How can we absolutely know whether we have the original words of the New Testament? And weren’t books of the Old Testament edited progressively over time, so that their texts were even more fluid than those of the New Testament? These are the two questions I address in this week’s Readers’ mailbag. If you have a question you would like me to address, let me know!
“So that there are some places where specialists cannot agree on what the text originally said, and there are some places where we’ll probably never know.” I’ve both heard – and read – you saying the above on multiple occasions, and I’ve always wanted to ask: if we ‘don’t have the originals, or even copies of the originals, or even copies of copies of the originals’, as you often say, then why do you say ‘there are [merely] some places where we simply don’t know what the original text said’? If we don’t have the originals (or copies and so on), then we don’t REALLY know what ANY of the original texts said, right? Beyond just that basic point, can you describe what makes some places in the text significantly less certain than others and maybe a couple examples?
Ah, this is a good question. As it turns out, it is not so much about our surviving manuscripts of the New Testament as it is about what we can “know” about the past. If I say that there are places in the NT where we will never “know” their original wording, doesn’t that presuppose there are places where we can know? And how can we know, if we don’t have the originals?
It depends on what it means to “know” something. This is a problem for all historical knowledge. How do we know what happened in the past? Strictly speaking, we never really know anything with 100% absolute certainty. Do we know that George Washington was the first president of the United States? Almost all of us would say that yes, we absolutely know that. But what if George had a previously unknown identical twin brother and after George drowned in his attempt to cross the Delaware his brother took his place and later rose to prominence in the political world of the new nation? Is that completely impossible? No, it’s not impossible. So, we may not know for a fact it didn’t happen, but, the reality is, we pretty well know it. We are 99.999% sure that didn’t happen.
But we can’t say that we are 100% sure. I could, of course, give billions of examples. Philosophers for many, many centuries have debated how we know and how we know that we can know, and there are all sorts of complicated theories. Historical knowledge is particularly problematic. It is one thing to know that the square root of 9 is 3 and another thing to know that there really was a moon landing or that Caesar really did cross the Rubicon. Mathematical knowledge is different from scientific knowledge and both are different from historical knowledge.
When we say we know something historically, we are saying that we are virtually certain about it. I am virtually certain that Caesar Augustus was the first Roman emperor. Do I know it as well as I know the square root of 9? No, I can’t say that.
When it comes to the wording of the New Testament, there are passages – most of them – for which I have no doubts whatsoever. I may not know that John 1:1 originally read “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” with the kind of certainty that I know that I had breakfast this morning, let alone that I know that the sum of ten and five is fifteen. But I know it well enough that I don’t have a single doubt in my head about it. I could be proven wrong later, but I don’t really have any doubts.
For other passages I have more doubts. For others I have lots of doubts. For some I have no idea. The reason there are heightened doubts is all because of the nature of our surviving evidence. Sometimes the wording of a passage is given in such different ways in so many manuscripts, and some of the possible ways of wording it are so hard to understand or to make sense of, and some of the (different) options found in the various manuscripts all have such strong competing merits in their favor, that we really have to make our best judgment and hope we are right. More often, the manuscripts are all agreed and there are no real reasons to doubt they are right. And so we don’t. We “know” the reading of the text at that point. With relative certainty.
Don’t we have indications that some of the books, especially the prophets, have been added to later? That would indicate the text was more fluid than how we think of the NT books.
Yes indeed! The most obvious example is the book of Isaiah, which almost certainly consists of the work of three different authors living at three different periods in Israel’s history. Here is some of the evidence of that, as I lay it out in my textbook on the Bible:
Evidence of Multiple Authors
Most of the first 39 chapters of Isaiah clearly date to the ministry of Isaiah of Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE. This is obviously true of the very end of the section, written when Hezekiah was king of Judah and was feeling threatened by envoys who had been sent to him from the surging power of Babylon. Isaiah tells Hezekiah that it is true, that in the future, the Babylonians will indeed wreak havoc in Judah – but it will not be in Hezekiah’s own time (39:5-8). Immediately after this, rather than continuing with a proclamation of eventual doom, the text shifts drastically in an effort to comfort the people of Judah who have now, already, suffered for the sins they have committed. This portion of the book appears to have been written a century and a half later:
Comfort, O comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for her sins (40:1-2)
Now, according to these later portions of the book, God has taken his wrath out on his people, Judah, but will restore them. And what is more, he will now turn on the Babylonians whom he earlier used in order to afflict Judah. (Chaldea, in this quotation, is another name for Babylonia):
Sit in silence, and go in darkness, daughter Chaldea! For you shall no more be called the mistress of kingdoms. I was angry with my people, I profaned my heritage; I gave them into your hand, you showed them no mercy…. But evil shall come upon you, which you cannot charm away; disaster will fall upon you, which you will not be able to ward off. (47:5-6, 11)
Judah, on the other hand, will be brought back from exile, through the wilderness, just as Israel once before passed through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land after its exile in Egypt; only now there will not be suffering en route; instead, God will make the Judeans’ path easy and joyful:
A voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” (40:3-5)
What is more, we are told that Jerusalem “will be rebuilt” (indicating, of course, that it has been destroyed), that the Temple will be as well (so that it too has disappeared), and that this will be done by none other than Cyrus (44:28). Cyrus was the king of Persia who overthrew the Babylonians in 539 BCE and allowed the Judean exiles to return home, to build the walls of Jerusalem.
Clearly this part of Isaiah is not presupposing a time in the 8th century BCE, but in the 6th century, after the Babylonians had destroyed Judea and its Temple, and taken the people back into exile in Babylonia.
What is more, the final chapters of Isaiah seem to presuppose an even later time – after the exiles had returned from captivity and were functioning once again, on a more limited basis, in the land.
How do we explain these anomalies in the book of Isaiah?
The Three Isaiahs
Scholars have long thought that there are three sections of the book of Isaiah, each attributable to a different prophet, living at a different time, facing a different situation. Roughly speaking, the book divides as follows:
First Isaiah. Chapters 1-39 (with some exceptions) go back to Isaiah of Jerusalem, prophesying in the 8th century BCE. He is predicting a coming judgment on the nation of Judah.
Second Isaiah. Chapters 40-55 were written by a later prophet who shared many of the perspectives of Isaiah of Jerusalem, but who was living about 150 years later, in the middle of the 6th century, after the Babylonian captivity had begun. He is preaching consolation for those Judeans who had suffered because of this military defeat.
Third Isaiah. Chapters 56-66 were written by a yet later prophet who appears to have been writing after the exiles had returned from Babylon. He is exhorting the returnees to live in ways pleasing to Yahweh.
At some later time, a redactor took these three texts of prophecies and combined them on a single scroll, so that all of them appear to derive from Isaiah of Jerusalem; but in reality, only a portion – though a sizeable portion – of them do. In the following discussion I will be speaking only of First Isaiah; in the next chapter I will discuss the other portions of the book.
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