Interview: Peter J Williams (Textual Biblical Scholar)

Peter, 

I know it has been some time but I'm finally looping back around to finish my long-awaited interviews. 


Here is where we started:

(1) How would you describe or define Reliability? 

I like the word ‘trustworthiness’. I focus particularly on historicity (did it happen?). I think that Scripture is entirely true and its history really happened.

(2) How would you categorize Textual Criticism? Does it involve Literary and Historical Criticism now?

I use the definition which is common in which it refers to the study of manuscripts and their texts to understand the way a texts was handed down over time. It doesn’t deal with any hypothetical history before the literature was completed.

(3) What is your defined stance on Inerrancy?

I affirm inerrancy. I like the word ‘truthfulness’ because it’s more self-evidently right and harder for people to quibble. Of course, any term is going to need qualification. The fact that the term inerrancy needs further specification is not a reason to reject it, since any other term is going to need at least as much clarification.

Readers, it was at this point that I followed back up with Peter to discuss everything further.

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Do you find some arguments to be footnote arguments and some to be main compellers? Could you list off a few arguments for the reliability of the Gospels that are so compelling no one should ignore?

I wrote a book on this, but I don’t think that any arguments are compelling if by that you mean ‘coercive’. No one is forced to believe and people could stand and watch the Son of God be crucified and not believe. There is always a way to avoid believing if you want to.

There are many fundamentalists who would hold to "English translations are enough - God would preserve his word, He is God" mantra. Do you think it's important for everyday Christians to understand the original languages? understand how we got the gospels and the new testament? 

God has preserved his word, but that doesn’t mean that it’s available at every time and place. For instance, the Book of the Law was lost until it was recovered by Hilkiah in 2 Kings 22. Of course, people who have the ability and opportunity to do so should seek to find out everything they can about the exact original words which God gave. We’re meant to be obsessed with the question, ‘What has God said?’ We’re meant to think that more important than our daily food.

Getting a little more specific - how do you reconcile tamperings in the texts? are these tamperings strictly clarification attempts or are they more egregious?  

The overwhelming majority of scribal errors are just accidents. People who try to invent big stories about why a particular scribe miscopied are often overreading the evidence.

P52 seems to be the earliest manuscript by most means, yes? How does this fit in with the argument of "no contemporary mentions of Jesus" 
Do you think the oral tradition of the Talmud (which may have started in the first century) is an argument worth exploring?

P52 might be the earliest. Or maybe P90. These manuscripts don’t come with dates on and, anyway, it doesn’t matter. The integrity of the NT text doesn’t depend on the dates of a few manuscript scraps. I take Matthew and John’s Gospels to be written by contemporaries of Jesus, but of course, it is the case that there are no physical materials contemporary with Jesus which mention him. However, I’m really not sure why anyone would think that mattered. Of course, the Talmud is worth investigating, and many people already do this.


(9) In "A Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture", Isaac Newton argued that 1 John 5:7 was a corruption of the early church and did not appear in the original Greek scriptures. He makes a similar claim regarding 1 Timothy 3:16. 1 John 5:7 is the strongest biblical reference to the trinity. Is there any objection to Newton's historical analysis of these verses?

I haven’t read Newton on this, but it’s generally the case that it’s best to check out the earliest versions of things. Of course, at the time of the Reformation people didn’t have quite as early sources as we have now. That’s why sometimes Bibles were printed without the ideal wording. This becomes a big thing when people mistake their modern printed Bible for the originals.

A reader writes in and asks: how is it possible to have a high authority view of scripture but still hold a positive view of textual criticisms? 

There’s no contradiction at all. Textual criticism is simply the study and comparison of manuscripts and the words they contain. How could someone have a high view of Scripture and not do that? In Jesus’s day, there was a whole class of people called ‘Scribes’. It was their job to study and copy out texts. Of course, that means sourcing what’s most accurate. We do textual criticism when we decide that one electronic text file of the Bible is better quality than another electronic text file. It’s the high view of Scripture that makes you want to make that choice carefully.


Another reader asks: Did Jesus or any other writers quote variants? 

It depends on what you mean, but I think that Jesus always quoted well and had a reason for how he quoted. However, we need to be careful that we don’t impose our modern view of quotations (with quotation marks, etc.) back onto his time. He referred to Scripture in truthful ways, but we are not obliged to assume that he was intending a verbatim quotation in all cases.

What are some practical steps for people to dive into the world of biblical reliability and textual criticism? 

Read the Bible once per year or more and read in a variety of versions, taking careful note of their prefaces and footnotes. Learn Greek and Hebrew and don’t be in a rush. Aim to spend the rest of your life getting more serious about Bible study. Don’t be phased by problems. Just note them and keep on reading and praying for understanding.

Peter thank you!

For clarity sake, Peter and I discussed a variety of other things but chose not to publicize it. We’re hoping that the above conversations field new questions and fuel conversations.

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