My thoughts on The Case for Christ (Part 1, Section 3)

The Case For ChristThis post is the third in a series on Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ. In this post I offer my thoughts on the content of the book’s third section, The Documentary Evidence. In this section Strobel evaluates the preservation of the gospels through the multitudes of copies produced over time. To do this he interviews the renowned textual scholar, Dr. Bruce Metzger. The investigation keys in on:

  1. The number of manuscripts
  2. The dating of the manuscripts
  3. Variants between manuscripts
  4. The formation of the canon
  5. The Gospel of Thomas and other extra-canonical writings

Part 1: Examining the Record

Section 3: The Documentary Evidence

Argument #1: The immense volume of copies of the gospels that we have available allows us to reconstruct with fairly high fidelity the original texts.

My Response: I agree that today we most likely have critically filtered through the variations to compile something that is a reasonable approximation of early versions of the gospels (except where the translators have failed to incorporate those findings). However, I think the term “original” is used too loosely in this discussion. A text is most susceptible to variation in its infancy and there’s good reason to believe that at least both John and Matthew were cultivated within a smaller community before seeing wider distribution and familiarity. The mountains of copies that we have are predominantly much later (by a very large margin) and the earliest manuscripts are all in very small fragments. The thousands of copies that date past the fourth and fifth century do little to help us reconstruct the earliest texts.

Argument #2: The number of copies and the temporal proximity of the copies to the events they describe far exceeds what we have for any other ancient texts.

My Response: Agreed. Relatively speaking, the bible has a strong foundation of manuscript evidence. However, the numbers bantered about in this section are geared toward leaving you with a false impression of the scope of the earliest evidence. No attempt is made to distinguish between the earliest manuscripts and the more abundant manuscripts that come several hundred years after the events. Nowhere do we read that there are only three fragments of the gospels which are likely to predate the third century and that these contain a sum total of 12 verses. See for a clearer perspective of the earliest manuscript evidence.

Argument #3: The variations in the manuscripts don’t jeopardize any theological doctrines. Most variations have to do with word order, spelling and minor changes that don’t impact the message of the text.

My Response: As a percentage, this is true. This is an area where I think that Ehrman has a tendency to overstate the significance of the number of variants. However, the discussion here is not balanced and fails to delve into the implications of the more substantial variants, like the longer ending of Mark or the story of the adulteress in John. These demonstrate that even 200 years after the earliest versions of the gospels were produced some copyists were willing to intentionally introduce noteworthy modifications. Not only that, but those modifications propagated downstream without scrutiny. This is an acknowledged fact that is worth further discussion.

Building on the acknowledgment of these larger variants, I want to take a moment to contemplate how this might have applied to the earliest texts. If our only evidence of the content of the writings that were produced in the first 150 or so years is a few tiny fragments, and if we see that there are some major variations in the subsequent texts, why shouldn’t we expect that some of the earliest copies also had major variations? Is it not more likely that these types of changes would have gone unchecked before the texts were more widely distributed and had gained familiarity? Does it not make sense that the earliest copies, produced by a minority culture without an established orthodoxy and many divergent groups, were handled by relative amateurs who were insiders of those groups and thus more likely to inject corruption? Do we really have good reason to believe that the first couple hundred years of the text’s transmission did not carry with it the introduction of new material that we now consider “original”, despite the fact that this was known to occur in later texts? I think not. Certainly we can’t hypothesize the extent of such redaction, but it is clearly reasonable to suspect that it probably happened.

Argument #4: The books included in the New Testament canon are the writings which meet all of the criteria of apostolic authority, consistency with tradition and acceptance by the church at large. The majority of the canon was unanimously accepted by the end of the second century. The gospels, in particular, bare the marks of authenticity which are not present in other accounts of Jesus’ life.

My Response: When it comes to the gospels, it is fair to recognize the supremacy of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John over the other known gospels. These four gospels are attested by Irenaeus around 180 AD and the early church fathers don’t really lend support to any of the extra-canonical gospels. That said, there is some evidence for additional early descriptions of Jesus which are relatively congruent with the gospels but didn’t make the cut for reasons which are unknown (for example, the Egerton Gospel and the Gospel of Thomas, which is discussed later). Furthermore, the implication in this discussion is that the criteria also hold for the rest of the New Testament, but that’s difficult to support given the likelihood that at least a handful of the epistles are pseudepigraphs, which would supposedly be a problem for identification as the inspired word of God. This topic is never broached.

Argument #5: The gospel of Thomas was properly excluded from the canon because, though it agrees with the gospel accounts more often than not, it is likely a later text and contains pantheistic and misogynist remarks which are in opposition to the picture we see in the gospels.

My Response: I don’t really have an opinion on this. I see merit to the argument that the Gospel of Thomas should be considered to be as authentic as any other gospel. I’m not sure, however, that this is enough to argue for inclusion in the canon. For one, it does not appear to have nearly the widespread recognition and tradition that the other gospels had. This would, at best, make it the least authoritative of the gospels. Regardless, it should not be readily dismissed in the same way that the much later and more clearly fantastical works are.

