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The Faithlife (Logos Software) produced a film called Fragments of Truth. It advertises that Craig Evans “highlights groundbreaking new evidence, demonstrating that the case for the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts is stronger than ever.” (https://faithlife.com/fragments-of-truth).
Dr. Craig Evans,
“In other words, it is possible (and perhaps even likely) that some of the earliest copies of the New Testament we possess may have been copied directly from one of the autographs. And, if not the autographs, they may have been copied from a manuscript that was directly copied from the autographs. Either way, this makes the gap between our copies and the autographs shrink down to a rather negligible size.”
Daniel Wallace, in the Foreword of MYTHS ANS MISTAKES IN NEW TESTAMENT TEXTUAL CRITICISM, writes, “The new generation of evangelical scholars is far more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty than previous generations.” (Page xii)
The New Textual Scholars of today would say that this is wishful thinking, as there is no way of knowing how many copies removed the manuscript may be. They would go on to tell you that a 9th-century manuscript might have fewer copies in between than a 3rd-century manuscript. There is a sense today that “optimism” and “hope” are bad words that we should set aside because they will only cloud our objectivity. If you doubt, look …
MYTHS AND MISTAKES (Page 27).
In this study Evans, a professor at Houston Baptist University, contends that because of “the probability that the autographs and first copies circulated and were in use for one century or longer, there really is no justification for supposing that the text of the NT writings underwent major changes in the first and second centuries.” This argument is used prominently in the Faithlife documentary Fragments of Truth, hosted by Evans, which appeared in American theaters on April 24, 2018.
THE AUTHOR (Timothy N. Mitchell) IMMEDIATELY: “In contrast to the optimism of Evans, …” (Page 28). “Larsen’s thesis challenges the very foundation of Evans’s optimistic assertions by … (Page 28).
MYTHS ANS MISTAKES: George Houston, in his work Inside Roman Libraries, surveys book collections in antiquity and analyzes their contents, the date of composition, and the rough date of the discarding of the collection or the last known period of use. From these data Houston concludes that the useful life of papyrus bookrolls was on average 100 to 125 years and in extreme cases 300 to 500 years.50 Using Houston’s research as a foundation, Craig Evans argues that the New Testament autographs were likely in use into the second and third centuries.51 From this, he suggests that the autographs probably had a controlling influence on the textual transmission of the New Testament. (Page 42).
MYTH AND MISTAKES: CONCLUSION This chapter has given us reason to doubt that the autographs of the New Testament lasted hundreds of years. This obviously challenges Evans’s further claim that these long-lasting autographs of, say, Matthew “would have exerted influence on the text of Matthew.” Though Evans is confident of the autographs’ influence over the transmission of the New Testament writings, it is further evident from the papyri that closeness in proximity to the physical autographs does not necessitate a reliable or more accurately copied text. (Page 45).
RESPONSE: First, millions of manuscripts were copied between 100 B.C.E. and 300 C.E. To pick out a couple from the secular side of the fence that evidence they generally lasted for 50 years or held the owner’s interest for 50 years does not negate the possibility of lasting longer or holding the interest of the owner longer. Moreover, you cannot evaluate secular works with canonical Christian works, especially an autograph because of the great value placed on Christian works within the Christian community. Yes, there is no way of knowing how long the autographs or first copies lasted. We can say if they had cared for them they could last 100-150 years.
Moreover, there is no way of knowing for absolute certainty just how good the copyists of the originals were. But not knowing does not mean that they were inexperienced. Christians then were no doubt as hyped over a letter from Paul as we would be today. I mean really, Paul was a very powerful, well-known figure, so too with the apostle John. Imagine, you are holding the autograph of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. Now, who would you choose to make a copy of it, the janitor at the church or a professional scribe? Somehow, when textual scholars tell us what we cannot know for certain it comes off as being impossible that it could have happened. Seldom do they qualify it with the potential and possibility that it deserves.
Imagine Paul be inspired to pen Romans, a 7,000-word book and he decides to task a scribe to help him. He chooses Tertius. Was Tertius a professional scribe? “We cannot know” screams the textual scholar. Well, that is true but knowing what we know about Paul with Gamaliel and his life and ministry, do we suppose he would task a job from the Holy Spirit to an inexperienced person? I mean, really?
MYTHS AND MISTAKES: Therefore, both of Evans’s assertions—that the autographs may have lasted hundreds of years and that they probably stabilized the textual transmission—fail to take the contrary evidence into consideration. Along these same lines, his argument risks conflating the importance of the autographs as physical artifacts and the text of these autographs. In reality, a later manuscript could faithfully reproduce the text of the autograph despite being removed by hundreds of years in time from the physical autograph. Likewise, an earlier manuscript could poorly reproduce the text of the physical autograph, due to scribal error and other issues, despite being directly copied from or close in time to the physical autograph (as noted above with P.Oxy. 3.412). For these reasons, we should not follow Evans’s argument for trusting the stable transmission of the New Testament text. Reasons for trusting it do exist, but they lie elsewhere, as detailed in other chapters. (Page 46).
RESPONSE: Is it possible that an original from the first century could last until 150-175 C.E.? Sure. Can we prove it absolutely? No. Is it reasonable? possibly. I would argue that the idea is possible and qualify it to the point where it keeps it real and optimistic. Another and perhaps better way to add to Evan’s idea is to focus on the skills of a professional scribe in those days. The book does do that by another author later on. MYTHS AND MISTAKES is a good book to have that is filled with insightful information but be prepared for a lack of “optimism” and “hope” at times, to be replaced with pessimism, “uncertainty,” and “ambiguousness.” If we had a manuscript that was closest to reflecting the idea that it might be a copy of the original or more likely a copy of a direct copy 1 or 2 removed, it would be P75.
