Last week, we examined just a small icicle of the iceberg that is the evidence that the Old Testament has come to us as one of the most reliably transcribed and transmitted works of literature of the ages. This does not touch on its truth or the accuracy of the stories it tells, only the fact that what we have in our modern Bible translations is what the original authors wrote. We will address the “veracity,” that is the truthfulness, of the Bible in a later blog.
As we noted the New Testament was written in a completely different culture and society than the Old Testament, even though it was still mostly written by Hebrews steeped in Jewish traditions, history and culture. The influence of the Greek and Roman societies and governance had profound affects on the focus of the New Testament as Hebrew society was under the dominance of these “foreign” powers for so long after Malachi completed his final prophecies of the Hebrew canon of scripture, or as Christ’s followers call it, the Old Testament.
Add to that the “technological advances” in writing. The first part of this “technological revolution” from the Iron Age (ending about 1200 BC) was the development of alphabets that included vowels (the Old Testament is written in a consonantal alphabet), the spread of tradesmen across the Mediterranean, Europe and the Arabian nations, and the refinement of tools, including utensils for writing and refinements in papyrus, vellum and parchment. This may not be as earth-moving as the modern technological revolution with computers but in its day was a significant development.
Let’s recall our criteria for judging the reliability of ancient texts: 1) The closer you can get to the time of the original writing, the less opportunity there has been for mistakes to have made their way into the text; 2) The more agreement you have among copies of the text, the more certain you can be of the text’s accurate transcription; 3) Copies that vary greatly in time must not show significant changes.
Scholars have attempted to reconstruct something of the history of the oral traditions behind the Gospels, but the results are pretty much moot. The period of transmission is short: less than 40 years passed between the death of Jesus and the writing of Mark’s Gospel. This means that there was little time for oral traditions to assume fixed form, and very little time for exaggerations to enter the narrative. Any deviation from the true story would have been met by a host of reporters declaring, “That’s not the way it happened!”
The original “autographs,” those copies that were actually written by the authors have all been lost, probably shortly after they were first circulated. The reason for this loss may have more to do with God’s plan than mere human clumsiness. We are so prone to worship of objects that if autographs of Paul or any of the gospel writers existed, how long would it take for cult-like worship of these items to develop, rather than an examination of what they say?
Mark’s gospel is likely the first book written by a protege of Peter, followed by Luke and Matthew, although there is some dispute over this order, even among evangelical scholars. The rest of the New Testament was written between 50 AD and 90 AD with the Revelation of John (sometimes called Revelations or The Apocalypse) being the last book to be composed.
The authorship of several books is also debated, but modern scholarship is divided by those who are also Christ-followers and those who are not. The Christ-followers tend to take the books of the New Testament at face value for what they teach, including the miraculous, which of course the atheist and non-Christian find absurd. For example if Jesus was who He said He was, predicting the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13/ Matthew 24) would be a simple thing. If one does not accept Jesus as the Son of God, then such detailed prediction would be unlikely even for an avid political student of the day, and most likely would be accounted by the “prophecy” being written after the event.
But the focus of this blog is on the reliability of the transmission of these books into our New Testament. The point of this is that the New Testament authors were men who knew Jesus or his closest followers, and wrote within the lifetime of these same men, fulfilling our first criterion for reliability.
The second criterion for reliability, agreement of multiple copies, is fulfilled in the expansive number of New Testament documents available, either in full or quotations by first or second century scholars. There are more than 24,000 partial and complete manuscript copies of the New Testament. Many of these manuscript copies are very ancient dating into the first, second and third centuries, and they are still available for inspection now. There are also some 86,000 quotations from the early church fathers and several thousand church-service books containing scripture quotations used in the early centuries of Christianity.
By practicing the science of textual criticism, comparing all the available manuscripts with each other, we can come to an assurance regarding what the original document must have said. Let us suppose we have five manuscript copies of an original document that no longer exists. Each of the manuscript copies are different. Our goal is to compare the manuscript copies and ascertain what the original must have said. Here are the five copies:
Manuscript #1: Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole worl.
Manuscript #2: Christ Jesus is the Savior of the whole world.
Manuscript #3: Jesus Christ s the Savior of the whole world.
Manuscript #4: Jesus Christ is th Savior of the whle world.
Manuscript #5: Jesus Christ is the Savor of the whole wrld.
Do you think you could compare these documents and determine what the original said? Of course! This illustration may be extremely simplistic, but a great majority of the 150,000 variants are solved by the above methodology. By comparing the various manuscripts, all of which contain very minor differences like these above, it becomes clear what the original must have said. Most of the manuscript variations concern matters of spelling, word order, and tenses. Not a single doctrine of Christianity is affected by these in any way.
We must also emphasize that the sheer volume of manuscripts we possess greatly narrows the margin of doubt regarding what the original biblical document said. If the number of manuscripts increases the number of scribal errors, it also increases proportionately the means of correcting such errors, so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the exact original wording is not as large as some try to claim; it is in truth remarkably small.
Among the ancient writings, copies were always made of important works, not just scripture. Invariably, these copies began to dissolve due primarily to the physical deterioration of the material upon which they were written. Thus a time gap developed between when the original work was written and the oldest existing copy of the original. All things being equal, the closer the copy is to the original, the more accurate it is regarded as being, presumably because there has been less time for mistakes to creep in during transmission. Compare the following works of ancient literature with the New Testament:
Along with these, there were several historians of the ancient world whose works are read today. Thucydides, who wrote History of the Peloponnesian War, lived from 460 BC to 400 BC. Virtually everything we know about the war comes from this writing of Thucydides. The earliest copy of any manuscripts of Thucydides’ work dates around 900 AD, making a time gap of 1,300 years. The Roman historian Suetonius lived around AD 70 to AD 140. The earliest copy of his work The Twelve Caesars dates around AD 950, making a time gap of about 800 years.
The oldest complete manuscript of the New Testament as we know it today dates to about 250 AD, a time gap of less than 200 years. But the many quoted sections and fragments mentioned before all match up so closely with this copy that we become very confident that the New Testament fulfills our third criterion for reliability.
As stated before, there is no book in history that has been more reliably preserved and translated than the Bible.
The question remains for next week, June 14, 2015, given that the Old and New Testaments are the most reliably transmitted literature of ancient times, how do we assess if what they they teach is true?