Red Letters And Missing Verses
I’m proud, as well, that I have been able to pass the love for books on to at least one of my children — I don’t know what illness has befallen my other children that they would not enjoy a love for books.
Each time my shelves fill, and am tortured by the gut-wrenching realization, I must part with some of my books to create space for more. A couple thousand have passed through my hands, some of which I have been able to place into the hands of others who would love and use them as I would myself.
Of the thousands of books I have read, one still remains my all time favorite … so much so that I have 32 different copies (make that 33 for I added another today) that I can reach from my desk, and another 4 a short walk across the office. As a matter of fact nearly all of the 2000 volumes in my office have a significant connection to this most cherished of books.
I’m sure you have guessed what it is. I am a vocational minister after all.
“The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the Word of God. The B-I-B-L-E!”
Over the last two months the FCC Chicago family has been cultivating a love for God’s word as members have participated in a 90-day challenge to read through the entire Bible. Being so closely connected with the Bible during this reading has also made me more keenly aware of what is being said by others about this “good book”.
Alarmingly, the Bible is under serious attack. Over the last two week, two particular streams of attack have caught my attention. Interestingly, they come from divergent extremes on the cultural and religious spectrum; one comes from a quite liberal persuasion, the other an extremely conservative one.
However, both viewpoints have the capacity to deceive those ill-equipped to defend the veracity of the Bible. The effect then is to embrace a lie that erodes their faith by undercutting trust in the authority of God’s word.
One side proposes a low view of the authority of most of scripture, a view that is culturally conditioned. The other has too high a view of a single translation’s authority, raising questions about the authenticity of all other translations and thus the reliability of God’s Word.
Let me mention the two issues, and give a response to each:
1) Weighted Authority Driven by Agenda
One of the complications obstructing a meaningful discussion for Christians of differing theological persuasions in the gay debate, as well as some of the other cultural issues, is that we appeal to a different Bible. Well, it is not literally a different Bible. It is that the two sides attribute different authoritative weight to different texts.
In response to my recent blog post on the FCC webpage, “ The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same“, which addressed the constants that were not changed by the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS opinion, I received a provocative email response. Here is the relevant quote:
“Your biblical references quoted in this article are all advice directed toward the early church. This is NOT THE WORD OF CHRIST. There is a marked difference between Christ’s actual words and inclusive ministry, and the exclusive behavior advised by certain early leaders of the Church …”
Do you see a problem with this response? According to this respondent, my blog presented an erroneous position since the texts quoted or alluded to throughout the piece came from the pens of the apostles, and not from the mouth of Jesus. Words spoken by Jesus then penned by a disciple or his associate are considered more authoritative than words penned by one of the disciples alone. Only Jesus’ words carry cultural transcending authority.
Did you notice in the above quote the insinuation that the apostles’ letters are bigoted? Jesus was inclusive. Paul was exclusive (never mind that the two texts which may say the most about the inclusivity of the church were penned by Paul — Romans 15, and Ephesians 2:11ff).
Yet, it would be a mistake to believe that this approach to the New Testament is new. In fact, it has been developing over the last 30-40 years. It didn’t originate with the “gay hermeneutic.” It’s seeds were actually spread in the development of a “feminist hermeneutic.” Over the last decade it has become known as “Red Letter Christianity.”
How did people arrive at this view? Quite frankly, an agenda drew them there. Both the feminist and gay movements promote this “Red Letter” approach to Biblical authority, where Jesus’ words are considered authoritative, while other Biblical texts get relegated to the cultural waste can, because Jesus seems to be a better advocate for their cause than Paul, John, Peter or James.
However, the rationale that advocates of this selective authority hermeneutic must face puts them in a catch-22:
1) This first rationale is at best fanciful … “I can’t accept what a disciple wrote as authoritative, but I can accept what he wrote that Jesus said is authoritative!”
The logic is dizzying or mind-numbing or both.
Obviously, there is the belief that there are at least two levels of Biblical inspiration and/or authority. What Peter, Paul, John and James wrote was only useful to a specific church within a specific context, be they churches in Rome, Greece, Asia or Palestine. They have concluded that 2000 years later, whether the text speaks to contemporary issues or not, it is not longer relevant for us.
However, Peter affirms the equal authority of Paul’s writing with the Old Testament (2 Peter 3:16).
