Science in Christian Perspective
Allan A. MacRae, Ph. D.
Faith Theological Seminary
Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
A short time ago we looked at the epochal discovery of Old Testament manuscripts, recently made in the region of the Dead Sea. We saw that these scrolls provide remarkable corroboration of the general dependability of the text that has been passed down to us through many generations of copyists, while promising eventually to render valuable aid toward better understanding of many of its details.
This month we sliall give our attention to the question of the New Testament text.
Only a few years ago an article in a nationally circulated magazine told of efforts to throw new light on the text of the New Testament, and spoke in such a way as to raise much question about its dependability.
It is unfortunate that the mass of Christians are little informed about the facts regarding the New Testament text. Actually we are in a better position to determine its correctness than we are with regard to any ancient non-Biblical texts. Sometimes our knowledge of a classical author is based only on one manuscript, and that perhaps a copy made in the twelfth century after Christ! In contrast to this, we have hundreds of manuscripts containing all or part of the New Testament, and many of them are from the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries. Some are as early as the fourth century. In the course of copying and recopying, divergences naturally crept in, but the great number of manuscripts that have been preserved gives us remarkable facility for determining the correct text. Where any large number of manuscripts differ, the variations are generally of little importance. In no case do they affect any vital doctrine.
In the article already mentioned, one of the headlines blaringly proclaimed that there was "even doubt
about the correct text of the Lord's Prayer." In support of this statement, it was pointed out that in some of our early manuscripts the text of Matthew agrees with that of Luke in omitting the words: "For thine is the glory and the kingdom, and the power, forever, Amen" (Matt. 6:13; cf. Lk. 11:1-4).
It is an interesting question whether Jesus said these words in the prayer which He gave the disciples or not. Actually, however, it makes little difference to us. Jesus repeatedly taught that prayer does not consist in the repetition of certain words. The Lord's Prayer was given as a sample, not as a prescribed formula. Whether Jesus said these particular words in the prayer as He gave it on that occasion or not, they contain no thought that is not clearly taught else where in the Scripture, or that jars with the thoughts in the rest of the prayer. The Lord's Prayer was never intended as a magic formula, but rather as an example of the type of ideas which God wishes us to express in all our prayers. There is no question of the suitability of he words in this clause for use in our prayers. To know whether Jesus spoke them on that particular occasion would merely satisfy our curiosity; it would add nothing to our knowledge of His Will for us. The Bible is entirely free from error, and dependable, and this fact is in no way affected by insertion or omission of these words at this point. There is no case where any sizable number of manuscripts give a reading which would be contrary to definitely established scientific or historical knowledge. or which would contradict any doctrine.
When the King James version was written, humdreds of manuscripts were available, but most of them were fairly late. They were copies of copies of copies, but a great deal of care had been taken in the copying. The text was not as accurate as the text that we can construct today, but the differences are really comparatively slight.
Scholars have been greatly interested in trying to get our New Testament text just as exact as possible. One of those in the, last century who was most interested in this task was the great German scholar, Tiscliendorf, who worked in many museums, and even walked to very distant places to visit little known monasteries, seeking to find new manuscripts. Tischendorf's great edition of the New Testament, with the variant readings of hundreds of manuscripts, was our leading authority on the text of the New Testament for many years.
In 1844 Tischendorf walked to Mount Sinai, far to the south of Palestine, to visit an old monastery that had many ancient manuscripts. He spent a long time hunting through its library, trying to find ancient manuscripts of value. just as he was about to leave the place, he happened to see a basket filled with old parchment, ready to be taken out to be burned. He glanced at one of the sheets in it, and noticed that it was a page from the Old Testament, the writing of which was easily recognizable as being very ancient in type. Tischendorf asked to see it, and was quite thrilled to find that it was the most ancient copy of the Greek translation of the Old Testament that he had ever seen. He was able to take a few pages with him, but was compelled to leave the rest there. These few pages he deposited in the Royal Library in Leipzig. Tischendorf's report aroused much interest in Europe.
