Answer The Telephone, Part 1

Most people who read the Bible do not concern themselves with anything deeper than the words on the page.  What I mean is, outside the few with a penchant for exploring textual criticism, people trust that the words in their hands are the words that were written — translated, of course, from their original languages.  Many skeptics, on the other hand, aren’t convinced that the words on the page are the words which were penned.  Some use the presence of (real or perceived [See: Please Pass The White-out]) inconsistencies within the text to conclude the Bible is untrustworthy.   While others claim that the texts have been edited and redacted (for whatever reason, be it clarification or theological tampering) during the history of its transmission so that we cannot know what the originals had to say.  Can critics declare with any sense of legitimate confidence that the texts have been edited and redacted over time, and what evidence do they have that this claim is true?

The initial complaint is most often directed at the New Testament because it is the literary body by which Christians (the preferred religious target of skeptics) ground their convictions, so the NT is the focus.

The New Testament documents were hand-written biographies of Jesus in the case of the four canonical Gospels, and epistles to various churches or believers throughout the Roman Empire.  The original texts were repeatedly hand-copied and disseminated.  The copies of the original autographs were also hand-copied and disseminated.  Copies of copies were hand-copied and disseminated.  To date there have been discovered more than 5,600 Greek manuscripts, both complete and fragmented (some of which can be viewed HERE).  The original documents were penned before the close of the first century A.D. (for a list of New Testament scholars’ dating, see: ErrantSkeptics.org) and early copies of whole or fragmented manuscripts (such as John’s Gospel account from approximately 125 A.D. [P52]) date from early second century.

Given the plethora of discovered manuscripts, there are bound to be differences between them.  There are differences.  Thousands of them.  Hundreds of thousands.  In fact there are an estimated 300,000+ variants in the manuscripts.  This is what I believe the critics are referring to when they complain about revisions and redactions.  The number of variants does not tell the story, however.  Upwards of 90 percent of the variants are spelling variants and errors; meaningless word order changes; variations in proper nouns (adding “the” in front of a name, i.e., the Jesus, or the Mary — or spelling John’s name Ιωαννης or Ιωανης); and the use of synonyms.

In addition to these insignificant variants, there do exist some — albeit very few — variants which affect the meaning of the passage.  Though the meaning of the passage is affected by the variant, no Christian doctrines are compromised.  Some of these passages include Romans 5:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; ; and 1 John 1:4.  The most notorious of meaningful and viable variants being the long ending of Mark, the woman caught in adultery, and the Comma Johannes (1 John 5:7-8).

What we have is a consistent — though imperfect — transmission of the New Testament texts.  Consistent because not every variant is present in every manuscript.  The original can be pieced together by comparing the different passages containing errors**.

All this is leading up to examining the objection:  that the texts have been edited and redacted (for whatever reason, be it clarification or theological tampering) during the history of its transmission so that we cannot know what the originals had to say.  There are some presumptions in the objection that are demonstrably false, and in fact presupposes its own refutation.

The objection relies on not being privy to the ancient transmitted documents, not just the original writings, that we only have the translated English translations and must take the word of the translators.  If the texts had been edited in any real and meaningful way, the evidence would be present within the “edited” manuscripts — an evolution of the message, so to speak.  The variants in the texts do not cooperate with the critic; we do not find an evolution in the Bible’s message.  Even the possibility of discovering editing assumes that the texts in question may be compared with — if not the original texts — the original wording or intended message.

But we do not have the original texts by which to compare the extant manuscripts, so what is it the critic is using as the strayed-from standard?  How does he know the message has been edited if there is nothing to compare our in-hand documents with?  At least if there were an evolving message throughout the centuries of copying in the documents we have, an inference could be drawn backward.  In this case, the critic needs to presume that the content editing occurred in the first one hundred years (for which we have no existing manuscripts), thus, arguing from silence and speculation.  But because the content has remained consistent through the centuries of copying, one must presume there was a different message at the text’s genesis with no actual evidence for such a conclusion.  So why would someone believe the Bible has been edited and redacted over the centuries without evidential support?

