Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context

Ever hear the argument that our earliest copy of the historian Tacitus’ Annals (c. 116 CE) dates to the 9th century, seven hundred years later, but we have early copies of the Gospels dating to only a couple centuries after their composition? How about that we only have 9 Greek manuscripts of the historian Josephus’ Jewish War, but we have over 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament? Clearly we trust the historical information of Tacitus and Josephus, so we should trust the New Testament too, right? Wrong. Once more, apologists have blown up a big number, divorced it from context, and created a misleading argument that can be torn down by three simple points of clarity.

1. Factoring in Sample Bias

Scribes and ScholarsIt is true that many more New Testament texts come down through medieval manuscripts than Pagan texts, but it seldom seems to dawn on apologists to ask why this is the case. When analyzed in context, the paucity of Pagan texts is due primarily to the fact that the main apparatus of textual transmission during the medieval period was Christian monks and the church [1]. Accordingly, there was more interest in preserving Christian texts than Pagan ones. If any apologist is interested in learning more about Classical textual transmission, it would behoove him or her to pick up a copy of Reynolds and Wilson’s Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin LiteratureAs Reynolds and Wilson (pg. 48) explain, “There can be be little doubt that one of the major reasons for the loss of classical texts is that most Christians were not interested in reading them, and hence not enough new copies of the texts were made to ensure their survival in an age of war and destruction.”

Now it is perfectly understandable that, since the machinery of textual transmission was in the hands of church monks for over a millenium, more manuscripts of the New Testament come down to us than other texts. The Bible was what was being read and copied in the Christian Middle Ages and it is no surprise that more manuscripts of it survive. Other ancient texts were neglected and took a back seat to the biblical manuscripts, which accounts for there being fewer copies. If anything, the paucity of surviving classical manuscripts is an embarrassing reflection on the Christian dominated society of the Middle Ages, which did not make use of the philosophical and literary achievements of its predecessors.

Unfortunately, many Pagan texts were lost during this bottleneck, but this does not represent what the ratio of texts were in antiquity. But let’s just say, however, for the sake of argument, that remarkably a fringe, radical religion had managed to produce more copies of their texts in antiquity than other authors at the time. So what? Do we trust books today based on the number of copies that we have of them? If so, I would encourage any apologist to vouch for Quotations from Chairman Maoone of the most widely published books in world history. This leads to my next point:

2. Textual Accuracy Does Not Equal Historical Accuracy

One of the biggest misconceptions in this issue is that apologists mistake the fact that the New Testament is for the most part textually accurate, due to the multitude of manuscripts, with a confused notion that this somehow makes it historically accurate. For example, Christian apologist Norman Geisler (Christian Apologetics, chapter 18) claims, “We can be assured that the New Testament documents are historically reliable, for we have more, earlier, and better-copied manuscripts for it than any other book from antiquity.” However, textual transmission only means that we have a fairly good idea of what the original authors wrote. If what the original authors wrote was non-historical, then accurately preserving their words still doesn’t make them true. I often give this analogy to illustrate this concept: if you have 10,000 early copies of the National Enquirer versus 1 late copy of the Wall Street Journal, which would be more factually accurate?

Stack

WSJ

A late copy of a historian like Tacitus, even if it has missing sections and a few grammatical errors, is infinitely more historically reliable than several early copies of works that were never historical or factual in the first place. Put simply: accurate textual transmission can preserve the historical accuracy of a work that was originally historically reliable, but it can do nothing to improve or save the historical accuracy of a work that was originally based on ahistorical legends.

Now, if someone argues that the New Testament can’t be trusted, as a whole, because it has been textually corrupted, then I agree that apologists are correct in responding that this is false, because we have (mostly) reliable manuscripts. However, more erudite skeptics do not make this claim, but instead argue that the original text was not historically reliable. So the whole apologetic argument is irrelevant.

