22 Thought Experiment on Bible Reliability: The Bible’s Dark Ages

Christian apologists argue that the gospel story is historically accurate. One part of that argument claims our modern copy of the New Testament is effectively identical to the original.

This claim fails, and a thought experiment will show why. Suppose I tell you I’m thinking of one specific verse in the New Testament. A few decades after the original manuscript was written, a copyist created a variant version that changed the meaning of the verse. It doesn’t matter how the error got there—maybe he misread the original or omitted something or tried to correct what he honestly thought was an error or tried to “improve” the text to make it align with what he believed. All that matters is that we have a fork in the road, after which point we have two versions—the original and the variant. Let’s further imagine that this is a significant change, not a spelling mistake or other trivial error.

Here’s the twist: one of these traditions is lost to history. I won’t tell you which one. This is almost surely true. (Indeed, how could you prove it wasn’t true that there had been two versions of some New Testament verse, the meaning was significantly different between the two versions, and one version was lost?)

Now I hand you a Bible and demand that you find the verse. Next, tell me if that verse is the variant or the original. Finally, if it’s the incorrect version, tell me the correct reading.

You’d say that’s an impossible challenge. Yes, it is, and that’s the point. For how many verses in the Bible is it true that there was a variant tradition, the change was significant, and one of the traditions (maybe the original or maybe the erroneous one—you can’t tell) has been lost? Zero verses? A thousand? We simply don’t know.

New Testament scholars do impressive work in weighing several variants and judging which one is most likely to be authentic. But what can they do when there were several variants, but history gives us copies of only one? They wouldn’t even know which verses to question.

The time between when Matthew was written and our best copies, averaging the gap chapter by chapter, is two hundred years. It’s a little less for Luke and John and a little more for Mark. How do we know those books made it through that obscure dark period without significant change? Keep in mind that the first Christians thought of the books of the New Testament as merely important works, not sacred scripture, and so they may have been comfortable “improving” them.

While we have plenty of examples of known New Testament errors, apologists will say there is no proof of unknown errors. That’s obviously true, and the modern New Testament could be identical to the original, but that’s very unlikely. The evidence is not there, and apologists are left with just “Our Bible might be an accurate copy of the original.” This is a meager foundation on which to support supernatural claims.

Continue to chapter 23.

Image credit: Casey Fleser (CC BY 2.0) via flickr

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