Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tainted Transmission?

Here's the assertion made by Richard Dawkins (in chapter 3 of The God Delusion) with which we dealt this morning in our Adult Education class (which meets at 8:15 in Theater #1) at Antioch...
All [the gospels] were copied and recopied, through many different 'Chinese Whispers generations' by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas.
As is characteristic of Dawkins' entire book, he doesn't even attempt to support this assertion, or even to clarify what it is he's charging. Nonetheless, what he seems to want to convince his readers of is the idea that the copies of the gospels that are available to us are so tainted in the transmission that we have no idea what the originals--what is known as the autographs--really said. And Dawkins attributes the alleged great difference between the autographs and the copies to fallible scribes and religious agendas.

It is true that none of the autographs of the New Testament books have survived to today. This is not surprising. The papyri (or even parchments) on which they would have been written could not be expected to last long, especially as these particular texts would have been passed around and read with great regularity. The fact is that we don't have the autograph of any such ancient text, biblical or otherwise.

So, the issue with regard to the reliability of any ancient document is not whether or not we have the autographs. The questions are 'How many copies do we have?' and 'How close are they to the date of the original?' So how do the books of the New testament compare (on these criteria) with other ancient manuscripts accepted as reliable?

Caesar wrote Gallic Wars between 100-44 B.C. Ten copies exist today, with the earliest dating to A.D. 900, about 1,000 years after the original.

The Athenian general Thucydides wrote his History of the series of wars between Athens and Sparta between 460 and 400 B.C. There are only 8 extant manuscripts, the earliest dating to A.D. 900, 1,300 years after the autograph.

Tacitus wrote his Annals in about A.D. 100 (at about the same time as the last NT book). Twenty copies have survived to today, with the earliest coming from A.D. 1100, 1,000 years after the autograph.

The New Testament books were written between A.D. 50 and A.D. 100. An astounding 5,366 copies (in the Greek) survive to today. The earliest (a fragment) dates to A.D. 125; whole books are found as early as A.D. 200; most of the New Testament is represented in copies from A.D. 250, and copies containing the entire new Testament date to A.D. 325, only 225 years after the last autograph! The conclusion of scholars in this field is expressed by F.F. Bruce...
There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.
Dawkins' charge that the gospel accounts are the result of tainted transmission is--like so many of his bald assertions--easily refuted by appealing to the actual evidence.

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