Saturday, April 09, 2016

Letter boards

Suppose, though, that the scribe got all the words 100 percent correct. If multiple copies of the letter went out, can we be sure that all the copies were also 100 percent correct? It is possible, at least, that even if they were all copied in Paul's presence, a word or two here or there got changed in one or the other of the copies. If so, what if only one of the copies served as the copy from which all subsequent copies were made — then in the first century, into the second century and the third century, and so on? In that case, the oldest copy that provided the basis for all subsequent copies of the letter was not exactly what Paul wrote, or wanted to write.  
Once the copy is in circulation — that is, once it arrives at its destination in one of the towns of Galatia — it, of course, gets copied, and mistakes get made. Sometimes scribes might intentionally change the text; sometimes accidents happen. These mistake-ridden copies get copied; and the mistake-ridden copies of the copies get copied; and so on, down the line. Somewhere in the midst of all this, the original copy (or each of the original copies) ends up getting lost, or worn out, or destroyed. At some point, it is no longer possible to compare a copy with the original to make sure it is "correct," even if someone has the bright idea of doing so.  
Suppose that after the original manuscript of a text was produced, two copies were made of it, which we may call A and B. These two copies, of course, will differ from each other in some ways — possibly major and probably minor. Now suppose that A was copied by one other scribe, but B was copied by fifty scribes. Then the original manuscript, along with copies A and B, were lost, so that all that remains in the textual tradition are the fifty-one second-generation copies, one made from A and fifty made from B. If a reading found in the fifty manuscripts (from B) differs from a reading found in the one (from A), is the former necessarily more likely to be the original reading? No, not at all — even though by counting noses, it is found in fifty times as many witnesses. In fact, the ultimate difference in support for that reading is not fifty manuscripts to one. It is a difference of one to one (A against B). The mere question of numbers of manuscripts supporting one reading over another, therefore, is not particularly germane to the question of which reading in our surviving manuscripts represents the original (or oldest) form of the text. B. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (HarperCollins, 2005), 59, 128-129.

This is one of Ehrman's stock objections to the authenticity of the NT text, as we have it today. He repeats variations of this objection in his debates.

The argument appears to undercut the common apologetic appeal to the number of Greek MSS and even the antiquity of some Greek MSS. Although we have lots of MSS, if these derive from the same copy, that really counts as one rather than many. Likewise, although some of our MSS are very early, if they derive from the same defective parent copy, their antiquity doesn't make them reliable. I've discussed this before, but I'd like to say a bit more about the issue. 

i) We've all seen letter boards. These are signs with movable letters. You have a box with magnetic letters of the alphabet. That way you can change the message on the sign when you have a new product or service to advertise.

We've all seen signs in which one or more of the letters dropped off. Sometimes the effect is comical. It changes the meaning of the message. However, it's usually easy to figure out the original message. If you know the language (e.g. English, Spanish), if you know the context, you can mentally reconstruct the intended message. This is something we all do. You don't need to have access to the original as a basis of comparison. Ehrman is overlooking really obvious counterexamples to his facile objection. 

ii) Another problem with his objection is that we have four Gospels, not merely one. So he'd have to postulate that the chain of transmission was garbled, not just once, but independently for all four gospels. 

iii) Ehrman has a "heads I win, tails you lose" approach to the Gospels. If they're different from each other, that's a contradiction! But if they agree, that's not independent multiple attestation. Rather, that just means Christians were telling each other the same stories, which eventually got written down. He's rigged it so that nothing can ever count as evidence for the historical Jesus.  


