Gold Coast Bereans

Out of Ghana, West Africa; Christian hearts and critical minds seeking, speaking and writing the truth with love. This is a conversation of a group of friends, now living in the USA and the UK, who have known each other for more than 20 years.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Scripture, The New Testament Cannon, etc

There are a number of instances in the scriptures where scholars believe that later copyists and scribes possibly added, deleted, or altered verses and passages in the original texts,. For example, the gospel of Mark has 2 or 3 different endings. This can only mean that some copyists either added or removed passages from the original. What would be their motive to do so?

Likewise, some of the earliest manuscripts do not have the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. There are a number of passages in the gospel accounts that are hard to harmonize e.g. the resurrection stories (how could recollections of events that followed such a supernatural event be so different). Even te time of His death on the cross appears different in the accounts. Some, e.g., say it happened in the morning, others in the afternoon.

There are books, now considered apocryphal, that were supposedly fabricated by heretics and removed by the Nicene council from the collection of authorized books (the cannon of the NT). Some of these books record even more incredible stories of the resurrection e.g. a talking cross in the tomb!! Does the fact that these additions, deletions, alterations, forgeries, embellishments exist--no matter how few--bother any of you when you read scripture? It suggests some had motive to embellish and mythologize the truth. How do we know today, that all of what we read is authentic--true copy of the original gospel accounts.

Furthermore, you probably know that books like 2nd and 3rd John, Hebrews, the Revelation, I Timothy (even today some doubt that this epistle was written by Paul) were not accepted by all Christians in the early church and only later came to be accepted as canonical. In contrast, other books, now rejected as apocryphal, were initially circulated and read by some early christian groups.

Finally, have you ever wondered how the gospel writers were able to record things like people's thoughts or prayers. How did Mark and Luke and Mathew know what the pharisees were thinking? Perhaps they inferred these thoughts based on Jesus's responses. But how too, for example, were they able to record verbatim, so many years after the fact, Mary's prayer when she conceived our Lord (Magnificat). Luke no where states that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write these statements; instead he says he carefully investigated the facts. How did he come about these facts.

How did the gospel writers come about details concerning Satan's temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (again different accounts in the different gospels) Clearly lots of issues to resolve. Perhaps one of you has an easy solution to these problems. I have been reading a lot written by FF Bruce, Metzger, Millard (all christians) and by Ehrman (formerly born again--now an agnostic scholar) and it is hard to skirt some of these problems. Perhaps some of you have pondered these issues too. If so, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on these issues? - Gauis Columbus Dissentus, 20 February 2006 17:46:06

Oh one more thing, even though they did not know exactly when, the apostles seem to have been reasonably sure that Jesus would return in their lifetime. You can infer this based on things written in parts of the gospels and epistles. If so, how could they have been so wrong and how can we trust their authority on other matters? Or perhaps they weren't wrong--is the claim that they expected Him back soon exaggerated? For those wondering whether I am still in the fold of the elect, don't worry--I am still firmly in the camp. Just lingering questions in this tired old brain of mine. - Gaius Columbus Dissentus

Personally, I now have a more fundamentalist view of the Bible. By that, I mean that I believe it was given through men writing what the Holy Spirit inspired them to write. This first premise is one of faith, and cannot be proven empirically. Not only can I not prove this, I can not even disprove those who argue against it. It is simply an article of faith for me. Many other faiths, which are based on historical writings, depend on similar beliefs. It is worth pointing out some differences though; Moslems (and interestingly this is one thing all moslems agree on) believe that the Koran was dictated to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel. Mohammed wrote it down. Interestingly, the timing of the first dictations was when Mohammed was 40 and still fairly "illiterate"- a better translation is "unlettered"-.

This is why well-taught moslems so revere not just the meaning of the koran, but the print itself- as well as the prophet who wrote it. Some of them even believe it is wrong to translate the koran into other languages. For a moslem, to suspect the koran could have been "flushed down a toilet" is maddeningly irreverent. Possibly, it would be like an old testament Jew hearing the tablets of the Ten Commandments had been so treated. We christians don't feel the same way about the paper on which the Bible is printed. Mormons believe the book of mormon was found by Joseph Smith. An angel had written it on tablets of gold. Joseph Smith merely translated it into english using the urim and thummin. Non fundamentalist christians believe the Bible is merely a collection of historical books, each of which should be measured on the basis of what is known about it.

