September 28, 2009
Answering “Who Cares” on Biblical Reliability, Authenticity, and Veracity
In the comments section, “Who Cares” raises a number of issues related to the basic notion of whether we can “trust” the Bible. I think it’s worth unpacking some of those assumptions:
But, just touching on your point a) About the no agreement on any singular form of the bible. I mean, first, many people have many translations of works of Shakespeare, the Odyssey and the Iliad, and any non-english originated text we have, and the translations of those text into english, or some other language. And you assume we cannot agree on any of those text?
Here, “Who Cares” is eliding together three common atheist arguments that are, in fact, logically distinct. The first is the question of reliability; that is, how confident are we that what appears in our Bibles is a reliable transmission of what appeared in the original manuscripts. If the Gospel According to Mark we use today differs materially from the earliest circulating Gospel of Mark, for example, we would have questions about the reliability of our copy of Mark.
The second is the question of authenticity; that is, how confident are we that the works of the Bible authentically record what they claim to record. If “Luke” didn’t write Luke; if “John” didn’t write John, then even if we have a reliable copy of those manuscripts, we don’t have an authentic copy of what Luke and John actually said.
Finally, even if we have reliable and authentic manuscripts, the argument runs aground if the manuscripts themselves are not inherently truthful. For example, we absolutely have a 100% accurate copy of the original of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. I think we have a 100% accurate copy of Mary Baker Eddy’s Science And Health, With Key To The Scriptures. We know that Hubbard wrote Dianetics, and we know that the manuscript we have matches Hubbard’s exactly. Our copy of Dianetics is therefore both reliable and accurate – it’s just that the content is complete nonsense. Thus, reliability and authenticity do not guarantee veracity — something I think many Christians fail to understand when witnessing to atheists.
But let’s take a step back and ask whether we have reasons to believe that our copy of the Bible is either reliable or authentic.
1. Reliability. This is a harder question than most Christians realize, because most of the Old Testament began life not as books or letters but as stories carried on through oral tradition, with the official recordation occurring more than a thousand years after those stories first appeared!
But let’s leave aside the thorny question of the Old Testament, and talk only about the reliability of the New Testament. Currently, there are thousands of Greek and Latin manuscripts that contain all or part of the NT (as well as other books that are no longer considered canonical). Most of these date to within the last thousand years, although the Codex Siniaticus dates to the 4th century.
None of these manuscripts are identical; each is different from every other manuscript. For a full explanation of this, I would recommend Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, which you can get for 10 bucks on Amazon. If you want to skip to the end (and save $10), the punchline is that there are literally hundreds of thousands of discrepancies between the extant New Testament manuscripts, many of which do not affect fundamental doctrine, but some of which do (e.g., Mark 16:9-20).
So the bottom line is that the Bible you have in your hands is not comprised of the same works as were circulating in first and second century AD. As Ehrman notes, this is not particularly a big deal for the majority of Christians, but it is particularly devastating for the tiny group of vocal fundamentalists who claim that the Bible is literally true and entirely without error. To the contrary; errors obviously abound in that no two extant manuscripts are the same.
2. Authenticity. Most Christian scholars of the Bible concede that the Bible is not authentic; that is, that Moses did not actually write the Pentateuch, Mark did not write Mark, John did not write John, Paul did not write several of the Pauline epistles attributed to him, and so on. Here’s a neutral article from Wikipedia listing the consensus of scholarly opinion. Some skeptics go considerably further; for example, Robert M. Price has argued that parts of 1 Corinthians were not written by Paul but were in fact a post-Pauline interpolation.
3. Veracity. Here, what I would recommend is to do what Bart Ehrman does in Jesus Interrupted (which, sadly, is $17 – but worth every penny) and read the Gospels horizontally. That is, read a passage in Mark – and then stop, and read the same events in Matthew, in Luke, and in John.
A great place to start with this sort of horizontal reading are the resurrection accounts. As far as I know, there are six versions of the resurrection story in the Bible — Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20-21, Acts 1:1-12, and finally 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.
If you read these (and other Bible stories) horizontally, you’ll notice that the discrepancies among the various accounts tend to suggest storytelling rather than history. Matthew’s account of one angel (Matt. 28:2-7) and Luke’s account of two men (Luke 24:4) are subtly, but distinctly different from John’s account of two angels (John 20:12). Those kinds of details aren’t really significant from a doctrinal perspective, but they do suggest to us that the Gospels aren’t literally inerrant.
Similarly, Ehrman points out that the well-known story of Jesus cleansing the temple and driving out the money-changers occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ preaching if you believe Mark 11, but at the end if you read John 2. This discrepancy is so obvious that you wind up with apologists who suggest that Jesus actually cleansed the temple twice!
Put it all together, and even if the second century Christians were reading the same stories you and I are reading, I conclude that those underlying stories cannot possibly have been intended to be taken literally. They’re just not true.