Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

12 Iyar 5759, April 28 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Opinion & Comment
The Christian Writings
by Joshua Josephson

According to recent reports, Bible-touting Christians are at it again. Certain evangelical and missionary groups have made it their express and primary agenda to ensnare as many of our unsuspecting brothers and sisters as they can -- armed with a lot of money but little intellectual rigor and very little truth.

It is the sort of problem with which we have had to contend since the earliest days of Christianity. And it is a problem that has consistently reared its head. But now with the so- called "millennium" rapidly approaching, efforts to proselytize the Jews for Christianity have again been placed into high gear.

We probably do not have the resources to adequately fight back with money. So let's try some truth.

I would like to focus on one narrow issue: the integrity of the writings that are source of Christian beliefs. "The Bible says" is the common refrain that is on the tongues of those who aim to convert us. Let us examine what this statement means.

How credible are the Christian Scriptures? Can they serve as a basis for religious belief -- or belief in anything at all for that matter? To what extent can they be used to buttress the contentions of Christians and to substantiate their claims?

The following brief discussion is intended to afford those of us who confront the Christian attack, directly or indirectly, with additional ammunition to fight back. It is also hoped that it will incidentally reinforce our appreciation for the truth and extreme integrity of our Torah and heritage.

To be as fair as possible, I have not used works by critics of the Christian Bible. I will present only what ultra-conservative Christians say about the document that serves as the foundation of their own beliefs. I have relied mainly on two works by Christian scholars whose interest is certainly to present their Bible in the best possible light, but what they say is amazing.

One is a book written by a Roman Catholic priest, Raymond F. Collins, which comes with official declarations given by the Censor Librorum and the Bishop of Rockville Center that the material is "free of doctrinal or moral error."

The other is a chapter by Gordon D. Fee in a book which is part of a series called Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives, published by Zondervan Publishing House, a well- known and highly-respected publisher of Protestant Christian material.

Those of us who are accustomed to dealing with the Torah, whose every letter has been preserved with the utmost care and fidelity, are in for a little surprise.

Very little is known with certainty about the earliest stages of the development of the Christian Bible. Most scholars agree, however, that in the earliest years of Christianity, there was no unique Christian text, either written or oral. For the early Christians, the Bible was our Tanach, and nothing else.

There almost surely were quite a few stories about J in circulation in the various churches. And just as surely, many of these were quite different from the ones known today. Nevertheless, none of these was considered sacred or fixed in any way.

Indeed, there is a good deal of compelling documentary evidence that most of the works that comprise the present-day Christian Bible were not in existence before the year 100, i.e. at least 70 years after the death of J. So at the very outset, very little stock can be placed in those works that profess to be records of historical fact.

Even after it was written and after it began to be accepted as sacred in some way, the Christian Bible remained a very fluid document for a long time.

The number of manuscripts of the Christian Bible exceeds all other ancient documents by tens or hundreds of times. Most manuscripts date from the fourth century and later, but some papyrus manuscripts from the second century also exist.

There are extant, in whole or in part, well over 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the Christian Bible. (Fee, writing in '78, puts the number at 5,338.) No two manuscripts are exactly alike.

John Stuart Mill, working in the late seventeenth century and having far fewer manuscripts at his disposal, was able to identify some 30,000 variant readings altogether. Today, the variant readings number about 200,000. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, the total number of variations in these manuscripts is greater than all the words in the texts.

A recent study analyzed the variants in only a relatively small portion of the Christian Bible, that of the historical stories of J. It also examined only a small portion of the existing manuscripts: those written in the second century which are clearly similar to the versions of the stories found in the Christian Bible of today. They excluded manuscripts which are so different that they have hardly any relation to the currently accepted versions of the stories, of which there are quite a few.

The words in the manuscripts that were selected were compared to each other and to the current versions. What was found was "surprising," since estimates before the study had assumed that the number of discrepancies would be very high.

The manuscripts studied show "only" 30,000 variant readings that impact meaning. Moreover, "only" 40% of the verses contain some variant. If one considers differences that do not affect the meaning, the number is of course much, much higher.

The first printed Greek text appeared in 1516. The Greek text is the basic text for the eastern churches, based in Constantinople and including the Russian churches. Its editor was Erasmus, a famous Catholic priest. This version served as the basis of all printed Greek texts in the Western world until newer critical editions, based on ancient manuscripts, began to make their appearance in 1831.

In preparing his version, Erasmus ran into a slight problem. The only manuscript Erasmus had of one of the books of the Christian Scriptures, called "Revelations," was missing the last six verses. To make up for this omission, he translated from the Latin version to the Greek. As a result, his Greek text has readings that have never been found in any Greek manuscript.

The King James Version of the Christian Bible, which became the "textus receptus" of the English speaking world for several hundred years, was based on this defective Greek version of Erasmus. Even today, the Greek text found in the most popular handbook edition of the Greek Christian Bible contains approximately 2,500 variants from the reading in any typical ancient manuscript.

The ancient Greek manuscripts are not all widely different from each other. Many bear enough relationship to many others that scholars have been able to group the manuscripts into several textual families. Many scholars believe that there exist three main families of texts.

