Urban Myths

One month to go. For thirty-one years I’ve preached week by week from the NIV. I’m expecting to do that for the last time on the Lord’s Day, 30th December 2012. And then, the following Sunday, the NIVs will be packed away and we’ll be reading together from the ESV.

Most of you have known for a long time that that change was on the way. It’s eighteen months or so since Geoff and I made the decision, and explained our reasons. I’m grateful to you all – and I thank God – for the way you’ve responded. In many congregations, any talk of adopting a new Bible translation would have led to fierce debate, campaigning, lobbying and, yes, bitter quarrels. I’ve not heard any of that. Instead, I know that many of you – whatever your private opinions of the ESV – have been preparing yourself for the changeover. Many of you have bought your own copy; you’ve been making yourself familiar with it; you’ve introduced it to your children. You’re determined that whatever version of the Bible we use, you’re going to aim to gain maximum benefit from it. The Holy Scriptures have been given to us “to teach, to rebuke, to correct, to train in righteousness”. What concerns you most is not what translation we use; rather, that those goals should be fulfilled.

As I’ve pointed out many times before, there are many Christians who are hung-up on the issues of Bible translations. They’re not helped by the mass of false information that’s circulated through countless pamphlets, videos, and of course the internet. Let me give you an example.

Scholars or Subversives?

Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort were two of the outstanding Anglican Biblical scholars of the nineteenth century. Neither belonged to the “evangelical” party in the Church of England but both were earnest defenders of the New Testament against the liberalism that was flooding in from Germany. Both men had a special interest in establishing the exact words that the New Testament writers wrote.

There are thousands of handwritten copies of the New Testament books – and all of them differ slightly from one another. For example, according to many manuscripts, Paul wrote in Romans 5:1 “we rejoice”. According to others, he wrote, “let us rejoice”. So how do we know which is correct? What did Paul actually write? Westcott and Hort were pioneers in the art of “textual criticism – their aim was to compare all the different readings found in different copies of the Greek New Testament, and to decide which were correct.

Of course, other scholars had been doing similar work for many years. Among the forerunners were Theodore Beza – Calvin’s successor in Geneva, J A Bengel – German evangelical theologian much admired by John Wesley, and S P Tregelles – a leader among the Plymouth Brethren. Westcott and Hort built on the work of men like these, but took it further. Together they hammered out principles for deciding not just which readings are the most accurate – but which manuscripts, and which families of manuscripts are most reliable. Together, Westcott and Hort edited an edition of the Greek New Testament which was published in 1881. Hort wrote the preface. In it, he explained the principles they had adopted : those principles have been broadly accepted by almost all New Testament scholars. Some of the conclusions they reached have been questioned as more research has been done. But almost everyone studying the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament accepts the general method they set forth. In that sense, their work underlies nearly all the modern Bible translations.

So who were these men Westcott and Hort? Well, there are Christians (I hope they are real Christians) who have made it their business to blacken the names of these men by spreading all sorts of stories about them. Why? Because they think that if Westcott and Hort were shown to be heretics, it would deter people from using any modern translation that reflects their work. If you were to believe everything that such critics have written, Westcott and Hort were simultaneously raving liberals determined to undermine the doctrine of Christ’s deity; Jesuits determined to promote the cause of the Roman Catholic Church; and spiritualists obsessed with the occult and getting their “new” insights from evil spirits speaking through mediums.

Yes, I’ve read all those charges against Westcott and Hort. And they’ve been repeated to me lots of times by well-meaning believers. The only problem is that nobody seems to be able to offer any first-hand evidence that any of those accusations are true. These rumours are passed on from one website to another, from one booklet to another. But when I look up the sources they quote, none of them offer the slightest proof that there are any real facts behind them.

Three accusations

1. Westcott and Hort were liberals: their edition of the Greek New Testament was designed to undermine the New Testament’s witness to Christ’s deity?

Well, nobody who actually reads their works will take that accusation seriously for five minutes. Westcott wrote commentaries on John’s Gospel, the Epistles of John, Hebrews. Just lift them off the shelf in the church library and read through his comments on the opening chapters of each of those books – and see how clearly and powerfully he argues for Christ’s full deity and true humanity. Here is his comment on John 1 vs 14: “the Word became flesh”.

