We Evangelical Christians, who accept the Bible as the authoritative word of God, generally qualify our statements of faith with “according to the original manuscripts”. We thus allow that the Bible as we have it may have been altered or corrupted even in the best manuscripts which survive, although we usually assume that such changes are trivial. This qualification allows for example for a scholar like Gordon Fee, in an old controversial case which is now being discussed again, to argue on text critical grounds that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is not original and so not authoritative, while, despite some accusations to the contrary, remaining an evangelical. But the qualification also implies a limitation on the authority of the Bible as we have it, and opens the door to accusations of a lack of intellectual rigour in the evangelical position.
And so I was interested to read that a new claim is being made which is startling in this context. I am not referring to the report that the tomb of St Paul has been found, although if his body is found in the tomb that might have some interesting implications for biblical studies such as the possibility of finding out what his “thorn in the flesh” was. But the claim I have in mind is far more startling, although from a less reliable source.
The claim I am referring to is that original manuscripts of the four Gospels have survived, and are in Washington DC! This is the claim which has been made by Dr. Lee W. Woodard. At least, he claims that the manuscripts which he has identified were produced and authenticated by the original authors, and date to the first century.
The Freer Gospels or Codex W (Codex Washingtonensis or Washingtonianus) is a codex (manuscript book) which was purchased in Egypt 100 years ago this month (19th December 1906 according to this page dating from 1913, although others have claimed that the centenary fell in November 2006) by Mr Charles Freer, taken to America, and bequeathed to the Smithsonian Institute. The centenary was marked with a special session at the SBL meeting in Washington in November, at which the latest scholarly opinions on this codex were aired, including the following attributed to Ulrich Schmid:
The IV/V century date seems to have no secure basis and a later date (e.g. VI century or later) is entirely possible.
A set of facsimile images of the Gospel of Mark in this codex is available online.
But it is this codex, generally accepted by scholars as being from the 4th or 5th century AD, which Dr Woodard is now claiming to be an original first century set of the four gospels. The evidence on which he bases his claim (from the brief summaries on his website and here; I have not read Woodard’s book, nor the 14 page full colour paper entitled “Codex W Discovered to Be the Original First Century Gospels” which he was handing out at the SBL meeting) is that he has found on the codex small annotations and seal marks in Aramaic indicating the provenance and date of its various parts and the authors’ names – apparently Matthew in Damascus in AD 36, Mark in Athens in AD 69-72, Luke also in Athens in AD 73-74, and John in Ephesus in AD 96, the same year in which, according to Woodard, the four gospels were bound together to form the surviving codex.
If Woodard has indeed found previously unrecognised marks in the codex, they deserve proper scholarly study; but until they have received such study and the results have been properly published, I remain sceptical. Woodard has not done his cause any good by his means of promoting his theory, through a book and a website targeted at a popular audience, as is clear from the unqualified claims and sensationalist language of the website.
Nevertheless there remains the intriguing possibility that Woodard’s claims may be true, that the gospels sitting in a Washington museum may be the originals. That would have some quite significant consequences for biblical scholarship and for the church.
For one thing, it would revolutionise the study of the textual criticism of the New Testament. In fact for the Gospels it would render this study mostly obsolete; but the new evidence from these texts would also have profound effects on the textual study of the rest of the New Testament. Woodard also claims that his discovery solves the “Synoptic Problem” of the interrelationships between the gospels, and proves that the hypothesised “Q” document never existed – but then his theory that Mark used an early draft of Matthew and that Luke used both Matthew and Mark is one now held by many New Testament scholars.
There would be some other interesting textual consequences. If Codex W is the original, that implies the authenticity of passages which most textual critics now consider inauthentic, such as Matthew 17:21 (omitted in most modern translations) and the “longer ending” Mark, 16:9-20. It would also imply the authenticity of a short passage included after verse 14 in this “longer ending”, which survives only in Codex W. Here is Metzger and Ehrman’s translation of this interesting little passage, courtesy of Wikipedia:
“And they excused themselves, saying, “This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits [or: does not allow what lies under the unclean spirits to understand the truth and power of God]. Therefore reveal thy righteousness now” – thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, “The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was delivered over to death, that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness which is in heaven”.
Could this passage be original? If so, this would be almost the only place in the Gospels where Jesus is simply called “Christ”; Matthew 11:2 is the only other one where there is not a clear reference to the expectation of the Messiah.
But the most profound consequence would be for the evangelical view of Scripture. At least for the gospels, the very words of Jesus, there would no longer be a qualification to biblical authority, but instead there should be a confidence that what we have is the authoritative record of the very words of the Lord. But quite how this insight would be received would be interesting! And of course this is all hypothetical, for Woodard’s claim has by no means been proved. It will also be interesting to see whether any recognised scholars make the effort of looking into it properly, or whether all of them stay away from what might become quite a “hot potato”.