Closing Thoughts

There’s not all that much in this section that is controversial, but it’s also clear that we are not presented with a truly skeptical investigation. The discussion of the transmission of the gospels employs sweeping generalizations to hide the issues that are present. The presentation of the formation of the canon was about as bare bones as it could possibly be and every controversy related to the canon, except for the Gospel of Thomas, was ignored. However, my biggest objection to the picture painted in this section is the implication of what the “originals” are. It seems that the intent is to make it appear as if the text we have today is much the same as what could have been found shortly after Matthew, Mark, Luke or John had risen from the table where he had just finished composing the gospel. There simply is no good basis for such an inference and plenty of reason to doubt it.

In the next post I’ll look at Part 1, Section 4: The Corroborating Evidence, though I may have to start combining sections and skimming past some of the less significant arguments. It’s taking a lot longer to review and parse out the arguments than I thought it would.


5 thoughts on “My thoughts on The Case for Christ (Part 1, Section 3)

  1. Nice post, keep them coming. Thanks very much for posting that chart website – I will be referring to that as a resource.

    I agree with all of your observations, and I’ll offer just a couple of additional ones…

    1. Should John have even been considered canonical? It was recognized as historically problematic at least as early as Origen. If we look at the content, it is notably discrepant on at least two points relative to the gospels… the day/time of Jesus’ crucifixion and how Jesus behaved before Pilate. In fact, if he spoke as profusely as recorded in John, then the prophetic fulfillment of Matthew is abrogated. Further, the high Christology and the self-oriented nature of Jesus’ preaching message are simply incongruous with the synoptics. I would argue that John represents the first “great departure” and exaggeration that continued to blossom more fully in the 2nd century. But it must be observed that Christianity was never going to happen if it was excluded – they *needed* John for the Christology they wanted to claim. Go big, or go home.

    2. The historical books – gospels and Acts – present real problems with regard to speaking about “original” versions in a few additional ways. All four gospels appear to have been very likely derivative of earlier partial works (this is not a problem for Paul’s epistles, etc). I could imagine at least some of those originals having been written in the native Galilean Aramaic, perhaps before the combination into the advanced works of the gospels. And again, I could credit that the gospels may very well have been derivative of at least some percentage of source material that went back to the namesake authors – i.e., part of Markan or Johannine tradition, etc. But this begs still another layer of problems and questions atop what the CFC actually discusses. When they claim to get back to the “original” versions of books, you have all the issues you listed, plus these antecedent problems. What would we even mean by “original” document. We wouldn’t likely mean the version of Mark that was minted as an advanced Greek composition…

    Anyway, more wood for the fire. And more problems of which the CFC never smudges the surface.

    • The question of whether or not a book should be canonical is not one I’m inclined to suggest that I can answer. Given that the canon was formed organically over centuries and a criteria was never made explicit, how can one hope to make a decision on whether any book should be included or excluded? Aside from excluding the obvious forgeries, there’s not a clear answer. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m content to go with Metzger’s definition of apostolic authority (even if it’s only hearsay), consistency with tradition and acceptance by the church at large (though you can’t help but notice that this seems like a bit of a post-hoc definition. If the Shepherd of Hermas had made it in, we would undoubtedly have a different definition of the criteria for acceptance in the canon). If we make our judgements on these three criteria then it’s not a surprise to see John included. Regardless, you are certainly correct to see John’s inclusion as critical for the advancement of Jesus as God incarnate.
      With regard to the originals, it’s pretty clear that Strobel is building upon having persuaded us in the previous two sections that the gospels are accurate and honest recountings of eye-witness testimony. From this we are then able to assume that by “originals” he means a single author, eye-witness record that, as soon as the ink was dry, looked pretty much like what we have now. As evidenced in the discussions on those previous sections, that’s a difficult position to defend.

  2. I think you and Brisancian both raise many valid points.

    “Do we really have good reason to believe that the first couple hundred years of the text’s transmission did not carry with it the introduction of new material that we now consider “original”, despite the fact that this was known to occur in later texts? I think not. Certainly we can’t hypothesize the extent of such redaction, but it is clearly reasonable to suspect that it probably happened.”

    I think the argument goes like this. Lets say there are only 3 copies at time X. Those three copies are carried to different areas and copied and recopied. If those 3 copies had big differences then we would see big discrepancies in the copies of those after we gather them together. This would occur just like it did for the discrepancies, as you mention, in John and Mark’s ending.

    • I’m sure you’re correct about the reasoning, but the paucity of early texts means that we actually know very little about the parentage and branches which fed into the manuscripts we have today. This perspective also assumes that the later, more sacrosanct handling of the text is representative of the earliest transmissions, which is questionable. I expect to gain more familiarity on this topic when I get around to checking out D.C. Parker’s book “The Living Text of the Gospels”. There’s also an interesting paper here.Regardless, I don’t doubt that much of the text that we have is a decent approximation of the first written documents. This does not mean, however, that what we have today equates to the “originals” and is absent any ideological redaction.

      • Interesting stuff. I liked what the paper was setting out to do but I couldn’t follow it as well as i would have liked. I can’t read Greek and also the link had missing pages due to copyright.

What do you think?

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