Myths & Mistakes: The Big notes
I have become one who likes to read a lot. Sometimes there are books that provide useful information here and there, sometimes you read a book and all the information is a repeat from previous books. This book, however, authored by Elijah Hixon and Peter J. Gurry (Foreword by Daniel b Wallace) provided many new and updated insights about the New Testament.
A disclaimer: There may be the appearance that some arguments we love to use have been weakened – that is correct, we need to get rid of some bad popular thinking in Christian apologetics, this is mainly due to outdated information. The other type is incorrect information. We have fantastic evidence but sometimes we get too ‘fantastical’ with the data and make claims we simply cannot defend, and I would argue there is no need to.
Also there are some points learned here which are new arguments we can make and some with far superior in terms of value than before. Pay close attention, I took nearly 20,000 pages of notes but I’m going to obviously give you the condensed version of what I learned and what you can learn too.
And I will indeed do a social media series on this incase this is long-winded and uninteresting to you.
Firstly if you’ve read the book, what this blog says will be nothing new, connections I make from this content to other stuff will be in my posting series (Wheveer I get around to that, I know I’m pretty inconsistent at the moment).
Also I’ve gathered some videos online related to the book by the author or contributors to this book. See below.
We don’t have the originals
“We do not have now—in our critical Greek texts or any translations—exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it. There are many, many places in which the text of the New Testament is uncertain. But we also do not need to be overly skeptical”.
It’s a pretty obvious factor most of us know but it’s worth reinforcing. Is it a problem? No, and it never should be for you. The goal of finding the original manuscripts that John or Paul penned is unnecessary. What we need to know is: When comparing our modern Bibles to the ancient manuscripts, is the Christianity the same back then as we have today? Is Christianity wildly different in theology, beliefs and doctrines, did they have different books? If the answer is no, then that should alleviate a lot of your worries (And don’t worry, they’re all in-tact).
As Stephen Neill argued over fifty years ago:
“The very worst Greek manuscript now in existence . . . contains enough of the Gospel in unadulterated form to lead the reader into the way of salvation.”
Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861–1961, The Firth Lectures, 1962 (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 63-64, quoted by Peter Gurry in chapter ten.
Well that’s good! And to note: most manuscripts are fine, but you could take a discarded manuscript which contains mistakes and wasn’t intended for public use and it would still do enough. So even bad won’t get you a new form of Christianity.
“Obviously, at first I thought the arguments I was picking up from reading John Warwick Montgomery, F. F. Bruce, Josh McDowell, and others were pretty darn good! But once it became a matter of evaluating probabilistic arguments, weighing evidence, much of it impossible to verify, much of it ambiguous, I found it impossible to fall back on faith as I once had.”
Robert M. Price, The Case Against the Case for Christ: A New Testament Scholar Refutes the Reverend Lee Strobel (Cranford, NJ: American Atheist Press, 2010), 9.
This is a statement made by Robert Price, a now fringe atheist scholar. His statement is sobering and serves as a warning against irresponsible apologetics. Price traces the beginning of his “deconversion” to bad arguments presented by apologists. We cannot afford to do this, I myself am revising my textual criticism series to use far clearer and accurate information to stop doing what, honestly most Christian apologists are doing: reusing arguments going back to FF Bruce. These are now very out of date, and we’ll get into that later. We christians pursue truth, let’s prove it.
It is a term I’ve wrestled with and I’m going to share some learnings about this historically.
The remains of a letter found in the Roman city of Oxyrhynchus dating to the second century illustrate both the commercial and private circulation of books in striking detail. Part of it relevant to us reads, “Have a copy made of books six and seven of Hypsicrates’ Men Who Appear in Commodies and send it to me. Harpocration says that Pollio has them among his books, and probably others may have them too. And he also has prose epitomes of Thersagorus’s Myths of Tragedy.”
The English translations of the postscripts are taken from William A. Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities, Classic Culture and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 180-82. See also Rosalia Hatzilambrou, “Appendix: P.Oxy. XVIII 2192 Revisited,” in Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts, ed. Alan K. Bowman et al., GRM 93 (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 2007), 282-86.
What is fascinating here is the discussion of producing copies. Both the commercial and private circulation of books can be seen also in the letters of Pliny the Younger, who was governor of Bithynia.
For a detailed study of Pliny’s life and letters see A. N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1966); Eckard Lefèvre, Vom Römertum zum Ästhetizismus: Studien zu den Briefen des jüngeren Plinius (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009).
Here is a breakdown of what Pliny did with his letters
- He dictated his compositions and notes to a scribe to work on the initial draft
- The scribe would then leave for a while before returning (perhaps reading his manuscript)
- Once satisfied, he would then release the work to be circulated between associates and acquaintances either by sending a copy to a dedicatee of the work, giving or lending a copy to a friend upon request sending a copy to a bookseller, or depositing the book in a library.
- The copy is now beyond the authors control and is in the world ready for copying
So there is a preparation, confirmation and release, this helps us to understand how an autograph, an original, is prepared.
Starr, “Circulation of Literary Texts,” 214-15.
There is a point made by a man named Quintilian who pointed out though that if you release an unprepared work and it’s out there, well then you gotta deal with it.
Quintilian indicates that some of the material in his Institutes might be found in an unedited form circulating under his name:
“Two books on the Art of Rhetoric are already circulating in my name, though they were never published by me nor prepared for this purpose. One is a two days’ lecture course which was taken down by the slaves to whom the responsibility was given. The other lecture course, which spread over several days, was taken down by shorthand (as best they could) by some excellent young men who were nevertheless too fond of me, and therefore rashly honored it with publication and wide circulation. (Inst. Or. 1.prologue.7-8)27”
English translation from Quintilian, The Orator’s Education, vol. 1, Books 1-2, trans. Donald A. Russell (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 55-57.