  1. Conservative scholars usually argue that the correct authentic reading remains somewhere in the various textual variants that have come down to us. Ehrman argues that we can't really know that. Assuming for the sake of argument that the correct reading is completely lost and (additionally) that there was tampering with the texts early on that we can't now detect it, so what? With a strong and high view of providence God could have preserved the texts sufficiently enough to get the essentials of the Gospel message across down through time. In fact, with a high view of providence, God could have used a a major alteration of the text for His various purposes. Though, I'm not saying that happened. None of those possibilities necessarily falsifies Christianity, makes Christianity suspect, or provides a reason to reject Christianity's claims. What's important is that the general and essential aspects of the message of the Gospel (Good News) is reliably passed down till Christ returns. So long as people could/can still get saved and God could/can still be glorified by the message that's passed on, then it doesn't really matter.

    The doctrine that the God of Israel is one of meticulous providence doesn't hinge on one specific verse or passage or book in either the OT or NT. It's clearly taught directly, indirectly and repeatedly throughout both Testaments. The OT and NT were inspired and written with enough redundancies that the general message couldn't be destroyed by tampering or deletion of any particular passage or passages. That's why Ehrman didn't (and couldn't) reject Christianity for textual reasons, but existential reasons (e.g. the problem of evil and alleged disparate theodicies).

    Ehrman is right that God could have preserved the Biblical texts so that all of the manuscripts agreed 100%. But why think God needed or wanted to do that? That's a theological question and Ehrman himself seems to say(regarding the resurrection, at least) that the domain of theology and history should be separate. I don't think they should be separated, but I do think they should be distinguished. Either way, Ehrman can't consistently complain that if God exists He SHOULD have made all manuscripts free of errors and variants (that being a theological and ethical claim).

    The question of what the texts of the autographa originally contained is an academic question. For apologetical purposes it's sufficient point out that we have no positive reason to believe the texts were seriously tampered with and reason to believe that we can reconstruct the autographs with a high degree of confidence (approx. 98%). The doctrine of inspiration doesn't apply to the distant apographa but to those editions approved by the original inspired authors.

    In fact, the textual differences gives us reason to hope that we can reconstruct the autographs with some confidence whereas the modern Qur'anic text that's free of variants gives us reason to suspect what in fact Islamic history itself records. That there was a major redaction imposed on the text and on Muslim believers (by the caliph Uthman).

    1. The apostles themselves surely knew there were discrepancies between the Hebrew texts and various translations and paraphrases into other languages like Greek, Aramaic etc., yet that didn't seem to bother them. Even the Septuagint had differences since there was no THE Septuagint (cf. Peter J. Williams' Why I Don't Believe in The Septuagint).

    2. The Targumim were paraphrases and not even translations, yet the Jews believed they were sufficiently accurate to teach God's people God's truth. The Apostles (who themselves were Jews) knew this. They weren't obsessed with a specific Hebrew traditional text (i.e. a 1st century equivalent to KJV Onlyism). They knew there were differences between the Hebrew texts and yet were willing to also use the LXX. Sometimes they favored one of the Hebrew readingS, sometimes one of the Greek readingS.

    3. Personally, I wouldn't have a problem if there actually was a similar early Uthmanic-like redaction of the NT (minus the killing of course) since it's likely some OT books were redacted (e.g. the Torah and the Psalms). There's just no good evidence for it regarding the NT. Though, the way the NT text was ACTUALLY preserved is preferable since it does give us confidence of reconstruction. The major problem I have with the Qur'anic redaction is that some Muslims CLAIM there are no variants. While other Muslims claim the variants are not true variants but are a result of different ways The Qur'an was recited by different Arabic dialects at the time (and other similar explanations). However, that's patently false based on the variants we do have and the actual history as recorded in the various Hadith. The point is that the very same arguments they use to attack the Christian Holy Book backfires on their own Holy Book with a vengeance.

    4. Correction! We have 99.6% of Greek manuscripts and Ehrman himself admits that they don't affect any doctrine (again him wandering into theology is like walking into a mine shaft without a torch).

  2. I have had a question myself as Calvinists couldn't God have predestined the scribes not to have made any mistakes?

    1. By the same token, God could predestine readers to never misinterpret Scripture. But God preferred a world with a different history.