Peter J. Williams is the Warden (CEO) of Tyndale House and a member of the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Cambridge. He received his MA, MPhil and PhD, in the study of ancient languages related to the Bible from Cambridge University. After his PhD, he was on staff in the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University (1997–1998), and thereafter taught Hebrew and Old Testament there as Affiliated Lecturer in Hebrew and Aramaic and as Research Fellow in Old Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge (1998–2003). From 2003 to 2007 he was on the faculty of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he became a Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Deputy Head of the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. In July 2007 he became the youngest Warden in the history of Tyndale House. He also retains his position as an honorary Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Aberdeen.
Summary of the lecture:
What if the stories about Jesus are legendary?
were the gospels transmitted accurately?
were the gospels written in the same place as where the events happened?
do the gospel authors know the customs and locations where the events happened?
do the gospels use the right names for the time and place where the events took place?
do the gospels disambiguate people’s names depending on how common those names were?
how do the New Testament gospels compare to the later gnostic gospels?
how do the gospels refer to the main character? How non-Biblical sources refer to Jesus?
how does Jesus refer to himself in the gospels? do the later Christians refer to him that way?
how does Jesus teach? do later Christians teach the same way?
why didn’t Jesus say anything about early conflicts in the church (the Gentiles, church services)?
did the writers of the gospels know the places where the events took place?
how many places are named in the gospels? how about in the later gnostic gospels?
are the botanical details mentioned in the gospels accurate? how about the later gnostic gospels?
And here are the questions from the audience:
how what about the discrepancies in the resurrection narratives that Bart Ehrman is obsessed with?
what do you think of the new 2011 NIV translation (Peter is on the ESV translation committee)?
how did untrained, ordinary men produce complex, sophisticated documents like the gospels?
is oral tradition a strong enough bridge between the events and the writers who interviewed the eyewitnesses?
what does the name John mean?
why did the gospel writers wait so long before writing their gospels?
do you think that Matthew and Luke used a hypothetical source which historians call “Q”?
which gospel do critical historians trust the least and why?
I really enjoyed watching this lecture. He’s getting some of this material from Richard Bauckham’s awesome book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, so if you aren’t familiar with it, you can get an idea of what’s in it. Peter Williams is a lot of fun to listen to – an excellent speaker.
Dr. Ehrman, is a graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Professor Ehrman received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-one books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. Among his fields of scholarly expertise are the historical Jesus, the early Christian apocrypha, the apostolic fathers, and the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.
Dr. Evans received his B.A. degree in History and Philosophy from Claremont McKenna College, his M.Div. degree from Western Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Biblical Studies from Claremont Graduate University in southern California. Author and editor of more than fifty books and hundreds of articles and reviews, Professor Evans has given lectures at Cambridge, Durham, Oxford, Yale, and other universities, colleges, seminaries, and museums, such as the Field Museum in Chicago and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.
Note: This is a very snarky summary, and I am just paraphrasing things to be silly and funny. Reader discretion is advised.
Snarky things I made up are in italics.
Question 1: are the gospels historically reliable?
Bart Ehrman opening speech:
I used to be an ignorant fundamentalist like you!
but then I went to Princeton, and now I know better
to Craig: are there errors in the Bible
the gospels have some reliable and some unreliable info
only careless readers don’t see contradictions in the gospels
contradictions in the genealogies
contradictions in timing of recognizing Jesus as the Messiah
contradiction about when Jesus died
contradiction about when the stone was rolled away
contradiction about who was at the empty tomb
contradiction about when the disciples went to Galilee
contradictions in minor details means the gospels are unreliable
Craig Evans opening speech:
the question is “do the gospels tell us enough about Jesus for faith?”
the gospels don’t tell us everything, but they tell enough for faith
the extremely early creed in 1 Cor 15:3-7 has an outline of the gospel
it contains the burial, the appearances to eyewitnesses
and it agrees with the early sermons of Peter in Acts 2
the gospels agree with these extremely early summaries
the gospels are based on earlier sources
the gospels are corroborated by the Jewish historian Josephus
Question 2: Do the gospels accurately preserve the teachings of Jesus Christ?
are there any discrepancies in the gospels?
the gospels have things Jesus said, and things he didn’t say
if the Bible is inaccurate in some minor details, then it’s all unreliable
in the latest gospel, John, Jesus calls himself God and sees himself as divine
but these high-Christology statements are not in the synoptics
therefore, Jesus really didn’t say these things
why didn’t the synoptics record these claims to divinity
the author of John changed the words of Jesus and John the Baptist?
