Thursday, July 21, 2016

Reliability Of New Testament Documents

Farrell Till comments on a response to his 1994 debate 
with Christian apologist Norman Geisler. From the 
Errancy discussion list, 10/8/95:

Someone has posted a response to my analysis of Geisler's first speech in the Columbus College debate on the resurrection. I can very easily respond to this posting. In the quotation below, the poster accused me of setting up a straw man:"This is a straw-man argument. The massive number of extant New Testament manuscripts (MSS) does not prove the accuracy of the content, nor is Geisler claiming that it does."

I was both a participant in the debate and one of the transcribers of the tapes. I think I understand what Geisler was arguing on this point, and he was either arguing that the "massive number of extant New Testament manuscripts" proves the accuracy of their content or else I can't understand plain language.

Let's just let Geisler's own transcript speak for itself. The third sentence that Geiser read from his opening speech said this: "First, the New Testament documents are historically reliable accounts." After making this assertion, he spent over two pages discussing the number of manuscripts in existence, the "early" dates of the manuscripts, and the accuracy with which the originals were copied.

This brought him to the second division of his first speech, which he began with this statement: "In brief, there is nothing like this kind of evidence for any other historical event from the ancient world. *Now, if the New Testament documents are reliable,* it remains only to show that they affirm that Jesus died and rose from the dead a few days later."

Notice the conclusion that Geisler obviously reached from the three points he had just made. He argued that (1) MSS of the New Testament are more numerous than any other ancient documents, (2) these manuscripts were copied within only a generation of the time of the events that they recorded, and (3) the manuscripts were accurate copies of the originals. Then he *immediately* concluded that "if the New Testament documents are reliable, it remains only to show that they affirm that Jesus died and rose from the dead a few days later."

Now if this does not mean that Geisler sees that the number of NT manuscripts has a direct bearing on the historical accuracy of the claims recorded in the NT, I simply can't understand plain language. I would like to hear from the person who posted this "reply" and see him show what is wrong with the interpretation that I have drawn from Geisler's own statements.

I think my response to Briggs demonstrated that the number of extant NT MSS has nothing to do with whether the content in them is historically accurate.

Furthermore, my response to Briggs asked for proof of why the dates of the manuscripts would have anything to do with their historical accuracy. I said in this response that even if we had the very original autographs themselves that would constitute no proof at all that their content was historically accurate. Since any writer of an original document can make mistakes or deliberately falsify information, the historical accuracy of the document must be decided by other means. That is true of the NT documents too. My response to Briggs also pointed out that accuracy in copying the originals constitutes no proof at all of historical accuracy. Even if we knew positively that all copies of the original MSS had been copied with 100% accuracy that would prove absolutely nothing about the historical accuracy of the MSS.


The poster of the reply stated that I did not prove that any of the 30,000 variations in the NT MSS have any significant effect on doctrine. In the first place, I don't have to prove this, because, as I have repeatedly noted, even if there were no variations *at all* in *any* of these manuscripts, that would not prove historical accuracy. I did attempt to show how that a variation in the gospel of Mark [the absence of the Marcan Appendix in some manuscripts] would have a very significant effect on the doctrine of baptism as taught in the Chruch of Christ, and somehow this was interpreted as a desire to discredit the Church of Christ rather than refute the claim that the variations have had no effect on Christian doctrine. Several on the list have been debating the meaning of the word "Christian," and the best that I can tell, no agreement has yet been reached. 

Doctrinal disputes and controversies are so widespread in Christianity that there will always be some group who would say that variation X (no matter what it might be) has no effect on its doctrines. The fact that 30,000 variations exist in the NT documents is enough to discredit the claim that the MSS were copied with 99.9% accuracy. The fact that even 100% accuracy would prove nothing about historical reliability makes this argument a non sequitur if not the real straw man in this debate.

Whoever posted the reply to my analysis should take notice of the fact that several Christians on the list have tried to pull this same argument about the number of NT MSS on us, and it has been shot down enough that anyone should be able to see that neither I nor anyone else on the list is setting up straw men when we point out that the argument is totally without merit.

"I think you have misunderstood Geisler's purpose. Unless you can produce a quotation of Geisler saying that 'the number of New Testament manuscripts proves that the content of the New Testament is accurate', I think your complaints are groundless."

I have not produced a statement from Geisler in those exact words, but the quotation that I cited above from his speech clearly shows that this is what he meant. When he spoke at length about the number of manuscripts, the dates they were copied, and the accuracy with which they were copied, AND THEN SAID, "Now if the New Testament documents are reliable, it remains only to show that they affirm that Jesus died and rose from the dead a few days later," if he didn't mean to say that the number of manuscripts in existence had a direct bearing on their historical accuracy, then please tell us what he did mean.

All through Geisler's second speech (which he simply read from a previously prepared manuscript rather than trying to answer my counterarguments), he referred to how he had established the historical reliability of the NT documents, yet he said nothing to prove the historical accuracy of these documents except to talk about how many of them exist, when they were copied, and how accurately they were copied. So please explain why I am setting up a straw man when I say that Geisler argues that the number of NT manuscripts in existence somehow proves their historical accuracy. Someone is having a problem understanding what Geisler meant, and I don't think I'm the one with the problem.

Farrell Till

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