Above is an image of fragment p52– first half of the second century after Jesus- a credit card sized fragment of the Gospel of John- possibly dating from less than 50 years after the book of John was written.
However, we do not have a complete book of John until hundreds of years later. How many copies of copies of copies of copies were made before P52 came into being? How many since? How many different language barriers crossed? How many different cultural contexts mixed within?
A couple of hundred years ago, John Mill looked at 100 early manuscripts written in Greek- 30.000 places where the Greek texts differ from one another. Most do not matter- accidental mistakes by scribes. Leaving out words, verses- even pages.
Some matter rather more- some appear to be intentional variations from the copied text- where the text appears to be changed to match with a developing theology. The changes get rid of potential problems in subtle ways.
Does any of this matter?
Well if you are a follower of Jesus- YES. Even if you are not- it matters too, as the building blocks of so much of our culture were made from understandings (or sometimes misunderstandings) of these scriptures.
Christians from my tradition were schooled in the idea that the collected works of the Bible are the inspired complete and sufficient work of God. The writings are reliable, and contain no contradictions that we are not capable of coming to some understanding of, given the correct interpretive goggles.
The problem, of course, with this way of interpreting the works of the Bible, is that it is all or nothing. The Bible is either the BIBLE, or it is nothing. It is either sacred, or it is worthless. We are back into the range of what Richard Rohr, and others, calls the error of ‘non dual’ thinking.
But other Christians will point to a different way of understanding scripture- as a gloriously imperfect set of writings that record the attempts of people to engage with a mysterious Living God, and to live in the ways of his son Jesus. In these writings, we see mirror images of ourselves, and saturating the whole- is the love of God, and the call to adventure in the cause of the Kingdom of God.
In this understanding- it is not either or- but both-and. The books of the Bible were written by people whose work was inspired by engagement with the Spirit. But they might also contain elements that are flawed, partisan and from a cultural and historical context alien to ours. The writings might well have been shaped by translators and copyists over the years- because they were always invested with such meaning- or employed to support a meaning that may never have been there in the first time. Some of this shaping is subtle, and may even have not been intentional.
This debate is contained really well in this debate (the voice seems to be out of sync with the images though!)
I recently confessed to a leaning towards what I would describe as a more human origin in the authorship of our scriptures- and how accepting this is not a negation of these writings, but might also bring a sense of release and freedom from an ill fitting straight jacket of legalistic religiosity. Most of this was in relation to a reflection on the Old Testament passages that I had found so difficult. How about the works that record the words and deeds of Jesus?
Because this is even more important for we, his followers.
So- here is my current take on these things too…
Jesus is described in the book of Peter as a ‘Stone to make men stumble and a rock to make them fall.’ This possibly applies more than anything to our religion- given Jesus’ intolerance of the rigid doctrines of his day. Therefore we might expect our religion to be tripped up by- Jesus. And out religion is often codified by our interpretation of the Bible.
The New Testament is a collection of some outrageously revolutionary books written by early seekers after the New Kingdom. They did not get it all sorted. They were not God-parrots, but God-seekers.
Our role is to test scripture, as well as to be tested by it. We are to be not passive receivers, but active engagers, listening for the voice of the Spirit, and paying particular attention to the life and examples found in the stories told about Jesus.
All scripture is USEFUL- said Paul. He was not able to say ‘essential’ in the same way as others understand it now- as much of it was not yet written in his time. Which suggests yet again, that we might sometimes be guilty of over emphasis- even idolatry.
But it remains our starting point, our rudder and our trampoline.