E.P. Sanders (a non-Christian scholar) says we can know what Jesus taught
cites E.P.’s list of Jesus’ core teachings that are agreed on by most scholars
Jesus’ focus was talking about the Kingdom of God – the rule of God
Jesus’ followers were expected to record and understand the words of Jesus
It is permissible for the followers of Jesus to have some editorial license
Question 3: Do the gospels accurately preserve the activities of Jesus Christ?
E.P. Sanders agrees with me that there are discrepancies in the gospels
E.P. Sanders agrees with me that there are mistakes in the gospels
If Jesus’ followers changed his words a little, then we can’t know anything he said
If the author changes the story a little, then the story was changed a lot
If there not 100% accurate, then they’re not accurate at all
contradiction of the ordering of Jesus’ temptations
contradiction of the number of animals Jesus rode into Jerusalem
contradiction of whether Jesus spoke or didn’t speak in some instance
contradiction of what Jesus said on the cross
contradiction of the number of robbers who speak to Jesus
Jesus can only say ONE THING when he’s on the cross
the gospel writers have to be in complete agreement
E.P. Sanders (non-Christian) lists 7 virtually indisputable facts about Jesus
just because there are discrepancies, doesn’t mean there are no minimal facts
in additional to E.P. Sanders, there are other facts that are widely-accepted
many assertions in the gospels are embarrassing to the author
many liberal scholars think that Jesus was a healer and an exorcist
all scholars agree on the crucifixion
most scholars accept the “King of the Jews” placard placed over the cross
this means that Jesus was viewed by his followers as the Messiah
Question 4: Do the gospels contain eyewitness tradition?
I used to be an ignorant uninformed fundie, like you all
but then I started to study seriously, not like Craig Evans
I changed my mind based on intense research, not peer pressure
My apostasy has nothing to do with the problem of evil and suffering!
I use my brain, and Craig Evans and you fundies don’t use your brains
the gospels don’t claim to be written by eyewitnesses
the titles of the gospels were added later
the gospels don’t claim to be written by the authors attributed to them
the gospels were written anonymously
the gospels only had names attached in 120-140 AD
even if gospels were written by eyewitnesses, they are not always accurate
written 40-60 years after Jesus died
written in Greek, not Aramaic
written in different countries
based on stories that were told and retold and changed over time
Richard Bauckham says the gospels are largely based on eyewitness accounts
the gospels were written while there were still eyewitnesses alive
the people who met Jesus were there to correct the written accounts
there were many disputes about things in the early church, so if the early church invented sayings, then why not invent sayings of Jesus to resolve the disputes?
there is no evidence of things being invented wholesale by the early church
Pappias says that he talked to Christians who knew the eyewitnesses to Jesus
Question 5: Do archaeologists and historians use the gospels as sources?
archaeologists do not use the gospels, they just dig things up
historians do use gospels
Jesus is not mentioned by any Greek or Roman non-Christian source for 80 years after Jesus’ death
The earliest Jewish source is Josephus, writing 60 years after Jesus’ death
Paul is the earliest source, but says nothing about Jesus’ words and deeds
the earliest sources for words and deeds are the discrepancy-filled gospels
the gospels are based on telling and re-telling of the stories
James Charlesworth has a 700-book about archaeology and the Bible
the book contains hundreds of references to the four gospels
the four gospels and Acts are viewed as the best sources for archaeologists
they provide accurate information about the way things were
the gospels and Acts helps archaeologists to know where to dig for things
the Biblical sources are early and based on eyewitnesses
the gospels and Acts fit well in the first century culture
the gospels and Acts talk about real events and real places and real customs
the gospels and Acts talk about real buildings and real public figures and real groups
the language of the gospels traces back nicely to Aramaic
the gospels talk about geography and climate
archaeologists discover many things discussed in the gospels
Question 6: Have the gospels been accurately preserved done through the centuries
if God inspired the Bible without error, he should have preserved it without error
but the originals have NOT been preserved without error
so I no longer accept the inerrancy of the autographs (the originals)
we don’t have the originals
we only have copies of copies… of copies… of copies… of copies
and the copiers all made mistakes
the first manuscripts are decades later
and the manuscripts we have are different from one another
the earliest copies have the most mistakes
even if we have many copies, they are late, so we don’t know what the original said
we don’t have early manuscripts
we know where the discrepancies in the manuscripts are
the discrepancies are marked in your Bible
the discrepancies affect peripheral issues
some discrepancies are supported by other verses
Mark doesn’t have the appearances, but 1 Cor 15 does, and it’s earlier
the errors are things like spelling and grammar errors, typos, etc.
