Are the New Testament Documents Reliable? What About the Differences in the Manuscripts?

(continued from  Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?)

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To recap the previous post on the topic: the amount of New Testament manuscripts available to scholars dwarfs the number of manuscripts of any other ancient literature.

Not only Greek manuscripts are available, but also thousands of manuscripts in several other languages, including Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, etc. [1]

It is inevitable, of course, that there would be variations among these thousands of manuscripts. There would be spelling errors, transpositions of words, etc. After all, there were no photocopiers during those times, no eyeglasses to correct for myopia, presbyopia, or astigmatism, no bright electric lights, etc., and the sources of the copies would many times be faded manuscripts. This is the subject of the second important question of manuscript analysis—how much do the manuscripts differ from one another?

If the differences are too big, then they would greatly compound the difficulty of deciding which manuscripts are reliable copies of the originals and which are not, and what the original documents really said.

But if the differences can be attributed to scribal errors (such as misspellings and word transpositions), then it would be easier to ascertain the contents of the original documents.

And our confidence that we have the original message of the original documents would be greatly enhanced if we also have manuscripts in other languages coming from different places. As renowned scholar Dr. Bruce Metzger explains, “The more often you have copies that agree with each other, especially if they emerge from different geographical areas, the more you can cross-check them to figure out what the original document was like. The only way they’d agree would be where they went back genealogically in a family tree that represents the descent of the manuscripts”[2].

Dr. Metzger himself made a study comparing the extents of differences in the manuscripts of three famous ancient literary works: the Iliad, the Mahabharata, and the New Testament. Don Bierle, in citing Metzger’s study, says “The works varied in length from 15,600 lines for the Iliad, 20,000 for the New Testament, and 250,000 for the Mahabharata[3]. All variations which did not affect the meaning of the line (such as misspellings and word transpositions) were ignored. Only those variations which affected the meaning of the text were counted.

The result of the study?

According to Dr. Metzger, the Iliad had about a 5% distortion rate—764 lines out of about 15,600 were corrupted or led to readings or interpretations that were either uncertain or differed among the different manuscripts. The 5% distortion rate means that the meaning of roughly one out of every twenty lines is uncertain. Yet, as Dr. Bierle points out, this fact is very rarely, if ever, pointed out in literature classes where the Iliad is assigned as a reading. “Its integrity is assumed without question”[4].

The Mahabharata fared much worse, with a distortion rate of about 10%. This meant that “One out every ten lines of this religious book was ‘up for grabs’, so to speak”[5].

How about the New Testament? The data, according to Dr. Bierle, is “incredible. Only 40 of 20,000 lines, or 1/5 of 1% (0.2%), are distorted. This is 1/25th of the distortion found in the Iliad, which itself has a low distortion rate among ancient writings”[6].

The following chart summarizes the findings of Dr. Metzger’s landmark study:

Distorion rate of New Testament documents vs. other ancient literature

(This chart is copyrighted by FaithSearch International. Used with permission.)

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Drs. William Nix and Norman Geisler have this to say: “The New Testament, then, has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book”[7]. Pure indeed. Following Dr. Metzger’s findings, the New Testament documents can even be said to be 99.8% pure.

Further, Metzger explains that the variations tend to be minor rather than substantive. That is, “The more significant variations do not overthrow any doctrine of the church. Any good Bible will have notes that will alert the reader to variant readings of any consequence”[8].

Another renowned Biblical scholar, Dr. F.F. Bruce, concurs: “the variant readings about which any doubt remain among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice”[9].

So the reliability of the New Testament documents is demonstrated by the results of answering the first two questions of manuscript analysis: (1) how many manuscripts are there, and (2) how much do they differ?

The answers: (1) New Testament manuscripts far outnumber the manuscripts of other ancient literature; and (2) these thousands of manuscripts differ much, much less from each other than the fewer manuscripts of other ancient literature. So our assurance is greatly increased that what we have in our present Bibles correspond quite substantially to the original writings.

But how do we know that what the original writings said were true? Even if what we have now are 100% faithful copies of the originals, if those originals were only made up of legends, then it does not do us much good, does it?

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To be continued…..

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Related posts:

Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?

Was Jesus Christ a Real Person?

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[A very sad note: Dr. Bruce Metzger, greatly esteemed for his scholarship and much admired for his character, died early this year, on Feb. 13, 2007. A tribute at Christianity Today can be found here, and a tribute from another widely respected scholar, Dr. Ben Witherington III, can be found here.]

