Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt on the New Testament (Part 2)

Part 1 in this series discusses the chronological snobbery that people in the first century were somehow less intelligent than we are because they weren’t “widely literate.” The second underlying point in the argument against the reliability of the New Testament is that we are many generations of copies from the originals —that what we really have, according to the critics, is copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of…

The evidence marshaled for this assertion is simply one of time combined an assumption. Let’s see if we can ferret out the assumption.

The original manuscripts containing the writings of the Apostles must have been written about 2000 years ago. If you assume a manuscript could last, in average use, about 100 years, it’s pretty easy to do the math and see that there must be at least 200 generations of copies between the originals and today. Several problems with this line of reasoning crop up immediately, though.

The simplest is that we must work from the original copies to today. There might be monks someplace who are still hand copying the Scriptures for fun and profit, but most of us rely on printed copies of the Scriptures, rather than hand written ones. Since the first Bible was printed sometime around 1450, we can slice 550 years off the years for hand copies. Again, assuming 100 years as an average span of time before another copy had to be made, this leaves us with around 140 generations, rather than 200.

Now let’s turn to that assumption about 100 years. How old are the oldest full manuscripts we have today? At least 1000 years old. Let’s give our ancestors at least a little credit for intelligence, and realize they probably kept multiple copies of the Scriptures. There would have been a master copy, and then copies used in everyday study. If we estimate that a “master copy” would last for even 500 years, then we’ve reduced the number of generations between the originals and the most recent copies down to around 3 generations.

So what we probably have, in reality, is copies of copies of copies of the originals. While this still leaves room for mistakes, it is a far cry from the 200 generations of copies we started with.

The sense you get when listening to the critics is that the copies we have are the tail end of hundreds, if not thousands, of hand written copies passed down through thousands of years. This simply isn’t supported by the evidence at hand. The logical mistake here is inflating the case, or over generalization —stringing unrelated facts together to make a statement that would be unsupported by those same facts in isolation (or taken in their true context).

We should reject the inflation, and trust the copies we have of the writings of the Apostles instead.

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