The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Scripture (Page 1 of 2)

Textual Criticism and the Reliability of Scripture

I have written before about textual criticism, which refers (at least in biblical studies) to the study and comparison of biblical manuscripts in order to give us a more accurate picture of what the original documents said. A lot of Christians are largely unaware of this field of study, and only become aware of it when they see footnotes in their Bibles near certain passages that say something like, “many of the earliest and best manuscripts do not contain these verses.”

It can be alarming for some people when they read footnotes like these because it seems to throw doubt over whether or not we can trust our modern Bibles. Really though, the opposite is true: it is only because we have such a wealth of New Testament manuscripts that we are even aware of the discrepancies between different ones:

We don’t have the original editions of the Bible. Instead, what we have are thousands and thousands of handwritten copies called manuscripts. We have fragments that date back to the early second century, but the best comprehensive manuscripts we have that contain most or all of the New Testament date back to the fourth and fifth centuries.

Compared to other ancient works, this is incredible. There are some ancient works of famous philosophers or poets of which we may only have a handful of copies, but there are thousands and thousands of biblical manuscripts. There are a lot of differences between the different manuscripts because they were copied down by hand, but since there are so many copies, we can compare them and, with a very high degree of accuracy, determine what the original text said.

The vast majority of differences between manuscripts are differences in things like spelling (basically the modern equivalent of a typo) where it is still very obvious what is supposed to be said. There are only a handful of places in the New Testament where there is a whole verse or verses that we are not sure about, and even in those, there is no point of doctrine that is compromised either way. So the biblical text that we have is very reliable.[1]

John 7.53-8.11, the story of the woman caught in adultery, is perhaps the most famous textual problem in the New Testament, but another is Mark 16.9-20, sometimes called “The Long Ending of Mark.” It reads:

9 [[Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

12 After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

14 Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.]]

(Mark 16.9-20)

In most modern translations, these verses will either be included in brackets (as the ESV does, which I have tried to preserve above) or will be omitted from the main text and perhaps included in a footnote. This is not because some sinister forces are seeking to alter the content and meaning of Scripture from what was originally written; rather, it is a reflection of the text-critical belief that these verses were not originally part of Mark, based on the fact that many of the earliest and best manuscripts that we have of Mark’s Gospel do not contain them.

Ultimately, biblical scholars disagree about the authenticity of the long ending of Mark. Most hold that it is not original, but those scholars who believe it to not be original are also divided about whether or not there was a different original ending that has been lost, or if the original version of Mark’s gospel was intended to end after verse 8.

I am undecided myself: I tend to think that the long ending is not original and that Mark wrote his gospel to conclude at 16.8, but I could certainly be mistaken. Either way, here is the important idea (and, indeed, the important idea to keep in mind with all of the text-critical issues in the New Testament): there is no doctrine or practice discussed in Mark 16.9-20 that is not taught elsewhere in the New Testament. In other words, even if you throw out all of the passages with significant text-critical problems, it doesn’t change Christian faith and practice.

As one commentator states:

Our God has not seen fit to exempt the New Testament from the copying problems that existed in all books prior to the invention of the printing press. But by his grace those problems do not create significant variations in Christian beliefs and practices.[2]

If we only had one manuscript copy of the New Testament, we would have no variations. That sounds nice, but really, it would leave us with no way of knowing how accurate our Bibles are. Instead, the thousands of manuscripts with their many variations help us to determine with a high degree of accuracy what the original text said, and what it is that God wants us to know.

What a blessing—may God be praised for His faithfulness in the preservation of his revealed word!


[1] Excerpted from Pardon, Not Acquittal: Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery.

[2] Allen Black, Mark, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: 1995), 293 note 2.

Scripture Is Like The Ocean

Scripture is like the ocean.

People appreciate the ocean at all different levels of depth:

  • For some, simply seeing the beautiful array of blue colors in the water and being near the waves is enough. Some take vacations to the beach to be near the water, but never actually get into it.
  • Others get into the water and play in the shallow surf. As a non-swimmer, this is what I like to do when traveling to the beach: I spend hours on a bodyboard, riding the waves and making sure that I don’t get too deep.[1]
  • Some enjoy getting in deeper water, where they can swim in the ocean. They may use goggles and a snorkel to see all kinds of fish that aren’t visible from the surface of the water. Safely navigating deeper water requires skill, and hours of practice are necessary to develop that skill.
  • For those who have put in a lot of hours of training and receive certification and have access to the right equipment, scuba diving allows you to go even deeper, and make all sorts of discoveries that most of us will never get to see in person.
  • And for the very, very few who have incredibly specialized training or, perhaps, VIP access to those who do, a trip in a deep-sea submarine allows glimpses of all sorts of amazing things near the ocean floor. Even so, the reality is that the vast majority of the ocean remains unexplored.[2]



The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture basically holds that you don’t have to be a theologian or scholar to understand the Bible’s teaching on salvation: in His Grace, God has made the revelation of His will clear enough for us to understand. I believe that this is true, but at different times in my life, I have heard a more simplistic version of this doctrine that I do not believe to be true: that Scripture is easy to understand.

