The Foundation, part 5.1: The Telephone Game

(Continued from Defending the Lynchpin)

“The Bible’s been copied and re-copied so many times, we can’t be sure what it originally said,” skeptics are fond of saying as they compare the transmission of the New Testament to the “Telephone Game.” For those unfamiliar, the Telephone Game is played by a number of people sitting in a circle (usually around a campfire), and the first person whispers something once into the second person’s ear, and that person in turn whispers it into the next person’s ear, and so on and so forth, and the rules of the game prohibit clarification—you hear it once and immediately have to pass it along to the next person, whether you heard it clearly or not. The message usually gets so garbled in transmission that it has only a vague, loosely-phonetic resemblance to the original message: something like “Jesus is risen from the dead” gets morphed into “cheese and biscuits in bed” or something equally silly and everyone laughs. Good times. Who’s up for s’mores?

At first blush, this seems a clever, plausible argument against Christianity and the New Testament. Because they didn’t have such innovations as the printing press or word-processing software back in olden times, for literature to make its way from the original writer into the hands of future generations, it had to be hand-copied, and that copy was only good for as long as the parchment or papyrus on which it was written didn’t decay and deteriorate from wear and tear and time, and a new copy would have to be made to take its place. So (the thinking goes) only a few, distant copies of what was originally written have survived the ravages of time and, in Telephone Game-fashion, ancient copyist errors have compounded over the centuries, so we can’t know with any certainty what the original message of Jesus Christ even was—only that what we have today in the New Testament isn’t likely to be it.

This only seems like a decent argument, though, until the actual facts about the New Testament and about our knowledge of history are taken into account. When they are, the Telephone Game no longer suffices as an adequate analogy. A better analogy would be, instead of the first person hurriedly whispering the message once into the next person’s ear, that person writes the message down and then looks over the next person’s shoulder as he makes his own copy. Also, instead of passing it along to just one person this way, he passes it to twenty-or-so people, and each of those twenty-or-so people pass it on through the same method to twenty-or-so more, and so on and so forth until eventually the last group of people to hand-copy the message number about 20,000. And then, instead of copying it by hand, they just start using Microsoft Word and send it out through mass-emails after they’ve spell-checked it.

Of course, the end result of that game wouldn’t be nearly as funny as the actual Telephone Game, since it would be impossible for any significant changes to be made to the message with such a painstaking process of transmission. If there are mistakes, it might be that a word or two gets misspelled or something equally trivial. Even in those cases, though, the mistake only gets passed on to descendents of that single copy in which it was originally made, and there are thousands of other copies against which to correct it.

That’s how it is with the New Testament.

In contrast, any important ancient manuscript we have today by which we have any knowledge of history at all is pretty far-removed in time from its original composition, and we only have a handful of the earliest copies. For instance, the writings of Herodotus, the famed “Father of History,” are our chief source of information about the 5th-century BC wars between the Greeks and Persians. All we have left of his writings come from fewer than ten manuscripts dating from around 900 AD—about 1,300 years after the fact. The Telephone Game might be a slightly more accurate analogy for our knowledge of the Spartans and other Greek city-states from that time, but no competent historian would reject Herodotus on that score. Likewise, Aristotle’s 4th-century BC writings survive in a scant five manuscripts dated around 1100 AD. Julius Caesar’s account of his conquest of Gaul remains in the form of only five manuscripts from around 1000 AD.

And these are typical of ancient historical sources—the earliest copies we have of various manuscripts are distant copies from copies of copies of the original, written centuries, or even millennia, before. And, we only have a handful of those copies. However, historians regard them to be basically reliable in providing accurate information about the past and about the origins of civilization.

The runner-up for the best manuscript authority is Homer’s Iliad, with 643 manuscripts written between the 5th and 6th centuries AD.

Want to know what the title-holder is—which ancient collection of documents has the most manuscript authority? As you can probably guess by now, it’s the New Testament, and by an astronomical margin. There are more than 20,000 ancient copies of the books comprising the New Testament in existence in the world today, many of which were written as early as the 2nd century—within a little more than a single century of their original composition. Some of those 20,000 were copied as late as the 5th century, but that’s still immensely closer in time to their original composition than any other ancient manuscript.

Even if we didn’t have those copies, though, we could still reproduce virtually the entire content of the New Testament s from secondary sources in the form of quotations by the early Church Fathers (1st-4th century), and a smaller but still significant portion from the earlier Apostolic Fathers, who were the first generation of Church leaders after the apostles.

