Saturday, May 5, 2018

Movie Review: Fragments of Truthiness

If you’re looking for a high-quality video presentation of some of the most important early Greek manuscripts known to exist, Fragments of Truth is worth watching.  Fred Sprinkle, the graphics-designer responsible for the excellent visuals which appear throughout the 75-minute movie, has done superb work.   Directed by Reuben Evans of FaithlifeFragments of Truth introduces viewers to Papyrus 45Papyrus 66Papyrus 19Papyrus 64 and 67 (the Magdalen Papyri), Codex VaticanusPapyrus 75Codex Bezae, and Papyrus 52

Minuscule Greek manuscripts never appear onscreen, so viewers are not given a glimpse at what most Greek New Testament manuscripts look like.  Instead, the focus is upon fragmentary papyri which were found in Egypt, beginning with excavations at a site at Oxyrhynchus by Grenfell and Hunt in 1897 (which is briefly re-enacted).  In the course of brief interviews with librarians, professors, and curators, viewers may learn how papyrus was transformed from plant-fiber into paper-like writing-material, and how specialists undertake the task of discerning the production-dates of manuscripts.  Within the first 15 minutes, viewers will have met scholars such as Dan WallaceLarry HurtadoJ. K. Elliott, and David Trobisch.  

Unfortunately, throughout this tour of early Christian documents and the institutions where they are kept, Dr. Craig Evans of Houston Baptist University provides rosy comments designed to support his pet theories.  (More about that later.)  The narration (provided by John Rhys-Davis, who also narrated KJB: The Book That Changed the World) is far more objective.  Also, a flatly wrong description of the relationship between Constantine and the early canon of the New Testament is provided by Dr. Michael Heiser.  If there were a way to turn the tinted comments of Evans and Heiser into more focused assessments of the evidence, Fragments of Truth would be a highly commendable resource. 
          Documentaries should get things right.  Here are some things which this movie either got wrong, or else presented in a very unfair way, leaving out details which would very likely have had a strong impact on viewers’ impressions if they had been mentioned.

● Is Papyrus 19 Related to the Medieval Shem-Tob?  Dr. Evans pointed out that in Papyrus 19, there is an omission in Matthew 10:37-38 that is shared by a medieval Hebrew text known as Shem-Tob.  Evans used this as support for the idea that some books of the New Testament were written in Hebrew or Aramaic as well as in Greek.  However, all that we have here is an example of two unrelated copyists making the same mistake at the same point in the text.  The Greek words ἔστιν μου ἄξιος (“is worthy of Me”) appear in verses 37-38 three times.  What has happened is that somewhere in the transmission-lines of both these witnesses, a copyist lost his line of sight and skipped from the first appearance of the phrase to the third one.   

● Are Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 “Ringers”?  Dr. Evans stated that these two passages “don’t appear in the earliest manuscripts.”  This is technically true, but the entire chapter of Mark 16 does not appear in any of the papyri that are featured in Fragments of Truth.  Codex Bezae, which is featured, includes Mark 16:9-15; the rest of the passage is lacking due to damage (although a repairer has provided his Greek and Latin text of the whole passage).  Codex Bezae contains John 7:53-8:11, too – in Greek, and in Latin, which is particularly significant if one believes Evans’ claim that the Latin text in Codex D comes from the 200s.  Only one featured manuscript (Codex Vaticanus) contains Mark 16 and ends the text at the end of verse 8, but it also proceeds to leave a special blank space that is large enough to include the absent passage – a blank space that includes the only fully blank column in the entire New Testament in Codex Vaticanus.  (Only two ancient Greek manuscripts – the other one being Codex Sinaiticus – end Mark’s text at 16:8 followed by the closing-title of the book; only one medieval Greek manuscript (out of over 1,600) similarly ends the text at 16:8.)  
          But the most problematic aspect of Evans’ treatment of these two passages is what he does not say:  he fails to mention the evidence from patristic authors such as Justin MartyrTatian, and Irenaeus that supports the genuineness of Mark 16:9-20.  Irenaeus, around the year 180 (over 150 years before Codex Vaticanus was made), specifically quoted Mark 16:19 in Book Three of his composition Against Heresies.  Yet Evans mentioned none of this evidence.
            Why not?  He certainly knows about Irenaeus’ quotation of Mark 16:19, because the quotation is mentioned in Nicholas Lunn’s 2014 book, The Original Ending of Mark:  A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20.  Evans wrote a stunning comment which appears on the back cover of Lunn’s book; the first part of Evans’ comment runs as follows:  “Nicholas Lunn has thoroughly shaken my views concerning the ending of the Gospel of Mark.  As in the case of most gospel scholars, I have for my whole career held that Mark 16:9-20, the so-called ‘Long Ending,’ was not original.  But in his well-researched and carefully argued book, Lunn succeeds in showing just how flimsy that position really is.  The evidence for the early existence of this ending, if not for its originality, is extensive and quite credible.”
            Yet barely four years after writing that, Dr. Evans looked into the camera and told viewers of Fragments of Truth, “There are only two passages of any length where there is any doubt.  But there is no doubt, because the manuscript evidence is so substantial and so early, we can identify them as ringers; they don’t really belong in the text.”
            Dr. Evans and Dr. Evans should get together some time and sort this out.  (I commend to them my defense of Mark 16:9-20 – Authentic:  The Case for Mark 16:9-20 – and my defense of the story about the adulteress – A Fresh Analysis of John 7:53-8:11.) 