I have basically spent my adult life studying Scripture and seeking to understand it better. I have learned so much doing so, and I understand it so much better than I did twenty, ten, or even five years ago. But the better I come to understand the Bible’s teachings, the more clearly I realize that I will never fully understand it.

In one sense, that is incredibly frustrating; you are pursuing a goal that you know you will never obtain. Furthermore, as you learn more, you uncover more and more things that you don’t know; paradoxically, the learning process seems to reveal your own ignorance in exponential ways.

Yesterday, though, it struck me: Scripture is like the ocean.

Yes, it is vast and mysterious, and in our human limitations, there are areas that we will never explore, indeed, huge territories of which we are totally ignorant. But also like the ocean, you don’t have to be in a deep-sea submarine to appreciate it:

  • We can admire its beauty—the powerful stories it shares, the moral vision it puts forth, and the revelation of the nature of God through Jesus—even from a distance.
  • We can also wade into the shallow waters of Scripture, and clearly and safely enough, learn how God calls us to respond to His work in the world, how we can receive His grace, and how we can live as His children.
  • It takes more work, but we can go deeper. We can dive in and swim, learning about biblical history and biblical genres. Tools like concordances, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries are like snorkels that help us to see things that weren’t visible on the surface.
  • Like scuba diving, a relative few are able to put in a lot of hours of training. That training involves all sorts of elements—learning biblical languages, studying ancient culture and history to learn about the contexts in which Scripture came to be, reading about Christian interpretation of Scripture and doctrine throughout the centuries, etc.—and with the new skills it provides and with access to the right equipment, new frontiers for personal learning and discovery are opened up.[3]
  • And for the very, very few, who have been gifted with brilliant minds and have devoted themselves to decades of study, occasionally new discoveries (or, more accurately, the discovery of things that were once known, but had been forgotten or lost over the years) are made, and our collective understanding is expanded. Like with those who plumb the ocean depths in a submarine, these sorts of discoveries may be inaccessible to us in a first-hand way, but we can still receive benefits from what is learned.

I do not believe that every Christian is called to learn Hebrew and Greek, to understand how the creation story of Genesis compares to those of Israel’s neighbors in the Ancient Near East, or to be able to explain textual criticism. In fact, Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12 about how Christians are all part of the Body of Christ and how we have different roles and perform different functions would seem to speak directly against the notion that all of us are supposed to be biblical scholars. God has gifted us in different ways and expects us to use our gifts to His glory, but not everyone has the gift of learning Hebrew and Greek (especially after the first few years of life!).

However, that reality is not an excuse for a lack of study or a sense of complacency. We have different aptitudes and different opportunities, so of course, we won’t all interact with the biblical ocean in the same way. But the call of Christian discipleship prompts each of us to stretch ourselves and gradually go deeper so that we can better understand what God has revealed to us, rather than to remain all of our lives where we are comfortable. Put differently, not all Christians are called to be scholars, but all are called to be students.

That is a challenging process. It takes a lot of work and it can be disconcerting, but it is also valuable and wonderful.

Scripture is like the ocean.

It is beautiful and comforting, but also vast and mysterious. We will never fully explore or understand it, but we will find unsettling and thrilling adventure in our lifelong exploration of it, and untold blessings at each new level of depth.


[1]  Did you know that I can’t swim? I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned it on The Doc File. This is a great source of shame for me, and I am determined to remedy this.

[2]  Andrea Mustain, “Mysteries of the Oceans Remain Vast and Deep,” Live Science, June 8, 2011.

[3]  For what it‘s worth, in this extended metaphor I would consider myself to be a novice scuba diver.

Reaching Your Spiritual Potential: Read Your Bible!

This is the third post in an ongoing series (which I have neglected for a few weeks). See Part 1 and Part 2.