We must remember though that the methods the Holy Spirit used to inspire the biblical authors vary from chapter to chapter. In parts of revelations, John saw or heard something and was told to "write this.."In some other parts songs or poems that had been in use were collected and sanctioned for use in worship. In some parts eyewitnesses wrote what they recalled. Others were historical texts that got passed down. The Ten Commandments were written by the hand of God on stones carved by Moses. Etc.

As a fundamentalist in my view of the Bible, I ask God to make it so that my understanding of what I read is what He intends for me. And I believe (that's where it's faith and not logic) that He does. This has led me to believe in 6 literal days of creation, a literal flood, etc. More importantly, I believe in the literal immaculate conception, virgin birth, the fact that Jesus never sinned, but died, rose, and will come again. The apostles' creed.

More specific G. Colombus's points, I find it easy to accept the conclusions of the council of Nicea, because their stated basic beliefs were similar to mine. I accept the cannon that they agreed on, and have not found a reason to go beyond it. By the way, my favorite authors in these dialectical issues are A Ernest Wildersmith (if you can find his books- they are all out of print), CS Lewis and Leo Tolstoy- his short stories, not the long novels (the imp and the crust, how much land does a man need, etc- are great for adults and for kids). I also enjoy reading some of the non-believing authors, cause I find their arguments interesting, and I feel good when I can see through them. So I occasionally read Aldous Huxley, Bert Russel and H.G. Wells, all excellent writers, and Ii actually enjoy even their novels. I'm currently reading an abridged account of Darwin's life. Very interesting.

Regarding the time of Christ's return, I don't think the disciples felt certain it would be in their lifetime. In some of Paul's writings it is clear he thinks he might die soon; yet he also expected the Second coming, anytime. I think it was an attitude of expectation rather than certainty of when the Lord would return. - Calorious - 20 February 2006

By the way you can often find out-of-print books at Check it out. Perhaps I will return to the matter concerning Scripture a little later. At this time, while I accept and fully respect the fundamentalist posture that G Phoenix has adopted, I feel respectfully that I need a little more if for nothing else because I presently have the "curiosity itch" and understand also that the scriptures teach that it is imperative to test all truth, critically but honestly. I have been praying that God will protect me from falsehood/apostasy in this quest. I trust, however, that the gospel, because it is true, is able to withstand a little deeper scrutiny/honest enquiry.

As a related matter, I do ocassionally wonder whether the burden of proof in respect to the gospel remains the same for successive generations of christians? For example, since we did not witness Jesus live or talk to eyewitnesses, is the burden of proof that we face today different than it was for the apostles,? Specifically, is each generation judged afresh by different standards and according to evidence available to it? Is this the meaning, in part, of Jesus's statement to Thomas after the resurrection (Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe) and of his reproof of the Pharisees when he compared them to cities further back in antiquity who unlike the religious leaders of His time would have believed had they seen the miracles he performed in support of His messiahship.- Gaius Columbus. 22 February 2006

Jesus in His day was probably not the person any of us would have wanted to associate with: anti establishment, radical, unconventional and making "outrageous" claims and I do not think He was not physically attractive either (Isaiah53) . Furthermore, the Romans were looking for any excuse to crush the Jews. The multiplicity of miracles was God's way of helping the people of those days to come to faith.

Wehave the benefit of history and unfamiliarity (remember a prophet is not honored in his home town) in accepting Christ. So, I thank the Lord for the generation of our birth and the grace He has given all of us to come to Christ. We face different challenges in our days- the lust of the eyes, flesh and love of this world. - Gaius Chicago 22 February 2006

G. Columbus! when I was a kid and used to ask these questions, I was told I would get mad. Along with questions about how many hairs are on my head (easy to answer now), how much water is in the ocean; trying to count the stars in the sky etc.
Just joking.

But seriously, I agree. I think G Columbus has it right. We are to test everything. I think those verses mean testing everything against scripture, or testing scripture for internal consistency. Ii don't think it means testing scripture itself, but I'm not sure. If we were asked to test scripture, I would have to reply by paraphrasing our former military ruler in Ghana, Jerry Rawlings who when he was asked to hand over power said "hand over to whom?"In this case I would say "test scripture against what?"

There is a certain limit to relativism. Take the scientific observation that matter-energy is indestructable and cannot be created. Therefore everything comes from something. You can push it only so far, eventually coming to the conclusion that there has to have been a something at the beginning which either brought itself into being, or else has always been. Or that the laws of physics did not exist at a certain point in time.

Same with doctrine. Every doctrine gets its authority from somewhere, until eventually you get to a certain source which claims to be self evident. In relativity theory, the speed of light has the same significance. But definitely, at that ultimate level, the logic that got you there ceases to work, and you are left with a defintion or observation of a constant.

