Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Debunking Silly Statements about the Bible

43
There is a post about the textual transmission of the Bible at the (US) Gospel Coalition website: Debunking Silly Statements About the Bible. Unfortunately all around (for the author, Greg Gilbert, his book, the Gospel Coalition) this post contains a number of Silly Statements about the Bible. Christians who want to defend the Bible have a responsibility to know what they are talking about. Here are some quotations from the first half, with brief comments.
1. Whatever pieces of paper Luke, John, or Paul used to write Luke, John, or Romans have been lost to history, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever find a biblical manuscript about which we can say, “We are 100 percent certain this is the original piece of paper on which the author wrote.”
I think if we find a biblical manuscript on paper we can be 100 percent certain it is not the original.
2. even though we don’t have the originals, we do have thousands of other pieces of paper that contain original-language text from each book of the Bible—about 5,400 when it comes to the New Testament. These go back to the third, or second, or even (perhaps?) to the first century.
(just stepping over the ‘pieces of paper’ thing going on here) I think that it is seriously misleading to leap from a figure like 5,400 manuscripts to then say ‘these go back to the third ... century’. These 5,400 manuscripts do not go back that far. Less than 1% of that 5,400 figure goes back to to anything like the third century (or earlier, although clearly at this point none of them go back to the first century).
3. After all, the New Testament was written in the mid-to-late first century, and the earliest copies we have are from about the years 125 to 200. At best, then, there’s a gap of some 45 to 75 years between the originals and our earliest copies.
This is also potentially misleading. If we date P46 to around AD200 then we are looking at more like 140-150 years for the Pauline letters. For Mark we might have a gap of 200 years. For John perhaps 45-75 years works, but not for any other portion of the NT. Generalisations are not helpful.
4. One fascinating example is what’s called the “Codex Vaticanus,” a copy of the New Testament originally made in the fourth century, but which was re-inked in the tenth century so it could continue to be used. Do you see what that means? Codex Vaticanus was still in use 600 years after it was originally made! Therefore the claim that all we have are “copies of copies of copies of copies” of the originals is far overwrought. Indeed, it’s well within the realm of possibility that we have in our museums today copies of the originals, full stop.
A better example would be a manuscript (e.g. Sinaiticus) which shows more evidence of continuous usage than does Vaticanus. Nothing in this suggests that we have immediate copies of the originals in our museums, and as far as I am aware no one has ever argued such a case in any scholarly publication. Wishing doesn’t make it so.

5. Also, when you consider the gap between the originals and first copies of other ancient works, you can see just how small this “gap” for the New Testament really is. For example, for Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, we have exactly eight surviving manuscripts, the earliest of which is 1,300 years removed from the original!
I really wish people wouldn’t keep saying this sort of thing. It is nonsensically ill informed. In fact there are 99 early mansucripts of Thucydides, mostly papyrus, some of which go back to the third century BC, dozens from the first and second centuries (LDAB).
6. One scholar has asserted there are, astonishingly, up to 400,000 variants in the New Testament! There are several things to say about this charge. First, the manuscripts are not in fact riddled with variants, and that 400,000 number isn’t nearly as scary as it seems, even if it’s accurate. The scholar who used that number wasn’t just looking at the 5,000 pre-printing-press, original-Greek manuscripts we have, but also at 10,000 other manuscripts in other languages, and then on top of that another 10,000 or so instances where people quoted the New Testament during the first 600 years of church history! Put it all together, and what you’re really talking about is 400,000-ish variants across some 25,000 manuscripts and quotations covering 600 years. But at the far upper end, this comes out to . . . only about 16 variants per manuscript. To put it nicely, that’s really not many.
I’m really not sure where to start on this. It is nonsense from beginning to end.
Up-date: I don't know who this "one scholar" is, there are several possible candidates. It is not particularly astonishing, but without any careful definition of "variant" it is not even clear what we are talking about. It is not the case that these relate to 10,000 other manuscripts in other languages (although being manuscripts they will have variations) since the languages tend to be cited as a unit in critical discussions. The purported logic of dividing 400,000 by 25,000 and coming up with only 16 variants per manuscript is completely vacuous. It suggests a lack of understanding of how the standard critical editions actually work, and no one who works with manuscripts would think like this. Do we forget that one single manuscript, Codex Sinaiticus, has 23,000 corrections reflecting within itself at least 23,000 "variants"? Of course we should define that term whenever we use it in that context. For the only reputable published discussion of the subject see Peter Gurry, “The Number of Variants in the Greek New Testament.” New Testament Studies 62.1 (2016): 97-121. He certainly was not concerned with variants in versions and quotations in church fathers.  
7. Finally, it’s not as if the variants in all those 25,000 manuscripts just show up everywhere; rather, they tend to cluster around the same few places in the text over and over again, which means the number of actual places in the New Testament really at issue is surprisingly small. The point is that when you think about it beyond the soundbites, you don’t get a picture here of a mountain of copies with so many variants that we can’t make heads or tails of it. Not even close. On the contrary, you get a picture of a remarkably stable transmission history for the vast majority of the New Testament, and a few isolated places where some genuine doubt about the original text has given rise to a relatively large number of variations.
This is so wrong. I doubt this person has ever read a manuscript.
Up-date: Remember that there aren't actually 25,000 manuscripts (since even on the figures provided there are only 15,000 manuscripts and another 10,000 references in church fathers [where these figures come from I do not know]). The claim that textual variants within the New Testament "tend to cluster around the same few places in the text over and over again" is not supported by any sort of reality. Open the standard critical edition, some pages have more variants than others, some passages have more variants than others, but by and large variants are spread over the whole text of the Greek New Testament, from Matt 1.3 (whether to read ZARA or ZARE) to Rev 22.21 (whether to read AMHN at the end or not), there is no real clustering in the sense that only a few places within the New Testament text have variants - every page normally has dozens of variant readings cited with manuscript and versional support. How many passages are really "at issue" in the sense of textually uncertain is an interesting question and could be answered in different ways depending on the scholar or group of scholars (in NA28 there are diamond readings indicating that the editors are uncertain; there are many differences between different editions). Uncertainties exist even in relation to some questions of theological significance. And finally, to say that there are "places where some genuine doubt about the original text has given rise to a relatively large number of variations" has things the wrong way around: it is the variant readings in the manuscripts that give rise to our genuine doubt about the original text.

