Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Review of ‘Fragments of Truth’

The folks at Faithlife kindly sent me a review version of their new documentary Fragments of Truth that comes out two weeks from today. The movie itself lasts 115 minutes followed by about 30 minutes of Q&A with Craig Evans and others. Evans also serves as tour guide (think Mary Beard style) and the rest of the narration is filled in by John Rhys-Davies, better known as the amazing Gimli in Lord of the Rings.

The basic point of the movie is to show that the text of the New Testament is reliable and that the variants that do exist pose no threat to Christian confidence in the New Testament. The closing words go further in saying that when you read your Bible, you “really are reading the Word of God.” Many Christians won’t even notice the leap from “textually reliable” to “inspired by God,” but skeptics probably won’t miss it.

Evans takes us on a tour to locations across Europe that hold some of our most famous Greek New Testament manuscripts in places like Cambridge, Dublin, Vatican City, and Oxford. One nice feature about this is that they interview the curators at most of these stops. I like this because curators often get overlooked. But not here.

The scholars interviewed are another positive of the film especially because, with a few exceptions, most of them actually work in NT textual criticism. For example, we get Larry Hurtado talking about manuscripts as artifacts, Andrew Smith talking about papyrus construction, and Pete Williams giving a little on the relevance of the versions, etc. Other NT scholars interviewed include Chuck Hill, David Trobisch, David Parker, Dan Wallace, J. K. Elliott, and Simon Gathercole. It’s a good lineup.

Watch on YouTube

For the full list of interviewees, see the IMDb cast page.

The thing I was most happy about was the production quality. This is not a cut-rate Christian film. The effects are well executed and the cinematography is very good. The shots of P66 (as seen in the trailer) really stand out. We get a reenactment of Grenfell and Hunt to open the story and then various graphics are used to explain things like how papyrus is made, how a codex was formed, or how paleography works. (Hurtado memorably calls paleography a “scientific by-gosh and by-golly exercise” and I’m pretty sure Wallace uses the technical term “mental fart” at one point to explain some variants!)

I don’t want to spoil too much, but the “groundbreaking new evidence” advertised with the film really isn’t. It will be new to those who don’t know Evans’s recent text-critical publications, but I didn’t find it convincing before and didn’t here either. (And no, it’s not a first-century papyrus.)

If I have a disappointment about the film, it is that the apologetic, which I largely agree with, is overcooked a bit. The basic message is that variants are really nothing to worry about. At one point, Evans quotes Bruce Metzger as saying that out of 20,000 lines of New Testament text, only about 40 are places where there is “any doubt at all” about what the original is. I don’t know where Metzger claims this, but that’s exaggerated.

We get some mention of problem places which are generally presented as exceptional. We learn about the agraphon in Bezae at Luke 6.4 and why Bezae was sent to Cambridge. (There is some confusion at this point between Stephanus’s text and his edition so that one sort of gets the impression that the KJV is based on the text of Bezae via Stephanus when what is really meant is only that the translators had access to some of Bezae’s readings via Stephanus.) We learn about the many corrections in P66 but, like the brief mention of Mark 16.9–20 and John 7.53–8.11, these are passed aside too quickly. Also, we don’t hear much about the cases that can be made (and have been) for theological changes in, say, Bezae and P72.

Craig Evans with P52

Part of the issue is that we never hear the view the film is critiquing from those who actually hold it. Bart Ehrman naturally gets discussed, with Wallace even saying his books have led “tens of thousands” from the faith, but we never hear from the man himself. Likewise, we hear from David Parker (contra Ehrman, actually) but not about his view of the “living text.” Nor do we hear from Eldon Epp who we might expect to give a counter to the film’s general thrust. Similarly, Brent Nongbri’s re-dating comes up in relation to P75 but he isn’t interviewed. Instead, the film quickly moves from a summary of Nongbri’s re-dating to Pete Williams who says that he sees a “structural problem” with his argument—but we never hear what it is. The film’s apologetic could actually have been stronger had some of these voices had their say.

So, is it worth going to see?

I think so. The production quality is high, the scholars interviewed are almost all experts in the field, and the manuscripts steal the show—as they should. They are, in the end, the best reason for seeing this film. I think viewers will catch some of the thrill of what it is like to see and study them in person. I’ll be taking a group of my own students to see it when it comes out and, though I will inevitably want to correct some things and qualify others, I am expecting it to spark greater interest in textual criticism.

For those who want to see it, the film will be shown in theaters for one night, on April 24 (U.S. only, I believe). Tickets can be purchased here and more info about the film is available here.


Related Resources

For those who enjoy the film and may be interested in reading more about some of the issues touched on in the film, here is a short list of further reading.


  1. Will look forward to seeing this film. Thanks for the write-up and link to the trailer.

    "Evans takes us on a tour to locations across Europe that hold some of our most famous Greek New Testament manuscripts in places like Cambridge, Dublin, Vatican City, and Oxford."

    Those places are the 'easy' ones to access. Would be great to see a documentary tour of the many monasteries and manuscripts on Mount Athos.

  2. Thanks for the review. I’ll be taking my three oldest children to see it.

  3. You mention having a frustration with the apologetic push being "overcooked." I often find this to be the frustrating aspect of many evangelical works. My congregants want to consume such pieces of work, yet do not have the background training to see where things are being overstated, or where scholarship is undisclosed (i.e. Dr. Ehrman), due to it disagreeing with the main thrust of the production.

    I am growing in my ability to help nuance discussions which my congregants want to have after such films, but my own lack of training keeps me from being able to give the insight and instruction I desire. The discussion of epigraphy is so large, how is a person supposed to weigh in on such things without having specialized training (and actually handling dozens of manuscripts?).

    1. Thanks, Ben. I understand where you're coming from. I'm working on a book project now that may help fill the void. Until then, keep doing your best.

    2. gjwolfswinkel4/11/2018 8:37 am

      That sounds very interesting and intriguing. I'd love to do a bible study season about textual criticism with young people from our church - but I'm struggling with the same issues as Ben.

      I'm sure any forthcoming books will be announced here, so I'll be watching this space :-)

  4. PG,
    First, thanks for the review, so many ‘Christian’ productions are of such poor quality I often just assume they all are. Second, it seems from what else I have read, this is intended to be an apologetic directed at Christians to confirm/strengthen their faith. If this is correct, it might be why the voices you lament not being present are not. Third, hopefully, Pastor-Teachers like Ben above, will use this as an opportunity to delve into these issues more fully.


  5. Thanks for the review Peter. I will be going to the theater to see it, but I am disappointed about them not interviewing Nongbri and others on the dating issue more thoroughly.

    1. I agree with you: they did not even contact me in Manchester. You wonder why...Actually I know why.

    2. I am sorry Dr Mazza, that is very disappointing, and frustrating, that the documentary is so overtly one-sided.
      Despite these big shortcomings, I hope that is still informative and heightens interest in manuscripts and textual criticism.

  6. Will Gimli also tell us about NT manuscript fragments from Middle Earth?

  7. That would be interesting. These Hebrew fragments don't appear to be canonical. https://wikivisually.com/wiki/File:Pelliot_h%C3%A9breu_1.jpg

  8. Thank you for the review PG!!

  9. Just to bear in mind some of the last movie enterprises of Craig Evans. You would excuse me if I am far from optimistic on the outcomes of this other movie...

  10. Anyone know if the film will be available for purchase after the theater event (blu-ray, digital, etc.)? Its not really showing in my area (over an hr drive).