3. Textual Criticism Is Not a Wholistic Approach

Often times apologists claim that the text of the New Testament is 99% accurately preserved. First, this would be impossible to prove, since we don’t have the original autograph manuscripts. But more importantly, I think this is the wrong way to look at the data. Textual criticism is more concerned with focusing on individual passages and whether there is a case to be made for an interpolation, rather than making vague generalizations about the whole. The New Testament has a number of fascinating interpolations in it that reflect later theological redaction. Anyone interested in this should pick up a copy of Bart Erhman’s Misquoting Jesus

One of the most interesting inaccuracies to me is the extended ending of Mark 16. The Gospel of Mark has two forged alternate endings that appear in the manuscripts, both of which are later interpolations that change the somewhat abrupt ending of the Gospel, where the women are too afraid to report the resurrection. The original ending of Mark had no post-mortem appearances of Jesus to his disciples, and later redactors felt the need to change this by adding extended endings to the gospel. That seems like a pretty big chip on textual accuracy to me. How about Jesus’ famous words, “let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone” (John 8:7)? It turns out that this is a later interpolation and a forgery that does not appear in the earliest manuscripts. Then there are interpolations that reflect later doctrinal developments, such as Matthew 28:19, which refers to “the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It turns out, however, that this passage is a forged interpolation, used to anachronistically place a reference to the later doctrine of the Holy Trinity into earlier Christian texts, which originally had no knowledge of it. 

Simply stating that the whole New Testament is 99% textually correct takes attention away from key passages where there is clear theological redaction and not just mere grammatical errors. So my main advice would be to take textual criticism on a case-by-case basis, rather than just making blanket statements about the whole.

Put back into context, the argument from the “mountain of manuscripts” can do nothing that the apologists want it to: the numbers are not surprising when considered in their historical context, they do nothing to improve or save the historical accuracy of the New Testament, and they still do not prevent a number of theological redactions from being exposed when analyzing the text critically. This apologetic talking point is little more than a blown up number designed to dazzle people who are unfamiliar with the subject matter. I’ve told some of my Classics professors — who specialize in philology, paleography, and textual criticism — about this argument (such as the one Geisler made above), and they laugh at all the basic historical misconceptions. Exposing these misconceptions to the public and helping to educate people about actual scholarly methodology is a service that I work to provide.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] When it comes to the “mountain” of 5,800 Greek NT manuscript copies, even conservative textual critic Dan Wallace acknowledges, “it should be pointed out that most of our manuscripts come from the second millennium AD, and most of our manuscripts do not include the whole New Testament.” Here is a summary of the the distribution of the Greek NT manuscripts by date:

Graph-of-NT-manuscripts

As can be seen, the vast majority of these texts date to after the 9th century CE, which was a time when Christian monks were dominating the apparatus of textual transmission in Europe. It is thus not surprising that more copies of the New Testament were produced than other literary works during this period.

If one excludes later medieval manuscripts, Wallace notes that only approximately 124 manuscripts “come within the first 300 years,” which is a considerably smaller number. Nevertheless, Wallace also states, “we have three times more New Testament manuscripts written within the first 200 years of the autographs than the average Greco-Roman writings have within 2000 years.” However, it is important to note that these early manuscripts come solely from the region of Egypt, where the arid climate is especially apt for preserving papyrus. As Classicist Peter van Minnen (“Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts”) explains, “It is to be noticed that all the manuscripts [dating from the 2nd-4th centuries CE] come from Egypt.” Van Minnen also points out that these earliest Egyptian manuscripts do not eliminate the need for later medieval manuscripts:

“That is not to say that we can dispense with later manuscripts of the New Testament. With the exception of Sin. the oldest manuscripts are not complete. Moreover they contain scribal errors of all sorts. P46 is a case in point: it is the manuscript with the largest percentage of blunders on record! Most of this kind of errors can, however, be removed by comparing the readings of the oldest manuscripts. The remaining puzzles can only be solved by taking later manuscripts into account.”

So, these earliest manuscripts of the New Testament are both the most fragmentary and contain a large number of scribal errors. Regardless, the purpose of this article is to point out that, contrary to what Christian apologists like Norman Geisler claim, the increased manuscript copies of the New Testament has nothing to do with the historical accuracy of the text. This conclusion remains true, regardless of the number of NT manuscript copies that were produced in any period.

