New Testament Manuscript Reliability Less Than You’ve Been Told

New Testament Manuscript Reliability Less Than You’ve Been Told January 8, 2019

We’ve analyzed New Testament manuscript evidence twice to poke holes in claims for its reliability. In short, the manuscript evidence is pretty good considering that it’s so old, but let’s not pretend that we know with certainty what the originals said.

Let’s review those two analyses and move on to a third. Remembering that the New Testament isn’t a book but is actually a library, our third analysis looks at manuscript support for those 27 books individually.

1. 25,000 New Testament manuscripts sounds more impressive than it is

Yes, there are 25,000 New Testament manuscripts, and that’s more than any other book of antiquity. Homer’s Iliad comes in second place, with 1757 manuscripts. On the other hand . . .

  • Only 5800 of those manuscripts are in the original Greek. The rest are translations, are less reliable, and should be discarded in the quest for the best manuscripts.
  • Plot a histogram of the creation date of those Greek manuscript copies. There’s an enormous time gap between the original authorship in the first century and most of those copies. On average, it’s over a thousand years. One amusing instance of ignoring this was in the movie The Case for Christ where a priest showed an illuminated page from Homer, emphasizing that it was written 800 years after the original. What he didn’t mention was that 800 years is better than 90 percent of those Greek New Testament manuscripts (my review of that movie here).
  • The 5800 Greek manuscripts have now become just the hundred or so from before 400 CE that are closest to the originals.

That argument in detail is here.

2. The chapter-by-chapter dates tell a similar story

Codex Sinaiticus, copied in roughly 350 CE, is our oldest complete New Testament. It is a codex (that is, a book rather than a scroll), and it was written on parchment (rather than papyrus, which was the material used for the earliest copies).

It would be easy to simply point to that manuscript and be done with it, but that would mean a three-centuries-long gap from Codex Sinaiticus back to the original authorship in the first century (as early as the 50s CE for Paul’s epistles to 100 or later for John, Revelation, and many of the other epistles). We can reduce that gap with these early manuscripts but by how much?

I’ve found the date of the oldest manuscript for every chapter in the New Testament and charted the time gap to the original here. Matthew’s per-chapter average from original to oldest copy is 200 years. The per-chapter gap for Mark is a little more and for Luke and John a little less. Note that these early chapters are usually incomplete. If a fragment has only a single verse of a chapter, that counts as a “manuscript.”

The average per-chapter gap for the entire New Testament is close to 200 years. That’s a long dark ages period during a tumultuous time for the Christian message.

(Let me apologize for the upcoming deluge of details in this post. I think you’ll be interested in how the clues fit together, and I’ll try to highlight the conclusions so you can clearly see the finished puzzle.)

3. The per-book number of manuscripts is quite small

And now to the topic of this post: let’s look more closely at that handful of manuscript copies that are Greek and early (made before 400 CE).

Image from Cross Examined blog (patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined)

New Testament Greek manuscripts are sorted into categories. Papyrus copies, usually scrolls, tend to be the oldest. Parchment copies, usually codices, were written on animal skins. The source data for this table is Wikipedia here and here.

To improve on Codex Sinaiticus, this is what we have to work with. The gospels have a decent number of manuscripts—16 for Matthew and 22 for John—but 16 books have 3 or fewer early manuscript copies, and 3 of those have none.

(I erred on the cautious side when making that table, including all manuscripts from 400 or earlier.)

The Matthew manuscripts

Let’s take Matthew as an example to see how the puzzle pieces come together as we move forward through time. Start with the original Matthew, written in 80. Our oldest manuscript is P104 (papyrus #104), dated to 150. It has 7 fragmentary verses from one chapter of Matthew. Keeping in mind that these dates are just educated guesses, that means that 70 years after the original we have less than 1% of the total.

By 200, we have 4 manuscripts and 3% of the verses of Matthew.

By 250, 9 manuscripts and 13%.

By 300, 13 manuscripts and 16%.

And by 350, we have 20 manuscripts and our first complete one, Codex Sinaiticus. At this point, most verses still have only a single version, but at least we have a copy for each.

The other gospels

The numbers are similar for other books, but there’s a new wrinkle. Early manuscripts of Mark would have just 6 verses (less than 1%) before Sinaiticus except for manuscript P45. Add P45, and now we have 23% of the verses in Mark.

The story is similar with John and Luke. They have a decent number of manuscripts (9 for Luke and 22 for John), but manuscripts P75 and P66 along with P45 probably double their pre-Sinaiticus percentage.

Add in P46, which contains a lot of the epistles, and we see these early manuscripts in a new light. We’re trying to recreate the original book with the oldest manuscripts, and our tools are now one complete codex (Sinaiticus) and four good-sized papyrus fragments (P45, P46, P66, and P75). The remaining 65 manuscripts from before 350 are of secondary importance because they typically hold only a dozen verses or so.

