What Can Be Done About Death?

Over several weeks on the Shepherds and Scholars blog, we’ve been exploring death’s refrain in Genesis chapter 5. We’ve looked at what death is and what causes it. Now, we look at the most important question: What, if anything, can be done about it? What possible hope could there be from such a deep problem? Do we accept death stoically, or are we meant to fight, as Dylan Thomas says, by “raging against the dying of the light”?

Two Hints

We get two hints at how to answer this question in Genesis 5, one from the seventh person named and one from the tenth. These are the only two people in this genealogy for whom the “and he died” pattern we noted in earlier posts shifts.

First, there is the mysterious Enoch. Enoch does not die. The Holy Spirit tells us that “that all the days of Enoch were 365 years” but then the biblical text does not include the words “and he died” as we expect. Rather, Genesis tells us that “he walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” Hebrews 11:5 makes explicit what is implicit here when it tells us: “By faith, Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him.”

That’s the first hint. There has been one exception to death’s relentless reign. But he remains just a hint because, after all, he is an exception, and his life without death has no discernable effect on those who follow him. After him, death keeps marching on. So, while Enoch speaks to our need for someone to set the human race back on the right foot, he is not it.

Second, we learn of another whose name is Noah. He is so named because “out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29). Don’t miss the echo of hope in that statement. Man was made from dust (Gen 2:7), and afterward is cursed by returning to dust in the death (Gen 3:19). As the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer famously says, “We, therefore, commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” We have come from dust and to dust, we will return.

And yet, with Noah’s name we learn that out of the cursed ground, out of that source of painful toil, comes one who will bring relief! Noah does this to a small degree by planting a vineyard in chapter 9. The fruit of the vine is a kind of relief. But we see in Noah a signpost to something so much more. The ultimate rest from death that we seek will not come from Noah. Despite his great righteousness, Noah turns out to be all too human—like his ancestors before him. Sure enough, at the close of chapter 9, we hear the dreaded refrain: “All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died” (Gen. 9.29).

So, we know we must look for someone else; Noah must point beyond himself to someone more. As one Old Testament scholar says:

The affirmation that relief comes from cursed ground reflects a way of thinking that easily runs toward crucifixion and resurrection in the New Testament. As help comes from the place of curse, so life comes from the reality of death (cf. Gal. 3:13–14).

“And Christ Died.”

With these two hints, we come finally and climactically to Christ. This one is, in fact, the second Adam, the one who reconstitutes our humanity in himself, the one in whose image we are “predestined to be conformed” (Rom 8.29). He is the one who swallows up death so that “through death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2.15). As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (vv. 21–22).

In this way—and only in this way—the awful words of Genesis 5 become our salvation. When it is said of Christ, “and he died,” we are delivered. These words are good news for us because though he died, death could not hold him. Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, out of the very grave itself, comes Jesus, the second Adam, who relieves us from the painful toil of our hands. In Christ, we are delivered from the curse of fear and guilt and shame.

And so, the awful repetition of Genesis 5 is transformed when said of Jesus into the refrain of praise: “and he died!” Death, which was once our greatest enemy is now a transition, a mere translation from death to glorious life. We need not fear it. Not because we think it trivial, but because we know death itself is dead.

And so, Christians are those who can, remarkably, look death squarely in the face and hate it—for it is a curse—and yet not fear it—because Christ bore that curse for us.

A Warning and A Command

In light of this, the message for us today from Genesis 5 is one part warning and one part command.

The warning is that death is coming. And it is coming for each and every one of us. Death is inescapably personal. Your death is inescapably yours. The question is not whether you will die but whether you will go through it with Christ or without him. Will you face death alone or will you face it head-on, knowing that Christ has gone before and come out the other side alive? Either way, you must make that decision. It must be your faith—not mine, not your parents’, not your pastor’s. Just as death is inescapably yours, so is the faith in Christ that can save you from it.

That’s the warning. Now the joyous command: Trust Christ and live!

Like Enoch, you can walk with God in faith, placing yourself wholly and firmly in the second Adam, Jesus Christ. Look away from yourself. Abandon self-confidence. Abandon what Adam and Eve wouldn’t: the desire to decide what is right and wrong. The desire to be your own god. Instead, trust Christ, who never disobeyed God, who never gave in to the temptation to be his own master but instead “being found in human form, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).

