googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Textual criticism made amazingly easy

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Textual criticism made amazingly easy

Critics often attack Christianity by attacking the integrity of the Bible. As is the case with any written work from antiquity, we no longer have the original writings of biblical authors. Critics point out that all we have are copies of copies transcribed over centuries and not all the copies agree with each other. They say the Bible has been copied, translated, and edited until we can no longer have any certainty about what it originally said. Have you heard any of this before? Well, I'm going to explain why we can have confidence in the integrity of the Bible in amazingly easy terms.

Trying to determine the original wording of a document is called, textual criticism. Here's a reading exercise. Below are five sentences that were copied from a single sentence. (OK, they weren't really copied, but let's pretend they were.) Each one contains an error.

The book si heavy
A book is heavy
The Bible is heavy
The book is hard
The book is not heavy

My question is this: if you only had these five sentences as a reference, do you think you could reconstruct what the original sentence was? Let's look at it word by word.

Four of the sentences say, “the” but only one says, “a.” Therefore, I would guess the first word in the original sentence was, “the.”

Four sentences say, “book” and one says, “Bible.” I happen to know that “Bible” is the Greek word for “book” so the person who copied that might have thought “Bible” when he saw the word, “book.” The second word in the original sentence was probably book.

Four of the sentences say, “is.” The fifth sentence says, “si” which is not an English word. It probably is simply a misspelling of the word “is” so the third word is probably, “is.”

One sentence says, “not” but none of the other ones do so I suspect “not” wasn't in the original sentence.

Finally, the last word in four of the sentences is “heavy.” One sentence says, “hard.” Both words start with “h” so it's possible the transcriber misread the original word “heavy” and wrote, “hard.” I think the fourth word in the original sentence was, “heavy.”

So, having compared every sentence and considered the differences, I believe the original sentence was, “The book is heavy.” Wouldn't you agree? I would be confident in that conclusion even though none of the sentences above actually say, “The book is heavy,” because there are enough similarities in just these five to justify that conclusion. Of course, if I had 10 sentences to compare, I would have even more confidence. If I had 100 or 1000 sentences to compare, there would no longer be any room for doubt. In this same way, we can have confidence in the integrity of the Bible – by comparing the manuscripts.

Now, suppose I'm a scribe and it's my job to make copies of the sentences above. But, for the sake of argument, I'm not a very dutiful scribe and I take it upon myself to change what the text originally said to what I think it should have said. I think it should say, “Reading the Bible is not hard.” That could be a problem. How would anyone reading my copy know I copied it faithfully? Well, there are still the 5 sentences above that could be compared against my copy. My edit is different enough from earlier copies that it would be easily identified as a fake. None of the earlier sentences even have the word, “reading,” for example. Of course, if I were especially nefarious, I could make 5 or 10 copies, hoping that the number of edited copies would overwhelm earlier copies. That might work if there were only 5 earlier copies. However, as was the case before, the more copies that exist, the harder it becomes to add intentional edits later. If there were 100 or 1000 earlier copies that did not resemble my edited copy, they would bear more weight than all of my later copies.

So you can see, the integrity of the Bible hinges upon the number of early manuscripts we have. The more manuscripts that we have to compare, the greater confidence we can have in determining what the originals said and the harder it becomes for forgers to edit the text later. How many manuscripts do we have of the New Testament, then? Greek scholar, Daniel Wallace, tells us the following:

As far as Greek manuscripts, over 5800 have been catalogued. The New Testament was translated early on into several other languages as well, such as Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic, etc. The total number of these versional witnesses has not been counted yet, but it certainly numbers in the tens of thousands. At the same time, it should be pointed out that most of our manuscripts come from the second millennium AD, and most of our manuscripts do not include the whole New Testament. A fragment of just a verse or two still counts as a manuscript. And yet, the average size for a NT manuscript is more than 450 pages. At the other end of the data pool are the quotations of the NT by church fathers. To date, more than one million quotations of the NT by the church fathers have been tabulated. These fathers come from as early as the late first century all the way to the middle ages.... NT scholars face an embarrassment of riches compared to the data the classical Greek and Latin scholars have to contend with. The average classical author’s literary remains number no more than twenty copies. We have more than 1,000 times the manuscript data for the NT than we do for the average Greco-Roman author. Not only this, but the extant manuscripts of the average classical author are no earlier than 500 years after the time he wrote. For the NT, we are waiting mere decades for surviving copies.