Of course, with so many copies of the books of the New Testament changing hands from so many people, there are, admittedly, bound to be errors, as with any ancient document. Non-believers have made much of these errors, greatly exaggerating their significance to dismiss any notion of certainty about what the New Testament is supposed to read.

For example, the introduction to The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus reads:

“We do not have original copies of any of the gospels… and no two copies are precisely alike. And handmade copies have almost always been ‘corrected’ here and there, often by more than one hand. Further, this gap of almost two centuries means that the original Greek (or Aramaic?) text was copied more than once, by hand, before reaching the stage in which it has come down to us. 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.” (pg. 6, emphasis added)

The volume cited here is the “Scholars’ Version” translation of the four biblical Gospels (as opposed to the amateurs and hobbyists responsible for other translations, I guess), plus the forged Gospel of Thomas. The uniquely “scholarly” translators are members of the so-called “Jesus Seminar”—a collection of radical academics on a “quest for the historical Jesus” concealed beneath the purportedly legendary “Christ of faith” (much, much more on this in my next entry).

They didn’t make any specific mention of what those copyist errors are in their introduction, but the insinuation (and the typical inference) is that the New Testament is just riddled with them.

Want to know what some of those errors are, though? They’re not hard to find, because translators (comparative amateurs though they are) don’t make any effort to hide them, but usually point them out in the footnotes of their translations and make general mention of them in the prefaces to those translations.

For instance, in the New International Version a footnote to Matthew 21:44 reads, “Some manuscripts do not have verse 44.” The preceding verses read:

“Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.’ Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”

The dubious verse 44 then adds, “He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”

The rest of the copyist errors in the earliest NT manuscripts—those not specifically mentioned in the footnotes—are misspellings of words, names, or places, duplicated lines, or the occasional omitted word or reversed word-order. Even in those instances in which a word might be missing or ordered incorrectly, though, errors of those kind don’t exist in every manuscript, so they are easily corrected by comparison against the thousands of other manuscripts that do not contain the error (or we can just read the aforementioned quotations by the early Church Fathers to get it from people closer to the source).

The most significant difference between manuscript copies would be the divergent endings of the Gospel of Mark. Some manuscripts end with verse 8 in chapter 16, after the account of the women discovering the empty tomb and hearing the angel announce Jesus’ resurrection. Others include an expanded account, including appearances by the risen Jesus. Copies with the latter account, however, are marked by the ancient scribes themselves as doubtful in authenticity (again—this is all explained, usually, in the footnotes of any given translation).

None of these differences or errors amount to even the slightest divergence in the different manuscripts’ portrayal of Jesus himself or of his teachings. Whether or not we accept Matthew 21:44, for example, makes absolutely no difference in our understanding of who Jesus Christ was, what he taught, or who he understood himself to be.

None of these differences in manuscripts could even remotely be taken to suggest a “Jesus” who did not offer himself as the promised Messiah, and none offer an alternative origin for the Church than that early proclamation that “Christ has risen from the dead.”

Whenever I hear that objection from skeptics—that “there are too many errors in NT manuscripts to be able know what was originally written”—I always ask them what specific errors those are, or what differences there are in the manuscripts. I’ve never personally met anyone who made that argument who could answer that question; all they know is that the “errors” are there, and that’s all they need to know to dismiss Christianity.

It is absolutely assured that what we have as the New Testament today is perfectly representative of what was originally written. So, if people want to use the Telephone Game-analogy as an excuse to dismiss the historical reliability of the New Testament, they also have to dismiss virtually everything they know about ancient history as well.

Now if a Muslim apologist were sitting-in on our discussion, he would probably, at this point, enthusiastically point out that if we were to examine early manuscripts of the Qur’an for errors, it would compare much more favorably against those ancient NT manuscripts. According to Islamic tradition, the content of the Qur’an today—having been miraculously preserved—is identical in every major and minute respect to the words originally uttered by Muhammed in the 7th century, and so there isn’t one error to be found in even a single early manuscript.

And to be honest, I know far less about quranic manuscript authority than I know about the New Testament, so out of ignorance, I’d be willing to concede that point: there are (for all I know) no errors in the earliest extant manuscripts of the Qur’an.

But if that’s true, that fact is neither miraculous nor surprising… nor even remarkable, if we look to Islamic tradition as it relates to the origin of the Qur’an.