In part 2, I will discuss why I believe the skeptic feels compelled to offer this objection in the face of overwhelming manuscript evidence to the contrary.

_______________________

** For example, say a classroom with at least twenty students, two paragraphs written on the chalkboard, replete with names, places and dates.  Instruct the students to hand-copy the paragraphs, then cover them.  Have the students turn in the hand-written paragraphs and redistribute them randomly and have them hand-copied from the “original copies”.  Repeat the process twice more further randomizing the redistribution with all the copies.  Break the students into groups with all the copies and ask them to reconstruct the original.  Having participated in and instructed this exercise I assure you there will be many errors.  I can also assure you accurate reconstruction is inevitable.

Comments

  1. Marshall Art says:

    This is a good offering. The critique must have more than he does to insist that Scripture has not been consistent in maintaining Its message. It is really a weak and desperate accusation if all copies are saying the same thing.

  2. John:
    Good article and good links– thanx. Well layed out. I agree with some of your points. I think I will have meaningful questions or challenges but I will have to spend time to put that together – maybe weeks, depending on my schedule. I want to avoid an off-the-cuff reply which would be unproductive.

    But here are two related questions for now:

    (1) Do you think any of the extant Greek texts, prior the Erasmus’ 1516 Textus Receptus, had been edited and redacted with the purpose theological tampering?

    (2) Is this restatement of your position true: “though tampering may have happened in earlier text, we have plenty of other texts to determine the Original Text prior to that tampering.”
    Or did I leave out a caveat or two?

    Also, here is a minor edit suggestion: You might want to add a ** infront of the footnote at the end.

    • By extant prior to Erasmus, I take it you mean all texts that had been discovered up to that point? If so, then what I can say is they are not any different than the situation we find ourselves in now. Those texts exist as well as the thousands that have been since discovered, every manuscript contains variants. Some have more, some have less. Some are earlier, some later. In the 16th century I can assume (but not know) they had some ability (though not to the degree we have today) to detect interpolation and did their best to preserve what they believed to be authentic text content. So maybe you can clarify the first question so I can answer the question you want answered.

      Others may call most of what you consider “tampering” clarification. Synonymization does not a tamper make. But the reason the majority of what you may consider tampering is in so few texts is because the original content was well known enough that what you call edits (though you have, to my knowledge, never given examples of edits and redactions, you’ve simply made the assertion they exist. Maybe you’ll link to these edits) were corrected soon after they appear. But, it’s not as though there were entirely new ideas inserted then later changed. For example, the most well known examples of viable meaningful variants do not affect any doctrine. No part of “Christianity” rests upon a significant variant. More or less, (2) is close enough to my position that we can (for now) use it for discussion, though it cannot really be boiled down to a sentence without many qualifiers, which is why I don’t do that.

  3. This post is your way of continuing to address this post of mine where you were commenting on the thread: The Homogenized Bible. I forgot how you linked to that post, but I will try to get back to you on these issues on my blog in the future. Meanwhile, over at “The Homogenized Bible” Ian has left you a fiery comment.

    Meanwhile, here is the clarification you requested:
    (1) Do you think any of the Greek texts which have been discovered and thought to have been written before the 1500s (or any date you’d like to choose) had been edited and redacted with the purpose theological tampering?

    So, not just “synonymization” but to steer the meaning towards their theological agenda.

    I don’t think this is a difficult question and it does not lead to any determined conclusion.

    • The problem is Ian isn’t really talking about me. I didn’t say scholarship is against my view. In fact the scholarship is on my side by and large. There are a few, Jesus Seminar, Ehrman for example who disagree, but they do not represent the majority of scholars on the issue.

