Saturday, November 25, 2017

Evidence That Demands a Rewrite

            Evidence That Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell, has been a major handbook for Christian apologetics ever since its initial release in 1972.  It was recently updated and expanded, with new material that encourages believers to ensure that their faith is intelligent, informed, and defensible, in keeping with the instructions given in First Peter 3:15 – “Be ready always to offer a defense to everyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” 
            Certainly this is a worthwhile task – and yet it was disconcerting to find, in a book that the author has had over 40 years to revise, numerous inaccuracies where text-critical subjects are involved.  I will focus here only upon the second and third chapters, the titles of which tell their subjects:  How We Got the Bible and Is the New Testament Historically Reliable?.  I will simply present selected statements, in the order in which they appear, and explain why they are problematic.  Some of the mistakes are minor; others are not so minor; all should be corrected.

● “The oldest papyrus fragment known dates back to 2400 B.C.” (p. 22) – This statement is somewhat obsolete, inasmuch as texts on papyrus from 2550 B.C. were discovered in 2013.

● In a section titled The Canon Classified, the writer states, “Early manuscripts organized the books differently as well as having a different number of books.  For example, Codex Sinaiticus’ organization first listed the Gospels, then Paul’s epistles, including Hebrews, Acts, and the General Epistles, and finally Revelation.” (p. 32)
            This should be reworded to account for the fact that the book of Revelation is not the final book in Codex Sinaiticus.  In Codex Sinaiticus, Revelation is followed by the non-canonical books Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas.

● In a section titled Examples of Catechetical Writings, the author lists “Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas (AD 70-79).” (p. 33)
            Those parameters for this text’s composition-date are too narrow; it should extend from AD 70 to about 120.

● In a section titled Number of MSS:  c. 5,856, the author lists how many Greek manuscripts we possess:  using data from January 2017 which, according to a footnote, reflects statistics in Dan Wallace’s forthcoming book Laying a Foundation:  A Handbook on New Testament Textual Criticism, these totals are as follows:  131 papyri, 323 majuscules (uncials), 2,937 minuscules, and 2,465 lectionaries, for a total of 5,856.  
            The consistent problem with the presentation of these figures is not that they are somewhat fluid; the author makes it clear that freshly discovered manuscripts are being added to the total, and that sometimes two separately cataloged manuscripts are found to be sections of what was, when produced, a single manuscript.  The problem is that the sheer quantity of materials is presented in Evidence That Demands a Verdict as if it is a guarantee of the accuracy and reliability of the text in those manuscripts.  
● In the course of describing versional evidence, in a section titled 6. Latin translations, the Vetus Latina Register is twice called the “Vestus” Latina on page 50. 

● In a section titled 7. Syriac, continuing to describe versional evidence, the author wrote, “Syriac Peshitta.  The basic meaning of peshitta is “simple.”  It was the standard version, produced around A.D. 150-250.  There are more than three hundred and fifty MSS from the fifth century extant.” (p. 50)
            The Peshitta was not produced around 150-250; the author provides a better description on the very next page which says, “The New Testament portion was probably written before AD 400.”  It is more accurate to picture the Peshitta’s initial development in the late 300’s, with further refinement and standardization in the 400’s (not unlike the development of the English New Testament from Tyndale’s 1526 work to the KJV in 1611). 
            It is flatly wrong to claim that there are more than 350 copies of the Peshitta from the fifth century.  There are a few copies of portions of New Testament in the Peshitta version that can be plausibly dated to the 400’s, and some can be dated to the 500’s (the most famous example being the Rabbula Gospels), but most of them are later than that.
            In addition, it should have been mentioned that in the Peshitta, the “New Testament” has only 22 books (without Second Peter, Second John, Third John, Jude, and Revelation), not the usual 27 books that most readers of Evidence That Demands a Verdict will picture when they read about the New Testament.      

