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Question

Did New Testament Authors, (such as Luke), employ extant "copying" techniques used by Scribes to ensure that content would be preserved, and that copies could be authenticated?

For Example:

Are there any symbols or conventions, (Semiotics), in the texts that show that the authors intended for their letters to be copied and preserved for ages to come?


NOTES:

  1. This Question is NOT: "Did God Tell the Authors Exactly What to Write, and Were these Documents Preserved?"
  2. The ramifications of the presence/absence of such Transcription Devices to preserve the Authenticity and Accuracy of the text is apparent: The absence/presence of such devices lends to arguments regarding the authors' own intentions that the texts were to be relied upon as authorities;-- Regardless of the position of that argument--this evidence would have to be clear and convincing--either way.
  3. In Modern Rabbinical Judaism, (which asserts Pharasaic Tradition), the standards of writing and copying a text are incredibly exacting--and documents were written with the awareness that they would be copied--by hand, and so employ some mechanism for ensuring internal integrity.
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  • You're asking too many subquestions - it's borderline too broad. I'd suggest editing this to focus on a single question of what the evidence is to say that they were intended to be understood as historically accurate documents.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 22:45
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    Thanks for the comment. The intent of the specific questions was to convey the type of answers that I hope would be offered. Removed per your suggestion. Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 1:13
  • Nice and focused now!
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 1:28

2 Answers 2

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The New Testament gospels were not written to be historical books. Subsequent scribes did not in general attempt to ensure changes were not introduced..

Starting with Mark's Gospel, Rhoads, Joanna Dewey and Donald Michie say in Mark as Story (third ed, page 5) Mark should be read as story rather than as history. They say (page 1), the composer of this story has used sophisticated storytelling techniques, developed the characters and the conflicts, and built suspense with deliberateness, telling the story to generate certain insights and responses in the audience. And Burton L. Mack says in Who Wrote the New Testament, page 57, that Mark used pronouncement stories to great advantage in the construction of his gospel, partly because they were the appropriate building blocks for the "life" he wanted to write, partly because they turned on conflict, a conflict basic to the plot Mark wanted to develop, and partly because they were the kind of story that Mark's own community had learned to tell about Jesus. These are not the hallmarks of a historical account.

John Dominic Crossan says in The Birth of Christianity, page 109 a fairly massive (but by no means total) consensus of contemporary critical scholarship Mark came first, and both Matthew and Luke copied from him (but independently of each other). The authors (who were anonymous, in spite of later tradition) may have believed that Mark was a historical account, but this did not stop them from adding nativity, passion and resurrection accounts that fundamentally differ from each other. Once again these were intended as theology, not history.

The Cambridge Ancient History: XI The Imperial Peace A.D. 70-192, page 261, says the Gospel of John is not intended to be read as a biography, but is a mystical and theological interpretation of the life and teachings of Christ. The author draws material from Mark and Luke; doubtless also from independent tradition, but neither the extent nor historical value of such tradition would seem great.

Crossan says (ibid, page 21) each of Luke and Acts of the Apostles, and one no more or less than the other, is theology rather than history. Uta Ranke-Heinemann says in Putting Away Childish Things that Acts is a work of propaganda aimed at Gentile Christians and Gentiles who have not yet become Christians. On page 220, she quotes Ernst Haenchen, who says,

The real Paul, the man known by both his disciples and his adversaries, is replaced by a Paul as a later age thought of him. The earliest days of the Church are not described here [in Acts] by someone who had personally experienced most of it.


Now for some evidence of the ahistorical nature of the gospels:

  • In Mark's Gospel, the last twenty four hours in the life of Jesus are neatly divided into eight three-hour segments beginning at 6pm (when it was evening) with the Last Supper, and ending when Jesus was buried in the final period from 3 to 6 pm, before the sun went down. The later evangelists copied Mark's account imperfectly, resulting in this pattern being substantially lost.
  • The former Australian Anglican Primate, Archbishop Peter Carnley, wrote of the differing stories of the empty tomb:

The presence of discrepancies might be a sign of historicity if we had four clearly independent but slightly different versions of the story, if only for the reason that four witnesses are better than one. But, of course, it is now impossible to argue that what we have in the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb are four contemporaneous but independent accounts of the one event. Modern redactional studies of the traditions account for the discrepancies as literary developments at the hand of later redactors of what was originally one report of the empty tomb...

There is no suggestion that the tomb was discovered by different witnesses on four different occasions, so it is in fact impossible to argue that the discrepancies were introduced by different witnesses of the one event; rather, they can be explained as four different redactions for apologetic and kerygmatic reasons of a single story originating from one source.


The books of the New Testament were altered, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes with intent, over at least the next three centuries. We know with some certainty of some of these changes, suspect others, and will probably never know about other changes. This is evidence that scribes did not use techniques similar to those used in rabbinic Judaism, to ensure that content would be preserved, and that copies could be authenticated.

