Mar 14

The Bible isn’t true? Part 2 -Texual Criticism

Response to Jon Lindgren on article: http://redriverfreethinkers.areavoices.com/2013/03/14/if-you-quote-the-bible-you-should-study-textual-criticism/


Jon’s article against the authenticity of the Bible is not really a religious concern at all; it’s an academic one.  It can be answered in an academic way totally unrelated to spiritual convictions by a simple appeal to facts. In his article he does point out some things that are correct, but by no means takes away from the truth that is the Bible. In his article I agree with points 1 and 2, but disagree with 3, 4 and 5. I believe I can provide a logical reason for all in a short article. Keep in mind also that Jon’s original claim came with the naming of the article “If you quote the Bible, you should study textual criticism.” My guess, and its only a guess, is that Jon has not studied textual criticism with the Bible which I think is funny since he quotes the bible often in his articles. Whether e is using it for or against the Bible, I beg that he take his own advice.




Jon’s objection at first glance is compelling.  When we try to conceptualize how to reconstruct an original after 2000 years of copying, translating, and copying some more, the task appears impossible.  The skepticism, though, is based on two misconceptions about the transmission of ancient documents like the New Testament. 




The first assumption is that the transmission is more or less linear, as in the telephone example–one person communicating to a second who communicates with a third, etc.  In a linear paradigm people are left with one message and many generations between it and the original.  Second, the telephone game example depends on oral transmission which is more easily distorted and misconstrued than something written. 
Neither assumption applies to the written text of the New Testament.  First, the transmission was not linear but geometric–e.g., one letter birthed five copies which became 25 which became 200 and so on.  Secondly, the transmission in question was done in writing, and written manuscripts can be tested in a way that oral communications cannot be.




Recently I read an articles by Greg Koukl and Norman Geisler, huge opponents of Bart Ehrman, where they gave a  illustrations on how scholars can reconstruct the text from existing manuscript copies even though the copies themselves have differences and are much older than the autograph (i.e., the original). (This will make the article long, so I will end with this until the next blog.)



“Pretend your Aunt Sally has a dream in which she learns the recipe for an elixir that would continuously maintain her youth.  When she wakes up, she scribbles the directions on a scrap of paper, then runs into the kitchen to make up her first glass.  In a few days her appearance is transformed.  Sally is a picture of radiant youth because of her daily dose of what comes to be known as “Aunt Sally’s Secret Sauce.”



Sally is so excited she sends hand-written instructions to her three bridge partners (Aunt Sally is still in the technological dark ages–no photocopier) giving detailed instructions on how to make the sauce.  They, in turn, make copies which each sends to ten of her own friends. 



All is going well until one day Aunt Sally’s pet schnauzer eats the original copy of the recipe.  Sally is beside herself.  In a panic she contacts her three friends who have mysteriously suffered similar mishaps.  Their copies are gone, too, so the alarm goes out to their friends in attempt to recover the original wording.



They finally round up all the surviving hand-written copies, twenty-six in all.  When they spread them out on the kitchen table, they immediately notice some differences. Twenty-three of the copies are exactly the same.  One has a misspelled word, though, one has two phrases inverted (“mix then chop” instead of “chop then mix”) and one includes an ingredient that none of the others has on its list.



Here is the critical question:  Do you think Aunt Sally can accurately reconstruct her original recipe?  Of course she could.  The misspelled words can easily be corrected, the single inverted phrase can be repaired, and the extra ingredient can be ignored. 



Even with more numerous or more diverse variations, the original can still be reconstructed with a high level of confidence given the right textual evidence.  The misspellings would be obvious errors, the inversions would stand out and easily be restored, and the conclusion drawn that it’s more plausible that one word or sentence be accidentally added to a single copy than omitted from many. 



This, in simplified form, is how the science of textual criticism works.  Textual critics are academics who reconstruct a missing original from existing manuscripts that are generations removed from the autograph.  According to New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce, “Its object [is] to determine as exactly as possible from the available evidence the original words of the documents in question.” 2



The science of textual criticism is used to test all documents of antiquity–not just religious texts–including historical and literary writings.  It’s not a theological enterprise based on haphazard hopes and guesses; it’s a linguistic exercise that follows a set of established rules.  Textual criticism allows an alert critic to determine the extent of possible corruption of any work.”

Greg Koukl: Stand to Reason






Notice that even with the error in the text, 100% of the message comes through.


Consider also this message with two lines and two errors.




Here we are even more sure of the message with two errors in it. In fact, the more errors like this, the more sure one is of the message since every new line brings a confirmation of every letter except one. The NT has about 5700 manuscripts. which provides hundreds, in some cases even thousands of confirmations, of every line in the NT.

As a matter of fact, there can be a high percent of divergence in letters and yet a 100% identity of message. Consider the following lines:





3.           Y’ALL HAVE WON $10,000,000


Notice that of the 27 letters and numbers in line two only 7 in line three are the same. That is little more than 25% identity of letters and numbers, yet the message is 100% the same. They differ in form, but they are identical in content. The same is true of all the basic teachings of the NT.

 Dr. Norman L. Geisler


2: Bruce, F. F., The New Testament Documents:  Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1974), 19.



 “I am put here for the defense of the gospel” - Phil. 1:16



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  1. Stanta

    Nicely explained. You may want to expand on the training and correcting of those who provided oral histories at the time. It was not as haphazard as the game of telephone would have us believe.

    1. Avatar of Adam Jay Martin
      Adam Jay Martin


      Indeed. Thank you for pointing that out.

  2. Wanna B Sure

    Also all the safeguards in place for accuracy by the scribes who did the copying.

    1. Avatar of Adam Jay Martin
      Adam Jay Martin


  3. Stanta

    Hi Wanna, nice place isn’t it!

  4. Avatar of Demosthenes

    You really should point out that passing textual criticism doesn’t equate the message as truth. Just that the words on the paper used for the message corroborated with other messages written.

    Are you saying “the bible passes textual criticism” or are you saying “The bible passes textual criticism, therefore it is true” ?

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