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[1] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ,p. 76* and Don Bierle, Surprised by Faith, p. 30.
[2] The Case for Christ, p. 76.
[3] Surprised by Faith, p. 35.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] As quoted by Lee Strobel in The Case for Christ, p. 85. Quoted from the book General Introduction to the Bibleby Norman Geisler and William Nix.

[8] As quoted by Lee Strobel in The Case for Christ, p. 85. From a one-on-one interview between Strobel and Metzger.
[9] Surprised by Faith, p. 35.

(*page numbers for the book The Case for Christ refer to the Philippine edition, published locally by OMFLit.)
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22 Responses

  1. This all may be true. I don’t know. I have no familiarity with the subject. Or this all may be propaganda and pseudoscience. I don’t know that, either.

    To make these posts more credible (at least from my point of view) it would be smart to give summaries of or links to credible criticism of these studies. I would be very surprised, and suspicious, if there was none.

  2. Hi, Tommi,

    I wouldn’t be surprised. After all, I am willing to entertain the possibility that there is no credible refutation of these studies 🙂 —well, OK, none yet 😉 .

    I think that the studies by Metzger, and by Geisler and Nix, can actually be said to have been conducted partly in response to charges that the Bible was based on unreliable documents, myths, legends, etc. Frankly, that is also one of my primary reasons for writing these posts. Their books were published from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. That’s plenty of time for strong refutations to come out. If you’re interested, you can check them out at your library and look at their methodologies and bibliographies. In the post, I have provided links to the books by Strobel and by Bierle, in case you might be interested in checking them out, too.

    If you have time, and if you’re interested in getting an idea of how Metzger and biblical scholars approach the study of manuscripts, you might want to check out his classic The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (4th Edition). I have linked to Amazon because there, even if you’re not really going to buy the book, you can “Search Inside”. You can check out the table of contents, the index, and some excerpts, so that you can have an idea of how they approach the subject. I’m sorry, but I cannot find his Chapters in the History of Textual Criticism at Amazon, so that we can also “Search Inside” it 😦 .

    You might also want to check the CV’s and credentials of Metzger and Geisler, the primary authors cited by Strobel and Bierle, to see if they might be propagandists and pseudo-scientists 😉 .

    If there are indeed strong and credible refutations against the results cited, I’m sure the people who maintain the unreliability of the Bible would be familiar with such refutations. I totally agree that the discussion would be greatly enriched if such works were considered. I would appreciate it if any reader would provide us with the data from such refutations—if any exist 😉 —and with links to them, if possible, so that we can interact with those studies also.

    Thanks for your comments, as always!

  3. A few week backs on my car radio, I heard a preacher talking about John 21:15-17, where Jesus asks Peter whether he loves him and Peter responds that he does love Jesus. The preacher noted that Jesus used the Greek work agapeo which means total and complete love while Peter used the Greek word phileo which means fondness or friendship. “Why didn’t Peter use the same Greek word that Jesus used?” queried the preacher. I wanted to answer “Maybe it was because Peter didn’t speak Greek.”

    My point is that claiming that the Bible compares favorably to the Illiad is not just comparing apples to oranges, it is comparing apples to aircraft carriers. I have never heard anyone suggest that the minute distinctions between verbs in the Illiad contain important lessons for modern man. I have never heard anyone claim that the Illiad should trump the conclusions of modern science in the fields of geology, biology, and human sexuality.

    A five percent error rate in the Illiad is completely acceptable because no one thinks it is anything more than an ancient work of literature that may give us some insights into the culture of that day. On the other hand, forty inaccurate lines in the New Testament could be incredibly important because the book is supposed to contain everything man needs to know about his place in God’s eternal plans.

  4. Hi, vinny.

    Welcome to the site.

    Maybe it was because Peter didn’t speak Greek.

    Actually, it is likely that he did. Especially if you will accept that the apostle Peter was indeed the writer of 1 and 2 Peter. But even if you would reject that authorship, his personal context would justify the conclusion that he did speak Greek. He was a Galilean fisherman who had to deal with traders and people from other regions and backgrounds. He would most probably know enough koine Greek to conduct trade, just like most people living around the Mediterranean at that time.

    My point is that claiming that the Bible compares favorably to the Illiad is not just comparing apples to oranges, it is comparing apples to aircraft carriers. I have never heard anyone suggest that the minute distinctions between verbs in the Illiad contain important lessons for modern man.

