One of the things that has marked recent disputes in the church, both nationally and internationally, both formally and informally, is the question of what is central to Christian faith, and over what can we agree to live with difference with a clear conscience. Although this discussion can seem tiresome, it seems to me that it is important. It isn’t good enough simply to say that whatever anyone claims is Christian is Christian; that way lies the horror of the Crusades, genocide, and a whole host of things people have claimed to have done in the name of Christianity.
A fascinating insight into what is in fact central comes from the discipline of textual criticism (TC). To our knowledge, we do not have the original ‘autographs’ of the New Testament documents, that is, the actual edition of e.g. Mark’s gospel that Mark wrote. Instead, we have a large number of copies of each of the NT books, often in partial collections, dating from a range of periods from the second century on. Textual criticism is the academic discipline of sifting through all the very large number of manuscripts and trying to come to conclusions about the original text, and how the copies are related to one another. (I have written about issues in textual criticism before here and here, and locate it alongside other disciplines here.)
People are somewhat wary of TC for a couple of reasons. From an academic point of view, it can look like a daunting subject; as I understand it, a current major debate is whether the grouping of texts into ‘families’ (which show who copied what and when) should follow the traditional pattern, or be revised. To have a view on this means commanding understanding of an enormous amount of information.
But from a popular point of view, most people will have come across TC in the work of Bart Ehrman, who argues that the variants across manuscripts are significant, suggests that the New Testament as we have it is not a reliable, and asserts that the church was involved in ‘suppression’ of alternative understandings of who Jesus was, which might be more accurate than what we have in our NTs. Along with the majority of NT scholars, I think he is wrong on all three counts. He is right that there are a large number of variations (one estimate is 300,000 across all early manuscripts) but when you examine these, there are no more than a handful that come close to any kind of impact on the central message of the gospels and letters. In fact, the reason there are so many variations is a simply function of the enormous number of manuscripts we have—vastly more than any other ancient texts, and by orders of magnitude. And it is this large number which gives us confidence that the NT as we have it is pretty much exactly how it was first written.
Windows into Reception
But TC can offer a window into debates amongst Christians about the ‘reception’ of the texts in the early Christian communities, and it is here that it can get fascinating. A good example of this is the variant reading of Rev 13.18, where most English translations have a footnote giving ‘616’ as the number of the beast, rather than 666. As I point out in my Grove booklet, this is compelling evidence that part of the solution of this ‘riddle’ was forgotten, though part was remembered; 666 refers to Nero, but only when you spell his name ‘Neron.’ If you spell his name in the more common way, without the final ‘n’, then the enumeration works out at 616. It seems that an early copyist knew this fact (which in a generation was itself forgotten; the church fathers do not know it) though the copyist did not appear to understand John’s other use of numerology, the deployment of square, triangular and rectangular numbers, into which 666 fits but 616 does not.
When looking at the different manuscripts of NT texts, there is a sense in which the number of variants is how much ‘noise’ there was, how much debate about these things. This shows up, for example, in John 1.18, where a good number of reliable texts do not make the claim that the ‘only begotten [son]’ is ‘God’. Explaining why this might be the case is a matter of making a judgement about what the significance of variant readings: is this a marginal issue? is it disputed? is it contentious? In this case, the best explanation is that, as an early text in what was still largely a Jewish movement of Jesus-followers, belief in one God made this a difficult phrase to accept, expressed in this way.
Sometimes this ‘noise’ actually makes its way into the text itself; we can see this in the comment in Mark 13.14 (and parallels) ‘Let the reader understand’. This is clearly a comment from an early copyist (and not from the hand of the original author) early enough to find its way into all three Synoptic gospels in the first stages of the copying process soon after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Finding the Centre
How does all this help us finding what is central in Christian faith? I have been sharing a hotel room at SBL with Peter Head from Tyndale House, who is a leading authority on TC. In looking at manuscript variants, Pete noticed something fascinating: there is a point in Paul’s writings where the noise falls silent, where there is no disagreement, dispute or dissent. And that point is 1 Cor 15.3–5a:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
In other words, Paul says these things are of ‘first importance’, these are the heart, the core of Christian belief—and no-one in the early Christian community appears to disagree or want to dispute this. This concurs with a straightforward reading of this text; most commentators agree that this is an early form of the ‘keryma’, the core message that was preached. What does it include?
• that Jesus did truly die;
• that this death was ‘for us’, that is, it effects salvation for those who trust in him;
• that Jesus was then bodily raised from the dead (Paul goes on to defend this specific idea against possible criticisms as the chapter unfolds);
• that there were reliable eyewitnesses, still alive, who testified to this;
• that all this happened ‘according to the Scriptures.’ This cannot mean that there was proof-text prediction of these events; rather, Jesus’ dying and rising for us was in line with the character of the God of Israel and his gracious love, and that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was the climax and fulfilment of God’s dealings with his people.
In disputes and discussions with others who might also claim to be speaking Christian truth, it seems to me it is worth bearing this in mind. All other things are secondary; these things (above) are what truly matter.
In the ‘liberalism’ of the 1960s and 70s, it was the case that key leaders in the church did appear to question these things, and I am sure there are some today who will continue to do so. But I wonder if focussing on these things, and being clear that we agree on them, might at times help us to keep some sense of perspective when we find we have different views on other questions.