In your debates with James White and Dan Wallace, you argued that we cannot know what the original autographs of the NT said because we don’t have the originals. In your debate with James White, you even commented that the 2nd or 3rd copier of the text of Mark could have radically altered the text so that the way it came down to us is radically different than the autographs. You’ve argued that this is the case even for classical writings or any textual document from antiquity. Now, if you believe we cannot know what the originals said because we don’t have the autographs, then how could you know that Paul met with James and Cephas, and use that as an argument proving that we know Jesus existed? Is it not possible (according to your view) that Galatians has been radically altered?
In other words, it seems that you either have to sacrifice your skepticism regarding textual criticism or sacrifice your certainty for the historicity of Jesus.
This is a great question! So, my response to it is a bit complicated (in my head, if not on the page), and it involves two issues: audience and probabilities.
First, on audience. When I talk about changes in the text of the New Testament in my debates with conservative evangelicals or fundamentalists, it is usually in the context of people who firmly believe that every word, every jot and tittle, of the text of the New Testament is inspired. In that context it is important to stress: this is not a plausible belief!! One reason it is not plausible is that we don’t have the originals of the NT, we don’t have copies of the originals, we don’t have copies of copies of the originals, and so on. What we have are copies made hundreds – often many hundreds — of years later. All of these copies have mistakes in them. Altogether there are hundreds of thousands of mistakes. Most of them don’t matter TWIT for anything. But some matter a lot. There are places where scholars debate what the “original” authors wrote. And there are some places where we don’t know.
That’s true, as you say, of all books from antiquity – even more, for example, of the Hebrew Bible than for the NT (we have far, far, far fewer manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible; but also far, far, far fewer certainty of being able to get back to any original text of any kind whatsoever).
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The point it, faith in the very words of the Bible is extraordinarily problematic, for this textual reason alone. People should not, in my opinion, “believe in the words of the Bible.” If they’re going to believe, let them believe in something else. (E.g. God!)
And so my text-critical arguments are meant to dispel a certain kind of fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism.
But there are other audiences out there. What I’ve just said does not become less true depending on the audience. But there are other things to talk about that whether the story of the woman taken in adultery or the last twelve verses of Mark were originally in the NT.
Often I talk about the history of early Christianity. And as historians we have to establish to the best of our abilities what probably happened in the past.
And so this is where probabilities come in. Was the story of the woman taken in adultery originally part of the Gospel of John? Almost certainly not. Did Mark 1:1 originally include the phrase “Son of God.” Probably not. Was Luke 22:19-20 augmented by scribes to make Jesus talk about his own body and blood being offered for others? Probably. Did scribes change Luke 3:22 to get rid of a possible adoptionistic interpretation. Probably. Was John 3 inserted into the Gospel of John by some later scribe? Almost certainly not. Did a scribe alter what Paul says in Galatians 2 about meeting Cephas and James? Almost certainly not.
These are all probability judgments – the only kinds of judgments that historians can make. They are not made on the basis of sheer guess work, but on the basis of careful, detailed examination. With respect to the question about Galatianst 2: the historian has to look carefully at the Greek texts (say of Galatians), the manuscripts that contain these texts (do they all contain it? in this case yes! So what are the grounds for thinking it wasn’t originally there? there are no plausible grounds that I know of), the literary contexts of the passages in question (do the comments fit the context and if they are taken out does the context thereby get confused? In this case, yes and yes), the writing style and vocabulary of these passages (are they Pauline or not? Yes they are), and lots of other things. At length. In detail. With lots of thought and scholarship.
On the basis of that kind of extensive scholarship I can say that the very high probability is that Galatians 2 did talk about Paul meeting with Cephas and Peter.
Do I know absolutely that the original text of Galatians said that? Nope. Is that a problem if my entire religion is based on knowing the precise words of Galatians 2? Yup. Is it a problem if I simply want to know whether Paul knew Cephas? Not so much. He probably did – in fact it’s an exceedingly high probability , since he mentions Cephas in a number of places and none of them is particularly suspect, textually.
I hope this makes sense!