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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Division and the Preservation of the Bible

People often complain that Christians are divided. Denominationally, intellectually, interpretationally, geographically and/or racially divided. Some even take this as evidence the claims of Christ are untrue.

I take a little different tack on that subject. In 2014, I wrote about the reasons Christians are divided. In 2015, I even wrote about the good that occasionally results from these divisions.

If I keep coming back to the subject, it’s not because I want to repeat myself but because so many people see it as a major problem.

Now, we can argue about whether God works through division or in spite of division (I tend to think it is probably the latter), but the fact that tremendous good has resulted from division among God’s people is all-but-inarguable.

Pre-Church Division

Division among God’s people goes back long before the church. We see it as early as Israel’s entry into the land of Canaan from Egypt, when the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh opted to settle on the far side of the Jordan outside the promised land. Rift number one.

Later, in the time of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, Judah and Israel became separate nations, each with its own king. Rift number two.

Then we have the captivities. First, those tribes beyond the Jordan were taken by the Assyrians in the time of Tiglath-pileser around 740 B.C. Next it was the tribe of Naphtali, around the same period. Twenty years later, the capital city of Samaria was finally taken and those Israelites distributed throughout the “cities of the Medes”.

But the exile of Israel was not complete. 2 Chronicles 30 records that there were still Israelites living in the land during the reign of Hezekiah in Judah, some of which joined with the Jews and some that did not.

So at this point Israelites were living all over the world of their day, as subjects first of Assyria and then of successive world powers.

The Jewish Captivity

But we’re still not done. A century later, the nation of Judah went into captivity, taken by the Babylonians to live first in Babylon and subsequently throughout the entire Medo-Persian empire. When they finally returned to their land in accordance with the promises of God, not all Judah elected to make the trip, and certainly not all Israel. Some had gotten comfortable and simply stayed put.

What was the result of all this division? On its face, it was simply a series of acts of God in response to persistent national disobedience, all fully in accordance with the law of Moses. In actuality, it had the tremendously beneficial effect of spreading the teaching of the law throughout the world of its day. Everywhere that Jews lived they built synagogues, copied their Torah and taught their ancient beliefs, not just to their own children but to Gentile converts called proselytes.

Everywhere Jews lived sacred scripture was copied and recopied, studied and believed. Even prior to the time of Christ, there was a testimony to Jehovah in virtually every major city of the ancient world. Translation into Greek began in the third century before Christ, primarily because Hebrews living in other cultures had come to understand Greek better than Hebrew.

So it was division among God’s people that first brought the word of God to the rest of the world in an language it could understand.

First Century Division

Likewise, in the biggest rift of all, after the resurrection, Jewish traditionalists persecuted the emerging Christian (but still largely ethnically Jewish) church.

In this case the division was not even about interpretation but about application. Both orthodox Jews and Jewish Christians agreed that the Old Testament promised them Messiah, and mostly about what Messiah would do. The difference was over whether the circumstances and person of Jesus of Nazareth fit the bill. Jews said he didn’t, Christians said he did.

Division really can be a good thing. The traditionalists drove the new converts across Europe and Asia with the gospel, planting churches wherever they stopped to catch their breath. The result? Copy after copy of books of the Greek New Testament were made just about everywhere, and by 500 AD, translated into hundreds of other languages.

Jason Van Bemmel says this about the diversity of the NT manuscripts:
“The impressive set of New Testament manuscripts is not just a matter of volume, though. We also have great diversity, with manuscripts in several different ancient languages besides the original Greek and Greek manuscripts from a diversity of geographical areas and manuscript traditions. Specifically, New Testament manuscripts can be grouped into four major text traditions on three different continents. This geographical, cultural and text-tradition diversity makes it impossible that church leaders could have conspired together to make the manuscripts match each other.”
Get that? To Van Bemmel, the minor textual differences in manuscripts are evidence there has been no human collusion in modifying the truth of God to suit human agendas. God has effectively immunized his Word from any legitimate scholarly criticism that “the Church” has successfully played editor with scripture, redacting or manipulating the text.

“No Big Deal”

The constant divisions between Christians, whether because of sectarianism, persecution, mass migration, cultural differences and even inter-factional rivalries have preserved copies of the word of God in so many places and so many ways that nobody has ever been able to permanently control the Bible’s distribution, stamp out the spreading Christian faith or completely distort its message to their own ends for any significant length of time. Sure, there are counterfeits aplenty, but none have eclipsed the original. The unadulterated message of the gospel has always been out there, available in the world, somewhere throughout history.

Bob Seidensticker at Patheos disagrees. He says the 25,000 copies of New Testament manuscripts distributed all over the world prove nothing. They are, he says, “no big deal”. He complains that only 5,800 of these manuscripts are actually in Greek:
“That we have 1090 manuscripts in the original Greek from the twelfth century is not much more helpful in recreating the originals than that we have 100 million new copies printed each year.”
But wait, Bob: we have hundreds of Latin translations preserved all over the world, some of which go back as far as 350 AD, as well as almost 1,000 Coptic translations the earliest of which is dated 424 AD. We have Syrian translations that go back to 464 AD. We have copies of an Aramaic version of the Torah translated 100 BC, and many, many other translations besides that, translations that were more than adequate for life and godliness during the lifetimes of those who originally copied and read them.

That IS a big deal.

If Seidensticker’s (rather dubious) metric is “recreating the [Greek] originals” word for word and line by line, then fair enough, twelfth century copies won’t help us as much as earlier copies will. But if we are asking the far more important question, “What did God actually say and can we trust it?” then good translations into other languages are as adequate to our purposes as the Greek Septuagint was adequate to the purposes of the Lord Jesus when he quoted it in the gospels.

Hey, if it was good enough for the Lord, it’s more than good enough for me. Seidensticker dismisses these 19,000+ translations as beside the point, but the fact is, they ARE the point.

And all this wealth of manuscript evidence comes to us courtesy of division in one form or another.

In Short

God does not make his people fight, divide or separate from one another. He’d much prefer we didn’t: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” says the psalmist.

But even if we don’t all dwell together in unity all the time, God’s purposes are never thwarted. Division has brought us the word of God more completely and more reliably than any monolithic centralization of the Christian faith might have done, and has preserved and spread it further than it may have traveled any other way.

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