    The point of the comparison is to answer the accusations by some critics that the Bible is an unreliable document. In case you have not read the start of the present series of posts, may I request you to please read Was Jesus Christ a Real Person? and then the next posts on the New Testament?

    But if you don’t have time for that, may I offer the following summary of my flow of argument. Some critics say that Jesus Christ is not divine. Some even say that he himself did not even claim to be divine. Now, the only substantial records that we have of his life, teachings, and sayings is the New Testament. That is the basis for what Christians believe about him—primarily, that he is God, that he really lived in history as a human being, and that he was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again. But critics say that the New Testament is composed of unreliable documents. Ergo, our faith rests on shaky ground.

    So the defense which I have adopted in the present series of posts is to try to demonstrate the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. I am trying to do this by answering three questions normally asked in evaluating ancient manuscripts (see Are The New Testament Documents Reliable?): (1) how many manuscripts are there? (2) how much do these manuscripts differ from one another? and (3) how early are these manuscripts?

    The point of the comparison between the New Testament and the Iliad and Mahabharata is to show that the NT manuscripts have much less variance among themselves than manuscripts of other well-known ancient literature—an answer to the second question. The comparison is not about their eternal significance, but to demonstrate the comparative reliability of their transmissions.

    It is possible for Dr. Metzger to have just calculated the variance among NT manuscripts and present the conclusion that they differed by only 1/5th of 1 pct. But then, it might happen that skeptics would come in and ask, “But how does that compare with other ancient literature?” It is possible (now I’m just speculating here) that that is the reason he also studied the Iliad and the Mahabharata, so that he could present a basis of comparison.

    You may think that the choice of the two works is a poor one. Well, if any expert could come up with a similar study of manuscript variance for other, more acceptable, literature, that would be a very welcome development. Or if you know of any other such study for other literature, I would appreciate it if you could share such knowledge. As it is, the study which my source used (Dr. Bierle), namely the study by Dr. Metzger, was the one that I had available for citing in my post.

    On the other hand, forty inaccurate lines in the New Testament could be incredibly important because the book is supposed to contain everything man needs to know about his place in God’s eternal plans.

    They would indeed be terribly important if—IF—they affected any doctrine or belief.

    Thanks for your comments!

  5. My point is to examine what you mean by the word “reliable.” For example, you and I might frequent the same barber. However, if I were to find myself in need of an operation on my brain and you were to recommend a surgeon to me, I would find little comfort in an assertion that he was just as reliable as our barber. I would simply not measure the reliability of a barber on the same scale as the reliability of a brain surgeon. By the same token I would not measure the reliability of a document that purports to be the inerrant and infallible message of God to humanity on the same scale as the reliability of an ancient work of fiction.

  6. Hi, vinny.

    Thanks for pointing out that I need to clarify what I mean by “reliability”. In my two posts, I mean by it the assurance that the manuscripts on which the present published Bibles are based are reliable bases, that is, authentic, faithful, genuine copies of the originals (of which none are extant). I have used it in the posts to mean faithfulness in transmission.

    I am not using “reliability” in terms of effectiveness as a guide for life, in revealing God’s will, etc.

    You will recall that the flow of the discussion is this: We want to know who Jesus Christ is. Problem: our main sources for these are the New Testament documents, particularly the Gospels, of which we do not have the originals. But what if these manuscripts do not faithfully represent what the original authors wrote? So before we could even begin to study what these documents say about him, we first have to be assured that the copies that we have now are reliable, authentic, faithful copies of the original autographs. So we apply three questions commonly asked in manuscript analysis: how many copies do we have? how widely do they differ from each other? and how early were they written? So far, we have answered the first two questions: we have much, much more copies of New Testament manuscripts than any other ancient manuscript; and these thousands of copies differ from each other by less than 0.2 pct, or 40 lines out of 20,000.

    We could stop there and not compare the results with any other ancient literature. 99.8 pct reliable, or faithful, is pretty good. However, Dr. Metzger also chose to cite statistics for the Iliad and the Mahabharata, probably so that the reader may have an idea of how this 99.8 pct figure compares with others. The comparison is not in terms of reliability for guidance in life, or infallibility, or inerrancy, or inspiration. It is only in terms of faithfulness in transmission, or copying. That is why I have ended the current post the way I did (please see my last two sentences).