There are other such examples, but I won’t overwhelm you with examples here but there is a more detailed discussion about Galen of Pergamum in the book and what happened to his works once they were in the hands of his students.
“The New Testament writings can be said to be “completed” once they were released by the authors and began to circulate as works of literature. These documents were no longer under the control of their authors and would have circulated as distinct writings. Therefore, in reference to the New Testament, the “autograph,” as it is discussed by apologists, theologians, and doctrinal statements, is best defined as the completed authorial work that was released by the author for circulation and copying, and this can and should be distinguished from earlier draft versions or layers of composition”.
Directly from the book itself. This definition also is adapted from Mitchell, “What Are the NT Autographs?,” 306
“Once a New Testament writing was completed and released for circulation, there was a possibility that further copies would be made under the control of the author or authors. Strictly speaking, these copies would also be considered “autographs,” for they would be produced by the hand of the author, or at least under the author’s direction.The practice of retaining a copy of a writing once published is sometimes referenced by Greco- Roman authors. Though multiple copies of a work may have been produced by the author before or after circulation, as will be seen below, this was not always the case”.
Directly from the book itself; Evans, “How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use?,” 33. ;Roman rhetorician and statesman Cicero (106–43 BC) often retained a copy of his own compositions
The Shepherd of Hermas, likely composed in Rome sometime in the early to mid-second century, may help to illustrate the circumstances surrounding the publication of Christian texts like the Gospels:
Therefore you will write two little books, and you will send one to Clement and one to Grapte. Then Clement will send it to the cities abroad, because that is his job. But Grapte will instruct the widows and orphans. But you yourself will read it to this city, along with the elders who preside over the Church”(Shepherd of Hermas Vision 2.4).
Holmes, Apostolic Fathers, 468-69.
So copies could be sent out and some given specific purposes for use. However, Galen laments the loss of an entire collection of his books, which were kept in storehouses in Rome which had a fire and he lost them. Is the New Testament also not always following the practice of multi-copy manuscripts? Or does it seem perhaps some started not in a copying format and were later copied?
An example to help aid our discussion: Pliny the Younger writes to Septicus, “You have frequently pressed me to make a select collection of my Letters (if there be any which show some literary finish) and give them to the public. I have accordingly done so; not indeed in their proper order of time, for I was not compiling a history; but just as they presented themselves to my hands. Farewell”
Pliny illustrates how Paul’s epistles could have potentially been gathered together and circulated as a collective. However, the scholar Craig A Evans writes, “In late antiquity, no one produced a single exemplar of a work and then circulated it,” it is a possibility that Paul did not have multiple initial copies of his more personal letters, such as the one to Timothy and Titus. For example, Cicero’s (106–43 BC) personal correspondence with his longtime friend Atticus.
Evans, “How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use?,” 33.
Manuscripts in use for a long time?
You can’t say I’ve not given you some great information so far when it comes to scribal practices, we can imagine it but to know we have examples of this from the time, it’s what we want to see, but here is one that strikes a chord with me. I liked the argument that manuscripts were in a long time as I saw it as a master copy for reference. But in the age of copying at pace, you’d quickly have plenty of duplicates of that early version which would be in good condition, so the argument becomes almost relic-based. The relief of this realization is important since a key part of this argument is based on Houston’s findings about manuscripts being around a long time. But this is a best case scenario that one would last hundreds of years. Papyrus did not fare as well in the more humid environments of the Mediterranean world. Galen expressed some exasperation at his attempt to make personal copies of important books stored in the libraries on the Palatine in Rome. Galen writes,
“These (books), then, did not cause me a small pain when copying them. As it is, the papyri are completely useless, not even able to be un-rolled because they have been glued together by decomposition, since the region is both marshy and low-lying, and, during the summer, it is stifling”
Galen, (De indolentia 19).59
Breaking down, within the authors lifetime! Something indeed to take note of. Not all manuscripts lived in dry, arrid locations like the large finds in desert parts of Egypt.
There were also mad book burnings. This practice of book burning culminated in the edict of Diocletian in AD 303 “ordering the confiscation and burning of Christian books.”
When considering the localized persecutions of Christians early on in the first and second centuries, it is no stretch of the imagination to visualize the confiscation, loss, or even destruction of the “autographs and first copies” of the New Testament writings.
One must also remember that many of these New Testament manuscripts discovered in the sands of Egypt were cast aside in the trash heaps of Oxyrhynchus, some of them torn to shreds before doing so.
This reveals that Christians sometimes threw away biblical manuscripts after a period of use, likely after being replaced with a new copy, rather than being retained for hundreds of years. This is because it was the text of the autographs that was important. Once a good copy of the text was produced, the physical autograph could then be discarded if it were in bad condition. No practice of relics perhaps.
Gamble, Books and Readers, 150. There is a long history of book burning in the Roman imperial age; on this, see Joseph A. Howley, “Book-Burning and the Uses of Writing in Ancient Rome: Destructive Practice Between Literature and Document,” JRS 107 (2017): 213-36. For the incident of Labienus, see 217. See Eusebius’s eyewitness testimony to the burning of Christian books in his Hist. eccl. 8.2.
Evans, “How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use?,” 30.
So the Evans argument that I supported seems to face some massive challenges. But Why am I ok with this? Well, what else has this section been saying? If they have good manuscripts that are well copied, they can discard the old one. This sort of implication certainly helps preservation. Imagine having an old manuscript full of deteriorated holes to work with. The scribe would demand to know why a copy wasn’t made sooner to preserve the text.