The story of my life and yours will end in only one of two ways. As sure as night follows day, there will be the same end to your life as to Adam and Eve’s, Seth’s, Cain’s, Abel’s, Seth’s, Noah’s, and all the rest. I don’t know when and I don’t know how. But I know your gravestone will say just as theirs did, “… and he died,” “… and she died.”

The great question of the moment is whether you will face death alone or with Christ as your new head, your new Adam, and your only hope. Either his death becomes yours by faith or you will spurn him as Adam and Eve spurned God’s command. There is no third option.

So, let us trust Christ and be free. Let us trust Christ and find that this haunting chorus becomes a most blessed refrain.

And he died … and lives again!

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017 and teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across the history and formation of the Bible, Greek grammar, and the history of New Testament scholarship. He has presented his work at the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the British New Testament Conference. He and his wife have six children and are members at Whitton Avenue Bible Church.

Where Does Death Come From?

When we look for the cause of death in the Scriptures, we find something that may be surprising. Death is first announced by God’s own lips. God told Adam in Genesis 2 that he could surely eat of any tree but one, and that on the day he ate from the one forbidden tree, he would just as surely die. This means, counterintuitively, that death is God’s idea.

After all, Adam didn’t come up with the idea of death. What did Adam know of death? The Genesis account says that all of creation was good, in fact “very good,” when God finished it. If death is bad then there was no death in the garden. Death was not Adam’s idea. It wasn’t even the serpent’s idea. It was God’s.

Why? God established death as the punishment for sin. The answer from the Bible is that we die because of sin; we die because of rebellion against God.

Sin Causes Death

As punishment for sin, death is perfectly in keeping with the crime. To understand why this is the case, we must understand the nature of sin. God did not punish Adam and Eve for something trivial, like picking from the wrong fruit basket; death is not about our dietary choices! No, when Adam and Eve sinned, when they disobeyed God, they were, in essence, turning away from God and, worse, putting themselves in his place. 

And who was this God? He is the Lord and Giver of life. He is the one who “breathed into his [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life” so that he “became a living creature” (Gen 2.7). This means that no life is really self-sustaining; God is its ultimate source. Adam and Eve didn’t create themselves any more than we gave birth to ourselves. This helps to explain the fittingness of death as the promised judgment for rejecting God. 

It’s only right that disobedience from God brings death. “The wages of sin is death,” as Paul says in Romans 5:8a. When you turn from the only source of life, the only thing there to meet you on the other side is death. No coroner can truly say that someone died of “natural” causes. The reality is that everyone dies from one ultimate cause: sin—rejecting the Giver of life. It is anything but natural.

Adam’s Sin Causes Death

But it’s not sin in general (or even our sins in particular) that are the ultimate cause of death. When we look at the line of death in Genesis 5, we can and must say something more. We not only die because we rebel against God; we die because our first parents rebelled against God, and we are all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. 

With Cain and Abel out of the picture, Genesis 5 begins to focus on Seth. Notice what the text says about Seth’s relationship to his father, Adam. 

You’ll remember from Genesis 1:26–27 that God imprinted on humanity his own image, the mark of his own character and likeness. We hear that repeated in Genesis 5:1–2. But then we learn something more. Look at 5:3: 

When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.

Do you see the point? Not only is Seth made in the image and likeness of God by virtue of being human, he is also made in the likeness and image of Adam. But what kind of image is it? It is one that is terribly and devastatingly marred by sin. It is an image that is doomed by the sting of death. 

I suspect this explains the otherwise curious reversal of the terms “likeness” and “image” in verse 3 when compared with Genesis 1:26. And this dual bearing of both God’s image and Adam’s image also explains something otherwise very hard to accept. It explains why we can be held responsible for Adam’s sin.

Perhaps you have wondered about the Christian doctrine of original sin. This doctrine teaches that we are held responsible for Adam’s sin. But why? After all, I wasn’t there. You weren’t there either. What has Adam got to do with us? The answer from Genesis is everything. 

The reason is that he is our father, and we are his children. We are all—like it or not—sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. Not merely in the sense that we belong to the same species as them with arms and legs and brains and eyes and ears and all the rest. But we are Adam’s children in a legal and spiritual sense. As a result, what he did defines, marks, and affects us all.