“The clear apprehension of the meaning of the phrase, so far as we can apprehend it, lies in the recognition of the unity of the Lord’s Person, before and after the Incarnation. His Personality is divine. But at the same time we must affirm that His humanity is real and complete. He, remaining the same Person as before, did not simply assume humanity as something which could be laid aside: He became flesh… The mode of the Lord’s existence on earth was truly human, and subject to all the conditions of human existence; but He never ceased to be God. And the nature which He so assumed He retains in its perfection…”

Does a man devote his life to writing books defending the deity of Christ, if his real goal is to attack that doctrine?

2. Westcott and Hort were Jesuits, aiming to undermine the Authorised Version: “the Protestant Bible” and thus to entice Protestants back to Rome?

You might think that that accusation rather clashes with the first. After all, whatever the errors of the Roman Catholic Church, it is at least committed to the doctrine of the deity of Christ. Why would Romanist secret agents be commissioned to undermine the doctrines that Rome itself preaches? But again, let’s look at what these men actually wrote. I have in front of me Hort’s The Christian Ecclesia. It’s a study of the doctrine of the Church, made up of lectures Hort gave as professor in Cambridge. Hort knew that by giving these lectures he would be shaping the views of the next generation of Anglican ministers. And what position does he take? Well, the whole book is a demolition of all the claims of the Roman Catholic Church.

The central plank of Roman Catholic doctrine is the Papacy: the idea that Christ gave to “Saint” Peter the authority to lead His Church; that Peter became the Bishop of Rome; that he passed on his authority to each bishop of Rome in turn. What does Hort say, commenting on Matthew 16:18?

“It was no question here of an authority given to St Peter; some other image than that of the ground under a foundation must have been chosen if that had been meant. Still less, was it a question of an authority which should be transmitted by St Peter to others. The whole was a matter of personal or individual qualifications and personal or individual work”.

With that comment, Hort smashes the whole Roman Catholic system to smithereens. Did a Jesuit infiltrator really believe that he would advance the cause of Rome by persuading all his young students that the claims of Rome were false?

3. Westcott and Hort were occultists, at best spiritualists, at worst Satan-worshippers?

It is true that when Westcott was an undergraduate at university, he was one of the leaders of a club – the Ghostlie Guild – devoted to investigating “supernatural” phenomena. But how did they go about that task? The members of the Club sent out a circular to explain what they intended:

“The main impediment to investigations of this kind is the difficulty of obtaining a sufficient number of clear and well attested cases. Many of the stories current in tradition, or scattered up and down in books, may be exactly true ; others must be purely fictitious; others again, probably the greater number, consist of a mixture of truth and falsehood… some members of the University of Cambridge are anxious, if possible, to form an extensive collection of authenticated cases of supposed ” supernatural ” agency. When the inquiry is once commenced, it will evidently be needful to seek for information beyond the limits of their own immediate circle. From all those, then, who may be inclined to aid them they request written communications, with full details of persons, times, and places…the mere collection of trustworthy information will be of value”.

Not a word about séances or occult activity. The club’s business was simply to compile a list of “stories current in tradition” or already published in books, and investigate their sources.

Far from encouraging people to become involved in spiritualistic activities, Westcott made it his business to warn them to leave well alone. Once again, we can quote his own words. He wrote,

“Many years ago I had occasion to investigate spiritualistic phenomena with some care, and I came to a clear conclusion… It appears to me that in this, as in all spiritual questions, Holy Scripture is our supreme guide. I observe, then, that while spiritual ministries are constantly recorded in the Bible, there is not the faintest encouragement to seek them. The case, indeed, is far otherwise. I cannot, therefore, but regard every voluntary approach to beings such as those who are supposed to hold communication with men through mediums as unlawful and perilous. I find in the fact of the Incarnation all that man (so far as I can see) requires for life and hope”

Urban Myths

Have you come across the story of the tourist who smuggled a stray dog back from Hong Kong (or it might have been Buenos Aires, or Addis Ababa), and left it in her flat? When she came back that evening, she found the dog foaming at the mouth and her cat nowhere to be found. When the vet was called, he told her three things. One – there was nothing wrong with her dog. Two – her dog had eaten her cat. Three – her dog wasn’t a dog: it was a huge sewer rat from the Far East… or South America… or North Africa. You’re sure the story is true. It must be – it happened to someone you know – or at least it happened to a friend of someone you know. But you’ve never been told the name of the tourist. Or the vet. Or the friend to whom she told the story.

