Friday, December 15, 2023

How Can We Say the Bible is Inerrant in the Originals (autographs)?

A friend notified me of a recent episode of "The Breifing" by Albert Mohler where he addresses a question sent to him by a listener. You can hear the question and Mohler's response at the following link.

This isn't the exact wording of the question, but it went something like this.

"How can we say that the Bible we have is inerrant only in the originals? If our translations today could have small errors over time, can we really say that the Bible is perfect?"

The questioner indicated that this issue was causing him to doubt his faith. This really struck a cord with me because this is a very similar problem that drove me into studying New Testament textual criticism. Unfortunately I was a little disappointed by Mohler's response, which sounded more like a dodge to me. With that said, his answer was honest and transparent about the limitations of his own knowledge of the topic.

I wanted to briefly address this question, though a full throated response would necessitate a book.

There is a theological problem that is revealed by the way the question is worded. The concept of divine preservation is confused and lumped in with divine inspiration, and thus, inerrancy and these two theological ideas must be understood as two different events.

Divine Inspiration of Scripture:

Inspiration was a one time event that occured through the apostles and prophets as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). Paul told Timothy that all scripture (γραφη) is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Because Peter mentions words that were spoken and Paul uses the term γραφη, inspiration must therefore be limited to certain people (apostles and prophets) at an appointed time (while speaking or when writing) and limited to specific words (being spoken and or written). These scriptural references also reveal that there was a divine confluence in this event, the Holy Spirit worked through men who spoke or wrote. 

Because God is the one who moved the men to write, then it must mean that there is no untruthfulness or mistakes in what was conveyed through these men (Numbers 23:19, Titus 1:2, Hebrews 6:18). However, because men of a certain age and culture were moved to speak and write, then actual human languages, couched within specific cultures and countries were employed (Hebrew, Aramaic, Koine Greek).Once the inspiration event was over, the documents were released for copying, circulation, and dispatched to Churches (in the case of the epistles), then the inspiration event was over.

Preservation of Scripture through Fallible Human Agency:

Now ordinary men were given charge over copying and distributing God's word. In Deuteronomy 17:18, the King is charged with making a copy of God's Law, and the priests are charged with keeping master copies. Yet they failed in their tasks, the kings failed to follow God's commands and the priests lost track of the copies of the law (Hosea 4:6, 2 King's 22:8-10). In the New Testament, men are entrusted to spread the Gospel (Matthew 28:19-20), this involved copying out the scriptures to be distributed (Colossians 4:16). Yet, even then, the apostolic message was twisted, which is what happened in the case of Paul's letters (2 Peter 3:15-16). Already within one hundreds years of the time of the apostles errors had found their way into copies of the scriptures that were circulating. Irenaeus (180 CE), in his Against Heresies, 5.30.1., mentions that some copies of Revelation had the mark of the beast as 616 rather than 666.

Finally, another problem with the way the original question was worded was that it confused the wording of the inspired autographs or "originals" with a physical object. It must be understood that it is the wording, the text that was inspired not a physical document (such as papyrus, or parchment). As long as the wording is faithfully transcribed, then the copy is also inspired. Because fallible men have been entrusted with transcribing and transmitting the scriptures, however, there are imperfections in the extant copies. This means that our access through our imperfect manuscripts to inerrant inspiration has some limitations. These textual variations in the manuscripts are human errors of transcription, not errors of inspiration. Though our access to God's inerrant word has some limitation, our access is sufficient for knowing and understanding the message of salvation.


For a transcript of "The Breifing" go to the following link, under "Part II".

For a fuller treatment of these topics, see my two articles below.

"What are the NT Autographs? An Examination of the Doctrine of Inspiration and Inerrancy in Light of Greco-Roman Publication." JETS 59/2 (June 2016): 287-308.

Where Inspiration is Found: Putting the New Testament Autographs in Context,” in Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 24.3 (Fall 2020): 83-101.

[EDIT: I want to also recommend this excellent volume that addresses a lot of the issues that the questioner is facing.]

