Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Inspiration and textual transmission

An objection to Scripture, popularized by Bart Ehrman, is the question: why would God inspire the authors but not inspire every subsequent scribe? Or as Ehrman puts it in one debate, If God inspired the Bible without error, why hasn't he preserved the Bible without error? It's an infinite regress argument. I've discussed this before, but I'd like to make some additional observations:

1. This is an armchair objection to duck the need to address the actual evidence for the Christian faith. An a priori diversionary tactic.

2. Suppose we had only one surviving Greek MS of the NT. That would simplify textual criticism in the sense of eliminating the problem of textual variants at one stroke. You can only have textual variants if you have at least two different MSS. 

But we're obviously better off having many MSS. If we only had one, we wouldn't tell how representative that was. By having a large sampling, we have a much broader base of evidence. And even though that multiplies variants, it multiples the number of witnesses to the original readings. Presumably, the original reading is contained in multiple sources.

3. The regress argument assumes a continuum where any cut-off will be arbitrary. An all-or-nothing approach. But that's very dubious.

Suppose a doctor writes a prescription. That includes the correct dosage. How much you should take how often. 

Suppose the original prescription is lost. But that's a tradition regarding the correct dosage, based on that prescription. Collective memory.

Even though the original prescription is lost, it's certainly better to have a tradition based on the correct dosage than to rediscover the correct dosage through trial and error. If you have to figure it out by scratch, you may kill several test subjects before you hit on the right dosage. Some will die of overdose, some will die of underdose. 

So it's useful to have the right standard as the starting-point, even if all we now have are copies. 

4. It's fun for an unbeliever to taunt Christians with the question, "Why doesn't God inspire every scribe?", but there's no real thought that goes into that challenge. No consideration of what that would entail.

To simplify, suppose there are exactly 5000 ancient Greek MSS of the NT. Suppose the earliest dates to AD 150. And suppose all 5000 MSS are identical. But that postulate generates many conundra:

5. How would we verify that all 5000 MSS are identical? Can one scholar read 5000 Greek MSS and certify that they are identical? How would that work, exactly? How long would it take him to read through 5000 MSS? He begins with the first, reads it from start to finish, then puts that down and picks up the second, and so on and so forth. And as he reads each MS, he must mentally compare that with the others to check if there are any variations. Do we really think that after he finishes the 5000th MS, he's going to remember everything in the first, or second, or third? It's humanly impossible for him to remember and mentally compare the contents of 5000 MSS. 

6. Suppose we create a division of labor. We divvy it up so that 50 scholars read 100 Greek MSS, then certify that these are identical. But that raises both similar and dissimilar problems.

i) Even if every set of 100 MSS is identical, that doesn't show that every set is identical with every other set. In every set of 100 MSS, each MS is identical with the other 99 MSS. But that doesn't establish that they are identical with the 100 MSS in a different set. 

After all, there's no common frame of reference. Each scholar only read his set. He can't directly compare that to another set. He doesn't know what is in a different set. 

ii) In addition (and this applies to 4-5 alike), the very act of reading and comparing MSS can introduce errors into the analysis. What are the odds that all the MSS are identical compared to the odds that a reader misread them, misremembered them, or misrecorded his findings? 

7. Perhaps this would be more feasible in the computer age, but I'm not sure.

i) A computerized comparison requires each MSS to be digitized. If that involves someone manually inputting a MS into the computer, then he can accidentally introduce mistakes and variations in the process of transcription. 

ii) Or if he scans a MS into the computer, I assume that requires sophisticated image recognition software. These are handwritten MSS. There's no spacing between words. The letters are irregularly formed. No two thetas or zetas are uniform. So the computer might misinterpret the data that's fed into it.

8. Suppose an unbeliever pushes the envelop by postulating that God inspires the readers. Hence, readers can verify that the 5000 MSS are identical. Or can they? You think they all look alike, but how do you know that?

This is like SF scenarios about alien telepaths. How do you know if what you see is real? What if the alien makes you think you see something that isn't there? 

By the same token, how could you tell the difference between continuous inspiration and no inspiration? What if a reader is inspired to subconsciously correct a mistake, so that he never registers the mistake? He has no basis of comparison. 

9. Conversely, suppose the 5000 MSS are demonstrably identical. But the fact (ex hypothesis) that they are identical with each other affords no evidence that they are identical with the lost originals. They might be identically erroneous. Identical with a defective exemplar. 

10. Supposing the 500 MSS are identical, that would be highly suspicious. Evidence of massive collusion. The MSS had to be doctored to produce that artificial uniformity. 

11. By contrast, when we have thousands of MSS with accidental mistakes, where each MSS has different mistakes or variants in different places, that paradoxically gives us confidence that this is a trustworthy historical witness to the originals, precisely because these amount to multiple lines of independent evidence. They weren't doctored to induce artificial conformity. 

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