Here I continue to answer questions from my evangelical colleague in the field, Ben Witherington, as addressed some years ago, These again deal with the claims of “Mythicists,” who insist that there never actually was a man Jesus, but that he is simply made up, a complete myth.
One way they support their point is by saying that some passages in the ancient world that mention him in fact are later “interpolations” into the original writings (that is, some nefarious editor stuck references to Jesus into a text that originally didn’t mention him) and that his hometown, Nazareth, actually did not exist at the time.
Is either claim credible or, well, supported by any actual *evidence*? Here are Ben’s queries and my responses.
Q. Mythicists seems to often uses the interpolation theory to explain away NT texts that are inconvenient to their agendas. Yet it is also true that some NT scholars use interpolation theories to the very same end, even when there is apparently no textual basis for the interpolation theory. Explain how the mythicists appeal to interpolation is special pleading, whereas it is not when some NT scholars resort to such a theory (take for example the case of 1 Cor. 14.33b-36, which is displaced in some manuscripts but to my knowledge there are no manuscripts that omit it altogether).
A. A theory of interpolation argues that there are passages in the New Testament that were not originally there, even though they are still found in all the surviving manuscripts. When a passage (whether several verses, a single verse, or part of a verse) is not found in one or more manuscripts, then the decision whether it was originally in the NT is based on textual criticism. Scholars have to decide then which manuscript(s) more likely presents the oldest form of the text. But when all the manuscripts agree, and one wants to claim that they are all wrong with respect to the oldest form of the text, that involves arguing that at a very, very early stage of the transmission of the text (when it was being copied), someone inserted a verse (or verses, or part of a verse) that came to be found in all our surviving manuscripts. That would be what we mean by an interpolation.
In my opinion, there is no reason, in theory, to deny that there could be interpolations in the New Testament – that is, places where all our manuscripts include a passage (a verse, part of a verse, several verses) that was not originally put there by the authors. This is especially the case in light of the fact that we don’t start getting relatively complete manuscripts of the New Testament until well over a century after the books of the NT were written. At the same time, I think that if someone thinks a passage was an interpolation, there needs to be very, very, very compelling reasons for thinking so.
In almost every instance in which scholars have suggested that there are interpolations, I think the evidence is not compelling. One of the very few instances that I think is compelling is
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