● In the same section (7. Syriac), the author wrote, “Number of MSS:  350+.  Old Syriac:  Two MSS.  There are around sixty in the fifth and sixth centuries alone.” (p. 50)
            This is simply not true.  There are two important copies of the Old Syriac text of the Gospels:  the Sinaitic Syriac, and the Curetonian Syriac.  There are fewer than a dozen Syriac manuscripts that contain books of the New Testament and can be plausibly dated to the 400’s and 500’s.  In addition, they represent, in most cases, the Peshitta, not the Old Syriac.   

● In the same section (7. Syriac), the author wrote, “The earliest known translation of the Greek New Testament is in the Peshitta, the official Bible of the Syriac-speaking church. (Cairns, DTT, 330) The New Testament portion was probably written before AD 400, making it a significant witness to the original Greek text. (Cross and Livingstone, ODCC, 1268)” (p. 51)
            The Peshitta is not “the earliest known translation of the Greek New Testament,” inasmuch as Coptic, Old Latin, and Gothic versions were made before it.      

● In a section titled Visualizing the Number of Biblical Manuscripts, the author wrote, “A stack of extant manuscripts for the average classical writer would measure about four feet high; this just cannot compare to the more than one mile of New Testament manuscripts and two-and-a-half miles for the entire Bible. (Wallace, lecture at Discover the Evidence, Dec. 6, 2013)” (p. 53)
            Here, again, Evidence That Demands a Verdict presents the quantity of manuscripts as if the more manuscripts we have, the more verification we have of the accuracy of the text.  But even the source used for this quotation – Dan Wallace – has argued that when the vast majority of manuscripts disagree with the Alexandrian Text, they are almost always wrong.  He has even argued that all of the Greek manuscripts are erroneous, except one, in Mark 1:41.  In almost all cases where 85%-95% of the manuscripts support a Byzantine reading and thus disagree with the much smaller cluster of Greek manuscripts that support an Alexandrian reading, Wallace favors the Alexandrian reading.            
● In a section titled 3. The Diatessaron (c. AD 170), part of a section on “Important New Testament Manuscripts,” the author wrote, “This early harmony of the Gospels was published in Syria. It has significance as an early manuscript because the remaining copies, even though they are later translations from it, bear witness to the earliest gospels.” (p. 61)
            Something like that, but not quite.  The Diatessaron is, as described, a “harmony of the Gospels” – that is, it combines the contents of the four Gospels into one non-repeating narrative.  As such, it should be categorized among patristic works, not among manuscripts.  It is not extant in any Greek manuscripts; the small fragment 0212 was once thought to be a fragment of the Diatessaron but Mark Goodacre and others have argued persuasively against that identification. 

● In a section titled 6. Codex Sinaiticus (AD 350), in the course of describing some important manuscripts, the author reproduced Bruce Metzger’s summary of Constantine Tischendorf’s first encounter with pages from Codex Sinaiticus:  “While visiting the monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, he chanced to see some leaves of parchment in a waste-basket full of papers destined to light the oven of the monastery.” (p. 62)
            While that is the version of events claimed by Tischendorf, the monks of the monastery have persistently denied it. Tischendorf’s contemporary J. Rendel Harris considered the story impossible to take seriously.  The discovery, in 1975, of additional pages of Codex Sinaiticus in a previously sealed-off room, effectively shows that the monks were not in the habit of burning manuscript-pages, even damaged ones; but instead practices the ancient custom of retiring damaged materials to a genizah.  The chance that Tischendorf misconstrued what his hosts at the monastery were saying about the parchment pages in the basket, or that he made up the story as a pretext for its removal from the monastery, seems very high.

● In the section F. Important New Testament Manuscripts, there is a problem not of error but of brevity.  The descriptions of Codex Vaticanus, Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Bezae, and Codex Washingtonensis are excessively frugal; in addition, no minuscule manuscripts are described.  This somewhat collides with the first sentence of the following section:  “All told, the sheer number of New Testament manuscripts and the earliness of the extant manuscripts gives us great reason to believe that the New Testament accurately transmits the content of the autographs.” (p. 63) 
            In very many passages, the few early uncials that receive a modicum of attention on pages 62-63 support Alexandrian or Western readings (and in some cases, anomalous readings that correspond to no major manuscript-family), and thus disagree with a rival reading that is supported by the vast majority of manuscripts (typically over 85% but occasionally over 99%).  One could easily get the impression that the “sheer number” of manuscripts in favor or a particular variant ensures that it is genuine; however, it is practically an axiom among textual critics that manuscripts ought to be weighed rather than counted.     

