Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
Confused Copying

Chapter 21 of Matthew's Gospel contains a good example of the potential unreliability of the text which has come down to us. It and similar contradictory passages are sometimes used to suggest that the gospels are of little or no use as sources of information about Jesus. The truth is much more complex than this.

Few readers of the gospels know that the texts we use are based upon originals written in street Greek (koine) several centuries after the time of Jesus. Today's versions have been sifted for errors during centuries of scholarly work on manuscripts of several kinds:

  • Papyrus texts were written on sheets made out of the papyrus plant. It was cut into strips and two layers laid out, one running vertically and one horizontally. These were then pressed and dried. Papyrus sheets don't survive well over time, especially when kept in a damp climate. Thousands of fragments have nevertheless survived, particularly in the dry climate of north Africa.

  • Parchment proved a much more durable material for writing on. It was made from animal skins (usually goatskin) cured and dried to give a smooth surface. Parchment was much more expensive than papyrus. Probably because of this, parchment gospels are relatively rare.

  • Paper proved a much better and durable writing material than papyrus, and could be made more cheaply than parchment. But it did not appear until about 800 (from China, via Japan and Central Asia). Paper did not arrive in Europe until 1150.

There are now over 5 000 old versions of the New Testament - far more than for any other ancient Greek or Latin author or book. These texts have been pored over by thousands of scholars for the past 300 years or so. It's probable that no other literature has ever been so minutely and critically examined. Having said that, modern scholars tend to rely on two major editions (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) for their translations of the gospels into modern languages.

Few people also know that the content of the New Testament was not finalised until the fourth century and even later. Before that, various lists were made of acceptable Christian writings, though these did not initially gain wide acceptance. So, for example, the Gospel of Thomas was excluded from the Canon (or "rule") of officially acceptable writings - even though it contains much good historical material.

We now take for granted the rapid and mass production of printed material worldwide. Anyone can type out something and place it on the Internet, where it can be accessed by a computer linked to a telephone line. Similarly, books, newspapers and leaflets can be easily and cheaply printed and equally easily disseminated.

The process of copying manuscripts was, in contrast, laborious and expensive because it had to be done by hand. To save space, the Greek text would be written without spaces between words. Monasteries proved important in preserving the text of the Bible through turbulent times. In larger communities, copies were mass produced by individual monks. But not until the invention of movable type and the printing press was the New Testament made widely available to ordinary laypeople.

Copying by hand inevitably results in some errors and confusions - though the care and accuracy with which copies of the gospels were made is far more remarkable than the mistakes which crept into the text during transmission. Nevertheless, modern textual critics must still pay attention to those errors as they attempt to distill out from the mass of evidence the most accurate version of the gospels.

Verses 28-31 of Matthew 21 are an interesting example of something which went wrong over time. It seems that copyists have become confused during the transmission of the text, which has no parallels in the other gospels.

Three manuscript versions have come down to us:

Version 1
First son agrees to
work, but doesn't

Second son refuses
to work, but later does

The second son gives the correct answer

Version 2
First son refuses to
work, but later does

Second son agrees
to work, but doesn't

The first son gives the correct answer

Version 3
First son refuses to
work but later does

Second son agrees
to work, but doesn't

The second son gives the correct answer

When there is this degree of confusion, how can one decide what Jesus actually said? The fact of the matter is that the confusion can't be resolved by analysis of the original documents. The mistake has become embedded and can't be sorted out. Scholars have to resort to "best guess" answers instead.

Some think that the first version is more typical of the sort of thing Jesus would have said. If so, then he seems to be saying that those who were normally thought of as outcast in his day (the second son) are just as likely as anyone else to be acceptable to God.

Jesus' audience, they think, would have understood the sons to refer to a contrast between those outside and inside the religious family of Israel. That is, the insiders hypocritically say "Yes" but then refuse to respond to the new insights Jesus is giving. In contrast, those regarded as outcasts from Judaism (Christians) first say "No" but then reverse their stance and do what is right.

Others think that the passage shouldn't be regarded as "what Jesus really said" at all, because this Gospel is the only place it occurs. Unless a passage can be confirmed by another source, it can't usually be accepted as truly historical. They also point out that it's form isn't a true parable form. It doesn't use metaphor, there is no reversal of outcomes as in most parables, and it is didactic - that is, doesn't leave the final conclusion to the hearer. 

In addition, in contrasting saying and doing, the passage reflects one of Matthew's favourite theological themes. If this is the case, we have to acknowledge that the author of Matthew's Gospel might have re-written the original to suit his own purposes.

Despite the difficulties, even the most sceptical critics (such as the those of the Jesus Seminar) think that the first version is probably quite close to the original words of Jesus.

The important lesson to be learned from this example, especially in a climate where some preach the Bible as the irrefutable "Word of God", is that there are no final answers with respect to the words of Jesus as reported in the gospels. Not only was there inevitable loss of accuracy in the transition from verbal to written sayings, but there were also irretrievable losses in the transition from manuscript to manuscript.  

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