● Are There Only Four or Five Important Textual Variants?  Dr. Evans is not doing his audience a favor when he gives them the impression that aside from those two 12-verse passages, there are only two or three other passages where there are significant differences in the manuscripts.  A mere glance at Bruce Terry’s online A Student’s Guide to New Testament Textual Variants should mercifully kill any such notion. 
Dr. Craig Evans repeatedly suggested that
the original New Testament documents
survived for centuries outside Egypt.

● Did Bruce Metzger Claim That There Are Only 40 Lines of Text in the New Testament About Which There Is Any Doubt At All?  About halfway through Fragments of Truth, Dr. Evans makes another inexplicable claim:  “Text-critic great Bruce Metzger remarked that there were only 40 lines out of 20,000, where there was any doubt at all about how it should originally read.”  Preposterous.
  If Dr. Evans can demonstrate that Bruce Metzger ever wrote those words, I will eat asparagus.  Anyone with the late Dr. Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament can verify that the compilers of the UBS Greek New Testament expressed doubt regarding hundreds of textual variants.  (This is stated in the Introduction to the UBS Greek New Testament, second edition, page xi.:  “B” indicates some degree of doubt, “C” indicates a considerable degree of doubt, and “D” indicates a very high degree of doubt.)
● Did Constantine Instruct the Bishops at Nicea to Establish the New Testament Canon?  Dr. Evans is not the only scholar who makes misleading statements in Fragments of Truth.  Dr. Michael Heiser, in the process of refuting the myth that Constantine the Great decided which books should be in the New Testament, made a myth of his own:  the notion that Constantine “forced the issue” at the Council of Nicea (in 325), telling the bishops there to decide which books should be considered authoritative by Christians.  Heiser stated:   
“He [i.e., Constantine] wanted the church to make a decision.  And he sort of forced their hand.   What he asked for at Nicea was 50 copies of the New Testament.  He wanted them produced by a certain time, so they could be distributed throughout the empire.”
In real life, Constantine made no such request at the Council of Nicea.  In an entirely different context, Constantine wrote a letter to Eusebius of Caesarea (who attended the Council of Nicea along with Constantine, precluding the need for a letter if that had been the occasion for the request) instructing him to make 50 Bibles.  In the letter, which Eusebius preserved in his composition Life of Constantine, Book Four, chapter 36, Constantine told Eusebius that these Bibles were for the congregations in the city of Constantinople (not “throughout the empire”).   
Contrary to Heiser’s claims in Fragments of TruthConstantine did not “force this issue on the leadership of the church.”  Nor did Eusebius establish a “minimalist canon,” for in his composition Ecclesiastical History, Book Three, chapter 25, Eusebius listed the four Gospels, Acts, the Pauline Epistles, First John, First Peter, and then – “if it really seems proper” – Revelation as the books with a high level of acceptance.  Eusebius listed “among the disputed writings” the Epistle of James, the Epistle of Jude, Second Peter, and Second and Third John.  And, when listing rejected books, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas, Eusebius mentioned that some people rejected Revelation, although others accept it.  Clearly Eusebius did not consider his production of 50 Bibles for the congregations of Constantinople as a definitive resolution of the question about which books were canonical.    