Bible Study in the Bible

Probably I don’t need to go into great detail about Bible study being a biblical idea, but briefly:

  • We know that Jesus had great command of Scripture.
  • He amazed the crowds, scribes, and religious leaders with His teaching  (even at a young age).
  • His beautiful Sermon on the Mount interacted significantly with the Law of Moses.
  • When He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, He answered every temptation with Scripture.

Elsewhere in the Bible, we see an emphasis on the importance of studying, meditating upon, and teaching God’s Word:

  • Deuteronomy 11.18-23: “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, then the Lord will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you.”
  • Joshua 1.8: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
  • Psalm 119.105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
  • Acts 17.10-12: The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.”
  • 2 Timothy 2.15: “Be diligent (KJV: study) to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.
  • 2 Timothy 3.16-17: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

There are a lot of other passages we could look at, but I think these give the idea: the Bible presents itself as a book of teaching that needs to be read, studied, and obeyed by the people of God.

Clueless Christians

I think perhaps that the greatest problem in American Christianity today is that Christians claim to live their lives according to the teachings of a book that, frankly, they know very little about!*

I truly believe that a lot of the division that exists in Christianity and a lot of the false teaching that abounds would be taken care of if people would simply spend more time reading God’s Word.

This is absolutely true in the Christian world as a whole and I believe it is also true within the fellowship of Churches of Christ. In classes I teach and in biblical discussions I have, I am firmly convinced that the vast majority of people who call themselves Christians are pretty ignorant when it comes to what the Bible actually teaches.

And if you know your history about the fellowship of Churches of Christ, that is both ironic and sad. Churches of Christ have direct historical ties to the American Restoration Movement, which occurred in the early 1800s in the United States when several men, independently and simultaneously, decided that they wanted nothing more and nothing less than to be members of the Church purchased by the blood of Christ and established by His apostles in the first century.

Men like Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell didn’t want to be called Baptists or Presbyterians or Methodists anymore; they just wanted to be known as Christians. These men didn’t want to have anything to do with manmade creeds or traditions; they wanted their beliefs and practices to be determined by the teachings of Scripture. They didn’t want people following them; they wanted people to follow Christ.

So, examining Scripture, these men came to the conclusion that local congregations should be organized under Elderships, that worship to God should consist of a cappella singing, that the Lord’s Supper should be observed every Sunday, and that baptism involves being immersed in water for the remission of sins. If you attend a church of Christ, that should all sound pretty familiar to you.

As I said earlier, the lack of biblical knowledge that we have today is ironic, because, in Churches of Christ, our big thing, our defining characteristic is supposed to be that we make every effort possible to be the New Testament Church, and to live our lives according to the teachings of the Bible. But how can we hope to do that if so many of us know so little about what the Bible actually teaches?

The simple truth is that there’s no way that we can become mature Christians and reach our spiritual potential if we are ignorant of the teachings of Scripture!

We believe that the Bible is a special book because it is God-breathed; it’s the only book that we have that came from God! What could be a more important use of your time than devoting yourself to the reading and study of such a book?

Unfortunately, somehow we’ve developed the idea that it’s the Church’s job to teach us all the Bible we need to know. Certainly part of the Church’s job is to teach Christians, but if the only exposure to the Bible you’re getting is at Church, it’s just not enough! At the congregation where I work, we have roughly 80 minutes of Bible class time per week. Add to that another 60 minutes of sermon time per week and then do the math, and it comes out to about 120 hours, or 5 days of biblical instruction per year. That, on it’s own is not nearly enough, and that assumes that you never miss a single class or sermon!

What all this means is that if we’re going to grow to become mature Christians and reach our spiritual potential, it is going to require that we read and study the Bible outside of church.

I realize that what I’m saying doesn’t apply to everyone who is reading this; there are some who have studied the Bible for decades, and who continue to make Bible reading a part of their daily lives. But for many of us, there is a lot of room for improvement.

I read the Bible a lot, but it had been several years since I had systematically read the entire Bible through in one year. I decided to do that this year, and have been astounded by the results: so often I will be reading something else or talking to someone about a biblical topic, and I’ll think to myself, “I just read that the other day!” It has been a tremendous blessing to see different parts of my life interconnected and woven together in the shadow of the Word of God.

Let me encourage you: make a commitment today to be a person whose life is characterized by a dedication to the reading and study of Scripture. Your spiritual growth and potential depends on it.

Read your Bibles!

*I say “perhaps” because sometimes I think that the greatest problem in American Christianity is the way that we spend our money. But maybe there’s no real disagreement here: if we actually read our Bibles and listened to what Jesus said about money, it might take care of that problem too.

