The Skeleton in the Closet

Article X of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states “that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture…” In other words, God only inspired the original documents written by the biblical authors. What’s the problem with that?

None of them exist anymore.

Every book that Paul originally wrote crumbled to dust centuries ago. No person alive on earth has seen the original Gospel of John. Every manuscript of the New Testament that exists today is a copy of a copy.

Many Christians treat this issue like a skeleton in God’s closet, a shameful secret that no one needs to know. Since no originals exist, is the New Testament we have today anywhere close to what the biblical authors wrote centuries ago?

Manuscript Evidence

Today, more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament have been discovered. The number of manuscripts is over 24,000 if you include the Latin Vulgate and other early versions. The New Testament has the most manuscripts of any ancient work. To put this in perspective, Homer’s Iliad probably has the second greatest number of manuscripts with only 643.

New Testament manuscripts date anywhere from the second to the eighteenth century. Probably the earliest manuscript we have of the New Testament is a fragment of the Gospel of John, dated around AD 125. If you date the Gospel of John between AD 80-90, then the time span between the original and this fragment is less than 50 years! Going back to Homer’s Iliad, the earliest copy we have is 400 years after the original composition.

Bringing the Skeleton into the Light

How close can we get to the originals? The absence of the original manuscripts doesn’t mean that we no longer have the original words. We can discover the original text through the process of textual criticism.

Modern scholars estimate that there are around 400,000 textual variants (or differences in wording) in the existing manuscripts of the New Testament. The vast majority of these errors are minor. Types of errors include things like difference in word order, repeated words, and spelling differences. Textual critics compare manuscripts to recover the original wording of the text. When comparing manuscripts, the errors often become clear and so does the original wording. For example, which sentence below probably reflects the original wording?

(1) “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
(2) “Why do you see the fruit that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”

This obvious example is between differing manuscripts that contain Luke 6:41. In Greek, the difference between the two words is one letter: karphos (speck) and karpos (fruit). Clearly, you can tell that (1) is the original wording and (2) is an accidental error.

It would be misleading to say that all of the errors are as self-evident as this example. There are several hundred places where scholars are unsure of the original wording of the New Testament. Many scholars, however, affirm that the New Testament we have today is 97-99% accurate in reflecting the originals writings. In addition, no major Christian doctrine is dependent upon one of these variants. A variant might affect how a specific passage portrays a doctrine, but that doctrine will always be taught in other passages of Scripture. In other words, 100% of the doctrine that God wants us to know is in our modern translations.

Inspiration of Scripture

How does the fact that no originals exist affect our view of the inspiration of Scripture? The second part of Article X of the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy helps answer this question: “…in the providence of God [the original text] can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

It is true that God only inspired the original text of the New Testament and not the copies that came after them. Nevertheless, since we can recover the original wording with relative certainty, we can confidently affirm that the New Testament we have today is inspired by God. The inspiration of Scripture also applies to our modern translations as long as they accurately reflect the original text.

Why Did God Do It This Way?

Although we can never be sure why God didn’t give us the original manuscripts, here are three possible reasons:

(1) The originals would likely become religious objects of worship.

When glancing at church history, it doesn’t take long to see that many Christians were fascinated with sacred items. Perhaps Christians would have been tempted to worship these documents or hide them away to keep others from tampering with them.

(2) The early church depended upon the spread of Scripture.

Paul told the Colossians, “When this letter had been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans” (Col. 4:16). When a church received a letter from an apostle, members began to make copies of it to send to other churches. If Paul’s letter was never copied, then only one church could have access to it at a time.

(3) The originals would have likely been destroyed because of Christian persecution. Early Christians worshipped in homes and even caves to avoid immense persecution. In 304 AD, a Roman emperor issued an edict that called for all copies of the Bible to be burned. If any or all of the originals were destroyed, their wording would’ve been lost forever.