Christians have long recognized both how offensive this belief is and, yet, just how essential and inescapable it is as well. The famed French theologian and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, recognized this when he wrote in his Pensées:

Certainly nothing shocks us more deeply than this doctrine. Nevertheless without this most incomprehensible of all mysteries we are incomprehensible to ourselves. Within this gnarled chasm lie the twists and turns of our condition. So, humanity is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is conceivable to humanity 

Pascal is saying that as difficult as original sin is to accept, it is the only thing that finally explains why we are the way we are. Without it, we become inexplicable. I think we realize this most when we have sinned in some way that shocks even ourselves. When we do something deeply out of character. In those moments, we must feel like David who said, after sinning with Bathsheba, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. … Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:3). We begin to realize that sin has been with us since the beginning.

It’s not that David was illegitimate or conceived out of wedlock, but he realizes that his sin runs deep in his veins. It was there even at his birth because it had been there from the beginning—from the garden. 

We are then, as humans, a great contradiction. As Daniel Migliore writes in Faith Seeking Understanding:

We human beings are a mystery to ourselves. We are rational and irrational, civilized and savage, capable of deep friendship and murderous hostility, free and in bondage, the pinnacle of creation and its greatest danger. We are Rembrandt and Hitler, Mozart and Stalin, Antigone and Lady Macbeth, Ruth and Jezebel. “What a work of art,” says Shakespeare of humanity. “We are very dangerous,” says Arthur Miller in After the Fall. “We meet … not in some garden of wax fruit and painted leaves that lies East of Eden, but after the Fall, after many, many deaths.”

Death is universal, and it’s personal. It is also very bad. And now we know where it comes from. Death comes as the punishment for our sin. Even more devastating, it comes from the sin of our father Adam who cast us all into deep depravity and guilt.

This post is part two of three in a series on “Death’s Refrain.” You can read part one here.

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017 and teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across the history and formation of the Bible, Greek grammar, and the history of New Testament scholarship. He has presented his work at the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the British New Testament Conference. He and his wife have six children and are members at Whitton Avenue Bible Church.

What Is Death?

Do you remember how you learned the Alphabet? A, B, C, D… and so on, right? At some point, you probably had a nice picture book to help you out: “A” is for apple you dutifully learned. “B” is for ball. “C” is for cat.

The acrostic wasn’t always so cute. In seventeenth-century New England, A was not for apple. No, you’d learn “A” is for Adam along with the couplet, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Yes, “C” is for Cat, but the poem went, “The cat doth play, and after slay.” It’s darker, isn’t it?

By the time you get to “G,” you’re learning that “As runs the [hour] glass, man’s life doth pass.” “T” is not for toy or tricycle but for “Time,” which “cuts down all, both great and small.” By the time you get to X the point has been made: “Xerxes the great did die, and so must you and I.”

These dour little couplets are from the New England Primer, one of the most famous books printed in the American colonies—a book used to teach countless children to read.

Can you imagine if an elementary school tried to use these today? Parents would revolt and say these are too morose and morbid for children. But I wonder if they weren’t onto something back then when they began teaching children about the reality of death early on.

Today, we don’t much like to talk about death. We prefer to avoid, ignore, and deny it. But we can’t. In a three-part series of blog posts for Shepherds and Scholars, I want to look squarely at death and answer three key questions from Genesis 5: (1) What is it? (2) What causes it? and (3) What, if anything, can be done about it?

Let’s begin with the nature of death. Is death great and terrible, or is it simply part of life? It is perhaps even a positive good as it’s portrayed in The Lion King’s opening song, the “Circle of Life.” Are we all just “on the endless round,” “the path unwinding”? Is death simply part of the inevitability of it all?

First, death is universal.

The first thing to say about death is really the most obvious: it’s universal. Frankly, I don’t think you need the Bible to tell you this. You certainly don’t need to be a Christian to believe it. There is the old joke that only two things in life are guaranteed: death and taxes. Recently I came across a riff on this: Death and taxes are inevitable, but death doesn’t repeat itself.

Behind those jokes lies a serious point. Death is universal and inevitable. All of us will experience it at some point—no exceptions.

The Bible makes this clear. In Genesis 5, there’s quite a lot of death. In fact, the most notable phrase in the whole chapter is the one that gets repeated eight times: “and then he died.” As the New England Primer said, “Time cuts down all, both great and small.” No exceptions.