Manuscripts: a closer look

Let’s return to Matthew to look at a couple of manuscripts in more detail. Remember that “by 300 CE, we have 16% of the verses of Matthew” means that we have one or more words of 16% of the verses. Consider Papyrus P62, which has Matthew 11:25–30. That’s it—those six verses are a “manuscript.” But it’s not even that since each of those six verses is incomplete.

And don’t imagine that these early manuscripts do little but boringly validate each other. This summary of the character of manuscript P45 is from E. C. Colwell, a paleographer (expert in ancient handwriting).

As an editor the scribe of P45 wielded a sharp axe. The most striking aspect of his style is its conciseness. The dispensable word is dispensed with. He omits adverbs, adjectives, nouns, participles, verbs, personal pronouns—without any compensating habit of addition. He frequently omits phrases and clauses. He prefers the simple to the compound word. In short, he favors brevity.

This scribe, writing in roughly 250, apparently felt little hesitation to improve the text of the Bible, so we should anticipate that from the scribes of other manuscripts.

If the few manuscripts that we have admit that the early Christian centuries were a turbulent time for the biblical message, we must expect at least the same amount of volatility in the perhaps hundreds of manuscripts that are lost. We can only imagine the changes made in the journey from originals to our best copies.

Conclusions

We’ll pull back from all these details to find some conclusions.

  • Let’s review some definitions. “Early” in this domain needn’t be especially early. An early New Testament manuscript could be from 400 CE or earlier, which makes it three centuries or more after the original. “Manuscript” might only be a fragment containing a few verses, and a “verse” need only be a single word.
  • Remember that we started with 25,000 New Testament manuscripts and the claim that that’s a far better foundation than any other ancient document. That number became 5800 Greek manuscripts. Then it became the oldest manuscripts, less than 100. And now the focus is on a single complete codex (Sinaiticus, made roughly 300 years after the originals) plus 4 primary papyrus manuscripts with other manuscripts secondary. This is the foundation that scholars use in recreating the New Testament originals. Those scholars do impressive work, but let’s remember the fragmentary evidence they are stuck with. We can’t be certain what any verse originally said. I have a thought experiment that is helpful to make this point.
  • Even where we have an impressively old and comprehensive manuscript such as P45, we still have a big confidence gap. P45 was written a long time after the gospels—close to 200 years—and it has a unique voice so that merging it with other sources to recreate the original isn’t a simple process.
  • We must be appropriately cautious about manuscript dating. Perhaps you’ve heard about the recent fiasco about a claimed first-century Mark. New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace announced in 2012 that a papyrus manuscript containing a fragment of Mark had been reliably dated to the first century. After six years of rumors (and much bragging by apologists), this manuscript has been re-dated to the late-second/early-third century timeframe. Paleography is a tricky business.
  • All this is a process to get back to the original books, but even if we had them, they would still tell an ancient supernatural story with nothing more to recommend it than any other ancient supernatural story.
  • Let’s accept the popular apologetic argument that the New Testament manuscripts make a better record than that for any other ancient author—Homer, Thucydides, Herodotus, Sophocles, Julius Caesar, and so on. So what? Nobody much cares if Caesar’s On the Gallic War is full of errors. We don’t take any of their supernatural claims as history, and we certainly don’t use their writings as a template for how to live. A comparison with the Bible is meaningless.

Continue: see this data in visual form here.

Belief in God is based on nothing
but wishful thinking and a fear of the dark.
— commenter Bob Pattinson

.

Image from Jakub Kriz, CC license
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  • Lex Lata

    Thanks, Bob. Interesting analysis.

    1. I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t take this opportunity to mention the “first-century Mark” farce, though. A case study in motivated thinking and apologetics shenanigans (with a dash of still-unexplained scholarly intrigue).

    2. The 25,000 figure is not only rendered unimpressive when deconstructed as you’ve here; it’s also just rhetorical dazzle-dazzle that elides the key epistemological weakness of many biblical narratives. Simply put, written accounts (new or antique) are crummy support for the miracle claims they contain. Believers feel the same way, of course, when talking about the signs, wonders, spirits, and deities in the other fella’s scriptures. But their own? Inspired, accurate, best-attested, etc. It’s an exercise in special pleading and double standards.

  • Greg G.

    I have wanted to investigate this. I always think of it after I have gone to bed and I never think of it in the morning.

    One phrase that always bother me is “the original Greek”. The Greek manuscripts are in Greek but we don’t know about the original.

    Researchers identify verses by how similar they are to the known Bible verses. When they find a scrap of parchment that does not correspond to the known writings, they lose interest in it. How do they know it isn’t the original text of an original autograph? Having matching scraps as evidence for the reliability of the New Testament might be a circular exercise.

    • What would the originals be written in if not Greek? You’re thinking Aramaic, perhaps? I’d not heard this theory (except for Papias saying that Matthew (?) was originally in Hebrew).

      Yes, I’ve had the thought in your final paragraph myself. A manuscript with crazy stuff on it that doesn’t match anything so far known might be part of the original of any NT book.