6 Facts to Keep in Mind

Studying the accuracy of the New Testament manuscripts is a complex task. Here are 6 facts to remember when defending the reliability of the New Testament documents:

  1. The New Testament is the best attested work in the ancient world with over 24,000 manuscripts, 5,800 of them in Greek.
  2. Several manuscripts are dated within a few hundred years of the originals, reducing the probability of losing the original words.
  3. The vast majority of errors in the New Testament manuscripts are minor and none of them jeopardize a major doctrine of Christianity.
  4. The New Testament text we have today is 97- 99% accurate in reflecting the original text.
  5. 100% of the doctrine that God wants us to know is in our modern translations.
  6. Our modern translations are inspired by God to the extent that they accurately reflect the original text.

 

Sources:

Black, David Alan. New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994. Print.
McDowell, Josh. Evidence for Christianity. Nashville, TN: Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2006. Print.
Powell, Doug. Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics. Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2006. Print
Schaff, Philip. “History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2016.
Taylor, Justin. “An Interview with Daniel B. Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts.” An Interview with Daniel B Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts Comments. N.p., 03 Dec. 2012. Web. 08 June 2016.
Wallace, Daniel B. “The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation.” Daniel B. Wallace. N.p., 09 Sept. 2013. Web. 08 June 2016.
Wegner, Paul D. A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic/InterVarsity, 2006. Print.

41 COMMENTS

  1. Well done! Thank you for putting this out there for people who are not familiar with this information. The Bible also has more copies than Platos Republic & Homer’s Iliad (by a landslide) and yet nobody questions their authenticity…

  2. Reblogged this on sistersreachout and commented:
    Dear Readers. Thank you for your patience as I reblog yet another post. Sometimes, what others have to say is FAR more important than what you/I have to say. It is with joy that I introduce you to another great writer/apologist and fellow believers in Christ. I hope you browse around this website as well and learn much to build your faith. God bless you all. Debbie. 🙂

  3. How do you respond to the views of a scholar such as Ehrman with regard his take on the innerancy of scripture and the number of ”manuscripts”?
    Also, how do you respond to the consensus that long-ending of the gMark is an interpolation ( forgery)?

    • Hey Arkenaten, thanks for the comment. I may need some clarification on your first question. If you are referring the Dr. Ehrman’s view that all of the manuscript copies that exist today have errors, then I would agree with that. But I would disagree with his view that the Gospels as we have them today contradict one another, if that’s what you mean. I am not sure what your referring to regarding his view of the number of manuscripts?

      As far as Mark’s ending is concerned, I would agree that the general consensus is that the ending of Mark is not original because of stylistic differences and because it is not found in the earliest manuscripts, etc. Many Christians would agree with this, but honestly I am on the fence with this one currently. I am still working through it personally, as well as the story of the adulterer in John’s Gospel. If the longer ending of Mark is not original, then I don’t think it negates the reliability of the NT. Obviously many Christians hold that it is not original and have no problem with it. But here is an example of someone who makes a case for its inclusion: http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=13&article=704.

      • 1.Ehrman’s view is that we cannot know what the original manuscripts were like as they have been altered so many times. This also brings into question the notion of innerancy and of course the issue of ”divine inspiration.”

        2.And also any spurious assertion they are eye witness accounts.
        You know of course the name were simply added on much later?

        3.As the writer of Matthew copied around 600 verses of his gospel from the gMark, some verbatim, this also offers another clear example of why they were not eye-witness accounts.

        4.As for accuracy.
        No ( non evangelical) biblical scholar consider the bible truly reliable and certainly no historian considers the gospels historically reliable at all.
        One only has to consider the story of the dead saints rising from their graves.
        Even Licona stated this should not be considered literal.

        5.The virgin birth is, of course, simply nonsense, having been plagiarized from Isaiah and has nothing to do with a messiah or virgin birth, as we know.

        6.As for the Old Testament:
        The notion of Adam and Eve as described in the bible has been refuted thanks to the Human Genome project.
        This of course destroys the notion of Original Sin and thus brings into question the entire concept of salvation and need for a saviour.

        7.The whole Captivity Exodus Conquest is of course geopolitical fiction and archaeology has shown how the Israelites emerged internally from with the Canaanites tribes.

