Since the printing press wasn’t invented until the 15th Century, every writing copied prior to that time had to be copied by hand. This post describes how the New Testament documents reduced the errors that would be natural in such a process.
The title of this debate between Craig Evans and Bart Ehrman is “Does the New Testament Present a Reliable Portrait of the Historical Jesus?” (recorded January 19, 2012 at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada)
Craig Evans on the textual integrity of the New Testament documents (12:37-14:02):
“The Greek text of the four Gospels – indeed the text of all 27 writings that make up the New Testament – is stable, and in all probability is quite close to the original text. No one claims that we have recovered the autographic texts – the originals – but most New Testament scholars and textual critics, think that through comparison and careful study we have reconstructed the text within – pick any percentage you want – 98, 99, more, less, percent of its original form.”
“We have the complete text of the four New Testament Gospels preserved in documents about 270 to 280 years removed from the autographs. We have substantial portions of the texts removed by about 130 to 200 years. We have tiny portions of the texts, perhaps as many as one dozen documents, about 70 to 120 years removed from the autographs. All in all, not a bad record compared to the many classical writings and histories where in most cases there are gaps of 800 to 1,000 years or more between the time of the author of the original and our oldest surviving copy of his manuscript. It is an excellent record indeed.”
I became aware of this video clip from a post on James McGrath’s blog Exploring Our Matrix.
Here is a rough outline of the debate with approximate reference points on the video:
00:14 to 01:54 Moderator Greg Monette (of the SMU chapter of Navigators) introduces the debate.
01:55 to 4:39 Moderator introduces Craig A. Evans
4:46 to 35:10 Evans’ opening statement
35:17 to 38:49 Moderator introduces Bart D. Ehrman
38:56 to 1:06:44 Ehrman’s opening statement
1:06:55 to 1:12:16 Evans rebuts Ehrman
1:12:24 to 1:18:16 Ehrman rebuts Evans
1:18:25 to 1:18:47 Moderator introduces dialogue/discussion period
1:18:48 to 1:42:07 Discussion period (Evans and Ehrman interact)
1:42:08 to 2:06:21 Questions from audience
2:06:22 to 2:10:29 Evans’ closing statement
2:10:43 to 2:16:16 Ehrman’s closing statement
Has the Bible been through a number of additions and revisions? Mike Licona answers this question. (Video 2:55)
For my money (until someone comes along with a more persuasive suggestion), the early association of GMark with the Apostle Peter was likely at least one major factor.
This following answer was originally given here, in response to an unbeliever’s challenge to the historical reliability of the Bible.
A: The Nicene Creed holds no importance for me because it is a product of the post-apostolic church and therefore cannot speak with the same authority as Scripture, which comes from Israel’s prophets and apostles. As I’ve said elsewhere, church is obsolete in our day. The only one that mattered is described in the New Testament.
Neither do I cling to the idea of inerrancy. It is a flawed idea which, counterproductively, tends to focus attention on peripheral rather than central matters. Yes, I believe that the Bible is the word of God, but it was written by human hands long ago and can’t be treated as if it were an idol we should worship. It’s the ideas the Bible puts forth that should be considered as coming from God, and it is reflection upon, and practice of, those ideas that brings God’s blessing.
Treating the Bible as a set of religious documents – and therefore subject to a different set of rules – instead of as a set of historical documents is a mistake. And I see this mistake made not just by those who revere the Bible, but by those who, like you, dispute it. The Bible’s documents should be historically judged by the same standards as we judge any other ancient documents. You can’t throw out Paul’s letters, for example, because they deal with the subject of God. Those letters were written, sent, copied, distributed, and preserved in a historical context. The starting point of any study of them is their historical context and nature.
The Bible’s contents are as reliable as you can get for documents from antiquity. Their textual integrity makes reading them less an exercise of faith in copyists than reading Plato or Homer. Do we have photographic representations of the original documents? Of course not. Because of the abundance of copies and their relatively early dating, however, we can be confident that what we’re reading is, for all practical and important purposes, the same as what was originally written. Textual uncertainties are minor.
You don’t have to consider the New Testament as the word of God to come to decision about whether or not it’s reasonable to put faith in Jesus. All you have to do is acknowledge that those documents are more historically reliable than any other documents from antiquity and then draw conclusions from what you read.
