Category Archives: Textual Criticism

Divine Inspiration Evidenced by the Providential Preservation of the Holy Scriptures


Lithograph of the Reverend John Brown of Haddington

Lithograph of the Reverend John Brown of Haddington

VI. The providence of God has, in a most marvellous manner, PRESERVED the scriptures of the Old and New Testament from being lost or corrupted. While perhaps millions of other books, once of considerable fame in the world, and which no one sought to extirpate, are lost and forgotten, the Scriptures, though more early written, and though Satan and his agents unnumbered have hated them, and sought to cause their memory to perish from among men, or to corrupt them, still remain, and remain in their purity.

In great wisdom and kindness, God, for their preservation, ordered an original copy to be laid up in the Holy of Holies (Deuteronomy 31:26); and that every Hebrew king should write out a copy for himself (Deuteronomy 27:18); and appointed the careful and frequent reading of them, both in private and public. With astonishing kindness and wisdom has he made the contending parties who had access to the Scriptures–such as the Jews and Israelites, the Jews and Samaritans, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Jews and Christians, and the various parties of Christians–MUTUAL CHECKS upon each other for almost three thousand years past, that they might not be able either to extirpate or to corrupt any part of them. When the Christians had almost utterly lost the knowledge of the Hebrew originals, God, by his providence, stirred up the Jewish rabbins to an uncommon labour for preserving them in their purity, by marking the number of letters, and how often each was repeated, in their Masoras.

By what tremendous judgments did he restrain and punish Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syro-Grecian king; Dioclesian, the Roman emperor; and others who attempted to destroy the copies of Scripture, in order to extirpate the Jewish or Christian religion! And he has bestowed amazing support and consolation on such as have risked or parted with their lives rather than deny the dictates of Scripture, or in the least contribute to their extirpation or misinterpretation.

By quickly multiplying the copies or the readers of the Scriptures, he rendered it impossible to corrupt them in anything important, without causing the corruption all at once to start up into every copy dispersed through the world, and into the memories of almost every reader;–than which nothing could be more absurd to suppose. Nay it is observable that of all the thousands of various readings which the learned have collected, not one in the least enervates any point of our faith or duty towards God or man.

Wallace to “Dialogue” on Ehrman’s Turf this Time

In our previous debate, we learned Bart Ehrman’s peculiar twist on the integrity of the New Testament text. His focus is on the first hundred years or so of the original writing of the New Testament, for which we have essentially no manuscript evidence. His contention is that we can’t be sure how radical the variations were during this period because that early in history the scribes couldn’t have been as well trained as the scribes and monks of the middle ages, so what we have may be vastly different than what was originally written by the apostles and their associates.

Wallace rightly characterizes this as radical skepticism, and argues for the proposition that Ehrman’s claims are making a mountain out of a mole hill. His contention is that it’s less likely that the variation was as extreme as Ehrman wants us to conclude. This is part of what I came away with from their last meeting on Wallace’s turf in Dallas, Texas.

Now they plan to meet on Ehrman’s turf to “dialogue” (as opposed to debate? Is this just postmodern euphamism?) on whether the original New Testament was lost. I suspect my summary of their positions above will be at the heart of this dialogue. Wish I could attend, but, then, it gets old hearing the same jokes out of both fellows. Hopefully they come up with fresh material. More on this in a few weeks after the debate is made available to those of us unable to attend. (Click for more info)

Update: The Evangelical Textual Criticism blog gives you a quick jump start to post-debate online discussion.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery: An Ark in the Wilderness

Father Justin with his cousin (and friend of mine), Bunny Gibson

The following is the lecture delivered on Tuesday night, November 8, 2011 at a symposium on the St. Catherine’s monastery library and the significance of the Sinai manuscripts, hosted by Dr. Daniel B. Wallace and the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts at the Hope Center in Plano, Texas. 


The Earliest References

1 The history of a Christian and monastic presence at Sinai begins not in Byzantine times, but extends back into the years of late classical antiquity. One of the earliest narratives to come down to us from that time is Ammonius’s account of the Forty Martyrs of Sinai and Rhaithou. There, we read about monks who had been living in the Sinai deserts ‘for forty years, and for fifty, and for sixty, and for seventy years, who have dwelt in the same place.’ We also read about a monk named Moses, who was admired by all for his zeal and for his grave manner of life. 2 ‘A certain Moses, having adopted the discipline of monasticism from his youth, practised monasticism for seventy-three years in that mountain from which springs of water issued.’ ‘And this saint, from the time that he took the habit of Christ, ate no flesh, but he ate dates only.’ ‘The food of that saint was a few dates, and water only. And he never tasted wine. And his dress was of compressed palm fibre. And he loved silence more than all men.’ From the many miracles that God wrought through him, all the inhabitants of Pharan had come to believe in the Holy Trinity, and received holy Baptism.[1]

I was in Rhaithou in July a few years ago. The temperature registered 118 degrees Fahrenheit. A hot and searing breeze blew from across the Red Sea. It was yet another small insight into the heroism of the monks who lived there in centuries gone by.

3 The historical events described by Ammonius allow us to date his account to the year 373.[2] Thus when he describes elders who have dwelt there as monks for sixty, for seventy, and more years, we understand that there was already an established monasticism at Sinai and Rhaithou at the end of the third and the very beginning of the fourth century, when persecutions were still raging against the Christians. Even then, there dwelt ascetics in the Sinai deserts who were established in virtue, who had attained to the pinnacles of prayer and spiritual graces.

4 Another important early text is the travel account of Egeria, who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, after which she continued on to Sinai, around the year 383. She worshipped at the chapel on the peak of Sinai, and at the cave of the Prophet Elias below the peak, after which she descended into the valley, to the Church of the Burning Bush. 5 She writes, ‘there are many cells of holy men and a church on the spot where the bush stands; and this bush is still alive today and gives forth shoots.’[3] The monks celebrated the Liturgy for the pilgrims, and read for them those passages of scripture concerning the events that had taken place at each site. They also presented them with fruits from their gardens.

From the fourth century, Sinai was a place where monks lived in solitude and austerity. But it was also a place of pilgrimage, and these two strands have continued throughout the history of the area, even to our own day.

Dr. Daniel B. Wallace with Father Justin

The Sixth Century

6 In the sixth century, the Emperor Justinian ordered the construction of a basilica and high surrounding walls, that have stood ever since. This was done to honour this holy place, and to protect the monks who lived there. The church is remarkably well preserved. Not only are the columns, the capitals, and the walls intact, but the central doors into the nave and the heavy ceiling beams also date from the sixth century. And the focal point of the church is the mosaic of the Transfiguration, one of the most profound works of art from that time. 7 The lintel over the door into the nave bears this inscription,

+ Καὶ ἐλάλησεν κ(ύριο)ς πρὸς Μωυσῆν ἐν τῷ τόπῳ τούτῳ λέγων· ἐγὼ εἰμὶ ὁ θ(εὸ)ς τῶν πατέρων σου, ὁ θ(εὸ)ς Ἀβραὰμ κ(αὶ) ὁ θ(εὸ)ς Ἰσαὰκ καὶ ὁ θ(εὸ)ς Ἰακώβ. + Ἐγὼ εἰμὶ ὁ ὤν +[4]

+ And the Lord spake unto Moses at this place, saying: I am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. + I AM THAT I AM +

8 We can date the completion of the basilica to within a few years, from inscriptions carved on the beams. The seventh beam, counting from the west end, bears an inscription meant to be visible to those entering the nave,

+ Ὑπὲρ μνήμης κ(αὶ) ἀναπαύσεως τῆς γεναμένης ἡμῶν βασιλίδος Θεοδώρας +

+ For the memory and repose of our late Empress Theodora +

The eighth beam bears the inscription,

+ Ὑπὲρ σωτηρίας τοῦ εὐσεβ(εστάτου) ἡμῶν βασιλέως Ἰουστινιανοῦ +

+ For the salvation of our most pious Emperor Justinian +

The inscription on the one beam commemorates the Empress Theodora as having passed away, while the inscription on the other commemorates the Emperor Justinian as still living. We know that the Empress Theodora died in the year 548, while the Emperor Justinian died in 565. These two dates provide the terminus post quem and the terminus ante quem for the completion of the basilica. Is it possible to make the dates even more precise?

9 Procopius, in his work On Buildings, mentions that at the base of the mountain where Moses received the Laws from God, the Emperor built a very strong fortress, with a church dedicated to the Mother of God, to enable the anchorites who dwelt there to pass their lives therein praying and holding services.[5] Many scholars feel that Procopius’ On Buildings was completed in the year 554/5, though others have argued for the date 559/60.[6] Even the latter would allow us to narrow the date for the completion of the basilica to within a span of twelve years.

10 A Greek plaque on the west wall of the monastery refers to the completion of the monastery in the thirtieth year of the reign of the Emperor Justinian, which would be the year 557. Although this particular inscription is not early, it may have been based on earlier records. The date indicated is in keeping with the other dates that we have seen.

11 There is one last inscription to be considered. The mosaic of the Transfiguration of Christ includes this dedicatory inscription,

+ Ἐν ὀνόματι π(ατ)ρ(ὸ)ς κ(αὶ) ὑ(ιο)ῦ κ(αὶ) ἁγίου πν(εύματο)ς· γέγονεν τὸ πᾶν ἔργον τοῦτο ὑπὲρ σωτηρίας τῶν καρποφορησάντ(ων), ἐπὶ Λογγίνου τοῦ ὁσιωτ(άτου) πρεσβ(υτέρου) κ(αὶ) ἡγουμ(ένου) +

+ Σπουδῇ Θεοδώρου πρεσβ(υτέρου) κ(αὶ) δευτ(εραρίου), ἰνδ(ικτιῶνος) δϊ +

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This entire work was executed for the salvation of those who had offered the fruits, by Longinus the most pious presbyter and abbot +

+ The work of Theodore presbyter and deuterarius, indiction fourteen +

This same Abbot Longinus is portrayed in one of the medallions of the mosaic, with a white square placed behind his head as an indication that he was still living at the time. In the years we have been considering, the fourteenth indiction would have fallen during the years 550/1, or 565/6. The latter date is the more probable for the completion of the mosaic.

The entire subsequent history of Saint Catherine’s Monastery may be said to have been written between the ruling lines that we have now traced.

Father Justin speaking about St. Catherine's Monastery

 The Sinai Library

12 The Persians sacked Jerusalem in 614, but it was not worth their while to come to this remote site. Its very isolation protected it. Islam came to the area in the year 632. But Moslems also revere Sinai as a sacred mountain, and the monks found a way to live in peace with their new rulers. The monastery continued as it had of old. Ascetics came to this desolate wilderness and reached great spiritual heights. Their writings have been treasured by Christians throughout the world ever since.

13 The most important book to be written at Sinai is called The Ladder of Divine Ascent, in which the author took the ladder that Jacob saw extending from earth to heaven as the motif for the spiritual life. Saint John of the Ladder was abbot of Sinai in the late sixth century. Before being elected abbot, he had lived as an anchorite for forty years, during which he spent his time saying prayers and copying books. This is an indirect witness to the production of manuscripts at Sinai. Precious manuscripts were also brought to the monastery over the years.