      Second I didn’t say there was a conspiracy against my view either. What I did say is books of a popular level that attempt to debunk Christianity and shed doubt on the bible are more likely to be found in brick and mortar book stores than popular level Christian apologetics books. To which your other commenter cried foul and insisted on counting the likes of Christian inspiration books like Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, or TD Jake’s in order to say I was wrong to say that.

    • Sabio

      Do you have example of what you consider intentional theological tampering, please?

  4. John
    Could you just answer the question?

    • Too funny.

      They is a handful of examples of instences of interpolation that were not permitted to persist in the overall body of manuscript transcribal.

      So, do you have any examples, or are we speaking in generalities, a thing you chastize me for repeatedly?

    • What I find so funny is that your question that you imply I am avoiding had been answered in the post itself:

      the long ending of Mark, the woman caught in adultery, and the Comma Johannes (1 John 5:7-8).

  5. So I guess that is your way of saying “Yes, there has been editing and redacting of the Biblical texts with the purpose theological tampering.”

    To which you seem to want to add the two caveats :
    (1) “Look, there were precious few.”
    (2) “Look, we caught them, they didn’t trick us.”

    Does that seem right?

    PS, sorry, I’m not sure why it was “too funny” — your rhetoric went over my head.

    • Well, I suppose technically, any variant which is included or omitted intentionally, would be considered “editing”. Unfortunately, that’s not what you mean, or other skeptics mean, and you know it. When you and others use the term (intentionally undefined) edit and redact, you are trying to give the impression that the text is thus so corrupt that reconstruction is impossible, or at least complete speculation as to the original words. You either yourself omit the fact that interpolations are identifiable whereby the text is still considered relaible, which shows the intellectual dishonesty I have come to expect from skeptics. Either that, or you are unaware of what the field of textual criticism accomplishes, in which case, you should not speak on the issue.

      So I suggest then that the next time you board the “edits and redaction” train, you clarify to the readers that you know that variants and interpolations have little bearing on discovering the original content body of the work in question, rather than leaving the impression that we are in the dark on what the Bible originally had to say and that the “corruption” is pervasive and permanent.

  6. Funny, secular scholars often say they expect intellectual dishonesty from conservatives too. I suggest that you stop throwing the first stone in implying I am intellectually dishonest and devious. I thought you wanted to raise the level of dialogue on your blog — heck, you did a whole post on it. As I said, dialogue quality goes two ways, a point you never conceded on that post. This sort of rhetoric is unproductive.

    Since you admit that agenda-driven edits exist, we still have these questions to address (for which you have implied your conclusions):
    1. how extensive are the edits?
    2. how long have they occurred?
    3. what do these edit imply?
    4. what impact they have?

    Again, I will address your concerns in future posts on my site, insha’allah.

    • 1. Not very extensive. The 1 John 5:7-8 passage is as far as theology is concerned is about it. Unless you want to count in Mark’s Gospel where a significant portion of text (6:31-8:26 {89 verses}) refers to Jesus as “him” or “he”, but some transcribers substituted Jesus’ name in its place. in 1 Thes 2:9, there are some later manuscripts which say “Gospel of Christ” instead of earlier ones that say “Gospel of God”. Theological interpolation is virtually non-existent. Neither the 1 John or 1 Thes passage affect doctrine. The trinity is not argued from the 1 John passage, it is a culmination of the entirity of the descriptions of God’s triune nature. The same with 1 Thes.

      2. Not very. variants such as these only go on through a dozen or few manuscripts from relatively small dispersion areas. They arent spread throughout the region and replace other copies. As they disperse, people see the interpolation and correct it.

      3. The “edits” imply intent to clarify more than anything else. There is nothing removed because it is no longer “orthodox”. What happens is there is an addition of clarification, not removal of a difficulty. (See: ) Even in the above cases, adding the trinitarian verse, you can see it was making explicit what is derived systematically. People understood “the gospel of God” to be the same as “the gospel of Christ” since the Messiah was to be God himself anyway. It doesn’t interrupt what is already there.