I've written before that we have more evidence for the historicity of Jesus than any other person of antiquity. All we know about ancient people is what has been written down about them. The number of New Testament manuscripts dwarfs any other ancient writing. If we know anything at all about history, then we can be as certain of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as any other event in history.


Steven J. said...

It's not just a matter of counting variants. If, e.g. you had a thousand texts with the sentence "Reading the Bible is not hard," but all of them were of recent origin, while you had half a dozen ancient copies of the text with one of the other sentences, those half-dozen copies would outweigh the thousand.

Indeed, a minority of texts could outweigh a majority even if they were all of the same age. A single sentence is not much to work with -- there are only so many possible variant characters to compare -- but an entire gospel gives you more to work with, and you can group texts into families (as indeed biblical texts are -- e.g. you have New Testament texts of the "Alexandrian" type versus those of the "Caesarean" type (the differences are not huge but they're systematic).

This is why modern translations of Mark close on Mark 16:8, despite many texts that continue the chapter for several more verses -- the oldest texts do not.

Suppose you have a couple of thousand copies of some gospel-length text. All of these are fairly recent; they are copies of (lost) copies of (lost) copies of some lost original. Because copies tend to inherit the mistakes or variations of earlier copies, these two thousand or so texts will fall into families -- say, six families, one containing each of the six versions of the sentence you came up with. Suppose that some 1500 of these copies all belonged to the family that contained the version "Reading the Bible is not hard." The other five versions have about a hundred copies each. "Reading the Bible is not hard" outnumbers the other versions together by three to one -- yet the fact that only one "family" of texts has this version, while the others are much closer to one another and suggest a different version -- would imply that the "Reading the Bible" version was a deliberate alteration of the original text, and should be discarded when reconstructing the original.

Note that just as having more copies doesn't automatically make one version of a text a better representative of the original than a version having fewer copies, it doesn't make the original text itself more likely to be accurate. Fifty-eight hundred copies of the gospels doesn't make Jesus' existence more certain than a handful of copies of Caesar's Gallic Wars make Caesar's.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

I've read your comments a couple of times and I'm not sure what your contention is or even if there is any. I've tried to explain textual criticism in extremely simple terms (as the title implies) but obviously there's a little more to it.

It's true, there are many variants in NT manuscripts. It's important to note, though, that there is not a single variant text that impacts any major doctrine of Christianity. Even the variant (missing) ending of Mark, for example, is not a problem; while some critics may use the missing verses in Mark to argue the resurrection was added to Mark at a later date, the other gospels all attest to the resurrection.

You mentioned that variant texts can be grouped into families. It's also important to note that, at no time in history, has the entire NT been in the complete control of one group of people in one place. This is because copies made in on region will tend to accumulate the same mistakes as earlier copies in the same region. These families are still subject to textual criticism and can be compared against earlier copies and across regions. Textual criticism is a continuous effort as new texts are always being discovered. Each one of these new finds helps us either confirm what we believe to be true or helps clear up something we are unsure about.

The King James was a fine translation for its time but we have discovered many more texts in the 400 years since it was edited. This is why there are some obvious differences between the KJV and modern translations. I believe the NASB is a superior translation to the KJV.

Finally, the NT is the account of eyewitnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The miracles of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus, and His claims of divinity, are all there in the original documents. Any claims of exaggeration are without merit. If you are certain of Caesar or Alexander, you should be at least as certain of Jesus. To believe He, His miracles, or His resurrection were invented centuries after His death would be as laughable as saying Alexander was invented.

Thank you for your comments. God bless!!


Steven J. said...

My contentions are threefold.

(1) As Einstein is supposed to have said, "everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler." You explanation of textual criticism over-simplified and hence distorted the process.

