Sunday, July 20, 2008

Further Thoughts on Textual Reliability

"A 92% average stability of the text does not seem to support the idea that the text has been 'radically altered'.” A Response to Bart D. Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus by Dr. Thomas Howe, Southern Evangelical Seminary.

Maybe not Dr. Howe, but does 92% average stability support the idea that the New Testament can be relied upon as the inherent and infallible Word of God? 8% instability is about one in twelve, or the odds of rolling a four with a pair of dice in a game Monopoly. Imagine you are the battleship and you are sitting on Atlantic Avenue, but instead of landing on Go to Jail if you roll a four, you land on Go to Hell. You go to hell because there was a one in twelve chance that a verse necessary to properly understand the doctrine of water baptism had been miscopied by an early scribe and you were sprinkled when God wanted you dunked.

When an airline mechanic is checking out an airplane, I want him to be working from schematics and diagrams produced by the plane's manufacturer. I don't want him working from some lecture notes that were recopied several times before he got hold of them. 92% stability isn't going to cut it. The original autographs of the books of the Bible are purported to contain the rule of God for man's faith and life. Properly understanding and applying its teachings determines whether a person spends an eternity in bliss or torment. I wouldn't expect any Christian to get on an airplane with those odds, and I don't see why any Christian would expect me to chance my eternal fate on them.

Apologists tout the notion that no essential Christian doctrines are put in jeopardy by any of the known variants. What about the unknown variants? The 92% stability rate that Dr. Howe cites was based on comparing a sample of second and third century manuscripts to later manuscripts. What about books for which early manuscript evidence is lacking, like Galatians. Even if we accept that 92% stability between the autographs and our present texts, we have no idea where the unknown variants occur.

Of course the apologists respond that the truly essential teachings do not depend on any single verse, but are supported consistently throughout the scriptures. Is this true though? Don't extremely important theological points often depend on a single passage or even a single word? If that passage can only be assigned 92% confidence, what happens to inerrancy and infallibility?

For example, belief in the inspiration of the New Testament relies heavily, if not exclusively, on 2 Peter 3:15-16:
Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother
Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same
way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain
some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people
distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Had Peter not referred to Paul's letters as "scripture," Christians would have little if any basis for claiming that the New Testament holds itself to be on a par with the Old Testament as inspired scripture.

As far as I know, there may well be no significant known variants in the early manuscripts of 2 Peter, however, some might consider the book itself to be one big variant. Most modern scholars doubt that Peter wrote either of the epistles attributed to him, but 2 Peter has been in doubt since the first known reference. This occurs in Eusebius' Eccleiastical History written at the end of the third century where he lists it among the "disputed" writings rather than the "recognized" ones. Athanatius included in his Festal Letter of 367 A.D., but the Syrian Christians never accepted it as part of their canon. Somehow, I think the confidence level for the entire book would have to be considerably less than 92% before even considering the possibility of scribal errors.

There is nothing unusual about important doctrines resting on a single ambiguous passage. As I noted in a post last week, the evangelical Christians argument that the New Testament supports capital punishment seems to rest entirely on Romans 13. While their reading of that passage strikes me as more than a little strained, I suppose the odds that the scribes altered the meaning of this passage isn't going to bother anyone who isn't already bothered by the rate of mistakes made by prosecutors and jurors in death penalty cases.

Sometimes a key theological point can rest on a single word. In a post several months ago, I noted the significance that Gary Habermas attaches to Paul's use of the Greek word "historeo" in Galatians 1:18 which describes his meeting with Peter and James in Jerusalem three years after his conversion. According to Habermas, it is this word choice that ties what Paul believed and taught to the the original eyewitnesses to Jesus' life and ministry. I personally don't find his argument terribly persuasive, but even if I did, roll a four and this may be one of those verses that was corrupted by one of the early scribes. The earliest surviving manuscript of Galatians dates from 150 years after Paul wrote it--a lot of trips around the Monopoly board.

The Bible may well be the best attested text in antiquity, but that really isn't saying that much when it purports to be the source of absolute truth on every topic it touches.


