Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mark's Gospel and Inspiration

During the 1800s and early 1900s the Liberal movement in Christianity brought serious challenges to historic Christianity. Under scrutiny were long-held assumptions about the historicity of Jesus, the inspiration of Scripture, and the authorship, dating, and transmission of the New Testament books.

In reaction to the Liberal movement a counter movement took shape that came to be called the Fundamentalist movement. That movement morphed into the Evangelical movement in the mid-twentieth century.

But the debate about the fundamental doctrines of Christianity continues into  the 21st century, though it is much more defined; some of the categories include form criticism, source criticism, textual criticism, and redaction criticism. If those sound pretty technical, they are simply the closer examination of the text and manuscripts of the Scriptures and the culture of the time and place during which they were written in an attempt to discover the original source, the authors, and the editing that may have been done by later authors or copyists.

The objective, whether as Liberals or Evangelicals,  has been to understand better our inherited faith. 

The topics of the debate are all quite beyond the average Christian or non-believer who may never have heard of any of these things.  But the repercussions of this scholarly work does reach the Christian in the pew, so to speak, via articles that appear more and more frequently in popular news magazines and on the Internet. And the various controversies are often turned into attacks on Christianity by those who wish to discredit the foundations of our faith.It is a good idea to think through the claims and evidence.

One such controversy regards the integrity of the text of the Gospel of Mark. Almost all Bible scholars, whether Liberal or Evangelical, recognize that the verses at the end of Mark, chapter 16
verses 9-20,  seem to be added to the original text. Most modern versions of the Bible indicate in footnotes that there is some question about them.

There is another passage in Mark that seems to be an addition. That is the narrative about the death of John the Baptist in chapter 6. The passage does seem like a parenthesis in the narrative, which does seem to have more continuity if read without it. But there is a second problem. The author of the passage may have been mistaken about who Herodias was married to before marrying Herod Antipater (Antipas). The fact that there were several men who were related to Herod the Great and thus were named Herod and several Philips, one of whom was also related to Herod, gives some modern scholars pause to question whether the author of the passage in  Mark got it right. 

All this speculation, when it hits the popular media, creates a question in the minds of many Christians whether the Bible is accurate and reliable - and whether it is inspired and without error, as the Fundamentalists of the early 1900s declared. Those questions have undermined the faith of some I meet on the Internet.They should not.

It is important to understand two facts. First, the text we have today is not totally without error. There are many variations in the old copies. By far most of the errors are copyist mistakes and are as simple as the spelling of a word.  Christians would be well to simply accept this fact.

But there are passages like those I've noted in Mark (there is another passage in  John 8 that may have been a later addition also). They are not found in all the old manuscripts and under the microscope of the modern critical methods don't seem to be by the same author as the rest of the text.

Do anomalies like those discredit the inspiration of the Scriptures? I do not think so. I think the Bible is clearly inspired as Christians from the earliest days of the church to the present affirm. But it would be well for Christians to not draw lines in the sand where the Bible does not.

Two of the lines we have drawn are on the issues of inerrancy and on what I was taught early on as verbal plenary inspiration. (Verbal plenary inspiration means that the Bible is inspired word for word and that it is all inspired.) In biblical theology - that is, doctrine that is clearly and directly taught in the Scripture -  neither of those ideas are declared. They are inferred from indirect statements.

What is declared directly in the Scriptures is the Scriptures are God breathed, that the authors were moved upon by the Holy Spirit, that they are truth, that they are useful, that they are alive and powerful, and that they come from God. These truths declared in the Scriptures are not limited by the imperfections in copies and translations. Verbal inspiration is a theoretical idea, a doctrine, with little practical value, for we do not have in any case the actual manuscripts written by the original authors. And if inerrancy is dependent upon having the precise words that are inspired, we do not have assurance of that either. But what we do have is far better than a doctrine. We have the powerful words of God, no matter the perfection of the texts or the translations 

Some years a go I talked with a Wicliffe Bible translator who had translated part of the Bible into the language of the Aztecs in Central Mexico. Looking back from a distance of many years, he said that his translation was crude. It certainly was not a word for word translation, and much of it was either translated from  English translations, not the original Greek, or checked against English translations. Yet, those translated words resulted in many of these Aztec speakers turning genuinely to God in faith. It resulted in lives truly changed.  The power of the word was not hindered by the imperfection of the translation.

Nor was the power hindered by the possible inclusion of pieces that were not written by the original authors. The story of the adulterous woman in John 8 or the ending of the Gospel of Mark may not have been the work of the original authors. But they do not run counter to the message.

 In the case of the John 8 passage, that story is so in tune with the character of Jesus and the message of John about Jesus that few reject it as uninspired. It has life and power. In the case of Mark 16, the brief history of what happened among the Apostles and in the church in the early years is confirmed by other histories. It is not "made up." Neither do either introduce any new doctrine, something that is foreign to the body of Scripture. Those were among the criteria used by the early churches and church fathers to identify inspired works.

So let's let the Bible speak. Let's not draw lines where the Bible does not nor allow those who may wish to discredit the Bible to do so. Let's not be easily disturbed by the speculations that sometimes get featured as "truth" in news magazine or on Youtube. The Bible speaks for itself. But let's not be afraid of inquiry either. Legitimate inquiry will not undermine the word of God. In fact, legitimate inquiry has buttressed my trust in the Bible. stand more sure today than ever that the Bible is God's word and is powerful unto salvation for all who believe.

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