The Torah, the gospels, the Psalms of the Bible have never reached us. . . . What we have today is a copy of a copy of a mistranslation of a copy of a copy of something that was an account by someone who wasn't an eyewitness to the events.Now that's a mackerel of a claim. Let's tackle them one at a time:
"The Torah, the gospels, the Psalms of the Bible have never reached us."This is a bare-naked assertion. No evidence was offered to substantiate this claim. It was simply asserted without any hard evidence whatsoever.
. . . What we have today is a copy of a copy of a mistranslation of a copy of a copy . . .No. The fact that our opponent would say such shows his ignorance of a basic knowledge of textual criticism, especially NT textual criticism. What we have today are Bibles that are directly translated from the original language texts (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic) of the OT/NT. The current editions of the NA27/UBS4th Greek text and the BHS-W4 are representative of the work of textual critics based upon thousands of copies of said texts in the original language. This does not equate to Bible translations that are the result of mere "copies, of copies, of copies" and "a mistranslation of a copy"; as if the copying process that took place in the ancient Scriptoriums consisted of the 5th grader telephone game. When speaking to the reliability of the text of the NT, the popular modern representative of this view is Dr. Bart Ehrman. Ehrman said in Misquoting Jesus,
In particular . . . I began seeing the New Testament as as very human book. The New Testament as we actually have it, I knew, was the product of human hands, the hands of the scribes who transmitted it. Then I began to see that not just the scribal text but the original text itself was a very human book. This stood very much at odds with how I had regarded the text in my late teens as a newly minted "born-again" Christian, convinced that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God and that the biblical words themselves had come to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As I realized already in graduate school, even if God had inspired the original words, we don't have the original words. So the doctrine of inspiration was in a sense irrelevant to the Bible as we have it, since the words God reputedly inspired had been changed and, in some cases, lost. Moreover, I came to think that my earlier views of inspiration were not only irrelevant, they were probably wrong. For the only reason (I came to think) for God to inspire the Bible would be so that his people would have his actual words; but if he really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he had miraculously inspired them in the first place. Given the circumstance that he didn't preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn't gone to the trouble of inspiring them. [Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 211.]Take note of Ehrman's critical presupposition, for it's the same one that our opponents assumed the night of 9-2-2010: textual variation precludes inspiration. To define our terms, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace defines a textual variant as ". . . any difference from a standard text (e.g., a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text." [http://bible.org/article/number-textual-variants-evangelical-miscalculation] With that definition in mind, let's move on to more of Ehrman's comments.
In answering the question of a reporter to the Washington Post as to whether the Bible has been changed over 2,000+ years of copying and recopying, Ehrman answers, "Yes, significantly." The idea is that the massive number of alterations in the copies make it near impossible to have any confidence for reconstructing the original autographs. Of course, without the original readings, what good is an inspired text? Without inspired Scripture, there is no orthodox Christianity, but only a mix of widely diverse ideas about Jesus expressed in a body of conflicting texts that have come down to us over time through a "copy of a copy of a mistranslation of a copy of a copy . . .".
Is this skepticism justified? Not at all. The majority report of NT textual critics today is that the NT is hands-down the best preserved document from antiquity. Even Ehrman's Ph.D mentor, Bruce Metzger, who was perhaps the greatest NT textual critic of the 20th century had full confidence that the NT text that we possess today is substantially the same as the NT documents that circulated amongst first century Christians. So, how do NT textual scholars have confidence that what we have now is what they had then? It revolves around three factors (1) How many copies? (2) How old are the copies? (3) What is the nature of the differences between them [i.e., the variant readings].
1. How Many Copies?
Presently, there are in existence over 5,700 copies of the Greek NT. If the gap of time between the oldest copy and the time of the original is wide, then the original is harder to reconstruct. However, if there are many copies and the oldest ones are closer in time to the original copy, the scholar can be more certain that he has essentially achieved the original wording of the autographs. To get a comparison, consider non-biblical ancient texts. These are the secular writings historians rely on to get all their data from antiquity. In general, historians have no problem believing that these secular documents have been restored with a high level of confidence based on available manuscript evidence. So what is the evidence of these secular documents? Consider the following:
- Josephus' The Jewish War (1st cent. A.D.) - only 9 complete manuscripts survive, all dating no earlier than the 5th century.