we have fragments that are earlier than the full manuscripts
some early manuscripts have errors, but other early manuscripts are correct
Question 7: Do scribal errors and textual variants significantly impact any teaching of Jesus or any important Christian teaching?
the woman caught in adultery is a late addition
the ending of Mark is a late addition
can we handle snakes or can’t we?
did Jesus sweat blood or didn’t he?
some manuscripts have errors – that should not be allowed by God
some scribes are careless – that should not be allowed by God
we have to have perfect copies of the originals, or I won’t believe!
if God really inspired it, it all has to be perfect! Perfect! I was lied to!!!!
if the snake-handling verse isn’t there, then the whole Bible is lies! Lies!
no variants impact any teaching of Jesus or significant Christian teaching
the vast majority of the manuscripts agree on 98-99% of the text
often, the theology gives rise to a variant, which is introduced later
variants aren’t central enough to affect any theological doctrines
And then there are concluding speeches by each speaker.
I made this summary based on the video, which is here on Apologetics 315.
Bart Ehrman is well known as a US New Testament Scholar who lost his Christian faith and now questions many core precepts of Christianity, including the Resurrection of Jesus. When Mike Licona had doubts he devoted himself to investigating the evidence and became convinced that Jesus resurrection is the only rational explanation for the facts.
They debate key historical facts about the resurrection – are the letters of Paul that report the resurrection and the Gospel accounts trustworthy or theologised and changed with time? What about apparent contradictions between the Gospels? Does the consensus of scholars count as evidence, or is there a Christian bias? Can a miracle count as an explanation for historical data?
Snarky summary of the radio debate: (items with * are my made-up paraphrases/clarifications)
– Bart’s new book is about forgeries in the ancient world
– some books were falsely attributed to prominent Christian figures
– there are mistakes in the Bible
– there are mistakes in the resurrection narratives
– the defeat of inerrancy led to his conversion to liberal Christianity
– the problem of evil and suffering caused him to become a non-Christian
– there are minimal facts that are agreed to by a broad spectrum of scholars
– the minimal facts are accepted because they pass standard historical criteria
– Fact 1: Jesus died by crucifixion
– Fact 2: Individuals and groups had visions of Jesus after his death
– Fact 3: Paul, a skeptic and an enemy, had an appearance of Jesus that converted him
– these facts are agreed to atheist scholars, liberal scholars, etc.
– virtually 100% of scholars agree with these three facts
– there is no naturalistic explanation of these three facts
– therefore, the best explanation of these three facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead
– all historians would accept these three facts, except for maybe the group appearances
– the death of Jesus is irrelevant to the resurrection
– the second and third point can be collapsed together
– so really there is only one fact
– the crucifixion is relevant because Muslims don’t admit that fact
– the crucifixion important because it establishes a resurrection, not a resuscitation
– well, if the point is that he died, then yes, this does require a resurrection
– the crucifixion refutes Muslims who deny that Jesus died
– the crucifixion refutes the apparent death theory (swoon theory)
– the death is required for a bodily resurrection
– it’s important to know what facts most scholars, regardless of worldview, agree on
– it’s important to emphasize that Licona is working from historical bedrock facts
– the resurrection is the best explanation for the historical bedrock facts
– you are trying to list 3 things, but really it is just one thing – the appearances
– and not ALL scholars agree that the group visions occurred
– name one prominent scholar who denies the group appearances
– the radically leftist atheist nutcase John Dominic Crossan denies the group appearances
* Crossan is so far on the left that I look like a nutcase for even citing him
* Crossan believes in the Secret Gospel of Mark, which is a hoax – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan believes that the synoptics are LATER than gnostic forged gospels – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan presupposes atheism, so he cannot admit to miracle stories as a pre-supposition – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan pre-supposes religious pluralism, so he cannot allow any exclusive claims Christians make – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan is a good historian, it’s just that he is so far to the left that no one – NO ONE – agrees with his all of crazy theories
* I think it is a good idea to cite historians who pre-suppose atheism and political correctness before they sit down to do history
– let me explain why most scholars accept the individual and group post-mortem appearances
– the best source for the appearances is the early creed recorded by Paul in 1 Cor 15:3-8
– Paul himself had an appearance of Jesus after Jesus’ death
– Paul received this material from a source very soon after the appearances – within 1-3 years