However, even when one also takes into account why a larger number of NT manuscript copies have survived, most of them were produced in the 9th-16th centuries CE, when Christians dominated the textual apparatus of Europe, and even the 124 (mostly fragmentary) manuscripts that were preserved from the 2nd-4th centuries CE owe their survival to the arid climate of Egypt, which was a large center of Christianity from the 2nd century CE onward.

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6 Responses to Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context

  1. Mike Gantt says:

    Matthew,

    On 1., are you not aware that even if you throw out all the medieval manuscripts the New Testament still has more earlier manuscripts than practically any other ancient text?

    On 2., of course you are right, but isn’t it worthwhile to establish whether or not we have a stable text before trying to decide whether or not the text presents us credible history?

    On 3., textual criticism is about determining the contents of the original document. The purpose of the discipline is no different for the New Testament than it is for the other classics of ancient literature. Mark 16 and John 8 are well-known soft spots in the NT text, but it’s not as if throwing them out eviscerates the NT of meaning. Does the study of Plato become futile if a couple of his paragraphs are uncertain?

    • Mike Gantt,

      This article is written primarily in response to apologists who claim that the large quantity of NT manuscript copies improves the historical reliability of the New Testament. For example, Christian apologist Norman Geisler (Christian Apologetics, chapter 18) claims:

      “We can be assured that the New Testament documents are historically reliable, for we have more, earlier, and better-copied manuscripts for it than any other book from antiquity.”

      This statement, for anyone who is familiar with the actual criteria and methodology used by ancient historians, is completely false. Geisler’s error is that he confuses textual accuracy with historical accuracy. However, textual accuracy only means that we have a relatively good idea of what the original authors wrote, not that what they wrote was factually accurate.

      For example, we also have both comparatively earlier and more numerous manuscript copies of Vergil’s Aeneid than Tacitus’ Annals, but that hardly entails that Vergil’s epic is more historically reliable than Tacitus’ history. Geisler’s claim about the New Testament being historically reliable, on the basis of manuscript copies, is thus mired with the worst sort of methodological thinking.

      You appear to recognize this when you state:

      “of course you are right, but isn’t it worthwhile to establish whether or not we have a stable text before trying to decide whether or not the text presents us credible history?”

      Of course, I agree that it is important to reconstruct the text of every ancient literary work that we can from surviving manuscript copies. That includes doing textual criticism on works of poetry, philosophy, and what not. The purpose of textual criticism is to reconstruct (to the best of our ability) the original words of an ancient text. However, we should not confuse possessing an accurate text with the notion that the text is historically reliable, as apologists like Geisler have done.

      As I state for the text of the New Testament:

      “Now, if someone argues that the New Testament can’t be trusted, as a whole, because it has been textually corrupted, then I agree that apologists are correct in responding that this is false, because we have (mostly) reliable manuscripts. However, more erudite skeptics do not make this claim, but instead argue that the original text was not historically reliable. So the whole apologetic argument is irrelevant.”

      Obviously, I agree that we have a (mostly) stable text for the majority of passages in the New Testament. However, establishing a stable text is only a necessary condition for engaging in historical analysis on a text. It is not a sufficient condition that a text is historically or factually reliable, simply because we have an accurate reconstruction of the text. That is why it is a terrible argument to claim that a text is more historically reliable, simply because we have a large number of manuscript copies.

      It is also a false intuition to think that having more manuscript copies necessarily equals a more accurate text. That may sometimes be the case, but it also depends on the particulars. For example, while more manuscript copies of the New Testament have survived, there are also more textual variations in the NT manuscripts than there are in many other works from antiquity. The large number of NT manuscripts thus also preserves a large number of interpolations and grammatical variations.

      Nevertheless, as I discuss in the article, textual criticism is something that applies on a case-by-case basis, depending on the passage in question. It is nothing more than a meaningless truism to make blanket claims, such as “99% of the text is reliable.” If the passage that is being evaluated belongs to the 1% that are in textual dispute, then that is a valid reason for doubting the text of that passage. So, as I explain, textual criticism is not a wholistic analysis.

