctrines of Christianity first emerged or developed over the centuries.

We have not yet dealt with the last point in this series. But this is only an ‘interim assessment’.

Let’s first look at some individual assessments of the facts listed.

Individual Assessments

Let’s take a look at some individual assessments and ask ourselves to what extent they are the result of facts, assumptions and personal assessments.

Assessment 1

“None of this is true. That was just invented to discredit the credibility of the Scriptures. For me, it is and remains all God’s Word.”

Well, you can do it that way. But denying facts is not a very good strategy in life otherwise either. Could it be that the issue here is more that certain assumptions and assertions about the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible are crucial? Or because otherwise certain doctrines of faith could be shaken?

Assessment 2

Titus 1:2 says: “God who cannot lie”. If God cannot lie, nothing in the Bible can be false.

This consideration contains some incorrect conclusions, but perhaps leads us to ignore this issue in the future. Also, it does not lead us to a stable foundation of faith.

Assessment 3

“He who lies once is not believed, even if he then speaks the truth”.

If someone thinks this way and then learns that texts in the Bible have been proven to be modified, this can lead to the Bible as a whole being rejected. However, this presupposes that one may assume that the Bible must have been preserved without errors.

Assessment 4

A ‘holy scripture’ must not contain errors or human influence.

You can believe that and have it as a basic assumption. But it is not a law of nature, but a dogma of faith. However, it is unfortunately formulated too vaguely and leads to difficulties if one thinks about it.

Let’s take the tablets with the 10 commandments (actually words … but that’s a different topic). Let’s assume you get them pressed into your hand by God. If there is written “you shall not murder” and later “you shall murder”, then one could already doubt the divinity of this text. But if a corner were broken off on the tablet and some of the words were badly legible, would you give it back to God because you could not accept it as divine in that way? However, if you get the tablets a hundred years later, but unfortunately they are broken. And some words are damaged and two sentences are only half preserved and in one place something has been repaired … then you are in the situation we have been talking about in this series. And then you find out that this is not the Orinigal at all! But Mose had to go again … because he has smashed the original …

By the way, the Bible often enough contains passages that express how the one who wrote it felt and thought. Is that not already a human influence? After all, God did not inspire the psalmist’s dejection in such a way that he could write it down as divine thoughts suitable for the holy scripture.

Does the Bible contain logical contradictions or contradictory statements? We have not talked about that at all yet. And also the evaluation of the content can also lead to very different conclusions.

Assessment 5

“It would have been nice if we had perfect copies or even the autographs with a guarantee of authenticity. But that’s not the way it is. Let’s see what we can do best with it. With the text of the Bible, I take into account how assured the text is because of the manuscripts.”

An idea or doctrine based on many texts is more reliable than something that occurs in only one text. If in this case the manuscripts also differ or there are differences to the context and the other texts, the reliability is rather low. One can live with this circumstance and take it into account.

Uncertainties and Risks

The personal weighting of facts therefore leads to very different results. With the same set of facts.

However, it is not only a matter of evaluating facts that we know, but also uncertainties and thus risks. There is a gap between the earliest copies preserved to us and the autographs. Here, too, one can evaluate differently.

  • “Since I know nothing about that time, I assume that anything could have happened there and the New Testament was completely destroyed. I don’t trust it at all.”
  • “It is true that I cannot directly verify what happened in the time between the autographs and the earliest copies preserved to us. But indirectly one can make certain statements. We have learned from some autographs that they were still used for reading aloud for many decades. Gross errors in a copy would thus have been noticed. Textual criticism has revealed the differences. But with it also the equal parts. Many changes have been corrected. For other unclear differences, I rate the passage as not very reliable. There is a residual risk that other falsified texts will be found. But I think it is quite unlikely that a newly found manuscript will turn everything upside down. I take all that into account when I read the Bible.”

Perhaps you are still waiting – or hoping – that I will make a conclusive, universal statement here about what you should think of the canon of the New Testament. Well, I hope it has become clear that there cannot be such one. In doing so, I would actually also be taking away from you the responsibility that everyone has for themselves. And so I end these ‚interim results’ in the hope that you now have enough material to be able to make your personal assessment and position.

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