Fundamentalist Arguments Ad Absurdum about the “Original” Text of the NT

Fundamentalist Arguments Ad Absurdum about the “Original” Text of the NT February 25, 2019

Editor’s Note: Fundamentalist Christian thinking gets bashed again in this post written by a Clergy Project member who is also a highly respected New Testament scholar.The following is reprinted with permission from his blog.

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By Bart Ehrman

I’ve been looking for a scrappy question to tangle with, and I just received one!

QUESTION:

You make the case that we do not have the original New Testament manuscripts.  In fact, we do not have any complete manuscripts of books that eventually became part of the New Testament until the 3rd century, correct?  The response often given by fundamentalist Christians is this:  So, you don’t believe that Socrates died by drinking hemlock?  You don’t believe that Julius Caesar was Emperor?  You don’t believe that Plato wrote Plato’s Republic?  The manuscripts for Jesus are superior in quality to the manuscripts for other historical figures.

This is sort of a sneaky way of convincing people that if they don’t accept Jesus (his historicity or divinity?) than you don’t believe anything about ancient history.  I am guessing that you aren’t a scholar of ancient Greece.  But in a debate with a fundamentalist Christian, it’s often tempting to pretend to be one simply to swat away these silly arguments.

What do you think is the best argument in response to this?

RESPONSE:

Fundamentalists are amazing creatures.  I have to admit, deep down I admire their focus and simplicity (I don’t often tell anyone this!).   They have one particular point of view, it is simple and direct, and they are going to stick to it no matter what.   It’s refreshing, in its way.

The downside is that doing so leads to all sorts of crazy arguments, illogical assertions, non-sequiturs and nonsense.

This particular argument is that if we don’t know for certain what the authors of the New Testament wrote, then that must mean we don’t know anything about the *things* they wrote *about*.  And that must mean that those things aren’t actually true.  And if you take that logic, than we don’t know if *anything* is true.  Maybe Jesus was a Buddhist monk!  Maybe Julius Caesar wrote the book of Revelation!  Maybe the Bible was given to us by Martians!  Hey, why not!

In simple terms this is known as an argument ad absurdum.  An argument ab absurdum takes an argument, plays it out to a conclusion (which is always something ridiculous, and is, in fact, almost never the conclusion that would sensibly be drawn), points to the absurdity, and concludes that the flaw is in the argument itself, since no one could accept that conclusion.  And so, for example, If there was a newspaper article about Apollo 11 that had factual mistakes in it, that must mean we can’t trust the article, and that must mean we never landed on the moon, and that must mean that the whole thing is a hoax, and that must mean that we can’t land on the moon, and that must mean that maybe the moon really might be made of green cheese.  Is *that* what you want to think?  Huh?  Huh?   (Implication: this article must be 100% correct).

Specifically, with respect to the fundamentalist argument ad absurdum about the manuscripts of the New Testament – why doesn’t anyone simply look at our surviving copies and ask whether they all agree or not (none of them do, in many many details) and then ask whether it is possible to get experts together to concur at every place of the Greek New Testament what the original texts said (in fact it is *not* possible).  If that can’t be done, why not simply conclude that there are places where we don’t know what the NT originally said?

The vast majority of those places will be very small, picayune little details that no one even cares about.  I’ve always (always!) said this (even if people, on either side, never seem to hear me say it).  On the other hand, there aresome places that matter for how one can interpret a verse, or a passage, or an entire book; and some of them are deeply relevant for understanding what this, that, or the other author really thought about one important issue or another.  These claims should be *entirely* non-controversial.  They are simply true.

But fundamentalists who think that every single word of the Bible has to be the one God directed the authors to write, and if it’s not then we can have no guidance for how to live or what to believe, and then we can believe just about anything, and therefore we can just as well become inveterate hedonists or raging tyrants (or both) and…. And so the argument goes.

So let me say as plainly as I can: the problems with the Bible are indeed the problems we have with every literary text from the ancient world.  These problems don’t make the Bible stand out as a sore thumb.  Every text copied by hand has the same problem.  Yes, it is a problem for Plato’s account of the death of Socrates.

How then can we know if Socrates drank the hemlock?  We don’t know it because we believe Plato’s Phaedo (where the account can be found) was inspired by God and inerrant in its every word.  We have to examine all our sources of information, evaluate their merits, critically weight their claims, compare them to one another and other contemporary documents, determine if they are generally reliable, ascertain the possible biases of the author that may have affected his reporting, and … and and and – we have to do the work of historians.  One alternative to doing history is having faith.  You could simply believe that the Phaedo is the inspired word of God so everything it says is necessarily accurate.

But here is the final point, in some ways the most important one.  Fundamentalist and conservative evangelicals often argue that since we have so *many* manuscripts of the New Testament – far more than for any other book from the ancient world (to no one’s surprise, since the copyists in the Middle Ages who preserved our ancient literature for us were, after all, Christian monks!  Of *course* they’ll copy their cherished scriptures more than other books) – that since we have so many manuscripts then we can trust that we have the New Testament in the original form and therefore we can trust what it says.

It is that final “therefore” that should make you screw up your eyes and ask, Huh???  (The first “therefore”is a non sequitur as well, but I won’t get into that here.) (BTW, when reading a logical argument you should always ask what the “therefore” is there for.)   Why would having thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament mean you can trust what it says?

