For Christian kids, the set-up often goes like this: the Creator gave humans a big book, as had been perfectly preserved and transmitted, age upon age. It tells us exactly how to behave.
Yes, we were told, there were some very small problems in the manuscripts, but really nothing. The text was reliable, and the “canon” had been established by “men of God.”
I had met a few “men of God” that I thought—maybe weren’t?
So I was willing to look at the facts. What’s going on with the Bible?
As it turns out, it’s a bit complicated.
Let’s start with what Christians call the Old Testament. There are a range of possible “witnessess,” as scholars say. From the 7th to the 10th centuries, Jewish scholars established a Hebrew version called the Masoretic Text.
But . . . there was an earlier Greek translation, the Septuagint or LXX, which is often quite different. The NETS translation is available for free, and to check any book is to find, at times, almost another text.
But there are more witnesses, as by the 2nd century Jewish translator Theodotion. Differences in the MT, LXX and Theodotion copies of the book of Daniel, for example, are so extensive that, as Michael Segel notes, “the three versions in fact reflect different literary editions of the book (or at least of its first half).”
Then there’s the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in caves around Qumran (in Palestine) from 1947 into the 1960s, which have fragmentary versions that sometimes reflect the MT, sometimes the LXX, and sometimes have ‘new’ versions of their own.
Try Deuteronomy 8:6 in the NIV: “Observe the commands of the LORD your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him.”
Here is the Dead Sea Scroll, 4QDeut 8:6: “Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God, by walking in his ways and by loving him.”
Do we ‘fear’ or ‘love’ God?
In Christian history, when there has been differences between the MT and LXX, the church typically favored the MT—even when it made no sense.
For example, in Deuteronomy 32:8, God divides up the earth “according to the number of the children of Israel.” That’s the old KJV, reflecting the MT. Except this was narratively impossible. Israel didn’t yet exist.
The LXX, however, had: “according to the number of divine sons.” This was ignored, until the Dead Sea Scrolls showed the same reading: “according to the number of] the children of God.”
The Christian tradition went with a reading that was later disproved. Was the ‘Spirit’ really guiding those men of God?
It’s like a psychic who was proven wrong.
The LXX has books not considered “canonical”—a designation, we might recall, never mentioned in any “canonical” book. Several books of quite serious theological intention should be noted, among them the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach.
Sirach has some claim to being quoted in the New Testament, and the Wisdom clearly is quoted many times, including, arguably, by Jesus. Then it is included in the Muratorian Canon, the first effort to list Christian texts that are, not “canonical,” but read publicly in Christian gatherings.
The text of Wisdom (you can find it here in the CEV translation) summarizes the Old Testament. The early Gentile Christians, after all, did not seem to read the Old Testament (in the New Testament there is no prompt to do so), and perhaps Wisdom caught them up on the basics.
But Wisdom proposes many differences from core Christian traditions. For example, porneia is defined as a problem of idolatry: “For the invention of idols was the beginning of porneia, and the discovery of them the corruption of life.” (14:12)
The later Christian church defines porneia as human having sex—translating it as ‘fornication’, ‘sexual immorality’, etc.
The canonicity of the Wisdom of Solomon then is of some importance.
Wisdom, as scholars note, is clearly being used by Paul when writing Romans 1, a passage packed with obscure references, but read traditionally as about ‘homosexuality’.
If those references are, likewise, not sexual in nature, then the Wisdom again becomes a sort of battleground.
The Enoch texts, though identified as ‘scripture’ by many early church leaders, were subsequently dismissed and forgotten. The Dead Sea Scrolls brought the subject back to the foreground, since the Qumran community clearly valued these writings very greatly.
We can see now that 1 Enoch is quoted in the NT, as in Jude 14. Is a book quoted in the Bible not itself the Bible? Canonicity provokes all sorts of tricky questions. Then, if a text is quoted in the Bible, should it be used as an interpretive guide? That would make much of the Bible about, not evil humans, but evil spirits, as books like Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm start to indicate.
Many scrolls found in Qumran, though certainly not recognized as biblical by Christians, can seem to be part of the conceptual universe of the early Christians. In Matthew 5:34, for example, Jesus cites a teaching he says his audience has heard before: “Love your neighbor, hate your enemy.” The reference has never been known.