It appears not to dawn on the “Red Letter” advocates that Jesus was also speaking to a first century crowd. A crowd of Jews, quite unlike ourselves. How do we deduce that words spoken to a Jewish audience are relevant, while dismissing words written to a European church?
Further, if I can’t trust the authority of letters written by the apostles, how can I trust the apostolic record of what they say Jesus said?
The Jesus Seminar which was convened in 1985 by atheist Robert Funk asked that vital question. Their response was to vote by placing colored marbles into a bowl based on the “certainty” that each of the statements of Jesus were indeed authentic. When the marbles were assessed it was determined whether or not each statement had enough votes to be considered authentic or not. Their completed findings were printed with nearly 75% of the words attributed to Jesus being found inauthentic based upon their own arbitrary criteria: (1) short, catchy statements; (2) impossibilities; and (3) trust in God. Anything that Jesus might have said about himself, such as “I am the way, the truth and the life”, were looked at suspiciously. You see, the Jesus Seminar’s answer was basically you can’t trust the disciples’ record, either.
2) Which brings us to the next rationale – “While I advocate for the authority of Jesus’ words, I actually practice a selective acceptance of Jesus’ teaching.”
We have been thoroughly bombarded with these two phrases: “Do not judge,” and “Love your neighbor.” (Needless to say, these phrases are also misinterpreted and misapplied). Further, the “Red Letter” crowd loves texts that advocate for the poor and the oppressed.
However, there is a curious absence of quotations by “Red Letter” advocates on the morality, discipleship and holiness teachings of Jesus. Absent are: “Not everyone who calls to me, ‘Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but him who does the will of my Father’,” or “You will know them by their fruits.”
I believe that “All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be fully equipped for every good work”. God has not given us the authority to do a cut-n-paste Bible that only includes the texts we approve.
Yet, in some ways the third is the most perplexing.
3) The final rationale – “I might be more interested in what Jesus didn’t say than I am in what he did say.”
They doubt Biblical authority. They only appeal to certain words of Jesus. But Jesus’ silence is suppose to be a convincing argument!
Now, let me get this straight: If there are such serious reservations about what the text says about Jesus, how can we read so much into what Jesus doesn’t say?
This argument is like my son asking me if he can go to the park. But when I say, “No,” he and his friend decide they will go to the movies without permission. Imagine my response when he gives his explanation, “You didn’t say I couldn’t go to the movies.”
Here is the argument – Jesus didn’t teach about homosexuality, therefore, he would have supported the rights of gays.
One could use “there are a lot of things that Jesus doesn’t address” to unlock the door to legitimizing many hot button activities. Jesus never talked about pedophilia. Jesus never talked about beastiality. He never taught on abortion. He never mentions euthanasia.
I could say that Jesus not addressing those topics is like my parents never warning me against indulging in internet pornography. Since, I am old enough to predate home computers, let alone the internet, my parents never had to talk to me about something they never imagined. However, that analogy doesn’t quite match.
Jesus’ perceived failure to speak about these issues doesn’t suggest that Jesus was okay with them. Remember, God had established the law for the Israelites at Sinai which addressed these issues — while the specific terms may not be there, the ideas are present. Jesus was born and grew, and spent all of his life within the Jewish community. The Jews knew that these kinds of activities were sinful abominations to God. In other words, Jews knowing God did not approve did not participate in such things — so Jesus didn’t have to talk about it. That is the hard lesson in obedience and holiness that Israel struggled to learn throughout their Old Testament history.
Even then it is a stretch to say that Jesus didn’t say anything about these topics. On some of these issues, you simply have to read what he did say through different lenses.
Now, before I go on let me ask a few questions to those who don’t adhere to a “Red Letter” hermeneutic: Do you ever find that you want to pick and choose verses? Are you prone to give more weight to verses that prove your point, and conveniently downplay other verses that don’t so easily fit into your theology? Have you ever forced the silence of scripture to support your conclusions?
I think that all of us are more prone to these bad interpretive habits than we care to admit. In essence, we are attributing the same weighted authority to texts which fit our agenda. We need be sure that we are taking the same care to properly handle the word of faith that we expect of others.