        8.This in turn raises some uncomfortable questions regarding Jesus of Nazareth, as he mentions the Patriarchs and Moses on numerous occasions. As these characters are simply fictitious who then was he referring to?
        So when you talk about the reliability of the bible exactly what do you mean?

        • My apologies for the late response. I was planning on responding last night but I visited some family after work and ended up not having time.

          All I was arguing for in this post was the reliability of the New Testament documents. Specifically, that we can discern the original words through textual criticism with relative certainty. I was not attempting to defend the historicity of the Gospels or the Old Testament.

          But you brought up several points and I want to address each of them, but let’s just start with the first four for the sake of brevity and go from there.

          1. What I argued for in my post is that through textual criticism, we know what the original authors wrote with relative certainty. I am not claiming that we have 100% certainty. Dr. Bruce Metzger was Dr. Ehrman’s mentor and he agreed that we could get back to the original. So we are all looking at the same evidence. Why do you find Ehrman’s arguments convincing?

          2. In this post I did not claim the Gospels were eyewitnesses. With that said, I agree that the names (The Gospel According to Matthew, etc.) were not added until later. However, I don’t see how that proves that they were not eyewitness accounts?

          3. I also do not see how it follows that these were not eyewitness accounts because Matthew copied 600 verses from Mark’s Gospel. All that shows is that Matthew used Mark as a source when writing his Gospel. Luke himself admits that he is not an eyewitness in the first chapter of his Gospel, but instead claims to have gotten his material from eyewitnesses.

          4. Where do you get this information from, specifically that NO non-evangelical scholar considers the New Testament to be reliable at all? Maybe they think that most of the writing is not reliable, but all of these scholars think that every single part of the Gospels in unreliable? How could Ehrman write about what Jesus said if not one bit of information from the Gospels was reliable?

          • All I was arguing for in this post was the reliability of the New Testament documents. Specifically, that we can discern the original words through textual criticism with relative certainty. I was not attempting to defend the historicity of the Gospels or the Old Testament.

            Their reliability is to a large extent contingent on the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy and therefore they cannot be seen in a vacuum as this would render them meaningless.
            For example; as the Pentateuch is regarded as historical fiction how do you address the fact the character, Jesus of Nazareth references Abraham and Moses as if they were historical characters rather than narrative constructs?

            Why do you find Ehrman’s arguments convincing?

            1. Because Ehrman does not look at the texts with anything approaching a presuppositional worldview regarding Christian apologetics and as far as I understand he does not believe we can ever know what the original texts would have been like.

            2. In this post I did not claim the Gospels were eyewitnesses. With that said, I agree that the names (The Gospel According to Matthew, etc.) were not added until later. However, I don’t see how that proves that they were not eyewitness accounts?

            Ehrman has explained this, and so have other scholars so I won’t clog up this post with pointless well-worn explanations. Perhaps you should read or watch Ehrman again and try to refrain from applying an apologist mind-set but rather exercise a more open minded historian’s type perspective?
            Furthermore, if you believe they were eyewitness accounts are you truly saying the raising of the saints for example was an historical event?

            3. I also do not see how it follows ……

            See 2 above.

            4. Where do you get this information from, specifically that NO non-evangelical scholar considers the New Testament to be reliable at all? Maybe they think that most of the writing is not reliable, but all of these scholars think that every single part of the Gospels in unreliable? How could Ehrman write about what Jesus said if not one bit of information from the Gospels was reliable?

            I said truly reliable, as in inerrant. Maybe a poor choice of word on my part. I apologise.
            I notice you skipped over the fact that no historian considers the gospels historically reliable at all. Could you please explain why you believe this is?

          • Again, my post had nothing to do with the historicity of the events in the Gospels. My only point was about recovering the original words of the New Testament documents.

            First, what evidence are referring to when you say that the Pentateuch is historical fiction?

            In regards to Ehrman, just because he does not have a bias towards Christianity is by no means an argument that Ehrman is right. Like I said, many scholars like Metzger agree that when we are doing textual criticism we are getting back to the original words with relative certainty.

