When I have public debates with scholars over whether we can know the original text of the New Testament or not, I stake out the claim that we cannot, and they stake out the claim that we probably can. Part of my argument is always the one I started to outline in the previous post. If we take something like the Gospel of Mark, our first complete manuscript of Mark is 300 years after Mark was first produced and put in circulation. So how can we know if that manuscript is extremely close to the original? We don’t have an original to compare it to in order to find out. And we don’t have earlier manuscripts to compare it to in order to find out, except for one remarkable, but highly fragmentary manuscript about a century and half earlier (dating from around 200 CE), which does contain differences from the complete one.
So given this fact, how does my opponent typically argue his case? Normally he cites two important data. There is no disputing either data, and I am completely on board with them being important data. But I don’t think they lead to the conclusion that my opponent draws.
The first datum is that we have far more manuscripts of the New Testament than of any other book from the ancient world – far more manuscripts.
This, of course, is absolutely right – there is no one on the planet (who knows anything about the matter) that would say otherwise. It itself, though, that is not for me any reason to think that we therefore know what was in the New Testament. It’s nice to have lots and lots of manuscripts from a thousand years after the NT was written; but that doesn’t tell us that these manuscripts have a text that is the same as the original.
My opponent will sometimes say, in developing this particular argument, and as if this were scoring a point, that…
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