● Is There Evidence That the Autographs of the New Testament Books Lasted for Centuries?  Besides featuring the problematic statements just described, Fragments of Truth is thoroughly peppered with Evans’ theory about the longevity of the autographs (i.e., the original documents) of the books of the New Testament.  This aspect of the movie is, it seems, the “groundbreaking new evidence” that theater-goers were led to expect.  Basically, Evans noticed evidence from the excavations at Oxyrhynchus that implied that some documents that were produced in the 100s and 200s were not discarded until the 300s and 400s, implying that some of those documents may have lasted two or three centuries before being discarded.  If the original documents of the books of the New Testament lasted just as long, that would mean that the autographs were still in existence when copies such as P45, P66, P64/67, and P75 were produced. 
However, it’s just not that simple, and here’s why:  Egypt’s dry conditions, as Evans pointed out near the beginning of the movie, “made it the perfect place for manuscripts to be preserved in the sand for hundreds of years.”  Egypt’s dry, low-humidity climate did not exist in the locations where the autographs of the New Testament books were produced; nor did it exist in the locations where the Epistles were sent.        
          It is as if someone were to say, “If the dry Egyptian climate existed in the locations where the autographs were, then the autographs would last 200 years.”  The conclusion is a conclusion about a make-believe world, since Egypt’s dry climate did not exist where the autographs were.  Yet this does not stop Evans from repeatedly using this line of reasoning as the basis for an apologetic defense of the accuracy of the text of the New Testament Scriptures.    
          Similarly, Evans recruited the longevity of Codex Bezae and Codex Vaticanus (which, despite being damaged, have mostly survived to the present day) into his argument, but this is like saying, “If parchment and papyrus are equally durable, then we have evidence that the autographs lasted a long time.”  This is, again, a make-believe scenario.
          Evans offered, as evidence for the position that “the Bible we have now is the same as the Bible when it was originally produced long ago,” the possibility that the original documents of New Testament books were in existence when P45, P66, P75, and other fragments were produced – and that there was “continuity” between those fragments and the production of codices such as Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. 
          It would have been helpful – to viewers, not to Evans’ theory – if Fragments of Truth had taken a minute or two to examine the differences in the papyri at points where they share the same parts of the New Testament text.  Larry Hurtado, had he been asked, could have helpfully explained that Papyrus 45’s text of Mark is quite unlike the text of Mark in Codex Vaticanus – which implies that the kind of continuity that Evans encourages viewers to believe in does not exist – at least, not between P45 and Codex Vaticanus. 
Rather than suggesting a simple line of descent from the autographs to these specific papyri to these specific parchment codices, the textual evidence implies that copyists in different locales undertook in different ways to render the meaning of the original text, without uniformly and invariably prioritizing the form of the text, which one would think would be prioritized if the autographs were readily available.  In other words, the degree of variation in the manuscripts (including most of the manuscripts presented in Fragments of Truth) weighs in against Evans’ picture of copyists using the autographs in the late 100s and early 200s.    
          At the risk of diverging from the movie, I will provide an example of textual variations that weigh in against the idea that any copyists of the extant manuscripts of the seventh chapter of the Gospel of John possessed the autograph.  In John 7:31-44, P66 and P75 disagree 21 times.  In the same passage, P66 and Codex Vaticanus disagree 27 times, and P75 and Codex Vaticanus disagree 14 times.  I invite Dr. Evans to explain how this is possible in a world where the copyist of P66 or P75 used the autograph, and the copyist of Codex Vaticanus used P66 or P75.  Close continuity can be imagined, but it is not exhibited in these manuscripts.  The closest relationship among them is between P75 and Vaticanus, and even there we observe not only small differences (such as πέμψοντά versus  πέμψαντά in v. 33 and ζητήσατέ versus ζητήσετέ in v. 34) but also the appearance in Codex Vaticanus of εκει at the end of  v. 34, and the appearance in Codex Vaticanus of δεδεμένον in v. 39.
          More could be said about this, but let’s get back to the movie.  There are a few more statements made in Fragments of Truth that need qualification, such as when Dr. Evans describes Codex Vaticanus as if it contains the entire New Testament.  A larger problem, though, may be that this movie’s focus on papyri does not give viewers a clear look at how the Greek base-texts of their New Testaments were made.  Papyrus fragments are fascinating, but viewers should consider what Dr. Dan Wallace affirmed in 2012:  “In the last 130 years, there’s not been a single manuscript discovered that has a new reading, that scholars have said, ‘Ah, that’s the original, and no other manuscript has it.’” 
          The Greek base-texts of English versions of the New Testament such as the NIV, ESB, CSB, NLT, and NRSV are descended from a compilation that was published by two British scholars, Westcott and Hort, in 1881.  The Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (27th edition) diverges from their 1881 compilation at only 661 places – not counting places where the editors of one compilation or the other placed the text in brackets, basically making a non-decision.  Before Grenfell and Hunt ever touched a New Testament papyrus, over 85% of the decisions to depart from readings found in the majority of manuscripts, in favor of readings found in a relatively small number of early manuscripts (especially Vaticanus and Sinaiticus), had already been made.  We should not lose sight of this.      
          In conclusion, although Fragments of Truth features an impressive tour of early manuscripts (including, toward the end, Papyrus 52, which many scholars consider the earliest New Testament manuscript in existence), the tour-guide’s frequent promotion of a flawed theory tends to weaken rather than strengthen its usefulness for apologetics.  While it is commendable to teach our fellow Christians that their accurately translated New Testaments teach what the original text of the New Testament taught, this should not be done by misrepresenting the evidence.  This movie is likely to induce the spread of a lot of misinformation if its shortcomings go uncorrected before it is released for wider distribution on DVD.  

(Note:  the theatrical presentation had a long epilogue, in which miscellaneous subjects were addressed.  I have not covered that in this review.) 

Other reviews of Fragments of Truth – mostly favorable – are online:
Peter Gurry’s review at Evangelical Textual Criticism

I have left some things unmentioned, such as a couple of scholars’ comments on the late dating of Papyrus 66 proposed by Dr. Brent Nongbri (who, being in Australia, was not in the movie, which visited manuscripts in Europe).  I may reserve a future post for smaller concerns.

1 comment:

Peter Gurry said...

Thanks, James. I didn't say much about Mark 16 and John 8 in my review because I didn’t want to steal your thunder. ;)

It seems there is a consensus developing: great visuals less great info on TC and manuscripts.