Surely we can do better than this.

43 comments :

  1. This doesn't have a connection with Porter and Pitts, does it? :-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Y u so cranky bro?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you're going to make comments like this, you should at least have the courage to attach your name to them. Posting comments like this as anonymous is cowardly. -Elijah Hixson

      Delete
    2. Not really cranky, no. Until it reminded me of fact-checking wikipedia.

      Delete
  3. Your sources? Much better than the Gospel Coalition, a well respected Evangelical organization, I'm sure...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous,
      On this particular subject, Peter's sources = reality. The technical term for the mixture of overgeneralizations, outlandish claims, and plain falsehoods that Gilbert is spreading = gobbledegook.

      And Peter is pulling his punches, clearly; a more detailed analysis of Gilbert's article could easily find more inaccuracies and problematic claims.

      Delete
    2. Dear Anon,

      Perhaps 30 years of research and publishing on the subject have provided Pete with something by way of "sources" that might have be more secure than the off-the-cuff weblog post which never should have seen the light of day.

      Delete
    3. Which points would you most like sources for? I'm happy to discuss and defend any of the details. Of course on points 6 and 7 I didn't really provide any critique only exasperation. But if you need the problems unpacked then just ask.

      Delete
    4. Peter Malik, did you attend a college in Alberta 8ish years ago?

      Delete
  4. Thanks for addressing this, I read the same article and thought there were several questionable assumptions. How would you yourself respond to the tabloid the Gospel Coalition author was addressing? My apologies if you've already done so on this site and I've missed it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The "Newsweek" article has a lot of silly statements in it. No doubt. I don't think we mentioned it here. Probably enjoying Christmas instead. Mike Kruger wrote a fair bit about it. http://michaeljkruger.com/?s=Newsweek&x=0&y=0

      Delete
    2. Ben,
      You can find my response to the Newsweek article at
      http://www.thetextofthegospels.com/2015/01/the-bible-so-mispresented-its-sin-26.html

      Delete
  5. What I appreciate most about this post is that Pete is an evangelical textual critic.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Peter Gurry,

    Welcome to my world. You should see how hard it is to dissuade people of nonsense-claims about the ending of Mark, once they are stated by someone like Norman Geisler or John MacArthur (or Daniel Wallace, for that matter).


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. James,
      Except, in the case of the ending of Mark, the evidence, yes I have read your articles, etc., demonstrate that it is indeed your position that is considered by the vast majority of experts as untenable! Even as Gurry noted, the author of this article.

      Tim

      Delete
    2. Archepoimenfollower,
      (I'm trying really hard not to plunge into a defense of Mark 16:9-20 and a review of some of the outlandish claims on the subject that have been spread by "the vast majority of experts")

      As far as the subject at hand is concerned, it's not a matter of the contents of one's *position* but rather of what one says about the evidence. When someone says that Eusebius shows no awareness of the existence of Mark 16:9-20, and that several Ethiopic copies of Mark end the text at 16:8, he is simply *incorrect* /about the empirical evidence.

      Being correct does not give anyone the right to spread misinformation.

      Delete
  7. And another thing: considering how much of Gilbert's book-excerpt is gobbledegook, what does that say about the text-critical competence of the folks who endorsed the book? I'm looking at *you,* Darrell Bock.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  8. So then Peter, could you please do an equivalent positive post like the Gospel Coalitions that summarises our basis for confidence in the transmission, the relative dating of sources etc., but which doesn't contain the errors/generalisations that you mentioned?

    The gospel coalition article is helpful for believers who hear constant critiques like "the bible was written late", "the copies we have are too late", "the tranmission process was unreliable". An accurate summary like theirs would be marvelous.