  1. Hi, Vinny. Interesting post. I wonder if Howe was speaking of the Bible as a whole, or even just the New Testament. By that, I mean that viewed in it's entirety, a 92% number might be appropriate, but does that necessarily mean that every bit of the Book suffers that lack of perfection. Does it mean that 92% of the Book is spot on and only 8% is troubling? Could it be that for the most part, there is little dispute, but some parts no one will swear to?

    It is my understanding that the sheer number of manuscript pieces make it easier to be certain about the Bible for all the areas that are in complete harmony amongst the manuscripts, as well as for all those that strongly suggest the resulting interpretations.

    Your comments also beg the question regarding that which can be called unknown variants. Why assume those variants would distort anything when so much that is known confirms the vast majority of the book?

    It seems that you are hanging your hat on that 8% in terms of your decision to either abide or not abide the teachings of Scripture. God's goodness and judgement are spoken of quite a bit in the book and it seems unlikely that those who seek to know His Will would not suffer eternal damnation over the manner in which one is baptized. The essential doctrines do not rely on such rituals anyhow. None of the manuscripts considered authentic confuse any points regarding what we need to saved. Rather than discount the whole on the chance the 8% in question holds some salient point, I'd think the remaining 92% should be enough to lead anyone to salvation. Yours is definitely the greater longshot. Good luck with that, my friend.

  2. If Paul's writings aren't inspired scripture, then there is no reason for me to think that his letters can tell me any more about what God wants me to do than the Koran can. Unfortunately, the primary prooftext for the inspiration of the New Testament comes from a letter that is likely to have been a forgery in Peter's name.

    The books of the New Testament appear to have been written by men who agreed about many (although certainly not all) theological matters. So what? I am sure that I could put together similar collections of books written by Mormons, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Druids, or Wiccans. They wouldn't be anything more than a collection of books written by people with similar beliefs.

    It is true that there are many manuscripts but the overwhelming majority of them come from the time after Constantine when Christianity was the state religion of the Roman Empire and the copying was done by trained scribes. There are very few manuscripts from the first two centuries when Christianity was a persecuted minority composed of competing sects.

  3. What you call a forgery is not necessarily one. It is also considered likely that some writings are by disciples of the person who's name it bears. The idea being that since the teaching are, say Paul's, then he should get credit, as it were. A very loose explanation admittedly, but I haven't spent a ton of time on ancient practices regarding such things.

    The number of manuscripts is important for the sake of showing that the message has been handed down faithfully and (at least 92%) unchanged. But there is evidence and arguments suggesting the main tenets were accepted in the years immediately following Christ's death.

    I doubt you could put together a body of work from so many disparate disciplines and not come up with total confusion. All the NT authors believed the same thing about Christ. A Muslim or a Druid doesn't. So any similar teachings would be on the lower rung of importance. For example, "be nice" isn't as important as "accept Christ as Savior".

  4. I did not mean to claim that I could collect books from disparate religions that agreed. I meant that I could put together a collection of books by authors drawn from one particular religion, e.g., Islam, that would agree on most major points. That would not indicate that the writers were all inspired by Allah; it would just show that they shared a similar theological perspective. By the same token, the mere fact that the New Testament writers agree on most major points does not indicate that they were operating under any special divine influence.

    I don't doubt that some writers used their teachers names in order to give the teacher credit for the ideas. On the other hand, it is my understanding that writers often used the name of someone famous in order to get their writing taken seriously. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul himself complains about his name being attached to letters he did not write.

    Peter died in 64 A.D., he would not have needed to write a letter to deal with the fact that Jesus had not returned within the lifetime of his early followers. That makes it likely that 2 Peter was written much later and attributed to Peter.

  5. Hi Vinny -- thanks for the comment over on my blog. Amidst the loud voices of those who hold the scriptures up as inerrant, infallible, unquestionable, it's great to hear the refreshing voice of another person for whom the jury is still out (at least, I'm assuming that about you. I could be wrong, though).

