The New Testament: Copies (Clarity of the Bible VII)

‘I will give a lolly,’ said Graeme, our lecturer, ‘to the person who copies out the most verses in three minutes.’

For the next 180 seconds, I frantically wrote out most of 1 Peter 1 by hand. Some of my classmates copied out more, so I did not get the lollipop.

Then we took the two longest copies and copied them out. (I didn’t win the lolly in that round either.)

Finally, we checked the printed Bible and marked all the mistakes.

‘If your handwritten copies were our only copies of 1 Peter 1,’ said Graeme, ‘How could we decide which variations were correct?’

It was pretty clear. We would prioritise older copies. We would think of what mistakes were likely to happen while the copies were being made (like writing a wrong word that looks similar to the right one, or repeating a word accidentally). It would help that we had several copies to check against each other. We also noticed that, in any place where there were two equally convincing alternatives for what the original said, it hardly mattered. The differences were extremely trivial, and made no difference to doctrine.

This was the process of working out what the original said – an area of study called textual criticism (criticism in the sense of evaluation, not just objections).

Textual criticism is not only for the Bible, but for many other books, including Shakespeare’s plays. Textual criticism can achieve more with some books than with others. It depends on what copies can be found.

The original text of the Old Testament is remarkably well represented by the translations we have today. Perhaps the most spectacular event to confirm this was the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. Among these scrolls were copies of most of the Old Testament close to 1,000 years older than the copies that had been available so far. These older manuscripts and the later ones agreed with stunning accuracy, bearing witness to the famous carefulness of the scribes who made copies.

The New Testament is even better off when it comes to textual criticism. For most books from the New Testament times, if they have survived at all, the earliest manuscripts available a good several centuries (sometimes over a millennium) after the time of writing, and we are lucky if they number over a dozen. Yet copying by hand is not such a transmission nightmare as some people imagine; textual critics and historians generally accept that what these authors said has successfully reached us.

But the New Testament is represented by literally thousands of manuscripts. The most important ones come from the fourth to sixth centuries A. D., very close to the time of original writing in the first century. Such a wealth of manuscripts really helps the process of checking variations to deduce the original words. The reasonable confidence of past Christians that the New Testament is being passed on intact through copies has been bolstered by a mountain of evidence – all we need and many times over!

And what we found with our copying activity in our class is also true for the Bible: when copies give us two equally convincing alternatives for what the original said, the differences are trivial, and make no difference to doctrine. God has truly provided us with exceptional clarity in the Bible.

Besides Graeme Fleming’s lecture at Lake Learning (a Christian training camp), I have drawn on F. F. Bruce’s classic The Books and the Parchments for this post.

How should we then vote?

Once upon a time, there was a man who wasn’t thinking about politics. But it is not this day. Today, and seemingly for time eternal, politics. The End…? Please?

Yes, it is once again election time in New Zealand. Kiwis of different backgrounds and persuasions are beginning to think/not think about which boxes they will tick on September 23. For Christians, the results can be diverse. Conservative believers will often base their votes on one or more controversial issues concerning human dignity and the imago Dei (e.g. abortion, euthanasia) while avoiding the plagued parties who support these acts. Across the chasm, politically progressive believers identify with policies to free the captives and care for the least (oh, that’s what those passages mean) seeing the ‘other side’ as dispassionate and driven my Mammon. While the above examples are extremes, the crux is clear – we vote for the party that promises to tackle areas that we see as crucial. Emphasis on the promise.

The question then – which is the correct way? How should Christians vote? In essence, there is a simple answer.

Jesus

Forgive me for being incredibly cliched, but the answer is Jesus (and I never went to Sunday School). Look at these words that Jesus uttered during his earthly ministry:

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

(John 18:33-36 ESV, emphasis added)

Mere hours before his life-giving death, Jesus spoke these words to give all believers an instruction manual on how to live in a world governed by interim rulers.

Dual citizenship

Jesus’ last words to those charged with continuing his mission – the apostles – didn’t contain three points of application on how to create a Christian society. We don’t vote to establish heaven in the here and now. We vote in good conscience who we think will best lead our respective cities and countries to the greatest common good. We are very much dual citizens, finding our homes in the City of Man and the City of God. Our ultimate allegiance is to the latter, but as long as the Lord wants us here, we are to strive to serve the interests of Babylon and it’s people. One of the most abused sections in the Old Testament – Jeremiah 29 – testifies to this fact as do the lives of Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Peter and Paul. If seeking the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) is the priority of the exiled Christian (that’s you), then the question of who to vote for becomes simple and complex – who best assists the City of Man to flourish and thrive? Different Christians will answer this question in different ways and that is alright. If you lean left, that is alright. If you lean right, that is alright. If you are disillusioned by it all and abstain, that is alright.

As we approach the 2017 General Election, remember politics is a grace (Romans 13) but not the grace. Good policy does not save souls. If we mix up politics and the Christian message, the bar is set too high for the common grace of politics, while the saving grace of Christ is minimised and diluted. By confusing the two kingdoms, we destroy them both.

If you are a Christian, you owe your allegiance to a kingdom that is not of this world. A kingdom that is far above petty bickering and broken promises. A kingdom built on an immovable Word and ruled by an impeccable King. A kingdom sprouting from a seed.

In this kingdom, you do not vote but are voted for, by the Right and Honourable King of elected rebels.

Praise His Name forever. Amen.