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Some Observations on Orthography and the Π Group

A Shelf in the Old Library at Magdalen College, Oxford

After having completed my dissertation for some months, and with it now recently being made available online, I have had time to reflect back on some of the conclusions of the years of study. After transcribing all of the witnesses to be included in the examinations, I had to regularize those readings that were not genealogically significant, which means tagging these readings to be ignored by the collation software. Chapter 3 of the dissertation covers in detail the entire process (Mitchell, Family Π in the Gospel of Mark, pp. 71-102). I noticed that many of the regularizations were spelling differences involving the substitution of similarly sounding vowels or the omission of the same letter in a word containing a double consonant (i.e. λλ). Tables 3.1 through 3.6 in Chapter 3 list out the number of orthographic variations (pp. 91-98). It seems to me that those who used these manuscripts were comfortable with variations in spelling as long as the words sounded the same when pronounced while being read out. Because so many of these manuscripts were prepared and used for lectionary readings, this may be a byproduct of this type of environment. I conclude that
"[this] may reflect a more utilitarian attitude of the scribe who may have cared more for function rather than perfection. That is, as long as orthography did not impede the transmission of meaning, then it did not impede its usefulness." (Mitchell, Family Π in the Gospel of Mark, p. 102)
Most of these manuscripts reflect late antique or medieval attitudes towards the copying of texts, so it may not be applicable to earlier centuries. With that said, I wonder how much of the modern textual critic's approach to errors in the text related to spelling are actually anachronistic to some degree. It makes me wonder how many more variations, especially those that hardly affect meaning, such as transpositions or word substitutions with a synonym that have a large semantic overlap, would have been considered an acceptable byproduct of hand copying. For those who created and used these manuscripts, the vast majority of these types of variations would likely not have been considered "errors" as we see them today, which can be the cause of many modern day apologetic, epistemological, and theological crises.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Timothy N. Mitchell, "Family Π in the Gospel of Mark" Now Availabile

I was just informed that the PDF version of my PhD dissertation and it's accompanying data are now available freely on the University of Birmingham's Ethesis Repository. The PDF of the dissertation is available at the following link.

I won't re-post the abstract as it can be read at the above link. The summary of my findings are these;

1) The so-called Family Π is actually a group because the manuscripts do not originate from a lost archetype.

2) The origin of the Π Group readings are that they arose as a result of copying from commentary manuscripts (catenae). The scholia acting on the text reintroduced Π Group readings into the text throughout the centuries.

3) As Π Group manuscripts were copied, the text was standardized through a process of the copyists conforming the text to the readings they were used to hearing during their lectional readings.

If you do not want to read the entire thesis, I recommend reading Chapter 1 as it will give a really good backdrop to the study. Then read the concluding summaries of Chapters 2 and 3. Read all of Chapter 4 as this chapter  contains the core arguments of the thesis. Skip Chapter 5 as it contains a long list of group readings obtained from the collation. Finally, read all of Chapter 6 as it discusses the arguments surrounding the origin of the Π Group.

The accompanying data can be found at the following links.

Accompanying data for "A Collation of Family Π in Mark"

A Collation of Family Π in Mark [Online Edition]

A positive apparatus of Family Π in Mark

Transcriptions of 27 Manuscripts of the Gospel according to Mark

[EDIT: I began the research for this dissertation way back in 2017. See the earlier post here where I first mentioned my dissertation topic.]

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Interview With Paul Larson on Credible Faith Podcast

A couple of years ago I was interviewed by Paul Larson of Credible Faith ministries. I just learned that Paul, after some delays, had uploaded the interview a few days ago.

The discussion centers around my work on ancient writing practices and the composition of the New Testament writings. We covered issues of textual stability, the relationship of autographs to inspiration, and composition practices.

The YouTube version can be found here.

Larson's website with the audio version of the interview can be found at this link.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Book Review: Creating the Canon By Benjamin Laird

Creating the Canon: Composition, Controversy, and the Authority of the New Testament. By Benjamin P. Laird. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2023, xiv, + 258 pp., $30.00 paperback.