- Tacitus' Annals (1st cent. A.D.) - only two manuscripts survive dating from the Middle Ages. This is one of the chief historical sources for the Roman world for NT times.
- Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War (431 B.C.) - survives in eight copies dated over a thousand years after the original.
- Ceasar's Gallic Wars (1st cent. B.C.) - survives in ten copies dated over a thousand years after the original.
- Herodotus' History (440 B.C.) - survives in eight copies dated over a thousand years after the original.
- Homer's Illiad (@800 B.C.) - 647 existing copies survive with earliest copy dated 800 years after original.
|Earliest Copy||Approximate Time Span between original & copy||Number of Copies||Accuracy of Copies|
|Lucretius||died 55 or 53 B.C.||1100 yrs||2||----|
|Pliny||61-113 A.D.||850 A.D.||750 yrs||7||----|
|Plato||427-347 B.C.||900 A.D.||1200 yrs||7||----|
|Demosthenes||4th Cent. B.C.||1100 A.D.||800 yrs||8||----|
|Herodotus||480-425 B.C.||900 A.D.||1300 yrs||8||----|
|Suetonius||75-160 A.D.||950 A.D.||800 yrs||8||----|
|Thucydides||460-400 B.C.||900 A.D.||1300 yrs||8||----|
|Euripides||480-406 B.C.||1100 A.D.||1300 yrs||9||----|
|Aristophanes||450-385 B.C.||900 A.D.||1200||10||----|
|Caesar||100-44 B.C.||900 A.D.||1000||10||----|
|Livy||59 BC-AD 17||----||???||20||----|
|Tacitus||circa 100 A.D.||1100 A.D.||1000 yrs||20||----|
|Aristotle||384-322 B.C.||1100 A.D.||1400||49||----|
|Sophocles||496-406 B.C.||1000 A.D.||1400 yrs||193||----|
|Homer (Iliad)||8-900 B.C.||400 B.C.||500 yrs||643||95%|
|1st Cent. A.D. (50-95 A.D.||2nd Cent. A.D. |
(c. 130 A.D. f.)
|less than 100 years||5700||99.5%|
2. How Old are the Copies?
As you can see from the chart above, there are thousands more New Testament Greek manuscripts than any other ancient writing. Out of these NT manuscripts, some of them are represented by early fragments, uncial codices (mss. bound in book form in capital Greek letters), and what are known as miniscules (lowercase Greek letters in cursive style). Out of the 2,795 miniscules dating from the 9th to 15th centuries, there are 34 complete New Testaments. The Uncial manuscripts containing nearly the entire complete New Testaments and half the Old Testament are contained in Codex Sinaiticus (@ 340 A.D.) and then Codex Vaticanus (@ 325-350 A.D.). Codex Alexandrinus contains the entire Old Testament and nearly the entire New Testament and dates from @ 450 A.D.
Our oldest evidence comes from the papyri fragments. The Chester-Beatty papyrii is dated to @ 250 A.D. and is commonly known as P46. The Bodmer II Papyrii collection (P66) dates from @ 200 A.D. It's discovery was announced in 1956 and it contains most all of the first 14 chapters of John's gospel and most of the last seven chapters. However, the most amazing fragmentary evidence is found in what is known as P52, also called the John Rylands Papyri. It is a 3 inch square portion of John 18:31-33 that was discovered in Egypt. It represents the earliest known copy of any portion of the NT and has been dated between 115-138 A.D., though some scholars have dated it earlier. This shows that the gospel of John was being circulated in Egypt within 40 years from the original autograph! Most papyri are fragmentary, and only about 50 manuscripts contain the entire NT text. Nevertheless, as Dr. Dan Wallace has so aptly stated, "We have an embarrassment of riches." When the textual evidence for the NT is compared to other works of antiquity, we have nothing to be concerned about.