      What surprised me in this analysis most was the comment on the mindset of the author of P45. I’ll never be able to compare the originals myself, but I’m sure there must be a good summary of what one can conclude about how harmonious (or not) these early manuscripts are. I need to find it.

      If you’re curious, here’s a brief article on the authors of 3 of these manuscripts. It emphasizes the Wild West nature of the first few centuries. I’m amazed that scholars can, with a straight face, say that they’re confident that our NT is basically identical to the original.

      • Greg G.

        What would the originals be written in if not Greek? You’re thinking Aramaic, perhaps? I’d not heard this theory (except for Papias saying that Matthew (?) was originally in Hebrew).

        The New Testament was originally written in Greek but this article is questioning whether what we have is the original Greek. “In the original Greek” sounds like it is actually the words that were originally written.

        What surprised me in this analysis most was the comment on the mindset of the author of P45. I’ll never be able to compare the originals myself, but I’m sure there must be a good summary of what one can conclude about how harmonious (or not) these early manuscripts are. I need to find it.

        That is news to me. The scribe must have been frugal cheap a skin-flint.

        If you’re curious, here’s a brief article on the authors of 3 of these manuscripts. It emphasizes the Wild West nature of the first few centuries. I’m amazed that scholars can, with a straight face, say that they’re confident that our NT is basically identical to the original.

        I am curious but I am at work and the site appears to be blocked. My cell phone 4G is sketchy inside the building and it didn’t want to go there. Maybe I will be able to read it on the way home driving through heavy traffic.

        • Drive safely.

          Yes, I did mean the original Greek referring to the autographs.

        • Greg G.

          To be the original Greek it would have to say what the autograph said. If a word was changed, it is no longer the original Greek but edited Greek or miscopied Greek..

        • I didn’t mean word-for-word identical but identical in meaning. Maybe I wasn’t clear in the post?

        • Greg G.

          The phrase is a peeve of mine as it opens a door for the two-bit apologist.

        • Cozmo the Magician

          beep beep

      • Cozmo the Magician

        It is always better in the proper Klingon.

    • Aside: have you tried the hyperlink code? Ages ago, in the Disqus Stone Age, linked words were in color. Now, they’re slightly bold. Too much of a pain to use, methinks.

      • Greg G.

        I did use it once but added the URL to the text. I blame Patheos. The links stopped being blue when Patheos changed the style but they still work everywhere else. The question is whether they intentionally put a style for the id that Disqus uses for their links that made them essentially invisible.

        I used to like to use <a>to make the text blue.</a> but it quit working with the new Patheos format..

        • eric

          I put the underline tag around the hyperlink tag to “fake it.” e.g. [u] [a href=…] text [/a] [/u] but with the correct brackets.

        • That works, but it’s more hassle than it’s worth to develop the habit, I think.

        • Greg G.

          I either just put the URL in with a space or a return at the end (No punctuation!). If I make the title a link, I will put [LINK] or something like it inside the anchor tag.

        • Curses! Readability could’ve taken a step forward into the bright light of the 21st century but didn’t.

  • Greg G.

    P52 is often touted to be the oldest manuscript so it is closer to the autograph as if it supports the reliability of the older manuscripts. It is very small with holes in it. The visible text matches up to the text of John but one of the holes isn’t big enough to have included all of the missing text. Their favorite example works against the claim of reliability.

  • Ficino

    Please, let’s NOT have someone who posted in the past come back and post all over again about the purported first century papyrus fragments of gospels. Those are NOT first century. The claim has been refuted on here many times.

    If one of the old Christian apologists comes back and posts the same long-since-refuted claims all over again, as though they had not been refuted, I vote for banning said Chr. apologist.

  • Kit Hadley-Day

    this topic is like a window into theology as a whole, your last statement is perfect, Why are we arguing about the details when the concept makes no sense, it’s like arguing about the number of scales on a dragon, we have images of dragons going back for millennia and we could count, codify and deduce from them average scale density and size, however that would not make dragons any more real. and why would we do dragon scales and not unicorn horns.

    • Michael Murray

      You don’t have to believe in a god or a divine Jesus to think it’s worth trying to understand the history of how Christianity arose.

      • Kit Hadley-Day

        I agree, but that is not why most of the people who insist on making the argument debunked in this post are doing it, they are trying to claim that because there is a cave painting of something that looks like a dragon that we should all be sacrificing our virgin daughters to the dragons that clearly exist (oh and give us all your money and we will protect you from them)

        Anyone who actually looks at the rise of Christianity can clearly see it was a convenient tool used by those in power to control the masses that got away from them, think the sparrows in game of thrones. but most of the people who are advancing this argument don’t, and can’t, believe that as it would destroy their world view.

  • epeeist

    Needs more pictures.

    Why not a timeline diagram similar to this one on human evolution

    https://i.pinimg.com/736x/06/58/eb/0658ebee070d920d04ccf3dc007278d8.jpg

    But replacing the skulls by manuscripts and the time by percentage completion.