The historical circumstances surrounding the writing, distribution, selection and gathering together of the New Testament documents continues to garner much scholarly attention. Yet, there are few books that attempt to condense the nuanced historical details into an easily digestible introduction. Creating the Canon is the latest in a steady stream of new books by Benjamin P. Laird and was written in order to fulfill this need. Laird earned his PhD at the University of Aberdeen and is an Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the John W. Rawlings School of Divinity at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.
The book is segmented into three segments. Part one consists of three chapters and covers "Questions Relating to the Production of the New Testament Writings" (pp. 11-84). 
Chapter 1, "The Composition of the New Testament Writings," advances the notion that many of the writings of the New Testament were composed through the collaborative efforts of a team of secretaries, letter carriers, and others who took part in distributing the canonical writings.
Chapter 2, "The Original Autographs of the New Testament Writings," proposes that many of the New Testament writings had multiple autographs. It is argued that it is better to think of an "original edition" rather than an "original autograph" (p. 64).
Chapter 3, "The Original Readers of the New Testament Writings," articulates the idea that the canonical authors wrote with multiple communities in view rather than a single audience. This concept would mean that the New Testament writings were composed with a more universal message in mind.
Part two is the largest segment of the work and consists of three chapters, addressing "Questions Relating to the Formation of the New Testament Canon" (pp. 87-174).
Chapter 4, "Theological Controversies and the Formation of the New Testament Canon," engages with popular assumptions that are postulated as causing the formation of the New Testament Canon. The controversies surrounding Marcion, and the notion that early Church councils in the fourth century decided the canon, are discussed.
Chapter 5, "The Primary Witnesses to the Early State of the New Testament Canon," surveys the early patristic canonical lists and references to the canonical writings. The chapter also introduces the reader to some of the most important and early copies of the New Testament writings.
Chapter 6, "The Canonical Subcollections and the Formation of the New Testament Canon," highlights the influence that canonical "subcollections" had on the acceptance of the twenty seven books of the New Testament.
Part three is the shortest section of the book with only two chapters and engages with "Questions Relating to the Authority of the New Testament Canon" (p. 177-236).
Chapter 7, "Apostolicity and the Formation of the New Testament Canon," discusses the relationship of apostolic teaching and authority with the reception of many of the New Testament writings.
Chapter 8, "Apostolic Authorship and the Authority of the New Testament Canon," evaluates several modern scholarly perspectives on the foundations for the continuing authority of the New Testament writings.
Though the book functions as an introduction to the topic, it attempts to cover too many competing scholarly perspectives. Readers may find it difficult to find the common thread of thought through the various chapters. Related to this, many may have difficulty finding a clear thesis or main argument in the book.
Because the work attempts to engage with too many scholarly perspectives, often inadequate space is given when Laird supports a particular scholarly position. For example, because of the various textual problems surrounding the last chapters of Romans, Laird proposes that three copies of the "longer recension" of Romans were made, "one for the Romans, one for those in Corinth, and one for Paul and/or his associates" (pp. 61-62). Laird proposes that the secretaries or scribes of Paul (i.e. Tertius), in preparing a copy of Romans to be sent to the Corinthians, removed the irrelevant material at the end of Romans (p. 62). This would "explain both the origin of the shorter and longer recensions as well as the alternative locations of the doxology" (p. 62). Unfortunately, Laird does not expound on the reasons why a scribe such as Tertius would go to the trouble of removing irrelevant material at the end of Romans, but would retain the most irrelevant textual address, "to all those in Rome" (Rom. 1:7, 1:15), at the beginning of the letter. The fact that there are almost no Greek manuscripts that lack this address seems to be a significant hurdle to this explanation of the textual variation at the end of Romans.
Despite these criticisms, Creating the Canon would work well as a starting point for forays into the study of New Testament canon formation. Readers will be introduced to first century composition practices, the role of letter carriers, and the early process of gathering of these writings into subcollections. Chapter two, which discussed the issues surrounding the "autographs," and chapters seven and eight, concerning the issue of apostolic authority and canon formation, engaged with topics rarely seen in books on the New Testament canon. This work might prove useful as a textbook for a college or seminary class on the New Testament Canon.

Timothy N. Mitchell
PhD, University of Birmingham, UK

Saturday, September 9, 2023

How Marginal Comments Can Corrupt a Text in Transmission

A leaf from P.Mich.inv. 6238 (P46) showing the
end of Romans and the beginning and title of Hebrews

A number of years ago Michael W. Holmes wrote a book chapter in which he argued that several variations in the text of Romans in P46 were evidence of marginal comments entering into the body of text. This occurred, Holmes argued, when a copyist confused a marginal comment for a correction to be entered into the body of text (Holmes pg. 202-205).
"What now appear only as variant readings in the text originally were, I suggest, comments in the margins about the text—the earliest “commentary” (in the sense of activity, rather than genre) on the text of Romans." (Holmes pg. 205)
Though Holmes gave no examples from antiquity, there are two instances in which an ancient author mentions this phenomenon occurring during the copying of a text. 

The second century physician Galen in his commentary on Hippocrates "Epidemics" gives two explanations for a corruption in the text of Hippocrates. The first explanation Galen gives is that Hippocrates gave a parenthetical statement in order to point out the difference between two types of patients currently being discussed in the work. Galen makes the following comment for the second.
“The other explanation is something you often observe in many books: we sometimes write two expressions for the same thing, putting it in two different ways, and place one of them in the text body and the other in the margin of the book so as to pick the better of the two at leisure when we want to edit the book. It seems that Hippocrates did the same in this place. The first editor of this book then copied both expressions together into the book’s text. We then did not look at and consider it again, pause and fix this error. Many people passed on the copy of the book, and it remained uncorrected.” (In Hipp. epid. comm. I, 1.36) (Vagelpohl pg. 167)
Here Galen describes a practice in which the author of a work gives an explanatory note in the margin of their "autograph." When the text is initially edited and copied, the scribe would think that the marginal note was meant to be entered into the text as a correction. The result is that the book was then widely copied and circulated with the error uncorrected.

Another instance of this phenomenon is mentioned by Jerome. In about 403 CE Jerome received a letter from two men asking for an explanation as to why there were so many differences between the Septuagint LXX these men were using, and the Latin Psalter Jerome had produced many years before in about 383 CE. Along with this letter, these men sent a long list of passages where there were differences in the text between the LXX and the Latin Psalter. For one of the variations in the text, Jerome gave the following explanation.
"I wonder why some rash fellow has thought that the note: “the correct form is not καταπαύσωμεν, as some think, but κατακαύσωμεν, that is, incendamus,” which was placed by me for the guidance of the reader into the margin, should be put into the body of the text." (Ep. 106.46)
Apparently, in the first edition of Jerome's Psalter he had placed an explanatory comment in the margin. A later copyist confused this entry as a correction to be entered into the body of text. Thus, all subsequent copies of his Psalter had this variation transmitted in the text.


Corpus Medicorum Graecorum 5.10.1. English translation taken from, Galen, Commentary on Hippocrates’ Epidemics Book I: Parts I-III (Translated by Uwe Vagelpohl. Corpus Medicrum Graecorum Supplementum Orientale V1. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2014).

Holmes, Michael W. “The Text of P46: Evidence of the Earliest ‘Commentary’ on Romans?” In New Testament Manuscripts: Their Text and Their World (ed. by Tobias Nicklas; Leiden: Brill, 2006) 189-206.

Translation of Jerome's Epistle 106 by Michael Metlen, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Oct., 1937), pp. 515-542.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Book Review: The Pauline Corpus in Early Christianity by Benjamin Laird

The Pauline Corpus in Early Christianity: Its Formation, Publication, and Circulation. By Benjamin P. Laird. Peabody: Hendrickson Academic, 2022, xx + 371 pp., $59.99 hardback.

Investigations into the theology of the Pauline corpus abound, yet few studies have examined the historical circumstances that gave rise to the Pauline corpus as a letter collection. The Pauline Corpus in Early Christianity is a fresh in-depth analysis of the historical evidence, both physical and literary, into the development of the Pauline letter collection. Benjamin P. Laird (PhD University of Aberdeen) is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the John W. Rawlings School of Divinity at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

This book is an expanded and revised version of Laird's doctoral thesis. It is composed of an introduction, six chapters, and three appendices.

The introduction begins by highlighting the fact that Paul preferred personal interaction to letter writing, yet Paul is known today through his extant letters (pp. 1-3). Paul's epistles were likely the earliest Christian writings to be valued, circulated and collected (p. 3). After a summary of the contents (pp. 4-9), Laird concludes by discussing the challenges to this study (pp. 10-11) and the wider implications that this volume might have on Pauline scholarship (pp. 11-15).

Chapter 1 examines first century letter writing practices in the Greco-Roman world (pp. 19-31). This chapter advances the notion put forward by several recent studies that Paul worked with secretaries in the writing of his letters (pp. 31-34). Along with this, these secretaries made duplicate copies for Paul's personal collection or those of his associates (pp. 34-39). It is likely that these personal collections were the source from which an early edition of the Pauline corpus was produced.

Chapter 2 looks into the extant Greek textual witnesses (pp. 40-64) and ancient translations relating to the earliest state of the Pauline collection (pp. 89-101). As a corollary to the discussion, the advent of the codex book form and its rapid adoption within Christian communities (pp. 64-73), and the origin and use of the letter titles are examined (pp. 73-89). Along with this, early testimony from historical figures such as Marcion, Origen, Eusebius, Athenasius, the Muratorion Fragment, and Church councils are taken into account (pp. 101-112).

Chapter 3 delves into a diversity of writings written from the late-first through to the early-fifth centuries. The familiarity these authors had with the various Pauline epistles is ascertained and weighed (pp. 123-189). References from 1 Thess 5:27, Col 4:16, and 2 Peter 3:15-16 are analyzed for the light they might shed on the development of the Pauline canon (pp. 113-123). Most of the chapter is given up to culling through Patristic references to the Pauline writings (pp. 123-189).

Chapter 4 investigates the external evidence for the Pastoral Epistles and Hebrews. Laird wrestles with the various scholarly challenges to the authenticity of Hebrews (pp. 202-232) and the Pastorals (p. 190-202) and their canonical relationship to the undisputed letters. According to Laird, the Pastorals and Hebrews have a more tumultuous reception history when compared with the rest of the Pauline corpus. Larid proposes that "the text of Hebrews was a Pauline speech that was later produced as a literary document" (p. 233).

Chapter 5 surveys and evaluates the many influential scholarly theories that attempt to account for the initial development and acceptance of the Pauline canon. These theories are separated into four categories, The first includes those theories that propose a formation of the collection after long years of neglect or limited circulation (pp. 236-241). The second category includes theories that generally postulate that the collection developed gradually as new writings were produced and the writings became more well known (pp. 241-261). The third category contains theories that hold to a gradual development by a Pauline school that may have had a hand in writing pseudepigraphal letters in Paul's name (pp. 261-268). The fourth and final category includes theories that hold to an early development, circulation and collection of Paul's letters (268-278). This collection was initially organized by Paul himself shortly before his death or immediately after his death by his close associates.

Chapter 6 provides an overview of the formation, publication, and circulation of the Pauline letter collection. The chapter identifies the earliest editions of the corpus that circulated and standardized the letter titles and the orientation of the writings with reference to each other within the collection (pp. 280-317). The theory proposed in this chapter takes into account both the external and internal evidence laid out in the previous chapters. The main proposal is this,
"[A]t least three major archetypal editions of the corpus began to circulate as early as the first century or soon thereafter, each of which circulated for several decades until a fourteen-volume edition became widely recognized by the fourth century." (p. 9).
There are a few places where the discussion and evidence do not seem to support some of the conclusions. First is the idea that the letters must have by necessity been bound together in a type of edition for the Pauline epistles to have been recognized and the titles of the epistles to have been standardized. This does not actually accord with the manner in which books were conceptualized in antiquity. In the Greco-Roman world a written piece was often composed of separate and unbound rolls. It was not uncommon for a reader to possess only some of the bookrolls. Nevertheless, these other bookrolls were still conceptually linked in the mind of the reader as a complete work. This can be illustrated with P. Oxy 2192. In this papyrus fragment in a postscript the sender of the letter makes a request. 
"Have a copy made of books six and seven of Hypsicrates’ Men Who Appear in Commedies and send it to me. Harpocration says that Pollio has them among his books, and probably others may have them too. And he also has prose epitomes of Thersagorus’s Myths of Tragedy.” 
Here the writer of the postscript conceptually links all the books (i.e. separate bookrolls) of Hypsicrates’ Men Who Appear in Commedies even though they are not physically bound together with his own copies of books one through five (assuming he possessed them already). Another example are the titles to the canonical gospels. P.Bodmer II (P66) is a codex that only contains the Gospel of John and has ευαγγελιον κατα ιωαννην written at the top. This title conceptually links this gospel with the other three even though it is not physically bound together with the other three in a single codex. 

Further still, the titles themselves could have been standardized by use and convention organically through circulation without having to have been derived from a single official edition with the letters physically bound together. The titles could have been derived from the addressees written on the backs of the letters (see previous post). The titles might have derived from the letter carrier as directed by Paul himself, perhaps when it was read out before the congregation. In either case, none of this necessitates that the letters be physically bound within a single codex or edition for them to be conceptually linked by the apostle Peter in 2 Peter 3:15-16. Just as the writer of the postscript in P.Oxy 2192 conceptually links all the separate bookrolls of Hypsicrate's woks, Peter could have conceptually linked all of the extant letters of Paul that were not physically bound together. These factors seem to nullify the need for postulating various bound editions with seven, ten, thirteen, or fourteen letters contained in a single codex. Despite this, Laird is careful to note that an officially published edition of Paul's epistle do not negate the fact that the letters also circulated amongst the various Christian communities for a time (p. 316).

Despite the criticisms noted above, Laird provides an exhaustive look into all the physical and literary evidence for the Pauline letter collection. Though there is disagreement with the necessity for an official edition of the Pauline epistles, it is likely that such an edition did arise. The most compelling argument made in the book is the notion that Hebrews was likely an oral speech by Paul that was taken down and prepared for publication by Luke or another of Paul's associates (pp. 225-234). This appears to take into account all of the available evidence and best explains the early acceptance of Hebrews and its close connection with Paul from an early period. Despite some minor criticisms mentioned above, Laird's monograph is an excellent resource that contains all of the evidence for the circulation of the Pauline canon in a ready handbook.

Timothy N. Mitchell
PhD, University of Birmingham, UK