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Fundamentalist Arguments Ad Absurdum about the “Original” Text of the NT

I’ve been looking for a scrappy question to tangle with, and today I received one!

 

QUESTION:

You make the case that we do not have the original New Testament manuscripts.  In fact, we do not have any complete manuscripts of books that eventually became part of the New Testament until the 3rd century, correct?  The response often given by fundamentalist Christians is this:  So, you don’t believe that Socrates died by drinking hemlock?  You don’t believe that Julius Caesar was Emperor?  You don’t believe that Plato wrote Plato’s Republic?  The manuscripts for Jesus are superior in quality to the manuscripts for other historical figures.

This is sort of a sneak way of convincing people that if they don’t accept Jesus (his historicity or divinity?) than you don’t believe anything about ancient history.  I am guessing that you aren’t a scholar of ancient Greece.  But in a debate with a fundamentalist Christian, it’s often tempting to pretend to be one simply to swat away these silly arguments.

What do you think is the best argument in response to this?

 

RESPONSE:

Fundamentalists are amazing creatures.  I have to admit, deep down I admire their focus and simplicity (I don’t often tell anyone this!).   They have one particular point of view, it is simple and direct, and they are going to stick to it no matter what.   It’s refreshing, in its way.

The downside is that doing so leads to all sorts of crazy arguments, illogical assertions, non-sequiturs, and nonsense.

This particular argument is that if we don’t know for certain what the authors of the New Testament wrote, then that must mean we don’t know anything about the *things* they wrote *about*.  And that must mean that those things aren’t actually true.  And if you take that logic, than we don’t know if *anything* is true.  Maybe Jesus was a Buddhist monk!  Maybe Julius Caesar wrote the book of Revelation!  Maybe the Bible was given to us by Martians!  Hey, why not!

In simple terms this is known as an argument ad absurdum.  An argument ab absurdum takes an argument, plays it out to a conclusion (which is always something ridiculous, and is, in fact, almost never the conclusion that would sensibly be drawn), points to the absurdity, and concludes that the flaw is in the argument itself, since no one could accept that conclusion.  And so, for example, If there was a newspaper article about Apollo 11 that had factual mistakes in it, that must mean we can’t trust the article, and that must mean we never landed on the moon, and that must mean that the whole thing is a hoax, and that must mean that we can’t land on the moon, and that must mean that maybe the moon really might be made of green cheese.  Is *that* what you want to think?  Huh?  Huh?   (Implication: this article must be 100% correct).

Specifically, with respect to the fundamentalist argument ad absurdum about the manuscripts of the New Testament – why doesn’t anyone simply look at our surviving copies and ask whether they all agree or not (none of them do, in many many details) and then ask whether it is possible to get experts together to concur at every place of the Greek New Testament what the original texts said (in fact it is *not* possible)?  If that can’t be done, why not simply conclude that there are places where we don’t know what the NT originally said?

The vast majority of those places will be very small, picayune little details that no one even cares about.  I’ve always (always!) said this (even if people, on either side, never seem to hear me say it).  On the other hand, there are some places that matter for how one can interpret a verse, or a passage, or an entire book; and some of them are deeply relevant for understanding what this, that, or the other author really thought about one important issue or another.  These claims should be *entirely* non-controversial.  They are simply true.

But fundamentalists who think that every single word of the Bible has to be the one God directed the authors to write, and if it’s not then we can have no guidance for how to live or what to believe, and then we can believe just about anything, and therefore we can just as well become inveterate hedonists or raging tyrants (or both) and…. And so the argument goes.

So let me say as plainly as I can: the problems with the Bible are indeed the problems we have with every literary text from the ancient world.  These problems don’t make the Bible stand out as a sore thumb.  Every text copied by hand has the same problem.  Yes, it is a problem for Plato’s account of the death of Socrates.

How then can we know if Socrates drank the hemlock?  We don’t know it because we believe Plato’s Phaedo (where the account can be found) was inspired by God and inerrant in its every word.  We have to examine all our sources of information, evaluate their merits, critically weight their claims, compare them to one another and other contemporary documents, determine if they are generally reliable, ascertain the possible biases of the author that may have affected his reporting, and … and and and – we have to do the work of historians.  One alternative to doing history is having faith.  You could simply believe that the Phaedo is the inspired word of God so everything it says is necessarily accurate.

But here is the final point, in some ways the most important one.  Fundamentalist and conservative evangelicals often argue that since we have so *many* manuscripts of the New Testament – far more than for any other book from the ancient world (to no one’s surprise, since the copyists in the Middle Ages who preserved our ancient literature for us were, after all, Christian monks!  Of *course* they’ll copy their cherished scriptures more than other books) – that since we have so many manuscripts then we can trust that we have the New Testament in the original form and therefore we can trust what it says.

It is that final “therefore” that should make you screw up your eyes and ask, Huh???  (The first “therefore”is a non-sequitur as well, but I won’t get into that here.) (BTW, when reading a logical argument you should always ask what the “therefore” is there for.)   Why would having thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament mean you can trust what it says?

It actually makes zero sense.  That’s easiest shown with an illustration.   Do we have any doubt at *all* about what Adolph Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf?.  There are millions of copies in print.  One of them is a first edition signed by Adolph Hitler!   There is no doubt about what Hitler wrote in the book.   Does that mean we can trust what it says?

Trusting the *content* of a content of a book has no relation to its manuscript tradition.   The manuscript tradition could be *terrible* (we have only one massively fragmentary copy of Cicero’s de Republica, e.g.); but what the author said in the book might be completely true.  On the other hand, the manuscript tradition could be *excellent* (e.g., for the Communist Manifesto), but what the author(s) said in the book might be completely wrong.  You judge the contents of a book differently from its manuscript tradition.  No relation.

