When you say earliest and “best” manuscripts, what do you mean by “best”?



This question was asked in response to my statement, with respect to the famous story of the woman taken in adultery in John 8 (where Jesus says, “Let the one without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her), that we know it was not originally in the Gospel of John in part because it is not to be found in the “oldest and best manuscripts.”  And so the question is, “how do we know what the best manuscripts are?”

It’s a great question and one that has, as you might imagine, occupied textual scholars for a very, very long time.  In fact, for as long as there have *been* textual scholars (i.e., hundreds of years!)   The problem, in a nutshell, is this.  If we have hundreds, or thousands, of manuscripts (centuries ago we knew of hundreds, now we know of thousands), how do we know which ones are more likely to preserve the “original” text of any passage, if the passage is worded differently in different manuscripts?  How do we choose which manuscripts to trust?

So there’s a long answer to that question which would take a book to explain and justify, and there are shorter versions of that long answer.  Here let me give a very brief version.

Suppose you have two friends and you ask each of them for a piece of information.  One of these friends cannot, as a rule, be trusted.  She lies a lot, tends gets facts confused in her head, and generally – whenever you are able to fact-check what she says – gets things wrong.  The other friend has never been known to tell a lie, is clear-headed and accurate, and is right just about every time you have a chance to fact-check her.  You have now asked for some information, and it’s about something that you cannotfact-check.  They give you two different answers.  Which of the two are you more likely to trust?

It is kind of like that with manuscripts of the New Testament.  There are places where you can see if a manuscript is internally consistent with itself; you can see if it is prone to making mistakes; you can see if it is susceptible to making errors.  How can you tell?  Well, suppose the manuscript regularly spells words in different ways, or leaves out words or phrases inadvertently (you know it’s inadvertent because the sentence, without that words, doesn’t make any sense), or changes things around in ways that are incoherent?  Suppose there are places where you have almost absolute certainty what the “original” wording was, and this manuscript gives something else?

Another manuscript, on the other hand, shows that its scribe was highly attentive and careful, did not leave out words or phrases, and never presents a passage with a wording that is incoherent.  When you are virtually certain what the original text must have been, this manuscript gives that wording, virtually every time.

The logic of saying some manuscripts are “best” is that some manuscripts are like the latter, and some are like the former.   And so, what about places where you don’t know with relative certainty what the original was?  Which manuscript do you trust?  The one you know makes lots of mistakes or the one that hardly ever makes a mistake?

And what if instead of just two manuscripts, you have, say twelve, nine of which are the “bad” kind and three are the “good” kind?  In that case, even if there are more manuscripts attesting one form of the reading, you are more likely to think the reading attested by the fewer manuscripts is probably the original.

That’s basically what I mean by saying that the “best” manuscripts do not have the passage.



Was Jesus interested in radical social justice transformations (economic equality, gender equality, etc.)?   Do you think advocating for such changes is an inherent part of the Christian religion?



I will answer the second question first.  No, I do not think social justice is an inherent part of the Christian religion.  I do think that it *should* be, but it is not.  Why do I think it is not?  Because there are lots and lots of Christians who are very committed to their faith who don’t care at *all* about issues of social justice.  That’s a pity, but it’s true.  So to be a Christian, you don’t have to give a toss about social justice.  Apparently.

But I do think social justice was indeed inherently part of the message of Jesus.  It’s a little complicated, but it works like this:

Jesus believed that the world he lived in was corrupt, controlled by evil powers that were opposed to God.  That is why there is so much misery and pain in this world.  There are natural disasters (famine, drought, epidemics), birth defects, starvation, poverty, war, violence, and on and on and on.  But ultimately God was in control and very soon God was going to act to destroy the forces of evil and reverse their effects.  There is a good age coming, in which there will be no more suffering, pain, or misery, no earthquakes, no plagues, no hunger, no physical defects or ailments or suffering, no war, no violence.   And no injustice.

Moreover – and this is the key point – Jesus thought that people who followed him should begin to implement the ideals of that future age in the present.  There will be no illness in the future age, so people should heal the sick now; there will be no demonic forces in the future age, so people should cast out demons now; there will be no hatred in the future age, so people should love one another now; there will be poverty in the future age, so people should give of their possessions to help the poor now; there will be no outcasts on the margins of society in the future age, and so people should welcome the downtrodden and the dispossessed now; there will be no inequalities in the future age, so people should break down the barriers between rich and poor, master and slave, powerful and weak, men and women now.

The fact that there will be no inequalities in the future age means that we should work for equality now.  I think that was a central component of Jesus’ message.

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