– we know that Paul met with Jesus disciples multiple times prior to writing
– Paul probably received it from Peter and James, who were themselves eyewitnesses
– this early dating presumably rules out legend
– well legends CAN start quickly
– it does show that Paul was an eyewitness
– it does show that Paul was in contact with reliable eyewitnesses
– 1 Corinthians is written around 55 AD, twenty-five years after Jesus died
– it is not implausible that Paul got the creed from the disciples, who were eyewitnesses
– but you don’t need a long time for legends to emerge, so that is a possibility
– only about 3% of people could read and write back them
– instead, people had enormous capacity for memorization
– the Pharisees were particularly good at memorization
– Jews were very serious about passing along traditions accurately
– Paul, a prominent Pharisee, would have been capable of passing on early creeds accurately
– Paul, in 1 Cor 7, shows that he is willing to separate his opinions from authentic tradition
– Paul had an opportunity in 1 Cor 7 to put words into Jesus’ mouth, but he wouldn’t do it
– cultural anthropologists show that things do get changed in some oral cultures
– in these oral cultures, it is assumed that the story teller will change the story
– only in written cultures are they careful to avoid changing the story
– in the New Testament, you can compare the same story in two different gospels, there are differences
– Ehrman is right that the gospel writers pick and choose things from the oral tradition that they want to include in their gospels
– different oral tradition transmission schemes have more or less embellishment
– african tribes embellish more, rabbinic teaching embellishes less
* Jesus’ followers would have viewed him as a rabbi, and been careful about adding to his teachings
– Paul, an eyewitness, probably received the creed in 1 Cor 15 from other eyewitnesses
– Paul speaks about going twice to Jerusalem in Galatians
– he is meeting with Peter and James to check his facts
– when you look at Mark and John, there are lots of differences in the narrative
– I agree that the gospels have differences, but the oral tradition is likely fixed
– but Mark and John have different sayings
– why doesn’t Mark have the same explicit high Christology that John has?
– the “apocalyptic Son of Man” isn’t in John
– what about in John 9 with the man who was born blind
– where is the apocalyptic part?
– the healed man worships Jesus because he is the Son of Man
– that links to the apocalypic passages in the Old Testament
– what about the differences between the gospels?
* well, now is the time for me to set up an inerrantist straw man and then knock it down!
* who was at the empty tomb: one angel or two angels? we don’t know, so the whole Bible is false!
* I used to be an inerrantist, so one minor difference is enough for me to dump the whole Bible
* I’ll kill you, you stupid straw man! I hate you, Moody Bible Institute! You lied to me!
– many of these problems can be solved by realizing that the gospel writers compress time
– the stories don’t have to list ALL the characters in every scene
– you don’t have to force the Bible to meet some sort of wooden chronology
– the main thing is that the events happened, not that the descriptions match word for word across sources
– you can’t infer a miracle from history, David Hume says so
* extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, David Hume says so
* no I don’t know what begging the question is, I’m not a philosopher
* no I don’t remember when Bill Craig kicked my ass on this Hume objection in our debate
– the New Testament gospels contradict each other at every point, they are not reliable at all!
* they cannot even agree what Jesus’ name is! There are 1 trillion variants of Jesus’ name!
* “one angel vs two angels” proves that the gospels contradict each other at every point
* my expansive list of FOUR theologically insignificant variants proves that the gospels contradict each other at every point
– um, the gospels agree on the central narrative and disagree on the peripherals
– and they agree on the minimal facts I presented, even if they disagree about the number of angels
* they have to agree on everything and be inerrant! The Moody Straw Man Bible Institute says so!
* I really really really need to have the number of angels be the same, or Jesus didn’t die on the cross
– but you don’t deny any of the three minimal facts I presented (crucifixion, appearances, Paul)
– well, I don’t know if the group appearances occurred – maybe they did
– i think Jesus died on the cross, and I think that people said they saw him alive afterward
– if you deny the minimal facts, then you are outside the majority of scholars
– the majority of scholars who agree to the minimal facts you presented are Christians
* Gerd Ludemann is an atheist Christian
* James Crossley is an atheist Christian
* Hector Avalos is an atheist Christian
* the majority of the atheist scholars are all Christians!
– VIRTUALLY EVERYBODY IN THE SOCIETY OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE IS A CHRISTIAN!!! (Yes, he said that)
– but he CLAIMS TO BE A CHRISTIAN so that means HE IS A CHRISTIAN
* all you have to do to be a Christian is claim to be one
* you can even deny the existence of God and the divinity of Christ and still be one, you bigot!