So argument lost, argument gained. If manuscripts are/aren’t in use a long time, we benefit from either model, but for a more rapid copying and maintenance of good copies, it seems stronger and perhaps one we desire more than papyri relics (Which are of value but when they’re full of holes, they lack their textual accuracy after 2,000 years and are more reference for their specifics).
In the words of Peter Gurry in the book:
“The New Testament writings began to circulate is also when the text of these documents was finalized. From that point on, there exists a stream of copying and distribution that is distinguishable from the earlier stages of composition”.
Issue with manuscript quantity
We love the big numbers, look at the thousands of manuscripts… but is there a risk in only ever giving the largest number? Well yes, bias, bigger is better mentality. We’re going to challenge unfortunately the number of some popular apologists but often it is not their fault, most of the data is inherited from previous apologists and arguably, we needed textual critics to be a bit louder about it (maybe they did not have the platform to do so, regardless we will dig into the numbers).
Counting is difficult, manuscripts are spread all over the world, some in public libraries, many in private and some are not accessible, sometimes due to wars. One count by Liste in April 2019 puts manuscripts at 5,885 but please don’t quote this figure. Go with a 5,500+. Why?
- Sometimes what are thought of as two manuscripts sometimes get united and become one because they seem to be part of the same set. P64 and P67 are now merged manuscripts, so two has become 1. You still have the same quantity of pages but the manuscript count has changed
- Miscounting happens also
- There is also double counting. Yeah this is a thing
- Some manuscripts that were once counted have been lost due to war, accident etc. We lost some in World War II!
- Incorrectly added: 0152 and 0153 are two Unicial manuscripts where this happened. They were from an amulet and an ostracon (google it) and so come into a different category of count.
- Manuscripts are still being discovered! So the number will keep changing! (So always give a + sign at the end of a figure). Famous examples of this are the papyri from Oxyrhynchus, the Chester Beatty papyri, and the Bodmer papyri. Along with this CSNTM’s finds amount to more than twenty thousand pages of text.
A new point: Bigger numbers do not necessarily equate to better evidence. The reality is that many manuscripts have basically no clear impact on scholarship or critical editions, let alone on, English Bibles. It is also true that a brilliant and reliable text existed with Westcott and Hort’s edition published more than a century ago, when there were far fewer manuscripts available.
On the lack of impact the papyri had, especially on altering the text, see Eldon J. Epp, “The Papyrus Manuscripts of the New Testament,” in Ehrman and Holmes, Text of the New Testament, 16-21.
And I wanted to add this brilliant quote of a paragraph in as it brings this subsection to a conclusion:
“On the one hand, a large majority of manuscripts are text-critically unnecessary for establishing the original text, producing no more noticeable effect than a pebble dropped in the ocean. On the other hand, it is precisely this lack of effect that is important when judging reliability. If the bulk of the papyri discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century and all other manuscripts since then have not resulted in major revisions of our critical editions, then this attests to a remarkably stable text that can reliably be reconstructed even without them. The typical newly discovered manuscript is therefore likely to be both statistically insignificant and confirmatory of a reliable text. It is important to note that confirming a text as reliable is distinct from making it more reliable.
In the negative, manuscripts alone cannot prove the truth of Christianity. What manuscripts can do is provide evidence of a reliable text. A reliable text attested by thousands of manuscripts is just that: a reliable text. But a reliable text is not a guarantee of reliable content”.
From the book itself
Comparing New Testament to ancient works
So we need to check our numbers, as using FF Bruce from like, many decades ago, is just out of date.
Bruce M. Metzger for example, who in a 1963 essay cited numbers that add up to 643 for the Illiad. Martin West, editor of the most recent Teubner edition of the Iliad, discusses 1,569 papyri in his monograph on that epic’s text. So we see a rather large disparity. See this chart below of Clay Jones numbers. In the book they agree Clay is up to date in most accounts.
c. 400 BC
3rd C BC
History of Rome
59 BC–AD 17
Early 5th C
1 Partial, 19 copies
1st half:850, 2nd: 1050 (AD 1100)
2 + 31 15th C
Pliny, the Elder
5th C fragment: 1; Rem. 14–15th C
3rd C BC (AD 900)
Some fragments from 1 C. BC. (AD 1100)
Why bring this up? Well the book calls out certain popular apologists, I won’t. But basically these numbers as of 2013 should be close to what they use, rounding down is fine if you add a + icon next to it.
In brief, the comparative appeal suggests that if you don’t think you can trust the New Testament text, then you really can’t trust any ancient text.
Scholars and apologists often count all the manuscripts for the New Testament that exist (an inclusive count), whereas classicists generally only count the ones they need to use (a functional count). This needs to be considered when comparing numbers.Apologists’ numbers too often reflect this inclusive count for the New Testament but a functional count for manuscripts of classical works and end up comparing apples and oranges. Whichever count is used, one should be consistent on both sides.
The comparative argument is valuable but limited; it can demonstrate only that the New Testament has a better textual basis than classical works, not that it has a perfect one. Text-critical methods are what give reliability to our use of the manuscripts, not the numbers alone.
Age ranges for manuscripts
“Paleographic dating relies on the appearance of the handwriting to assign a date range during which the manuscript was most likely produced…For any given manuscript, a paleographer will first identify the style. Then he or she will decide where in the overall development of that style the hand falls—within a particular style of handwriting, earlier manuscripts have earlier features, and later manuscripts have later features. A date is assigned based on where the hand sits on that early-to-late spectrum”.