  • ThaneOfDrones
    • Interesting!

    • epicurus

      Very interesting, makes me think of all the biblical archeological work done with the goal of proping up the OT. Hector Avalos talked about that in his book “The End of Biblical Studies.”

      • ThaneOfDrones

        Similar things have been done in non-Biblical archaelogy. For example, you probably all have heard that the city of Troy was found. Well, sort of. Someone went looking for ruins of a city in the expected place, at the expected time, and they found ruins. But they did not find a “Welcome to Troy” sign at the city limits. They just figured, “right time, right place; this must be it.”

  • RichardSRussell

    “Homer” may not have written The Iliad and The Odyssey exactly as they have come down to us, but the structural requirements of the poetic form used in those works, plus the linearity of the timelines in the unified stories they tell, makes them far less likely to have been tampered with than the free-flowing, disconnected patchwork fables of the Bible.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    Let’s accept the popular apologetic argument that the New Testament
    manuscripts make a better record than that for any other ancient
    author—Homer, Thucydides, Herodotus, Sophocles, Julius Caesar, and so
    on.

    Take a step back. What are they arguing for? If someone is arguing for the existence of a historical Homer, then it must be pointed out that someone wrote ‘the works of Homer.’ In the case of Jesus H. Christ, He is the subject of New Testament writings, not the author. So the closer analogy would be arguing for the existence of a historical (but pseudonymic) Matthew, Mark, Luke an John, nor a historical Jesus.

    • RichardSRussell

      Who wrote the works of Paul Bunyan?

    • Cozmo the Magician

      I kinda like you. Even read “Stranger In A Strange Land”?
      RAH was awesomesauce

      • ThaneOfDrones

        I read SiaSL back in my college days – i.e. over half a lifetime ago.

        It was fun reading RAH, but he did have his fascistic tendencies.

        • Cozmo the Magician

          “but he did have his fascistic tendencies” ??? What da funk and wagnalls are you talking about? He created many characters who were fascist but he himself was a kind and caring person. If you have ANY evidence to dispute this, please feel free to cite. If not, I await your apology for saying something bad about a great man

        • ThaneOfDrones

          I never met the man, all I know of him is the writings he produced. Some of which were not particularly pro-democracy.

        • Cozmo the Magician

          Riiight.. Moon is a Harsh Mistress was all about supporting a tirranical gumbint… Please feel free to cite ANYTHING that he wrote against democracy .

          Or even quote any Lecture he gave against democracy.
          I have read every word of his I can find, and NOWHERE is you claim supported by his writings or talks.

          As the saying goes ‘Put up, or shut up’

        • ildi

          point

          In truth, Heinlein’s shift to the right took place over a decade, from 1948 to 1957. In the early 1950s, the Heinleins travelled around the world. The writer was already a Malthusian and a eugenicist, but the trip greatly exacerbated his demographic despair and xenophobia. “The real problem of the Far East is not that so many of them are communists, but simply that there are so many of them,” he wrote in a 1954 travel book (posthumously published in 1992). Even space travel, Heinlein concluded, wouldn’t be able to open enough room to get rid of “them.” Heinlein treated overpopulation as a personal affront.

          Heinlein had caught a bad case of the Cold War jitters in the late 1940s. He accused liberal Democratic friends, notably the director Fritz Lang, of being Stalinist stooges. With Heinlein’s great talent for extrapolation, every East-West standoff seemed like the end of the world. “I do not think we have better than an even chance of living, as a nation, through the next five years,” he wrote an editor in 1957. The USSR’s Sputnik launch in 1957 and Eisenhower’s moves toward a nuclear test ban the following year both unhinged Heinlein, who called Ike a “slimy faker.” By 1961 Heinlein concluded that even though it was a “fascist organization,” the John Birch Society was preferable to liberals and moderate conservatives.

          https://newrepublic.com/article/118048/william-pattersons-robert-heinlein-biography-hagiography

          contra-point

          Me, I’m not that interested in arguing for or against the merits of the political model Heinlein lays out here. It’s pretty much been done to death, and as best I can tell, the question has been settled among most intelligent readers: Heinlein wasn’t some kind of fascist, and it takes a willful misreading of Starship Troopers to consider him one. Restrictions on franchise have been part and parcel of plenty of perfectly non-tyrannical representative governments, and his goes out of its way to give its people as many ways to qualify for citizenship as it can, and makes doing so as painless — and always voluntary — as reasonably possible.

          Now, that said, critiques of the book as military propaganda hold some merit.

          https://io9.gizmodo.com/5439145/starship-troopers-is-perfect–and-therein-lies-the-problem

  • Jim Jones

    My starting point is that the genuine Pauline epistles were written in the early 1st century (although I’m not sure now why this is true) however the gospels were written around 350 CE.

    Where’s the evidence to date them earlier?

    • I’ve heard credible historians argue that the bad times alluded to in the gospels were not the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE but the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the 130s. But 350 is seriously late. Where did you hear that?