This is one thing that makes our society’s deafening silence about death so astonishing. Think about how much energy and effort we put into thinking about other things that are far less certain. We expend enormous energy planning and thinking about our careers, our marriages, our children, our retirement, and our savings. And yet none of these have outcomes half as certain as death. Your marriage is not as certain as death. Nor is your job. Your children’s success or failure isn’t as certain. Death is. Death will come. And when it does, it outweighs every other circumstance of your life. Nothing will change your life as much as death and yet nothing is as certain as your death.

Second, death is personal.

Death isn’t only a universal experience. It is also inescapably personal. And this separates it from most other experiences in life. Unlike cheering for your favorite sports team, watching the election results, or getting a promotion, our death is something we must experience for ourselves—and all by ourselves.

No one makes this point better than the film-maker Woody Allen who once quipped, “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be around when it happens.” Once again, the joke gets at something very serious, doesn’t it? Of course, Allen will have to be there for his own death. I can’t die for you, and you can’t die for me. You must die your own death; I must die mine.

Again, we see this in Genesis 5. Though God had promised death to Adam for eating the fruit (Gen. 2:17), death was not limited to him. Adam dies, yes. But then Seth dies. And he dies his death. Enosh dies. And he dies his death. Kenan dies and he dies his death. And on and on. When Enoch escapes death, he is the exception that proves the rule.

Finally, death is bad.

Death is both universal and personal. And since it’s universal, it’s tempting to think that it’s also normal, not a bug so much as a feature of this software we call life. Many people—not just The Lion King—have taken this view through the ages.

Some think that death is merely non-existence. You did not exist before you were born, they say, and you will simply return to non-existence when you die. From this, they conclude that death isn’t really such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. After all, no one dreads their non-existence before birth, so we need not dread our non-existence after life either.

The fatal flaw, if you’ll pardon the pun, is, of course, that all-important part in the middle: life. Experiencing life changes everything about death. After all, it’s one thing to say that non-existence doesn’t matter when you’ve never experienced life; it’s quite another to experience life and then have it taken away. Unless you think that life itself is bad, you must conclude that death is bad, since life and death are opposites. Anything else is literally suicidal logic.

We see this, too, in Genesis 5. A genealogy might seem like skim-worthy material made to skip by as fast as you can. But don’t. The genealogy found in this chapter is unique. What’s unique is the constant refrain that marks each person in the list: “When so-and-so had lived so many years, he fathered such-and-such. He lived after that so many years and had other sons and daughters. Thus, all the days of so-and-so were so many years, and he died.” Over and over, a man lived for so long and he died. And his son died. And his son also died. Moses wants us to feel the weight and finality of it. We’re supposed to affirm the wrongness of death.

I think most of us, if we let ourselves really think about it, know this truth. Alfred, Lord Tennyson once wrote, “No life that breathes with human breath, has truly ever long’d for death.” I think he’s right. If we know the goodness of life, we must affirm that death is bad.

Someone more recent who makes the same point is Peter Thiel. He is a billionaire who made his money investing in tech companies. Thiel founded PayPal and then sold it for a large sum. He was also one of the first to invest in Facebook. He’s considered something of a guru for spotting promising young tech companies.

A few years ago, Thiel did an interview in Silicon Valley and, surprisingly, the topic of conversation was death. Thiel—visionary that he is—has set his sights on trying to get us to live longer; in fact, he wants to literally beat death. Forbes magazine writer reflected on the interview this way:

“I think the thing that’s really incompatible with life is death,” [said Thiel.] The line drew laughter, but one got the feeling the joke was unintentional. For Thiel, life is a self-evident good and death is the opposite of life. Therefore death is a problem, and as he says there are three main ways of approaching it. “You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.”

I think Thiel is right. Death is universal, personal, and bad. When it comes to death, we have three options: you either accept it, deny it, or fight it. Modern Western society works hard to deny it. Others try to accept it as somehow natural to life. But we know deep down that neither option works. The only option, then, is to fight it like Thiel. The question is how we do that. To understand that, we must first understand where death came from in the first place—something Genesis has a lot to say about.

Look for parts two and three of this series on “Death’s Refrain” at the Shepherds and Scholars blog in the coming weeks.