The modern-day young person is far removed from the 1920s to the 1980s where people actually used physical paper, pens, pencils, and envelopes to write letters. The same material was used for homework in school. Everything today is digital: Microsoft Word Docx, PDFs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. A twenty-year-old today would likely find it challenging to write a letter with merely pen and paper. He would find it tedious and physically taxing, not to mention his lack of practice in writing would make it more difficult at being proficient in making the letters and it would not be aesthetically pleasing. The hand, wrist, and forearm would get very tired to the point where he would need to take a break.
In early Christianity, to manually copy a Bible text would be far more arduous than what was just described. There would be many different physical and mental tasks involved in the process of Tertius copying the book of Romans as the apostle Paul dictated to him, which would have been laborious and strenuous. The same would be even more true of the copyists that would then use that original copy of Romans to make other copies. He would not have had the luxury of having the words dictated, and he would have to look at the exemplar back and forth thousands of times as he made his copy that contained 7,000+ words. Imagine if he were copying the entire Greek New Testament of 138,162 words.
Additionally, far more was involved than simply reading the exemplar and writing a word or phrase in the copy. The material that was being written on was papyrus or parchment. Papyrus was a material prepared in ancient Egypt from the pithy stem of a water plant, used in sheets throughout the ancient Mediterranean world for writing. Parchment was a stiff, flat, thin material made from the prepared skin of an animal and used as a durable writing surface in ancient and medieval times. More on this later.
When the materials used and the working environment are understood, we will fully be able to appreciate why ancient people hired secretaries (scribes). The scribe would lay out a layer of strips that he had cut from the papyrus plant. The pithy juices of the plant would be put in the strips. Another layer would have been placed at right angles over top of the first layer. Something flat and heavy would be placed on the papyrus sheet so the two could be bonded by pressure, which would have produced what we would consider a sheet of papyrus paper. It was no easy task writing on the surface of this papyrus sheet, as the material was rough and fibrous.
The scribe could be seen sitting in the ground with his legs crossed, a board laying over his knees. He would be hunched over, holding the exemplar sheet of papyrus with the fingers of say his left hand and his thumb of the same hand resting on the papyrus sheet he was using to make his copy. Or, if a professional scribe he would pin his sheets of papyrus down. To the other corner of the board would be a small container of ink that he had personally made from a mixture of soot and gum. If this scribe was not experienced at making documents or he was using below-average level materials, his calamus, or reed pen, could very well snag and tear the papyrus, or the writing could be unreadable. To the right of this scribe, we would see a sharp knife, which would have been used to sharpen his reed pen and a damp sponge that would be used to erase any errors he might make. Being that he is copying a New Testament book, he would likely be doing his level best to write every letter with the greatest of care, meaning he would be writing slowly, all of this bringing with it some difficulty. Imagine the constant sharpening of his pen with his knife and the continuous replenishing it with ink to keep the strokes even.
As we can mentally picture, this scribe was carrying out many simultaneous tedious tasks as he went about copying a book of the New Testament. If he had some experience or if he was a professional in making documents and copying literature, he would have had to consider the page before him to calculate the proper word division. He would be using stichoi notations at the end of the copying process, that is notes on how many lines were copied to get paid, which means that he had to keep track of his lines. The scribe would always have to be conscious of an imaginary upper and lower line that he sought to keep his text between. Unlike our notebooks today, papyrus and parchment sheets did not come with ruled lines. The scribe would use an unsharpened instrument to draw 25-30 pressure lines on his page that was to receive the text. These are just some of the basic difficulties that were involved as early scribes made copies of our New Testament books.
Many Assurances Regarding the Integrity of the Greek text of the New Testament
There are many assurances regarding the integrity of the Greek text of the New Testament. Here are some of the most significant ones:
Multiple Manuscripts: The New Testament has a vast number of manuscripts, with over 5,898 Greek manuscripts alone. Additionally, there are thousands of manuscripts in other languages, such as Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian, which provide further evidence for the text’s accuracy.
Early Manuscripts: Many of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament date back to within a few decades of the original composition of the texts. This means that there was little time for the text to be corrupted or changed.
Variants Are Minor: While there are differences between the various manuscripts of the New Testament, these variants are relatively minor and do not affect the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith. The vast majority of these differences are due to simple spelling errors or variations in word order, and they do not affect the meaning of the text.
Careful Copying: Many early scribes of the Alexandrian family of manuscripts who copied the New Testament manuscripts were highly trained and took great care in their work. They were meticulous in their handling of the texts.
Early Church Fathers: The writings of early Christian authors, such as Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp, provide evidence that the New Testament text was widely accepted and circulated in the early Church. These authors quote extensively from the New Testament, showing that the text was well-known and widely accepted from an early date.
Textual Criticism: Textual criticism is a rigorous scholarly discipline that involves comparing and analyzing different manuscripts in order to reconstruct the most accurate version of the original text. This process has been applied to the New Testament with great success, resulting in highly accurate and reliable versions of the text. There have been many dozens of world renown textual scholars since the 1500s who have given their entire lives to the work of restoring the original language words of the originals.
Overall, a wealth of evidence supports the integrity of the Greek text of the New Testament. While there are minor differences between the various manuscripts, these do not affect the Christian faith’s fundamental teachings, and the text’s accuracy and reliability have been confirmed through rigorous scholarly analysis.