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General reliability method
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The general reliability method is apologetics from textual criticism that focuses on the textual features of the New Testament. As ancient literature the NT is compared with other literature from which there are surviving manuscripts. Specific categories of chronological criteria relative to biblical and non-biblical manuscripts are compared. The method formulated during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as archeological discoveries brought to light the manuscript and therefore textual data necessary to reason methodically. The general reliability method is underpinned by the whole range of practices within the field of textual criticism. So much so is the scholarly field so important for the general reliability method that it is sometimes referred to as simply textual criticism of the New Testament. What that naturally amounts to is a unique status for the texts of the NT. The general reliability method is still used today by Christians but sophisticated treatments by apologists regard it in light of what was pioneered in the 1970's by Gary Habermas called the minimal facts method.
The underlying argument formulated by the general reliability method of New Testament textual criticism is based on extant copies of ancient literature written during the Greco-Roman epoch of history. The comparison demonstrates reliability of transmission from original New Testament autograph all the way to the earliest extant copies. Most are not textually critical in the same regard toward classical works of secular literature and other types as they are toward the New Testament. From Homer and Plato to Tacitus, Livy and Plutarch. No other body of literature besides the NT has been so critically analyzed. Because of this it seems to stand on its own with critics neglecting to consider the Bible against textual features of other writings during the same time period. The textual transmission of other writings are rarely questioned as much as the NT has been throughout history and in current public discourse and debate. Therefore to be consistent, based upon manuscript evidence the New Testament should be thought of and handled the same way as other writings produced during the same time. It is not to simply say, the NT has more manuscripts and so is better than classical works. It is to show how the person being critical of the New Testament from a textual critic perspective is actually being inconsistent and unwarranted in their view.
Reconstruction of an ancient text based on surviving manuscripts is a critical foundation for the establishment of historical reliability (historicity). The general reliability method in of itself does not demonstrate historical reliability, but rather textual reliability, thus validity on the textual critic level. Extant manuscript copies of an ancient text are used by textual critics to reconstruct what the extinct original autographs actually contained. But if what has been reconstructed from copies can be shown to lack textual stability or sometimes called textual reliability along the path from original to reconstruction, historicity is even less likely to be found within the text in question. Therefore textual reliability is necessary for the internal logic and application of the general reliability method but also, more specifically, textual reliability is a foothold toward the path of historicity.
The major categories of comparison between the New Testament and major classical works are their chronological gaps, most notably from autograph to copy. Also manuscript amount is considerable to allow credible reconstruction. Both the chronological gaps and manuscript copies of ancient texts are fundamentals in textual criticism.
Contemporary writings within one hundred years, prior and post New Testament, can be compared under four specific criteria for a general reliability method. Producing clearly unique numbers the NT amounts to a superior case for textual reliability when compared to ancient texts written around the same time.
There are four important criteria that stand out when chronological gaps of major classical works within Greco-Roman society are compared. They are;
- Date of original manuscript autograph(s)
- Date of earliest manuscript copies
- Chronological gap from autograph(s) to copies
- Total amount of manuscripts in original language for textual reconstruction
Time from autograph to copy
Total surviving manuscript copies
The oldest surviving or extant New Testament copy, is a fragment, called the John Rylands Papyrus Fragment (called P52 for short). It is a piece of the Gospel of John, dating to the second century. The front (recto) contains parts of seven lines from the Gospel of John chapter 18, verses 31–33. On the back (verso) contains parts of seven lines from verses 37–38 of John chapter 18, all in Greek. The chronological gap sets a new standard not exceeded by any of the other great works of ancient literature. The time between the original autograph of the New Testament book of John, and the earliest surviving copy fragment is under 100 years. No other writing of the classical time period of ancient history is even close when compared. Non-existent autographs of classics such as Plato, Caesar, Livy, and even Plutarch for examples all have a gap of around 1,000 years until their copy or copies, which are then what are used in attempt to reconstruct the original text.
|“|| In contrast with these figures, the textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of material.|
The amount of manuscripts of the New Testament written in Greek, the original language, was more than 5,600 manuscripts but has risen, as of 2003, to more than 5,700. There are 116 papyri, 310 and 2877 Majuscule and Miniscule MSS, and 2432 Lectionary MSS with more being discovered and translated all the time. Other languages such as Latin and then another group of languages such as Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Gothic and others taken into consideration brings into the fold more than 10,000 and 5,000 manuscripts respectively. The staggering number of available papyrus (from the pith of the papyri plant) of the Greek language alone gives the New Testament an elite status. The Greek NT sits atop the list of most available copies of originals, when compared against contemporary literature of the Greco-Roman period that coincides with the historical Jesus.