From the book
There are critics like Eric Turner of this suggesting some form of external reality where handwriting determines age is hard to put too much weight on. A minimum of 50 years +/- would be what he’d consider ok (This point will be relevant in a second).
P52. This manuscript cannot confirm definitively that John is first century, but likely hints John is before this manuscript (that’s still good). Some scholars like Thiede and Comfort, both scholars themselves try to give P52 a very narrow range and a very early date, towards the start of second century. Craig Evans sees this as problematic. Most scholars give it a mid second century date to be safe. Does that mean it could be earlier? Sure! But best to be safe than sorry. It reminds me of the scenario when people demand proof instead of a reasonable amount of evidence for Christianity. We have great evidence pointing all one way, end of the day, you have to decide what to do with the evidence (Proofs are for the mathematical world anyway).
Mid-second century: David C. Parker, An Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 234; Juan Chapa, “The Early Text of John,” in Hill and Kruger, Early Text of the New Testament, 141; Orsini and Clarysse, “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates,” 460; Alan Mugridge, Copying Early Christian Texts: A Study of Scribal Practice, WUNT 362 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 250-51. Late second century: Charles E. Hill, “Did the Scribe of P52 Use the Nomina Sacra? Another Look,” NTS 48, no. 4 (2002): 592; Roger S. Bagnall, Early Christian Books in Egypt (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 89. Lonnie D. Bell allows any date in the second century, in The Early Textual Transmission of John: Stability and Fluidity in Its Second and Third Century Greek Manuscripts, NTTSD 54 (Leiden: Brill 2018), 38. Barker allows a date for P52 anywhere in the second or third centuries, in “Dating of New Testament Papyri,” 575.
Here’s a reassuring quote from the book:
“We do have early manuscripts of the New Testament, and apologists are right to appeal to them. Even if our extant witnesses are not quite as early as we once thought, the number of early manuscripts of Christian Scriptures is a testimony to their importance to early Christians. That we can even identify tiny fragments as New Testament manuscripts by the text they contain is a testimony to the macrostability of the New Testament text”.
Some tips that the chapter points us towards:
- Use a date broad range and stop using sensationalist dates
- Accept the full date range given by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research.
- Don’t use an argument with P52 as the foundation, argue more broadly for Johns authenticity using varying factors. Yes this is more work but far more reliable. Daniel Wallace has an article on how we can do this: https://bible.org/seriespage/4-gospel-john-introduction-argument-outline
- Paleography may simply just not a perfect system. Having the manuscripts that we know are ancient is amazing, anything older than 1,500+ years is impressive
Later can be better
So I’ll briefly explain the summary of this with an example:
One of the most frequently cited minuscules numbered 1739 was produced by a scribe named Ephraim in the 950s. He was a good scribe, incredibly accuracy, and it was found the manuscripts he used to copy from were from an exceptional scribe themselves. The manuscript he was copying from was said to be from the 400s or earlier and be one or two manuscripts likely from a library in Caesarea and part of it reflects a commentary from the Church Father Origen.
What makes this further significant is that Ephraim appears to have worked in Constantinople in a scriptorium that, as we know from other minuscules copied there. Other minuscules share a similar text with 1739 like a family. This isn’t absolute proof Ephraim did use this copy but it has a lot in common. What this tells us is despite this mans manuscript being much later, his accuracy copying connects it to earlier ones in theory. Who is to say other manuscripts did not do the same with other older manuscripts that are now lost? Some 900AD manuscripts could take us also into the 4th century, possibly even earlier. It is hard to know but still a positive argument in our favour.
Amy S. Anderson, The Textual Tradition of the Gospels: Family 1 in Matthew, NTTS 32 (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 42.
See discussions on 1739 in Anderson, Textual Tradition of the Gospels, 35-45; Thomas C. Geer, “Codex 1739 in Acts and Its Relationship to Manuscripts 945 and 1891,” Bib 69 (1988): 27-46; Kwang-Won Kim, “Codices 1582, 1739, and Origen,” JBL 69, no. 2 (1950): 167-75; Zuntz, Text of the Epistles, 71-84; Kirsopp Lake and Silva New, Six Collations of New Testament Manuscripts, HTS 17 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932). The specific makeup of 1739 for Acts, Romans, and the rest of Paul is more complex than can be analyzed in detail here. On “textcritical production,” see Aland and Wachtel, “Greek Minuscules of the New Testament,” 72.
Anderson, Textual Tradition of the Gospels, 46. On the generally “Byzantine” character of the copies done at Ephraim’s scriptorium, see Christian-Bernard Amphoux, “La parenté textuelle du syh et du groupe 2138 dans l’épître de Jacques,” Bib 62 (1981): 267-68.
Thomas C. Geer, Family 1739 in Acts, SBLMS 48 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994).
The scribes who copied the earliest manuscripts
This is by far my favorite part, because I want to do a post series on this. I’m going to contain my excitement in the topic and keep to a summary of some fascinating information. Please buy the book, I can only say so much!
Scholars like Bart Ehrman have attacked the scribes of the Bible, discrediting their skills saying they were just literate people, not scribes and I’ve seen him get one up on Christians in panel discussions on this topic. Well some depth by the author of this fantastic chapter is about to bring some assurance.
Colin H. Roberts said Christian manuscripts were often in a documentary papyri style. personal letters, tax receipts, contracts, grocery lists, business memoranda, and other kinds of functional pieces of writing. Because these were practical documents, the scribes who produced them usually used handwriting that was unpretentious, often quickly written, and sometimes plainly unattractive. This was what was clearly assumed.
Expensive and luxurious copies of classics such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were often written in the elegant and consistent calligraphy of a literary hand rather than the more ordinary documentary hand.