The monastery has never been destroyed or abandoned in all its centuries of existence. The climate at Sinai is surprisingly dry and stable, the humidity averaging from twenty to thirty percent. All of this, and the diligent care of the monks, account for the preservation of many manuscripts. The Sinai library is today a remarkable treasure for the antiquity and the significance of its volumes.

14 The library contains 3304 manuscripts, written in eleven languages. These are predominantly Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Georgian, and Slavonic. The manuscripts range in content from copies of the Scriptures, services, and music manuscripts, to sermons, writings of the Fathers, lives of the Saints, and books of inherited spiritual wisdom. The library also includes medical treatises, historical chronicles, and texts in classical Greek, which is the pinnacle of the Greek language.

15 A few of the manuscripts are splendid works of art, with gilded letters and brilliant illuminations, created in Constantinople in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, when the City was at its height as the centre of culture and devotion. But no less significant are the humble manuscripts written at Sinai, often on reused parchment, bound between rough boards, the pages stained from long use, a witness to the deprivations and austerity of Sinai, to the generations of monks who have maintained the life of devotion and the cycle of daily services at this holy place.

But perhaps we would come to a greater appreciation of the Sinai library if I could describe four manuscripts in particular, all of which have been recently studied by scholars.

Discs containing some of the manuscripts digitally photographed by CSNTM

Sinai New Finds Christian Palestinian Aramaic 59

16 Aramaic was the language spoken in Palestine at the time of Jesus, and there are a number of Aramaic words and phrases preserved as such in the Greek New Testament.

Καὶ κρατήσας τῆς χειρὸς τοῦ παιδίου, λέγει αὐτῇ· Ταλιθά, κοῦμι· ὅ ἐστι μεθερμηνευόμενον· τὸ κοράσιον, σοὶ λέγω, ἔγειραι.

And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise. (Mark 5:41)

In Saint Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, he quotes the Aramaic word Maranatha, which means ‘Come, O Lord,’ or, ‘Our Lord is come’ (I Corinthians 16:22), a prayer that must have been familiar to them, and which goes back to the first Aramaic speaking Christians.

A number of manuscripts survive in Christian Palestinian Aramaic, the earliest dating from the sixth century. They are written in a Syriac script, though Syriac and Aramaic are different languages. The texts are mostly copies of the Scriptures, liturgical texts, and lives of the Saints.

Centuries ago, the Sinai manuscripts were kept at a number of different places within the monastery. Some of the oldest were stored in a room in the tower of Saint George, which projects off the north wall of the monastery. In 1734, Archbishop Nikiphoros Marthales created rooms opposite the Archbishop’s quarters for the manuscripts, and asked that they be gathered there from the various areas where they had been stored before. We know now that manuscrips that were already in a ruinous state, as well as loose leaves and fragments, were left behind in this tower room. Some time later, the roof above them collapsed. There they remained until 1975, when one monk was carrying out repairs to the tower, and came across this deposit of manuscripts. They are collectively known as the New Finds.

Among them were a number of manuscripts written in Christian Palestinian Aramaic. A manuscript that dates from the seventh or eighth centuries contains the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, number 59 in the collection. 17 One of the most beautiful is a Lectionary dating from the thirteenth century, manuscript number 41. Professor Alain Desreumaux, from Paris, is a recognised authority on texts written in Aramaic. He visited the monastery during the first week in June of last year, and spent some time studying these manuscripts. He is even now editing and publishing them, thus adding to the number of known texts in Christian Palestinian Aramaic.

Sinai Syriac 52

The writings of Dionysius the Areopagite consist of four treatises and ten letters. The four treatises are The Divine Names, The Mystical Theology, The Celestial Hierarchy, and The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. Although these works pass under the name of the Athenian who was converted by the Apostle Paul, as mentioned in Acts 17:34, the works are not referred to before the close of the fifth century. Earlier controversies over the reliability of these writings were set aside when they were confirmed by Maximus the Confessor, and quoted by the Lateran Council held in 649. They were translated into Syriac by Sergius of Reshaina, who died in 536. In 827, the Byzantine Emperor Michael II sent gifts to Louis the Pious, among them the works of Dionysius the Areopagite, and Hilduin, the chaplain of the king and later Bishop of Paris, had them translated into Latin. In 858, Scotus Eriugena made a new translation into Latin. From this, they became known and influential in the West. These writings remain of the greatest importance even today in the Orthodox Church.

18 The oldest surviving manuscript in the world of the works of Dionysius the Areopagite is Sinai Syriac 52, a manuscript of the sixth century, that is, the very century in which these works were first translated into Syriac, and the century following their first emergence. The Hungarian scholar Istvan Perczel had edited the works of Dionysius included in this manuscript, working from the microfilm that was made by the Library of Congress in 1950. But there are areas of the manuscript that were damaged or stained, and these were illegible in the microfilm. He came to Sinai for the first time in July of last year, and was able to study the manuscript in some detail. From his reading of the original, and from the high resolution digital images that we were able to take and send him, he hopes to make a new edition of the text.

We know from the enumeration on the first folio of this manuscript that it is missing the first two quires. But an additional six folios from this manuscript turned up in the New Finds, and there are also folios belonging to this manuscript in Paris and Milan. Between all of these, the first two quires are complete, forming the Introduction to the translation made by Sergius of Reshaina.

Yours truly with Father Justin touring the offices of CSNTM

The Codex Sinaiticus

19 The Codex Sinaiticus has been called the world’s oldest Bible. It was written around the year 325, by professional scribes using the finest parchment. It originally consisted of 740 leaves, and contained the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and in addition, two early Christian writings, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Sadly, due to Constantine Tischendorf, the leaves of this manuscript are now dispersed among four different institutions: the British Library, the library of the University of Leipzig, the State Library of Russa at Saint Petersburg, and Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai. The Sinai leaves were recovered with the New Finds, and consist of twelve entire leaves, and fragments from an additional four.

Although the monastery has always regretted the loss of this manuscript, in 2005 we began a collaboration with the other three institutions, setting aside our differences to accomplish something so important: the conservation of the original leaves, and their publication, both on the internet and in facsimile, together with a complete new transcription of the entire manuscript. In this way, the leaves would be virtually reunited, and made accessible to scholars and students around the world.

20 The conservation of the leaves and fragments at Sinai was carried out in May of 2008, and the following month, scholars came from England to transcribe the texts. They read from the original leaves, sometimes backlighting them to be able to make out faded or damaged letters. But there were times when high resolution digital photographs revealed more of the text, and using these images, they could consult with other scholars about complex passages, especially those passages where there had been multiple corrections. The manuscript and transcription were posted on the internet in July of 2009, and the printed facsimile became available in January of this year.

In July of 2009, we were able to make an important announcement about this manuscript. Three years earlier, conservators completed a survey of the Sinai manuscripts, recording the state of each volume, and taking photographs of the bindings. Nikolas Sarris, a Greek from Patmos, used these photographs to study the tooling of the manuscripts. From the decorative stamps used in the bindings, he was able to reconstruct which manuscripts were bound in the same workshop, and determine whether the bindings were executed elsewhere, or made at Sinai itself.

21 He brought to my attention one of the photographs made during the survey. This was Sinai Greek 2289, and he knew from his research that it was one of a group of eighteen bindings made at the monastery in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. 22 On the inside back board, the paper lining had been partially torn away, revealing a parchment with Greek majuscule script. Was it too much to hope that this was yet another fragment of the Codex Sinaiticus? The more we examined it, the more convinced we became that indeed it was. The text is from the first chapter of the book of Joshua, the eleventh verse, in which Joshua commands the children of Israel, ‘Prepare you victuals; for within three days ye shall pass over this Jordan, to go in to possess the land, which the Lord your God giveth you to possess it.’ In every detail, this fragment seemed to match the Codex. But the monastery has other leaves of the Codex Sinaiticus from this same book, which would have been written by the same scribe. 23 When we juxtaposed the letters from these leaves over the image of the newly revealed fragment, the exact correspondence seemed further confirmation of this identification.

It was universal practice in earlier centuries to use parchment fragments in repairing or binding other texts. But now we are presented with the daunting task of wanting to reveal the whole of this fragment, without the risk of damaging it in the process. Experienced conservators will need to discuss the safest way to recover this leaf. It may be that advanced scanning techniques could reveal more of the text, without attempting to remove the fragment for the time being. We should not rule out the possibility of simply leaving the fragment as it is, waiting for technology to develop. This would be better than to act in haste, and risk damaging or losing the text.

Sinai Arabic New Finds 8

24 In the summer of 2006, Hikmat Kachouh, a scholar from Lebanon, came to Sinai to study the Arabic manuscripts of the Gospels. He was taking a doctorate under the supervision of David Parker, at the University of Birmingham. In the course of his studies, he examined over two hundred manuscripts in twenty-one different institutions. Out of them all, this manuscript, Sinai Arabic New Finds 8, was the one that interested him most. On palaeographic grounds, he dated the manuscript to the second half of the eighth century. He concluded that this manuscript follows an archaic Greek manuscript that differed considerably from the Greek Byzantine text. The Western and Alexandrian readings are very many. He writes, ‘No extant Arabic manuscript can claim more textual value than this version.’[7]

But this manuscript remains extremely important for another reason as well. The oldest manuscripts at Sinai are written on parchment. Even after paper reached the Arab world in the tenth century, parchment remained the preferred writing material. Parchment is made from the skins of calf or sheep, in a process that is highly specialized. As a result, parchment has always been expensive, and often difficult to find. But it can be used to produce a book that is beautiful, and that will last for centuries.

If a text written on parchment is no longer wanted, the writing can be rubbed off, and the valuable parchment used a second time. The original writing remains faintly visible beneath the second text. This is what is known as a palimpsest. Because Sinai was so remote, there are many palimpsests: some one hundred and ten manuscripts contain leaves with an underlying text.

25 Very often, it is this original text that is of the greater interest to scholars. If the original writing was large, and if the second text was written at right angles, it is possible with some patience to make out the underlying text. But more often, this is not the case, and the original writing can remain elusive. In the late nineteenth century, it was customary to apply chemicals to the page, to try to enhance the faded ink. A common reagent was hydrosulfurate of ammonia. There were times when this made it easier to read the original script, but one also risked damaging the page, and ruining it.

Recent advances in digital photography techniques promise to make these texts more legible. Pages are photographed using narrow wavelengths of light, ranging from infrared to ultraviolet, in what is called multi-spectral imaging. Photographs taken at specific wavelengths are often combined, and image processing algorithms are applied, the same techniques used to enhance the faint images of stars and galaxies in outer space. Results are not always certain. Also, it is not only technology that is required to recover the texts. It still requires the sharp eyes and long training of experienced scholars to decipher the resulting image.

26 Leading scientists in the field came to Sinai in September of 2009 and took photographs for a pilot project. The results were encouraging, and they have been promised funding for a five year project to photograph manuscripts in their entirety and make them available to scholars. Even the pilot project revealed important discoveries.