            I can also say the same thing in regards to not fulling this post up with well-worn responses to Ehrman. And I can say the same thing to you about reading those responses with an open mind. That gets us nowhere.

            When I asked you about finding Ehrman’s view convincing what I meant to say was to ask what pieces of evidence you find convincing to agree with his view?

            With regards to the raising of the dead, there are two basic views by Christians. First, that it happened historically just like the other miracles in the Gospels. Second, that Matthew is using apocalyptic rhetoric and is not actually recording history. As you mentioned, Licona holds this view. I lean towards it being historical in the same way I view the resurrection as historical. But I haven’t studied Licona’s view in depth enough to be fully committed either way.

            Now I see what you are saying with the word “reliable.” We seem to use it different ways, no worries. When I say the Gospels are historically reliable, I mean that they are generally reliable in regards to gleaning historical data. I do not make the claim that I can prove to someone that the New Testament gets every single detail minor detail right historically. Mainly because I don’t know how that would even be possible. Most apologists do not attempt to do this and neither do I.

            I didn’t skip over the historical part of the question, I just combined them together since they were in the same number of your questions from before. Your exact quote from the question was “Certainly no historian considers the gospels historically reliable at all.” I view Ehrman as a historian and like I said he wrote about some of the things Jesus said and did. So I don’t agree that no historians think the Gospels have any historical truth in them at all. I think they would say that their historical value is limited, but not worthless.

          • First, what evidence are referring to when you say that the Pentateuch is historical fiction?

            Primarily, archaeology and also the Human Genome Project.Specifically, the story of Adam and Eve and the Captivity, Exodus and Conquest.
            All fiction and the evidence backs this assertion. In fact, archaeology has shown a completely different history of the Israelites than that portrayed in the bible.

            When I asked you about finding Ehrman’s view convincing what I meant to say was to ask what pieces of evidence you find convincing to agree with his view?

            Pretty much all of it I would say.

            With regards to the raising of the dead, there are two basic views by Christians. First, that it happened historically just like the other miracles in the Gospels. Second, that Matthew is using apocalyptic rhetoric and is not actually recording history. As you mentioned, Licona holds this view. I lean towards it being historical in the same way I view the resurrection as historical. But I haven’t studied Licona’s view in depth enough to be fully committed either way.

            There is no evidence this was an historical event. Thus, without evidence it is simply a faith claim and nothing more. Besides, there is not a single non-biblical reference to this event and simple common sense demands that a mass walkabout in downtown Jerusalem by a horde of resurrected individuals would have been noted. And none of the other writers saw fit to mention this wholly spectacular event? Really? Faith claim. And it was because Licona did not hold the view you hold; the ‘’historical’’ one, that Geisler began his witch hunt which saw Licona being forced to resign his position.
            Nice!

            Now I see what you are saying with the word “reliable.” We seem to use it different ways, no worries. When I say the Gospels are historically reliable, I mean that they are generally reliable in regards to gleaning historical data.
            “Certainly no historian considers the gospels historically reliable at all.” I view Ehrman as a historian and like I said he wrote about some of the things Jesus said and did. So I don’t agree that no historians think the Gospels have any historical truth in them at all. I think they would say that their historical value is limited, but not worthless.

            Fair enough; then I acknowledge that Ehrman accepts there is a minimum of historical data that can be gleaned, but in the main the Bible is not a reliable historical source because it does not meet the standard criteria of source reliability used by historians.

          • Sorry for the delay. Regarding the comments on the Pentateuch, I will make a few comments and leave it at that, and will address the issue of historical reliability.

            Concerning Adam and Eve, Christians have many different viewpoints as you know. In fact, Dr. Francis Collins, who helped lead the Human Genome Project, started the BioLogos Foundation to show that their findings and the biblical account can be reconciled. Then of course there are others such as those at Reasons to Believe, who argue that humanity can still be traced back to two individuals based on the evidence presented.

