Standing Up For Jesus
In part 1, we noted the publicity, goals and major claims of the Jesus Seminar along with a brief critique of their scholarship. In this article, we will offer a response to one of their major claims as regards the New Testament writings.
No Knowledge of the Original Text?
Most of what the Seminar has concluded about the reliability of the New Testament's account of Jesus is based on the premise that the gap between the original time of writing and the copies of the New Testament writings which have survived is too great for those documents to be trusted. In their own words:
We do not possess autographs [the originals] of any of the books of the entire Bible. The oldest surviving copies of the gospels date from about one hundred and seventy-five years after the death of Jesus, and no two copies are precisely alike. And handmade manuscripts have almost always been 'corrected' here and there, often by more than one hand. . . . Even careful copyists make some mistakes, as every proofreader knows. So we will never be able to claim certain knowledge of exactly what the original text of any biblical writing was (Robert Funk, et.al., The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, 6).
Space permits only the briefest of responses to this claim here. But we can present enough to show that they have not told the whole story and to wonder why, in light of their claim to represent current New Testament scholarship, that is the case.
A Look at the Evidence
First, let us make clear that we are not questioning whether it is legitimate to subject the study of the New Testament writings to the same tests which are used by historians to establish the veracity of any writing. The New Testament itself records such willingness to have its story checked. For instance, in Acts 26:26, the apostle Paul appeals to Herod Agrippa II to verify the events about which he spoke. "For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner" (Acts 26:26, NASB). In these words, Paul reminded his hearers that Jesus was a person of history and that the deeds Christians attributed to him could be verified.
When it comes to checking the veracity of documents which claim to present actual events from history, the first test historians apply is the bibliographical test which asks whether a writing as it now stands represents what was originally written. In this test, historians have two concerns. First, how long after the alleged date of original writing was a copy made? Second, are enough copies available to reconstruct the original writings? Copyists do make mistakes, but by comparing a large number of manuscript copies, and generally accepting the oldest and most frequently used reading of any given text, historians can be confident that they have reconstructed an original as it first appeared.
When the bibliographical test is applied to the New Testament, the results are better than for any other writing from antiquity. To compare just a few examples, there are fewer than 100 known copies (in most cases fewer than 20) of such ancient writings as those of Julius Caesar, Plato or Aristotle. The earliest known copies available for study were made 750 to 1,400 years after their authors lived. Yet, most of what we know about antiquity is based on such writings and historians do not hesitate to accept their testimony.
In the case of the New Testament, the story is different. There are four complete manuscript copies which date only 300-400 years after the originals. In addition, there are nearly complete manuscripts which date between 155-200 A. D. Even if they were done as late as 200, they are still from a time just a little over a century from the date of the original writings, much closer in time than the copies of Caesar or Aristotle to their authors.
Nor is that all. In a discovery known as the John Rylands Fragment, a section of John 18 was found in Egypt. Scholars say that this copy dates from around 130 A. D. If, as is traditionally believed, John wrote around 90 A D., this copy was made only 40 years after the original writing. In studies of ancient history, this is outstanding evidence indeed.
Turning to the question of the number of copies available, the evidence is also outstanding. In all, there are more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (both complete and partial manuscripts; Greek was the New Testament's original language). Furthermore, almost the entire New Testament is quoted in the writings of early Christians, quotations which can be used to determine what the text which they had available actually said.
One of the most respected experts on manuscript evidence was Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director and principal librarian of the British Museum. Summarizing the case for the New Testament, he said,
"The interval then between the dates of the original composition and the earliest [existing] evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established" The Bible and Archaeology, in F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? , 20).
From this we see that the claim made by the Jesus Seminar that the New Testament cannot be trusted because "the earliest surviving copies of the gospels date from about one-hundred and seventy-five years after Jesus, and no two copies are precisely alike" distorts the evidence with regard to both fact and significance. The fact is, there are some manuscripts closer in time to when the originals were written than one-hundred seventy-five years. The significance of all the manuscript evidence, including both dating and the sheer number of New Testament manuscripts scholars can study, is that there is no reason to doubt that we have what was written. As F.F. Bruce has observed, "no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest [manuscripts] of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals" (The New Testament Documents, 16).
A Call for Fair Treatment
In light of this, it is fair to ask why critics of the New Testament refuse to accept better evidence for its reliability. It is also fair to ask why such evidence was not addressed by the Seminar. F.F. Bruce's book, The New Testament Documents, appeared in its first edition in the 1940's. It is just one of many works by scholars with impeccable credentials in history and other fields which challenge the presuppositions and conclusions the Jesus Seminar puts forth as new, cutting edge scholarship (see the representative comments in Part 1 of this series). In reality, their claims are not based on solid scholarship, but are rooted in "skepticism which stems from an outmoded methodology (almost universally discarded today by classical and literary scholars and by specialists in comparative Near Eastern studies), and from unjustified philosophical presuppositions (such as anti-supernaturalistic bias and bias in favor of religious evolution)" (John Warwick Montgomery, "The Jury Returns: A Juridical Defense of Christianity," in Evidence for Faith: Deciding the God Question, 322-323).
It appears that critics such as Luke Timothy Johnson are correct in their charge that the Jesus Seminar is not as much about scholarship as about pushing a religious and social agenda (see his comments in Part 1). We believe that this is what the public must be told.
[continued next month]