Eighth Lesson on Hebrews

"What does the author mean when he says God’s word is living and active?  The Bible is not a book to be read passively like other books.  By studying Textual Criticism we can discover that God’s word has been accurately preserved throughout the millennia.

Read verse 11 of chapter 4 to begin our eighth lesson on Hebrews

Therefore means “because of this”.  Because Jesus is greater than Joshua; because Joshua gave them temporary rest in the Promised Land, and Jesus makes is possible to enter in God’s Rest for all of eternity.

Because of this, strive, hasten, be eager, to enter into God’s rest.

Read Verse 12

What does the author mean when he says God’s word is living and active?  The Bible is not a book to be read passively like other books.  Because God’s word is Truth you must deal with.  You cannot ignore it.  It has a way of piercing, dividing, revealing the intentions of your heart.

I felt called to full time vocational ministry one summer when I working at a Christian camp.  God was doing incredible things in my life that summer.  But one distinct memory that I will always have will be reading my quiet time one morning.  A verse from 1 Samuel pierced deep into my heart. 

It exposed my improper intentions and revealed God’s holy desires.  It was a Truth that I had to deal with.  It was a truth that changed all of my plans.  It was a living and active word.

Hebrews 4:12

Read Verse 13

The Greek word that we translate as “naked and exposed” has an interesting history.  It's the same word that the Romans would use to describe a wrestlers throat hold.  It was also the same word that they would used to describe a witness’ testimony in a courtroom trial. 

Why was their testimony so open, naked, or exposed?  In the Roman courtroom a dagger was held under the chin of a witness during their testimony.  If they gave false witness they would be killed. 

God’s Word is Truth, and when we are confronted by His Truth, we are laid open.  We are exposed to our sinfulness.  We must decide to either, continue living against God, or seek to be reconciled (made right) with God through the Supreme Christ Jesus.

Some of us who are naturally skeptical will ask, “How can we know that the Bible is true?”  How can the Bible be it’s own witness to its truth and validity?  Wouldn’t that be the same as me saying, “I’m the smartest man in the WORLD!”  How can I say this without proof to back up my claim?  Can we know that the Bible we have is the actual Word of God? 

There are many scholars in the world, both secular and Christian, who are Textual Critics.  They work in the field of Textual Criticism.

Textual Criticism - field of study that is concerned with the identification

and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts.

Let me explain.  Before the invention of the printing press, an author would write his text (an old book), and then if they wanted copies of it, someone would have to hand copy the text.

These copies are called manuscripts.  Any ancient copy of a text is a manuscript.  So a Textual Critic studies and compares manuscripts to check for mistakes, errors, and differences.  In this way they can best determine what the original text said.

Here are 2 examples of manuscripts still around today:

  • P52 is the oldest manuscript that we sill have.  It's a fragment of the Gospel of John.  It's about the size of a credit card.  It dates to between 115-140 AD.  It's called P52 because it's made of Papyrus, and it was the 52nd documented.
  • Codex Vaticanus (B) is dated to the late 3rd / early 4th century.  It's the Old and New Testament written in Greek.  It's on Vellum, which is a parchment made from dried animal skin.

It's important to understand some facts about our New Testament manuscripts.  I don’t want you to someday be surprised by some of the statistics about our text.  Someone may argue against the truth of God’s word by stating these facts.

We have no original autographs (first recordings).

We have copies of copies.

The manuscripts we do have are copies of copies of copies.  P52 is the oldest fragment (as of July 2013).  It was written 30 years after the Gospel of John.  How many copies happened in those 30 years?

The copies contain errors.  There're differences between the manuscripts that we have.  The copies are not perfect.  How many differences?  About 300,000-400,000.  With about 140,000 words in the New Testament, that means there are about 3 mistakes for every word that we have.

This information, when out of context sounds REALLY BAD.  It makes it seem like we have no reason to trust the book we have to actually be God’s word.  BUT this is not the full story.

In truth, the New Testament is far and above the best-attested (most trust-worthy) ancient document.

If we don’t get ALL the information, we picture the childhood Telephone game.  Where a group of kids would stand in line.  The first child would come up with a phrase and whisper it to the person standing next to them.  The phrase would be passed one person at a time down the line until the final person would say it out loud.  The whole group would laugh, because undoubtedly the phrase would be completely different from how it started.