            With the historical events like the Exodus, I admit that there is not much evidence for them outside of the biblical texts. However, I don’t think we can just throw them out wholesale, but instead must look at each work and see if it has historical merit. In Exodus, there are several things that describe what Egypt would have been like like at the time the events were presumed to have happened. The pyramids were built out of mud and straw bricks (Ex. 5:7-8) and the rods of court advisers looked like snakes (Ex. 7:10-12), for example. I don’t think that there is any evidence that proves these events didn’t happen either. I think at most we have arguments from silence as to why we don’t find more evidence outside the biblical documents. Dr. Paul L. Maier, who was a professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan, briefly hits on the criticism of biblical history here: https://www.equip.org/article/biblical-history-the-faulty-criticism-of-biblical-historicity/.

            With the resurrections in Matthew, I also agree that there is not evidence for this outside of the Gospel of Matthew. But that is not an argument to reject Matthew’s account or his entire Gospel altogether. It doesn’t say how many people were raised so I don’t think we can conclude it was a mass amount of people either. Perhaps people who came in contact with them were not persuaded that they were raised. Perhaps people did write about it but the writings were lost. Again, if you find the argument from silence a strong one here, then you can accept Licona’s view. That is not a problem at all and doesn’t do anything to disprove Christianity. With regards to Geisler, I think he was in the wrong. So what? All this shows is that Christians can do wrong, which I wholeheartedly agree with.

            Finally, I do think the New Testament documents do record historical events that actually happened. From what I understand, the exact criteria that historians should use is debated, but Licona likes to use the criteria by C.B. McCullagh to try and demonstrate evidence for the Resurrection. Also, Craig uses the criteria of historical fit, independent early sources, embarrassment, dissimilarity, semitisms, and coherence to validate sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. Using these criteria, people like Craig do not treat the text as if it is already reliable, but instead treat each event individually to see if a case can be made for its historical credibility.

            I realize that you disagree with all of this and do not find the evidence that Christians use as persuasive and that’s fine. I try to make modest claims about what I can demonstrate to someone who is skeptical. I sincerely wish you all the best, Ark. I appreciate the dialogue.

          • Concerning Adam and Eve, etc ……

            Reconcile indeed! ….. And didn’t it ever cross your mind why there would be a need to even attempt to reconcile the science and the biblical text if the Genesis account was fact? Only those blinded by indoctrination accept the biblical tale as written. You should actually research the origins of this creation myth.
            Here’s an excellent piece by Jerry Coyne.
            https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/adam-and-eve-the-ultimate-standoff-between-science-and-faith-and-a-contest/

            With the historical events like the Exodus, I admit that there is not much evidence for them outside of the biblical texts etc

            Wrong! There is no evidence.
            Maier shows his hand when he introduces Bryant Wood. Wood is a Young Earth Creationist for goodness; sake! How can one afford Maier any credibility if he recommends this person?
            Maier then fails to mention Wood’s dating was shown to be flawed, and Kenyon was correct all along.
            See Wiki below
            Wiki.
            Wood has attempted to redate the destruction of Jericho City IV from the end of the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1550 B.C.) to the end of the Late Bronze I (c. 1400 BC). He has put forward four lines of argument to support his conclusion. Not a single one of these arguments can stand up to scrutiny. On the contrary, there is strong evidence to confirm Kathleen Kenyon’s dating of City IV to the Middle Bronze Age. Wood’s attempt to equate the destruction of City IV with the Israelite conquest of Jericho must therefore be rejected.[6]
            Wood responded that he had produced evidence to back his argument, and that any counter-claims should also be backed by fresh evidence. In 1995 fresh evidence became available in the form of charred cereal grains from the City IV destruction layer. Radiocarbon dating of these grains showed that Jericho City IV was destroyed “during the late 17th or the 16th century BC”, in line with Kenyon’s findings, and that “the fortified Bronze Age city at Tell es-Sultan [Jericho] was not destroyed by ca.1400 BC, as Wood (1990) suggested”.[7]

