Evangelical Textual Critic Debunks Common New Testament Reliability Myths
James E. Snapp Jr. makes some quite candid points with respect to the reliability, preservation and transmission of the New Testament in a response to some of these misconceptions being part and parcel of the recent movie, “The Case for Christ” based on the book sharing the same name by Lee Strobel. Here are some of those points:
He starts off with pointing out the obvious, having a single early partial manuscript of one book of the New Testament does not mean we can misjudge all of the New Testament’s book as being equally as early as that one fragment. Rather, it is judged book by book:
For example, the earliest New Testament manuscript is probably either Papyrus 52 or Papyrus 104 – but they are both small fragments. They tell us nothing about the accuracy of the transmission of the books of the New Testament that they do not represent. So, comparisons between “the New Testament” collectively, and single compositions from the ancient world, are sort of unfair; it would be better to separate the individual New Testament books, and go from there when making comparisons.
The number of manuscripts rarely matter, as I have duly pointed out before, on more than one occasion. The current reconstruction of the New Testament isn’t based on which manuscripts agree with each other the most. It’s a very common misconception to say the least:
Most English translations of the New Testament are based on minority-texts at points where the Byzantine and Alexandrian text-types disagree with one another. The New International Version, the English Standard Version, the New Living Translation, and the New Revised Standard Version are all based primarily on editions of the Nestle-Aland compilation, which, despite being compiled via a method called “reasoned eclecticism,” almost always rejects the majority-reading (that is, the Byzantine reading) in favor of the reading in the flagship manuscripts of the Alexandrian family of manuscripts.
My point being that it is inconsistent to argue for the reliability of the New Testament by an appeal to the existence of 5,843 manuscripts, and then turn around and reject 85% of those manuscripts by consistently favoring minority-readings, which is precisely what one does when using the NIV, ESV, NLT, etc.
Furthering his point, he then goes on to critique Lee Strobel’s misuse of the number of manuscripts argument, as well as the argument that the differences are, “as minor as a few typos in a few insignificant words”:
In his book, Strobel states that the differences between New Testament manuscripts are “as minor as a few typos in a few insignificant words in an entire Sunday newspaper.” That is simply not true. He also compares the transmission of the New Testament text to a game of telephone in which, at the end of the game, 29 out of 30 telephone-game players say the same thing. The problem is that the illustration does not hold, as far as the base-text of the NIV is concerned: in the base-text of the New International Version New Testament that Lee Strobel uses, 29 out of 30 manuscripts are routinely rejected in favor of Alexandrian minority-readings.
He then goes on to debunk the very common misconception, that given we possess early partial manuscripts from the 2nd century that it means they must have been written during the 1st century CE several decades after Jesus, and that the New Testament’s books are the earliest between extant (still surviving) manuscripts and their initial date of composition. He indicates that this is probably not true:
The relatively recent claim that the New Testament’s manuscript-support is closer to its composition-date than any other literary work of ancient times is probably not true. When Papyrus 52 (also known as John Rylands Greek Papyrus 457) was identified by C. H. Roberts as a fragment of the Gospel of John, some apologists began crowing about how this new discovery confirms that there is only a 40-year gap between the production of the New Testament, and its earliest extant manuscript – a gap far less than there is for any other work of ancient times. However, this is not all that significant.
Papyrus 52 was assigned a production-date in the first half of the second century due to palaeographical considerations – that is, via a comparison of its script to the scripts used in other manuscripts in various eras. But if we reckon that a copyist’s handwriting stayed relatively the same, and that we have no means to deduce how old a copyist was when he made a particular manuscript, and if we also reckon that a copyist might live another 50 years after the beginning of his career as a copyist, then there is potentially a 100-year swing, 50 years each way, built into palaeographically assessed estimates of when a manuscript was made. That is, when other factors are not in the picture, a production-date deduced exclusively from palaeographic evidence could be off by 100 years. So in the case of Papyrus 52, saying that it was made “in about 125” could mean that it was made 50 years earlier (although that is precluded by the point that the Gospel of John itself is traditionally given a production-date around AD 90), or 50 years later.
With the crux of his argument being one I have previously espoused and argued many times upon:
Thus, while Papyrus 52 might have been made just two or three decades after the Gospel of John was composed, it is also true that Papyrus 52 might have been produced in the 170’s. To ask for greater precision in the estimate is like asking researchers to tell us the age of the copyist.
Very recently, Br. Yahya Snow shared a very impactful quote regarding the traditional Christian history of the Gospel attributed to Mark and the disparity between that history, our current reconstructions and its earliest manuscript 𝔓45.
and God knows best.