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017 and teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across the history and formation of the Bible, Greek grammar, and the history of New Testament scholarship. He has presented his work at the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the British New Testament Conference. He and his wife have six children, two cats, and a tortoise. They are members at Whitton Avenue Bible Church. He has been known to enjoy cheap fast food, good typography, and Jack London stories.

Dr. Meade Completes 10-Year Research Project

The following is an interview with Dr. John Meade, Associate Professor of Old Testament and Co-Director of the seminary's Text & Canon Institute. Dr. Meade recently completed a major 10-year project on the text of Job and we are excited to celebrate this major achievement with him.

John Meade with his new edition of the Hexeplaric fragments of Job

PS: How did you take an interest in the Hexapla and how long did you work on this Edition?

JM: I first became exposed to the Hexapla in a seminary course on Hebrew exegesis of Proverbs. Peter Gentry required us to work on problems in the wording of the text of Proverbs, and we became acquainted with the sources for doing such work. In addition to the well-known sources of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Septuagint, Aramaic Targums, Latin Vulgate, and Syriac Peshitta, he also taught us about the fragmentary remains of Origen’s Hexapla. He also said that we don’t have very good critical editions of these remains but that the Hexapla Institute was committed to rectifying this situation. I was hooked!

When I became a PhD student, I was still unsure what my dissertation would be, but fairly soon, I settled on Job 22–42. That was in 2008, and I began work on the edition in 2009-2010. A Critical Edition of the Hexaplaric Fragments of Job 22–42 was finally published by Peeters in January of 2020.

PS: What is a Critical Edition of the Hexaplaric Fragments?

JM: Good question. Many people will be immediately confused by the words in the title of my book. Let’s start with the word “Hexaplaric.” The Greek word “Hexapla” (pronounced Hex.u.pla) means “six-fold” or “six-columned.” Around 235 AD, Origen of Alexandria (d. 254) compiled six Jewish editions of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament into his six-parallel-columned edition: (1) the Hebrew text, (2) the transcribed Hebrew text in Greek letters, (3) Aquila (Greek), (4) Symmachus (Greek), (5) the Septuagint, and (6) Theodotion (Greek). The Hebrew text and the Greek Septuagint had been around for a very long time, but in the first and second centuries AD, Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus had also revised the earlier translations to conform more closely to the Hebrew text and also to reflect more contemporary ways of reading the Hebrew. The Hexapla would have been a monstrosity when Origen first compiled it, and I’ve said more about it here. It was probably never copied in its entirety, and that’s where the work of textual criticism becomes essential.

What was the original wording of the Hexapla? A “Critical Edition” is necessary to tell that story. A “Critical Edition” refers to the scientific nature of the text. My edition incorporates all extant evidence of manuscripts, church father citations, and ancient translations in order to establish the original wording of the remains of the Hexapla and also report the variants to that reading in a series of apparatuses. There were past editions which I’ve written about here.

PS: Do the hexaplaric readings of Job affect our English Bibles?

JM: In short, yes. The hexaplaric readings usually agree with the Hebrew text upon which our English translations are based. But in some cases, they differ and preserve an older text. I'll limit myself to two examples where the ESV has based its translation of Job on Hexaplaric versions, but you may not have known it.

PS: What are your next Projects?

JM: Well, I’m in the midst of working with Peter Gentry on a History of the Hexapla, that is, writing the story of its origins, use, and afterlife. The Text & Canon Institute will be hosting a related Colloquium on Origen as Philologist this November. I’m also working with Peter Gurry on a more popular book explaining how we got the Bible. So there’s plenty to do.

PS: Thanks for taking some time with us, Dr. Meade!

JM: My pleasure.

Interested in studying with Dr. Meade and our other faculty? Our ThM in Biblical Studies is an advanced post-graduate degree for in-depth study of the Bible. The Text & Canon Institute Fellowship is a one-year scholarship and mentoring program for qualified ThM students who intend to pursue doctoral studies in Old or New Testament textual criticism, canon studies, or ancillary disciplines.

Phoenix Seminary at ETS and SBL 2019

Later this week, the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) will gather in San Diego. Researchers and theologians from across the globe will attend these meetings to present their research and engage one another at the highest levels of academic scholarship. Several members of the Phoenix Seminary faculty will be participating in these meetings either by presenting or attending. They will also have new books on sale in the book rooms. Be sure to stop by our Phoenix Seminary booth at ETS to connect with us!