One thing that can be frustrating is that this putative constant may one day be found to be a fraud. Once they thought the atom was indivisible; now its some other subatomic particle. In quantum physics they used to think its was a certain amount of energy. That's changed. At one time they thought Pluto was the last planet, or that Cape Verde was the end of the world.

Eventually, arguments like this lead you to conclude there must be an Absolute, a Beginning, a God. I think that you can deduce that far. Whether that Absolute is the God and Father of the Jesus we know is, I beleive, an article of faith.

By the way, abebooks is where I also get some of my out of print stuff. I recently acquired a copy of Ephraim Amu's first book. They in turn found it in an Australian used book store. I'm pretty sure its the last copy in existence. Interesting how we converge to the same things. -
Gaius Solarius. 23 February 2006

I have heard it said before that those of us living now have a better "advantage" compared to those living at the time of Christ. I actually suspect that (knowing myself) I would have been one of those screaming "crucify Him" on that Friday night in Jerusalem if I had been there and Gauis Texas would have made a good Pontius "I find no wrong in this man" Pilate. Gausi Solarius would have pointed to Peter near the fire and said "surely your accent betrays you, you are one of them". The only guys who would probably have been on the Lord's side in 33 AD would probably be Gauis Columbus and Ohio. Gaius Pittsburgh. Wed, 22 Feb 2006

In answer to the question about testing the veracity of the bible I think its ok but I will say upfront that you can never fully prove (I say fully and I use that carefully because some facts can be proved) the Bible by research. The historical facts can be corroborated to some extent but not all. How can you prove a virgin birth? Even in AD 0, that could not be proved. How do you prove a resurrection of Christ? These are the cornerstones of Christianity withou which there is no salvation for you and me.

So for me it appears that God wants me to live by faith and thus has made it impossible for me to validate these facts physically. Rather He- God- works it out in me by applying the death of His son to me and then His Son's life so that I can attest to them in my experience and thus there is no doubting on my part.
You may find some answers to some of the discrepancies in the bible by reading Josephus who chronicled the Jewish history of the 1st century AD and thus addressed some biblical issues in the process. As far as I know he is the only extra biblical source where Christ is mentioned. Eusebius also addresses some of these issues; he writes later than Josephus but is closer in time to Christ and the apostles than most sources and even makes a reference to some of Jesus' physical descendants and answers some of the discrepancies in the NT, eg., the genealogies of Christ in Matthew and Luke.

I personally have no problems with the discrepancies I just think that we do not fully have all the historical facts to reconcile some of the events and also in a persons lifetime not all parts of the Bible are meant for him. For example some scholars claim that if Herod murdered the babies in Bethlehem it should have been recorded in historical accounts of the time (eg Josephus). I disagree because Bethlehem was a small village and Herod probably hired some urchins to abduct and kill the babies (analogous to say the Beltway sniper incident a few years ago). For some time this would have made news to the folks of the time as they tried to explain why there were serial killings but over time such a small incident would be forgotten akin to how the Beltway snipers are almost forgotten bu others today (except of course the families directly affected who have to live daily with the consequences).

As an example of why some things are not meant for all generations, a lot of the Revelations prophecies are meant for the people who will live in that time and sometimes I am amazed at how we go out of our way to try to make current events fit those prophecies.

As for how the bible writers knew what was happening in peoples minds that is where we need to believe that God knows our very thoughts and thus I believe His Spirit gave that revelation to the writers of the bible. As for the apocrypha and the deletions by the Nicean council I think that you can read all those books that have been deleted if you wish (and I have but it made no lasting spiritual impression on me) but I can hardly keep up with the 66 books that they left so why should I even be worried about the other ones.

I will faithfully read what I have and trust that it is enough to guide me throught this ragged life. Where there is a controversy over an ending say in Mark, I check their contents against other scripture and if there is uniformity of thought I accept them. I use this example because some people do not believe in the ending with the bit about picking up snakes, but I do. My reason is because Paul picked up a serpent (albeit by accident) and did not die and there is an abundance of laying on of hands in the Acts of the apostles, thus for me it is in conformity with the rest of scripture and why one scribe left it out and the other did not, I do not know. It could be as simple as one running out of papyrus, hence the shorter ending.