● In a section titled Patristic Quotations from the New Testament, the author presents an often-repeated claim:  “Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” (p. 63) 
            This quotation is taken from Metzger & Ehrman’s The Text of the New Testament, but descends from a statement made long ago by Walter Buchanan which referred to the results of research conducted by David Dalrymple in the 1780’s – and it is not vindicated by the data collected by Dalrymple.  It is essentially a phantom claim which sounds reasonable but for which a verifiable foundation has not been built.  Now, if one were to extract quotations from patristic writers from the sub-apostolic age on into the 400’s, one probably could reconstruct every verse of the Gospels, either in Latin or in Greek or both.  But this is not the same as showing that the resultant reconstruction accurately represents the original text; after all, the textual apparatus of the UBS Greek New Testament routinely lists patristic writers whose quotations disagree with one other; sometimes even the same writer cites the same passage in two different ways, prioritizing its message rather than its exact form.                  

● In a section about early citations of the New Testament by the church fathers, under the heading j. Others, one finds the following statement on page 65:  “Other early church fathers who quoted from the New Testament include Barnabas (c. AD 70), Hernias (c. AD 95), Tatian (c. AD 170), and Irenaeus (c. AD 170).” 
            “Hernias” must be a reference to “Hermas,” that is, the composition known as the Shepherd of Hermas, which is usually assigned a composition date not around AD 70 but at least a few decades later.  (I suspect that a digital scanner is to thank for the creation of the writer Hernias.)  

● Also in the section titled j. Others, on page 65, the author writes, “To all of the above we could add the later church fathers: Augustine, Amabius, Laitantius, Chrysostom, Jerome, Gaius Romanus, Athanasius, Ambrose of Milan, Cyril of Alexandria, Ephraem the Syrian, Hilary of Poitiers, Gregory of Nyssa, and many others.”
            Instead of “Amabius” the reference should be to “Arnobius,” a writer who lived in Sicca, in Africa, southwest of Carthage, in the opening years of the 300’s.
            Instead of “Laitantius” the reference should be to “Lactantius,” who wrote only slightly later than Arnobius. (Again I suspect that a digital scanner is to blame.)

            It is not my intention to belittle the authors of Evidence That Demands a Verdict by pointing out these mistakes.  The book is huge, and as Proverbs 10:19 indicates, where there are many words, there are mistakes.  I encourage everyone to read it discerningly; eat the corn and leave the cob.  Fortunately corrections for future editions should be easy to make, and in the meantime, Sean McDowell’s blog is well situated to provide, as a courtesy to his readers, an errata-list.  I must say, though, that authors such as Darrell Bock, William Lane Craig, Craig Evans, Michael Licona, Lee Strobel, and Ravi Zacharias should have noticed these errors and encouraged the author to correct them, before writing their glowing endorsements of the book. 

[Readers are invited to look into the embedded links for additional resources and documentation.]



Daniel Buck said...

"This should be reworded to account for the fact that the book of Revelation is not the final book in Codex Sinaiticus. " --I'd have given him a pass on this one, except that he just pointed out that some mss have various #'s of books, which this one obviously does.

Unknown said...

Does the sinaiticus specifically identify Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas as non-canonical?

BallBounces said...

Thank you for this. I think "prioritizing its message rather than its exact form" is an important statement. One skeptic, thinking of manuscript issues, asked me which NT I believed in. I said, "the one where Jesus rises from the dead".

James Snapp Jr said...

DCCi Ministries,

<< Does the sinaiticus specifically identify Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas as non-canonical? >>

No. Eusebius of Caesarea's comments on the canon might shine some light on how the scribes of Sinaiticus saw the standing of Hermas and Barnabas, but there is nothing explicit about their views in the manuscript itself.