For more on documentary and literary hands, see Eric G. Turner, Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World, 2nd ed., rev. P. J. Parsons, BICS Supplement 46 (London: Institute of Classical Studies, 1987), 1-23; Colin H. Roberts, Greek Literary Hands: 350 B.C.–A.D. 400 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1956), xi-xvi.
- Early Christian manuscripts are more often in codex form rather than roll form
- They use abbreviations in the text, scripts are unpretentious, and they divide the text with punctuation and paragraphing (features also found in documentary texts).
Roberts conclusion actually is: the earliest Christian copyists were trained to make documents, not literature (but they were trained). Many have misunderstood Roberts’ argument. Because it was not a work like the Iliad it must be such a low standard… Not at all.
Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief, 14.
Gurry in the book puts it brilliantly
“Just ask the business owner whether she needs accurately copied contracts, or the merchant whether he wants accurate receipts, or indeed the government whether it requires accurate tax records”
From the book
Documentary papyri are not a lower class of manuscript; they serve a different purpose from copies of literature. Style of script is one thing; accuracy in transcription is another. And this is key. There is evidence that suggests attractive, literary handwriting often entails inaccurate copying in describing a “deluxe” copy of Virgil, Roberts, the scholar mentioned earlier says, “The text itself was both carelessly written and (as is not infrequently the case with éditions de luxe [deluxe editions]) of poor quality.”
Colin H. Roberts, ed., The Antinoopolis Papyri, vol. 1, GRM 28 (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1950), 75 (P.Ant. I 29).
So.. these “professional, artistic scribes” in no way guarantee accuracy at all. Roberts is far from the only voice calling out these assumptions. Comments of many ancient authors that book shops and other professional copying services were frequently unreliable because of their poor standard of copying.
See, for instance, Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 91, and the references given there.
So to presume writing style confirms reliability is simply not true, these professional scribes seen as the holy grail standard are not desirable in all instances.
The textual quality of a manuscript must be determined on its own terms, not on the erroneous assumption that the beauty of its script is the most relevant factor.
So Documentary papyri isn’t bad after all, so were the Christian scribes competent?
The scholar Kim Haines-Eitzen. examines the evidence of early Christian scribes found in ancient literature, archaeology, and the papyri themselves. One of her observations is key:
What is striking about our earliest Christian papyri is that they all exhibit the influences of literary and documentary styles, and they all seem to be located in the middle of the spectrum of experience and level of skill. The scribes who produced these copies fit well into the portrait of multifunctional scribes— both professional and nonprofessional—whose education entailed learning how to write a semicursive style.
Kim Haines-Eitzen, Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 75.
Haines-Eitzen’s key findings is that early Christian literature was circulated and disseminated through informal channels formed on social networks, or “in-house
Haines-Eitzen, Guardians of Letters, 29, 54.
Alan Mugridge says this:
“All of this should cast doubt on the view that on the whole Christian manuscripts were copied by unskilled writers during the early centuries, and also suggests that we need to re-examine any implications drawn from this view that the transmission of Christian texts was quite inaccurate. It is true that, as Roberts proposed, many of the papyri show the hand of scribes accustomed to producing documents. Nevertheless, they still exhibit the skill of the trained scribes who produced such documents, including a number of papyri copied to a calligraphic standard, even though we do not know whether they were paid for their efforts or did their work voluntarily”.
Mugridge, Copying Early Christian Texts, 148.
So what do we have? Some multifunctional scribes with a great ability to write manuscripts.
Does this mean all manuscripts are like this? Unlikely. Out of thousands of manuscripts there are some bad ones, some less trained writers sure, but to say this of the majority is patently false.
Gurry summarises it like this at the end of the chapter:
“Just as it is inaccurate to say that all early copyists were untrained amateurs, it is likewise inaccurate to say that they were all experts. Rather, among the early manuscripts we find a wide range of scribal skills and abilities, but still a significant majority appear to be competent transcribers“.
From the book
legibility usually lessens as the amount of writing increases and this is the case in the manuscript world. “Amateur” copyists are identified by their inability to maintain a consistent script for extended periods of time. That is, someone who is not trained or sufficiently accustomed to the task of copying a lengthy text will gradually lose the ability to write legibly and consistently. There have been studies done on this length issue in all sorts of historical manuscripts. Manuscripts like P45, P46 and P75, all long manuscripts have a consistency in their textual clarity. Such a thing happens in the case of a long serving scribal hand.
Were scribes in the habit of changing things?
We do not have first century manuscripts, our second century is mostly fragmentary, third century things pick up and get a lot better. It means we cannot make confirmatory cases for first century manuscripts. Even still, there is little reason to suggest that what we would find in the late first/early second centuries would differ greatly from what we see in the late second/early third centuries? A question that is definitely not asked enough. To assume the first century must be different from the source is rather a bizarre assumption based on poor justification.
Do the scribes just change things when they wanted? We know they were good but did they have some bad habits? While sure there may be some instances of wild changes, however, we have good reason to think this was the exception and not the norm.
- Due to the quantity of evidence, we have a safety in numbers, lots of cross referencing to weed out the bad copying. So if 95 manuscripts are good, 5 are bad, we work out the five bad.
- We have strong evidence that the text has been carefully transmitted in at least one stream of manuscripts.
- When we look at the nature of our textual variants, they do not appear to be the kind of variants that would arise if scribes were in the habit of writing whatever they wanted. They are scribal errors generally or grammatical problems. There are many but they don’t do damage.
If we only had a few manuscripts, yes corruption would be harder to spot, so more helps us with cross referencing, that is a good purpose for quantity. All handwritten documents will have errors in them. On the other hand, more manuscripts at the same time permits more textual stability in the long run.
