We agree with out opponents that the New Testament has far more manuscripts and far more complete manuscripts attesting to it than any other book of antiquity. We are told that it is an “embarrassment of riches.” The conclusion our interlocutors often draw from this truth looks something like, “If we trust that we have the works of Socrates or Homer even though we only have a few relatively later copies, then we should trust that we have the works of the New Testament seeing we have relatively more and earlier copies of the NT.” Put negatively, our opponents often opine, “If the number of manuscripts we currently have for the NT aren’t enough to believe that we have the actual words of the NT, then certainly the relatively fewer manuscripts we have of the works of antiquity aren’t enough to believe we have the actual words of Socrates, Homer, Hesiod, and Sophocles.”
At first it may appear that this is a potent argument, especially the negative form, in defense of the New Testament. But in the end, it really is not. It is true that Greek antiquity scholars speak of having the Iliad written by Homer or the plays of Sophocles, but when you read the scholarly literature on these sources few if any scholars are willing to conclude that they have the actual original of Homer.
Perhaps the clearest example of this is found in the works of Socrates and the literature based on such works. There are no surviving works written at the hand of Socrates. All the written material we have of Socrates was written by Plato. To this day there remains significant debate about what words of Socrates in Plato’s works are actually Socrates’ words. Some are thought to be Socrates’ actual words and some are thought to be Plato’s paraphrase of Socrates’ words and yet some others are thought to be wholly Plato’s words in Socrates’ name. And at each of these points there is dispute as to whether such is the case. In the end, no one really knows if the Socratic Dialogues are actually by Socrates, but that does not keep students of ancient philosophy from identifying the Socratic Method or attributing to Socrates the quote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Even in learning elementary logic it is assumed that we know Socrates:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
The point is that modern scholarship has little qualms about claiming we have the words of Socrates while simultaneously admitting that we are not sure the words we do have are indeed the words of Socrates. So to besmirch the validity of the NT manuscript tradition does nothing against the validity of the case of whether or not words X, Y, and Z are indeed Socrates’ words. Modern scholars already admit that they may not be his words, and that is ok for them. They simply assert that we have is good enough. Now the modern evangelical text-critic is in a bind because their bluff has been called. It is admitted that we very well may not have the original words of Socrates. Now, will the NT scholar admit that we very well may not have the original words of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians? No, but with the rise of the ECM and the abandonment of the search for the original by many text-critical scholars, NT textual criticism is starting to come into line with the boarder scholarship concerned with ancient texts.
Put simply, if modern evangelical text-critic thinks he can build a case for the reliability of the NT text based on the fact that Plato experts think they read the actual words of Socrates in Plato, then that house of cards is doomed to fall, and to fall fantastically. Why? Because Plato experts admit from the start that words X, Y, and Z may not be the words of Socrates. It would only be natural then for the Plato expert to enjoin upon the NT text-critic to admit the same about his NT.
In the end, the number of NT manuscripts is only an “embarrassment of riches” when compared to a standard that is already held in low degree [i.e., whether the Socrates’ words are actually his]. Put more vividly, there are about 250 surviving manuscripts of Plato’s Dialogues. And we are not sure if any of the words contained therein are indeed the words of Socrates. We have approximately 6,000 manuscripts of the NT. If we turn manuscripts into YouTube views, then Plato has 250 views and the NT has about 6,000 views. When compared, the NT has 20 times more views than Plato does. WOW, right!
Well, it is only “wow” because of the things compared. Here is a video of monkeys reacting to magic
Monkeys Reacting to Magic has over 82,000,000 views. Now all of a sudden 6,000 views isn’t WOW. What if there were 82,000,000 million total copies of the NT books? 6,000 manuscripts would barely registers on the scale. So much for an “embarrassment of riches.” What if there were a 1,000,000 or 500,000. If such were the case we would think ourselves poor for having lost so much. How many copies were their of Plato’s work? No one knows. How many copies of the NT books were there? No one knows. But in both cases it is fair to conclude that there were more than we currently have and probably many more than the ones we currently have.
In sum, we don’t know how many copies of the NT books ever existed and without a robust sense of inspiration and preservation and an understanding of the leading of the Spirit of God through the words of God to the people of God; we can never know whether our 6,000 manuscripts are representative of the vast trunk of the tree or representative of a weak and aberrant twig more suited to be cut off and cast into the fire than to be called Holy Scripture.