Historians have pointed to surprising parallels between earliest Egyptian monasticism, and earliest Irish monasticism. This can be seen in the architecture and the organization of Irish monasticism. We also know that the Irish retained a knowledge of Greek after it had been lost elsewhere in the West. Seven monks from Egypt are said to be buried at Disert Ulidh in Ireland, and the Bibliothèque Nationale possesses an Irish guide for the use of pilgrims to Scetis in Egypt.[8]

27 At Sinai, we only have one Latin manuscript, a Psalter thought to have been written in Jerusalem in the tenth century. But among the New Finds were manuscript leaves written in Latin, in Merovingian and Visigothic hands. One of the most exciting discoveries was an Arabic manuscript that seems to date from the ninth century, making it very early for an Arabic text. The manuscript is itself made up of a patchwork of smaller pieces of parchment, many of which are palimpsests. It contains both classical and Biblical texts in elegant majuscule Greek. It also contains texts in Latin, and one of these hands has been identified as written in an Insular script. This is a term used to classify a style of writing that began in Ireland in the seventh century, and then spread to England, where it flourished between AD 600-850. This was the age of Aidan and Cuthbert and Bede, the time of an unusual flowering of monasticism in England. Now, for the first time, we have manuscript evidence of direct contact between this world and Sinai. This is evidence that their horizon did not stop at Rome. And, can we say? one of the reasons for this flowering would have been their direct contact with the wellsprings of monasticism in Egypt and Sinai.

Camera at St. Catherine's Monastery

The New Digital Camera

28 We have looked at four manuscripts that have been studied recently by scholars, as an indication of the continuing importance of the Sinai library. In each case, digital photographs of these manuscripts proved extremely helpful in their study. The photographs we have seen were made with a system that was acquired some years ago. It consists of a large format camera made by Sinar, with a six megapixel digital back. 29 To take photographs, we use a cradle made in London by Alan Buchanan, which was especially designed for the photography of fragile manuscripts. The manuscript never opens more than 90 degrees. It rests open naturally, and the spine is fully supported, for the cradle turns, from first page to last. As pages are photographed, the platen opposite the camera is incrementally recessed, so that the distance between the camera and the manuscript remains the same. This maintains the focus, and ensures that all of the resulting photographs are uniform in size. Using this camera, we have been able to photograph over one hundred of the Sinai manuscripts. This camera still takes excellent photograph, and will continue to be a useful part of our project.

30 But just last week, we completed the installation of a second camera, that will allow us to expand our project. The installation was made by John Stokes, of Stokes Imaging, in Austin, Texas. The new camera has a 48 megapixel Dalsa CCD. In multi-shot mode, it can capture full colour images in resolutions of up to 192 megapixels. Such photographs are 1.25 gigabytes in size. The new system is not only a great advance in the resolution of the images it can capture. It is also much more efficient.

31 John Stokes licensed the way in which the other cradle supports the manuscripts, and then improved it. 32 The platen opposite the camera moves on a track, which ensures that it is always perpendicular to the camera. 33 It is a simple operation to raise the wedge, turn the page, lower the wedge back into place, and 34 place the new page in position to be phhotographed. 35 The platen is always positioned so that it does not exert any pressure on the manuscript. On our first volume, we were able to average over one page per minute. This allows for the careful handling of the manuscript, and for the time it takes the computer to save each image.

When I return to the monastery in November, I will be bringing with me new lighting systems that employ LED units, with the colour spectrum matched to the CCD. This avoids the fatigue of using flash for extended periods of time.

36 The first manuscript we photographed was an Arabic typikon, giving the order of service, that had been requested by a scholar in Germany. The resulting images were straightened and cropped automatically as a part of the image processing, so that all of the resulting photographs are consistent. They were also automatically saved in three different formats: the full archival image in TIFF format, a derivative in full size, but in a compressed JPEG format, and a small thumbnail image that could be mounted on a web site. 37 We also always photograph the binding of each manuscript. 38 At full resolution, scholars can study many of the details of the binding structure.

39 To test the system at its highest resolution, we photographed a rare illumination of King David that is a part of a Syriac translation of the Book of Kings, dating from the seventh century. 40 The resulting image allows one to see the smallest detail. This is useful not only for the study of the illumination. It is also important as a conservation photograph, allowing one at a future date to check the state of the illumination.

We will continue to meet the requests of scholars as they send us requests. But with the expansion of our digital photography program, we also want to embark on a more systematic photography program. We want especially to photograph all of the Arabic and Syriac manuscripts of the library. We are pleased that there has been a resurgence of interest among scholars in these manuscripts. This would also do much to remind Christians in the Middle East of their own rich heritage.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery is a treasury filled with things new and old. Scholars still have much to learn from its library, its numerous icons, vestments, ecclesiastical vessels, its architecture. In all of this, it is a veritable ark in the wilderness.

[1] Agnes Smith Lewis, ‘The Forty Martyrs of the Sinai Desert and the Story of Eulogius, from a Palestinian Syriac and Arabic Palimpsest’, Horae Semiticae no. IX (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912), pp. 4-5.

  See also Christina Müller-Kessler and Michael Sokoloff, ‘The Forty Martyrs of the Sinai Desert, Eulogius the Stone-Cutter, and Anastasia’, A Corpus of Christian Palestinian Aramaic, vol. III (Groningen: Styx Publications, 1996), pp. 21-28.

[2] Heinz Skrobucha, Sinai, translated by Geoffrey Hunt (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 20-27.

[3] Egegia: Diary of a Pilgrimage, translated by George E Gingras (New York: Newman Press, 1970), p. 55.

[4] The Greek text for this and the following inscriptions are taken from Ihor Ševčenko, ‘The Early Period of the Sinai Monastery in the Light of its Inscriptions’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, volume 20 (1966), pp. 262‑3.

[5] Procopius, On Buildings, V.viii.5-6 .

[6] Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 9-11.

[7] Hikmat Kachouh, The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: The Manuscripts and Their Families (Birmingham: The University of Birmingham, 2008),Vol. 1, p. 376.

[8] H V Morton, Through Lands of the Bible (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd, 1938), pp. 125-6.

The Significance of the Sinai Texts for New Testament Study

 The Wednesday session of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts fundraiser for St. Catherine’s Monastery’s efforts to digitize their collection of ancient manuscripts, second only to the Vatican’s, began with lunch, followed by a lecture by Father Justin, and was finished with a quick tour of CSNTM’s offices at the Hope Center in Plano, Texas. A friend of mine from my last church happens to be a cousin of native Texan Father Justin, so I had the privilege of sharing lunch with both of them. When Father Justin heard that I had posted a review of Tuesday night’s lecture on this blog, he generously offered to send me his more detailed lecture for Wednesday with his invitation to post it in it’s entirety. The following is that lecture, Father Justin’s remarks on “The Significance of the Sinai Texts for New Testament Study.” Photos from the lecture and tour and a few of the Hope Center will be added later in the day.

Cyril Lukaris

Cyril Lukaris

1 The Codex Alexandrinus is one of the oldest manuscripts of the Holy Bible, dating from the fifth century. It is bound in four volumes. The first three contain the Old Testament in the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. The fourth volume contains the New Testament, and the Epistles of I and II Clement. In 1624, Cyril Lucaris, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, presented the four volumes of the Codex Alexandrinus as a gift to England. They reached England in 1627, when they were presented to King Charles I, who placed them in the royal library. This was the first time scholars in Europe had seen such an early copy of the scriptures.

The cry at the Reformation was ad fontes, ‘to the sources’. This meant a study of the New Testament, not in the Latin Vulgate, but in the original Greek. With the recovery of Greek, it became possible to study the Septuagint, and as well, to read the Greek Fathers of the early Church. But a careful study of the Codex Alexandrinus showed variants between this and later manuscripts. It became evident that there was a need, not only to study the New Testament in the original Greek, but to search out the oldest manuscripts, and recover the earliest levels of the text. It was the Codex Alexandrinus that initiated this search to find the oldest manuscripts of the scriptures. From that time, ad fontes, ‘to the sources’, meant, above all, the search for the earliest texts of the New Testament.

Richard Bentley

Richard Bentley

2 Richard Bentley (1662-1742), Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, is regarded as one of the greatest textual critics who has ever lived. In 1721, he published Proposals for Printing a New Edition of the Greek Testament and St. Hierom’s Latin Version, in which he described his approach to the challenge, and he included a critical edition of the last chapter of the Book of Revelation in parallel Greek and Latin, as an example. Jerome had translated the Greek New Testament into Latin in the fourth century. Bentley surmised that, since the Greek and the Latin had diverged at that time, by searching out the oldest manuscripts (this was, above all, the Codex Alexandrinus, which he called ‘the oldest and best now in the world’), and noting where these two coincided, at those points it would be possible to reconstruct the text of the New Testament as it was in the fourth century. He wrote, ‘But, since that time, I have fallen into a course of studies that led me to peruse many of the oldest MSS. of Gr. Test. and of the Latin too of St. Jerom; of which there are several in England a full 1000 years old. The result of which has been, that I find I am able (what some thought impossible) to give an edition of the Gr. Test. exactly as it was in the best examples at the time of the Council of Nice.’[1]

Günther Zuntz has written, ‘It was a stroke of genius to use the agreement of these two witnesses, Origen and the Vulgate, for the recovery of a fourth- or even a third-century text. He was the first to replace the standard text also of the Vulgate by that of its oldest manuscripts; it served him to make up for the scarcity of ancient Eastern manuscripts at his disposal.’[2] In the end, nothing came of his Proposals, due to the enormity of the task, and the antagonism of fellow scholars at his college. Nevertheless, he established procedures, and showed scholars the way forward.

Constantine Von Tischendorf

Constantine Tischendorf

3 In the middle of the nineteenth century, scholars came to Sinai, inspired by this same goal: to locate the oldest manuscripts of the scriptures, in order to recover the earliest levels of the text. Of these scholars, the most famous was Constantine Tischendorf, the first to identify the singular importance of the Codex Sinaiticus. This is a manuscript originally consisting of 740 leaves, containing all of the Old and New Testaments in Greek, as well as the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas, both important late first century texts. The manuscript dates from around the year 325, which would place it within the lifetime of the emperor Constantine. Scholars before Tischendorf had seen the Codex Sinaiticus, but failed to appreciate its importance. He understood at a glance that this was the oldest manuscript of the scriptures he had ever seen, and that every variant reading was of the greatest interest.

In 1844, he managed to take 43 leaves of the codex with him, which he published in Leipzig in 1846, not divulging the source of the manuscript. In 1859, when he was travelling to Sinai under the auspices of the Russian emperor Alexander II, he was shown the rest of the manuscript. He asked that it be sent to Russia where the original could be consulted, so that the publication of the text, undertaken at the expense of the emperor, would be as accurate as possible. The monks of Sinai, out of a genuine concern for the furtherance of Biblical scholarship, gave him the permission he sought, on condition that the manuscript be returned to the monastery upon its publication. To this Constantine Tischendorf agreed in writing, giving the assurances as well of the Russian ambassador to the court of the Sultan.

