Textual Healing

Thoughts on textual and authorship issues.

A couple of weeks ago a friend text me about the authorship debate around the second epistle of Peter, and asked where that leaves us if it isn’t genuinely his. After a round of texts a blog entry was suggested and so here we are, a break from the norm. It was the first time I had heard of the debate regarding authorship of the book, but I knew of other textual issues and so dived right in. Sometimes we come across these little notes in our bibles about what manuscripts do or don’t contain a passage, etc, but as most of us aren’t experts in textual analysis they can leave us a little lost. More concerning for me is that sometimes well meaning but ill-explained footnotes about textual issues can put question marks in people’s mind over certain passages. Hopefully this blog can address some of that and look at why we can trust the veracity of the bible more than any other book.

Perhaps the most famous example of disputed authorship is John 8:1-11, which we commonly know as ‘the woman taken in adultery’. Our bibles will often say, in looming terms, “the earliest manuscripts do not contain this passage”. John Piper tackled this head on by pointing out that the key question is not “who wrote this bit” but “is it true”. So, if the author isn’t John does that discredit the text? The text is in fitting with what we know of the life of Christ and was accepted by the early church as being true and legitimate. In fact, the story was obviously widely known at the time. Some people suggest that Luke wrote it, others say that it’s message is so radical that John did write it but then people tried to suppress it. But the important thing is that regardless of authorship, the text itself is true. The fact we may have wrongly attributed it to John is not relevant to the message: Jesus doesn’t condemn you.

The second epistle of Peter presents a meatier problem in that it is written from him and he states he was an eyewitness. The notes in my ESV bible say that the evidence against Peter is weak and it probably was written by him, but many others say that it wasn’t him. Confusing. Where does that leave us? We have to question a few things.

If it was not written by Peter who did write it, and why did they say they were Peter?

The argument around who wrote the book centres on the use of language, and whether it is consistent with Peter’s other output. So do we just dismiss it? Of course not. There could be many reasons for this. Did Peter have a scribe who wrote it? Could it have been a disciple who later recorded what he’d said and gave credit where credit is due? If we look at the oral culture of the day, not everything was written by the person who said it. For example we credit the work of Cicero to Cicero, not to Tiro who wrote it down and collated it – in some cases after Cicero’s death. Who held the pen was far less important than whose words were being conveyed. The culture of attribution is entirely different.

Is the message of the book true, and can we trust it?

We interpret scripture through scripture and 2 Peter lines up with that. It is similar in message and thoughts to Jude. Jude was the half brother of Christ and the authorship of his epistle isn’t disputed, so the message and doctrine stands as true in the light of other scripture. This also lends weight to support Second Peter being genuine; why would a person write promoting sound doctrine at the same time as going against it? It would have never been accepted to do so in the early church.

So who decided what was in the bible anyway?

Very holy and wise, men decided what was included in the canon of scripture. This evolved over time as people open to the spirit filtered the books, and was confirmed by three councils in the fourth century. (Laodicea, Hippo, Carthage.) Part of the criteria was that a book was written by an apostle or someone close to an apostle of Christ. There is evidence that some of these wise old birds, particularly Eusabius, considered Peter to possibly not be the author, but when it came to the crunch these early church councils deemed it included. We trust them as being led by the spirit of God with regards what was included, and also know that they had a wealth of oral and written tradition to draw on that we no longer have.

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
– 2 Timothy 3:16

In terms of ancient texts the sheer volume of very early manuscripts we have of the bible is unprecedented. There are thousands of copies, the earliest of which dates from within the century following the death of Christ. These are supported by thousands of quotations from them that are contained in the surviving letters of the early church leaders. In contrast we have around 20 manuscripts of Tacitus and the earliest is still 1000 years after it was written. This volume of manuscripts and references going back to within touching distance of the events just doesn’t happen for any other ancient work.

I don’t know if Peter did write the second epistle, but I certainly don’t believe it’s any form of lie or hoax. It was possibly penned by another man but either at Peter’s request or recalling what Peter said. In cultures full of oral tradition we have years of people passing down the words they heard, it was the done thing. The epistle could have been written slightly later but as words of Peter passed down faithfully as happened at the time.

The question is really very interesting but I think it’s important that we hold the primary import to be on the truth of what it says and whether it’s God breathed, rather than who held the pen. The early church fathers held this to be the case and other scriptures supports it, so we should separate the issue of authorship from the issue of validity and hold to the words of Paul that all scripture is God breathed.

Photo from Mike Barwood, used under Creative Commons Licence.

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