The oldest is what is referred to as the Alexandrian. It was used by Christians in Egypt in the earliest centuries, before the country was converted to Islam. The Egyptian manuscripts are the most ancient, dating from the 2nd century, and according to many scholars, these represent the most carefully preserved and purest form of the early Christian Bible. This version fell into disuse with the spread of Islam and the destruction of many of the Asian and African churches.

A second text type is commonly called the Western. It seems to have developed at around the same time as the Alexandrian. But the textual relationships are not consistently sustained over large portions of the text. They lack the homogeneity found in the Alexandrian and the later Byzantine texts. In Collins' estimate, these texts apparently reflect an uncontrolled, sometimes "wild," tradition of copying and translating. By the end of the sixth century, the Western churches had fully adopted the Vulgate, the Latin version of Jerome, and thus, the Greek Western text also fell into disuse.

The third text-type is known as the "Byzantine" or "majority" text and is represented in over 80 percent of Greek manuscripts. This text-type did not appear until about 350 C.E. and even then its origins are shrouded in mystery.

The Byzantine text type was the only Greek version to survive. It influenced the Latin version adopted by Rome, and ultimately became the dominant text in the Eastern Church. Once adopted, the Greek text remained somewhat fixed in Constantinople and the Eastern church.

So much for the Greek version of the text.

Around the year 384, Jerome created the Latin Vulgate, the text that was to become the official text of the Roman Catholic (Western) Church. He wanted to clear up the great number of discrepancies found in the Old Latin manuscripts. His version was based in part on old Latin versions with help from at least one Greek version.

Jerome's version was not fully accepted right away. It circulated with older Latin versions and it took about two hundred years before the Vulgate superseded the older translations. Rather than simply adopt the Vulgate, copyists who still believed in the accuracy of the old Latin versions changed the Vulgate in many places to conform to the old Latin versions. Thus many local Latin texts developed.

Several attempts were made throughout the Middle Ages to purify Jerome's text, but without much success. Today, there exist over 8,000 extant Vulgate manuscripts. Here too they display little uniformity; they reflect an enormous cross- contamination of text-types.

In 1546, the Council of Trent pronounced the Vulgate to be the only authoritative Latin text and it mandated the publication of an authorized version which was first published in 1590. At that time, Pope Sixtus commanded that the variant readings not be printed in later editions. However, because the 1590 version was defective, Clement VIII recalled the copies in circulation in 1592 and issued a new authentic edition. This newer edition contained some 4,900 readings different from the 1590 edition.

Obviously, the Latin version fared no better than the Greek.

@BIG LET BODY = The variant readings in the Christian Bible are due to many factors. A large number are unintentional errors made by scribes when copying from existing texts. Their blunders include misspelled words and transposed letters.

Hundreds of changes however are far more significant, made intentionally with the aim of "helping out" the text. Many of the earliest Christians were unlearned and the earliest texts were thus often unskillfully written. Later copyists tried to smooth out the Greek of earlier texts by corrections and additions according to the best of the ability of the copyist. For example, common synonyms for uncommon words were substituted, difficult phrases were rewritten, blatant historical inaccuracies were removed and more.

Many variants were caused by attempts to harmonize conflicting passages with each another. There are also many instances of conflate readings, where one text combines variants found in two others.

In addition to these sorts of changes, the Western text type contains more extensive variants such as long paraphrases and additions.

There also are manipulations of the text that involve deliberate changes for doctrinal reasons. And some of these changes have bearing on some of the most fundamental doctrines of Christianity.

One example is with regard to the only explicit statement in the entire Christian Bible which makes the absurd claim that G-d is a "trinity."

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, all Greek manuscripts earlier than the 13th century omit any such statement entirely. Its earliest appearance in Latin manuscripts dates to the 9th century. The statement is not found in any other ancient manuscript regardless of language and does not appear in any of the other numerous writings of early Christians.

In a decree issued in 1897, the Pope cautioned scholars against rejecting the authenticity of the statement. However, a retraction was made in 1927 with the issuance of another decree allowing scholars to doubt or reject the statement. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "no scholar any longer accepts its authenticity."

These variants are not errors or simple accidents, but were made intentionally with the express aim of creating doctrine that had hitherto not existed. They involved deliberate tampering with the text and were nothing less than forgery.

Tragically, it was precisely these sorts of inventions that were at the heart of the difference between the Christian and Jewish beliefs in G-d, and that led Christians, in the name of propagating their religion, to shed Jewish blood.

Over the past two hundred years, Christians have discovered that the texts upon which they have relied are extremely defective. After these relevations, and all that our nation has suffered at the hands of Christians and Christianity, one would have hoped that by now we would no longer have to contend with the problem of proselytizing aggression.

Considering the lack of credibility and authenticity which knowledgeable Christians attribute to the fundamental texts of Christianity, it is absurd that we have to continue to defend ourselves against missionarizing Christians. Nonetheless, based on declarations made in these totally unreliable texts, some Christians unfortunately still believe that their road to salvation is through the conversion of Jewish souls.

One can hope and pray that this will soon cease. In the meantime, what we must do is disseminate the truth as best we can.

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