    If you do not agree that the NT documents may be compared with the Iliad, etc., even just in terms of transmission over the centuries, then may I ask you to just consider the 99.8 pct reliability/authenticity/faithfulness figure. It’s pretty good, specially since no doctrine is negatively affected.

    An example of the variances. A big chunk of the 40 lines would be taken up by the various “endings to the gospel of Mark”, which another reader has already cited. Most modern Bible versions have notes to this effect. Those various endings, while taking up many lines, however, does not affect the doctrine of the resurrection at all, which is already pointed out in the first eight verses of Mark 16. So whether you put verses 9-20 in a present edition of the Bible or not, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is still attested to by Mark 16:1-8.

    Another example. Another big chunk is taken up by John 7:53–8:1-11, the account of the woman caught in adultery. The best manuscripts do not contain this story. Again, a good modern Bible version should have notes indicating this. But even if we take out that entire story, the points, which are that Jesus is merciful and has the power to forgive sins, and that people should realize that everybody is a sinner and that they should therefore not be too hasty in condemning others, can be found in other New Testament passages. These points will not be negatively affected even if this particular story is not included in a Bible edition.

  7. You started out asking the question “Are these documents reliable?” In order to answer that question, I think you must first consider another question “Reliable for what purpose?” If my wife asks me how big the living room is because she is going out to buy paint, I might just pace off the length and width and do a calculation in my head. That would be enough for her to buy a reasonable amount of paint. However, if my wife were planning to buy wallpaper, I would not consider this a reliable measurement. I would want to measure and calculate precisely, taking into account the location of doors and windows so she could get the right number of rolls. A measurement that is reliable for one purpose might not be reliable for another. Even when it comes to the reliability of the transmission of information, the same point holds. A method for transmitting the results of a football game does not need to be any where near as reliable as the method used for transmitting an order to a submarine to launch nuclear missiles. The latter demands much greater accuracy and security.

    That is why I find comparisons of the Bible to other ancient writings meaningless. No one wants to use the Iliad for the kind of purposes that conservative Christians use the Bible for. No one shows up at my local school board demanding that the curriculum be controlled by what the Iliad says about homosexuality or the origin of species rather than the scientific conclusions reached by leading research universities. Nobody tries to find exact and certain answers to complex questions in the Iliad in the way that conservative Christians try to find them in the Bible. The only meaningful comparison would be to another historical record that claims the same kind of exactitude and certainty.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think historians ever make the kind of claims of certainty and exactitude for any historical record that conservative Christians make for the Bible. For example, if a historian wanted to study the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War, he could look at contemporaneous reports, letters, and diaries written by soldiers of every rank from both armies as well as memoirs written in the months and years afterwards by eyewitnesses to the events. He could read first hand reports in articles from newspapers and periodicals of every political persuasion. He could walk the battlefield and examine artifacts. Nevertheless, he would never claim absolute certainty about every fact or detail of the battle even though it took place a mere one hundred and fifty years ago.

    Despite the wealth of contemporaneous source material with which to study the Battle of Gettysburg, there are many aspects of the battle both large and small about which historians are unsure. They are not sure how many men participated in Pickett’s Charge. They are not sure how Union General Custer and Confederate General Stuart came to fight a cavalry battle behind the Union lines on the third day. They are not sure whether Confederate Commander Lee complained about General Longstreet’s slowness. Moreover, even the things they are confident about are subject to revision by new evidence and explanations. Bible believers, on the other hand, claim to have absolute historical certainty about events that occurred two thousands years ago based on anonymous accounts written thirty to sixty years after the events in question.

    Christians claim that the Bible compares favorably with other ancient historical documents, but they make claims that are totally unlike any claim a historian would make about any document ancient or modern. No historian believes he has the exact words that Nero spoke, but Christians believe that they can know exactly what Jesus said. No historian believes he has every relevant bit of information about Caesar, but Christians believe that the New Testament contains everything they need to know about what Jesus said or did. They believe that nothing he said or did outside of that which is recorded could affect their understanding of his purposes. Every historian knows key details can be altered or invented for political purposes, but Christians believe that nothing that Jesus said or did was distorted between the time he died and the time the gospels were written thirty to sixty years later. Every historian knows that there is frequently more than one possible explanation for the data and that any given explanation can only be considered the most likely or best supported, but Christians believe that they can categorically reject alternate theories for the stories that made there way into the Bible.

    So when I hear a Christian assert that the Bible is better attested than other works of ancient history, I am unimpressed. Given the way the conservative Christian relies on the Bible, it would have to be better attested than every work of history ever generated up to and including this morning’s newspaper.