Eventually the interest of the Czar of Russia was aroused. As a great leader in the Greek Orthodox Church, the Czar would have much influence with the monks at Sinai. He sent them valuable presents, with a request that they should turn over this manuscript to Tischendorf for the library in St. Petersburg.Tischendorf went to the monastery again in 1859. He had great difficulty in finding what he wanted, but eventually a man came to his room and showed him a manuscript which proved to have the entire Old Testament, and about two-thirds of the New Testament in it. He brought it back to Europe with him, and had it photostated and distributed. It proved to be the most ancient manuscript of the New Testament as yet accessible to scholars. It is now called the Sinaiticus Manuscript. Recently the Communists sold it for a half million dollars, and it is now in the British Museum in London.
There was only one manuscript known which was possibly older than this one. That was the so-called Manuscript Vaticamis, which has, reposed in the Vatican Library for at least 300 years. Many scholars tried to get permission to study it, but found this very difficult. Once the noted English Biblical scholar, S. P. Tregelles, went to the Vatican with letters from the leading Roman Catholics in England, asking that he be permitted to study the manuscript. He was given permission to look at it, but not to take any notes. The Pope's men stood beside him, and if they saw him look with particular intentness at any page of the manuscript, they immediately grabbed it away froni him and turned it to another page. Although lie spent a month in the Vatican Library, he was not able to make any copies or to carry away much precise information about the readings of this valuable ancient manuscript. Tischendorf also tried hard to get access to it, with little success. It was not until 1889 that a Pope decided to make a change in the papal attitude. He opened the Vatican Library to scholars, and had a photostat of the Vaticanus Mannscript published. Today this and the Sinaiticus are considered our most valuable ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. If these two stand together, even in opposition to almost all the other Greek manuscripts, many scholars would accept their reading as against the others.
This is an extreme attitude, While these are the most ancient manuscripts we have, they are still from a time more than two centuries after the originals were put down. We do not have earlier manuscripts because before that time most writing was on papyrus, which does not last very long, except under extremely unusual conditions. These manuscripts are on parchment, which is much more durable. We have a very few manuscripts of the New Testaments from the f ourth century, somewhat more f rorn the f ifth, and then in later centuries a great many. Some of these may actually rest back on earlier and better manuscripts than either the Vaticanus or the Sinaiticus. It takes much careful study to determine the precise text at disputed points. However, most of these are of comparatively little importance. Hundreds of manuscripts testify to the remarkable accuracy with which our New Testament has been passed down to us. In the few points where errors of some significance have occurred in copying, we have far more evidence from which to determine which reading was in the original, than in the case of any other ancient document.
Within the last f ive years, a great step has been taken in adding new material for the study of these particular passages of the New Testament. Wendell Phillips organized an archaeological expedition in 1949, which went into Egypt and southwestern Asia. He secured permission from the monastery at Sinai to copy any of the manuscripts which he and his associates might desire. In January, 1950, he sent a group of scholars to Mt. Sinai. The Library of Congress lent them expensive microfilm cameras. They worked seven or eight hours every day, six days a week, looking over the various Biblical and other manuscripts, selecting the most important ones, and microfilming them, page by page. Hundreds of manuscripts thus copied in microfilm are now in the Library of Congress, and copies are available to any scholar on payment of a small fee.
During the same year, after finishing their work at Sinai, the scholars went to the libraries of the Greek and Armenian Patriarchs in Jerusalem, and copied more than fifteen hundred additional manuscripts, including about three hundred New Testiment manuscripts, and two hundred Old Testament manuscripts. Many of these manuscripts are of great importance, not only for Biblical study, but also for the history and culture of the Near East in early medieval times.
Within the last two years further work of this type has been done. An expedition has gone to the twenty monasteries on the Athos Peninsula in the northeastern portion of Greece. In the libraries of these monasteries many manuscripts have been copied, including 160 additional manuscripts of the New Testament. Further detail about these expeditions is contained in recent issues of The Biblical, Archaeologist, published by the American Schools of Oriental Research, Drawer 93 A, Yale Station, New Haven, Connecticut.