2) Weighted Authority Driven by Tradition
The other issue is rooted in a meme that is floating around the internet about the conspiracy by the NIV, ESV, etc. to remove verses from the Bible. I have seen this meme in my FACEBOOK feeds that lists 47 verses that are not in the text proper of recent translations for nefarious reasons several times a day over the last week. According to the meme there is a subversive intent to neuter the message of the Bible theologically. This conspiracy theory is chiefly driven by KJV-only advocates, but an ill-informed church has been sucked in. It is a matter of tradition over substance.
Let me assure you if you have seen these posts it is much ado about nothing. Aside from the point that if someone wanted to corrupt the Biblical message much more theologically significant verses could be removed, what you really have is an issue of textual criticism.
What we really have is some people who are so attached to the Bible that they have always had, their precious KJV, that they don’t believe God would allow it to be replaced … because it was good enough for Jesus and Paul it is good enough for them. Any new translation is the work of the devil.
(BTW – Just in case you believe the above paragraph is accurate: Jesus and Paul didn’t read the KJV. It was written 1500 years after Jesus’ death.)
Here is the background: The Old and New Testament texts were written on papyrus. As it aged, the papyrus would disintegrate requiring replacement. A church which possessed copies of a Biblical text would produce copies of their texts to share with other churches. As copies became copies of copies of copies, extra words and phrases could find their way into the text. As copyists hand copied the Biblical texts they sometimes wrote notes in the margins. Later copyists might then copy those notes and interpolate them into the text. One such example would be the extended ending to the Lord’s Prayer, “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.” Or a copyist’s eye may jump from one word or phrase to a similar one, and perhaps the text is copied twice. At other times in the course of copying the eye of a copyist may jump to a similar one, and thus omit something..
As we have recovered more (in the several thousands) and older (from the early 2nd century) copies of the New Testament text, it has allowed scholars to reconstruct a more accurate text. Texts with poor/late evidence can be recognized as interpolations or as missing original content.
(As a point of reference the Iliad has just over 640 extant copies, compared to the thousands for the Bible. The King James Version was translated basically from one text, the 3rd edition of Greek New Testament by the Parisian publisher Stephanus in 1550, which relied heavily on the Textus Receptus edited in Basil by Eramus in 1516.)
Yet, these verses in question have not been removed. They have been relocated to the footnotes in your hard copies, usually with a note that explains that the text does not appear in the oldest and/or most reliable manuscripts. Biblegateway.com also includes these verses in the footnotes.
Besides the confusion that this causes people who have a real affection for the Bible, here is where this issue really gains traction. The more liberal crowd grabs ahold of this criticism and asserts: “The Bible has been copied so many times, and we have so many translations of translations we cannot be sure that we have anything that was originally written in the Bible.” I am sure that you have heard that statement lately.
But the reality is that with the quantity of extant texts that we have from the Old and New Testament, we have more evidence substantiating the authenticity of the Bible than any other document in the world. Additionally, each new translation is not a translation of a previously translation, but a new translation from the compiled Hebrew and Greek texts.
We all love our traditions. Some of those traditions that we hang on so tightly too are nothing more than our preference which we have come to codify as that is the way the Bible says it should be done. Many times those traditions that we insist on were the battles of the previous generation that we have come to baptize as true to the word.
My first Bible was a KJV. I bought it with my own money at a wholesale retailer in Sterling, IL. I remember sorting through piles of these Bibles with praying hands in front of a stained glass window on the front cover and studded with rhinestones for the date of birth of the owner. It was my only Bible for about 10 years. I studied it veraciously. This was the first Bible that I read through from cover to cover. My first sermon was preached from that Bible while in Jr. High school.
Yes, the King James Version does have some sense of poetry to it that is missing in newer translations. Yes, the King James does carry that sense of familiarity to those who grew up with it like a welcomed return of a good friend.
However, we can’t misapply that fondness for a particular translation to lead us to condemnation of other accurately translated versions of the Bible and those who use them. As we conduct ourselves in this way before a watching world, their embrace the conclusion they hear, “The Bible is unreliable.”
Here is a thought to take home: We all have to be careful that we don’t attempt to force our traditions on the Bible. Those traditions may be traditions that have a long, storied history, or they may be the current cultural winds. But we have got to let the Bible speak for itself — without us trying to put a gag on it no matter which side of the theological spectrum we come from.
Let God’s word speak. You might learn something …
— Pastor Steve
Interested in further study? Read Neil Lightfoot’s book, How We Got Our Bible.