  8. You started out asking the question “Are these documents reliable?” In order to answer that question, I think you must first consider another question “Reliable for what purpose?”

    I thought I had answered that. At this point in the discussion (remember, the related posts are “Was Jesus Christ a Real Person?”, “Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?”, and this one, “Are the New Testament Documents Reliable? What About the Differences in the Manuscripts?”), “reliability” concerns being an authentic copy of the original manuscripts, of which none are extant. This is important because, as I have already said, it is no good examining what they say about Jesus Christ if it turns out that they are not reliable/authentic/faithful copies of the originals. The truth aspect of “reliability” as far as these documents are concerned is still to be discussed.

    If my wife asks me how big the living room is because she is going out to buy paint, I might just pace off the length and width and do a calculation in my head. That would be enough for her to buy a reasonable amount of paint. However, if my wife were planning to buy wallpaper, I would not consider this a reliable measurement. I would want to measure and calculate precisely, taking into account the location of doors and windows so she could get the right number of rolls. A measurement that is reliable for one purpose might not be reliable for another. Even when it comes to the reliability of the transmission of information, the same point holds. A method for transmitting the results of a football game does not need to be any where near as reliable as the method used for transmitting an order to a submarine to launch nuclear missiles. The latter demands much greater accuracy and security.

    The “much greater accuracy and security” that is demanded is manifested in the 99.8 pct accuracy rate. But you’re not impressed by that, because you do not like the comparisons made with the other works.

    That is why I find comparisons of the Bible to other ancient writings meaningless.

    As I have said in my previous response, you can ignore the comparisons if you are put off by them. You do not have to belabor this point. The conclusion from Dr. Metzger’s study was that the discrepancies in all the Bible manuscripts he studied amounted to only 40 lines in 20,000, or a 99.8 pct accuracy rate in transmission over hundreds of years across different countries.

    As I said, Dr. Metzger probably included the comparisons in order to answer people who might ask for comparisons, because there are people like that. It turns out that you’re not one of them, you’re not impressed with the comparisons provided. Fine. As I said, just consider the 99.8 pct rate, then, and don’t mind the comparisons.

    The only meaningful comparison would be to another historical record that claims the same kind of exactitude and certainty.

    Which document would you have preferred that the Bible, or specifically, the New Testament, was compared with? If you have data for the transmission across the centuries of that document which you prefer to compare with the NT, I would be grateful if you could provide them.

    Bible believers, on the other hand, claim to have absolute historical certainty about events that occurred two thousands years ago based on anonymous accounts written thirty to sixty years after the events in question.

    Do you think that accounts written thirty to sixty years after an actual, historical event would not be refuted and discredited by authorities, surviving family and friends, or even eyewitnesses who are still alive? Do you think that if a book came out today claiming that Pres. John F. Kennedy did not really die on November 22, 1963, that book would be reprinted and still be selling next year, much less five years, a hundred years from now? Or, to cite somebody not that well-known in the powerful First World (just as the man Jesus was not that well known in the Roman Empire), do you think that a book which claims that Filipino painter Fernando Amorsolo, who died almost 36 years ago in 1972, was a huckster and plagiarist, would be reprinted and still be read next year, or five years from now? Wouldn’t there be surviving family, friends, followers and fans who would refute the author to utter shame and oblivion?

    They believe that nothing he said or did outside of that which is recorded could affect their understanding of his purposes. Every historian knows key details can be altered or invented for political purposes, but Christians believe that nothing that Jesus said or did was distorted between the time he died and the time the gospels were written thirty to sixty years later.

    You are attributing to Christians claims which we do not make. At least, not all of us. It seems that you have experienced encounters with only a limited subset of Christians. Try entering a non-denominational seminary, or a Christian ministry which accepts Christians from all denominations. You might be amazed at the variance of viewpoints and beliefs. Or, try visiting Reclaiming the Mind, where you will see lively but polite discussions between Arminians, Calvinists, Dispensationalists, Covenantalists, etc. etc.

    Regarding distortions, of course there were a lot of those. Examples are the so-called Gnostic Gospels such as those of Thomas and Judas. Again, you are attacking a claim which we do not make.

    Every historian knows that there is frequently more than one possible explanation for the data and that any given explanation can only be considered the most likely or best supported, but Christians believe that they can categorically reject alternate theories for the stories that made there way into the Bible.