John DelHousaye

“The Therapeutic Role of Touch in the Ministry of Jesus Christ”
ETS – Thursday, Nov. 21 at 8:30 a.m.

Moderating Evangelicals & Gender sessions
ETS – Thursday, Nov. 21 and Friday, Nov. 22

Wayne Grudem

“Grounds for Divorce: Why I Now Believe There Are More Than Two”
ETS – Thursday, Nov. 21 at 4:30 p.m.

John Meade

Moderating Septuagint Studies session
ETS – Thursday, Nov. 21

“Origen and the Disputed Books: A Reappraisal of the Evidence for an Origenic Recension of Books Outside the Hebrew Canon”
SBL – Sunday, Nov. 24 at 9:00 a.m.

Dr. John DelHousaye Ministers in Kuwait

Recently, Dr. John DelHousaye represented Phoenix Seminary in Kuwait. He was invited by leaders from the small Christian population there to teach and encourage pastors.

“It was a joy and mutual blessing,” John said, “to share some of the practices of prayer and Bible study that Ted Wueste, Brenda Dinell, and others helped to develop in our spiritual formation program. These pastors have suffered for their faith, and were given space for the Holy Spirit to minister to their hearts. I was deeply inspired by their faith and zeal for the Lord.”

Founded in 1987, Phoenix Seminary is committed to serving not only Arizona churches but also the global church through Scholarship with a Shepherd's Heart.

John DelHousaye of Phoenix Seminary teaching in Kuwait

Congratulations to the Class of 2019!

What a pastor should know about developments in textual criticism. Part 3: New Resources

In this series, Dr. Peter Gurry explains recent developments in New Testament textual criticism. Read part 1 and part 2.

We have been considering what a pastor should know about recent developments in textual criticism, a discipline that aims to recover the original words of the New Testament authors. The previous posts have considered new editions of the Greek New Testament and a new method of practicing textual criticism and now we should mention the accessibility of new resources. Many of these are due to the remarkable work of various organizations and the ability of the internet to connect and share information. Of the many resources I could mention, let me introduce three to you.

1. Images

Ephesians 1.1 P46 in the CSNTM viewer

Ephesians 1.1 in P46 at CSNTM

The first resource is digital images. In the last decade, there has been an explosion of manuscript images made available, often for free, online. The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts is one major organization that has been hard at work to digitize manuscripts all over the world. Whenever possible, they put these images online for free at csntm.org. The search feature is especially useful as it allows you search keyword or verse and to sort results by a range of manuscript feature.

If you were teaching on one of the Gospels, why not introduce your congregation to P45, one of the earliest copies of the four Gospels and Acts? Or maybe you are teaching on Ephesians and want to show a Sunday school class the missing words "in Ephesus" in P46, one of the earliest manuscripts of Paul's letters (note that the book is still titled "To the Ephesians"). Or, share the beautiful artwork in GA 808, a rare complete copy of the New Testament from the 13th–14th century.

Along with CSNTM, many of the world’s great libraries are busy digitizing their manuscripts and putting them online too. Without leaving home, you can now explore Codex Vaticanus (03) held at the Vatican, or the palimpsest Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (04) at the French Bibliothèque nationale, Codex Bezae (05) of the British Library, or see the famous Codex Sinaiticus (01) all in one place, something physically impossible because the manuscript itself is split and housed at four separate institutions. All this is just the tip of the digital iceberg.

2. Virtual Manuscript Room

The Manuscript Workspace in the NT.VMR

The Manuscript Workspace in the NT.VMR

Although looking at incredible manuscripts online is thrilling, tracking them down can be tricky unless you know what to look for. That brings me to the second resource I want to mention called the New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room or NT.VMR.

If I can brag for a minute, the NT.VMR was largely designed and is still developed by one of our own Phoenix Seminary graduates, Troy Griffitts. Troy has been instrumental in developing this remarkable resource which has become indispensable to academic text-critical work.

At the NT.VMR, you can see the official list of New Testament manuscripts, view images of many of them, consult scholarly transcripts of manuscripts, study the history of scholarly conjectures about the New Testament text, discuss these with other people, and so much more. It is a rich resource and it keeps getting more valuable.

3. Free Online Editions

The STEP Bible interface showing John 1 in the THGNT

The STEP Bible allows free access to THGNT as well as other translations and editions.