    So for the History of the Peloponnesian War example for instance, can you give us an example that isn't erroneous and yet which shows how comparatively speaking, the copies we have of the New Testament are still relatively early when compared to other ancient texts we are confident about.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. https://biblioblogtop50.wordpress.com/featured-blogger-interviews-biblioblogs-com-archive/peter-head-806/

      Delete
    2. Peter has made his case, more than once. Have a look at these two relatively short booklets (though they require a bit more engagement than a blog post).

      https://grovebooks.co.uk/search?q=peter+head

      Delete
    3. So then Anonymous, could you please do your homework by reading "Is the New Testament Reliable" by Peter Head which summarises our basis of confidence in the text of the NT: https://grovebooks.co.uk/products/b-30-is-the-new-testament-reliable

      Delete
    4. Thanks for the plugs here

      Delete
    5. I'm not trying to be antagonistic. It would just be great to have a comparable post like the Gospel Coalitions.

      A link to books to be purchased (which I'm sure are great books), is not the same as what that article does, and the interview article doesn't really do anything comparable (because the purpose is different).

      So this is a humble request for Peter to do any equivalent post to the Gospel Coalition's if you have the time. It would be a great blessing to be able to refer people to something like that which is also free of errors.

      Delete
  9. There is a common argument in popular Christian literature, in fact following older arguments made by Kenyon and Bruce, that the gap between the NT writers and its manuscripts is very slim compared with comparable classical texts. But while this literature tends to be keen on the latest figures on early Christian papyri, they have not realised that the same sources of early Christian papyri have provided many hundreds of early literary papyri for classical texts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is a consistent problem in evangelical apologetics circles. Even in Comfort's new "A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament" (2015) uses this argument, stating that there are "over 5,500 manuscript copies of the Greek New Testament" and that "No other work of Greek literature can boast of such numbers. Homer's Iliad, the greatest of all Greek classical works, is extant in about 650 manuscripts; and Euripides's tragedies exist in about 330 manuscripts" (p. 19).
      These numbers, of course are quite a bit off and for a respected Evangelical textual critic, is an unfortunate blunder.
      As Peter Head pointed out above, according to the Leuven Database of Ancient Books, if one simply searches "Homer," and "Ilias" in the advanced search, there are over 1,500 hits.
      Apologists will cite a source like Comfort's commentary in their arguments because he is a well respected (for good reason) manuscript expert in Evangelical circles. Instead, apologists should learn to use the sources that papyrologists and classicists use.

      Delete
    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  10. "I’m really note sure where to start on this. It is nonsense from beginning to end."

    Good thing this isn't scripture or there would be one more variant to "note"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for that. Now I have fixed and up-dated it, your comment will be the decisive evidence that such an error once existed.

      Delete
  11. I personally don't think you can defend the truth and accuracy of Scripture as the Word of God with untruths and inaccuracies.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely! Your work is an encouragement and an inspiration to us all.

      Delete
  12. Peter Head,
    Thanks for this. The disinformation the author cited is common in church settings specifically because few will challenge it for fear that accurate information will negatively affect people's faith.
    As a Pastor, I have found the opposite to be true, when people hear and understand the truth their confidence in scripture is strengthened.

    Tim

    ReplyDelete
  13. Peter - that was a kickass critique!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thanks Ryan! insert laughing emoji here

      Delete
  14. The book chapter this is taken from clarifies two things. He says he's using 'paper' as shorthand for papyrus etc. And he gives the sources for the stats.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hi. I am not a scholar, more of a wannabe bar-stool apologist. Because of this I don't understand your exasperation....can you explain the over-stated arguments for the reliability of the NT in v.v.v.simple terms? Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 1. There are many non-evangelical scholars (e.g. Erhman) who mock those who believe in the fundamental reliability of Scripture. Their critique sounds plausible because of the silly and uniformed things that Christians so often say about the New Testament manuscript tradition.

      2. Scholars like those on this blog devote their lives to showing why, without making inaccurate and misinformed statements, we can indeed trust the reliability of Scripture.

      3. Writers like Gilbert ignore the life work of such scholars—which just sets up #1 all over again with a vengeance, giving further credibility to those who argue that Christian's faith in Scripture is simply wishful thinking.

      That, if I am not much mistaken, is why Peter (Head) is frustrated.

      Delete
    2. I'm not sure that it is that personal, although I agree with the general point. It is frustrating when arguments that would fail in an undergrad paper are paraded on such a prominent Christian website. It doesn't glorify God to be so cavalier with evidence and arguments.

      Delete
    3. Thanks Elizabeth for the question. I have tried to answer you with an up-date in the final two sections on the blog. I hope that is helpful.

      Delete
  16. Robert Marcello of the CSNTM wrote a nice piece on Danial Wallace's blog criticising Gilbert's article.
    http://danielbwallace.com/2016/02/12/debunking-silly-statements-in-greg-gilberts-debunking-silly-statements-about-the-bible-an-exercise-in-biblical-transmission/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry, misspelled Dr. Wallace's name, should be Daniel.

      Delete
  17. Dear Peter,

    Just wanted to let you know that he got the Thucydides manuscript figure from Norman Geisler: A General Introduction to the Bible, Revised and Expanded

    It's a table chart just before the 23rd chapter of the book. Obviously it's heavily outdated.

    ReplyDelete