Guest blog: The Christian’s dilemma and atheist’s delight?

By Peter Bolt

The recto of Rylands Library Papyrus P52 from ...

We do not have an original copy of the New Testament. The New Testaments we read are translations of the Greek New Testament, which is itself an edited text compiled from several thousand manuscripts that have survived from ancient times. There is nothing at all abnormal about this. Still less is it insidious, suspicious, or grounds for uncertainty about the Christian message. It is, in fact, exactly what you would expect from an ancient text. In addition, the fact that such a large number of manuscripts lie behind the Greek New Testament is a very good thing.

This is not the impression exuded from some in the atheist agnostic camp. Here we find a kind of rhetoric that seeks to colour negatively what is thoroughly normal, cast suspicion on a vast array of evidence that is positively helpful, and thereby undermine confidence in the foundational documents of Christianity.

It is there in Dawkins’s The God Delusion, although certainly not in a major way. Almost in passing, he simply notes, of the four Gospels, that “All were then copied and recopied, through many different ‘Chinese Whispers generations’ … by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas”.

Dawkins draws upon Bart D Ehrman, the once-fundamentalist-now-agnostic New Testament scholar, who has a special interest in such matters. Because of his expertise, it is surprising to find Ehrman ‘awfulizing’ the situation so extremely—perhaps coloured by his autobiographical perspective at this point:

We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.

Presumably because, rhetorically speaking, quantification sounds more solid, Ehrman also suggests that:

… these copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are. Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

But it is not the counting that is surprising—or misleading—; it is the ‘awfulization’. The careful reader will find the more moderate Ehrman admitting that “Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant”. Exactly right: the majority (that is, as some have counted it, 99 per cent!) of the some 400,000 variations in the Greek (spelling, word order, etc.) can be regarded as virtually unnoticeable. They don’t even come over into the translations. Because of scribal conservatism, even deliberate changes that could be called ‘theological’ introduce things that are already taught elsewhere. And because of the scribal tendency to smooth things over, the textual critic prefers ‘the most difficult reading’ as closer to the original, and so the more ‘radical’ reading is ultimately handed to the New Testament reader anyway.

But perhaps we can return to Dawkins for a minute. When he refers to “Chinese Whispers” in his comment about the copying and recopying of the Gospels, it sounds negative. But at this point, he rather strangely refers ahead to another discussion in which …Chinese Whispers” has positive results. Using the ‘Chinese Whisper’ theory to explain the survival of memes (that is “units of cultural inheritance”), Dawkins notes that “The details may wander idiosyncratically, but the essence passes down unmutated”. Citing a simple experiment, in which teams are to instruct their members successively on how to complete an origami figure, he argues that although not every team will produce a successful result, a significant number will succeed without any deterioration in accuracy. He explains that folding origami is a series of discrete actions, none of which is difficult in itself, and so it becomes a self-normalizing activity.

This is significant for the copying of New Testament manuscripts. This was not, of course, an oral activity at all, and so the ‘Chinese Whispers’ model is not really analogous. The copying process was a written task that involved a deliberate copying of what was in front of the scribe. It was so mechanical that some scribes (that is, in general, not particularly focusing upon those who copied the New Testament manuscripts) were probably barely literate—as in the famous example mentioned by Ehrman. But if the relevance of Dawkins’s experiment is granted, then copying letters from one manuscript onto another involved a series of discrete actions that were also therefore self-normalizing. Perhaps on the ‘natural selection’ model of Chinese Whispers, illiteracy was not a hindrance, but actually a benefit, since it automatically made the task a skill, rather than a thought process! This experiment therefore confirms what we find in the textual tradition—namely, some ‘idiosyncratic wandering’, but an ‘essence passed down unmutated’.

Dealing with manuscript variation is not a special problem for the New Testament. It is thoroughly normal when ancient texts are preserved in several manuscripts to find variations amongst those manuscripts. It is also normal for textual critics to be apply some rationally constructed rules and processes to come up with the earliest and best readings with a high degree of probability. In this process, it is actually better to have more manuscripts, because this expands the evidence pool, which provides the basis of comparison. Thus the vast amount (on ancient history terms) of manuscripts that are available to the New Testament textual critic is not a curse, but a blessing.

Because of the careful preservation of its message through the manuscript tradition across centuries, today’s New Testament readers can be confident that they are now reading what was first written.



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