    If you mean that Christians believe there is only one interpretation for every story in the Bible, then you are attacking a straw man here.

    So when I hear a Christian assert that the Bible is better attested than other works of ancient history, I am unimpressed.

    Right. A 99.8 pct accuracy rate in transmission doesn’t impress you. But a 100 pct accuracy rate would probably provoke a protest of collusion, manipulation, hiding of data, etc. So what percentage between 99.8 and 100 would impress you?

    Given the way the conservative Christian relies on the Bible, it would have to be better attested than every work of history ever generated up to and including this morning’s newspaper.

    Firstly, what do you mean by “conservative Christian”? And what is that “way” in which they rely on the Bible? As I have said, there are many different flavors of Christianity, the adherents of which share in the belief that Jesus Christ is God. That is why they’re called CHRIST-ians, followers of Christ. And some whom you would label as “conservative” might be labeled as “moderate” or “ultra-conservative” or some other label, by a different group of Christians. Still, we see ourselves as united in the one Body of Christ, practicing, as the saying goes, “tolerance in the essentials, firmness in the essentials, and, in everything, charity”.

    Secondly, what to you would be an attestation that would be better than that of this morning’s newspaper, or of any other work of history? Regarding transmission, wouldn’t the accounts of at least four eyewitnesses transmitted with a 99.8 pct accuracy rate over hundreds of years still not be enough? Regarding truth claims…well, my posts haven’t gone there yet. The succeeding posts in the series will.

  9. I assume this is a standard question: On what basis are the four gospels, and more generally everything in the Testaments, elevated above all the apocryphal stuff?

    From what I know, the early decisions of including or not including specific material were far from uniform.

  10. For God’s message to humanity, I don’t think 100% accuracy is too much to ask. You speak of forty lines as if were nothing to be concerned about, but if you change one line in 2 Peter, you lose a key part of the argument that the New Testament is inspired scripture. Sermons about Christ’s divinity always seem to be based on the same handful of few verses from John and preaching on salvation by faith alone always cites several key verses in Romans. If five or ten lines are wrong in those books, important doctrines might be significantly different. If forty pages of the Illiad are wrong, who cares? Forty lines of the New Testament, on the other hand, could be huge. Even forty words could be important

  11. Regarding refutations, there are lots of people around who deny the Holocaust and their numbers grow every year despite the wealth of eyewitness testimony to refute their claims. The Mormon Church is thriving despite the patent absurdity of Joseph’s Smith’s story of golden plates and seer stones. The refutations don’t stop the people from clinging to their beliefs and writing their books.

    If, as some scholars think, Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome after Peter died around 65 A.D., who would have been around to refute his stories? Moreover, how would someone refute Mark’s stories. He could say “I never saw Jesus do that” and Mark could answer “Well, you weren’t with Jesus every day for three years like Peter was.”

  12. Hi, tommi.

    Hey, long time no “read”, friend! How are you?

    I assume this is a standard question: On what basis are the four gospels, and more generally everything in the Testaments, elevated above all the apocryphal stuff?

    Yup, that is indeed a standard question, both for Christians and non-Christians. How WERE the final contents of the New Testament determined? This is more technically known as the “canon”, or rule or standard, of which books are “in” and which are “out” 🙂 .

    Whole books have been written on this topic, and Christian bloggers who have featured this in their blogs have had to devote several posts just to give a summary. One of the more well-written series is by Dr. Mark D. Roberts. His site is at http://www.markdroberts.com, and the table of contents for his series on the canon is at http://www.markdroberts.com/htmfiles/resources/davinciopportunity4.htm#may1606. Aside from his discussion on the development of the canon, you can also find on that page links to his excellent discussions on “The Antiquity and Reliability of the Gospels”, a review of The Da Vinci Code, a discussion on the empowerment of women in orthodox Christianity, and musings on whether Jesus was married!

    Dr. Roberts obtained his degrees in Harvard (BA in Philosophy, MA in The Study of Religion, and PhD in New Testament and Christian Origins), so he’s extremely qualified to write on these topics.

    But in order to whet your appetite, let me say that there were three general criteria that the early church used in determining if a document was to be considered as sacred writing or not:

    (1) apostolic authority—they must have been written by apostles themselves, who were eyewitnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus, or by close followers of the apostles who recorded what the apostle taught;

    (2) conformity with the basic and normative Christian tradition and with the teachings of the other books (they cannot contradict each other’s teachings); and

    (3) universally accepted as authoritative.