      Arguments against that would be: gospel manuscripts dated to the second century + quotes from the gospels in writings of the second-century church fathers.

      • Jim Jones

        I used to accept the post Bar Kokhba revolt as the time for the gospels, however I now see no reason to posit them before Constantine.

        I’d like to see good evidence for an earlier date or dates. I’m certainly willing to accept such evidence, however the best I’ve seen so far is “that looks like my granny’s writing” claims.

        As for “quotes from the gospels in writings of the second-century church fathers” all that offers is quotes that they used which were also used later in the gospels. Considering how much of the OT is ‘borrowings’ from earlier cultures that isn’t nearly good enough. There wan’t too much originality in those times.

        The best evidence would be a critical book or books on Christianity that we could date. There may have been one however it seems the Christians refused to preserve copies of such.

        Glycon is far better attested thanks to coins, statues and Lucian’s savage attack on it.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glycon

        • If you’re putting together a case for late dating, I’d like to see it. The “early” gospel fragments would be what apologists would put forward first, though I agree that that’s not rock-solid evidence.

          Handwriting appearance can be tricky when a venerable scholar’s style can be clung to for decades after his death by his students, long after the mainstream has moved on.

          Here’s an interesting carbon-14 dating factiod: “C-14 dating can usually distinguish between items from ca. 40 and 130 CE, but not between items from ca. 130 to 220 CE, even though it is the same time-span.” In short, C14 dating in practice is a little messy.

          The article, with a chart showing the corrections needed to turn C-14 ratios into dates:
          https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2018/11/21/more-on-carbon-14-dating-of-manuscripts/

          Glycon is far better attested thanks to coins, statues and Lucian’s savage attack on it.

          Oh, sure–just because Jesus didn’t have any of his writings survive him like Julius Caesar. Or have busts or coins with his name like Augustus. Or have frikkin’ cities named after him like Alexander. Sure, just because there’s basically zero evidence for the historical Jesus, you want to attack the historical Jesus!

          I think you’re just biased.

        • Jim Jones

          I’m just looking for a place to stand. Then I’ll look at evidence to move earlier. I doubt that anyone would go later than ~ 350 CE although I have a faint memory of something. Maybe in Michael Baigent’s books?

        • Jim Jones,
          The amount of raw ignorance required for the notion that the Gospels come from the time of Constantine or later is staggering.
          Read the copious quotations from the Gospels in the writings of individuals such as Irenaeus (c. 180) and Tertullian (c. 190/210) and this alone should be sufficient to permanently free you of that ridiculous idea. The means to read English versionsof the works of Irenaeus and Tertullian are online, so this should be easy.

        • Jim Jones

          Prove it. And remember, you have to prove there was no forgery by Eusebius, or anyone else.

          When there’s a ton of motive to do such forgery, as the epistles prove.

        • “Prove it”? The patristic writings are at your fingertips, online, in English.
          And you just ignore them? Yes you do.
          There’s no cure for this level of determination to deny reality.
          Let the readers beware.

        • Jim Jones

          I can’t top you for”determination to deny reality”.

          Fiction pretending to be fact is no basis for life.

        • Jim Jones

          We don’t know who wrote them. We don’t know where they were written. We don’t know when they were written. And if A looks like a copy of B, we don’t know if B is a copy of A. It’s all assumption.

          This stuff is less reliable than fan fiction – and bears a strong resemblance to that genre.

      • Cozmo the Magician

        Just out of curious… Ever read any really cool time travel novels? Jesus was A) an Alien. B) Jesus was a time traveler C) Jesus was a Borg?

        Just asking.. Fun stuff. I will leave it to the audience to research.

        Literacy. Literacy. Litercacy

        • epeeist

          There is always Behold the Man.

          Not quite in the same vein but I liked Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star.

        • I Came To Bring The Paine

          It would be cool if someone made a movie based on the predestination paradox of time travel where a seriously devout Christian uses a time machine to travel back in time to meet his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, only to find himself in the desert near the Jordan river to get baptized by John. He figures he arrived in a time before Jesus so he decides to preach the coming of the kingdom of God instead. On his way he recruits twelve people to preach with him…..

          ….eventually he gets arrested, crucified, buried… you know the rest.

        • Grimlock

          I’d watch that. Probably with copious amounts of alcohol.

        • Cozmo the Magician

          hhmmm… He would have to accidenty stumble into the time machine while investigating Obama’s secret pedophile pizza dungeon (;

        • Greg G.

          Like the guy who eventually gave up trying to convince people that he was not blind from birth, and that a bird pooped in his eye and Jesus flushed it out with spit.

        • Is that … Life of Brian?

        • No. Completely different movie. Life of Brian is about Brian. A couple of times (Nativity and wilderness preaching) Jesus is observed at a distance, but the action both times is about baby Brian and his selfish mom, and an argument between listeners having difficulty picking out the actual words (“blessed are the cheezemakers . . . “) and otherwise just being obnoxious (“big nose”) or plain dicks..