There have been innumerable Bible scholars in the last 2,000 years: archaeologists, historians, theologians, linguists, and more. They have agreed on many things and they have argued about many things. Are we to throw out the New Testament because one, or even a few, archaeologists think Nazareth didn’t exist in the time of Jesus? If so, what are we to do about the archaeologists who disagree with him or them? There can be no end of controversies about the Bible, just as there can be no end of differing opinions about politics, business, and marriage. But we should quit none of these fields because of it. Rather, we should act like men, make our decisions, and live by them.
Some things are beyond controversy among scholars. For example, the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Even the famously skeptical Bart Ehrman thinks that Jesus’ Mythicists are not just wrong, but are dwelling outside the realm of scholarship.
Jesus Christ lived…and men must make their decision about what, if anything, they’re going to do in response. You are certainly free to disregard Him, for He has given you that freedom. Nor will your disregard of Him keep you out of heaven, because everyone is going there. You will, however, find that your experience in heaven carries with it the regret you’ll have for not having lived up to your moral potential down here. For once we get there, there’s nothing we can change about what we did down here. That’s why I want to spend the rest of my life down here making up for the selfishness I’ve previously practiced. When I get to heaven, in whatever place I land, I hope to hear Him say that I finished life better than I started it. If He’s been generous enough to give me the opportunity to repent, I don’t want to insult His kindness.
Q: Using the same standards of credibility applied to other historical documents, how does the collection of documents that is the Bible stack up?
A: The Bible is the most well-attested set of documents we have from antiquity. No other literature from its time period is even close in terms of quantity of copies and chronological proximity to the originals.
People can argue about the Bible’s contents – and they do – but there is hardly any doubt about what the contents are when compared to any other historical documents produced in the same age.
Many of the answers here on Quora have misread the question and answered in theological and interpretive terms. That was not the question. The question wasn’t “Do you believe what the Bible says?” but rather “Do you believe the Bible we have is what was written in ancient times?” That is, the question was about using common standards for determining the historicity of ancient documents. And by those standards, the Bible excels all other ancient literature. To put it another way, if you can’t trust the Bible as a historical document, you’ll have to throw out practically every other document of antiquity with it.
(This question and my answer first appeared on Quora January 22, 2013.)
According to William Johnson (pp. 87-91), the standard bookroll tended to have 20 sheets, though production of rolls with up to 50-70 sheets are known, but they are surely special orders. If a scribe ran out of space, he would simply glue a new blank roll on to the end of the used up one. This process continued until the copying was complete, and then the excess or blank remnant would simply be cut away. “A reinforced sheet, with fibres at right angles to the roll itself could (but need …
See here for the first post in this series.
In our readings from Justin in the past and coming weeks, Justin makes a spirited case for Christianity on the basis of the Old Testament. Though Justin had access to the “memoirs of the apostles,” which likely included the Gospel of John, the Scriptures that became the New Testament had not yet been canonized and collected, so it is not surprising that Justin relies on the Old Testament. Since he was writing in Greek, Justin did not read the Old Testament in Hebrew, but in Greek. In two notable passages, which we’ll take up in a moment, Justin describes how the Old Testament was translated into Greek and the difference that made for Christian theology.
How the first post in this series begins:
One of the things that often affects discussions about Biblical manuscripts from antiquity is assumptions about how they were made. For example, you regularly hear NT scholars say things like ‘Luke’s Gospel contains about the maximum number of Greek characters one could get on a single papyrus roll’. While this may or may not be true, it was always possible to glue on another roll and keep writing. The issue of space only becomes important if: 1) you’re dealing with a poor person who can’t afford the cost of another bookroll and has no other ones to recycle, or 2) the existing project is already so huge and bulky adding another roll or partial roll is not really a viable option.
There’s an old Italian proverb that warns translators about jumping in to the task: “Traduttori? Traditori!” Translation: “Translators? Traitors!” The English proverb, “Something’s always lost in the translation,” is clearly illustrated in this instance. In Italian the two words are virtually identical, both in spelling and pronunciation. They thus involve a play on words. But when translated into other languages, the word-play vanishes. The meaning, on one level, is the same, but on another level it is quite different. Precisely because it is no longer a word-play, the translation doesn’t linger in the mind as much as it does in Italian. There’s always something lost in translation. It’s like saying in French, “don’t eat the fish; it’s poison.” The word ‘fish’ in French is poisson, while the word ‘poison’ is, well, poison. There’s always something lost in translation.
But how much is lost? Here I want to explore five more myths about Bible translation.