I think I probably haven't helped you but that is not what I set out to do. I only gave reasons why I am ok with the Bible as it is now. Good luck in your search and let me know what pearls you crack open. - Gaius zealot fundamentalis of Texas. 23 February 2006

G Texas! living in an area with rattlesanakes, I think you have a vested interest in beliving that particular ending of the Gospel of Mark. - Robbo. 23 February 2006

Thanks for your kind and thoughtful responses. I too believe in axioms beyond which one can not proceed further. I have no problem with fundamental propositions like God exists--the whole universe literally screams that He does. I also have no doubts that Jesus lived, died and rose again. Starting with the premise that God exists, none of this miraculous stuff (including the virgin birth) is a stretch of the imagination for me. Having accepted by my own observations and deductions (vs the bankruptcy of alternative theories) that He does exist, miracles for me offer not logical contradictions.

Incidentally this is why I have no problems with a literal 6 day creation story. This is also why I agree that it is the very essence of hubris to suppose that what we cannot explain cannot exist. A creature that lives in a 2 dimensional world cannot understand what humans in a 3 dimensional world take for granted. If you carry this logic forward--as even science is beginning to do with theories like String theory--it is easy to see why there are truths we cannot "see", why there are truths that our minds can only intuit.

So again I have no problems with the axioms of my faith. My problem is how to rightly divide the word of truth when there is evidence that some later scribes having read these wonderful events or heard about them recorded incidents--willfully or accidentally--in ways that suggest error. Perhaps some felt they could help God out by embellishing the story etc. Perhaps others did it with malice in their hearts or to resolve some doctrinal disputes. In doing so, however, these scribes created intractable problems for honest enquirers and the Church.

When I asked whether different generations had different burdens of proof, this is exactly what I was alluding to. Clearly, God does not ask that we seek evidence of Mary's virgin birth or that we interview John the Baptist. But does He not ask that we determine, to the best of our ability, whether words purportedly spoken by John or by His beloved Son are indeed what they said? Does he not ask that we look at the historical evidence with honest hearts so as to make the difficult judgments when questions arise? Does he not ask that we try our best to determine which parts of scripture are His words versus additions by later scribes?

Perhaps not outright, but I think it is implied when I hear about the Christians in Berea and when Ie read that seeking the truth with all of my heart will yield dividends. For me one mark of truth is consistency. The Lord once said "Wisdom is known by her children". He said this when he chided the Pharisess for the lack of their internal consistency (remember they they rejected both John the Baptist--"an unsociable wild man" and the Lord who they saw as "eating and drinking and a frequenter of feasts" So yes, I seek internal consistency. When it is lacking I try to determine why?

Sometimes like a math problem the answer comes in a eureka moment, when from a new perspective things suddenly make sense. Other times inspite of my attempts I am unable to assail the stubborn walls. Even then it is often worth a try because of various other lessons learned. Finally, I do accept your loving concern when you warn against too great a reliance on proofs alone. Every tool--even our intellects--have their limits. For this reason I guard against the trap of the so called learned of this world (one that some former believers have fallen into) that asserts that unless one can explain a thing rationally it cannot be true.

Fortunately, I do not buy into that kind of thinking. A logician by the name of Godel once proved convincingly that there are some truths that cannot be expressed by any formal system of logic. Truths that transcend formal systems of proof mainly because these attempt to encompass the infinite on the bais of finite sets of axioms. I fully accept the finitude of my mind. I also recognize that there are truths that I have held and will continue to hold "in tension" until the Lord's return.

I have come accross passages that are difficult to harmonize, but never ones that I can honestly call contradictions. So scripture as I currently know it is incomplete, but it is not inconsistent. Indeed, like Paul I am forced to see dimly as though through glass mainly because of human errors in transcribing and transmitting the original Gospel message to us. Incidentally, the statistical model is a good one for me. In plotting real data I do see the general shape of curves that reasonably explain relationships within the noise represented by measurement error. I am comfortable with childlike faith which has a basis in reality. What I am uncomfortable with is blind faith; faith without basis. I believe God has given us enough to believe.

I believe honest inquiry will lead to a deeper appreciation of the truth--it always has with me. There have been many instances where what I cannot fully grasp I can "see with my hearts mind". In a way just like limits in calculus--never fully grasping the value of a function at a particular point but knowing where it trends. Similarly, on this side of eternity I know enough to be assured that what I believe is true . For me that is the essence of faith and the basis of my relationship with our Lord. The endpoint that all the patterns in the old and new testament point to as I approach the limit-the clear patterns that are capped by faith, the final bridge to truth.

I am working around objections brought about human error through the ages but I still see the general shape of God's plan as revealed in Scripture quite clearly. I hope this explains my questions a little better. Thanks again for your helpful responses. God bless. Gaius Enquritus of Columbus, 23 February 2006


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