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.
A thought experiment
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 better align with what his spiritual leader had taught. All that matters is that we have a fork in the road, after which point we have two textual traditions for this verse.
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 change wasn’t trivial, and that one version was lost?)
I hand you a Bible and tell 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.
Here’s a rare example where historians think they know about a manuscript that was changed. It’s not in the Bible but rather in Antiquities of the Jews, written in about 93 CE by Jewish historian Josephus. Its most famous passage is the Testimonium Flavianum, a passage praising Jesus and celebrating his resurrection. Historians reject this as original because Josephus, a Jew, would never make such a pro-Christian statement. Also, the early church fathers knew about Josephus’s writings but never quoted this passage in support of their position.
It’s very unusual to be able to detect the change when you don’t have a second tradition to highlight the problem.
Can scholars pull out the original document?
Apologists will point to the impressive work New Testament scholars perform 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?
Weigh the magnitude of the the challenge 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 period—during much of which those books were considered by Christians to be merely important works, not sacred or inspired scripture—without significant change? Our best recreation of the New Testament has those books fitting together fairly well, but maybe this is because theirs is the viewpoint that survived. Maybe competing viewpoints were ignored or changed 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 “Our version of the Bible might be accurate.” This is a meager foundation on which to build a supernatural claim.
is not worth many regrets.
— Arthur C. Clarke
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/18/16.)
Image from Wikimedia, CC license