MERRY CHRISTMAS! (Did the First Christmas Really Happen?)

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Lee Strobel, investigative reporter, former award-winning editor of The Chicago Tribune, and former atheist, presents his case for Christmas (in admittedly greatly summarized form):

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The Case for Christmas From Eyewitness Testimony

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The Case for Christmas from Early Records

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The Case for Christmas from Historical plus Embarrassing Records

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May we all have a special experience of the love of Jesus Christ this Christmas! God bless you!

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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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Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?

(continued from Was Jesus Christ a Real Person?)

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The Bible, specifically that portion called the New Testament, is the main source of information about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

For someone honestly seeking to study the life of Christ, then, the question arises: “Are these documents reliable?”

They are supposed to be considered as eyewitness accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. That means they were supposed to have been written more than 2000 years ago. But scholars agree that there are no extant samples of the original documents, or what are called autographs. The bases for all of the different versions of the Bible in different languages that are available now are what are called manuscripts, or copies of the autographs. How do we know that these manuscripts are faithful transmissions, through 20 centuries, of the original autographs?

[The following discussion is largely based on the excellent books Surprised by Faith by Dr. Don Bierle, and God Said That? So What? by Dr. Harold Sala. The book Surprised by Faith is available from FaithSearch International, while God Said That? So What? has been published in the Philippines and is available in this country through OMF Literature. I have also referred to the website Y-Jesus, which basically uses the same arguments.]

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Three Important Questions

Scholars involved in the study of ancient manuscripts ask three important questions in ascertaining the integrity of the manuscripts:
1) how many manuscripts have been found?
2) how different are these manuscripts from one another?
3) how early are these manuscripts?

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How Many?
There is an English saying, “The more the merrier”. In the case of ancient manuscripts, the more the better. This is because the greater the number of manuscripts found, the more samples there will be to compare for variations in content. Also, as Don Bierle says, “Even if there are variant readings, a large number of copies allows comparison and correlation in order to better restore the original text. Furthermore, a large number of manuscripts over the centuries minimizes the possibility that a little band of people created the documents ‘behind closed doors’, so to speak. A large number of copies means broader public exposure and greater accountability to integrity”*.

So, how many New Testament manuscripts have been found? Only about 24,000**.

Compare this with 643 extant manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad, ten of Caesar’s The Gallic Wars, seven for Plato’s Tetralogies, and twenty of Livy’s History of Rome ***.

fs-how-many-manuscripts.jpg
(This chart is copyrighted by FaithSearch International. Used with permission.)

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The bar for the number of New Testament documents (24,000) cannot fit in the chart. The height of the bar would be 34 times the height of the chart shown!

Let me cite the words of Dr. Don Bierle, who used to be an atheist in his college years:

As a youth I knew virtually nothing about manuscript studies. My first exposure, though quite limited, came during college. In my skepticism, I remember thinking that it was probably certain that the New Testament evidence would be quite inferior to that of the writings of the great classical writers such as Plato, Homer, or Aristotle. Later in graduate school I discovered, to my surprise, that the New Testament is vastly superior. Additional study over the years has enhanced my understanding of this academic discipline. …

[After presenting the data, Bierle continues:] British scholar F.F. Bruce concludes from the data, “There is no book of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.” …

The comparison is not even close. So much for my reasonable certainty that the New Testament would not fare well under scrutiny! When my reading during graduate school exposed me to these facts, I realized that I had been dishonest. I never questioned, or even examined, the accuracy of the ancient texts of other works that I read. But I somehow knew that the New Testament text could not be trusted, and feigned intellectual reasons for my distrust. … Later in my reading, when reading Sir Frederic Kenyon, eminent scholar of textual criticism, I found out that I had not been alone in holding to this double standard:

Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers whose works have come down to us, of Sophocles, of Thucydides, of Cicero, of Virgil, yet our knowledge of their writings depends on a mere handful of manuscripts, whereas the manuscripts of the New Testament are counted by hundreds, and even thousands.

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So—how do these thousands of manuscripts compare with one another? That is the subject of the second important question.
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To be continued…

Related Posts:

Was Jesus Christ a Real Person?

Are the New Testament Documents Reliable? What About the Differences in the Manuscripts?
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* Surprised by Faith, pp. 29-30.
** Ibid., p. 30. The 24,000 includes 5,664 manuscripts in the original Greek language, plus about 18,000 Syriac, Armenian, Latin, etc., plus New Testament text found in ancient lectionaries and hymn books.
*** Ibid.
****Ibid., pp. 30-31.
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