Friday, January 27, 2012

Is part of the Bible missing?

I know that some will be shocked by this, but we should realize that many conservative, orthodox, evangelical, Bible-believing Christians do not think that we have the complete New Testament. Now before you go heretic-hunting, please read the whole post. (Then you can go hunt some heretics [just a joke].)

What I am referring to is the ending of Mark's gospel, chapter 16, verses 9 through 20. Some folks think that this ending does not belong at the end of Mark, but that it was added later. Those who believe this do have some justification for it.

It seems that the oldest ancient manuscripts of Mark do not contain these last twelve verses. There is no manuscript of Mark that contains these verses that we have found that is dated before the fifth century. In general, the older the manuscript, the closer it is to the original, but not always. Some manuscripts have a different ending to Mark and some have nothing past verse 8.

Textual critics, those who study such things, think that one of three things happened. One thing that might have happened is that Mark ended at verse 8 and as copies were made, some put endings on it and eventually one of them stuck. Another thing that might have happened is that the original ending was lost and some copyists put what they thought would be close to the right ending. A third thing that might have happened is that a very early manuscript had the end of Mark broken off and lost.

Do not be puzzled by this because this would have been very common in the ancient world. Books were written on a single scroll and scrolls vary in quality. The end could have torn or been broken off a dried-up scroll. Then, when copies were made, they were made without the proper ending. Eventually, however, when copies were found that did have the ending (verses 9-20), they were included in subsequent manuscripts. The ending could have been restored on future manuscripts.

This latter scenario is my view and it was the standard view for many centuries in the church, but it has recently fallen into disfavor. Many now think that either the original ending was lost and not recovered (hence my title for this post) or that the book ends at verse 8.

I see problems with both of these views. My problem with the view that the true ending is lost greatly troubles me. It would mean that part of the Bible is missing. Now that might not bother some people, but it does me. I simply cannot comprehend having an incomplete gospel, New Testament, Bible. "Know then that there shall fall to the earth nothing of the word of the LORD, which the LORD spoke..." (2 Kings 10:10) I realize that I have taken this scripture out of context, but I think it applies here. I do not think that God allowed the ending of Mark to "fall to the ground".

Then there is the view that Mark ends in verse 8. Now we have a complete Bible, but we have this additional ending added later. (I reiterate that I do not hold this view.) Here is my problem with this: We have a very awkward and inadequate ending to Mark. We have in the first 8 verses of Mark a tomb with the stone rolled away, a young man (certainly an angel) telling the women who came to the tomb that Jesus is risen and has gone ahead of them to Galilee. The women are frightened and say nothing. The end.

That's it. No resurrection appearances. No directions given to the disciples. Nothing else. Just the testimony of an angel. I don't know about you, but I find this highly unsatisfying.

In my view, our current ending being restored makes a lot more sense. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and others. He appears to the Eleven and rebukes them for unbelief. Then He gives them a version of the Great Commission slightly different from Matthew's.

This ending lines up perfectly with the rest of Mark's gospel. Jesus emphasizes faith and rebukes unbelief. Mark highlights action rather than teaching throughout his gospel in contrast to Matthew. Likewise, Mark's Great Commission emphasizes action (speaking in tongues, laying hands on the sick, casting out demons) instead of emphasizing teaching and discipling as in Matthew's version.

But now I want to explore another question: why have the views of so many scholars changed about the ending of Mark? Well, I have a theory, and some will not like it.

When I first began to study the Bible, more than thirty years ago, there was a deep divide on spiritual gifts, especially the supernatural manifestations like speaking in tongues and divine healing. Pentecostals and charismatics believed in and practiced these gifts while evangelicals denied them.

Since evangelicals believed that tongues and healing had ceased, they had no problem with the ending of Mark's gospel which made tongues and laying on of hands for healing a part of the Great Commission. They could say that since these things have ceased that they cannot practice them and God could not expect them to do so.

But now evangelicals largely acknowledge supernatural manifestations even if they do not practice them. That creates a dilemma for them. If they support the continuation of supernatural gifts and they carry out the Great Commission, then they will have to start laying hands on the sick and begin speaking in tongues.

I think that most evangelicals don't want to do this. They want to think that they are carrying out the Great Commission without laying hands on the sick or speaking in tongues or casting out demons (assuming they acknowledge the existence of demons). So they have a way out. Use a legitimate textual issue to get around the dilemma by denying that they have to even deal with the text. Problem solved. I am in no way saying that they are deliberately lying, but their discomfort with the content may incline them towards the side that will help relieve that discomfort.

I do have to say one thing here. I acknowledge that I am guessing what is in people's hearts in this matter, and I know that this is neither safe nor wise. I know that some of my own charismatic brethren, who believe strongly in spiritual gifts, sometimes have doubts about Mark's ending. But we all need to deal honestly with all of the Word of God and accept that which makes us uncomfortable.