      You, again, appear to acknowledge this when you state:

      “Mark 16 and John 8 are well-known soft spots in the NT text, but it’s not as if throwing them out eviscerates the NT of meaning.”

      Whoever said that it eviscerates the New Testament of meaning? Where did I ever even state that, Mike? It seems like you are reading far more into my article than what is actually written.

      It does matter that these passages are textual soft spots, if a particular textual or historical claim depends on a reading of one of these passages. For example, some Christians appeal to Mk 16:18 to justify snake handling, and others appeal to John 8:7 to oppose the death penalty. However, it is relevant that these interpretations are undermined, among other things, by the fact that they depend on textually disputed passages.

      Now, not all of Christian beliefs are based on textually disputed passages, so textual criticism should only come up when there is specifically a textual reason for doubting a certain argument. But there are also other reasons for doubting arguments based on exegetical and historical grounds that have nothing to do with textual criticism. Again, it is something that applies on a case-by-case basis.

      You next give pointless lecturing on subjects that you should well know that I, as a Classics Ph.D. student, am very familiar with:

      “Textual criticism is about determining the contents of the original document. The purpose of the discipline is no different for the New Testament than it is for the other classics of ancient literature … Does the study of Plato become futile if a couple of his paragraphs are uncertain?”

      Of course textual criticism applies to other texts beside the New Testament! This entire article both acknowledges and discusses this, Mike.

      Of course the study of Plato does not become futile if there are a few disputed passages in his works. I also never once, ever, said that the study of the New Testament became irrelevant because of textually disputed passages. For anyone who had clearly read my article, this would be obvious, Mike.

      You also state:

      “are you not aware that even if you throw out all the medieval manuscripts the New Testament still has more earlier manuscripts than practically any other ancient text?”

      Once more, Mike, this is something that I am well aware of. As I state in the article:

      “When analyzed in context, the paucity of Pagan texts is due primarily to the fact that the main apparatus of textual transmission during the medieval period was Christian monks and the church.”

      And, yes, this is “primarily” the case. The large majority of Greek manuscript copies of the New Testament that have survived were produced during the 9th-16th centuries CE, which is when, as this article discusses, church monks were dominating he apparatus of textual transmission.

      So, when apologists appeal to the “mountain of 5,800 Greek manuscripts,” they often fail to specify that the large majority of these are later manuscripts that were produced during the medieval period by church monks. This was a time when Christianity dominated the apparatus of textual transmission in Europe, so this should not be surprising.

      Now, it is also true that, if you cut down the 5,800 number, we have approximately 124 (mostly fragmentary) manuscripts of the New Testament from the 2nd-4th centuries CE. Taking only these earliest manuscripts into consideration, Dan Wallace notes:

      “We have three times more New Testament manuscripts written within the first 200 years of the autographs than the average Greco Roman writings have within 2000 years.”

      It should be noted that this is a considerably smaller margin than what was implied by the “mountain of 5,800 manuscripts.” So, why do we have these early NT manuscripts from the 2nd-4th centuries CE?

      Well, a big factor has to do with Egypt. As Classicist Peter van Minnen (a scholar whom I met in 2012) explains in “Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts”:

      “It is to be noticed that all the manuscripts listed above [those dating from c. 200-450 CE] come from Egypt. The papyri were found there in the twentieth century. They are now in Dublin, Ann Arbor, Cologny (in Switzerland), the Vatican and Vienna.”

      Egypt was a region that was more arid and had less precipitation than the rest of the ancient world. Because the early Christians were active in Egypt from the late-1st century onward, and because they made a lot of manuscript copies of their scriptures in Egypt (which is a region suited for manuscript preservation), our earliest manuscripts of the NT all come from Egypt. This is not surprising.

      However, this is very clearly due to a regional sample bias. We should not confuse the ratio of NT texts that have survived from Egypt with the original number of Pagan and Christian manuscripts that existed in antiquity. Many texts copied in other regions and under other circumstances would not have had as good of a chance of survival.