– would Jesus or the apostles recognize a Christian as being someone who doubts God’s existence
– my view is that Jesus and the apostles would not recognize evangelical Christians as Christians
* a non-theist can be a Christian just by claiming to be one, but evangelical Christians are not Christians even if they claim to be Christians
– Christians can’t record accurate history about the resurrection because they are biased
– on your view, if a person is a Christian then he can’t write about the evidence for the resurrection
– so then similarly, you would not allow Jews to write about the historicity of the Holocaust
– because you think that if people have an interest in what they are recording then they can’t be objective
– but you have to consider the evidence we have, taking the biases of the sources into account
– but the only people who believe in the resurrection are Christians!
– well, people can consider the evidence for the resurrection as non-Christians
– and then if they accept it they can become Christians
– what about your bias? you don’t believe in God – doesn’t that pre-supposition affect how you do history?
– well, I presuppose naturalism, so I can’t admit to anything in history that implicates supernatural causes
* no I have never heard of the arguments for the Big Bang, fine-tuning, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, irreducible complexity, limits on mutations creating information, habitability and so on – I never heard about that stuff from my atheist university professors and even if I had I would have been expelled for talking about it because that would make people feel bad about their sinning
– so it’s not bias you are concerned about, it’s that you don’t want history to contradict your untested religion of naturalism?
– why not just do the history without pre-suppositions to gather the minimal facts and then see what the best explanation is?
* well God is out of bounds as an explanation because I could not have got my PhD if I mentioned God
* I really needed my smart atheist professors to like me and give me good grades so God is RIGHT OUT
* ideas like a real God and moral laws and Hell makes my atheist professors uncomfortable and that means low grades for me
* I’m not really interested in butting heads with professors – it’s easier to just agree with them and move on to selling books to the gullible
* My books are much more sensational than Dan Brown books, so please buy lots of them!
– what if the historical evidence is good enough to show that Jesus rose from the dead?
– well I would not call someone rising from the dead a miracle – I would call it weird
* I also think that the Big Bang is “weird” but that doesn’t prove that God created the universe out of nothing
* if it’s a miracle then I’m going to have to not sin, and maybe even go to Hell, and we can’t have that
– well, you accept the three minimal facts
– what if we try all the naturalistic explanations for those three facts and there are problems with all of them?
– what if the resurrection is the best explanation for the three minimal facts?
– but I want to arbitrarily rule God put because I want to pre-suppose naturalism
– there is not historical reason I have to rule put supernatural explanations a priori
– I think you are struggling with the theological implications of a historical conclusion
– well when you do theology, you have to avoid grounding your theology on science or history
– theology has to be completely made up or it’s not good theology
– I think you are letting your dislike of the implications of the resurrection determine your historical conclusions
– you have to use historical methods to gather the minimal facts that every scholar accepts, regardless of worldview
– then you weigh ALL the hypotheses, natural and supernatural, that could account for these minimal facts
– then you choose the hypothesis that best explains the minimal facts
Dan Wallace is the best-known evangelical expert in New Testament manuscripts. He wrote a strong response to a non-scholarly article from a journalist, which appeared in the far-left Newsweek.
Every year, at Christmas and Easter, several major magazines, television programs, news agencies, and publishing houses love to rattle the faith of Christians by proclaiming loudly and obnoxiously that there are contradictions in the Bible, that Jesus was not conceived by a virgin, that he did not rise from the dead, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. The day before Christmas eve (23 December 2014), Newsweek published a lengthy article by Kurt Eichenwald entitled, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” Although the author claims that he is not promoting any particular theology, this wears thin. Eichenwald makes so many outrageous claims, based on a rather slender list of named scholars (three, to be exact), that one has to wonder how this ever passed any editorial review.
Error 1: Gross Exaggerations that Misrepresent the Data
I will address just one issue here—the notion that the original Bible is unknowable. Eichenwald claims:
“No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.”
So, none of us today has read anything except a bad translation that has been altered hundreds of times before it got to us? Although Eichenwald enlists Bart Ehrman as one of the three scholars he names in the essay, he has seriously overstated Ehrman’s argument. At one point, it is true, Ehrman says in Misquoting Jesus, “Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.” Here he is speaking of Greek copies of Greek manuscripts. Nothing is said about translations. At many points he admits that the vast majority of the changes to the text of the New Testament were rather minor over the many centuries of handwritten copying. And in the appendix to the paperback edition of his book Ehrman says, “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” But Eichenwald makes it sound as though all translations current today are bad and that we can’t possibly recover the wording of the original text. The reality is that we are getting closer and closer to the text of the original New Testament as more and more manuscripts are being discovered and catalogued.