4 The importance of the Codex Sinaiticus for Biblical scholarship cannot be overestimated. Westcott and Hort had at their disposal the published texts of the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus as they completed their labour of thirty years that culminated in the publication of the critical edition of the Greek New Testament in 1881. Hort has written, in his lapidary style,

Whatever be the mutual relation of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, each of them separately, Sinaiticus in the Apocalypse excepted, is found on comparison of its characteristic readings with those of other documentary authorities of approximately determinate date to have a text more ancient by a long interval than that of any other extant Non-Western manuscript containing more than a few verses; to be in fact essentially a text of the second or early third century. This fact, which is independent of coincidences of Sinaiticus Vaticanus, so that it would remain true of Sinaiticus if Vaticanus were unknown, and of Vaticanus if Sinaiticus were unknown, suggests the most natural explanation of their coincidences. They are due, that is, to the extreme and as it were primordial antiquity of the common original from which the ancestries of the two manuscripts have diverged, the date of which cannot be later than the early part of the second century, and may well be yet earlier.[3]

Rendel Harris

Rendel Harris

5 Rendel Harris travelled to Sinai in 1889. At the time a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, he was later to become director of studies at Woodbrooke College near Birmingham, and curator of manuscripts at the John Rylands Library in Manchester. He spent seventeen days at the monastery. In a Syriac manuscript, he identified the unique surviving copy of the Apology of Aristides. In 1890, he published Biblical Fragments from Mount Sinai, listing the texts of sixteen fragments of the scriptures that he had been able to study. In the Introduction to the book he wrote,

6 There is much to discourage anyone who proposes to make a journey to Mount Sinai in the interests of Biblical Criticism; the successes as well as the failures of previous visitors have great deterrent force; the latter [those who have failed], because they intimate that there is no useful work to do; the former [those who have succeeded], because they suggest that all the useful work has been done already; and it is surprising how powerfully both of these considerations work in the case in question. . . . For example, Coxe in his report to Her Majesty’s Government on the state of the Libraries in the Levant, expressly states that he avoided Sinai because it had been recently visited by Tischendorf; I believe I am right in stating that at the time when he came to this resolution (in January, 1857), the Sinaitic Codex was still lying in its time-honoured retreat, where in fact it would be to-day if the ordinary conventions concerning the rights of property had been scrupulously regarded.[4]

The "Sisters of Sinai": Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson.

The Twins

7 It was Rendel Harris who encouraged Agnes Smith Lewis and her twin sister Margaret Dunlop Gibson to visit Sinai in 1893, since he knew that there yet remained Syriac and Arabic manuscripts that he had not had time to read. On that visit, Agnes Smith Lewis identified the importance of Sinai Syriac 30, known as the Codex Syriacus. This manuscript is a palimpsest: the original writing was erased, and the valuable parchment used a second time, in the year 778, to write the Lives of the Saints. The original text may date from the fifth century. It is one of only two manuscripts in the world to preserve the Old Syriac translation of the Gospels, made from the Greek towards the end of the second century. We know that the texts of the New Testament were written in the first century. Today, we have manuscripts of the scriptures that date from the third century. What happened in the second century to account for what we see emerging in the third? That is the critical question in New Testament studies, and any manuscript that can illuminate the state of the text in the second century is of the greatest importance.

8 Agnes Smith Lewis and her twin sister Margaret Dunlop Gibson photographed the manuscript in its entirety. From these photographs, other Syriac scholars from Cambridge were persuaded to join them the following year. The first was Robert Lubbock Bensly, Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, lecturer in Hebrew and Syriac, and Lord Almoner’s Professor of Arabic. The second was Francis Crawford Burkitt, a former student of Bensly, who in 1905 was to be appointed Norris Professor of Divinity. Rendel Harris also joined them. The texts of this manuscript were published in Cambridge in several editions over the next few years.

In 1895, Burkitt read a paper at a Church Congress in which he said,

This version is certainly older than the Peshitta, which is not earlier than the fourth century; probably older than the Syriac Diatessaron, which is not earlier than 170 AD. Of this version of the Gospels only one other manuscript is known to survive besides our palimpsest, namely, the Codex in the British Museum used by Cureton; from this, however, more than half the contents are wanting, and its text has certainly undergone revision from the Greek. In the Sinai palimpsest considerably more than three-fourths of the whole of the Gospels is legible, and its text shows no clear signs of revision from later Greek manuscripts.[5]

9 These are a very few of the Sinai manuscripts of the scriptures that have been of the greatest importance to Biblical studies. With the work of such eminent scholars over the course of many years, we may well ask, what remains for us to do? If Rendel Harris could write in 1890 about the discouraging effect of both the successes and failures of previous visitors to Sinai, how much moreso would that be the case today? Are we to be only gleaners in a field that has been already harvested? In fact, just a few years ago, yet another scholar made an important discovery.

Hikmat Kachouh

Hikmat Kachouh

10 Hikmat Kachouh is a Lebanese, who came to Sinai in the summer of 2006. He was working on a doctoral dissertation under the direction of David Parker, at the University of Birmingham, in England. His subject was the text of the Gospels in Arabic, excluding lectionaries. In the course of his studies, he had read over two hundred manuscripts of the Gospels in twenty-one different institutions. He came to Sinai for ten days. During that time, he was able to review sixty manuscripts. He was looking for test passages that would allow him to identify the characteristics of each manuscript. From his careful study of so many other manuscripts, he could quickly tell which had been translated from the Greek, and which from Syriac, and as well, the nature of the text from which the translation had been made. Most of the manuscripts at Sinai represented texts that he had already encountered, but seven of them were texts that he had never seen before. He set them aside as essential to his research. And then he had to return to England.

11 I was able to photograph these texts at high resolution, and send him the digital images. Two of these, in particular, became his favourite manuscripts: these are Sinai Arabic New Finds 8 and 28, which originally formed one manuscript, written on parchment, and containing 143 folios. It dates from the second half of the eighth century or the early ninth century, making it one of the oldest surviving Arabic manuscripts of the Gospels. In his dissertation he wrote, ‘The examination of the Gospel of Luke shows that this manuscript follows an archaic Greek manuscript which differs considerably from the Greek Byzantine text. The Western and Alexandrian readings are very many and will be presented in a separate monograph. No extant Arabic manuscript can claim more textual value than this version.’[6] He has drawn attention to the importance of Arabic manuscripts of the scriptures. In a further study of this manuscript, published in Novum Testamentum, he writes, ‘The Arabic Gospel manuscripts have much to contribute to the history of the transmission of the text, as well as enhancing our knowledge of the biblical tradition’.[7] I might add that Hikmat Kachouh has recently been appointed dean of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut.

A sample camera from the Stokes Imaging website


Such discoveries show the continuing importance of the Sinai manuscripts. What are we doing today to make them more accessible?

12 Some years ago, we began a program to photograph the Sinai manuscripts with a Sinar camera, made in Switzerland, that has a six megapixel CCD. The camera is mounted on a special cradle designed by Alan Buchannan in London, for the safe handling of fragile manuscripts. The camera takes excellent photographs, and will continue to be an important part of our project.

13 The day before I left Sinai to come to the States, we completed the installation of a new digital camera and cradle, made by Stokes Imaging, in Austin, Texas. The new camera has a 48 megapixel CCD. But in addition to the increase in resolution, the new system is much more efficient. The focus and many other functions of the camera and cradle are automated. The processing software straightens and crops the resulting images and saves them in three different formats, all of which had to be completed by the operator with the earlier system. We are very happy to announce this addition to our digital photography program.

14 Another important development is the project for the photography of the Sinai palimpsests. Because Sinai was so isolated, there are many manuscripts where the original writing was rubbed out, and the valuable parchment used a second time. We have over 110 manuscripts with palimpsest text. Already, we can see traces of both scriptural and classical texts in the occasional words that are visible in the margins of these manuscripts. The possibility of recovering these texts is a very exciting prospect.

How can the Sinai manuscripts continue to help us in our study of the scriptures?

As we continue to photograph the Sinai manuscripts and make them available to scholars, it is certain that important discoveries are yet to be made, in our goal to recover the earliest text of the scriptures. But there are other ways as well in which we still have much to learn from the Sinai manuscripts.

15 Scholars are coming increasingly to appreciate the importance of manuscripts of the scriptures with commentary in the margins. Commentaries show us how these texts were understood. One example is a tenth century Sinai manuscript containing the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, with marginal commentary drawn from twenty-four different writers, beginning with Philo and Josephus in the first century, and extending to Severus of Antioch in the sixth. The writings of some early authors only survive in such commentaries. The manuscript contains, as well, variant readings from Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus, who each made translations of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek as alternatives to the Septuagint.

16 There has been a living community at Sinai since the late third and early fourth centuries, an astonishing record of continuity. This gives an added dimension to each of the manuscripts: they are still in their original context. Sinai has over fifty copies of the Psalter written in Greek majuscule script, a script that predates the tenth century. Manuscripts such as these may add little to our knowledge of the text, but they can help us understand the place of the scriptures in Christian worship.

 17 We face a certain paradox in our own days. In the early seventeenth century, scholars who had studied the Codex Alexandrinus made it their goal to search out the oldest manuscripts of the scriptures, in an effort to recover the earliest levels of the text. We now have manuscripts of the New Testament dating from the third century, and even from the second century, of which Westcott and Hort could only have dreamed. In addition, we have recovered a multitude of texts written on papyrus, from sites such as Oxyrhynchus, and these have contributed much to our understanding of Greek as it was used in late classical antiquity. All of these resources have allowed us to make ever more informed judgements about the text of the New Testament.

And yet, in our own times, Christians are being challenged in the very foundations of their beliefs. In early Christian times, we are told, there were many Gospels, and many Christianities. The process by which the traditional scriptures and faith emerged as normative was quite arbitrary, the result of power plays that could as easily have turned out differently then, could as easily turn out differently for us today. What are we to answer?

18 For those who know their Church history, these issues will sound familiar. These are the very issues faced by Irenaeus in the latter second century. He had to justify the unique place of the four Gospels. He also had to vindicate what he called the canon of faith, the rule of truth. He illustrated this by describing a mosaic in which an artist has used brilliantly coloured pieces of stone and glass to make the portrait of a king. Another person takes this mosaic, and rearranges the pieces to make the portrait of a fox. He can claim that the pieces are identical. He has not added or taken away one stone. But the arrangement is not the same. The pieces are not in their original order.

19 It is the same with the scriptures. Christ is anticipated in the Old Testament in types and figures. In the fulness of time, he came into the world as a recapitulation of the continual presence and activity of the Word. The New Testament is an epitome making clear what had previously been obscure. The canon of faith is this Christocentric reading of scripture, seeing the whole of scripture in the light of Christ and as speaking of Christ, the Old Testament invisibly in types and enigmas, the New Testament visibly in a clear epitome.

This approach to the scriptures was stated most succinctly by the holy apostle Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians, ‘For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures’ (I Corinthians 15:3-4). This was the faith announced by the prophets, taught by the Lord, delivered by the apostles. Those who have come to know this overarching pattern will be able to discern the authentic portrait.

20 The cry of the Reformation was ad fontes, ‘to the sources’, a return to the sources of our Christian faith. This must still mean, above all, the most careful study of the text of the holy scriptures, and in this, the Sinai manuscripts have been of the greatest importance. We are certain they will continue to be so, as these manuscripts are photographed and made accessible to scholars. But the age-old continuity of which Sinai remains the very emblem reminds us of the wider scope of this admonition, ad fontes, ‘to the sources’. Those for whom this can include the defence of the faith written by such early writers as Irenaeus, will be in a better position to meet the challenges we face today as Christians. In this, as well, we have much to learn from the Sinai manuscripts.

[1] Richard Bentley, Sermons Preached at Boyle’s Lecture; Remarks upon a Discourse of Free-Thinking; Proposals for an Edition of the Greet Testament; Etc. Etc., edited with notes by the Rev. Alexander Dyce (London: Francis Macpherson, 1838), p. 477.

[2] Günther Zuntz, The Text of the Epistles: A Disquisition upon the Corpus Paulinum (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 7.

[3] Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, Introduction and Appendix (Cambridge: Macmillan and Co., 1881), pp. 222-223.

[4] J. Rendel Harris, Biblical Fragments from Mount Sinai (London: C. J. Clay and Sons, 1890), pp. iii-iv.

[5] Francis Crawford Burkitt, ‘The Sinai Palimpsest and the Greek Text of the Gospels’, Mrs. R. L. Bensly, Our Journey to Sinai: A Visit to the Convent of St. Catarina (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1896), pp. 175-6.

[6] Hikmat Kachouh, The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: The Manuscripts and Their Families, (Birmingham: The University of Birmingham, 2008), vol. 1, p. 376.

[7] Hikmat Hachouh, ‘Sinai Arabic New Finds Parchment 8 and 28: Its Contribution to Textual Criticism of the Gospel of Luke’, Novum Testamentum 50 (2008), p. 29.

Twenty-first Century Preservation of Ancient New Testament Manuscripts

Father Justin Introducing Saint Catherine's Monastery

In the sixth century, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian commanded the building of a Greek Orthodox monastery on Mount Sinai, at what is considered the very location where Yahweh first appeared to Moses in the burning bush, just under the site of his later appearance to the gathered nation of Israel to whom he delivered the Ten Commandments. For this reason, it is easy to see how important Mount Sinai remains as a testimony to God’s revelation of himself through his Word, not only spoken and written by his own finger in the Decalogue, but today, as it is preserved in over 1,200 complete manuscripts and thousands of fragments.

For 1,700 years, the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai has provided a home to these important sources of information regarding the transmission of the New Testament text. In the nineteenth century, the efforts of Constantine Von Tischendorf made the great Codex Sinaiticus accessible to the world of textual criticism and Biblical scholarship.

For decades, Bible scholars worked with ancient New Testament manuscripts often by use of black and white images on micro film, which has its limits in conveying their contents. “In 1975, when a treasure trove of more than 1200 manuscripts was discovered in a hidden store room, St. Catherine’s became the second largest institute in possession of ancient manuscripts, just behind the Vatican” (“A Texan at Mt. Sinai: Meet Father Justin,” CSNTM November 2011 Newsletter). Today, digital photography is increasing accessibility and deepening our understanding of these ancient records. This cutting edge work is being conducted by the work of St. Catherine monastic, Father Justin, the first non-Greek admitted into the fellowship of the ancient monastery. Born Russell Hicks, a native of El Paso, Texas, Father Justin became interested in Saint Catherine’s monastery and the monastic life as a student at the University of Texas at Austin when he read “Island of Faith in the Sinai Wilderness,” an article on the monastery published in the January, 1964 edition of National Geographic Magazine.

In 1978, Hicks was privileged to visit the monastery for two days. “He would end up spending twenty years at a monastery in Brookline, Massachusetts, before coming to St. Catherine’s Monastery. When Father Justin applied to the monastery, Archbishop Damianos broke a long-standing tradition and allowed him to make his home there; he was the first non-Greek to live at the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the world, built in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian” (CSNTM Newsletter, 11/2011).

There are currently about 25 Greek Orthodox monks living in St. Catherine’s monastery. Father Justin explained that the number had previously been as low as 7 back in 1955, but renewed enthusiasm for monasticism increased their number thanks to the influence of a few charismatic elders in the intervening years.

Dr. Daniel Wallace (right) with Father Justin (left)

Father Justin is currently touring America, speaking on the monastery library he now oversees as well as the significance of all of the Sinai manuscripts to textual criticism, raising funds for the expensive work of digitally preserving the images of these ancient documents. Tuesday and Wednesday, November 8-9, 2011, Father Justin was hosted by Dr. Daniel B. Wallace of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts at the Hope Center in Dallas, the site of this informative symposium.

Tuesday night, Father Justin spoke on “The Mission and Work of the St. Catherine’s Library,” introducing his audience to four sample manuscripts, describing their age, contents and condition, and describing the process of their digital preservation. He went into so much detail that I regret to report that I was unable to take many usable notes. I often found his soft-spoken delivery from lips rendered unreadable behind his long, gray beard difficult to hear. But there was one interesting detail I managed to retain: many of the manuscript images in Father Justin’s PowerPoint presentation often featured small portions of red text among a page of text in black ink. Justin explained that these red portions are called rubrics, using a red ink derived from the carmine of beetles. Rubrics in liturgical texts usually provided directions for priests, distinguishing it from the black text featuring responsive texts intended to be read by the congregation. Because of the older method of reproducing such manuscripts by means of black and white micro film, scholars sometimes found it necessary to travel to the location of the manuscripts themselves to view them in person in order to distinguish rubrics from responsive readings.

The Sinai manuscripts are digitally imaged by this camera.

We were also treated to a couple of interesting shots of Father Justin’s digital camera. In order to protect the fragile binding of ancient manuscripts, they are cradled so that the codex may be held open at no more than a 90 degree angle. These cameras utilize the same technology as that which sharpens fuzzy images of celestial bodies and other sights in outer space. 

In the question and answer period following his presentation, Father Justin also spoke on the dire need of better cataloging of their many manuscripts. He pointed out that the Vatican’s library of manuscripts is so much better cataloged because nuns study library science and apply this knowledge to their unique collection. This is a practice that has yet to be undertaken among the monks at Saint Catherine’s monastery. His partial chronology of efforts to catalog the Sinai manuscripts begins in 1728 when the archbishop at the time gathered the manuscripts housed in various locations in the monastery, but the variety was so diverse that his efforts were unsuccessful. In the mid-nineteenth century, more cataloging took place, but these efforts were little more than lists which did not elaborate to any extent on the contents or condition of the texts. In 1911, a complete catalog was compiled, but the quality of the information remained rudimentary compared to the Vatican library’s work. This shows us how much work remains in the processing of all the data available in the multitude of witnesses providentially preserving the transmission of the text of the New Testament.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s presentation on “The Significance of the Sinai Texts for New Testament Study.” Lord willing, a comparable review of it will follow.

Ehrman/Wallace Debate Now Available

The debate between Dr. Daniel B. Wallace and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman on October 1, 2011 at the McFarlin Memorial Auditorium was the largest event of its kind ever, being attended by 1,500 viewers on all sides of the issue of the reliability of the New Testament text. The DVD of the debate is now available for sale by Dr. Wallace’s Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. Click here to order a copy for yourself.

Read my semi-review and excerpt from Dr. Wallace’s new book which was released on the night of the debate.


Substantive Wallace Outweighs Populist Ehrman

Wallace/Ehrman Debate Stage

Saturday night, my son, a few friends and I, attended the debate between Dr. Daniel B. Wallace of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, the best-selling rock star of unbelieving New Testament textual criticism at McFarlin Memorial Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University (SMU). It was a very interesting and entertaining debate. Wallace has a much better sense of humor than the seemingly self-important Ehrman.

I’ve only got one observation about the debate. Just judging from the weightiness of each debater’s arguments, Wallace wins. Compared to Wallace’s informative presentation, Ehrman’s was much clearer, because he generally stayed on a much more simplistic level. While it’s easier to follow a simplistic presentation, it’s also easier to distort the truth in one. But you’d expect me to favor Wallace’s presentation. I agree with him on most of his defense of the New Testament.

But I won’t leave you completely without input from the debate. It turns out that the night of the debate was also the release date of Wallace’s latest book, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (2011, Kregel). This is a collection of academic essays by Wallace’s interns with an introductory chapter by Wallace which just happens to contain the information in Wallace’s arguments in Saturday night’s debate. I was able to purchase a pre-autographed copy, so I’ll share some of it with you.

McFarlin Memorial Auditorium

In chapter one, “Lost In Transmission: How Badly Did the Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?” Wallace discusses the number and nature of variant readings, the theological issues involved with the issue of the variants, and the essential reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. You’ll be able to read an excerpt from this chapter at the end of this post.

Chapter two is called “The Least Orthodox Reading is to be Preferred: A New Canon for New Testament Textual Criticism?” by Philip M. Miller. He discusses the historical backdrop of this seeming modern canon of textual criticism, demonstrates Ehrman’s use of this canon, then critiques it, and discusses its value and role.

In chapter three, “The Legacy of a Letter: Sabellianism or Scribal Blunder in John 1.1c?” Matthew P. Morgan presents scribal habits as a “historical lens” on theological development in the early church. He focuses on the roots and rise of Sabellianism, the reactions of the Chruch  Fathers to it. Then Morgan analyzes scribal habits in codices Regius and Freerianus, and finishes with a presentation on the grammatical viability of the textual variant in John 1.1c.

Adam G. Messer writes chapter four, “Patristic Theology and Recension in Matthew 24:36: An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Text-Critical Methodology.” According to Messer, those who discern ulterior motives in variants judged to have been purposely made by orthodox scribes, may be assuming too much. “Although any change is a deviation from the original, the difference in a clarification is that it typically better preserves the meaning and buttresses it against heretical counterfesance.”

Tim Ricchuiti has us “Tracking Thomas” in chapter five. In his chapter, Ricchuiti takes “A Text-Critical Look at the Transmission of the Gospel of Thomas.” This chapter provides the “Apocryphal Evidence” in Wallace’s subtitle. Ricchuiti’s “purpose [in this chapter is] (1) to conduct a comparison of the Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas to the full Coptic manuscript, (2) to assess the merit of the four manuscripts containing Thomas with respet to their originality, and (3) should the assessment yield fruit, to draw a few conclusions on the scholarly consensus regarding both the character of the Greek fragments versus the Coptic text and the amount of theological alteration present, particularly in Thomas, but more generally in noncanonical works as a whole” (page 226).

Finally, in chapter six, Brian Wright examines several New Testament texts which explicitly call Jesus “theos” or God, attempting to demonstrate that this was not a theological development, as many skeptics claim, but rather began with the first century New Testament writings.

This book looks very satisfying. Pick up a copy for yourself, if you’re inclined to this sort of reading. Now, with all of this in mind, the following is how Dr. Wallace not only introduces his book, but also his argument in the debate. With these words, he gives us sage advice.

The Debate Spectators (L-R): Victor "I love you, man!" Loredo, Mike Bangs (great last name for a barber, right?), Daniel "Deep Ellum" Garlow (nephew of notorious Dominionist, Jim Garlow, but that's another post), John Brian "J.B." Chitty (lead singer of Denton Drive--click the pic to hear his "Upbeat Thrash Punk"--he says it's positive stuff), and your humble blogger who really needs to stand in back in future group photos.

Two Attitudes to Avoid

To begin with, there are two attitudes that we should try to avoid: absolute certainty and total despair. On the one side are King James Only advocates; they are absolutely certain that the KJV, in every place, exactly represents the original text. To be frank, the quest for certainty often overshadows the quest for truth in conservative theological circles and is a temptation that we need to resist. It is fundamentally the temptation of modernism. To our shame, evangelicals have too often been more concerned to protect our presuppositions than to pursue truth at all costs.