Many early papyri, such as P1, P4, P64+67, and P77+P103, show strong textual affinities with Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. This is important because we are able to demonstrate a practice of careful copying over time. Scholars are able to track a consistent line of careful copying practices from the second century, with P4 and P64+67, to the third century, with P66 and P75, all the way to the fourth century. These early witnesses all agree in their wording, this allows us to have a high degree of confidence.
Eldon J. Epp, “The Significance of the Papyri for Determining the Nature of the New Testament Text in the Second Century: A Dynamic View of Textual Transmission,” in Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, ed. Eldon J. Epp and Gordon D. Fee, SD 45(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 289.
As mentioned above, Brent Nongbri has argued that it might well be a fourth-century manuscript, thus dating to the same general time frame as 01 and 03 (Nongbri, “Reconsidering the Place of Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV”). Even if so, the point can still be made with reference to the early testimony of P4 and P64+67, on which see Tommy Wasserman, “A Comparative Textual Analysis of P4 and P64+67,” TC 15 (2010): 1-26.
If scribes were in the practice of changing the manuscripts, we would expect new paragraphs, verses deleted, theologies perhaps that were more suited. What is striking is that these sorts of changes are absent from the manuscript record. Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53–8:11 are of course the two exceptions. But even then, two known exceptions, known to the early church fathers even, only two. That is fantastic and these two even if they did not exist or did, do not add any new theology or belief, we see where the verses come from (For those in doubt about the snake passage, see Acts when Paul is in Malta, kinda obvious connection there, I Still think the Mark reference is potentially metaphorical).
Gurry says in his book:
“Rather than worrying about major structural differences and missing portions of text, New Testament scholars work with a body of literature that is stable in its macrostructure and more fluid in its details”.
What does this mean? Well at the macro level: theology, doctrine, beliefs, generally what each paragraph, verse and chapter means: it is stable. At the micro level, there are “is it this word or that word?” spelling mistakes, scribal errors, gramma in general. This is just the nature of old manuscripts, there is no printing press accuracy but you’re not going to read most times two manuscripts and come away with two separate conclusions.
Errors made and corrected by the same scribe!
So I included this example just because it really informs us that scribes didn’t just give it a go and then discard their manuscript.
On P75 manuscript, Gordon D. Fee, followed by Erroll F. Rhodes, highlighted there were more than four hundred corrections. What is fascinating about this is the vast majority of these corrections are penned by the same scribe. Such a high density of correction by the original scribe is unparalleled in the New Testament manuscript tradition.
10Gordon D. Fee, “Corrections of the Papyrus Bodmer II and the Nestle Greek Testament,” JBL 84, no. 1 (1965): 66-72; Fee, “The Corrections of Papyrus Bodmer II and Early Textual Transmission,” NovT 7, no. 4 (1965): 247-57; Erroll F. Rhodes, “The Corrections of Papyrus Bodmer II,” NTS 14, no. 2 (1967): 271-81.
Compared to P75, the error rate reached by the scribe of P66 is “much lower than that of any other papyri” Royse who did a huge study considered (i.e.,P45, P46, P47, P72). We see, then, that despite the scribe’s initial lack of skill and care in reproducing his exemplar, he was greatly concerned for the accuracy of his copy, and the hundreds of corrections of his initial
errors epitomize that concern.
Royse, Scribal Habits, 495.
This does challenge an assumption made by Bart Ehrman about scribes changing the text as he uses this very example. Gordon Fee picks up and challenges Ehrman on this:
“The deliberate “corruption,” therefore, does not exist at all, since the correction in each case, which aligns the text with the rest of the MS tradition, was made by the original scribe himself (among hundreds of such). This scribe’s “corrections” are what are clearly deliberate—and these show no interest in christology. . . . Significantly, this scribe stands squarely in the middle (ca. 200 CE) of the two centuries of Ehrman’s interest. If Ehrman’s case for “christological corruption” so clearly fails in our one certain piece of evidence for deliberate variation, then one might rightly question the degree of deliberation in a large number of other variations as well, which seem to have equally good, if not better, explanations of other kinds for their existence”.
Fee, “Review of Orthodox Corruption,” 205 (italics original).
So we’ve all heard the 400,000 variant readings in the New Testament, scary sounding right?
Most of these are inconsequential so don’t panic, none of them are going to change your Bible theologically, doctrinally. The great number of manuscripts, not to mention the general uniformity in most of the manuscripts, can help put an initially shocking number of variants into perspective.
It was Bart Ehrman who concluded there were too many variants to believe in inspiration. On the other hand, it is common to find Christian authors who believe that textual variation poses no threat to Christian belief in the inspiration. Over 99 percent of the words of the Bible, we know what the original manuscripts said” and most practical purposes, then, the current published scholarly texts of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament are the same as the original manuscripts.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994)
Textual variants present no issue to Christian confidence in the Bible. Matthew Barrett states textual uncertainties are “always in matters insignificant, never having to do with Christian doctrine or the credibility of the biblical text”.
Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught . . .and Why It Still Matters, The 5 Solas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 267.
Going back to the 400,000 of Bart, how did he come to this? Well when you dig into where it is said, he attributes it to nameless scholars with no further depth available. Estimates vary so it’s good to know where the exact data is from and what figures into his 400,000. When thinking about the significance of textual variants, it is helpful to keep two categories in mind. The first is whether the variant is important for interpretation. By all accounts, most variants do not affect the meaning of the text.
