Jesus and the Manuscripts: What We Can Learn from the Oldest Texts

Jesus and the Manuscripts, by popular author and Bible scholar Craig A. Evans, introduces readers to the diversity and complexity of the ancient literature that records the words and deeds of Jesus. This diverse literature includes the familiar Gospels of the New Testament, the much less familiar literature of the Rabbis and of the Qur’ān, and the extracanonical narratives and brief snippets of material found in fragments and inscriptions.

This book critically analyzes important texts and quotations in their original languages and engages the current scholarly discussion. Evans argues that the Gospel of Thomas is not early or independent of the New Testament Gospels but that it should be dated to the late second century. He also argues that Secret Mark, like the recently published Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, is probably a modern forgery.

Of special interest is the question of how long the autographs of New Testament writings remained in circulation. Evans argues that the evidence suggests that most of these autographs remained available for copying and study for more than one hundred years and thus stabilized the text.

Ad Fontes!  That was the Reformers cry and that was the cry taken up by biblical scholars for the centuries afterward.  That is, until recently.  Recently, too many pastors and biblical scholars have turned from primary sources and adopted the absurd notion that reading biblical texts in translation is sufficient for preaching and teaching.

This has resulted in incredible damage being done to both theology and scripture studies and that damage has manifested itself in the wider society such that many who have zero ability or understanding of the Bible have been viewed by people as persons to be trusted and heeded.

And things will only get worse until the biblical languages regain their rightful place as the ONLY sufficient foundation for bible study.

Enter Evans’ book.  Comprised of 12 chapters, the present volume seeks to introduce readers to primary texts related to the Gospels and Acts and their importance for the most basic of all biblical studies tasks: textual criticism.  The chapters are

  1. How Old and How Many? The Oldest Witnesses to Jesus
  2. The Autographic Jesus: How Long Were Antique Books in Use?
  3. Jesus in the Jewish Gospels
  4. Jesus and Doubting Thomas: On the Genesis and Age of a Syrian Gospel (Part 1)
  5. Jesus and Doubting Thomas: On the Genesis and Age of a Syrian Gospel (Part 2)
  6. Cross Purposes: From Matthew to the Gospel of Peter
  7. Jesus and Judas: Making Sense of the Gospel of Judas
  8. The Sexual Jesus: Straight, Gay, or Married?
  9. Panther, Prophet, or Problem Child?
  10. Jesus in Small Texts
  11. Jesus and the Beginnings of the Christian Canon of Scripture
  12. Jesus in Print: Erasmus and the Beginnings of Textual Fundamentalism

There are also a bibliography, and indices of modern authors and ancient sources as well as a list of figures.

In his foreword to the volume, J.K. Elliott makes it abundantly clear that he has little patience for the latest fads of New Testament textual criticism.  He is particularly unimpressed by the ‘most recent fad to greet us’, the Coherence Based Genealogical Method.  And that’s just one of the several delights readers encounter as the book opens.

Many of the chapters have been published in different formats but here are thoroughly revised and rendered into a coherent whole.  The purpose of the work, as described by the author, is threefold: to introduce readers to ancient literature, to survey scholarship on those texts, and to asses the use and misuse of those texts.

The volume is dense and demanding.  It is littered with footnotes and readers without Greek will not be able to fully access what Evans writes.  There are no cheats, no transliterations.  Readers are expected to be able to read Greek (as all who work in textual criticism and New Testament studies should be).

Hebrew also appears, and it too is not transliterated.  Scholars of the material are demanded to be able to read the sources which they use in their work.  The really absurd thing about much modern scholarship is that such a notion has to be stated and simply can no longer be assumed as understood and known and embraced.

Evans has produced an incredibly impressive work and he deserves our appreciation for doing so.

Textual criticism matters.  Sources matter.  Reading sources matters.  When those things no longer matter, then New Testament scholarship dies.  Evans is trying to keep the foundation of New Testament studies alive.

He’s fighting a massive tide of laziness and academic indifference; but he will be victorious.  Along with all those wise enough to see the importance of such disciplines for wider academic pursuits and even for the well being of Church and society.

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