On the other side are a few radical scholars who are so skeptical that no piece of data, no hard fact, is safe in their hands. It all turns to putty because all views are created equal. If everything is equally possible, then no view is more probable than any other view. In Starbucks and on the street, in college classrooms and on the airwaves, you can hear the line “We really don’t know what the NT originally said since we no longer possess the originals and since there could have been tremendous tampering with the text before our existing copies were produced.”

But are any biblical scholars this skeptical? Robert Funk, the head of the Jesus Seminar, seemed to be. In The Five Gospels he said,

Even careful copyists make mistakes, as every proofreader knows. So we will never be able to claim certain knowledge of exactly what the original text of any biblical writing was.

The temporal gap that separates Jesus from the first surviving copies of the gospels—about one hundred and seventy-five years—corresponds to the lapse in time from 1776—the writing of the Declaration of Independence—to 1950. What if the oldest copies of the founding document dated only from 1950?

Funk’s attitude is easy to see: rampant skepticism over recovering the original wording of any part of the NT. This is the temptation of postmodernism. The only certainty is uncertainty itself. It is the one absolute that denies all the others. Concomitant with this is an intellectual pride—pride that one “knows” enough to be skeptical about all positions.

Where does Ehrman stand on this spectrum? I do not know. On the one hand, he has said such things as the following:

If the primary purpose of this discipline is to get back to the original text, we may as well admit either defeat or victory, depending on how one chooses to look at it, because we’re not going to get much closer to the original text than we already are.

… [A]t this stage, our work on the original amounts to little more than tinkering. There’s something about historical scholarship that refuses to concede that a major task has been accomplished, but there it is.

In spite of these remarkable [textual differences, scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the original words of the New Testament with reasonable (although probably not 100 percent) accuracy.

The first statements were made at the Society of Biblical Literature in an address to text-critical scholars. The last is in a college textbook. All of this sounds as if Ehrman would align himself more with those who are fairly sure about what the wording of the autographic text is.

But here is what Ehrman wrote in his immensely popular book  Misquoting Jesus:

Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later….And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places….[T]hese copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even known (sic) how many differences there are.

We could go on nearly forever talking about specific places in which the texts of the New Testament came to be changed, either accidentally or intentionally. . . .  [T]he examples are not just in the hundreds but in the thousands.

And here is what he wrote in another popular book, Lost Christianities:

The fact that we have thousands of New Testament manuscripts does not in itself mean that we can rest assured that we know what the original text said. If we have very few early copies—in fact, scarcely any—how can we know that the text was not changed significantly before the New Testament began to be reproduced in such large quantities?

The cumulative effect of these latter statements seems to be not only that we have no certainty about the wording of the original but that, even where we are sure of the wording, the core theology is not nearly as “orthodox” as we had thought. According to this line of thinking, the message of whole books has been corrupted in the hands of the scribes; and the church, in later centuries, adopted the doctrine of the winners—those who corrupted the text and conformed it to their own notion of orthodoxy.

So you can see my dilemma. I am not sure what Ehrman believes. Is the task done? Have we essentially recovered the wording of the original text? Or should we be hyperskeptical about the whole enterprise? It seems that Ehrman puts a far more skeptical spin on things when speaking in the public square than he does when speaking to professional colleagues.

These two attitudes—total despair and absolute certainty—are the Scylla and Charybdis that we must steer between.

(Daniel B. Wallace, ed. Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence, ©2011, Kregel. Pages 23-26)

C. S. Lewis and Higher Criticism, part 6

"If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?" (John 3:12 ESV)

In Lewis’ final comments to a body of Anglican ministers, he encourages a healthy skepticism of too much theological skepticism. He reminds them that just because a biblical account of an earthly event has spiritual meaning behind it, it does not necessarily mean the event didn’t really happen. Bemoaning the fact that now parishioners believe more than their ministers, he asks that perhaps one should wait until “he knows as he is known” to discover which were and which were not literal events.

Read part one.

Read part two.

Read part three.

Read part four.

Read part five.

A Due Agnosticism

For agnosticism is, in a sense, what I am preaching. I do not wish to reduce the sceptical elements in your minds. I am only suggesting that it need not be reserved exclusively for the New Testament and the Creeds. Try doubting something else.

Such scepticism might, I think, begin at the very beginning with the thought which underlies the whole demythology of our time. It was put long ago by Tyrrell. As man progresses he revolts against ‘earlier and inadequate expressions of the religious idea… Taken literally, and not symbolically, they do not meet his need. And as long as he demands to picture to himself distinctly the term and satisfaction of that need he is doomed to doubt, for his picturings will necessarily be drawn from the world of his present experience.’

In one way of course Tyrrell was saying nothing new. The Negative Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius had said as much, but it drew no such conclusions as Tyrrell. Perhaps this is because the older tradition found our conceptions inadequate to God whereas Tyrrell finds it inadequate to ‘the religious idea’. He doesn’t say whose idea. But I am afraid he means man’s idea. We, being men, know what we think; and we find the doctrines of the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Second Coming inadequate to our thoughts. But supposing these things were the expressions of God’s thoughts?

It might still be true that ‘taken literally and not symbolically’ they are inadequate. From which the conclusion commonly drawn is that they must be taken symbolically, not literally; that is, wholly symbolically. All the details are equally symbolical and analogical.

But surely there is a flaw here. The argument runs like this. All the details are derived from our present experience; but the reality transcends our experience: therefore all the details are wholly and equally symbolical. But suppose a dog were trying to form a conception of human life. All the details in its picture would be derived from canine experience. Therefore all that the dog imagined could, at best, be only analogically true of human life. The conclusion is false. If the dog visualized our scientific researches in terms of ratting, this would be analogical; but it thought that eating could be predicated of humans only in an analogical sense, the dog would be wrong. In fact if a dog could, per impossible, be plunged for a day into human life, it would be hardly more surprised by hitherto unimagined differences than by hitherto unsuspected similarities. A reverent dog would be shocked. A modernist dog, mistrusting the whole experience, would ask to be taken to the vet.

But the dog can’t get into human life. Consequently, though it can be sure that its best ideas of human life are full of analogy and symbol, it could never point to any one detail and say, ‘This is entirely symbolic.’ You cannot know that everything in the representation of a thing is symbolical unless you have independent access to the thing and can compare it with the representation. Dr. Tyrrell can tell that the story of the Ascension is inadequate to his religious idea, because he knows his own idea and can compare it with the story. But how if we are asking about a transcendent, objective reality to which the story is our sole access? ‘We know not – oh we know not.’ But then we must take our ignorance seriously.

Of course if ‘taken literally and not symbolically’ means ‘taken in terms of mere physics,’ then this story is not even a religious story. Motion away from the earth – which is what Ascension physically means – would not in itself be an event of spiritual significance. Therefore, you argue, the spiritual reality can have nothing but an analogical connection with the story of an ascent. For the union of God with God and of man with God-man can have nothing to do with space. Who told you this? What you really mean is that we can’t see how it could possibly have anything to do with it. That is a quite different proposition. When I know as I am known I shall be able to tell which parts of the story were purely symbolical and which, if any, were not; shall see how the transcendent reality either excludes and repels locality, or how unimaginably it assimilates and loads it with significance. Had we not better wait?

Such are the reactions of one bleating layman to Modern Theology. It is right that you should hear them. You will not perhaps hear them very often again. Your parishioners will not often speak to you quite frankly. Once the layman was anxious to hide the fact that he believed so much less than the vicar; now he tends to hide the fact that he believes so much more. Missionary to the priests of one’s own church is an embarrassing role; though I have a horrid feeling that if such mission work is not soon undertaken the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short.

C. S. Lewis on Higher Criticism, part 5

Once upon a time, the scholars thought there was no Homer.

In this  portion of C. S. Lewis’ sheeply, but not sheepish, confession of skepticisms about modern liberal theology and it’s partner in crime, biblical higher criticism, we read a confession of his personal hope that higher criticism “may blow over,” seeing how often within his own lifetime that the “assured results of modern scholarship” lose their assurance. But Lewis is no reactionary who would throw out the baby with the bathwater—he recognizes some benefits in both liberal theology and higher criticism, but would trust a more limited and careful form of both.

Read part one.

Read part two.

Read part three.

Read part four.

Lewis’ “Secret Hopes” and “Naïve Reflections”

My picture of one layman’s reaction – and I think it is not a rare one – would be incomplete without some account of the hopes he secretly cherishes and the naïve reflections with which he sometimes keeps his spirits up.

You must face the fact that he does not expect the present school of theological thought to be everlasting. He thinks, perhaps wishfully thinks, that the whole thing may blow over. I have learned in other fields of study how transitory the ‘assured results of modern scholarship’ may be, how soon the scholarship ceases to be modern. The confident treatment to which the New Testament is subjected is no longer applied to profane texts. There used to be English scholars who were prepared to cut up Henry VI between half a dozen authors and assign his share to each. We don’t do that now. When I was a boy one would have been laughed at for supposing there had been a real Homer: the disintegrators seemed to have triumphed for ever. But Homer seems to be creeping back. Even the belief of the ancient Greeks that the Mycenaeans were their ancestors and spoke Greek has been surprisingly supported. We may without disgrace believe in a historical Arthur. Everywhere, except in theology, there has been a vigorous growth of scepticism about scepticism itself. We can’t keep ourselves from muttering multa renascentur quae jam cecidere.

Nor can a man of my age ever forget how suddenly and completely the idealist philosophy of his youth fell. McTaggart, Green, Bosanquet, Bradley seemed enthroned for ever; they went down as suddenly as the Bastille. And the interesting thing is that while I lived under that dynasty I felt various difficulties and objections which I never dared to express. They were so frightfully obvious that I felt sure they must be mere misunderstandings: the great men could not have made such very elementary mistakes as those which my objections implied. But very similar objections – though put, no doubt, far more cogently than I could have put them – were among the criticisms which finally prevailed. They would now be the stock answers to English Hegeliansim. If anyone present tonight has felt the same shy and tentative doubts about the great Biblical critics, perhaps he need not feel quite certain that they are only his stupidity. They may have a future he little dreams of.

We derive a little comfort, too, from our mathematical colleagues. When a critic reconstructs the genesis of a text he usually has to use what may be called linked hypotheses. Thus Bultmann says that Peter’s confession is ‘an Easter-story projected backward into Jesus’ life-time’. The first hypothesis is that Peter made no such confession. Then, granting that, there is a second hypothesis as to how the false story of his having done so might have grown up. Now let us suppose – what I am far from granting – that the first hypothesis has a probability of 90 per cent. Let us assume that the second hypothesis also has a probability of 90 per cent. But the two together don’t still have 90 per cent, for the second comes in only on the assumption of the first. You have not A plus B; you have a complex AB. And the mathematicians tell me that AB has only and 81 per cent probability. I’m not good enough at arithmetic to work it out, but you see that if, in a complex reconstruction, you go on thus superinducing hypothesis on hypothesis, you will in the end get a complex in which, though each hypothesis by itself has in a sense a high probability, the whole has almost none.

