Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Can We Trust the New Testament We Have?

I remember being quite surprised to read books like those by Josh McDowell that were quick to dismiss charges that the New Testament was so old that the versions we have these days simply cannot be accurate. As I remember it, McDowell and those like him said we had thousands of very early manuscripts and the differences between them were minimal. This, it seemed to me at the time, was sufficient for me to place my faith in the accuracy of my KJV and NIV. After some of my own research, having left the fundy fold, I realised I was just a bit too hasty in accepting McDowell's arguments.

The following tidbits of information are the bits that McDowell left out and come from the course notes of The History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon, a non-accredited university level course offered by The Teaching Company. The lecturer is one of my new heroes, Professor Bart Ehrman.

So Just What Do We Have?

  • We do not have the originals of any of the letters of Paul, the Gospels,or the Apocalypse - indeed, of any early Christian text. What we have are copies, the vast majority of them produced centuries after the originals from copies that were also centuries removed from the originals and that had themselves been made from earlier copies.
  • Dating back to AD 125-140, the earliest manuscript in existence is written on papyrus in codex form (like a book); it is called P52 because it is the 52nd papyrus that has been catalogued. (Of note is that this is a two-sided piece only about the size of a credit card. - Troy)
  • We don't have complete books of the New Testament (NT) on any surviving manuscripts until about the end of the 3rd century.
  • We don't have complete copies of the NT until the 4th century. 300 years after the books themselves were written.
  • Of the thousands of copies of the NT that now that survive, most are from the Middle Ages, and no two are exactly alike in all their wording (with the exception of the smallest surviving fragments).
  • Today we have well over 5,000 manuscripts available.
  • As a result we don't know how many variant readings survive; no one has been able to count them all. Perhaps it is easiest to put the number in comparative terms. We know of more variants in our manuscripts than there are words in the NT.

Changes and Variations
  • Some variants in the manuscripts appear to have been made by accident: others, intentionally (by scribes wanting to modify the texts).
  • Accidental changes would include such relatively innocent differences as changes in spelling, the omission of a word or line, or the accidental rearrangement of words.
  • Intentional changes would include places where scribes modified the text because they thought it contained an error or a reading that was problematic.
  • Some of the variants - especially the intentional ones - are significant for understanding the meaning of the text. For example: The woman caught in adultery (John 8); the last 12 verses of Mark; Jesus' prayer for his executioners in Luke; Jesus' reaction to the leper (some texts read 'angry' and others 'compassionate') in Mark 1.

No comments: