My conservative opponents sometimes press the fact that we are well informed about the text of the New Testament in a ridiculous way – ridiculous possibly because they simply don’t know any better. They point out that with all this evidence for the New Testament, if I (crazy liberal that I am) don’t think we can know exactly what the authors of the NT wrote (in places) then I’d have to say the same thing about Plato, or Homer, or Cicero, or … or any other author!
Their view is that any such claim would be on the face of it completely bizarre and that this is why, in their view, no one says any such thing. Which shows that they simply don’t know what they’re talking about.
Most of my conservative opponents were trained in theological seminaries and teach in conservative evangelical settings, not in research universities, and their academic ties tend to be with scholars who work in theological fields: church history, systematic theology, and the like. They don’t work in a secular setting where the natural ties are more in the fields of classics and ancient history. Anyone who says that scholars don’t have any questions about what Plato, Homer, Cicero, or any other author actually (which words they used) is simply ignorant.
I don’t mean that they are being willfully stupid; I just mean they (apparently) just don’t know any better. Reconstructing the words of any ancient author is massively complicated, given their problematic textual histories, and there are indeed scholars who devote their lives to the task for one author or another. It’s much harder to establish the text of Homer than the text of the New Testament, and no one is completely confident we have the “original” wording of the Iliad or the Odyssey. That’s true for all ancient books. (And by the way, is especially the case with the Hebrew Bible!)
My second response to this claim that we already know what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote is that I simply can’t see how that could be true. Take Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He wrote it probably in the early to mid 50s of the common era. The first copy we have it of it is called P46 (called this because it is written on papyrus – hence the P – and is the 46th papyrus to have been discovered and catalogued). It dates from around 200 CE. That is, the letter was copied, recopied, and recopied for 150 years before we have a copy. And P46 is not a complete copy. The first full and complete copy of Philippians we have is codex Vaticanus from the middle of the fourth century – some three hundred years after the original.
So it’s great (really, I mean it, it’s great) that we have so many hundreds of copies of Philippians from the Middle Ages. That shows us how the letter was being copied, say, seven hundred or a thousand years or more after the original. But what we are interested in is knowing how it was copied, say, one year after the original. And for that how much evidence do we have? We have zero evidence.
How old was the copy that the 200-CE P46 itself was copying? Was it from the year 190? 150? 130? We don’t know. How old was the copy that copy was copying? We don’t know. How old was the copy that that copy of a copy was copying? We don’t know. And worse, we don’t know how close to the original wording any of those copies was, how accurate its scribe was in what he copied, or how accurate the copyist of the copy that he copied was.
Suppose Paul sent his letter to Philippi in 56 CE. Someone there wanted a copy and so made it. Two other people decided they wanted copies of that copy. So they copied that copy, rather than the original (maybe the original had been sent do Thessalonica or someplace). And then copies of those copies were made. And the original – this is hypothetical, but any reconstruction is hypothetical – was lost in a house fire. That would mean that all the copies of the copies of the copies go back not to the original but to the first copy. What if the first copyist changed things? What if he changed a lot? What if he decided to whomp up a section or two of Paul’s prose? What if he really didn’t like one paragraph/passage (or more) and so simply omitted it? We would have precisely NO way of knowing. The entire manuscript tradition in this case descended from the copy, not from the original.
That is one hypothetical to show how we don’t KNOW what the original said. I could easily come up with a hundred other hypotheticals without thinking hard that would lead to the same result.
— Bart Ehrman, Do we KNOW the Original Words of the New Testament? February 5, 2018
Bart Ehrman’s latest book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, is now available.