Can We Trust The New Testament? (Part 1)
I recently saw a video of an exvangelical who, in essence, made the claim that, since all we have are "copies of copies of copies" of the books that we read in our bibles, that, therefore, we cannot trust what we read in the Bible. This is not the first time that I have heard this argument. In fact, it has been effectively answered by others more qualified than myself. However, because this misinformation continues to circulate, it is necessary for us to continue to point out the problem with the objection.
Let's start with one of the most obvious problems. There are some who make this claim who seem to believe that, since we don't have the original manuscripts (called the "autograph"), that therefore we cannot trust what is written in the copies. It is important to point out that some individuals who make the initial claim that is the subject of this post do not actually make this claim. However, there are some who do and it is a prevalent enough claim that I feel it needs to be addressed. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it is possible to have an accurate copy of a work. Furthermore, the "autograph" standard is something that the Bible is uniquely held to. That is, no other work of history is held to this standard. To illustrate my point, the following books have shaped the world in some way, shape, or form. Yet even though the originals do not survive, we consider the copies that we have today to be accurate. These books are divided into 5 different categories: Philosophy, Literature, Church, History, and Science.
If the standard is for us to have the autograph of a work in order to consider its text dependable, then several ancient works of philosophy, many of which are still read in philosophy courses, would have to be dismissed. These include works by Plato, such as the "Republic" and the "Apology." It would include all of Aristotle's works. It would also include the works of Philo, the Jewish philosopher. Yet Plato's "Republic" is still a classic work that is read in philosophy and classics classrooms.
The same is true of literature. Very few people who read Shakespeare would claim that they cannot trust what they read as something that Shakespeare actually wrote. Yet, with one exception, we don't have the autographs of Shakespeare's works. The only autograph we have is from "The Booke of Sir Thomas More." Do we now question whether we know what Shakespeare wrote? Or do we accept that we have accurate copies of what he wrote? The answer, of course, is the latter. Yet this courtesy is selectively extended.
Some may be reading this and asking why works related to the Church would be important. The fact is, for those who don't know history, is that the works of Christians have largely impacted society. Saint Augustine, for example, is considered one of the most influential minds in Western history. Yet none of his autographs survive. Another example is John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." There is also nothing inherent to religious writings that would cause their copies to be any more textually unreliable than any other kind of writing. Thus, unless there is some external reason to distrust a particular document, we should not assume that it is unreliable.
There are several works of history that have no surviving autographs. These include the complete works of Tacitus, Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War," The Histories of Herodotus, The complete works of Flavius Josephus, Caesar's "Gallic War," and Livy's "Roman History." What we have in each of these are "copies of copies of copies," yet very few people would say that the text that we have of each of these is somehow unreliable. Rather, we accept that the text of each of these, as we have received it, is reliable.
In this category, I want to talk about one particular example. Nicolaus Copernicus is famous for his theory that the planets revolve around the sun, which was formulated during a time when the scientific establishment opposed the idea. We still believe that we understand what he wrote, yet the autograph of his work "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres" does not survive.
The point being made by each of these is that, although the autographs do not survive, we believe we accurately understand what each person was saying. If we grant this for each of these categories, why are some reluctant to accept the same for the New Testament? It seems to me that it is due more to bias than actual evidence.
In part 2, I am going to examine a more common objection to the Bible based on the textual witness. The point of this post has simply been to demonstrate that an original is not needed to understand what an author wrote.