The final resources I want to mention take us back to the first post in this series which introduced several new editions of the Greek New Testament. Ideally, you will want to have a print copy of one of those editions because each comes with valuable detail in the apparatus or in the margins. But if all you need is the text itself for reading or study, all of these are now freely available online.

For the Tyndale House edition, one can find the text at esv.org/gnt or at stepbible.org, complete with additional vocabulary and parsing help. The NA28/UBS5 text is also online at nestle-aland.com/en/read-na28-online though without the extra helps. These free, digital editions can be helpful for when you're away from your study or if you want to copy and paste the text into your study notes for things like diagramming, color-coding, etc.


In conclusion, we can say two things about advances in New Testament textual criticism. First, the Bibles that we have in our hands now—whether English or Greek—are founded on a solid double foundation of overall good transmission and excellent scholarly study of that history. Because of that, we should not hesitate to preach and teach from these editions even as they alert us to some places that remain difficult. Second, the study of our New Testament text and how it was transmitted to us is advancing in new and promising ways. The new editions, new method, and new resources mentioned in this series give us access to the history of God’s word in ways impossible to imagine even a generation ago.

In the words of a famed text critic from the 19th century, "It cannot be a matter of indifference to know how the New Testament … has come down to us; to look at the Manuscripts from which our fathers drew words of life, to trace the stirring history of the version through which the teaching of Apostles has been made accessible to men of other tongues." Let us be eager to study the remarkable history of God’s book and to share it with God’s people.

Further Reading

About the Author

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017. He teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across Greek grammar, New Testament textual criticism, the General Epistles, and the history of Biblical scholarship. Learn more about Dr. Gurry here.

What a pastor should know about developments in textual criticism. Part 2: A New Method

In this series, Dr. Peter Gurry explains recent developments in New Testament textual criticism. Read part 1 and part 3.

In our last post, I briefly introduced two new editions of the Greek New Testament, the Nestle-Aland (NA28) and the United Bible Societies (UBS5) and noted that a new computer-aided method was used to edit their text in the Catholic Letters. The new method is known unmemorably as the "Coherence-Based Genealogical Method" or CBGM for short and in this post, I want to introduce it to you very briefly. The CBGM has been in development since the early 1980s, but its results have been widely available only in the last five years.

2. A New Method

The CBGM is not known for being simple, but essentially it harnesses the power of the computer and the vast increase in our knowledge of New Testament manuscripts to help scholars make better, more consistent textual decisions. The method works by using the overall relationship between texts to resolve particular textual problems. For example, if the computer shows us that two distantly-related texts share the same variant reading, this might indicate that the reading was created independently by the scribes of those texts. This, in turn, could suggest that the reading is less likely to be original. Beyond that, the CBGM can even help us tell the larger story of how the New Testament text has been copied over centuries. And that too can help us determine or confirm the text.

Textual flow diagram for 1 Peter 1.23

A diagram like this helps scholars use the overall relationship of texts in the CBGM to help relate individual variants.

The method has now been applied thoroughly to the Catholic Letters and just recently to Acts too. The data are available online. This resulted in 54 textual changes in Acts and 34 in the General Epistles. Most of these don't affect English translation let alone theology. But a small handful are significant.

The most important change, in my opinion, is found at 2 Peter 3:10 where the NA28 and UBS5 now read that in the day of the Lord, “the earth and all that is in it will not be found.” The inclusion of the word “not” where before there was none is obviously important. More significant still, this reading has no known Greek manuscript support, raising serious questions about its validity. Notably, this change has already affected the CSB translation and may well affect the recently announced revision of the NRSV.

Just as important for a pastor, however, is the evidence the CBGM provides for how well the New Testament text was copied overall. To be sure, there are many variants in our New Testament manuscripts—perhaps as many as half a million. Most of these are trivial or easily resolved and, when considered in light of how many times our New Testament books were copied, what stands out most is how faithfully scribes did their work. The advent of the CBGM allows us to quantify this fidelity like never before.

In the Catholic Letters, for example, there are two manuscripts that agree at 99.1 percent of all places where there is variation in the 123 manuscripts used by the CBGM. They only differ in a total of 27 out of 2,859 places where they were compared. That is quite remarkable. The average textual agreement between all pairs of witnesses reaches 87.6 percent. That too is impressive. Similar numbers occur in Acts.