        • Kuno

          I remember reading a short story quite a while ago about a timeline where Jesus wasn’t crucified and centuries later ruled as immortal emperor of Rome. This Roman Empire was in a very long and devestating war with the Aztecs (or Maya, I don’t remember which). A Roman centurion somehow, I don’t remember how, time-travels to 33 CE and realizes that the only way to stop the war was to stop Jesus back then. He checks his pockets and finds he has 30 silver coins with him and the story ends with him approaching Judas.

        • As epeeist relates, there is the Behold the Man novella (1966) and science fiction novel (1969) by British writer Michael Moorcock.
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behold_the_Man_(novel)

          With a similar end result is the The Once and Future King (The Twilight Zone Season 2 – Episode 25a of the 1986–87 show).
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Once_and_Future_King_(The_Twilight_Zone)

          But this time its Elvis impersonator Gary Pitkin who ends up through an accidental time slip meeting Elvis Aaron Presley (pre-fame era) and decides to take over his beginning career after the real Elvis dies from being impaled on a broken guitar during a brawl that starts over music preferences.

        • al kimeea

          brawls over music preferences – smh that it is a real thing…

        • I actually recall at least one line of dialogue spoken by actor playing Elvis. The impersonator, trying to rush the “evolution” of performance style developed over time by Elvis – demonstrates the hip gyrations (that the first Ed Sullivan Show tried to avoid). Elvis is horrified, and says, “My momma wouldn’n like THAT!”

  • skl

    The commentaries and questions and criticisms of the New
    Testament’s reliability will probably be endless. If there ever is an end, I
    suppose it would be with the people who approved the writings, and likely more
    importantly, with whether those peoples’ beliefs were consistent with their
    predecessors.

    • Cozmo the Magician

      Can I have some dressing with that word salad? I tossed some myself. I prefer a nice vinegrette. Your russian don’t make me happy. Ever made a MEATBALL? Pasta!!

    • Doubting Thomas

      It would be better if they cared if their beliefs were consistent with reality, not their predecessors. But, alas.. Christianity .

  • Cozmo the Magician

    Anybody remember the “Declaration of Independence”? I remember that there was JUST ONE. Ever seen that MOVIE? LOL. Yup JUST ONE of those was ever written RIGHT?

    Amazeballs is that people actually believe that the ‘history’ is 120% true long before there was even a printing press.

    Lets conduct an experiment.

    Psst. Psst… “Bobby stole Suzie’s lunch money… Pass it on”
    See how it changes…

    My theory is that it will be changed into something totes diff.

    Back when I was a child the game was called ‘telephone’ IRONY. Did we CHANGE the story just for FUN? Or did the story change because children could NOT actually pass on stuff with accuracy?

    Consider that the life of a person at the time was what we would call a ‘child’

    I’m in 50’s.. I would be a ‘Wise Old Man’. And I can STILL fuck with peoples heads O_o Been doing it for decades.

    Yeah…. Guttenberg had the right idea, maybe for the wrong reasons. LITERACY!

    Nuff drunk rant

  • rationalobservations?

    It’s worth remembering that after the 4th century fabricated cult of “Jesus” was cobbled together and so very brutally imposed upon the world, fewer than 5% of the population were members of any of the “messianic” cults of Mithra, and others.
    The 95% of the population who were devout followers of the “real” gods and then orthodox religions rejected or ignored the then new “Jesus” heresy for a while but after seeing their holy temples and holiest artifacts destroyed, they were offered the option to “convert or die”. No one knows how many died rather than submit to the nonsense and cruelty of 4th century founded “christianity”.

    The whole mythology of “Jesus” makes no sense and has not one single shred of tangible historical evidence at all. There’s no evidence of the existence of Jesus and exploits that appear in bibles written centuries after the time in which the fiction they contain is set.

    According to the OT prophesies and NT legends – “Jesus” could not be the “messiah” even if there was some shred of evidence of his existence.

  • Ficino

    — We have thousands of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament! And classical works, we have very few manuscripts. The exposition of the impious philosophy of Epicureanism, for example, written by Diogenes of Oenoanda, exists in but a single copy! So the NT is reliable because it’s a better evidenced text than any other ancient piece of writing.

    — Negative, as your example shows. Diogenes of Oenoanda himself paid for his summary of Epicureanism to be carved as an inscription in the agora of Oenoanda. It is contemporary with the author and supervised by the author. No extensive NT manuscript is closer to the purported dates of writing than some three centuries. And the higher the number of manuscripts, the higher the total number of errors of copying.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    There are 1000’s if not MILLIONS of copies of Steven King’s “IT” therefore we should all worship The Clown! Oh.. wait… lots of people DO worship the Clown in washington. O_o

  • Gary Whittenberger

    Bob, this is an excellent piece — well reasoned and articulated. Thanks for the effort you put into it.

  • Superb article!