      4. None, except it gives skeptics an excuse to dismiss the whole enterprise.

  7. I suspect that the vast majority of the inaccuracies occurred long before anything was written down. Most people didn’t know how to read and write in Jesus’ time so the stories had lots of chances to be morphed and exaggerated by the time anyone wrote anything down. I suspect this because a) it’s human nature, and b) the written accounts refer to many events that are physically impossible (i.e., miracles).

    The other thing that seems to be glossed over here is the purposeful elimination of texts that didn’t fit the preferred narrative.

    • Max

      accounts refer to many events that are physically impossible (i.e., miracles)

      This is a pressuposition stemming from a naturalist worldview. Based on this one filter you have, you are required to assert that the stories must have morphed even without evidence, which is exactly what you’re doing. Presupposing due to worldview presuppositions, not evidence = argument from silence.

  8. @ Max
    I agree. More than that, it is obvious that the various gospel writers had agendas from the very beginning to which they forced their stories.

  9. Marshall Art says:

    @ Max,

    What do you mean by saying there was a “purposeful elimination of texts that didn’t fit the preferred narrative”? I ask in hopes you have something I haven’t heard already. Those “gospels” or other books not included in what is now regarded as the Bible were not necessarily rejected because they presented a different picture, but because of reasons having to do with repetition, being too far removed from the events (written one or two hundred years after the life of Christ for example), not having any supporting evidence of any kind, or pure fiction. Some have preferred to believe that those who compiled what now constitutes the Holy Bible had some nefarious agenda, but there is little to nothing to support this desperate hope.

  10. I’ve mentioned Elaine Pagels here before and was scoffed at by our host as if I’d mentioned a source known to have been discredited. A quick look at her wikipedia page shows no evidence of this. She has written a half dozen well-researched books regarding the gnostic texts which center on the accounts of Jesus’ so called favorite disciple Thomas, whose attitude of doubt was considered dangerous to the early church.

    Pagels argues that the Gospel of John was written as a reaction and rebuttal to the Gospel of Thomas. She bases this conclusion on her observation that, in the Gospel of John, the apostle Thomas is portrayed as a disciple of little faith who cannot believe without seeing and, moreover, that the Gospel of John places a very strong emphasis on accepting Jesus as the center of belief, which Pagels views as a hallmark of early orthodoxy.

    Source: wikipedia

    I know wikipedia cannot be assumed to be "gospel truth" but I'd like to see a scholarly source discrediting Pagels' work before I will consider it of no value.

    • Max

      Its not that Pagels has no value. It is that she is on the fringe when it comes to her field. She is among the very…very few who share her opinions on the matters of which she speaks. I suppose you can get what you consider credible information from whereever you choose. But when you pick someone who shares your view and that person is on the fringe of their field, you can see why that wouldn’t lend any credibility to your view.

  11. Joh,

    Pagels is considered by whom to be on the fringe of her field? Again, I need citations of this to take your questioning of the legitimacy of her work seriously.

    This source contains some minor criticism, though not enough to characterize her as “fringe”. A jesuit scholar, Paul Mankowski, questions her a bit more vigorously here and some of his claims are contested here. If there is a clear consensus among unbiased scholars that places Pagels on the “fringe” of her field I have yet been unable to find it.

    As to the question of miracles, they are by definition phenomena which appear to defy natural laws and would come under the category of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence. There are two alternative hypotheses for each of these occurrences; either a supernatural entity intervened in the ways of man or someone exaggerated and someone else was overly credulous if not duplicitous and reported it as fact. Occam’s razor would seem to select for the case not requiring a suspension of the accepted bounds of known physics.

    Yes I have a naturalist worldview, because I exist in nature and see evidence of its workings every moment of my life. here and now, and the vast majority of sentient creatures on this planet witness the very same natural phenomena as I do. I call this reality. Those opposed either lived thousands of years ago in a largely preliterate era or are under the influence of psychoactive substances or hypnotized in some way.

    Who is on the fringe here?

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