Wednesday, February 29, 2012

One Good Myth Deserves Another

A couple of readers have inquired about a blog entry, supported by questionable Muslim sources, that have alleged to have busted a myth about textual criticism and Biblical reliability. And so I'd say they do, actually – but they’re also perpetuating misinformation of their own.

The myth they bust is one that claims that if all NT manuscripts from ancient times were destroyed, we could reconstruct all but 11 verses of the NT from the Ante-Nicene church fathers alone. Note that there's two limitations here, in what I'll call Version A:

* all but 11 verses
* The Ante-Nicene Fathers

However, that's not what I always heard. What I have always read -- from scholars and the apologetics works I read -- is that it's more like Version B:


* practically the entire NT (no specific number of verses)

* the church fathers -- which includes Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene fathers

Unfortunately, it seems that some folks are thinking that Version A and B of this argument are the same -- and while these critics do a credible job of debunking Version A, Version B is quite solid -- and it's maintained by all the textual critics (from the range of Wallace to Ehrman) and by the worthwhile apologists I know (including Strobel, and I allude to the point in Trusting the New Testament as well).


So's who's actually using Version A? A Google search found a handful of non-entities advancing Version A, and the original blog entry has commenters giving anecdotal testimony saying that they heard "ministers" present it. A non-Christian thinks he heard Gary Habermas make the argument some years ago on a video, and later says he saw it in a book by Strobel or McDowell. Hmm, well -- I can believe McDowell used it. But it is definitely not in Strobel's Case for the Real Jesus -- that's got Version B.


The Islamic site lists several sources it claims reports Version A, but they are all low-level apologetics works, and out of the perhaps a couple of dozen listed, I have only ever read 1 or 2 of them – long ago. And I’m not really that interested in checking all of them. However, I did check two. One, a chapter by Jimmy Williams, does report a slight variation of Version A; however, it says 15-20 verses instead of 11, and the date range is also a bit post-Nicean (down to 450 AD). Another, by Greg Johnson and Michael Ross, does report Version A more or less the same as it is. But that’s still not Version B, which comes from the far more credible sources.


To make matters worse, even the blog entry author confuses the two versions -- saying that the myth is presented by Metzger and Ehrman in The Text of the New Testament. However, what Metzger and Ehrman offer is Version B, not Version A -- and oddly, the blog author essentially admits this, as he acknowledges that Metzger and Ehrman do not give a precise number of verses, and do not specify the range of the "church fathers" writings. Well, uh, then that's not the myth. It appears the Muslim site is just as confused, as it refers to the two versions of the argument as though they were the same, but calling Version B a “somewhat less dramatic tempered format.” It’s somewhat more complex than that – we’re talking about a difference of about 300 versus up to 1100-1200 years, and many more authors and preserved works.


The phrase "church fathers" seems, admittedly, used ambiguously at times. But more credible sources offer the threefold division I noted above, with Nicea as the fulcrum. If we include all of those authors in those three time periods, it would frankly be harder not to believe we would be able to reproduce nearly all of the NT from their works -- especially as this would include voluminous commentaries by authors like Jerome, and such theologians and Ambrose and Basil, and even a couple of popes and ecumenical councils. I don’t know how many verses would be unattested in that larger collection, but chances are it would be less than 100, statistically speaking (my rough estimate, given number of years, authors, and works).


My own anecdotal information indicates that atheists, too, are confusing Version A and B. So -- consider this fair warning to be on the lookout.

10 comments:

  1. I think one of the problems as you pointed out is that the word Church Father is very vague. Most people probably assume that when you say Church Father you mean someone in like the first 500 centuries. Also I don't think it's a particularly good argument anyhow. It proves little to nothing about whether or not we have close to the original wording of the text.

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  2. I imagine you're right. However, the solution is to do what I did and look up the phrase "Church Father". Apparently that's a little too much work for certain Islamic apologists, though.

    Re proving: True. I think the purpose of the argument is more to say we have confirmation than proof.

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  3. To prevent these kinds of confusions, I think we all should make more popular terms like "Apostolic Fathers", "Ante-Nicene Fathers", "Nicene Fathers" and "Post-Nicene Fathers".

    If it doesn't already exist, I'd recommend using a term like "Post-Nicene II Fathers/Post-Nicaea II Fathers/Post-2nd Nicene Fathers". Or maybe call those writers after 787 A.D. the "Church Uncles" (heh).

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    1. That'd be good, or else providing date ranges.

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    2. Ah, the fine print.

      I am probably the non-Christian you cite as citing Habermas and Strobel or McDowell.

      Case B or like cases are clearly unimpressive as an apologetic's defense. We can almost throw a stone from 1400 to the age of Luther. Regardless of whether we're technically talking Case A or Case B, it leaves an impression to the layman that before the Bible entered wide distribution it could be duplicated from the writings of CONTEMPORANEOUS church fathers.

      So I'm curious who and how far back you can push 5 randomly selected verses:

      35th verse of Mark 10
      25th verse of Acts 18
      51st verse of John 8
      5th verse of Revelations 20
      3rd verse of Matthew 11

      Live well,

      B. Andrew

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    3. @SO:

      >>>I am probably the non-Christian you cite as citing Habermas and Strobel or McDowell.

      Are you? Not that it matters. Anyone could say the same thing based on anecdote.