    I also read Bart Ehrman's book -- in fact, I'm sort of walking in his footsteps here at Princeton Theological seminary, where he earned his M.Div and first came to many of his current views on scripture. I asked my Greek prof what he thought of Misquoting Jesus, and he (understandably) had a pretty low opinion of it -- not so much the assertions that Ehrman makes about the texts, but rather the conclusions and decisions he makes in light of them, i.e. agnosticism.

    Like you, I walk the line between agnosticism and cafeteria christianity. And it's certainly a hard line to walk...especially at a seminary in a divinity program ;-)

    Keep writing, and keep searching. Your words (and the thoughts behind them) are appreciated.

  6. You're confusing epistemology and metaphysics here. Epistemology is about evaluating our own access to the truth. Metaphysics is about what is true. Inerrancy is the view that the Bible in fact is 100% true. Your argument is not against inerrancy. It's against the view that we can be 100% confident in the Bible, which is an epistemological issue, not a metaphysical issue.

    Lots of people accept that there is at best an inductive (and thus not 100% deductively valid, guaranteed proof) argument for believing the Bible to be the word of God. Many of them nevertheless believe the Bible to be 100% the word of God. on yet a further level, many of them also think the texts we have capture most of the original Bible, even if we can't always tell for sure which variants are original (and you do have to admit that hardly anything of real doctrinal substance hangs definitively on any textual variant).

    Your argument does lead to skepticism if you further accept the premise that you need 100% epistemic reliability to have knowledge. I don't accept such a premise, and most contemporary philosophers don't either. But you do need such a premise for the Ehrman-like argument to go through. But skepticism is a view about our state of knowledge, not a view about whether the Bible really is inerrant in the original manuscripts. They're completely separate issues.

  7. [Y]ou do have to admit that hardly anything of real doctrinal substance hangs definitively on any textual variant.

    Point 1: How could I possibly know that? I have no idea what variants crept into the text of Galatians during that 150 years of copying and recopying before the first surviving manuscript was produced. The scarcity of manuscript evidence for the New Testament prior to 200 A.D. makes it impossible to know what changes might have been made.

    Point 2: Don’t you consider the inspiration of the New Testament to be a matter of real doctrinal substance? Doesn’t it hang definitively (or at least predominantly) on one of the most questionable books in the New Testament?

    Point 3: Would you admit that many points of real doctrinal substance don’t hang on any text at all? The Trinity is nowhere taught explicitly in the New Testament. Does the ability to withstand textual variants actually mean anything if the doctrine doesn't rest on text in the first place?

    Point 4: I understand the difference between epistemology and metaphysics, I am just not sure that it is a meaningful distinction. If a commercial airliner has not been through a preflight safety check, then no pilot should fly it and no passenger should board it even if it is in perfect working order. The inability to verify its safety renders it unsafe for all practical purposes. I think that the inability to verify the text of the New Testament render in errant and fallible for all practical purposes.

  8. Your rhetorical prowess continues to be an inspiration to everyone at our organization. Still, I can't help but think of you as the proverbial general of Caligula, hurling spears and arrows into a sea of ignorance.

  9. I take the position that "reliability" of the biblical texts is mostly irrelevant. The bible is a collection of books written over the course of a thousand years or so by scores of different authors, none of whom anticipated that their work would be collected with the others, and none of whom set out to write a reliable and factual history. The idea that these 66 documents constitute some kind of unified and consistent expression of God is spurious in my view.

    That said, the only significant sections for someone bent on following Jesus are the gospels, particularly the synoptic gospels. Within those 3 slim volumes are contained almost all that we know about what Jesus actually said and did. Those 3 books are non-historical - they are intended to promote belief in one or another of the early theological ideas about Jesus that were being developed, but there are passages within them that demonstrate the powerful message that Jesus must have delivered to his followers.

    It is clear from those books that Jesus was not into legalistic rulebook religion. He taught right action and living up to the spirit of the doctrines rather than applying them literally. Following His example, we can be a great deal less concerned about the 8% "instability" of the New Testament.

  10. Dear PokeyandtheSoap,

    Thank you.

