Christian apologists are eager to argue that the gospel story is historically accurate. They point to the large number of New Testament manuscripts. They point to the shortness of the oral history period compared to other documents of the time. They claim that our oldest copies are remarkably close to the originals. I’ve made clear why those claims do little to argue for the historicity of the Jesus story (here, here, and here, respectively), but let me try to illustrate how weak this claim is. “Our copy of the New Testament is negligibly different from the original” is not defensible.
Imagine this experiment. I tell you that in the New Testament, there is one specific verse that I have in mind. A few decades after the original was written, a variant tradition was created by a scribe who changed the text of the verse. It doesn’t matter how the error got in there—maybe he misread the original or omitted something or tried to correct what he honestly thought was an error or tried to “improve” the reading of the text to make it align with what he thought was true. All that matters is that we have a fork in the road, after which point we have two traditions.
Let’s further imagine that this is a significant change, not a trivial spelling mistake.
Here’s the twist: one of these traditions is lost to history. I won’t tell you which one. This is almost surely true. (Indeed, how could you possibly prove that it wasn’t true that there had been two versions of one New Testament verse, that this wasn’t just a typo but the meaning was significantly different between the two versions, and that one version was lost?)
I hand you a Bible and demand of you:
- Find the verse.
- Tell me if that verse is the variant or the original.
- If it’s the incorrect version, tell me the correct reading.
You’d say that that’s an impossible challenge. Yes it is, and that’s the point. In our Bible, for how many verses is it true that there was a variant tradition, the change was significant (not just a spelling error or synonymous phrasing), and one of the traditions (maybe the original or maybe the erroneous one—you don’t know) has been lost? Zero verses? A thousand? We simply don’t know.
Apologists will point to the impressive work that New Testament scholars do in weighing several variants and judging which one is likelier the more authentic. But what do they do when there were several variants but history gives us copies of only one?
Keep in mind the challenge we’re dealing with by considering some of the earliest fragments of the New Testament. Papyrus P75 has some fragments of Luke from around 200 CE. Papyrus P46, from about the same date, has some of Paul’s writings. These are our earliest copies of those books, and yet they’re separated from the originals by well over a century. How do we know that they made it through that Dark Ages period—during much of which those books were considered by Christians to be merely important works, not sacred or inspired scripture—without detectable change? Are our earliest manuscripts a fairly complimentary set of traditions simply because they happened to be the viewpoint that survived, with competing ones ignored and not copied or even deliberately destroyed?
The apologists will say that there is no proof of this. True, our version of the New Testament could be identical to the original, but why imagine this? The evidence is not there, and apologists are left with just “The Bible might be accurate.” This is a meager foundation on which to build a supernatural claim.
A faith that cannot survive collision with the truth
is not worth many regrets.
— Arthur C. Clarke
Image credit: Wikimedia