      <<>>it leaves an impression to the layman that before the Bible entered wide distribution it could be duplicated from the writings of CONTEMPORANEOUS church fathers.

      That's not an impression I get, but the pros are hardly responsible for the vain imaginations of uncritical readers, now, are they? Besides that, as noted, the problem is that "laymen" are ignorant of what "church fathers" means. The problem is not that of scholars like Wallace and Ehrman -- it's that of ignorant assumers.

      >>>So I'm curious who and how far back you can push 5 randomly selected verses:

      Beats me. Check the commentaries. Or write to Wallace or Ehrman and ask -- I understand they answer email. But it would be your burden to demonstrate a problem anyway, and I don't recall one for those offhand. BTW, there's no S at the end of Revelation. That's not a sign of a good education on your part.

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    4. you wrote:

      "Besides that, as noted, the problem is that "laymen" are ignorant of what "church fathers" means. The problem is not that of scholars like Wallace and Ehrman -- it's that of ignorant assumers."

      That's an awfully low duty of care for would be apologists and educators. Both pretend to have a solid case but a little examination and the claim is either a stretch of truth or irrelevant.

      Is 'beats me' in keeping with always being prepared to give a defense? I'm asking theologically of course.

      B. Andrew

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    5. "low duty of care"

      Yes it is. And it's a problem I've been making a huge issue of for many years now. Example:

      http://www.tektonics.org/gk/indictment.html

      "Is 'beats me' in keeping with always being prepared to give a defense?"

      No, it merely indicates that I am not going to be stupid enough (as those Muslim apologists are) to comment immediately on something I know nothing about. I have my specialties; minutiae of specific verses and their textual histories is not one of them. However, I was prepared enough to tell you where to look for answers, which should be more than sufficient for anyone not seeking to manufacture a problem. I might also suggest the textual apparatus tools (Nestle-Aland).

      Beyond that, as I said, if you want to find a problem, it would be your burden to prove there is one, not mine to go scurrying about chasing down every wild suggestion of a problem pulled out of thin air.

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  4. It's always surprising to me when pushed how lacking in substance most apologetics are.

    This case is no different. What you describe as Case B covertly includes such an expansive set of time and writers to raise it as proof of the accuracy of the Bible is laughable. Then to lay off on the hearer the assumption of underlying facts closer to case A is downright dishonest. Nor does a review of popular apologist's claims seem to point to your conclusion that most argue Case B or at least not clearly make that argument. And I would include Case for Jesus Christ in this deceptive set.

    I'm not looking to become skilled in Biblical commentaries; perhaps one of your readers will take up my five verses where you refuse. Even were I to come back with dates and names you would find one hole in my analysis, which I suspect would be present for most people, and discount the whole of my research.

    As to, ". . .if you want to find a problem, it would be your burden to prove there is one . . ."; its not my problem, its the Christian apologists' claim. A claim that appears to be without factual substance and a solution that does not solve the problem.

    As to your document title indictment, oh please, Christian Church, double down on education to counter secularism and counter-apolegetics. Nothing creates non-believers faster. Seems the Church has perfected a way to blow away the wheat and keep the chafe. Though I do understand your growing desperation.

    With that, I'm weary of this topic, please, have the last word.

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    1. >>>It's always surprising to me when pushed how lacking in substance most apologetics are.

      Spare me the drivel...there's ample substance; you're simply posturing out of frustration.

      >>>This case is no different. What you describe as Case B covertly includes such an expansive set of time and writers to raise it as proof of the accuracy of the Bible is laughable.

      It would be indeed, but that isn't what it is used as proof of. It is used as proof of the accuracy of textual transmission of the NT (not the whole Bible). And in that regard, it is rightly used within the canons of the practice of textual criticism.

      You may doubt that all you want, but as noted, you are not an expert in that field like those who do use that evidence -- and someone so ignorant as to attach an S to the end of the title of Revelation certainly isn't making himself credible as an authority on the subject.

      >>>Then to lay off on the hearer the assumption of underlying facts closer to case A is downright dishonest.

      Good thing no one I know does that, then.

      <<>>And I would include Case for Jesus Christ in this deceptive set.

      Then you would be grossly in error, not only because there is no such book title, but because Strobel clearly does not use it.

      >>>I'm not looking to become skilled in Biblical commentaries; perhaps one of your readers will take up my five verses where you refuse.

      I see. Too lazy to do your own homework, and then place the burden on others as an excuse for remaining a complainer.

      >>>and discount the whole of my research.

      I expect so, since it seems your efforts amount to scanning the back of cereal boxes.

      >>>As to, ". . .if you want to find a problem, it would be your burden to prove there is one . . ."; its not my problem, its the Christian apologists' claim.

      Yes, it is your problem. Our claim has substance, and the experts like Wallace and Ehrman stand behind it. That's an evangelical as well as an atheist. A small time whiner like you isn't going to be coddled with special treatment just because you can manufacture a problem out of imagination.

      >>> double down on education to counter secularism and counter-apolegetics. Nothing creates non-believers faster.

      Actually, what creates them much faster is the Dunning Effect.

      >>>With that, I'm weary of this topic, please, have the last word.

      I can understand why you'd want to run. Having to satisfy the burden of proof is probably far too difficult for you. I'm also sure you're far too busy reading Dan Brown's latest novel looking for something you can add to your scholarship. Good luck.

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