Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Older is better

Warning: Long post ahead!

As promised yesterday, I'm kicking off my series on Biblical Reliability today. I'd like to point out, again, that I do not intend to solve the question of whether the Bible is credible, reliable and trustworthy to the extent one can use it as an authoritative work, or even more, believe it is the word of God. The question of scripture's accuracy has been bandied about for, well, as long as the books within the Bible have been in existence. It is beyond my abilities to solve a question that has been discussed by theologians. (This may bring up the question, "why are you doing this then?" - to which I'd respond, "because I want to.")

However, I do hope that the evidence I lay forth does demonstrate that a belief in the authority of the Bible is rational. Additionally, even for those who reject the sum of my arguments as unpersuasive, this should at least help you understand my worldview, which should help your understanding of future blog entries be more accurate. I want my biases and beliefs to be transparent, and Biblical reliability is a foundational element on which my beliefs are built.

There are many arguments used to defend Biblical reliability. I'm choosing to start at the level of the Gospels, and work outward from there, and I'm choosing to begin my examination of the Gospels with the "original" manuscripts themselves. (I put the quotation marks around the word 'original' to reflect that we do not have the original manuscripts, but we do have some that date to very close to the actual events as anything we've seen in the ancient world.) As the song goes, let's start at the very beginning: the oldest copies of the texts themselves.

For the uninitiated, the Gospels (translated, Gospel means "good news") are the Biblical books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These New Testament (NT) books are the primary biographies of Jesus of Nazareth, aka Jesus Christ. While not the only sources of information regarding Jesus, they are the most comprehensive. If one believes in Jesus, it is most likely from these Gospels that one gets a notion of who/what Jesus is. Or at least, what others claimed about Jesus.

So how trustworthy are these biographies? First, we would like to know how trustworthy are the texts, themselves, as historical documents. After all, if they were written as fictional accounts in order to prop up a small sect of religious fanatics in the ancient mid-east, they are worthless for building a worldview.

When looking at the texts, we need to keep in mind that these are considered ancient documents. In judging their quality as historical documents, we must compare them to similarly ancient documents. When historians analyze writings from the ancient world, they look for number of copies, age of the copies relative to the events or people discussed by the text in question, and consistency of the copies themselves.

In these regards, the NT in general, and the Gospels specifically, hold up remarkably well. To the first question, there are over 5,000 manuscripts of the NT in Greek alone, with another 9,000+ in other languages. These manuscripts range from passage fragments to entire books. Some claim the number is as high as 24,000 total partial or complete manuscripts of the NT exist today. Regardless of whether we use the 5,000, 14,000 or 24,000 number, we have a large number of manuscipts from which to base NT translations. This far outstrips any other text contemporary to the NT. The standard comparison is with Homer: we have fewer than 650 known copies of Homer's Iliad. Apart from the 200 pieces of Demosthenes' works, almost all other ancient documents are supported by fewer than 10 manuscripts. In other words, the NT is in a class all its own in terms of number of existing manuscripts. I'd say that is even underselling the quantity of manuscripts.

To the second question, we want to look at the dates of the texts. Intuitively, the sooner a writer records an event, the less likely it is that errors, biases or embellishments will find their way into the texts. Again, the NT is remarkable when measured against this standard. Scholars (excepting the fringe liberal scholars, ala the Jesus Seminar) generally date the entire NT as within the first century A.D. The Gospels themselves are usually dated between 62 A.D. (Mark) to 90 A.D. (John). While there is some quibbling, the usual arguments do not vary much more than 30 years away from these dates. Many of Paul's letters date to the 50's A.D., which is only about 20 or so years from the events themselves. In terms of history, this is amazingly close to the events at hand.

Yes, you may say, but these dates reflect the original manuscripts. We don't have these, so how old are the oldest surviving manuscripts? Good question, and glad I made it up. There are manuscript fragments that date back to within about 25 years of the original. Most NT books are found in fragments dating to the 2nd century A.D. There are even some fragments (disputed, to be sure) that some scholars date to before 50 A.D. Even taking the longest number of about 250 A.D., - and this is granting critics more than the evidence demands - we have a gap of ~220 years from Jesus' life to our oldest manuscripts.

I say that evidence does not demand we grant a date of 250, and this is because we have fragments dating to the early 100's A.D. But even our large allowance is impressive by ancient textual standards. The next smallest span of time between the original and oldest remaining texts is about 500 years (again, the Iliad). Most other ancient writings have gaps twice that long. Again, the NT dwarfs the competition. This is important because historians generally accept many other ancient documents as historical that (a) have fewer existing manuscripts than the NT, and (b) were written further in the past, with a longer time between original composition and our oldest manuscripts.

The final historical test is whether the texts were carried forward faithfully. In a time before printing presses, copying of texts was labor-intensive. Regardless of the number of manuscript copies we have, if the NT texts all differ from each other wildly, they could be deemed less trustworthy than other ancient documents despite "advantages" in number and date.

Yet again, the NT stands tall. It is estimated that there are roughly 200,000 errors across the manuscripts. Seems a large number. However, over 98% are estimated to be variants of spelling or punctuation. None of these changes the meaning of the texts. Of the remaining variations, it is estimated that ~50 have any real significance at all. This is, indeed, a challenge for Biblical translators. But it is a manageable one. There are sufficient manuscripts to resolve the original meaning of almost all passages.

In contrast, the Iliad is judged to be about 95% accurate. Hinduism's Mahabharata is estimated to be about 90% accurate from copy to copy.

So, from a perspective of historical textual criticism, the NT holds up very well. This doesn't prove a darn thing, though, other than that we have some old manuscripts, very consistent in content, and written very close to the time in which the events they describe occurred. Again, this is but one part of a set. I'll continue tomorrow - hopefully with more brevity - with the credibilty and authority of the authors themselves.
I am indebted to the following sources for the information in this post:
Geisler, Norman and Frank Turek. I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Crossway Books, Wheaton Ill (2004). -- cf. chapter 9.
Ron Rhodes


Not Crunchy said...

This is a helpful summary of the state of knowledge on early Christian manuscripts. Last night I was reading through "The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity" and came across a lot of this same information. One idea that this book presented, and which I have heard referred to as "proof" of the validity of Christianity is the amazing perserverance of the religion, no matter how one might personally feel about the religion. Something very powerful occurred to make the apostles (I hope that is the right word) risk their lives to spread the message of Christ. As an interesting coincidence, tonight in my art history class we viewed a video on this very subject! It came up in relation to the established infrastructure and common greek dialect throughout the Roman Empire, which allowed Paul to travel and spread the word. I'm going to do some more reading on this particular historical period of Christianity - before Christians really got a foothold on power and Constantine freed them from persecution.

R. Stewart said...

Yes, most of this information has been around a long time. One of the reasons is that in general, the arguments haven't been refuted, at least not to an obvious extent.

While not "proof" of anything, this ability of the apologetic to stand the proverbial test of time is certainly a mark in its favor.

Likewise, while not "proving" anything, the perseverence of the early church, especially in the persecutions of Nero, Diocletian and Decius seems to indicate the faith has a very real impact on people. As you rightly state, these folks saw something that made them willing to risk their lives. And it's not like the Apostles were a brave bunch to start with. They hid in the garden of Gethsemane; Peter denied knowing Jesus the night of His "trial." Something changed them, and did it radically.

Again, this does not prove the case, and there have been folks willing to die for other causes as well. But it's evidence that something seriously life-altering happened to these folks. It lends credibility to the story.