    To quote the great Lena Lamont from Singing in the Rain:

    I can't tell you how thrilled we are at your reception . . . If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives we feel as though our hard work ain't been in vain for nothing.

  11. Vinny, I think our fundamental disagreement is epistemological. You seem to be a relatively extreme skeptic with an internalist basis (your beliefs have to have their justification accessible to your own thought process, or you can't rely on it). My own view is that we can't know very much at all if you adopt such standards. We have to rely on the best information we have, and if it's reliable information then we know it. We do that all the time with knowledge from our senses and knowledge of history. I don't think trusting the earliest biblical manuscripts is any different from trusting historians to tell us about Julius Caesar except that we've got far more evidence about Jesus and the apostles than we do about anything else in the ancient world. When you begin with a different epistemology, you're going to get a very different attitude toward everything. I'm just concerned that you're not applying the same standards to other things.

    For example, if you refuse to accept something as even likely when there's a possibility that it could have been changed, then you shouldn't accept that you know where your car is when someone might have moved it on your since last you checked. You shouldn't accept the science reliably tells us about the world, when for all you know there's a conspiracy among scientists to tell us all things that aren't true, or for all you know there are facts that scientific methods haven't brought out, because they've happened to choose methods that result in the effects that only happen half the time, and if they just changed one variable that they haven't considered it would go the other way. Hume was one of the few consistent skeptics to recognize this point (although he strangely didn't recognize it in his denial of miracles).

    Your plane example is telling. By the kind of skeptical standard you're putting forth, you can't rule out the possibility that the airliner is lying to you. Problems can arise anywhere in the process from the inspector (who may fudge things, not check everything, or simply lie about having checked them or about not having found something) to the people OKing the decision to fly, to the pilots and air crew acting as if it's safe. You haven't carefully examined all those things when you step on a plane. But you trust it, because you think it's likely enough that if they find problems they won't put the plane in the air.

    Well, I think it's likely enough that people who really care about truth wouldn't put forth texts with the basic truth they care about totally distorted, even if little errors in copying will creep in here or there, while the other manuscripts are likely not to have exactly the same errors, and so we'll end up with the bulk of manuscripts or at least enough of them preserving the main propositional content of the text, and our task is to figure out what is most likely the original. When that's been done (and it has been, by careful scholars) I can learn what I can to evaluate the arguments of scholars, or I can trust intelligent people who do that themselves. Either way it's not a 100% guarantee, but nothing is. The point is that if it does reliably transfer the truth, then it's no worse than anything else in life, but you seem to want to treat it as if it's much worse.

    I don't think the inspiration of the New Testament hangs very definitively on any one book, actually, so I of course don't think it hangs on one very questionable book. I don't think any book in the NT is all that questionable either, but I also don't think there's a fine line between the books recognized as being in the canon and those recognized as not being in the canon. I think the difference between those two categories is quite large.

    I also disagree quite strongly with your claim that the Trinity is nowhere taught in the NT. What's true is that the way it was explicated in the creeds is not explicit in the NT. But I think the propositions affirmed in the creeds are fairly clear in the NT, and I again don't think the doctrine rests on any one book but is all through the NT.

    My claim isn't that nothing rests on text. It's that the most basic doctrines don't rest on one text or even one book. They're clear throughout the NT. That's not the same thing as saying it doesn't rest on text at all. The whole NT is a text.

  12. I don't think trusting the earliest biblical manuscripts is any different from trusting historians to tell us about Julius Caesar except that we've got far more evidence about Jesus and the apostles than we do about anything else in the ancient world.

    The first question is why we think we can trust what historians tell us about Julius Caesar. We do so because historians followed critical historical methodology in their work. Even ancient historians discussed how they gathered material, the specific sources upon which they relied, and how they went about separating fact from fiction. The New Testament writers don’t do this. Luke is the only one who even purports to have conducted an investigation, but he gives no details about who he talked to, what written sources he consulted, or how he decided which stories and sayings to include and which to leave out. It is supposed that Luke had access to Mark’s gospel, but he never once tells the reader why he departs from Mark where he does. The gospel writers don’t even identify themselves, much less any sources or methods.