But let’s examine a bit more the actual statement that Eichenwald makes. We are all reading “at best,” he declares, a “bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.” This is rhetorical flair run amok so badly that it gives hyperbole a bad name. A “translation of translations of translations” would mean, at a minimum, that we are dealing with a translation that is at least three languages removed from the original. But the first translation is at best a translation of a fourth generation copy in the original language. Now, I’m ignoring completely his last line—“and on and on, hundreds of times”—a line that is completely devoid of any resemblance to reality. Is it really true that we only have access to third generation translations from fourth generation Greek manuscripts? Hardly.
Although we know of some translations, especially the later ones, that were based on translations in other languages of the Greek text (thus, a translation of a translation of the Greek), this is not at all what scholars utilize today to duplicate as faithfully as possible the original wording. No, we have Greek manuscripts—thousands of them, some reaching as far back as the second century. And we have very ancient translationsdirectly from the Greek that give us a good sense of the Greek text that would have been available in those regions where that early version was used. These include Latin, Syriac, and Coptic especially. Altogether, we have at least 20,000 handwritten manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic and other ancient languages that help us to determine the wording of the original. Almost 6000 of these manuscripts are in Greek alone. And we have more than one million quotations of the New Testament by church fathers. There is absolutely nothing in the Greco-Roman world that comes even remotely close to this wealth of data. The New Testament has more manuscripts that are within a century or two of the original than anything else from the Greco-Roman world too. If we have to be skeptical about what the original New Testament said, that skepticism, on average, should be multiplied one thousand times for other Greco-Roman literature.
What of the differences among these witnesses? To be sure, there are more variants for the New Testament than for any other piece of ancient literature, but that’s because there are more manuscripts for the New Testament than for any other piece of ancient literature. Consider the King James Version compared to virtually any modern New Testament translation: There are about 5000 differences in the underlying Greek text between these two. The vast majority of the differences cannot even be translated. The KJV is based on significantly later manuscripts, yet not a single cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith is affected by the different variants.
The title of Eichenwald’s section that deals with manuscript transmission is “Playing Telephone with the Word of God.” The implication is that the transmission of the Bible is very much like the telephone game—a parlor game every American knows. It involves a brief narrative that someone whispers to the next person in line who then whispers this to the next person, and so on for several people. Then, the last person recites out loud what he or she heard and everyone has a good laugh for how garbled the story got. But the transmission of scripture is not at all like the telephone game. First, the goal of the telephone game is to see how badly the story can get misrepresented, while the goal of New Testament copying was by and large to produce very careful, accurate copies of the original. Second, in the telephone game there is only one line of transmission, while with the New Testament there are multiple lines of transmission. Third, one is oral, recited once in another’s ear, while the other is written, copied by a faithful scribe who then would check his or her work or have someone else do it. Fourth, in the telephone game only the wording of the last person in the line can be checked, while for the New Testament textual critics have access to many of the earlier texts, some going back very close to the time of the autographs. Fifth, even the ancient scribes had access to earlier texts, and would often check their work against a manuscript that was many generations older than their immediate ancestor. The average papyrus manuscript would last for a century or more. Thus, even a late second-century scribe could have potentially examined the original document he or she was copying. If telephone were played the way New Testament transmission occurred, it would make for a ridiculously boring parlor game!
One of the most remarkable pieces of illogical reasoning in Eichenwald’s essay is his discussion of corruption in the manuscripts. Every single instance he raises presupposes that he knows what the original text said, for he speaks about what text had been corrupted in each instance! And more than once he contradicts his opening gambit by speaking authoritatively about what the original text actually said. In short, Eichenwald’s opening paragraph takes exaggeration to new heights. If his goal is to shame conservative Christians for holding views that have no basis in reality, perhaps he should take some time to look in the mirror.
If I were going to give people any advice about investigating religious truth claims, it would be this – for goodness’ sake, look to formal academic debates featuring scholars like Dan Wallace, Michael Licona, William Lane Craig, Stephen C. Meyer, Michael Behe, etc. and their opponents. You will get a lot more out of a formal academic debate with fixed-length speeches than you will get from any left-wing sermon written by a journalist in magazines like Time or Newsweek.