(2) Textual criticism deals with how well we can reconstruct the original text from current (imperfect) copies. This is an entirely separate question from how accurate the original text was. You can have very high and well-justified confidence that the New Testament books originally said such-and-such, but that tells you nothing, by itself, about how true such-and-such was. No number of accurate copies of a mistaken statement turn it into an accurate one.

(3) My third contention was, at most, implicit in my comments. Evolutionary taxonomy and systematics -- the methods of reconstructing phylogenic trees of living organisms -- are exactly analogous to the methods used in textual criticism. Indeed, when applied to DNA rather than to anatomical characters, they are exactly the same techniques. That this is even possible is one of the arguments for common descent with modification.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

Rather than “over-simplified,” I prefer to think I've under-stated the integrity and veracity of the NT. Some people, for example, have pointed out the NT's correct usage of political titles. In the US, the person holding the executive position in a city is called, “mayor.” Without using the internet, do you know the equivalent title of a mayor in Germany 200 years ago? At the time of Jesus' crucifixion, Pilate was the “governor” or “procurator” while Herod was the “king.” At Antioch, Acts 13, Paul is talking to a “proconsul” but later, Acts 25, he's in chains before “king” Agrippa where Paul says he wants to be heard before the “emperor,” which was his right as a Roman citizen. There are dozens of other titles mentioned throughout the NT, the point being, if the NT were written centuries after the events actually occurred, it's not likely anyone could accurately identify the correct titles of people in such a shifting political climate like the Roman Empire. It's just another piece of evidence that helps us confirm the integrity and veracity of the NT.

Of course, you're welcome to say that even though the NT is the most complete historical record that exists anywhere, it still doesn't mean what it contains is true. What you're saying, though, is that everything written in it is either a deliberate lie or rampant delusion. Do you have any evidence for this? Were there NO miracles? NO healing? NO feeding of the thousands? Then the crowds thronged Jesus, why? John said he saw Jesus die and later he saw Him alive again. Your incredulity is hardly a rebuttal to his eyewitness testimony. Also, why would Paul suddenly go from being a persecutor of the Church to being its most zealot champion?

If I'm convinced the words recorded in the NT are accurate, what compelling argument exists that they're not also true?

Your last point is hardly worth mentioning. It might be worth a look if human and chimp DNA were >98% similar as is often claimed. It's rather a weak point considering the differences are more like 20-30%.

Thank you for your comments. God bless!!


Steven J. said...

Without checking the internet, I would guess that the title of a German mayor 200 years ago was Herr Burgomeister, on the assumption that "mayor" and its equivalents is an old title that hasn't changed in centuries. But I could be wrong (especially on the spelling).

Most "modernist" scholars date the New Testament documents to the late first or early second century, less than a full century after Pilate was in office. I certainly do not feel qualified to suggest a later date.

What I'm saying is that we can't be sure how much of the New Testament is accurate versus a medley of errors, legends, self-serving memories, and pious frauds. Even the most obvious implausibility -- that Jesus was born both before the death of Herod (ca. 4 BC) and after the accession to the governorship of Syria in 6 AD -- could be possible if, e.g. Quirinius somehow managed to be governor of Syria during Herod's lifetime (and while he was supposed to be busy putting down a rebellion in Asia Minor), before the governorship that is attested in surviving records. But that seems, if we were discussing any other document, less plausible than supposing that the author of Luke was confused about his dates.

Note that you seem to be assuming two things. First, you assume that the burden of proof is on the skeptic or denier of the New Testament. The New Testament makes some rather extraordinary claims; these require rather more extraordinary evidence that the fact that the authors get official titles right. Second (and related, I suppose) you assume certain points that are among those in dispute -- e.g. that the New Testament actually is based on eyewitness reports, merely because it can be interpreted as claiming that it is.

A point: Paul claimed to be a witness of the risen Jesus, even though on his own account none of the people who were with him at the time saw Jesus. He counted this vision as just as valid as the sightings of Jesus by his original disciples. Paul does not seem to have distinguished between seeing Jesus in a vision and seeing him in the flesh -- perhaps because originally there was no such distinction, and stories such as the risen Jesus eating fish were added later.