This 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:
- The number of manuscripts
- The dating of the manuscripts
- Variants between manuscripts
- The formation of the canon
- 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 http://www.usefulcharts.com/religion/oldest-bible-manuscripts.html 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.
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.