It actually makes zero sense.  That’s easiest shown with an illustration.   Do we have any doubt at *all* about what Adolph Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf?  There are millions of copies in print.  One of them is a first edition signed by Adolph Hitler!   There is no doubt about what Hitler wrote in the book.   Does that mean we can trust what it says?

Trusting the *content* of a content of a book has no relation to its manuscript tradition.   The manuscript tradition could be *terrible* (we have only one massively fragmentary copy of Cicero’s de Republica, e.g.); but what the author said in the book might be completely true.  On the other hand, the manuscript tradition could be *excellent* (e.g., for the Communist Manifesto), but what the author(s) said in the book might be completely wrong.  You judge the contents of a book differently from its manuscript tradition.  No relation.

Textual critics are experts who try to establish what an author originally wrote.  For the New Testament, there is an abundance of evidence.   For the first fifteen years or so of my scholarly career, I was obsessed with it and devoted my life to it.   We do our best to know what the author’s words were.  My guess is that most of the time we’re right.  But it’s only a guess – there is no way to know, given the state of our evidence.

That is not a problem for most people, any more than it’s a problem that we may not know in some passages the original words of Plato’s Phaedo.   But it *is* a problem for fundamentalists, who insist that we must and do know the very words God inspired.  I’m sorry, but even though it’s a focused and simple view, it just doesn’t pass muster in the face of masses and masses of evidence.   The evidence can be ignored or … a person can stop being a fundamentalist!

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Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here.  Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project.  He has given The Rational Doubt Blog permission to repost public blogs, like this one, from The Bart Ehrman Blog

  >>>Photo Credits: By Dan Sears – Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41276400

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • French Pandora

    “You don’t believe that Julius Caesar was Emperor”

    And spiders are insects.

    *Facepalm*

  • Cozmo the Magician

    I can refute the whole ‘infallible word of god’ bullshit very easy. PI does NOT equal 3. Case closed. Oh , and bats aint birds, and whales aint fish. And FFS, the world is not a fucking snow globe with windows above it,

    • Lambchopsuey

      Note that “locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers” have SIX legs, not FOUR as the Bible states.

      Unless those creatures are individually edited… (not recommended)

      • Cozmo the Magician

        Oh and let us not forget the most IMPORTANT thing left out of the bible; Recipe for SOAP. If GAWD was so damn smart, why did he leave that out?

  • Without Malice

    When you have a book about talking snakes, talking donkeys, a boat holding every animal on the planet, the sun standing still, water turning to wine and wine turning to blood, and men and women rising from the dead, it doesn’t matter if you have the original copies or not, it’s still all BS from beginning to end.

  • Machintelligence

    Face it: there are only two kinds of people in this world — those who divide the world into binary categories and those who don’t.

  • John Lombard

    I appreciate Bart’s well thought out argument…but I tend to take an entirely different approach. Bart’s approach attempts to engage them on their own terms, which has the unfortunate side-effect that they can simply ‘refute’ his arguments (using illogical but complex arguments to ‘prove’ he is wrong).

    My approach is to demonstrate that the argument itself is entirely baseless. I will point out that all of those other things they point to, whether they are true or not, do not have any impact on our perception of ‘reality’. If Socrates died by drinking poisoned wine or not…it has exactly zero impact on things like the foundations of my moral/ethical system, or how gravity works, or if evolution is real or not.

    I am willing to accept them as true for two simple reasons: 1) there is nothing about them which violates any ‘natural’ laws, and so they are entirely possible without any appeal to ‘higher powers’ or the supernatural; and 2) whether they are true or not, it really makes no difference whatsoever.

    How on earth can any rational person even attempt to claim that these situations are in any way comparable to a text that A) has numerous claims that completely violate natural laws, and require belief in ‘higher powers’ or the supernatural, and B) seek to fundamentally define, based on that, matters of morality, ethics, and the very nature of reality.

    There is no valid comparison here. It’s not just comparing apples and oranges. It is comparing apples and rainbow unicorns.

    Now, if they can present me with a text that I am willing to accept as true, which has equal or less evidence supporting it than the Bible, that A) has numerous claims that violate natural laws, and B) seeks to fundamentally define morality, ethics, and reality…then we have a foundation for them to make a genuine, rational, logical criticism of my rejection of their own claims! Only problem, of course, is that I hold no such beliefs.

    I think that this is a trap that many of us ex-religious leaders fall into…engaging with fundamentalists on their terms. Take the whole religious argument that “homosexuality goes against nature”…to which many atheists will respond, “Oh, but there have been tons of animals observed engaging in homosexual activity!” It seems a good argument…but is doomed to failure, because the other side just responds with something like, “Those animals have been put in unnatural situations (no opposite sex, trapped in zoo, exposed to pollutants, etc.), and that’s what caused that behavior.” It is a circular argument that can have no resolution.

    I prefer to respond simply by pointing out to them that the argument simply doesn’t work. If we are going to use nature as a guide to morality, that means that we can eat our children (many animals do), rape females (many animals do), commit deliberate murder and then consume our victims, etc. This entirely negates the basic foundation of their argument, and leaves them pretty much no foundation to continue with.

  • Jim Jones

    Is there good (or any) evidence to presume that the gospels are in any way biographical? Or indeed that they were written before the 4th century CE? After all they were written in Greek, by Greeks, for Greeks and in Greece.

    So far, they seem as reliable to me as factual history as any Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic.

    Given that, doesn’t the entire religion rest on the 4 (or 6?) epistles we can presume were written by Paul of Tarsus? Which are remarkable for the lack of any detail about Jesus obtained by Paul, first or second hand.