A Feature Review of
Can We Still Believe the Bible?
An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions
Craig L. Blomberg.
Reviewed by Michael Kallenberg
The questions Blomberg addresses in Can We Still Believe the Bible? arise from six areas of study that are frequently fraught with misconceptions and distortions from a cacophony of both liberal and conservative voices. To this grating mix, he offers a gracious response. The book consists of candid examinations of the following controversial issues that surround the reliability of the Bible: the results of textual criticism, the selection of books for the canon, the recent proliferation of English translations, the definition and application of inerrancy, the recognition of literary genres that are not straightforward history, and the centrality of miraculous accounts.
In chapter one, Blomberg delves into the rather complicated, little understood field of textual criticism. He begins with a consideration of the New Testament manuscripts where he commences to disabuse the claim that an estimated 200,000-400,000 textual variants render it impossible to discern what the original authors wrote. In the broader context of more than 25,000 extant manuscripts (5,700 of which are Greek), this is an average of only 8-16 variants per manuscript. Moreover, rather than being distributed evenly, these variants “tend to cluster in places where some kind of ambiguity has stimulated them” (17). In fact, of the 1,438 most significant variants contained in the footnotes of the United Bible Societies’ fourth edition of the Greek New Testament, there are only two disputed passages that are longer than two verses in length: Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 (17-18). And it is well known that both the extended ending of Mark and the story of the woman caught in adultery “have been determined most likely not to have been written by the authors of the books in which the passages are embedded” (15). However, aside from these two additions, which are easily identified and explained, there are no other comparable variants. Indeed, the vast majority of textual discrepancies affect just a few words and “no orthodox doctrine or ethical practice of Christianity depends solely on any disputed wording” (27). Blomberg then continues his examination of the results of textual criticism with a consideration of the Old Testament manuscripts. Although the text of the Old Testament admittedly contains more sizable variants than the New Testament, the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 have revealed the remarkable accuracy with which the Masoretes transcribed it. “Overall, the most striking result of comparing these 200 biblical manuscripts, ranging from roughly 200 BC to AD 50, was how similar they were to the Masoretic texts of a millennium or more later” (29). Suffice it to say, even though none of the extant copies of the biblical books are flawless, it is possible to reconstruct the original texts with a high degree of probability. Thus, although the biblical texts have not been “inerrantly preserved,” they have been “extraordinarily well preserved” such that people can be quite confident they know what the biblical writers actually wrote (41).
In chapter two, Blomberg deals with the development of the biblical canon and dispels the claim that it involved the suppression of divergent voices by the politically powerful (i.e., the winning side of early theological battles within Christianity). Blomberg begins with a brief consideration of the Old Testament Apocrypha and discusses why Protestants do not consider it to be canonical (e.g., no branch of Judaism ever considered the Apocrypha to be inspired or authoritative; Judaism as a whole believed that prophecy had ceased in Israel following the writings of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi; and none of the apostolic books explicitly quote from the Apocrypha). He then moves on to a more in-depth consideration of the formation of the New Testament canon. His first and most significant argument is that “a thoroughly supernatural Jesus, making numerous implicit and occasionally explicit claims for himself as the uniquely divine but fully human Son of God permeates every section [of the New Testament books], from the earliest years onward. And these are the only Christian writings we know of that can confidently be dated to the first century” (54, emphasis added). Again, the standard twenty-seven books of the New Testament precede all other early Christian writings (i.e., the works of the Apostolic Fathers, the New Testament Apocrypha, and the gnostic gospels). His second argument is that the early church did not suppress any books, but rather percipiently excluded some from the canon based upon the criteria of apostolicity, catholicity, and orthodoxy. His third argument is that there was broad agreement throughout the process of clarifying which books were considered inspired and authoritative in response to new heterodox teachings, a consensus that was eventually ratified by the Councils of Hippo and Carthage in AD 393 and 397 respectively (p. 68). His fourth argument is that there are no good reasons to rehabilitate the so-called gnostic gospels. Even the Gospel of Thomas, which is “the only gnostic text ever found on any ancient canonical list of recommended books, and then only once,” is dependent upon the Synoptic gospels and clearly presents interpretations consistent with later gnostic themes (70). In short, it is a mid-second century gnostic text that does not record teachings that are more authentic than the first century canonical books. His last significant argument about the New Testament canon is that it is closed, rather than open-ended. In other words, the New Testament teaching that “God had accomplished all that was necessary for the salvation and sanctification of the world” excludes subsequent claims to further, fuller divine revelation (75-76).