According to that tradition, the Qur’an wasn’t written and compiled until after Muhammed’s death, except for small portions recorded on palm leaves and scraps of parchment. For the most part, it was memorized by his followers and passed on orally. Some Muslims committed their memories to writing shortly after his death, but it wasn’t until the time of Muhammed’s successor, Caliph Abu Bakr that the Qur’an was compiled into a single written volume, and then later “standardized” by his successor, Caliph Uthman.

And by “standardized,” Islamic tradition means that Uthman ordered all variant copies of the Qur’an to be burned so as not to conflict with his version (scroll down to Volume 6, Book 61, verse 510 for the specific text of the hadith recounting this episode). So, naturally—there are no early variant or “flawed” manuscripts in existence, because they were systematically destroyed.

So, we can’t cross-check extant manuscripts of the Qur’an against alternative copies, because the caliph saw to it that there would be no alternative copies. Unlike the Qur’an, though, the New Testament has thousands of alternative copies (along with secondary sources) which translators and scholars can cross-reference against one another, and so there is no mystery about what content the books of the New Testament really contained when they were first written. Anyone can find that out just by looking to the footnotes or reading the translators’ prefaces or by cross-checking them against other translations. There are differences, yes—but those differences are insubstantial and inconsequential.

There is, however, a widespread belief that such an effort of systematic standardization of the Bible occurred under the reign of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Such an effort never actually took place, though. The popular misconception is that the compilation, standardization and canonization of the New Testament was on the agenda for the Council of Nicaea (a myth furthered along by such fictionalized pseudo-history as that offered in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code), but that simply isn’t true. Rather, the two main items on the council’s agenda were to standardize the date of Easter, and to settle the Arian controversy. At that point in history, there had been no church-wide effort to officially canonize the 66 books of scripture, yet all parties to either debate at the council relied on the same scriptures as the basis for their arguments because—despite their caustic disagreement on other doctrinal points—there was a general consensus on that issue without any need for debate or clarification. In fact, their elementary agreement on scriptural authority provided the framework for the controversy in the first place—without that assumed common ground, there would have been no conflict. It was equivalent to lawyers arguing the constitutionality of a particular public policy today: if they don’t agree on the U.S. Constitution as the authority in the first place, there is no basis for argument.

Even if (for the sake of argument) Constantine had made an effort to impose his will on the Church by deciding which books were admissible as holy writ and which were not, he wouldn’t have been any more successful in that endeavor than his predecessor Emperor Diocletian, who tried to eradicate all traces of Christianity and its scriptures as he presided over the most severe empire-wide, systematic persecution of Christians in history. The Council of Nicaea comprised many of the very people tortured and imprisoned under Diocletian a few years earlier, and it’s preposterous to suppose that they would have persevered through the brutalities and privations of his predecessor only to fold under Constantine’s supposed attempts to reinvent their religion. And, in fact, even after the Council of Nicaea standardized the official date of Easter and declared Arius to be a heretic, Arianism still persisted (even in Constantine’s own court and household) and eastern churches still kept their own calendar for Easter, which they keep to this day, and they undoubtedly would have done the same had Constantine attempted to reinvent their Bible.

This myth about Constantine mandating the canon of scripture by imperial decree does have a very loose basis in actual fact, though. His biographer, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (who, significantly, sided with Arius), chronicled that the emperor commissioned the creation of fifty copies of the Bible for use by the churches of Constantinople. Eusebius preserves a copy of the letter of commission in his Life of Constantine (see chapters 36 and 37), but the letter makes no mention of the specific books of scripture to be included, undoubtedly because there was no need to clarify what was already understood.

I think this myth has persisted simply because people assume that because the Bible’s different versions are so uniform and consistent today, there must have been some kind of early, forced effort to standardize it (as Islamic tradition tells us happened in the case of the Qur’an). So in the interest of reverse-engineering history to fit that expectation, the Council of Nicaea serves as the best possible candidate for supporting evidence. Except, there isn’t even a shred of evidence from the period that could be taken to even dimly suggest that any such standardization took place at the Council, nor at any other point in Constantine’s reign.

In conclusion, the New Testament has the most prolific manuscript authority of any historical source from antiquity, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe that any but the most trivial and easily-corrected changes have been introduced since its original composition. Not only is the New Testament reliable, but it’s the most reliable ancient writing in existence. What we have today as the New Testament is exactly what was written two millennia ago by the original apostolic Church.

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