How should we, as Christians, respond to textual criticism which points out “doubtful” verses? Should we be afraid?
A great question, but also one that has a bit of a complicated answer. First of all, you need to be aware that there are two levels/types of biblical criticism. There is “lower” or sometimes simply called textual criticism, and there is “higher” criticism. Lower criticism is probably what you are referring to. It is an attempt by scholars to look at the facts, as demonstrated by the available manuscripts, and through these, to establish as precise as possible a Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek text of the Old and New Testaments. In this effort, scholars look at variants in the texts, make conjectures as to which of the variants is more likely to reflect the original, and, where more than one is reasonably possible, attempt to give probabilities as to which is more likely correct. There are “rules” for such decisions. For example, if there is a parallel passage in Matthew and Luke with a variant in Matthew, if one variant is identical to that in Luke, and another is different from Luke, the “rule” of thumb is that the one which is different is more likely to be the original, on the supposition that a copyist, on purpose or accidentally, “corrected” the Matthew version to align with Luke. Many examples of such “lower” criticism actually find their way into most of our Bible translations. For example, if you read John 5:3-4 you will find in your margins that parts of these verses, as found in earlier translations such as the KJV, were not in the original. The comment about waiting for the waters to be stirred is an interpolation–text added by later copiers/editors. Then, if you want, you can do your own research to discover why textual critics are so sure that this little section was not in the original.
To summarize, and to answer your first and second questions, such textual criticism, also known as lower criticism does us a great service by allowing us, through using the available manuscripts and the early church father quotes from the passages, to produce a New Testament which is somewhere between 99.9% and 99.5% accurate, depending on whose estimates you use. Textual criticism gives us great confidence about the quality of our New Testament text, and high (but not necessarily great) confidence in the accuracy of our Old Testament text.
Should we be afraid? Well, if you have a relatively young disciple, or even a “mature” Christian who has never been made aware of the existence of textual variants and the need for lower criticism, and if they discover this for the first time, then it can be a cause of doubt or concern if one has supposed our Hebrew or Greek text are 100% perfect when they are not. In other words, it is our job as Christian apologists to make people aware of the small amount of doubt about the precise autograph texts. If we hide the reality of the very small but non-zero issues with the text from people, then when they discover the reality, their faith may be shaken. The solution is to discuss such issues almost from the beginning with those we bring to Christ. If people are aware of the nature of the very small number of texts about which there is some doubt, then their confidence in the received texts will be increased, not decreased. But if we “hide” the facts from people and they learn them from skeptics or enemies of Christianity, then there is some reason to be “afraid” for those people. It is our job to do the research, to be aware of the miniscule (but non-zero) issues with the New Testament text and the somewhat larger questions about the Old Testament texts, and to let the regular disciples out there become aware of the facts. They should hear them from us, not from the enemies of Christianity. I discuss this in some detail in my book Reasons for Belief (available at www.ipibooks.com). In this book, I conclude that there is not a single important point of theology or doctrine caused by the very small number of unresolved textual issues with the Bible. By the way, the example I gave above from John 5:3-4 is not in this category, as all scholars (except a tiny minority of KJV-only believers) agree that this interpolation was not in the original. In this case, the text is not in doubt.
Should we be afraid of lower/textual criticism? Absolutely not! We should embrace it and we should make those in our Christian circles aware of this kind of criticism, but we should break them in a bit gradually if they have not been aware of this topic.
But then there is what is sometimes referred to as “higher” criticism. This is not a science of analyzing the actual text. It is an effort by scholars to try to understand how the original was put together. Who are the authors? What was their intention? How might their intentions and biases have affected the final outcome? For example, if we look at Daniel, we will conclude that an editor–a person other than Daniel–put the Hebrew and Aramaic text we have received into its final form. Higher critics ask what were the intentions of this editor. This is a legitimate and useful question, but often it takes the higher critics off the rails, into dangerous speculations. Another example is the Book of Deuteronomy, or Genesis for that matter. If one looks at the texts of these two books, the extremely simplistic assumption that Moses created these texts is brought into question, as there appears to be an editor of both books, and that editor did his work considerably after the events in question. In Deuteronomy we have the death of Moses recorded. Cleary, Moses did not write that! OK, so who did, and what effect might this editor have had on the text? In the case of Genesis, there are a few comments in the text which imply that an editor is saying “back in those days…” Most likely, Genesis did not take its final form until after 1000 BC. Other examples of higher criticism looks at the similarities and differences between 1,2 Samuel, 1,2 Kings, on the one hand, and 1,2 Chronicles on the other hand. When we do so, some rather clear “biases” come through. Chronicles was clearly written later, and it has a rather strong pro-Judean bias. Higher critics ask question about the philosophy and intent of the editors. A third example (and there are many more, especially with the Old Testament) is that higher critics tell us that in looking at Isaiah that there are at least two and likely three authors of this book. 1st Isaiah is accounted as Isaiah Ch 1-39 (or possibly through Ch 38). 2nd Isaiah is accounted as Ch 40 – about Ch 55. Higher critics propose that Isaiah 40 and beyond were written by an author AFTER the events apparently prophesied in, for example, Isaiah 45 which talks about Cyrus. I am not saying that I agree with such higher critics. In fact, I do not–not at all, but I believe we ought to at least listen to such criticisms and ask ourselves if there might be a grain of truth there. The fact is that there is a clear break in writing style in Isaiah after Ch 40. Why? As a believer, I need to ask myself this question. I believe that some higher criticism is legitimate, but that most of it is questionable at best, and harmful to Christian faith at worst.
Here is the problem. Questions from higher criticism tends to bring into question the role of biblical inspiration. Many, or possibly even most of these so-called higher critics do not believe in the supernatural inspiration of the biblical texts. This creates a big potential problem for believers. I am convinced that the entire Bible is inspired by God. Even if the authors were in some sense “biased” (for example Chronicles vs. Kings), God perfectly and wonderfully, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, created a text which is fully and miraculously produced. Learning about the “intent” of the psalmist or the author of Ezra, for example, does not take away in any way from the inspiration of these texts. That is my belief. But… and here is the problem. Many, and probably most of the higher critics are using their philosophical approach to such criticism to try to undermine our belief in the full inspiration of the text. For inexperienced believers to read such material can in fact be dangerous to their faith in God and in the Bible. We need to be cautious about exposing young Christians or even some older believers to the writings of the higher critics. People need to be prepared to know how to “eat the fish, but spit out the bones” in the higher criticism. This takes wisdom and training. Some higher criticism is just plain bad. If the scholar assumes that the Bible is NOT inspired by God, then they will read this unbelief into their analysis of the text. I advise people to be very cautious about studying what the higher critics have to say. But… Christian apologists must pay attention to higher criticism–both because higher criticism is at times legitimate and helpful, and also to be prepared to give an answer when higher criticism goes into anti-God dead ends, which it does very often.
My conclusion: Those who want to know the Bible super well will need to listen to and learn from higher criticism, but we need to approach such scholarship with great caution and wisdom, remembering as we do so that, in the final analysis, the entire Scripture is inspired by God.