As I was thinking today about the need to be consistently critical with all of our sources – not just the ones we want to be critical of (this was the topic of yesterday’s post, with an ultimate view of what I want to say about Josephus as a possible witness to the practice of Jews burying their executed dead on the days of their deaths) — another anecdote occurred to me that I thought might help illustrate my point. Here it is. In the next post I get to Josephus, I promise.
As some of you know, I have had a number of debates with evangelical Christians on the question of whether we know what the original writings of the New Testament actually said. The typical line from these evangelical Christians is that since we have so *many* surviving manuscripts of the NT, that we can be almost completely certain that we know what the authors wrote in the vast majority of cases (virtually all). My view is that we simply cannot know for sure. It’s true that we have *way* more manuscripts for the NT than for any other ancient book (without a close second). But the problem is that we do not have lots and lots of *early* manuscripts. Having thousands of manuscripts from some 800 years after the NT was originally written is, of course, extremely valuable. But it’s not really helpful if what you want to know is what the earliest form of the text was. For that we have to rely on our earliest manuscripts, and we simply don’t have very many.
In any case, I don’t need to rehearse this entire debate here, yet again. But in thinking about this need to be consistently critical of our sources of information about the past, I was reminded of an argument that is often thrown out at me in opposition to my views about the original writings of the New Testament. I have on several occasions had an opponent say to me, with a kind of triumphalistic glee, that if I don’t think that we can know for sure what the authors of the NT originally wrote, then I would have to say that we don’t know for sure what *any* ancient authors wrote: Plato, Aristotle, Euripides, Livy, Cicero, Plutarch – take your pick!
This statement is usually made as a self-evident argument, that of *course* I can’t be saying something as ludicrous as *that* — otherwise we simply can’t know what any of our ancient sources originally said.
And my response always seems to surprise my opponents.
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