            Maier may be an excellent historian but, like Wood, he is first and foremost a Christian and I suspect he has fundamentalist or evangelical leanings. Thus his view is heavily biased and thus his professional approach is greatly diminished because of it.
            He slates Finkelstein, and while he may be justified on some levels he makes no effort to address the internal settlement pattern of Canaan, for which there is archaeological evidence, and for which this is the consensus of archaeologists, even if they do not all agree over details. But they do agree there was no exodus and no conquest as per the bible. Even someone like William Dever, who for a long time was a vehement critic of Finkelstein, is now on board with this.
            Neither does Maier address the logistics of 2.5 million people leaving Egypt which had at the time a total population estimated at around 4.5 million.
            Please, stop and think about this for a few moments, as those who champion the biblical tale seldom address this. Can you imagine the effect on any society if this amount of people left, especially if these people amounted almost the entire work-force?
            Therefore, irrespective of what the Egyptians were supposed to have been in the habit of doing regarding defeats in war etc there is no evidence at all of the huge economic and societal collapse that would have ensued following the migration of half the population. Not a thing.
            Crucially, Maier also fails to address the 38 years or so the Israelites supposedly spent at Kadesh Barnia for which there is no evidence, no matter whattime line has been proposed, or the arrival in Canaan of this huge number of people.
            Or the very pertinent fact there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support any genocidal campaign.

            With the resurrections in Matthew, I also agree that there is not evidence for this outside of the Gospel of Matthew

            And this is why it is simply a faith claim, and you have to accept this otherwise your faith is rendered meaningless. And this is why no genuine historian will countenance the biblical tale. Therefore, unless you can back this with some tangible evidence then all you have is a faith claim and nothing else. At least have the humility and honesty to acknowledge this as the truth of the situation.

            Finally, I do think the New Testament documents do record historical events that actually happened. From what I understand, the exact criteria that historians should use is debated, etc…

            Certain individuals, events and places mentioned are historical. Of course they are. Herod for one. Jerusalem for another. Unfortunately, it is the exact criteria of the Historical method which is only debated by believers and people who are not genuine (secular) historians; meaning: have no affiliations with Christianity to adversely colour their approach with faith in any way.

            I realize that you disagree with all of this and do not find the evidence that Christians use as persuasive and that’s fine. I try to make modest claims about what I can demonstrate to someone who is skeptical. I sincerely wish you all the best, Ark. I appreciate the dialogue.

            May I suggest you read this excellent piece of writing by John Zande on Kadesh Barnia. His blog contains a wealth of similar posts. He has spent several years communicating with archaeologists (mostly Israeli) in Universities in Tel Aviv. He has also communicated with a number of top Rabbis. You would do yourself an enormous amount of good just to read a different professional opinion on all this, especially coming from a largely Jewish perspective.
            https://thesuperstitiousnakedape.wordpress.com/2016/06/26/kadesh-barnea-gaza-the-exodus/

          • Unfortunately, Arkenaten was banned from this site shortly after this comment. But I still wanted to leave a quick response here for later readers.

            Archaeology can only “prove” so much and as the saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Arguments from silence are generally weak in my opinion. I admitted that the evidence for the Exodus and other events is lacking, but that doesn’t mean this events didn’t happen. This event happened a long time ago, after all. We look at the same evidence but have different interpretations. For those interested in further study on these issues, check out K.A. Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament and James K. Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus.

            I also do not think it is fair to reject someone’s evidence and point of view because of their biases. Everyone has them, and the best thing to do is to separate ourselves from them as much as possible. I think one must look at a person’s claim, no matter what other beliefs they may have.

            I try to be modest in what I can prove to someone regarding Christianity. For example, I don’t think that I can prove with 100% that the Exodus happened to a skeptic, and I am okay with that. But that doesn’t mean that I have no reasons to believe it either.

          • Thanks for commenting The Gospel According to Jon. You are right, I agree with you. I should have said “absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence.” If someone says there is an elephant in my bedroom, I should be able to see it. If I don’t see it, then that gives evidence to believe it is not there. But it would have to be really obvious like that example, in my opinion.

          • Yet you do not think that the lack of evidence for the Exodus is a problem? I realize that archaeological evidence, by its nature is always incomplete, but after so many years of diligent searching by people of various faiths, it’s not as if we don’t have a timeline established through that region. We know at least a fair amount about numerous cultures from Egypt and all through Canaan (which was technically under Egyptian rule at that time), yet there is nothing that even vaguely whispers of millions of Jews traveling through the land–no pottery, no tools, and no bodies, etc. I wouldn’t claim that this guarantees that the Exodus didn’t happen, but I also think it casts a huge doubt on the matter.

  4. I realise we are all busy with work and what have you, but I really would like some clarity on exactly what you mean by the reliability of the bible.
    I find it somewhat disconcerting when religious commenters simply leave a thread hanging.
    I am sure it is not done on purpose, and is likely just an oversight, but to suspend a thread midway does come across as a little rude.
    Thanks

  5. Jon, I understand what you are saying. I acknowledge that the lack of historical evidence outside the biblical texts for the Exodus event is a problem, but I don’t think that it’s as big of a problem as people make it to be. I think there are possible reasons why we wouldn’t find things like bones and so on. We are taking about a lot of people, but they were also nomadic, wandering in the shifting sands of the desert. They probably didn’t have much with them because they didn’t expect to be in the desert for 40 years. The Jews also often took the bones of the deceased and relocated them, as with Moses.

    Do I wish that we would find archaeological evidence for it? Honestly, yes that would be nice. And perhaps one day we will. We could be in the similar situation as with King David. Many people doubted his existence, but when the Tel Dan Stele was discovered, many changed their minds. So to me, the fact of no archaeological evidence doesn’t do enough to cause me to doubt that the Exodus event didn’t happen. But for many, that is not the case. As I said, I never claimed that I could prove with certainty that the Exodus happened to someone who is skeptical about it. That definitely wasn’t the point of my post, as it didn’t have anything to do with the Old Testament, much less one particular event in the Old Testament.

  6. According to Michael Holmes of Bethel University, scholars recognize the first century of transmission as the key period for ancient documents. We have effectively no manuscript evidence from this period for the New Testament writings.

    The overwhelming majority of manuscript evidence we do have comes from a period when Christianity was a state sanctioned religion with established theology and hierarchy, and copying done by professional scribes.

    The period for which such evidence is virtually nonexistent was one in which Christianity consisted of competing sects which were occasionally persecuted, and in which copying was unsupervised.

    The earlier one goes in the manuscript tradition, the greater rate of variation one observes. It is reasonable to infer that the greatest rate of variation occurred during the period for which no evidence is available.

    Despite the fact that we have better textual evidence for the New Testament than we have for other ancient documents, we cannot be certain what the original authors wrote.

  7. Thank you for the comment Vinny. I have enjoyed seeing your back and forth with other writers on this site. I must say that I appreciate your sincerity and thoughtfulness.

    You are right that most of our manuscript evidence for the New Testament comes from a later period than the first century. I am interested in your statement: “The earlier one goes in the manuscript tradition, the greater rate of variation one observes.” Could you please give examples of this?

    Even if that is the case, I don’t agree with your inference that the greatest variation occurred during the early period of copying. Daniel Wallace has pointed out that there is at least some evidence to show that early Christians saw the importance of the originals and their copies: https://bible.org/article/did-original-new-testament-manuscripts-still-exist-second-century-0. Speaking of Tertullian’s possible quote about the originals, he says that this at least “suggests that by his day carefully done copies of the originals were considered important for verifying what the apostles meant, and such copies had a strong connection to the churches to which they were originally written.” He also says “By the middle of the second century, when canon conscientiousness was on the rise, the Christian community regarded the autographs, or at least the earliest copies of the New Testament documents, as important witnesses. They were concerned about the purity of the text with regard to select textual variants.” Although they weren’t professional scribes, the early church saw the importance of these documents and I think they would have been as careful as possible in copying them.

    I also used the term “relative certainty” in the post because I am not claiming that we can be 100% certain that we have the original reading in every case. I am just claiming that we can be confident that we probably do, because as you agree, we have better textual evidence for the NT than other ancient documents. Eldon Jay Epp says “The point is that we have so many manuscripts of the New Testament and that these manuscripts contain so many variant readings that surely the original reading in every casse is somewhere present in our vast store of material” (Decision Points in New Testament Textual Criticism). So I think we can at least be as confident in the original NT as we can be confident in having the other ancient works.