  • Herald Newman

    Hey Bob, it looks like your “thought experiment” post has lost its content. Any way you can fix this? I was able to dig up the original content from the Wayback machine ( https://web.archive.org/web/20160430205518/https://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2016/04/a-simple-thought-experiment-defeats-claim-that-bible-is-accurate/ )

    • Greg G.

      I notified him about “Turning the Tables on Same-Sex Marriage? Not with THIS Argument (2 of 2).”

    • Greg G.

      I was able to respond through Disqus because the account is not set to “private”.

    • Thanks. That seems to have been a temporary glitch. I think it’s fixed, but let me know if it recurs.

  • DanD

    I’m not arguing in support of manuscript reliability, but I do question your decision to discard translations as a first step. While a translation obviously does not represent the exact wording of the original, it does, frequent, represent an independent line of transmission, and the number of independent lines of transmission is, to my mind, more important than the number of manuscripts. If a Syriac and a Latin translation both contain a phrase that is missing from one line of Greek manuscripts, but not from another, and we know both translations predate both Greek manuscripts, it’s at least some evidence that the Greek translation containing is closer to the original.

    • IIRC, I’m rejecting (1) translations that are also (2) late. Any translation that precedes Greek copies gets on the list.

  • Question 1:

    “Only 5800 of those manuscripts are in the original Greek.”

    If I stipulate that we only have 5,800 Greek extant manuscripts and they all tell the same story, is this not sufficient to conclude that someone thought these event important enough to make so many copies? If we have 5,800 Greek manuscripts that have survived time and decay, how many were originally copied from the autographs? Likely tens of thousands, which did not survive. Since we have good copies in P46 of entire texts from before 225, this is sufficient evidence that the autographs were written not long after the events took place. Original autographs could easily survive for 2-300 years. Jesus told the disciples that He would “bring to their remembrance” all things He said and did, and that they were “witnesses” of these things. Then He told them to take what they saw and heard and disburse it to the whole world, which is precisely what history shows they did. The appearance of the Codex before the end of 100, was used exclusively by Christians. This allows us to understand that the disciples were writing the events of Jesus on papyrus not long after the events took place.

    • MR

      …is this not sufficient to conclude that someone thought these event important enough to make so many copies?

      Not necessarily, we can’t really say what their motivation might have been. More importantly, it doesn’t tell us anything about whether or not what is written is true.

    • It’s all addressed above. If I responded with specifics, I’d just be repeating the post.

      If you think a 200-year gap between original and our best copies, which is the case for Matthew, doesn’t raise the possibility in your mind that the copies were “improved”? If not, then I guess we see things differently.

      • What do you mean by “improved?”

        There is no evidence in the record that the fundamental story of Jesus claiming to be God, performing miracles to validate His claim, being crucified according to the prophecies of the Old Testament, and being raised on the third day, according to the scriptures, was ever changed. There is no change in the manuscript copies which are in conflict with fact the Hebrew prophets who predicted the exact kind of Messiah that Jesus presented to the world.

        Please provide me with evidence that the events I listed above, were ever changed. in any later manuscript copies.

  • Jim Little

    * “Plot a histogram of the creation date of those Greek manuscript copies. There’s an enormous time gap between the [supposed date of the] original authorship in the first century and most of those copies.”

    • Yes, good point. Are you concerned that the typical dates are wrong?

  • Greg G.

    https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/reading_in_the_original.png

    I wanted to post this where it would be on-topic so I clicked the Patheos search function, intending to search for “cross examined manuscripts”. That phrase happened to be the first suggestion in the drop-down. It is spooky, especially since I was catching up on xkcd going backwards and the comic I had just read was:

    https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/predictive_models.png

  • Some of the statistics in this post are messed up. For instance, it should have been spectacularly obvious to the author (as it is to anyone with a modicum of familiarity with the relevant materials) that there are more than one manuscript of Galatians made before the year 400. The author even mentioned two of them in this very article! Such fundamental shortcomings tend to make the author’s conclusions rather dubious.

    • I’m missing the error. Did the post say that there was only one manuscript of Galatians before 400?

      Such fundamental shortcomings tend to make the author’s conclusions rather dubious.

      That’s a rather harsh critique: “One typo, and into the trash it goes!” Maybe you can salvage it. Or are you just trying to find an excuse to ignore it to support your existing conclusions?

      • Bob,
        Look in the list titled “Early (400 CE or earler) New Testament Manuscripts.” For Galatians, your list includes one papyrus, and no parchments. Which is wrong. The same error cascades for the remainder of the list, i.e.; this is not just one typo; it is an error involving 19 of the New Testament’s 27 books. So, yes, into the trash it ought to go. Start over.

        For some idea of how to salvage the kinf of exaggerations that you have attempted to address, see http://www.thetextofthegospels.com/2017/05/the-case-for-christ-what-it-gets-wrong.html .

        • into the trash it ought to go. Start over.

          I gave the sources. Show me that they’re flawed.

        • Bob,
          If you cannot see in a glance that they are flawed, you really have no business writing on the subject, and you owe your readers an apology for giving them the impression that you do.