Magen Broshi notes that the Dead Sea Scroll known as the Community Rule has several passages on ‘hatred’—directed not at humans, but at spirits.
And what to do about the Temple Scroll? It is God speaking.
Turning to the New Testament, we have a new series of difficulties. Manuscripts differ dramatically. For example, the words of Jesus on the cross — “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” — can be missing.
Is it valid — or not? You can make a case for both.
A New Testament manuscript called the Bezae Codex, currently held by Cambridge University, has extensive additional text, including a ‘new’ saying by Jesus. It may have been controversial: he says that one is free from Jewish law “if you know what you are doing…”
Then in the Bezae version of Acts, which survives only in part, the narrative shifts drastically. As Jenny Read-Heimerdinger notes, the disciples here are not superheroes, but simply “fallible human beings who only gradually come to grasp the full extent of the radical nature of Jesus’ message.”
The first gospel to have been written was famously lost. It is typically referred to as the Hebrew Gospel, and was quoted by early Christians in surviving texts. These propose additional problems for the canonical New Testament, since the sayings of Jesus can dramatically shift in meaning.
In Matthew 6:11, for example, Jesus says: “Give us today our daily bread.” This seems to indicate one is praying for provisions just for today. But, as discussed in James R. Edwards’ book, Jerome translates the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us today our bread for tomorrow” — explaining, “that is, the bread that will be given to us in your kingdom, give us today.’’
The message would be: give us the conditions of the Resurrection today.
That creates extensive problems. The conditions of the Resurrection are described, but are not usually Christian objectives. For example, as in Matthew 22:30, there is no human marriage.
We might begin to wonder if New Testament narratives had been adjusted to introduce misogynist themes. Mary Stromer Hanson’s important book on Jesus & the Bethany family discusses how early manuscripts of Luke 10:38 say that Martha ‘received’ Jesus.
But later manuscripts say she received him ‘into the house’ — which tends to suggest the context is Martha doing housework, as is otherwise not apparent.
A similar motive might be on view in John 4:29, when the Samaritan Woman says that Jesus “told me everything I ever did.” This seems to locate the context to her (imagined) sex life.
Early manuscripts can omit “I ever did” and have only “told me everything.” The addition obscures a possible quotation of Deuteronomy 18:18. Without the “I ever did,” the context seems to be the subject they have been talking about: the spiritual situation of Samaria.
The Mark gospel has many possible endings. I tried to work through Nicholas P. Lunn’s book on the subject, but couldn’t come to any conclusions.
And what to do with the ‘Freer Logion’, an ending of Mark’s gospel containing a ‘new’ saying by Jesus. Here is that saying:
And Christ replied to them, ‘The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was delivered over to death, that they may return to the truth and sin no more, in order that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of justice which is in heaven.”
And what about ‘Secret Mark’? In 1958, the story goes, a respected Bible scholar named Morton Smith found a manuscript in a monastery outside Jerusalem: a copy of a letter by an early Christian, Clement of Alexandria, saying a few more verses in the gospel of Mark existed.
It’s the story of the night Jesus spent with Lazarus after bringing him back from the dead. Dr. Smith published a study of the letter in 1973. The manuscript was seen by several people and photographed, but by 1990 had gone missing. It was deemed credible by important scholars, and the ‘missing verses’ seemed to illuminate many references, as Richard Bauckham and Winsome Munro discuss.
The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in the Nag Hammadi finds in Egypt around 1945, but had long been known and cited by early Christians as accurate. It may be among the first efforts to record the words of Jesus.
Similarly, there are additional texts that record the words of Jesus, from 2 Clement to the Gospel of Philip. That such texts are regularly ignored by the Christian tradition may owe to their contents? Philip, for example, discusses the Holy Spirit as female.
The Odes of Solomon—a misleading title assigned on their discovery in the early 20th century—may be the New Testament version of the Psalms. Here again, the Holy Spirit is female.
Jesus is frequently quoted, as in Ode 42, when he descends to Sheol, and the dead cry out to him.
And I heard their voice
and took their faith to heart.
And I set my name upon their head,
because they are free.
and they are mine.
The Odes are very little discussed by Christians. I noticed a 1915 paper making a detailed case that Paul quoted them, but could not find more about that idea in later scholarly literature.
And that . . . is just for starters.