The Strength of “Mere” Textual Criticism

You must, however, not paint the picture too black. We are not fundamentalists. We think that different elements in this sort of theology have different degrees of strength. The nearer it sticks to mere textual criticism, of the old sort, Lachmann’s sort, the more we are disposed to believe in it. And of course, we agree that passages almost verbally identical cannot be independent. It is as we glide away from this into reconstructions of a subtler and more ambitious kind that our faith in the method waivers; and our faith in Christianity is proportionally corroborated. The sort of statement that arouses our deepest scepticism is the statement that something in a Gospel cannot be historical because it shows a theology or an ecclesiology too developed for so early a date. For this implies that we know, first of all, that there was any development in the matter, and secondly, how quickly it proceeded. It even implies an extraordinary homogeneity and continuity of development: implicitly denies that anyone could have greatly anticipated anyone else. This seems to involve knowing about a number of long dead people–for the early Christians were, after all, people–things of which I believe few of us could have given an accurate account if we had lived among them; all the forward and backward surge of discussion, preaching, and individual religious experience. I could not speak with similar confidence about the circle I have chiefly lived in myself. I could not describe the history even of my own thought as confidently as these men describe the history of the early Church’s mind. And I am perfectly certain no one else could. Suppose a future scholar knew I had abandoned Christianity in my teens, and that, also in my teens, I went to an atheist tutor. Would not this seem far better evidence than most of what we have about the development of Christian theology in the first two centuries? Would not he conclude that my apostasy was due to the tutor? And then reject as ‘backward projection’ any story which represented me as an atheist before I went to the tutor? Yet he would be wrong. I am sorry to have become once more autobiographical. But reflection on the extreme improbability of his own life – by historical standards – seems to me a profitable exercise for everyone. It encourages a due agnosticism.

C. S. Lewis on Higher Criticism, part 4

Here is C. S. Lewis’ longest and loudest “fourth bleat.” His experience with modern reviewers of contemporary English literature undermines his confidence in the ability of higher critics of any ancient text, much less the New Testament, to accurately reconstruct the sources and true circumstances under which they were originally written.

Read part one.

Read part two.

Read part three

 Can Modern Critics Fare Better Than Modern Reviewers?

All this sort of criticism attempts to reconstruct the genesis of the texts it studies; what vanished documents each author used, when and where he wrote, with what purposes, under what influences – the whole Sitz im Leben of the text. This is done with immense erudition and great ingenuity. And at first sight it is very convincing. I think I should be convinced by it myself, but that I carry about with me a charm – the herb moly – against it. You must excuse me if I now speak for a while of myself. The value of what I say depends on its being first-hand evidence.

What forearms me against all these reconstructions is the fact that I have seen it all from the other end of the stick. I have watched reviewers reconstructing the genesis of my own books in just this way.

Until you come to be reviewed yourself, you would never believe how little of an ordinary review is taken up by criticism in the strict sense; by evaluation, praise, or censure, of the book actually written. Most of it is taken up with imaginary histories of the process by which you wrote it. The very terms which the reviewers use in praising or dispraising often imply such a history. They praise a passage as ‘spontaneous’ and censure another as ‘labored’; that is, they think they know that you wrote the one currenete calamo and the other invita Minerva.

What the value of such reconstructions is I learned very early in my career. I had published a book of essays; and in the one into which I had put most of my heart, the one I really cared about and in which I discharged a keen enthusiasm, was on William Morris. And in almost the first review I was told that this was obviously the only one in the book in which I had felt no interest. Now don’t mistake. The critic was, I now believe, quite right in thinking it the worst essay in the book; at least everyone agreed with him. Where he was totally wrong was in his imaginary history of the causes which produces its dullness.

Well, this made me prick up my ears. Since then I have watched with some care similar imaginary histories both of my own books and of books by friends whose real history I knew. Reviewers, both friendly and hostile, will dash you off such histories with great confidence; will tell you what public events had directed the author’s mind to this or that, what other authors had influenced him, what his overall intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why–and when–he did everything.

Now I must record my impression; then distill from it, what I can say with certainty. My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 per cent failure. You would expect that by mere chance they would hit as often as the miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can’t remember a single hit. But as I have not kept a careful record my mere impression may be mistaken. What I think I can say with certainty is that they are usually wrong.

And yet they would often sound – if you didn’t know the truth – extremely convincing. Many reviewers suggested that the Ring in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was suggested by the atom bomb. What could be more plausible? Here is a book published when everyone was preoccupied by that sinister invention; here in the centre of the book is a weapon which it seems madness to throw away yet fatal to use. Yet in fact, the chronology of the book’s composition makes the theory impossible. Only the other week a reviewer said that a fairy-tale by my friend Roger Lancelyn Green was influenced by fairy-tales of mine. Nothing could be more probable. I have an imaginary country with a beneficent lion in it; Green, one with a beneficent tiger. Green and I can be proved to read one another’s works; to be indeed in various ways closely associated. The case for an affiliation is far stronger than many which we accept as conclusive when dead authors are concerned. But it’s all untrue nevertheless. I know the genesis of that Tiger and that Lion and they are quite independent.

Now this surely ought to give us pause. The reconstruction of the history of a text, when the text is ancient, sounds very convincing. But one is after all sailing by dead reckoning; the results cannot be checked by fact. In order to decide how reliable the method is, what more could you ask for than to be shown an instance where the same method is at work and we have facts to check it by? Well, that is what I have done. And we find, that when this check is available, the results are either always, or else nearly always, wrong. The ‘assured results of modern scholarship’ as to the way in which an old book was written, are ‘assured’, we may conclude, only because the men who know the facts are dead and can’t blow the gaff. The huge essays in my own field which reconstruct the history of Piers Plowman or The Faerie Queen are most unlikely to be anything but sheer illusions.

Am I then venturing to compare every whipster who writes a review in a modern weekly with these great scholars who have devoted their whole lives to the detailed study of the New Testament? If the former are always wrong, does it follow that the later must fare no better?

There are two answers to this. First, while I respect the learning of the great Biblical critics, I am not yet persuaded that their judgment is equally to be respected. But, secondly, consider with what overwhelming advantages the mere reviewers start. They reconstruct the history of a book written by someone whose mother-tongue is the same as theirs; a contemporary, educated like themselves, living in something like the same mental and spiritual climate. They have everything to help them. The superiority in judgment and diligence which you are going to attribute to the Biblical critics will have to be almost superhuman if it is to offset the fact that they are everywhere faced with customs, language, race-characteristics, class-characteristics, a religious background, habits of composition, and basic assumptions, which no scholarship will ever enable any man now alive to know as surely and intimately and instinctively as the reviewer can know mine. And for the very same reason, remember, the Biblical critics, whatever reconstructions they devise, can never be crudely proved wrong. St. Mark is dead. When they meet St. Peter, there will be more pressing matters to discuss.

You may say, of course, that such reviewers are foolish in so far as they guess how a sort of book they never wrote themselves was written by another. They assume that you wrote a story as they would try to write a story; the fact that they would so try, explains why they have not produced any stories. But are the Biblical critics in this way much better off? Dr. Bultmann never wrote a gospel. Has the experience of his learned, specialized, and no doubt meritorious, life really given him any power of seeing into the minds of those long dead men who were caught up into what, on any view, must be regarded as the central religious experience of the whole human race? It is no incivility to say – he himself would admit – that he must in every way be divided from the evangelists by far more formidable barriers – spiritual as well as intellectual – than any that could exist between my reviewers and me.

C. S. Lewis on Higher Criticism, part 3

In this edition of C. S. Lewis’ unique analysis of modern liberal theology and higher criticism of the New Testament, we feature his second and third “bleats” as a sheep to shepherds. Under examination are two misguided and misleading assumptions made by theological liberals. 

Read part one and part two.

Recovery or Revision?

Now for my second bleat. All theology of the liberal type involves at some point – and often involves throughout – the claim that the real behavior and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by his followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars. Now long before I became interested in theology I had met this kind of theory elsewhere. The tradition of Jowett still dominated the study of ancient philosophy when I was reading Greats. One was brought up to believe that the real meaning of Plato had been misunderstood by Aristotle and wildly travestied by the Neo-Platonists, only to be recovered by the moderns. When recovered, it turned out (most fortunately) that Plato had really all along been an English Hegelian, rather like T.H. Green. I have met it a third time in my own professional studies; every week a clever undergraduate, every quarter a dull American don, discovers for the first time what some Shakespearean play really meant. But in this third instance I am a privileged person. The revolution in thought and sentiment which has occurred in my own lifetime is so great that I belong, mentally, to Shakespeare’s world far more than to that of these recent interpreters. I see – I feel it in my bones – I know beyond argument – that most of their interpretations are merely impossible; they involve a way of looking at things which was not known in 1914, much less in the Jacobean period. This daily confirms my suspicion of the same approach to Plato or the New Testament. The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance.

Modern Denial of Biblical Miracles

Thirdly, I find in these theologians a constant use of the principle that the miraculous does not occur. Thus any statement put into our Lord’s mouth by the old texts, which, if he had really made it, would constitute a prediction of the future, is taken to have been put in after the occurrence which it seemed to predict. This is very sensible if we start by knowing that inspired prediction can never occur. Similarly in general, the rejection as unhistorical of all passages which narrate miracles is sensible if we start by knowing that the miraculous in general never occurs. Now I do not here want to discuss whether the miraculous is possible. I only want to point out that this is a purely philosophical question. Scholars, as scholars, speak on it with no more authority than anyone else. The canon ‘If miraculous, then unhistorical’ is one they bring to their study of the texts, not one they have learned from it. If one is speaking of authority, the united authority of all the biblical critics in the world counts here for nothing. On this they speak simply as men; men obviously influenced by, and perhaps insufficiently critical of, the spirit of the age they grew up in.

But my fourth bleat – which is also my loudest and longest – is still to come.

C. S. Lewis on Higher Criticism, part 2

The following is the next few paragraphs from C. S. Lewis’ essay, “Fern Seed and Elephants,” in which he gives one educated sheep’s skeptical perception of modern liberal theology and higher textual criticism. You will find among Lewis’ comments that he evidences a lack of entire agreement with the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, but overall, his critiques of the more extermely liberal theological and textual critical views remain helpful even for conservative Evangelical inerrantists.

For more information on the Evangelical doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, read the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (this link takes you to my Creeds, etc. page on the statement, from which you may link elsewhere to read the document).

 Read part one

The Skepticism of One Educated Sheep

The undermining of the old orthodoxy has been mainly the work of divines engaged in New Testament criticism. The authority of experts in that discipline is the authority in deference to whom we are asked to give up a huge mass of beliefs shared in common by the early Church, the Fathers, the Middle Ages, the Reformers, and even the nineteenth century. I want to explain what it is that makes me skeptical about this authority. Ignorantly skeptical, as you will all too easily see. But the scepticism is the father of the ignorance. It is hard to persevere in a close study when you can work up no prima facie confidence in your teachers.