What Language Study Has Taught Me About The Bible

I have written before about my (mis)adventures in the study of languages, and this semester is a continuation of that trend, as I am simultaneously taking my final Greek class and my first Hebrew class.

The two languages are different enough that, so far, I haven’t gotten them too mixed up in my head, but studying both at the same time has been difficult and has required a lot of my brainpower. Greek is now pretty familiar (this is my fourth class in it) and I actually enjoy working and translating it, but Hebrew is just so foreign that it has been a strain.

Having said all this, I am repeatedly struck by three significant lessons that I have learned from language study:

(1) We owe such a debt to those who have gone on before us and have translated the Scriptures into our own languages. Language study takes a lot of patience, diligence, and perseverance. Translating from one language to another is difficult, and is especially more difficult when you are translating from hard-to-read ancient texts. There was a time when the vast majority of church-going people were unable to read the Bible for themselves, and were completely reliant on what others told them about it. We are in such a position of privilege to be able to read Scripture in our own tongue, and to do so with a great degree of confidence that what we are reading is an accurate portrayal of the original.

(2) It is important to read from and consult multiple translations. As I mentioned above, translating from one language to another is difficult. Anyone who has engaged in the process knows that often, a certain Hebrew or Greek word can be translated in multiple ways in English, and the different options have to be weighed. Ultimately, a lot of opinion and subjective interpretation comes into play when translating from one language to another, not because people are biased or dishonest or irresponsible, but simply because there is no other way to translate. A certain degree of interpretation is inherently involved. One of the great things about consulting multiple translations is that they tend to have a way of correcting the biases and weaknesses of one another. In other words, if you’re holding onto a particular doctrinal position based on one translation which is in disagreement with all others, you probably need to reevaluate your position.

(3) The Bible is a masterpiece. Studying the Bible in its original languages emphasizes to me how awesome it is. It is so intricately woven together, with certain words or literary devices emphasizing themes or creating links between different stories, books, and even between the Old and New Testaments. It has reinforced to me the unity and diversity of Scripture: composed by dozens of human authors whose individual voices shine through, but ultimately inspired by the Spirit of God, who works all pieces together into a complete and complementary whole.

To sum it all up, while studying biblical languages has been (and will continue to be) a challenge, it has also been a blessing because of these important lessons I have learned (or relearned). Hopefully, they will bless your lives as well.

Different Types of Maps: Read (and Preach, and Teach) the Whole Bible

In 2 Timothy 3.16-17, Paul writes:

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Based on Paul’s words here, I think it should be obvious that we should give attention to all of Scripture, rather than just study the parts that we like over and over again. Some people focus on Paul’s writings; others spend a lot of time in the Gospels. Some folks obsess over the accounts of the early church in Acts, while others never stray far from the wisdom literature or the historical books of the Old Testament.
And it’s okay to have favorites, but if we emphasize our favorites to the point that we neglect the other portions of Scripture, then we aren’t taking Paul’s words from 2 Timothy 3.16-17 very seriously.
In Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction, Jonathan T. Pennington puts it very well:
“…For Jefferson County, Kentucky, where I live, we could look at a topographical map that shows terrain and elevations or a road map; at a map that records annual rainfall or one that indicates historical landmarks and points of scenic interest; or we could consult a survey that shows where property lines begin and end. These are all different maps, and they would look very different if set beside one another. But of course they don’t contradict one another. They are complementary and beneficial. They are different discourses of truth—or different ways of approaching and presenting knowledge.
If this is true for maps of Jefferson County, Kentucky, how much more for theology and Holy Scripture. We need to think of the Bible not as a single map that just gives us doctrinal statements or moral commands, but we must realize that the Bible is like an atlas—a collection of maps/books that shows us the way, the truth, and the life but in a variety of languages or discourses or ways of communicating. To privilege—or worse, to rely exclusively on—only one form is detrimental to apprehending truth; a topographical map helps little when we’re seeking the best restaurants.” 
What a great analogy this is! The Bible is true, but it presents truth in a variety of ways. In Matthew, truth might be presented through a parable. In 1 Kings or Acts, it might be presented in historical narrative. In Psalms, truth is presented through poetry, and in Proverbs through pithy sayings. In books like Romans, Paul often presents truth in direct theological or doctrinal statements, and in Revelation, John presents truth through bizarre and sometimes frightening visions.
All of these different “maps” are a vital part of the entire “atlas” of the Bible. Some are more useful for certain purposes than others, but all contain truth and none should be neglected.
I think all people of faith would do well to be more well-rounded in our Bible study.
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