        • If you cannot see in a glance that they are flawed,

          If you can’t see at a glance that saying, “My post is more authoritative than your source” isn’t an argument, then I guess I’m not surprised. You want to point out the errors in the Wikipedia tables? Great–go for it. Convince me, and I’ll update the post. But when I invite someone to make an argument and they double down with bluster, as just happened, I’m not anticipating a productive conversation.

        • MR

          Wow, that’s quite a formidable opponent you’ve got there, Bob. I haven’t seen that tactic used since…, Junior High.

        • Lucky for me he didn’t challenge me to “step outside so we can settle this.”

        • MR

          More like, “My dad could beat up your dad.”

        • MR,
          More like, If you are aware of the existence of Sinaiticus, which you claim to be, then you should see plainly, in an instant, that a list which says that there are no parchments of the book of Galatians, and of many other New Testament books, is spectacularly wrong. No argument should be needed for such a point; to anyone acquainted with the relevant evidence — even a little teensy-tiny bit — it should be spectacularly obvious.

        • MR

          Then produce the evidence. Show exactly where Bob is wrong so he can correct it instead of using schoolboy taunts.

        • MR,
          The evidence is right in front of you. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus are parchment copies from the 300s; they both contain Second Corinthians. Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, First Thessalonians, Second Thessalonians, Hebrews (up to 9:14 in Vaticanus), James, First Peter, Second Peter, First John, Second John, Third John, and Jude.

          Anyone with a reasonably decent internet connection can go online and see these manuscripts, page by page, for themselves.
          Vaticanus is at
          https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.gr.1209
          See? Proof that Bob’s list is completely bogus.
          Sinaiticus is at
          http://codexsinaiticus.org/en/manuscript.aspx
          See? More proof that Bob is rather clueless on the subject that he is writing about.

          You’re welcome. “Schoolboy taunts” indeed.

        • MR

          And Bob discusses the Sinaiticus. He states right in his post that it’s the first complete one. Your beef seems to be he needs to update a chart or something. That doesn’t materially change the point of his post that I can see. You’re implying he’s being dishonest (You’re the one who made a dishonest statement about me, by the way), and yet he offered to update the post. You just seem to want to howl and be a dick. Do a few more numbers get us the originals? If we had the originals would it even matter?

          For my part, I’ve always found that the Christian who is arguing for God’s existence because of some ancient manuscripts is showing just how poor their argument is. Even if we had original manuscripts, supposedly we’re talking about an omnipotent, loving, active god in the world today, and if they’re pointing to manuscripts 2,000 years ago, or in this case 1,700 years ago and crying, “Bu-bu-but, manuscripts!” Well, they’ve already spectacularly lost the argument in my mind. People dispute events that happen today the very next day.

        • MR,
          <>

          And thus should realize that the list in his article cannot be correct, right? Right. So he should repair his material, and start over, with a better grasp of the materials which he presumes to teach his readers about.

          That’s all the pearls you get from me today, folks. What a toxic forum.

        • MR

          Dude, you’re the one who came in here with the toxicity. You walked in being an ‌asshat, when you could have said, “Hey, Bob, I think you got some numbers wrong.” You probably would have had a very different reaction. And still, nothing you’ve said changes the point of Bob’s post. “New Testament Manuscript Reliability Less Than You’ve Been Told” Uh, yeah. That’s absolutely true.

          If he made an error in his chart, sure he should correct it. But that doesn’t change the the meat of his post. I mean, it’s well known that the manuscript evidence is sparse. All your hand waving doesn’t change that. I glanced at that link you provided dissing the “Case for Christ” and it went more to Bob’s point than to yours. The fact that you are absolutely apoplectic, “You forgot the Sinaiticus!” I mean, having a fit about adding one more manuscript kind of underscores how pathetic the evidence actually is. That’s what you cling to? Even if he missed dozens of fragments, does that budge the needle? The key factor that I’ve always seen is that there is a huge gulf from the Sinaiticus to any supposed actual events. That’s a stunning point; let alone the question, Is any of it true, and if so, how much of it is true? Why are Christians even talking about ancient manuscripts if God is alive and well and working in the world today?

        • “Schoolboy taunts” indeed.

          Indeed. Your goal was to insult, not to inform.

          Next time, lead with the offer of correction, not with the demand for apology.

        • As if you’ll listen. Next time, I will know to ignore you.

        • You’re adorable! You get double Christian Ambassador points this time.

        • As if you would listen to any approach however mild. How about just fixing your materials and stop deceiving people instead of trying to make this about someone else? ‘Cause it’s not. It is about you and the false statements you have been spreading (and continue to spread).

        • Junior high students would be more honest.
          Bob doesn’t seem to mind pretending that he is clueless about the subject that he professes to instruct his readers about. I feel almost as sorry for him as I do for them.

        • MR

          An honest person wouldn’t taunt like you, they would simply produce the detailed evidence.