Ok let’s get to the point of this hanging issue generally. The estimated number of variants in just our Greek manuscripts is probably around half a million, not including forms of spelling differences. Nearly half of this count are meaningless mistakes. Only a tiny fraction of the known variants are ever discussed by commentators (Because the other half don’t deem warranting a mention it would seem). Fewer still deserve a footnote in a modern translation. In John 18, not even one of the more than three thousand variants makes it into a footnote of the ESV, NIV, NRSV, or even the NET. This isn’t some desire to hide information, it is because these variants do nothing to the text that would concern a Christian like me or you. They’re resolvable and unproblematic.
So next time someone brings up these variants, ask them how many of these so called variants is going to change what you believe doctrinally as a Christian? The answer will always be none.
Variants we have to deal with
So there is that case where nearly all errors and spelling issues with verses have no major impact on the text, something like 99.3% or something crazy high like that..so what about the ones that do count? Yes there are some and let’s talk about it.
Keep in mind though, and I want to stress this, textual variations pose no threat to christian belief in inspiration of scripture.
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.”
Some variants omit the words “Son of God”, some don’t. Do the manuscripts hint either way which is the preferred reading? Well it seems about the same. In Marks Gospel, sonship is an important theme like we see highlighted at the baptism 11 verses later (Mark 1:11). So we don’t have to be afraid an entirely new idea/theme is being added. The issue, then, is not whether Mark presents Jesus as the Son of God but whether Mark wants us to read his account of the good news about Jesus with this in mind from the first line on.
Does this change what we believe as Christians this one or the other? Absolutely not.
In some very early and important manuscripts, Jesus does not pray this prayer at all; the words are simply not there. Our most reliable and earliest manuscript, P75 and in Codex Vaticanus both early, agree. Codex Bezae doesn’t have it but a later scribe corrects it and puts it in, obviously seeing it plentiful in his other manuscripts. This verse is in the majority of our manuscripts, Irenaeus seems to know the reading (Haer. 3.18.5).
Also the same prayer was attributed to James the brother of Jesus at his martyrdom, by a second-century church father named Hegesippus. The problem is that we do not know whether this was the source for Luke 23:34 or whether Luke 23:34 was the source for the prayer that Hegesippus (per Irenaeus) attributes to James.
Compare the competing views of D. Daube, “‘For They Know Not What They Do’: Luke
There are other factors which the book reveals, however as you can see there are reasons to think the verse is authentic as we see it so often but reasons to be suspect.
Does this change what we believe as Christians this one or the other? Absolutely not. Prayer of forgiveness and love for enemies is in the Gospels, such theology is not in doubt if this verse has contention.
Concerning whether Jesus is called the “only-begotten God” or the “only-begotten Son” who is at the Father’s side. The difference is one letter when written as nomina sacra. In isolation, this variant is quite significant, as it seems to be a choice between Jesus’ divinity and his unique sonship. But, of course, this variant does not occur in isolation. It comes only after John’s rich theological introduction, in which he makes clear that the preexistent Logos is divine (Jn 1:1) and became incarnate (Jn 1:14). In none of these first fourteen verses is there a theologically significant variant. In fact, these verses are so textually stable that they agree word-for-word between the very first published Greek New Testament right up to the most recent.
It is worth noting that no Christian belief, no Christian doctrine is derived from a single verse, that these variants we talked about are in your Bibles, footnoted. No one’s hiding them, it is because we’re not worried. The correct words of the Bible are in the text or the footnotes.
The issue with the church fathers argument
“Besides the textual evidence derived from New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament”.
Bruce M . Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 126.
Then we have Geisler stating in his massive apologetics encyclopedia:
“If we compile the 36,289 quotations by the early church fathers of the second to fourth centuries, we can reconstruct the entire New Testament minus 11 verses.”
Norman L. Geisler, “New Testament Manuscripts,” in The Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 532.
These all too famous quotes or similar statements are known to most apologists..the problem is, these claims are actually false. We’re going to get into why briefly.
It was put to me in summary first by Wesley Huff who is currently doing a PhD in New Testament and Christian origins and so no stranger to the topic:
“The story started via a misunderstanding in the 1800’s because of a quote in the memoirs of John Campbell, who was quoting a story he’d heard from Walter Buchanan. We have Dalrymple’s notes on the subject and they do not corroborate Buchanan’s story. In fact, what the notes say is that only 46% of the verses in the New Testament could be reconstructed from the writings of the anti-Nicene Fathers (3,620), meaning 54%(4,336) of the New Testament verses are missing”
When asking for Feedback from Wesley Huff over the church Fathers numbers on a post I didn’t post due to the correction
This prompted me to read the book, It had been sitting on my self for too long…
So the reconstruction of the New Testament via church fathers words alone is not a good argument, it is a complicated web the book gets into but essentially we shouldn’t be using this argument.
Remarkably, Campbell is not even certain about the number of “missing” verses (seven or eleven)—one of two critical pieces of information that have successfully made their way into modern apologetic texts.
Second claim: Is it true that there are exactly 36,289 quotations of the New Testament in the works of the second- to fourth-century fathers? This number, it seems, did not originate with Dalrymple but rather from the work of another nineteenth-century figure: John William Burgon, dean of Chichester Cathedral.
In a quest not altogether different than Dalrymple’s own, Burgon created a sixteen-volume index of patristic biblical quotations taken from Christianity’s first three to four centuries, which is now held in the British Museum. Though the work has not been published, Frederic Kenyon included the numerical results of Burgon’s study in his own Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament.
Taken together, the number of quotations he separately lists for Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Eusebius add up to exactly 36,289
(hence the very specific number).
Frederic G. Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (London: Macmillan, 1901), 224.
What is perhaps most striking about this myth, or rather the continuing of this myth, is that it stands in direct opposition to what biblical scholars have long known and taught regarding the attestation (or lack thereof) of entire books of the New Testament in the first two to three centuries of Christianity’s growth.