|John 18:31-33,37-38||circa |
|29 yrs||John Rylands Library, Manchester, England|
(Chester Beatty Papyrus)
|Rom. 5:17-6:3,5-14; 8:15-25, 27-35; 10:1-11,22,24-33,35; 16:1-23, 25-27; Heb.; 1 & 2 Cor., Eph., Gal., Phil., Col.; 1 Thess. 1:1,9-10; 2:1-3; 5:5-9, 23-28||50's-70's||circa |
|Chester Beatty Museum, Dublin & Ann Arbor, Michigan, University of Michigan library|
|John 1:1-6:11,35-14:26; fragment of 14:29-21:9|| |
|P67||Matt. 3:9,15; 5:20-22, 25-28||circa |
|Barcelona, Fundacion San Lucas Evangelista, P. Barc.1|
We also have the ancient commentaries of the church fathers, known as "patristic quotations", which would reproduce nearly the entire NT even if we burned all of our existing manuscripts. This is because they quoted the NT over one million times in their writings! Outside of our Greek manuscripts, we also have ancient versions of the Bible that have been translated into Syriac, Coptic, Latin, and then later into Armenian and Georgian. These manuscript translations sometimes come in great quantities, with Latin copies measuring up to 10,000 copies! These old versions were used by Christian missionaries to spread the gospel into the non-Greek speaking nations and modern scholars use the extant copies of them to do research on the underlying Greek manuscripts that they were translated from.
While Bart Ehrman says that we can't trust our modern Bibles because we can't know what the original manuscripts said, most other scholars consider the plethora of evidence for the NT manuscript tradition a virtue and not a vice. Massive numbers of variants only come from massive numbers of manuscripts. The condition causing the problem is the very condition providing the solution. The earlier the manuscripts are, and the more we have for comparison, the more accurately we can determine what the original text said. As Dr. Daniel Wallace is wont to say, we have 110% of the text of the NT, not 90%! [http://bible.org/article/majority-text-and-original-text-are-they-identical] This brings us to our third question.
3. What is the nature of the differences between them? [i.e., the variant readings]
Note again that Dan Wallace defines a textual variant as "any difference from a standard text" with the standard text being understood as the original writing of any document. A textual variant would present itself as spelling changes, word order changes, omission of words, addition of letters/words/phrases, or a complete rewrite of the text. Again, any change in the text would constitute a textual variant. These differences can be divided up into two basic categories (a) insignificant, and (b) significant.
a. An insignificant variant has absolutely no bearing on our ability to reconstruct the original text. The meaning remains the same, regardless of which reading in the manuscripts is the original one. Of the 400,000 textual variants, 50% are spelling errors, 49% are inconsequential, and only 1% are meaningful and viable. There are a few theologically significant variants, such as 1 John 5:7-8 as it appears in the KJV/NKJV translations (i.e., the comma Johanneum). Regarding this famous variant, current evidence shows that this variant first appeared in a 16th century Greek manuscript now known as Codex 61. The Comma is almost universally acknowledged by NT textual critics as a corruption of the original text of 1st John. Nevertheless, many generations of Christians were able to exegete the Scriptures in defense of the Trinity by appealing to many NT passages that are well attested in the Greek manuscript tradition. Thus, the fact that this passage is spurious and wasn't in the original autograph of 1st John poses no doctrinal concern whatsoever for those who want to defend historic Trinitarian orthodoxy. There are variants like the Comma that only appear in one manuscript, but they are easily corrected because they stick out like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the manuscripts. In his "Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then?", Wallace sums up the variants like this:
1. Spelling differences or nonsense readings (i.e., skipped lines).
2. Insignificant word order differences (i.e., "Jesus Christ" vs. "Christ Jesus") and synonyms.
3. Theologically meaningful, though non-viable variants (i.e., The Comma Johanneum).
4. Variants that are both meaningful and viable.
b. Significant variants
Wallace says this about the significant variants,
But when one looks at the actual details of the textual problems, the vast majority are so trivial as to not even be translatable, while the meaningful and viable variants constitute only about 1% of the text. And even for this category, most scholars would say that 1% is being awfully generous as to our uncertainties! (The majority of NT scholars would say that what is uncertain is a small fraction of 1% of the text.) [Italics mine for emphasis - DSS]This means that more than 396,000 of the variants in the Greek manuscript tradition have no bearing whatsoever on our ability to reconstruct the autograph.
Even with the remaining textual differences that remain, the vast majority of them are so theologically insignificant that none of them affects Christian orthodoxy. Even Bart Ehrman admits as much when he says,
Most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure, and simple - slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort of another. Misquoting Jesus, 55.Only those remaining differences listed in Wallace's fourth category above (variants that are meaningful and viable), require serious textual critical work. These differences don't affect doctrine at all, but are instances where there are two or more possible readings where the textual evidence is fairly equal either way. For instance, text critics are divided on whether the original reading for John 1:18 was "the only God" or "the only Son" since the textual evidence is somewhat divided. However, neither affects doctrine since both are true and text critics use the accepted canons of text critical research in such instances to determine what the original reading was. Here’s what Ehrman says in an interview found in the appendix of Misquoting Jesus on p. 252,
Out of the 400,000 variants, virtually all of them are completely inconsequential to the task of reconstructing the original text. Of the remaining differences, nearly all of them give way to the original reading by applying the accepted canons of NT textual criticism.
