The work of New Testament textual criticism is broadly a work of abduction centered on the particular evidence known the New Testament manuscript tradition. Put another way, NT textual criticism seeks to arrive at an inference to the best explanation by examining the textual evidence.
One gapping hole in their evidential argument is the fact that they don’t have the originals. Nor do they have the copies of the originals nor do they have the copies of the copies. Some would say that we don’t even have the copies of the copies of the copies of the original. Rather, we have at best credit card sized scraps of copies of copies of copies and a few mostly complete papyri. From an evidential standpoint this is a significant and currently insurmountable issue. This issue is so insurmountable that many prominent NT textual critics have left of the quest for the original and have begun a quest for the “initial text” which in most cases does not mean “original”.
In his book, Can We Trust the Gospels, Peter J. Williams attempts to put his reader’s mind to rest given this absence of ancient evidence. According to the book cover, Williams is “the principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge, one of the world’s leading institutes for biblical research. Previously a senior lecturer in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, he is the chair of the International Greek New Testament Project and a member of the ESV Translation Oversight Committee.” A truly accomplished scholar and worthy of professional respect, though questions remain outstanding given his answer below.
In making this attempt to put he readers at ease he offers four responses to the question, Could the Text [of Scripture] Have Been Changed Early On? Here Williams does not invoke providential preservation or divine oversight of God’s words and God’s people. Rather, he offers distinctively evidential answers which by our lights do not withstand even minimal scrutiny.
First, to set the stage. Bart Ehrman writes regarding the state of the manuscript evidence,
“Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later – much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later.”Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 10.
And this is not merely the opinion of Ehrman. On this point, Wallace concurs when he writes,
“the vast majority of NT MSS are over a millennium removed from the autographs.”Wallace, Inerrancy and the Text, sec. 2.
In sum, “in most instances” and “the vast majority of” NT manuscripts are copies which are many centuries or over a thousand years after the writing of the originals. The total number of very old manuscripts which are not mere scraps is actually very small in comparison with the total number of NT manuscripts. With this understanding let us now look to Williams and see how he answers the question, Could the Text Have Been Changed Early On?
“First, remember that this book is not about proving that the Gospels are true but about demonstrating that they can be rationally trusted.”Williams, Can We Trust, 120.
Unfortunately, William’s first argument is fraught with trouble. First, it is unclear what Williams means by “the Gospels are true.” Does he mean with regard to their content, “What the Gospels teach is true” or does he mean the Gospels are truly the Gospels of the first century. I tend to think it is the latter and if it is then Williams has allowed via inference that we very well may not have the Gospels of the first century, but by his lights they can nevertheless be trusted.
Regarding what he means by “rationally trusted” his troubles continue. At the first page of the introduction Williams writes concerning today’s common understanding of faith,
“Faith is seen as a non-rational belief – something not based on evidence. However, that is not what faith originally meant for Christians. Coming from the Latin word fides, the word faith used to mean something closer to our word trust.”Williams, Can We Trust, 15.
Of course there are theologically obvious questions here which Williams seems to overlook. First, note that Williams equates non-rational belief with something not based on evidence by his use of a hyphen. And there is no indication here that Williams has in mind things like properly basic beliefs and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. I take it that Williams definition of evidence has something to do with the “objectively” measurable and testable kind of evidence. Except, the Bible is clear that faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.
Indeed, Christians originally took evidence to robustly include those things which were not seen, those things which are not “objectively” measurable and testable. Furthermore, faith is not mere trust, but is a divine gift imparted to the Christian alone. On this point, not only is Williams’ definition of faith absent necessary biblical support is also theologically bereft. Williams on this point is baffling to say the least.
William second argument to the question, “Could the Text Have Been Corrupted Early On?” is,
“Second, to prove that something has not changed would be to prove a negative. Proving negatives is often impossible.”Williams, Can We Trust, 120.
Williams is correct. Proving negatives is often impossible. That said, his formulation of the question is easily rephrased, and one wonders why it was not given Williams intellectual acumen. Williams could have simply phrased his statement in the positive. Instead of asking Williams to prove the Gospels have not changed; to satisfy this second argument one could simply ask Williams to prove the Gospels are the same, word for word, as those in the first century. The negative is gone and the thrust of the question remains the same. Again, I am baffled as to why Williams was not more thorough given the gravity of the question and the ease whereby the purported negative could be turned to a positive.
Williams third argument is perhaps his weakest. He writes,
“Third, it is possible to demonstrate that there is no good reason to think that the text has changed.”Williams, Can We Trust, 120.
Possibility is perhaps the weakest ground upon which to formulate a position. It it weaker than impossibility in that at least we are able to strike all scenarios which are not possible though we may not have a positive place upon which to predicate our own argument. Possibility is less in certainty than feasibility which is less than probability which is less then certitude which is less than certainty which is less than mathematical certainty which is less than metaphysical certainty. So of course Williams third argument is possible, but so is argument that aliens seeded Earth with life and the flew off.
Finally, we come to Williams fourth argument which is summed up as, if the present is any indication of the future then we shouldn’t expect any major changes. Which of course points in the wrong direction of his question. The question is, “Could the Text Have Been Changed Early On?” The past is what is in view not the future. Still, Williams writes,
“Fourth, based on the facts I have laid out above, we can see that there are good reasons to think it has not changed. That is, if past discoveries are any indication of future discoveries, and if what we currently know about scribes and manuscripts is any guide to what we will find out in the future, we do not expect to find evidence of significant change.”Williams, Can We Trust, 120.
Beside the fact that Williams’ answer is almost wholly future looking, he has not taken into account the fact that the vast majority of what we have in the NT textual tradition was copied over a thousand years from the original. In the end, he has failed to answer the most important and crucial element regarding the question, Could the Text Have Been Changed Early On?
We don’t have the originals. We don’t have the copies of the originals. We don’t have the copies of the copies of the originals. We don’t have the copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. And the vast majority of the copies we do have were copied over a thousand years from the writing of the originals.
None of Williams’ arguments overcome this evidential reality and seeing he does not employ an exegetical/theological solution, Williams seems compelled to conclude that the text of Scripture could have been changed early on, and that maybe Bart Ehrman is right. Christians are misquoting Jesus.