    If you really want to dig into this, you might want to check out Bruce Metzger’s The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (this link will enable you to “Search Inside” 😉 ).

    Regards!

  13. For God’s message to humanity, I don’t think 100% accuracy is too much to ask.

    OK. You are of course entitled to your expectations. Sadly, then, the Bible fails your expectations, since it wasn’t copied by thousands of scribes across generations, hundreds of years, countries, and languages with each copy being a 100% exact copy of its base. Sorry. Note, though, that inerrancy ≠ preservation.

    You speak of forty lines as if were nothing to be concerned about

    Because the variations don’t negatively affect any important doctrine. This has already been mentioned in my first two responses to your comments.

    but if you change one line in 2 Peter, you lose a key part of the argument that the New Testament is inspired scripture. Sermons about Christ’s divinity always seem to be based on the same handful of few verses from John and preaching on salvation by faith alone always cites several key verses in Romans. If five or ten lines are wrong in those books, important doctrines might be significantly different. If forty pages of the Illiad are wrong, who cares? Forty lines of the New Testament, on the other hand, could be huge. Even forty words could be important

    Please specify the one line in 2 Peter which you are citing, for which there are variations that would negatively affect the doctrine of inspiration. Please specify also the actual variations in the actual lines in John and Romans.

  14. The variants that are known to scholars are known because independent texts with each of the possible readings have survived. What if only one of the readings survived? What if new manuscripts are found with variants that had not been seen before? Unfortunately, scholars don’t know what they don’t know.

  15. Right. So you are objecting to the authenticity of the New Testament manuscripts because:

    (1) They weren’t transmitted with 100 percent accuracy over hundreds of years by thousands of scribes spread across different countries and speaking and writing in different languages; and

    (2) There might be manuscripts out there, still undiscovered, which might contain lines which might vary significantly from the contents of existing manuscripts, significantly enough to affect doctrine. Or, there might have been a manuscript which might have contained lines which might have varied significantly from the contents of existing manuscripts, but it is possible that this hypothetical manuscript has not survived and so we will never get to read the variances contained in it (IF it existed at all).

  16. I have no problem whatsoever conceding that the Bible is a generally well attested ancient document. I do have a problem with the Bible as God’s inerrant and infallible message to humanity. Thousands of scribes working over hundred of years necessarily introduces uncertainty into the content of that message.

  17. Based mostly on reflection:

    The writings of Bible are based on some actual events or are a hoax. I find the first option to be more likely. There are alternatives between them.

    Assuming that actual events were the basis, the observers interpreted that information according to their own view of the world. The writings were not done immediately (to my knowledge), so memory plays a large role.

    Assuming the actual events were written down, there still was selection: Manuscripts were canonised or not according to various criteria, certainly including the consistency of approved material with then-current understanding of history and religious truth.

    Assuming the previous step worked, there is still the matter of translation: Translating any text from one language to another always changes the meaning and tone of the text. Example: In Finnish, killing is banned. In English, murder is banned. That’s quite a difference in the ten commandments, which are very visible part of the doctrine, at least to anyone not too deep into the subject.
    Serious study uses the original languages, which is good, but does not mean that the tradition and popular views haven’t been changed by the inevitable differences in languages.

    Hence: I personally hold it very unlikely that the Bible is direct word from God, even assuming such an entity exists and directly told the original writers what to do, unless said God also acted in such a way as to keep the texts relevant in all ages to come, which creates problems similar to that of evil. For example: Why did God not give more accurate predictions or actual dates? (Dinosaurs and other fossils as “tests of faith” are, in my not-so-humble opinion, extremely dubious.)

    Everything above is even more true of church traditions. The folk traditions are likely to have yet more variance and noise. The method of adopting existing gods and heroes as saints or demons was an effective way of getting converts back when it was used, but certainly did not help with securing the purity of the doctrine.

    I happily ignored such utter errors in the Bible as it saying that pi = 3 (the context had something to do with architecture; temple of Solomon, perhaps) and some problem with classifying some mammal. Maybe a hare. Not really relevant, anyway.

  18. Hi, vinny. Hi, tommi.

    Thanks very much for your patience, you two. I would really very much like to post something on inerrancy, but I have very little time to spend on my blog right now. But Lord willing, I will do that, hopefully sooner rather than later.