When we think of manuscripts being copies of copies, we imagine one person passing the information to the next and after years the story is completely different.  But this is not how it was.

So how do we reconcile our modern text with these issues?

No original documents

It's true that we don't have even one original text.  But, this isn't unusual.  In fact, it should be expected.  There's not even one major ancient writing that has an original manuscript in existence.

Why?  The oldest manuscripts were written on Papyrus.  Papyrus wears out easily.  When a text was really worn out, it was the common practice to make one final copy and then to burn the worn out document. 

This was a method of preserving the integrity of the text.  If the words are hard to read, the copyist would prefer to destroy the worn out papers so that the meaning was not misread or misinterpreted.  So, the gap in time between the writing of the text and our oldest documents doesn’t mean manuscripts didn’t exist, it means we don’t have them.

So can we trust the copies that we have?

It's true that we have Copies of Copies, but we should not imagine the telephone game.  In the telephone game you cannot check back with previous people to see if the message has changed.

But what if the 5th person in line could check back with the 1st person?  What if the 7th person could check with the 2nd person?  Do you think the message would be preserved?  The copyists would check with other documents to make sure the message was preserved and the text was accurate.

Are the copies perfect?  No it's true, there are more variants than words.  However, if we know more about the Greek language and our manuscripts we can understand why this is not strange.

First we need to know how many manuscripts we have.  There are over 5,500 manuscripts.  When they compare these manuscripts even the smallest difference is recorded as “variant”.

So what are these variants?

MOST are of the differences are spelling errors.

For example in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 our text reads: "But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children."

However, one manuscript reads instead: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own horses.”

The Greek word for “little children” and “horses” has only a 1-letter difference.  These variants are easy to recognize, and cause us to have no doubts about the validity of our texts.  It turns out that some ancient copyists didn’t really care much about spelling things correctly.  This is why we have MANY of our variants.

The next largest category of variants is the use of synonyms

It was common practice to copy several texts at a time.  One person would slowly read the text, and several others would copy down what was being read.  Many times a copyist would hear a word that they understood but didn’t know how to spell.  So, they would substitute in a synonym.

For example, I could say beautiful or pretty and keep the meaning in my sentence the same.  Another reason would be how Greek word order works.  A simple sentence that we would translate “Jesus loves John” could be rearranged to many different ways in the Greek without changing the meaning.  It would have a different emphasis, but it would still be translated “Jesus loves John” in English.

So simply by changing the word order, and by using synonyms, and including Greek particles that are left out in English, you can have hundreds of different ways of writing a Greek sentence that will always be translated in English to “Jesus Loves John”.

Given the millions of possible variants in the Greek language that can occur without changing the meaning, it's amazing there're only 3 variants per word in our ancient manuscripts.

So, all of this put together means that less than 1% of manuscript differences in the Bible change the meaning of the passage.  None of these changed meanings effect Christian beliefs.

One example would be the “sign of the beast” that's found in the Book of Revelation - the notorious “666”.  Well, it turns out that there are some variants that say “616” instead of “666”.  But does this change any major Christian belief?  No.

NONE of these issues effect any major beliefs of the Christian Faith.  Which means that the Christian New Testament is the best-attested ancient document, and it can be trusted to be accurate to its original writings.  Which means, we know, even 2000 years later, that it's still the Word of God.

We can know that even though God used imperfect humans to copy His perfect Word, we can still have confidence that it's accurate.  Even though this Word passed through thousands of hands before it has gotten to you here today, we can trust it.

Not because scribes don’t make mistakes, but because God is in control.  It is incredible how well our Bible was preserved.  It's an accurate record of truth.  Which means, when you hear from it you better take it seriously.

Do we trust God’s Word?  Do we seek its truth daily?  Do we let it expose us and lay us open?

When you're confronted with the Truth, there must be action.  You must either decide to ignore it, and face the eternal consequences of walking away from God’s Truth; or you must decide to follow Jesus in order to be reconciled to God.

Reference used in developing this study:

The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace in Dialogue, Edited by Robert B. Stewart

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