One of the most famous interpolations is to Mark's Gospel. It is generally accepted that this originally ended at verse 16:8 with the young man telling the women that Jesus was risen and they fled in terror, telling no one. The ending we now see in Mark 16:9-20 is known as the 'Long Ending', but there was also a 'Short Ending' and some other variants.

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  • Changes were made to the question, placing greater focus on the subsequent copying of the books. I will address that now. Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 1:54
  • Thank you! (A.) Are you arguing that even IF the Scribes considered these texts as "JUST stories, and JUST theology", these Scribes would have approached the transcription of these texts without thought as to the preservation of the autograph, for future audiences? (B.) Are there examples of where a story/theology was carelessly transcribed, resulting in many textual variants? Perhaps the Iliad, or some other text? Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 1:57
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    @e.s.kohen (A) Just as the authors of Matthew and Luke might have assumed Mark to be historical, so also later scribes probably believed all NT gospels to be historical. BTW, the author of John does not seem to have believed that Luke was entirely historical. (B) There are many textual variants of the gospels. Homer used poetry to help maintain consistency, but I believe there were some variants. Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 2:08
  • (A.) Poetry maintaining and preserving the text is exactly the kind of device that I am referring to. Even Numerology, Word Counts, etc. (B.) The ramifications such evidence is apparent: The absence/presence of such devices lend to the arguments regarding the authors' own intentions that the texts were to be relied upon as authorities; (C.) Regardless of the position of that argument--the evidence would need to be clear and convincing--either way. Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 2:14
  • @e.s.kohen If we think of chiastic and parallel structures as ancient poetry, I do see a parallel structure in Mark, although as noted earlier, this did not stop others from altering the original, for example the 'Long Ending' and other changes. See: academia.edu/12106716/… Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 3:10
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As one who has wrestled with this idea for many years, please allow me to offer this opinion which I wrote some years ago on this topic.

The question of how the Bible should be read and interpreted is one that has been wrestled back and forth among Bible students and scholars alike. Even scholars who have had the noblest intentions at heart have struggled with how this book is to be handled. How we understand this book determines how we understand our roles in the universe. For centuries it has been determined that the Bible should be handled as a historical phenomenon. Since the Bible has been handled in such a secular manor, we have come to rely upon secular historical sources to offer their contributions to the text. Through exegesis, we have tried to give history and culture the final word on the meaning of scripture and define its place within human history.

The science of exegesis takes into consideration all of the historical and cultural evidences we can martial and attempts to explain the text based upon this lexicon of evidence. This is actually just another form of intertextuality. If we take this approach to scripture, it follows that we could never understand anything about the text that could not be supported and collaborated by what evidence we are able to piece together. Our understanding of the text would then be limited to our ability to collect and correctly interpret this evidence. In the exercise of exegesis, our understanding of the text is determined by how well we understand ancient times and cultures. If this is true, the farther removed we are from the time and culture in which it was written, the less we would be able to understand it. Our ability to understand the text correctly then would diminish with the passing of time, not increase.

With exegesis, truth is determined by the historical context rather than the language of the text. I have witnessed many over the years who have tried to make sense of the text by the use of exegesis, and for many, it has been nothing but a constant source of frustration. Some have even concluded on this basis that truth is unknowable.

Since revealed truth is not determined by history, this should not be a surprising legacy for those who rely on an exegetical approach to scripture. The language of the text was not conditioned by the cultures of the time. It was received from the mind of the Holy Spirit who stands outside of human history and culture. If history is allowed to be the canon for determining truth, then we root spiritual truth in the temporal rather than in the eternal. This makes the historian the sole proprietor of what can be considered as truth.

It is a mistake to think that we can ever get into the mind of the individuals who put scripture into written form. Even if we were able by some means to manage such a feat, this will not tell us what was in the mind of the author. Contrary to what Gordon Fee claims, the Bible is not both human and divine. The Bible is exclusively a divine document and was written independently of human intellectual contribution. Man can no more lay claim to any contribution to the biblical text than my computer can to the creation of this essay. Man was simply the tool through which the Holy Spirit recorded scripture in written form. Since the Bible is solely of divine origin, we cannot , for example, discern truth by trying to delve into what was possibly in the mind of the apostle Paul when he wrote the book of Romans. The apostle Paul is not responsible for the contents of that or any other letter of scripture pinned by his hand.

Scripture was not intended to speak to the common sense of human reasoning. The Bible cannot be understood by bringing human intelligence to bear upon the text. The language of the text must be allowed to influence and transform the thinking of the reader. It is not reasonable from the context of human experience to believe that dead people live again, or that virgins can conceive a child without human intervention, or that three million people can survive in the desert of Sinai for forty years where there were no material resources for sufficient food or water. Scripture is not written to appeal to our sense of reason. Instead, it challenges us to defy reason on almost every page and to learn to see things from the vantage point of God. Scripture does not call men to reason but to faith.

The Bible should never be regarded as merely a narrative document, or a religious document, or a historical document. Although the Bible possesses elements of all of these, it is none of these. The Bible is first and foremost a representational document. As such, its purpose is to represent the mind of God to the reader.

(Glen Rogers author)

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