A New Approach to Textual Criticism coverThese new data expose just how absurd some popular claims about the Bible really are. Take, for example, this Newsweek cover story from a few years ago that went so far as to say that you and I have never even read the Bible because “at best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.” The implication that the Bible can't be trusted is hard to miss.

In fact, most of us have been reading substantially the same Greek New Testament for two thousand years thanks to careful scribes. And rather than being an impediment to faith, modern textual criticism actually supports it. Even Marcus Borg, a New Testament scholar who is far from being an Evangelical Christian, has written that “with only a few minor exceptions, we can be confident that the Gospels and the New Testament as a whole reliably report what was originally written.”

Yes, verbiage will change in certain places as a result of further research, and tricky textual problems do remain. But because of the overall fidelity of scribes over 1500 years combined with the herculean efforts of textual scholars, we can be confident that the text we have in our Greek editions and in our English translations is more than enough to ground our faith in the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ. The advent of cutting-edge methods like the CBGM have made that more apparent than ever before.

Further Reading

About the Author

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017. He teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across Greek grammar, New Testament textual criticism, the General Epistles, and the history of Biblical scholarship. Learn more about Dr. Gurry here.

What a pastor should know about developments in NT textual criticism. Part 1: New Editions

In this series, Dr. Peter Gurry explains recent developments in New Testament textual criticism. Read part 2 and part 3.

Introduction: Why It Matters

Pastors are busy. They are expected to maintain competence in a wide range of skills from preaching to counseling, balancing the budget to carefully parsing the doctrine of the Trinity. It can be a lot to keep up with. In this blog post, I want to help busy pastors with a short series on the latest developments in New Testament textual criticism. We’ll tackle this in three posts, looking at new editions, new methods, and new resources. But first, a quick word about why textual criticism matters.

Textual criticism is that discipline that tries to recover the original wording of a work whose original documents have now been lost. Since no original document survives for the New Testament and since the existing copies disagree with one another, textual criticism is needed for all 27 books. Since we cannot study, teach, and apply the Bible if we don’t know what it says, textual criticism—whether we know it or not—plays a foundation role in pastoral ministry.

So, what is new in textual criticism?

New Editions

First, there are several new editions of the Greek New Testament that have come out in recent years. The most recent one is known as the Tyndale House Greek New Testament (THGNT). The result of over a decade of work, it was produced by a group of scholars at Tyndale House library in Cambridge, England, a premier study center for Biblical studies. The main hallmark of this edition is the editors’ documentary or manuscript-first approach. In practice, this means they have tried to follow the earliest manuscripts not only for the text but also for deciding paragraphing, spelling, and even accenting. In presentation, they have taken a minimalist approach with no text-critical symbols, no headings, and even no hyphens! The result is a text that is ideal for immersive reading and for challenging commonly-held assumptions about where to break the text.

The Nestle-Aland 28 and Tyndale House Greek New Testament side by side

The NA28 (left) and THGNT (right) open to the beginning of John's Gospel

Two other important recent editions are the Nestle-Aland Novum Testament Graece 28th edition and the UBS Greek New Testament 5th edition. These two editions have long established themselves as the scholarly standard and they remain so for serious exegetical work on the New Testament. They share the same text between them but differ mainly in how much information they provide in the apparatus. The most important difference between these newest editions of the Nestle-Aland and the UBS is in the method used to establish the main text.

In the so-called Catholic Letters (James, 1–2 Peter, 1–3 John, Jude), the editors used a new computer-assisted method to help understand how manuscript texts are related and to help make their decisions more consistent. That method is known as the “Coherence-Based Genealogical Method” or CBGM—a mouthful for sure, but an important development in New Testament textual criticism nonetheless. As a result of applying the CBGM, the NA28 and UBS5 text changed in 33 places in the Catholic Letters with more changes on the way for Acts in future editions.

A pastor with an older edition of the NA or UBS who is preaching on one of these Catholic Letters may want to update to the new edition in order to be aware of where these changes are. Alternatively, buying the new Tyndale House Greek New Testament might be a great way to approach a familiar book in Greek in a new way.

In our next blog post, we will consider the CBGM in more detail.

Further Reading

About the Author

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017. He teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across Greek grammar, New Testament textual criticism, the General Epistles, and the history of Biblical scholarship. Learn more about Dr. Gurry here.