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Trust the Text

by Karen G. Giesen on July 7, 2006 in Articles

The numbers of copies buyers have purchased of The Da Vinci Code and Misquoting Jesus should tell us people are curious about the validity of the ancient biblical texts. Although most never see these ancient manuscripts or know what textual criticism means, people are passionately interested. And so is professor Dan Wallace. Why? Because it’s the Word of God.

The Meaning of Kai

Dan Wallace (ThM, 1979; PhD, 1995) is a California-boy-turned-eccentric-Greek-professor. As a teenager during the Jesus Movement of the late sixties, Dan drove a Volkswagen around southern California picking up hitchhikers to tell them about Jesus. As he encountered people who doubted the deity of Christ, a quest for the truth about Jesus became the driving force of his life.

New Testament department chair Buist Fanning (ThM, 1974; PhD, 1987) remembers Dan as a young seminary student, fresh out of Biola University, who, after every advanced Greek grammar class, typed the notes with amazing accuracy and detail.

“Dan always had a passion to excel—to make evangelical scholarship the best it can be.” Wallace studied Greek to know for certain that Jesus Christ is truly God. His obscure-sounding doctoral dissertation, The Article with Multiple Substantives Connected by Kaí in the New Testament: Semantics and Significance, goes right to the heart of the matter and definitively confirms that very fact. Kaí translates to our English word and.  Two verses, Titus 2:13 and in 2 Peter 1:1, plus an astute comprehension of Greek syntax, form the basis of the argument. The terms God and Savior both refer to the same person, Jesus Christ.

One year after writing his dissertation Dan dedicated Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament to Buist and to the memory of Harry Sturz, a “first-rate textual critic” in Dan’s opinion, and the professor who first introduced him to the field of biblical scholarship in college. Today that textbook is the standard grammar in most schools that teach intermediate Greek. Buist describes it as “a great pedagogical tool—with much discussion of the fine points. You can use it the rest of your life to learn exegesis and interpretation. That’s Dan’s gift—making grammar relevant to interpretation.”

Examples of this gift abound at www.bible.org. The site offers more than one hundred thirty of Dan’s writings, along with the New English Translation (NET) Bible, for which Dan served as senior New Testament editor, translator, textual critic, and commentator.

Textual Criticism

Each year Dan supervises several student internships. With a smile he tells of forty interns over thirteen years who have gone on to earn doctorates, teach in prestigious colleges and seminaries, and publish books and articles. These interns have learned by Dan’s teaching and example that honoring God requires more than just their minds. It demands their whole beings.

Such wholehearted devotion was required of interns who recently traveled with Dan to photograph and preserve ancient biblical manuscripts—some of which have remained unopened for centuries. Doctoral student Greg Jenks (ThM, 2001) described the twenty-hour workdays: “A half-hour drive each way. Eight hours in the library. Then process the photos on the computer and save them on discs.” The team took one thousand photos a day—fourteen thousand photos in fourteen days. “On some manuscripts we could do a picture per second—just turn the page,” Greg explains. “Others took much longer. We did not use flash. We set up our equipment near a window. One manuscript had red and gold lettering. The gold letters reflected the light. So we blackened the window. Then we bracketed and did thirty-second to one-minute time exposures. Over one thousand shots for that manuscript alone.”

Why do Dan and his teams work so hard? Because manuscripts and microfilms of manuscripts are deteriorating, or are subject to terrorism, thieves, fires, or floods. By preserving these manuscripts Dan and his teams contribute to textual criticism, which seeks the exact wording of the original New Testament manuscripts in order to compare differences in the known copies.

“There are about 5,600 known manuscripts,” he says. “We have 2.3 million photographs to take—of the known manuscripts. But we have already discovered more and have leads on 150 to 200 others.” To focus on such preservation Dan founded the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts in 2002. Through the Center he takes or acquires high-resolution digital photographs of all Greek New Testament manuscripts.

“Only by a careful sifting of the data and a rigorous comparison can one increase in certainty what the original text said,” Dan says. “For evangelical Christians, textual criticism is of extreme importance because we are, above all, a people of the Book.”

Each preservation trip, which includes four people and lasts three-and-a-half weeks, costs about $25,000 and can yield photographs of thirty to fifty manuscripts. “With proper funding,” Dan says, “we could get the photographing done in ten years.”

At the Center of It

Dan has visited sites in America, Egypt, England, Greece, Germany, Israel, Italy, and Turkey to view and photograph manuscripts. He first develops relationships with those in possession of the parchments, many of which are held by Orthodox libraries and monasteries. Others are held by governments and museums. Careful planning yields opportunities to photograph the documents. Dan also sees the Center as a means to develop optical character recognition (OCR) software for deciphering the data. The same computer ability that scans a document and turns it into English letters can be taught to recognize ancient Greek characters. A group in Athens is working with the Center to perfect OCR for Koine Greek.

The next step is to collate all Greek New Testaments. The process compares every manuscript and lists each variation in the text. Today only twenty percent of manuscripts have been collated. Humans painstakingly inch their way through poor-quality microfilm. The only book that has been completely done took the scholar thirty years to finish. And he chose the Book of Revelation because it has the fewest manuscripts. There are ten times as many manuscripts of the Gospels.

With high-resolution photographs and OCR, machines could collate all the manuscripts. What would now take several lifetimes could be done in a month. Then expert textual critics such as Dan could scrutinize the transmission of the text and declare with relative certainty, “This is the original wording in this place.”

“Although we say we know what the text says, there is about one percent of which we are not sure,” Dan says. “That may not seem like a lot, but if this is the Word of God, we need to be concerned about every word.

“The idea that the variants in the New Testament manuscripts alter the theology of the New Testament is overstated at best. Highly charged statements are put forth that the untrained person simply cannot sift through,” he says. “Regarding the evidence, suffice it to say that significant textual variants that alter core doctrines of the New Testament have not been produced.” For more information on Dan Wallace’s work at the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, go to www.csntm.org.

Karen Gaye Giesen (MA[BS], 1998; MA/CE, 2001) is executive assistant in Houston to the director of External Studies.

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