It’s an urban myth. A story passed on from one person to another, reported as true, but with little or no information about its source, and no evidence at all that it ever happened. Many such urban myths circulate. And the stories about Westcott and Hort are no different. Their liberalism, their Jesuit affiliations, their occult involvement, have become Christian urban myths, repeated without question from one person to another, rarely investigated, never proven.

There are plenty more evangelical urban myths. When I was a teenager attending my school CU, my fellow CU members would tell me about missionaries who had visited their churches and the wonderful things they had to report. They would tell stories of people raised from the dead. But somehow the missionary was never actually present when it had happened. It was told to them by someone who was a friend of someone who had been there… And you never actually found out the name of the person who had been raised, or the name of the village where it had happened. It was just “somewhere in Indonesia” or “somewhere in Brazil” or “somewhere in China”. Ditto with the story of the communion service where the folk were so poor that they couldn’t afford wine. They just used water. But when they poured it out, it had turned into wine. “I know somebody whose friend was there when it happened”. But somehow you could never find out the name of the friend – and each time you heard the story, it was reported from a different country.

Have you heard about the computer in the Vatican (or it might be in Moscow, or in Brussels) called the Beast? And did you know that it’s programmed with a “666” operating system? OK – you had never heard of the 666 operating system – but there must be such a thing or they couldn’t have installed it in the Beast, could they?

Have you heard about the nurse walking home after her night-shift (or it might have been a missionary on safari, or a Christian motorist whose car broke down) who, unknown to herself, was being watched by a gang of kidnappers/rapists/thieves…? Why didn’t they attack her? Well, the would-be attackers saw two giant figures, walking with her, one on each side. We know because they told the story after they were arrested / converted / overheard talking in a pub. They thought the figures were her bodyguards, but, being Christians, we know better: they must have been her guardian angels! I know the story’s true – I read it in a Christian magazine!

Have you heard how Darwin was converted shortly before his death and renounced his evolutionary theories? And we actually know the name of the lady who reported it – a “Lady Hope”. It’s just odd that no-one else who knew Darwin ever found out that he had become a Bible-believing evangelical Christian. But it must have happened – the story has appeared on lots of creationist websites.

Have you heard about the NASA computer’s discovery (or it may have been a university professor from Yale who made the discovery, long before the Space Age) that there was a “Missing Day” in the Bronze Age – evidently the day when the sun stood still for Joshua? Nobody at NASA seems to have any record or recollection of such a discovery. But we know it’s true – it appears in so many Christian publications.

Have you heard about the gate in Jerusalem so small that a camel could barely get through it? That was what Jesus meant when he talked about a camel going through the “eye of a needle”, wasn’t it? Strange that no Jewish writer ever mentions the “Needle’s Eye Gate” and that no archaeologist has ever located it… but we know it existed… Why? Because I’ve heard so many preachers say so.

That’s the thing about urban myths. People take them on trust, without checking the facts. And Christians are no different. They listen open-mouthed to comforting tales, shocking tales, amazing tales – and rarely ask, “how do we know if this is true?” And the result is that they can finish up swallowing the most bizarre nonsense.

Faithful or Gullible?

But aren’t Christians supposed to accept things by faith? Yes they are. But that doesn’t mean believing things for which there’s no evidence. It means believing in things that are invisible, things that are still in the future, because we have compelling evidence that they’re real. Faith is built on a solid foundation of facts.

When Paul preached the Day of Judgment to the philosophers of Athens, he didn’t tell them they must simply believe it because he said so. He appealed to the historical fact of the Resurrection: “God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man he has appointed, and of this he has given evidence to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). And how do we know that Jesus really was raised from the dead? “He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me…” (1 Cor 15: 3-8).

Again and again the New Testament writers insist that the stories they tell are established by eyewitness evidence: “we did not follow cunningly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty… we ourselves heard the voice borne from heaven for we were with him on the holy mountain…” (2 Peter 1:16-18). The Jews of Berea were commended not for any willingness to believe things without proof, but for their willingness to check the facts. “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…” (Acts 17:11).

Christians are not called to be gullible. Whether the story is a comforting tale about angelic visitors, or a shocking narrative of scholarly corruption, we are entitled to ask, “But what reason is there to think this is true? Where did it happen? On what date? Who reported it? What witnesses were there? What documentary evidence exists?” Urban myths may be entertaining. But they are no substitute for facts.

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