Textual critics are experts who try to establish what an author originally wrote.  For the New Testament, there is an abundance of evidence.   For the first fifteen years or so of my scholarly career, I was obsessed with it and devoted my life to it.   We do our best to know what the author’s words were.  My guess is that most of the time we’re right.  But it’s only a guess – there is no way to know, given the state of our evidence.

That is not a problem for most people, any more than it’s a problem that we may not know in some passages the original words of Plato’s Phaedo.   But it *is* a problem for fundamentalists, who insist that we must and do know the very words God inspired.  I’m sorry, but even though it’s a focused and simple view, it just doesn’t pass muster in the face of masses and masses of evidence.   The evidence can be ignored or … a person can stop being a fundamentalist!


What *Greek* Version of the New Testament Do I Use?
Did Jesus Write Anything in the New Testament?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    mannix  January 7, 2019

    IMO the greatest enemies of the Bible are, ironically, the self-proclaimed Champions of it, the Fundies themselves. I look at the Bible as a “manual”, in story form, of a way of life based on faith in a supernatural entity (God) that is responsible for the existence of the Universe. The human race is somehow unique in this Universe and is subject to unique rules governing this way of life. The basic rules are set in the OT (10 Commandments) and refined in the NT (Jesus’s teachings).

    If Biblical “inerrancy” is confined to simply the laws set forth, and the faith-based assumption of a God, the “love thy neighbor” is the essence of Scripture. If those who follow the Bible would agree that it is not an historical or scientific document and therefore subject to error in those fields, it would be much easier to defend (if one believes in God). I doubt even Richard Carrier and/or Aron Ra would object to “love thy neighbor”.

    But the fundamentalists, insisting on inerrancy of historical and scientific assertions of Scripture that have been demonstrated to be false, have undermined the integrity of the text in all of its teachings. They continue to do so with hysterical and outrageous “apologies” of textual entries that have nothing to do with the purpose of the work.

    1
  2. Avatar
    Eric  January 7, 2019

    Careful, Bart!

    Your wording suggests that you admit the possibility that there might be a shortcoming in the Communist Manifesto. Be careful where you park your car on campus! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2019

      Ha! I’m not taking a stand on that. But the fundies who make the argument would certainly not like to think it’s inerrant!

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 7, 2019

    With regard to the numerous copies argument: The more copies you have, the more hand copying errors you have.

    1
  4. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  January 13, 2019

    Although I don’t know of arguments made by fundamentalists that’s been put forth by this questioner, I have heard other types of absurd arguments such as: Zondervan bought the publishing rights to the NIV Bible. Some of the scriptures have been changed and/or removed, and this is because of Zondervan. Zondervan also publishes porn. Porn is of the devil; therefore, the NIV is Satanic.

    This is my all-time favorite, absurd argument.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 14, 2019

      Does Zondervan publish porn? I can’t imagine! But I’d love to know!

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  January 14, 2019

        Zondervan’s parent company is Harper Collins. Harper Collins is the umbrella company to other publishers that publish the satanic bible plus other material that is sexually explicit. I think what it comes down to is certain fundamentalists don’t like the supposed changes made to the NIV such as “missing verses”. Why did they do that? Because they’re under the influence of Satan—supposedly. Therefore, the company is Satanic so just stick with the KJV just to be safe.

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  January 14, 2019

          One more thing I just thought about with the fundamentalist viewpoint and Zondervan. Zondervan is attempting to fool the masses with its porn and satanic bible (forgot about the satanic bible problem yesterday). They do this by coming across as this Christian company when the reality is, it’s housed under Harper Collins which publishes all of this satanic smut. Millions of people are under the influence of Satan because of Zondervan’s charade. But fundamentalists (as well as other Christians) aren’t fooled and know it’s Zondervan pulling the strings.

          Robert points out that Zondervan also publishes the KJV, but a fundamentalist would say that the KJV was divinely ordered by the Holy Spirit centuries ago, so Zondervan has no influence or power over the KJV.

          I didn’t say any of it is logical, but it’s certainly creative! And there’s lots of variations to that example. Zondervan is the epitome of evil in many Christians’ minds, not just fundamentalists. There’s Zondervan and the Rick Warren controversy. Paths that lead to hell and destruction are sponsored by……you guessed it, Zondervan!

          • Bart
            Bart  January 15, 2019

            I’m not sure where you’re getting all this, but it sounds like very wildly conservative fundamentalist propaganda. I’ve known about Zondervan and their publications for decades and know people who work there. I’m obviously not a fan of their brand of evangelicalism. But they are decidedly not connected with porn or Satanic influences.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 15, 2019

          Zondervan is quite openly conservative evangelical, and as an offprint of HarperCollins it has its own identity, not related to the identity of other offprints. STARKLY different, from say, HarperOne.

          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  January 15, 2019

            Yes, what (some) fundamentalists say about Zondervan is untrue and illogical which is why I said it is one of my favorite absurd assertions. It’s very far-fetched even by their standards.

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    • Robert
      Robert  January 14, 2019

      “Zondervan bought the publishing rights to the NIV Bible. … therefore, the NIV is Satanic.”

      Of course Zondervan also publishes plenty of KJV bibles so I guess those have now become Satanic as well!

      1
      • Bart
        Bart  January 15, 2019

        They publish *only* evangelical books. This is simply an inner-fundamentalist “debate”/issue.

        2
  5. Avatar
    ksgm34  January 17, 2019

    Saw N T Wright in an interview on YouTube the other day; I must admit I skipped parts but he seemed to be giving the same argument about number of NT copies compared with other ancient writings like the ones you mention above. The context was how Christians should respond to Bart Ehrman!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2019

      Well, maybe he provided some nuance to those statements in other parts of the talk…

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