The Tenacity of the Text

The other day I wrote a response to a particularly bone-headed Facebook Meme that called into question the reliability of the New Testament texts. It’s a fascinating topic of study, and I didn’t want to burden my readers with too much detail. But it is worthy enough that I wanted to follow up a bit more. 

I hinted at this, but we really need to stand back and look at the big picture from time to time to see this: the mountain of evidence for the text of the New Testament is simply staggering. There are around 5,700 extant manuscripts of the New Testament in various forms, from delicate fragments of papyrii to the physically sturdier codices of the 4th century. On top of this, we have the extant writings of a host of early Christians: that is, people from the time period writing about Christianity. You know what those people do? They quote the Bible. A lot. Their quotations tell us exactly what texts they themselves were reading.

To put this into proper perspective, you must understand that scholars of antiquity generally (i.e., people working in fields not related specifically to the Bible) look at the world of New Testament scholarship with complete envy. I actually got my number wrong in my previous post: we have exactly 7 manuscripts of Plato’s works. Do you know the time span between when Plato wrote and the date of the earliest manuscript we have? 1,200 years. In other words, scholars of Greek antiquity can only dream of having the kind of textual supply that their counterparts in biblical studies have. The manuscripts that New Testament scholars routinely work with are closer to the date of textual origin by, oh, a thousand years or so.

And it isn’t just one or two copies. It is hundreds and hundred of copies from literally all over the Mediterranean world. These manuscripts do, indeed, have variants between them. Propagandists like to make that sound like a really scary thing, the assumption always being that all variants are created equal. The majority of variants, for example, consist in things like this: “Jesus, our Lord,” says one; “Christ Jesus, Our Lord” says another. Wow. Big deal. Right? Well, it actually is a “deal” of sorts and so textual critics have all sorts of ways of figuring out which was the original rendering, and they’re actually pretty good at it. (In that sort of case, the simpler is usually the right one, since for reasons of devotion and piety scribes would sometimes expand the references to Jesus. In other words, you could imagine a scribe adding the word “Christ,” but never willfully subtracting it.) But no matter how you slice it there is not a single textual variant among copies of the New Testament that calls into question any major tenet of the Christian faith. That’s just a fact.

But here’s something cool. The diversity of the textual tradition tells us something very important that cuts right to the heart of the skeptics’ objection. They want us to believe that the because we have so many copies the textual tradition is uncertain and untrustworthy. Something made up, altered, or meddled with. But the reality is exactly the opposite: because we have so many copies the text is incapable of substantial alteration or meddling.

Here’s what I mean. From the earliest times we have copies of the text from all over the known world. Places like Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Greece. Churches would receive a letter from Paul, make copies, and send it along to other churches, who would, in turn, copy it and pass it on. The vast and rapid geographical distribution of the textual tradition means this: aside from the original recipient (and only the original recipient) no one person or group of people ever had exclusive access to the texts. (And, given the fact there’s evidence Paul kept his own copies, not even the original recipient had exclusive access.) The likelihood of the original recipient, say, a pastor in Ephesus, changing or altering a letter from the Apostle Paul is zero. Even if he’d wanted to (I suppose Paul does teach some hard things; but if that's the case why didn’t the meddler remove them?), Paul and his missionary friends were, um, just a couple hundred miles away ministering in some other city. The truth would be quickly known.

Once the letter was copied by multiple people, the diversity of copies means it is more difficult, not less, to tamper with the text. When the 2nd century Marcion did exactly that, cutting out verses and phrases he didn’t like, everyone around saw exactly what he was doing. Why? Because everyone else had copies of the same letters, and they all told a unanimous tale: Marcion was, to use Tertullian's word, “mutilating” Paul’s letters.

There was never a monopoly. Never a centralized organization who possessed or had control of the texts of the New Testament. They quickly spread around the world. Nobody could substantially alter or meddle with the texts because the texts belonged to everybody. Say a lonely scribe didn’t like some teaching of Paul, and left it out. There were a hundred other copies in a hundred other churches that said otherwise.

The really astonishing thing is not the variations in the texts (these were hand copies, after all), but rather the incredible stability of the text across time and space. Sometimes people call this the “tenacity” of the biblical texts. The geographical and numerical distribution of these texts makes them “stubborn” things, incredibly difficult to change. When they do get changed, it gets noticed. This is why your Bible probably has brackets around John 7:53-8:11. The textual history of that particular story is that it got inserted at some point after John wrote his gospel. But that’s a story for another time.

Let me sum all this up for the skeptic:

The numbers, quality, antiquity, and tenacity of its text makes the New Testament arguably the most historically reliable ancient text known to the human race

Skeptics who deny this are not “freethinkers” advocating enlightenment. They are literally pioneering a view that, if widely accepted, would lead us into a Dark Age of ignorance.

Brian Mattson