      Furthermore, as Van Minnen notes about these earliest Egyptian manuscripts of the New Testament:

      “That is not to say that we can dispense with later manuscripts of the New Testament. With the exception of Sin. the oldest manuscripts are not complete. Moreover they contain scribal errors of all sorts. P46 is a case in point: it is the manuscript with the largest percentage of blunders on record! Most of this kind of errors can, however, be removed by comparing the readings of the oldest manuscripts. The remaining puzzles can only be solved by taking later manuscripts into account.”

      So, even these earliest manuscripts do not necessarily give us a clearer picture of the NT text, without also evaluating later medieval manuscripts. It should also be noted that these earliest copies are almost all incomplete.

      Now, none of this matters for the main point of the article, because I clearly state:

      “But let’s just say, however, for the sake of argument, that remarkably a fringe, radical religion had managed to produce more copies of their texts in antiquity than other authors at the time. So what? Do we trust books today based on the number of copies that we have of them? If so, I would encourage any apologist to vouch for Quotations from Chairman Mao, one of the most widely published books in world history.”

      And, indeed, this point refutes the argument made by Norman Geisler that the numerical quantity of NT manuscripts supports the historical reliability of the New Testament. It doesn’t, as all of the analysis above has shown.

      If you wish to argue that having more manuscript copies of the New Testament improves its historical reliability (which is what this article is actually about), then I am more than willing to discuss this topic here in the comments. However, if you are not going to defend Geisler’s argument (which is what this article is actually about), then I would ask that you do not on post other issues that are not relevant to the content of this article. See my Comment Policy about keeping comments relevant to the original post.

      • Mike Gantt says:

        Matthew, I don’t have the Geisler book from which you’ve taken your quote, but even looking at the quote by itself I think it’s just a case of Geisler not being careful enough with his choice of words…or you being insufficiently charitable in your interpretation of him. It’s clear to me that what he means by “historical” in that sentence is that we’re reading in the New Testament essentially what was originally written – not something that’s been so corrupted that we’re wasting our time to read it. I don’t know Geisler all that well, but I think he’s astute enough to know the difference between textual reliability and historical reliability in the way that you are using the terms.

        • Mike,

          Geisler clearly states in the quote that the NT documents are “historically reliable” because we have “more, earlier, and better-copied manuscripts.” I represented exactly what Geisler said. He contrasts the NT with other Pagan texts from antiquity with an a fortiori argument claiming that we trust the historical reliability of many Pagan works, despite the fact that we have far fewer manuscript copies of them than the NT. However, this is a false equivalency, because simply having more manuscript copies does not determine whether a text is more historically reliable.

          Regardless, the point of this article is not to refute just Geisler, but other apologists who make this false equivalency between textual accuracy and historical accuracy. Even William Craig (9:08) acknowledges that many Christians make the mistake of claiming that the NT is historically reliable, simply because we have (mostly) accurate textual transmission:

          So, this is a common apologetic claim that is frequently made, and this article refutes it.

          You are not even disagreeing with what I have said, so you are just wasting my time at this point. Either explain the relationship between textual accuracy and historical accuracy, if you want to argue about the actual content of this article, or we are done.

          [If anyone is curious about why I have been rather stern in dealing with Mike Gantt above, Mr. Gantt has been trolling another blog on this topic here, where he has been making a number of false statements about my arguments in this article. Since Mr. Gantt decided to come over and comment here, as well, I decided to set him straight from the get go with my response above.]

  2. keuwai says:

    Hello,

    I’ve recently become fascinated with the doctrine of the Trinity and how it came about. Specifically Matthew 28:19 which you mentioned was an interpolation.

    What is the current scholarly consensus (if any) on the matter? It’s hard to find up-to-date stuff on the topic; I did a brief search and found an article that quoted Bart Ehrman (https://rdtwot.wordpress.com/2007/07/12/l-ray-smith-and-matthew-2819/). Apparently the Bart Ehrman of 2007 thinks that the verses are original, but I’m sure things have changed since then.

    Thanks for your help!

    • Celsus says:

      I’ll need to get back to this later. I do know that it is a contested passage (I may have needed to elaborate on it more above in this older essay). But that is all that needs to be demonstrated for this essay (namely that tons of manuscripts still doesn’t prevent textual uncertainty). But I’ll look into this when I am less busy.

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