    • I think I first heard a discussion of the higher rate of variation in the earliest manuscripts when I listened to the 2008 Greer-Heard Forum that featured Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace. I don’t remember whether it was one of them or one of the other participating scholars who brought up the issue, but I do not recall that any of the conservative scholars disputed the point. In fact, it was there that I heard Michael Holmes say that the first century of transmission is the critical one for ancient texts. I don’t recall whether specific examples were discussed or not. I do recall that Holmes (who was considered to be one of the conservative scholars at the Forum) disputed the contention that the original reading is always somewhere in the extant manuscripts.

      I have no doubt that many early copyists were concerned about the the purity of the text; however, there were apparently many who weren’t. According to Tertullian’s contemporary, Origen, “The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others ; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of chekcing, they make additions or deletions as they please.”

      • Okay Vinny, I cannot find any video from this event but I will take your word for it. 🙂

        I agree also, that there were definitely people that changed the wording, either on accident or on purpose. I believe Origen’s quote was said when he was writing a commentary on Matthew specifically and it seems to be one out of frustration. Nevertheless, it is a fact that all of the copyists made errors, as one would expect since no human being is perfect. I don’t know anyone who disputes this.

        I still think with the the abundance of manuscript evidence, including the early translations like the Syriac and Latin, and the quotes from the church fathers, give so much credence to recovering the text. So to me it comes down to the confidence we have in the manuscript evidence and the discipline of textual criticism. I would still side with Wallace, Epp, and others that all of the textual evidence is enough to recover the original text with relative certainty. I think those who agree closer to my position then fall into different areas on the scale on the level of confidence they have in recovering the original.

        • Let me ask you a question Carey: Would you be willing to undergo delicate brain surgery knowing that your surgeon was relying upon the instructions in medical texts about whose wording he was only relatively certain? Would you be willing to do so knowing that his determination that you needed brain surgery in the first place rested upon such texts? I wouldn’t. By the same token, it doesn’t make sense to me that decisions having eternal consequences should rest on texts about which I can only be relatively certain.

          • Vinny, sorry for the delayed response. I would say that your analogy has more to do with trusting the surgeon. If the surgeon was a family friend, then I would trust his diagnosis. Also, I would trust him if he had many successful surgeries, etc. If I could look at the medical text myself and compare it with what is confirmed in the medical field then I would have good reason that the texts are accurate in what they present.

            When it comes to New Testament texts, we can look at what the texts say themselves and we can weigh their claims and what they say about the world around us. Specifically, we can look at the specific facts that many scholars agree on regarding the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. But of course, as a Christian, I am not trusting the New Testament as much as I am trusting the God behind the texts.

            I also think it is difficult to use analogies to compare theological/philosophical fields with something different. Francis Shaeffer explains really well what Christian faith actually is and I what he is saying reflects what Christians do when they put their trust in God: https://clearlens.org/2016/04/11/thought-snack-what-christian-faith-really-is/.

          • I agree that it is difficult to come up with analogous cases; however, if your contention is that we can have “relative certainty” about the text, I think it is reasonable to ask “Relative to what?”

            I agree that we can be as confident in the text of the New Testament as in any ancient work. Indeed, I would concede that we can be considerably more confident for the most part, On the other hand, I doubt we can have much confidence at all in most ancient texts, so that may not be saying all that much.

          • When I say that we can be relatively certain in the New Testament wording, I mean to say that in comparison to other ancient works. So as you say above, we can be as confident in the text of the NT if not more so than other ancient works. But I now see that the difference here is that you doubt that we can have confidence in most ancient texts to begin with.

            It seems to me that if the NT is well attested and we don’t think we can get back to the original in some sense, then that would undercut ancient history in a significant way. This is because much of what we know about ancient history comes from ancient texts. So for the most part, those who study these documents to discover history would be wasting their time! But I don’t think that is the case, and I think we can learn a lot about what really happened in the past through ancient writings.

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