    Even when an ancient historian purports to be following good practices, modern historians consider the possible biases effecting the ancient historian’s conclusions. No conclusions are accepted at face value and independent confirmation is always sought. Moreover, he always recognizes that any conclusion might be revised upon the discovery of further.

    Another question is the extent to which we trust the histories of Julius Caesar. I doubt that we have much confidence that anything they report him saying is really an exact quote. We recognize that any speech we find in an ancient history is likely to be a recreation based as much on the historian’s understanding of what Caesar intended as the actual words Caesar said.

    We could also look at how historians deal with reports that defy logic and reason. If an ancient writer recorded an account of Caesar sprouting wings and flying above the battlefield, no historian would assume the literal truth of the account. If two ancient historians gave conflicting accounts of the same event, a modern historian would not try to engage in the type of harmonization that is applied to the gospel accounts. The historian would assume that one (or both) of the accounts was mistaken.

    In short, I think the idea that the gospels are subjected to some sort of unfair historical scrutiny is unfounded. It is the Bible believers that apply a completely different set of standards to the gospels than they or any historian would apply to other ancient works.

    Well, I think it's likely enough that people who really care about truth wouldn't put forth texts with the basic truth they care about totally distorted...

    I agree. Unfortunately, the basic truth that a writer cares about is not always a question of fact. That is how myths develop and it makes the historian’s job very difficult.

    A good example of such a myth occurs with President Harry Truman’s meeting with General Douglas MacArthur on Wake Island during the Korean War. Some histories report that MacArthur did not greet Truman when he got off his plane because MacArthur hadn’t arrived at the airfield yet. This story fits the basic truth of MacArthur’s disrespect for Truman but it did not happen. MacArthur was there to greet Truman, but he showed his lack of respect by failing to salute the President. The myth made it into general circulation within a few years of the event.

    After the Civil War, many myths developed about Robert E. Lee that made it into the history books. These myths arose because the basic truth that southern historians cared about was their narrative about how and why the war had been fought. The reputation of Confederate General James Longstreet suffered terribly for years because he had been critical of Lee and supportive of Grant’s administration after the war. Historians blamed him for losing the Battle of Gettysburg and many other failures. In recent years, Longstreet’s reputation as one of the best corps commanders in either army had been rehabilitated as historians have recognized that many myths had arisen about him in the years after the war.

    I think that John 8:3-11 is a good example of a basic truth that made it into the New Testament despite a dubious historical pedigree. Most scholars agree that the story of the woman caught in adultery isn’t part of the original Gospel of John. However, it is such a wonderful story that it is not hard to see why a scribe who was familiar with it would want to put it in somewhere. In the mind of the scribe who added it, the basic truth that the story conveys about Jesus simply outweighed the fact that it wasn’t original.

    The basic truth that the gospels writers cared about was theological, not historical. Paul converted and preached for three years without ever meeting any of the original disciples and he did not check his understanding of the gospel against theirs for fifteen years. His letters contain virtually nothing about Jesus’ ministry prior to the crucifixion. When the gospel writers started trying to piece together a narrative of Jesus’ life from the stories that were in circulation, it is the theological truths they believed that would have shaped their accounts.

    Another important point to remember is that the overwhelming majority of the manuscript evidence available comes from the years after Constantine when Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire. It is easy to figure out the basic truths that later scribes cared about. However, the manuscript evidence prior to 200 A.D. is much scarcer and it shows a higher rate of variance. During this period, the Christian religion was a persecuted minority composed of competing sects with different ideas of what constituted the basic truths of the faith. People were composing gospels and epistles and attributing them to apostolic figures in order to advance their group’s theological agenda.

    I cannot absolutely rule out the possibility that someone has moved my car or that the airline is lying to me, but I have plenty of data upon which to base my conclusion that the likelihood is small. I have almost no data upon which to base a conclusion that there is only a small likelihood that that the text of the New Testament has been corrupted in significant ways.