James is a key example. James was rarely quoted in the earliest centuries, was not included in the well known Muratorian Canon (second to third century), and was even listed as a “disputed” book by Eusebius of Caesarea as late as the mid-fourth century (Hist. eccl. 3.25.1-6).
This was due in part to its apparent lack of influence in the Christian literature of the time. It just wasn’t quoted as often, certainly not to make a full book out of pure quotations. Though there is evidence that it inspired portions of the Shepherd of Hermas, it is not until the third century that we find any direct quotations.
See Pseudo-Clementine, Two Epistles Concerning Virginity 1.11.4.
What we need to be aware of is some of those who are playing with the issue: Members of Islamic Awareness and they came to the conclusion when looking at the issue, “Even if we admit the best-case scenario of the least number of missing verses in each of the books of the New Testament as seen in the three collations, we obtain 4336 verses (~54%) absent in the Patristic citations of the New Testament.”
“Sir David Dalrymple (Lord Hailes), the Patristic Citations of the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers and the Search for Eleven Missing Verses of the New Testament,” Islamic Awareness, May 2007, www.islamic-awareness.org/Bible/Text/citations.html. This article includes a much lengthier and much more detailed analysis of Campbell’s anecdote, including charts and photographs of his original work. It also analyzes the edition of the Greek New Testament Dalrymple used as his standard, itself an important and problematic element of his research.
In transmitting Dalrymple’s claim that the original wording of the New Testament is partially attainable through patristic quotations, Campbell ended up altering the original wording of the claim itself. I think it’s time to end this argument and I follow up with a question the book raises too.
This is by no means a central argument for the Christian faith, it is an argument based on if we have no biblical manuscripts..but we do, what does this tell us? Well certainly that New Testament books were quoted, some far more than others for a variety of reasons: Ease of use, popularity, book size etc that I cover in my canonical articles on this site.
What I am implying is: We don’t need the argument from Geisler and Metzger, it isn’t close to being a core argument for the New Testament reliability and because the data is misrepresented it provides a sceptic a reason to discredit you because your source is unreliable in this area. I certainly needed to do better here myself. I liked the argument because it made a good soundbite. What positives can we still take from the argument then? Well we still have 46% of quotes so that is still pretty impressive from 27 books! Do we have core Christian doctrines and beliefs that makeup the foundation of Christianity quoted by the church fathers? Yes, multiple times, the main reason is these are likely what they were talking about, lets be happy they talked about core Christian values! Not sure how many quoted Paul leaving something in Troas, but on the cross? On forgiveness of sins? On the resurrection? These are cited countless times.
So let’s tone back this argument if you want to use it. It can certainly be a good backup for christian beliefs, but do not use it as a mic drop argument because I don’t think it is, just a decent argument in a package of larger arguments. Great in a cumulative case but doesn’t make sense, even before, to use it as a leading argument.
So what have we learned?
- Not having the original manuscripts is not an argument against Christianity of any value
- Bad arguments can reinforce unbelievers unbelief and some arguments we think are good are not
- Autographs have a process, one we can understand. Single relics is unlikely the goal so the first manuscripts were likely always multiply attested and copied regularly.
- Manuscripts were likely not in use a long time, it was rare papyrus manuscripts would last for centuries so recopying was a regular practice
- With Romans practising book burning, a culture of copying is essential
- We need to humble ourselves with manuscript numbers, too often we use the highest riskiest figures for the New Testament and lowest out of date figures for other historical documents. Both are problematic and we need to correct this immediately
- The scribes were not professional literary scribes nor were they amateurs, they were a community of copyists in the documentary style, they were competent and cared about accuracy.
- Professional scribes didn’t always guarantee accuracy so the fact that the New Testament didn’t use these generally does not actually worry the Christian. If anything it might be a plus
- Christians used informal networks for sharing Christian literature this would allow for safe protecting of documents often
- Even the length of a manuscript tells us the quality of the scribe and we have such manuscripts verifying some of our best manuscripts
- There are instances of change but the quality and quantity of manuscripts helps us weed out whatever these types of changes will be (either notes that made it into the text, spelling etc.). If we had few manuscripts errors are problems but the quantity helps correction
- If scribes were in the habit of changing things we’d expect wholesale changes commonly, making things easier, yet we see this is not commonplace. The New Testament macrostructure is stable with fluidity in details
- Scribes who wrote their own manuscripts would fix their mistakes to perfect their manuscripts as they cared about what they wrote, we have proof
- We do have many variants but the fear raised associated with them are often completely unfounded. The majority aren’t even worth a footnote in a modern Bible.
- There are variants we have to deal with, you may not like that, but it is also nothing that would worry us either.
- The argument we can construct the Bible basically from church fathers quote is false. They preserve core christian beliefs but not every sentence, their intentions were always good but if they had a bible they had no need to quote every line all the time.
Why you should buy the book
Trust me, I have only scraped the surface, the depth of reading in this is mandatory, this book is critical in ironing out a lot of details in our New Testament arguments and provides a whole host of new ones especially around understanding the scribes and autographs which a lot of seekers and searchers are unaware of. Discussions around the Canon, the text of Philemon, modern translations, early translations I didn’t even touch on but give you more than enough reason to buy the book for those chapters. My list of sixteen conclusional points could almost double!
And Yes I will indeed include this amazing material in my brand new Apologetics series which will be an intense day by day post building an immense apologetics library specifically designed as a toolkit for dialogue.
You heard it here first. It will take many months to prepare, but why rush something and do it well when you can do it brilliantly.
Buy the book