For those who agree with me and take the ending of Mark as the Word of God, I admonish you to take seriously the Great Commission in Mark and begin practicing it. We cannot get around it.

One more issue: snake-handling. I have a feeling that some who read this might be wondering if I am not giving ammunition that allows some fanatics to use the end of Mark to justify the handling of snakes on purpose to prove one's faith. Let me ease your mind. The passage which reads "They will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them" clearly does not refer to purposely picking up poisonous snakes any more than it refers to drinking poison on purpose. That is testing the Lord; it is not faith.

However, I do think that this passage does give us evidence that this passage along with the rest of Mark's ending does belong. In Acts 28, Paul shakes off a poisonous snake on Malta and suffers no ill effects. Paul did not do this on purpose, but since he was fulfilling his part in the Great Commission he knew that the snake could not hurt him. This is evidence that the most unusual thing said in this disputed ending of Mark's gospel is true. And if it is true, why not believe the rest of it?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Inerrancy and Biblical Authority

Some who read this blog will be surprised that inerrancy, the idea that the Bible is free from any kind of error, is even an issue among evangelical Christians. Inerrancy is taken for granted by conservative Christians, but is coming into disfavor among some evangelicals.

Now I am not talking about people of liberal theology who deny the deity of Christ or His atoning sacrifice or bodily resurrection. I am talking about Christians with an orthodox faith who believe in the authority and inspiration of scripture. They believe that the scriptures are inspired by God and that it has full authority in our lives. But they see the seeming contradictions, such as the differences in the genealogy of Christ in Matthew and Luke and conclude that one or more of these lists must be in error.

They do not deny the truth that Jesus was born of the house of David, but they do not think that perfect historical accuracy is necessary to bolster the Bible's claims that it is God's truth. After all, they say, is not what is important the theological message of the Bible? A few facts wrong, to them, do not matter one iota. They want us to concentrate on the message and not on historical minutia. Why get caught up in defending historical details and trying to harmonize these parts of the Bible?

Because, as the saying goes, God is in the details.

I will now offer a good reason to desire perfect accuracy when it comes to historical detail and how it affects getting the 'message' right.

Some of you may remember a book called "I, Rigoberta Menchu". This book, that won the Nobel Prize for literature, is the autobiographical account of Ms. Menchu who became world renowned because of the story she told.

She wrote about the civil war in Guatemala, particularly about her family's involvement in it. She reports how the government forces oppressed and murdered members of her family. She said that the government stole their land and murdered her father who was on the side of the guerrillas. The most incendiary story was the one she told of her own torture at the hands of the army. She reports being tied to a chair naked for weeks while being beaten.

Once her story became widely known she was invited to many US colleges to tell it. She became a sort of superstar in left-wing circles because she exposed the evils that the guerrillas were fighting against. Then someone decided to investigate her story and find out if it actually happened. It turns out that much of the story was simply made up, including the part about her being tortured.

As for the land that was seized by the government, it seems that it was "taken" by a judge in a land dispute and given to her uncle. Her uncle and father inherited property next to each other, but there was a piece of land between them that was in dispute. Each claimed it for himself. The uncle, who took the government's side in the dispute with the guerrillas, went to the courts for a judgment. The father took the side of the guerrillas, perhaps because of the result of the judgment. Anyway, it is questionable that the government targeted her father and murdered him, since he died with other guerrilla supporters while occupying the Spanish embassy in 1980.

Ms. Menchu was eventually forced to admit "changes" in her story, in other words, falsifications. So, what was the reaction of the people in the US who brought her to the States for a tour of colleges? Did they publicly denounce her? Ask for their speaking fees back?

No. They continued to bring her in to tell her story. They continued to celebrate her for her 'speaking truth to power'. This astonishes me. To me, her falsifications undermine her claims to "truth". The left-wingers who still support her say that it's her message that is important, not mere historical details.

But I still think that God is in the details. If a person cannot tell the truth about mere "facts", then their "message" cannot be trusted. God's message and the inspired historical details in the Bible can be trusted. The two go together.

When we try to separate them (something only moderns do), we end with strange theologies like those of Karl Barth and his student, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They claimed faith in the resurrection of Christ, but did not believe that it actually happened in history.

This kind of thinking may seem "deep" to some, but to me it is self-defeating. (Theological) liberals use the so-called errors of the Bible to undermine its message. It is really not that difficult to harmonize all scriptures with historical fact and with other scriptures. Is God just a God of theology, or is He a God of history as well?

I hope that all orthodox Christians who have rejected the notion of inerrancy to reconsider the importance of the historical veracity of the scriptures.