Bruce Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was both my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me in the field. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. And even though we may disagree on important religious questions - he is a firmly committed Christian and I am not - we are in complete agreement on a number of very important historical and textual questions. If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement - maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands. The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. [bold and italics mine for emphasis - DSS]
So what does this mean? Answer: The New Testament is over 99% textually pure. As noted NT scholar Craig Evans said in a June 20, 2010 radio discussion on The White Horse Inn, out of the 20,000 lines of the NT, only 40 lines are in serious doubt. This equals about 400 words and none of them affects orthodoxy.
The final part of the atheist claim was that the Bible was copied from,
"something that was an account by someone who wasn't an eyewitness to the events."This is just a flat out lie. The apostles John, James, and Peter were all eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Christ (2 Peter 1:16ff). Not to mention that Jude was the half-brother of Jesus whose epistle bears his name. All of these men lived and preached the gospel throughout most of the first generation of Christians and if any doctrinal alteration occurred, they quickly quelled it as is evident in the NT epistles. Also, as Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace point out in chapter 2 of Reinventing Jesus, oral tradition supported by significant memory devices utilized to pass on important information by ancient collectivist societies in the first century would have prevented mythical accretions from developing in the oral traditions of first generation Christianity. This fact combined with the fact that there were many eyewitnesses still alive throughout most of that first generation ensured that important information was passed on accurately via oral tradition before the truth about Jesus was committed to paper and ink.
Being Careful What You Wish For: Historical Skepticism Cuts Both Ways
In conclusion, if skeptics dismiss the NT as an unreliable historical document, then to be consistent they should dismiss the reliability of the writings of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and any other author that wrote before the invention of the printing press and perhaps even the modern photocopier. However, if skeptics accept their writings, but dismiss the NT writings as spurious, then they are revealing that their disdain for the NT has nothing to do with a paucity of ancient historical evidence as documented above, but instead it has to do with antisupernatural bias that adamantly insists that God could not have miraculously entered into history and revealed Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
ADDENDUM: The following additional and excellent information was added in the combox of this article after it was posted on 9-6-10 by Jason Engwer:
Several other points:
- We can also judge the reliability of Christian scribes by how they preserved other documents, not just the New Testament. As the Josephan scholar Steve Mason notes, "in general, Christian copyists were quite conservative in transmitting texts" (Josephus And The New Testament [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005], p. 232).
- Not only are patristic quotations of the New Testament relevant, but so are patristic (and other) descriptions. If a skeptic wants to raise textual issues to cast doubt on Jesus' resurrection, for example, then it's significant if a patristic source describes a New Testament document as making reference to the resurrection, even if he doesn't quote the document.
- It was common for documents in antiquity to exist in two or more copies before being sent out to circulate more widely. Authors often kept a copy of their document before sending out another copy (Stanley Porter, in Craig Evans and Emanuel Tov, edd., Exploring The Origins Of The Bible [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008], pp. 189-190, 195, n. 106 on p. 195). Thus, an author didn't entirely give up control of the transmission of his text to other people. He kept a copy himself and could restart the copying process anytime he wanted with his own edition of the original.
- Authors often took steps to ensure the preservation of their text and to monitor the status of the text's circulation. Thus, ancient authors often commented on subjects like what titles were being applied to their works in libraries, how some people were interpreting their work inaccurately, how some people were altering their text, etc. Their concern over the text didn't end once the first copy was sent out.
- Documents were read publicly (1 Thessalonians 5:27). Thus, even those who were illiterate could become witnesses to the original text by means of hearing it read publicly. That increases the number of witnesses involved.
- Ancient non-Christian sources corroborated the reliability of the New Testament text.
- Many of the objections non-Christians raise against Christianity in modern times depend on the textual accuracy of ancient extra-Biblical sources. For example, when a critic appeals to an alleged contradiction between Luke and Josephus, suggesting that we have a reliable text for Josephus, he's accepting the Josephan text on the basis of less evidence than we have for the New Testament text.