Can we know what the original Gospel manuscripts really said?As we begin working through Mark D. Roberts’ Can We Trust the Gospels?, that’s the first question we come to.
The Gospels are the source of the majority of what we know about Jesus. If we can’t trust them, we really know little about Him, so it’s appropriate that Roberts begins by addressing whether we can know what the originals said.
Chapter two starts with an introduction to the nature of manual copying and scribal errors, then launches into four standards by which we can evaluate the reliability of our existing Gospel manuscripts.
1. Antiquity of Manuscripts – obviously, the older the manuscript, the closer it is to the original.
The oldest known copy of any portion of the Gospels is a fragment of John known as Papyrus 52 (P52). It is dated to about 125 a.d. The next oldest manuscripts are from the latter second and early third centuries. These are more complete but “about a century later than the original writings” (p30).
Roberts points out that this compares quite favorably with other ancient documents, but we’re not being asked to make life-changing decisions based on those documents, so it’d be really nice to have older copies. But we don’t.
So how do we know these copies bear any resemblance to the originals given 100 years separate them? We’ll address this question in a bit. First, let’s look at the rest of Roberts’ criteria.
2. Multiplicity of Gospel Manuscripts – the more manuscripts we have available, the better our chances of determining what the originals looked like.
We have a couple of thousand manuscripts containing some or all of the Gospels. That is about 20 times greater than all other ancient documents, which isn’t surprising when you consider how our ancestors valued the NT.
Why is that important? Two reasons. First, it gives textual critics much more to work with.
Second, it tells us that if someone wanted to change the Gospels – replace the real version with a false version – they would face the impossible task of rounding up all of those copies. The farther you get from the originals in time, the more difficult that task would become.
3. Trustworthy Scholarly Methodology – if textual critics, those who look at all these manuscripts and try to figure out what the originals looked like, have “reliable methods … that maximize objectivity,” we can be more confident in our modern Bibles.
Of textual criticism, Roberts says, “It is by far the most objective discipline in New Testament studies. If you were to take two different teams of text critics and ask them to work independently … they would agree more than 99 percent of the time” (p32-33).
4. Quantity and Quality of Textual Variants – our confidence in our modern Gospels is dependent on what kind of and how many textual variants we have in our source manuscripts.
Here Roberts goes into detail I won’t repeat explaining how this works, but the short version is that many textual variants is actually a good thing. Because the number of variants is a function of the number of manuscripts, the fact that we have a very large number of variants is ok, even helpful to those who work with the texts.
As for the kind of variants, “the vast majority … are insignificant, either because they appear so rarely that they are obviously not original, or because they don’t appear in the older manuscripts, or because they don’t impact that meaning of the text. In fact, the majority of variants that show up in enough older manuscripts to impact our reading of the text are spelling variations or errors” (p34).
Also, the remaining troublesome variants are in less important places. “If you actually took out of the Gospels every word that was text-critically uncertain, the impact on your understanding of Jesus would be negligible” (p34-35).
An Ehrman Aside
Bart Ehrman has made quite a name for himself questioning the Gospels. His Misquoting Jesus made a big splash a few years ago, and the ideas he taught continue to pop up – namely that the Gospels are so hopelessly corrupt that we can have no idea what Jesus actually said or did. Well, that was his sound-bite version, anyway.
When you actually read the book you see that he is, as Roberts put it, “too good a scholar not to tell the truth.” Though he wants to pull the rug out from under the Gospels, his book actually does the opposite.
“One would expect Ehrman to put forth dozens of examples where we simply don’t have any idea what the autographs actually said. … In virtually every case, Ehrman confidently explains what the change was, what the earlier manuscripts actually said, and what motivated the copyist. In other words, Ehrman’s book … actually demonstrates how the abundance of manuscripts and the antiquity of manuscripts, when run through the mill of text-critical methodology, allow us to know with a very high level of probability what the evangelists and other New Testament authors wrote” (p37).The Point
So, given that we have a large number of mostly insignificant textual variants in manuscripts that are, in many cases, extremely old, we can be confident that modern textual criticism can give us copies of the Gospels that are, to a high degree of confidence, very similar to the originals.
But 100 Years is a Long Time
Still, I’m less than thrilled that the closest we can get to the original Gospels is 100 years, barring a couple of sentences from John. How do we know there weren’t lots of changes in that period?
Roberts never addresses this question directly, but some of the things he says in this chapter and elsewhere are applicable. The rest are simply my thoughts or things I’ve read elsewhere.
First, we know the Gospel writers and the community of early Christians were committed to honesty and the preservation of Christ’s words. This is seen in what they left in and left out of the Gospels as well as elsewhere. If the early Church felt free to edit the Gospels, we would not expect passages that were embarrassing to Christ (e.g., John 7:1-5) or the apostles (e.g, Matt 20:20-28) or were simply inconvenient (e.g., Matt 3:13-17, Mark 6:1-6).
We also would expect Jesus to say something about problems the post-Pentecost Church encountered, e.g., the Gentile controversy. Instead, we see the community dealing with these problems without resorting to convenient sayings of Jesus and even differentiating between the word of apostles and the Lord (c.f., 1Cor 7).
Even Bart Ehrman said, “For the most part, [the scribes’] intention was to conserve the tradition, not to change it” (quoted by Roberts, p36).
Second, as we’ll see in a later chapter, when the early Christians were presented with an opportunity to “clean up” the Gospels by Tatian’s Diatessaron, they declined.
Third, even though we don’t have the original Gospels, within 100 years of their writing we would expect people to be familiar with them and to have reasonably recent copies. We believe the Gospels spread fairly far fairly quickly because the aforementioned P52 fragment of John, which originated in Asia, was found in Egypt. If someone wanted to doctor the Gospels, they would have been forced to contend with those who were familiar with the originals or at least their contents.
Fourth, unless someone was actually able to track down and destroy all the originals, any changes in the Gospels would show up in the manuscript history. No changes like that appear. Yes, there were attempts to harmonize the Gospels, but not right away, and that shows up in the manuscript evidence.
Though I would probably give a limb in exchange for one or more of the original Gospels, we will probably never have them. But we can be confident beyond a reasonable doubt that the copies we do have faithfully represent what the evangelists wrote.
This book in blog form: Are the NT Gospels Reliable?
Can We Trust the Gospels? 0