Lewis’ First Bleat: New Testament Critics Lack Literary Judgment

First then, whatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgement, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading. It sounds a strange charge to bring against men who have been steeped in those books all their lives. But that might be just the trouble. A man who has spent his youth and manhood in the minute study of New Testament texts and of other people’s studies of them, whose literary experience of those texts lacks any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general, is, I should think, very likely to miss the obvious thing about them. If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour; not how many years he has spend on that Gospel. But I had better turn to examples.

“Reportage,” or a Genre Ahead of its Time

In what is already a very old commentary I read that the fourth Gospel is regarded by one school as a ‘spiritual romance’, ‘a poem not a history’, to be judged by the same canons as Nathan’s parable, the book of Jonah, Paradise Lost ‘or, more exactly, Pilgrim’s Progress‘. After a man has said that, why need one attend to anything else he says about any book in the world? Note that he regards Pilgrim’s Progress, a story which professes to be a dream and flaunts its allegorical nature by every single proper name it uses, as the closest parallel. Note that the whole epic panoply of Milton goes for nothing. But even if we leave our the grosser absurdities and keep to Jonah, the insensitiveness is crass – Jonah, a tale with as few even pretended historical attachments as Job, grotesque in incident and surely not without a distinct, though of course edifying, vein of typically Jewish humour. Then turn to John. Read the dialogues: that with the Samaritan woman at the well, or that which follows the healing of the man born blind. Look at its pictures: Jesus (if I may use the word) doodling with his finger in the dust; the unforgettable nv vuz (13:30). I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read. I would recommend him to read Auerbach.

“Reassimilating” the Parousia and the Passion

Here, from Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament is another: ‘Observe in what unassimilated fashion the prediction of the parousia (Mark 8:38) follows upon the prediction of the passion (8:31). What can he mean? Unassimilated? Bultmann believes that predictions of the parousia are older than those of the passion. He therefore wants to believer – and no doubt does believe – that when they occur in the same passage some discrepancy or ‘unassimilation’ must be perceptible between them. But surly he foists this on the text with shocking lack of perception. Peter has confessed Jesus to be the Anointed One. That flash of glory is hardly over before the dark prophecy begins – that the Son of Man must suffer and die. Then this contrast is repeated. Peter, raised for a moment by his confession, makes his false step: the crushing rebuff ‘Get thee behind me’ follows. Then, across that momentary ruin which Peter (as so often) becomes, the voice of the Master, turning to the crowd, generalizes the moral. All his followers must take up the cross. This avoidance of suffering, this self-preservation, is not what life is really about. Then, more definitely still, the summons to martyrdom. You must stand to your tackling. If you disown Christ here and now, he will disown you later. Logically, emotionally, imaginatively, the sequence is perfect. Only a Bultmann could think otherwise.

The Personality of the Lord

Finally, from the same Bultmann: ‘the personality of Jesus has no importance for the kerygma either of Paul or John… Indeed, the tradition of the earliest Church did not even unconsciously preserve a picture of his personality. Every attempt to reconstruct one remains a play of subjective imagination.’

So there is no personality of our Lord presented in the New Testament. Through what strange process has this learned German gone in order to make himself blind to what all men except him see? What evidence have we that he would recognize a personality if it were there? For it is Bultmann contra mundum. If anything whatever is common to all believers, and even to many unbelievers, it is the sense that in the Gospels they have met a personality. There are characters whom we know to be historical but of whom we do not feel that we have any personal knowledge – knowledge by acquaintance; such are Alexander, Attila, or William of Orange. There are others who make no claim to historical reality but whom, none the less, we know as we know real people: Falstaff, Uncle Toby, Mr. Pickwick. But there are only three characters who, claiming the first sort of reality, also actually have the second. And surely everyone knows who they are: Plato’s Socrates, the Jesus of the Gospels, and Boswell’s Johnson. Our acquaintance with them shows itself in a dozen ways. When we look into the apocryphal gospels, we find ourselves constantly saying of this or that logion, ‘No. It’s a fine saying, but not his. That wasn’t how he talked’ – just as we do with all pseudo-Johnsoniana. We are not in the least perturbed by the contrasts within each character: the union in Socrates of silly and scabrous titters about Greek pederasty with the highest mystical fervor and the homeliest good sense; in Johnson, of profound gravity and melancholy with that love of fun and nonsense which Boswell never understood though Fanny Burney did; in Jesus of peasant shrewdness, intolerable severity, and irresistible tenderness. So strong is the flavour of the personality that, even while he says things which, on any other assumption than that of divine Incarnation in the fullest sense, would be appallingly arrogant, yet we – and many unbelievers too – accept him as his own valuation when he says ‘I am meek and lowly of heart’. Even those passages in the New Testament which superficially, and in intention, are most concerned with the divine, and least with the human nature, bring us fact to face with the personality. I am not sure that they don’t do this more than any others. ‘We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of graciousness and reality… which we have looked upon and our hands have handled. What is gained by trying to evade or dissipate this shattering immediacy of personal contact by talk about ‘that significance which the early Church found that it was impelled to attribute to the Master’? This hits us in the face. Not what they were impelled to do but what impelled them. I begin to fear that by personality Dr. Bultmann means what I should call impersonality: what you’d get in a Dictionary of National Biography article or an obituary or a Victorian Life and Letters of Yeshua Bar-Yosef in three volumes with photographs.

That then is my first bleat. These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight.

C. S. Lewis on Higher Criticism, part 1


I’m looking forward to attending the upcoming debate between the evangelical Dr. Dan Wallace of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and the agnostic Dr. Bart D. Ehrman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on the trustworthiness of the text of the New Testament at McFarlin Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas on Saturday, October 1, 2011. (debate website) This debate necessarily involves the issue of the undermining effect the discipline of higher textual criticism has had on orthodox theology in general, and the orthodox doctrine of the inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy and authority of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments in particular.

Several decades ago, world famous Christian apologist, novelist and literary critic, Dr. C. S. Lewis, addressed a body of Anglican ministers and shared his concerns as an educated parishioner (or “sheep”) that modern higher criticism lacks credibility, and thus higher critics, in his view, lack literary judgment. The next several posts will include sections of this lengthy lecture/essay including my own helpful section titles. It is not the easiest read, due to many unfamiliar literary or other academic references, but there is much wisdom to be gained by the diligent reader, and it may help to motivate further diligence to know that it is generously sprinkled throughout with Lewis’ characteristic wit.

Originally entitled ‘Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism’, Lewis read this essay at Westcott House, Cambridge, on 11 May 1959. Published under that title in Christian Reflections (1981), it is now in Fern-seed and Elephants (1998). HT: Homepage for Orthodox Theology

Introduction: A Sheep to Shepherds

This paper arose out of a conversation I had with the Principal one night last term. A book of Alec Vidler’s happened to be lying on the table and I expressed my reaction to the sort of theology it contained. My reaction was a hasty and ignorant one, produced with the freedom that comes after dinner. One thing led to another and before we were done I was saying a good deal more than I had meant about the type of thought which, so far as I could gather, is no dominant in many theological colleges. He then said, ‘I wish you would come and say all this to my young men.’ He knew of course that I was extremely ignorant of the whole thing. But I think his idea was that you ought to know how a certain sort of theology strikes the outsider. Though I may have nothing but misunderstandings to lay before you, you ought to know that such misunderstandings exist. That sort of thing is easy to overlook inside one’s own circle. The minds you daily meet have been conditioned by the same studies and prevalent opinions as your own. That may mislead you. For of course as priests it is the outsiders you will have to cope with. You exist in the long run for no other purpose. The proper study of shepherds is sheep, not (save accidentally) other shepherds. And  woe to you if you do not evangelize. I am not trying to teach my grandmother. I am a sheep, telling shepherds what only a sheep can tell them. And now I begin my bleating.

How the Uneducated Might Respond to Modern Theology

There are two sorts of outsiders: the uneducated, and those who are educated in some way but not in your own way. How you are to deal with the first class, if you hold views like Loisy’s or Schweitzer’s or Bultmann’s or Tillich’s or even Alec Vidler’s, I simply don’t know. I see – and I’m told that you see – that it would hardly do to tell them what you really believe. A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia – which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes – if offered to the uneducated man can produce only one or other of two effects. It will make him a Roman Catholic or an atheist. What you offer him he will not recognize as Christianity. If he holds to what he calls Christianity he will leave a Church in which it is no longer taught and look for one where it is. If he agrees with your version he will no longer call himself a Christian and no longer come to church. In his crude, coarse way, he would respect you much more if you did the same. An experienced clergyman told me that the most liberal priests, faced with this problem, have recalled from its grave the late medieval conception of two truths: a picture-truth which can be preached to the people, and an esoteric truth for use among the clergy. I shouldn’t think you will enjoy this conception much once you have put it into practice. I’m sure if I had to produce picture-truths to a parishioner in great anguish or under fierce temptation, and produce them with that seriousness and fervor which his condition demanded, while knowing all the time that I didn’t exactly – only in some Pickwickian sense – believe them myself, I’d find my forehead getting red and damp and my collar getting tight. But that is your headache, not mine. You have, after all, a different sort of collar. I claim to belong to the second group of outsiders: educated, but not theologically educated. How one member of that group feels I must now try to tell you.

Was Something Lost in the Translation of “Three Days and Three Nights”?

There’s an old adage about the fact that some things get “lost in translation.” The reason it became an adage is because it is so frequently true. Unfortunately, this is a fact that is easily and often overlooked by those of us who believe the Bible can and ought to be interpreted literally. The problem is, many of us forget, or refuse to accept the fact that there may be something more to interpreting the Bible literally than simply taking everything at face value. This messes up our understanding of the Bible and this thinking error can even mislead people into believing that the Bible contradicts itself.

Case in point: Jesus’ being in the tomb for “three days and three nights.” There are a number of schools of thought on just how long Jesus spent. The traditional view that he was crucified on Friday afternoon, and entombed just before sundown, spent all Friday night, Saturday day and night, and rising just before sunup on Sunday morning just leaves the twentieth and twenty-first century Biblical literalist cold.

A couple of weeks ago, I added a new blog to my blogroll. It’s called the Ehrman Project Blog. This is the blog for the larger site of the same name: The Ehrman Project dot com. Speaking of people who allow themselves to be mislead into thinking that the Bible contradicts itself, this blog is devoted to answering many of the misleading claims of Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, the world’s favorite skeptical Bible scholar who is teaching the popular reading public about the details of Biblical textual criticism, and spinning it with his own loss of faith in the reliability of the text of the Bible.

Today’s post at the Ehrman Project Blog offers some helpful pointers to how the Bible itself demonstrates that this is a Hebrew idiom that isn’t always to be taken merely at face value. The context determines the meaning of not only individual words, but also phrases, such as this one. Read Aren’t there only two nights between Friday and Sunday?

Ehrman/Wallace Debate in Dallas

Saturday, October 1, 2011, Dr. Daniel Wallace will debate Dr. Bart Ehrman on whether we can trust the text of the New Testament. Wallace is an evangelical textual scholar and founder of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. Ehrman is a former Christian, professor of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, and the author of books like Misquoting Jesus and Forged, in which he attempts to communicate much about the field of New Testament textual criticism and uses this information to attempt to demonstrate that the New Testament is not, in fact, either inerrant or inspired by God.

This debate is the second between these two scholars. You can purchase the first if you like from this site.

Here’s the website for the upcoming debate.

%d bloggers like this: