Thursday, June 23, 2011

Explaining Textual Criticism To My Son

The other day I posted on twitter: "Kman is reading through NT & this morning he arrived at Mark 16, I spent 10 min on the front porch explaining to him textual criticism!" Those that know what happens in Mark 16 might have gotten this statement. Actually, he turned to me and said these words: "Dad, why do they put parts in the Bible that they say were not in the Bible?" 

In Mark 16:9-20, most translations have a note similar to this: "later manuscripts add vs. 9-20." Does that mean that it should not included as part of the Bible? This can be somewhat confusing for a young person, or an older person. Is it part or not? I thought I would take a few minutes and give it my best shot. Here is what I told my son.

Textual Criticism is the art and science of discovering what the original manuscripts actually said. When the Bible was written, there were no copy machines. They had to copy the Scriptures by hand. Even though the Bible was extremely hated by so many people, it has endured the test of time. In fact, we have more evidence of the copies of the Scriptures than any other manuscripts in the world of any ancient writings. In the case of the New Testament, there are over 5,000 different manuscripts in Greek, 8,000 in Latin, and 1,000 in other languages (I actually didn't share that last statement with my son, but it's free to you).

We have all these manuscripts, but they are not complete. So, we start putting them together and come up with what the original manuscripts would have been like. For over 99% of the Bible there is no question. But in the 1%, like Mark 16, we have to ask some questions to determine whether it was part of the original text written by Mark. When there are any manuscripts that say different things, we need to  favor these manuscripts.

Which Is The Oldest? The closer back to the original you can get, the better. Have you ever played the game "telephone" where one person starts a story and passes it down the line? The further from the original you get, the more the story changes. So, it is always best to favor the oldest manuscripts.

Which Is The Shortest? The people who copied the manuscripts would never have cut things out in order to make it shorter, but they would have added things to fill in the details. For instance, could it be possible that some Scribe added the last verses to Mark 16 because there was not a sufficient ending to the book?

Which Is The Hardest? Once again, the people who copied the Bible would never have made it more difficult to read. The tendency would have been to make the language flow smoother for people to read.

So, when there are parts of the Bible that might be in question, there might be a little comment in the margin of your Bible that says, "the earliest manuscripts do not contain these vs." So, what should we do with it? What do we do with the 1% of the Bible that might be in question?

  1. As it is confirmed with other Scriptures, Believe & Obey it! For instance, in Mark 16, vs. 9 talks about the resurrection (many other passages confirm this); vs. 12 talks about the appearance to the two as they walk along the road (Luke says this as well); vs. 14 talks about Jesus appearing to the eleven (Luke 24); vs. 15 is the Great Commission (Matthew 28); and vs. 19-20 is the heartbeat of the book of Acts.
  2. Never make any major doctrinal stances from these passages alone! I would be really leery of taking Mark 16:18 and saying that all those who believe should handle snakes & drink their poison. Let's make sure it is confirmed in other passages of the Bible that are not in question.
After this conversation, my son said, "oh, cool!" There you have it, from the mouth of an 11-year old. How would you respond?

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