    In the meantime, may I refer you two to a series of posts on inerrancy, which also touch on how conservative evangelical Christians view this concept vis-a-vis transmission of the manuscripts through centuries, with their resulting variances, and also vis-a-vis translations? These are in Tim Challies’ blog, and he posted them quite recently, just last week. They are:
    Are There Errors in the Bible?;
    What Does “Inerrant” Mean?; and
    Errors and Contradictions in the Bible.
    I trust you will have plenty to feed your minds over there, not just from the posts but also from the discussions 😉 .

    BTW, Tommi, where in the Bible does it say that pi=3 🙂 ? If there is a version that says that, I suppose it was a problem with translation. Besides, we cannot expect ancient writers to be governed by the same concept of mathematical precision that modern writers are. They come from a different time and culture and had different purposes for writing to their respective target audiences (which are very different from modern readers). Regarding differences in translations or classifications of animals, the original documents contained many words which are hard, if not actually impossible, to translate into modern languages because the original words did not survive into modern times. That’s why different versions use different words, for example, for some animals and precious stones that are cited in the biblical texts. Now that would again touch on inerrancy vis-a-vis transmission and translation, for which it would be profitable to check out Challies’ posts 😉 .

    Man, I’d dearly love to post something on this 🙂 . Well, hopefully next week. In the meantime, I wanted to post this response so as not to keep you guys hanging.

    God bless you!

  19. Hey.

    IIRC (it has been a while), it was in conjuction with architecture, possibly pools or something, which were or was 30 units of measurement and 10 units of measurement in diameter.

    Quick googling reveals a lot of outright stupidity and some useful info.

  20. Hahaha! Thanks! Man, I didn’t even notice that.

    I have no problem with that. I wouldn’t impose modern standards on the ancient Hebrew text (please note my last response to Hokku on the post Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?). Besides, even modern writers approximate. Also, Prof. Dutch, in your link, offers very plausible explanations.

    Thanks again.

  21. The issue of pi is in conjunction with the “Sea” or laver (wash-stand) in Solomon’s temple, II Chronicles 4. I have in the files a scholarly answer to that, but it’s so many years back I’ll have to dig a while. Will try to pick it up and summarize it sometime this week D. V.

    Agreed there is some outright stupidity around, not all of it from Bible-believers. One World Lit text we used when I was full-time college faculty said, “David led a choir of thousands in the temple.” Now talk about a miracle! And that was a secular text, full of the highter criticism in its glancing remarks about Hebrew lit – far more info on Greek and Roman, even more on the ancient East, no critical theories advanced on those; and we taught it all – in a Bible college no less! At least they included some biblical portions,
    better than some textbooks which act as if Israel never existed. Have a great forever! – Charles – Rom. 8:28

  22. Greetings, I am an Atheist and have a blog site dedicated to cataloging all my observations and questions regarding the bible and Christianity. Recently, a Christian who regularly comments on a number of my posts (whiteman0o0) left a response to one of my questions that disturbed me a great deal. As someone who was raised in the church and attended Private Christian School for the vast majority of my life, I was struck by how unusual whiteman0o0’s opinion seemed, at least to me, regarding this particular issue. The issue was about whether or not everyone is born a sinner. Whiteman0o0 had earlier stated that, yes, everyone IS born a sinner. I asked him to elaborate, arguing that I believed babies and children are innocent. I used an example of an infant that dies unexpectedly in his crib of SIDS and asked whiteman0o0 if he believed that this baby would go to hell seeing that we are all born sinners and the baby would never have had the opportunity to accept Jesus as his personal savior and ask for forgiveness for his ‘sins’. Whiteman0o0 responded, stating that indeed children and babies can go to hell and his reasoning was that God doesn’t judge them for their ACTUAL lives but for the lives they WOULD HAVE lived had they not died. In other words, God creates an alternate timeline where the baby/child didn’t die and sees if they would have become a Christian or not, what sins they would have committed, etc. and sends them to heaven or hell accordingly. This scenario left me truly horrified and I am desperate to learn how many other Christians agree with whiteman0o0’s opinion.

    This is the page where whiteman0o0 left his response:

    http://doubtingthomas426.wordpress.com/2007/12/16/if-the-statement-is-true-your-religion-is-vile/

    I am urging, pleading with anyone that is willing, to please visit this page, read the comments (you can ignore the original post), particularly mine (DoubtingThomas426) and whiteman0o0’s, and whether you agree with him or not, please leave a comment addressing this issue. I truly appreciate it.

    Thank you and I apologize for taking up space on this page with my plea.

    DoubtingThomas

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