The famous work of Homer called Iliad contains over 15,000 lines of epic poetry and was written in the 8th century BC (700 to 800 BC). While it was written hundreds of years before the time of the NT, it is considered a very substantial work due to how many copies of it are in existence. However, it comes in a distant second with 650 manuscript copies. The earliest and best manuscripts dating to the tenth century AD. Textual critics generally follow the rule that quantity of manuscripts determine quality of text during the process of reconstruction. So that what is read in the works of Homer or the New Testament in the modern translations of the Illiad or Bible are basically what was originally penned by their authors. In the case of the New Testament specifically it is overwhelmingly viewed by scholars in such a way. The NT has maintained textual stability, constituting what was originally written down approximately 2,000 years ago in the first century AD (0-100 AD).
Textual stability has to do with not English translations, but the variance found within the Greek manuscripts. There are about 138,000 Greek words that constitute the 27 books of the New Testament, and of those that are brought into question is only 1,400 words. The reconstructed text of today, such as the NASB updated edition is the English rendering of Greek texts that are approximately 98% to 99% textually pure. This puts a limit of uncertainty of whether or not what is in the New Testament today reflects what was originally written at only 1% to 2%.
A textual variant is when at least two manuscripts disagree on the wording, word order and/or spelling of what goes on in a particular passage. Being that there are so many copies of the original New Testament in existence, the result has been mass scrutiny within the critical process of evaluation of the manuscripts called textual criticism. The 5,700 manuscript copies compared and contrasted by textual critics has discovered approximately 300,000 to 400,000 textual variants. There are essentially vastly more variants than there are surviving manuscripts and even words of the Greek New Testament. However of those, about 99% are very trivial. At first the number may seem out of proportion, but what is important to note is that when a variant is found, it is either in the same spot in one or many different manuscripts, or, not found in any other manuscripts. This goes a good length in giving the textual variants predictability and helping the textual critic determine the extent a textual variant had within its own manuscript family, and what exactly it does change, if anything at all, when compared to other manuscript families.
The majority of the variants are generally minor, and can be categorized as merely types of grammatical mistakes. The mistakes have been shown to never disable the content of theological doctrine in any substantial way. The wording surrounding Christ centered salvation issues (as opposed to more basic content) is largely untouched from what was written by Jewish authors 2,000 years ago.
|“||Textual variants in manuscripts of the New Testament are many and varied to be sure, but it is simply a myth to take the variants as Ehrman deals with in his book as evidence that some essential Christian belief was cooked up after the fact and retrojected into the text of the New Testament documents by overzealous and less than scrupulous scribes.||”|
Craig Blomberg in his work called The Historical Reliability of the Gospels synthesizes six volumes of work that came out from 1980 to 1986 called Gospel Perspectives. In reference to The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament by Bart Ehrman, Blomberg states;
|“||If the original text read 'Lord Jesus' the word 'Christ' might be added; if it read 'Jesus Christ', then 'Lord' might be inserted up front. No new beliefs about Jesus were being created; standard ones were merely reinforced.||”|
Types of variants
There are several types of variant readings. They are separated into two distinct and major groupings; unintentional and intentional. It is the amount of manuscripts dealt with by the discipline of textual criticism that creates variant readings, but at the same time also enables the textual critic to pinpoint specifics of the unintended mistake, or intended alteration to avoid heresy.
Frequency of NT variants
Below is a list of books of the New Testament, the amount of verses that constitute each book, the amount of variant-free verses, percentage of variant-free verses of each book, and then the variant count per page. The amount of variant-free verses and the amount of verses are divided to give the percentage of the total amount of non-variant verses in each book of the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, may contain 6.8 variants per page, but the percent of verses that are not variants is maintained at 59.9%. The Gospel of Mark seems to have the most variant trouble. Each one of the gospels is seen to contain more variants than any one of the letters of the NT (except 2 Peter). The letters then maintain a considerably higher average of non-variant verses when compared to the gospels. While the book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, displays a variant-free percentage of 52.8%, similar to that of the gospels.
Total Amount of Verses
Amount of Variant-Free Verses
% of Variant-Free Verses
Variants per Page
Translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek creates variance not only from construction of the text from original languages of extant manuscripts, but also from different types of English translations. Some are strictly literal renderings from the original languages word for word while others maintain a popular tone giving paraphrasing a substantial role. For instance, the New International Version (NIV) and the King James Version (KJV) of the English Bible differ by their intentional word choice, and because of this definitions derived will also differ. There is also sometimes significant difference of both the NIV and KJV respectively compared to that of the more literal rendering of the original languages within the New American Standard (NASB). Continuous lack of interaction with original languages can devolve from appropriate exegesis into common eisegesis very suddenly. It is vital for an informed interpretation to consistently interact with the original Hebrew and Greek language. From the context of those ancient languages and background of the local and global cultures, exegesis of the English biblical text becomes a tool of the critical reader, allowing juxtaposition of the words and definitions of both translated and original languages that makeup the verse or verses in question. Highlighting linguistic differences of original and translated during exegesis can open up incredible depth of study and insight into the Bible. Unaware critics often take advantage of the incongruity between English translations to therefore show internal contradiction of the English biblical text. Often not realizing a proper exegesis in their reading, which would actually interpret from interaction with original languages, reading into the text without historical methods.
- ↑ The Use and Abuse of P52-Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel By Brent Nongbri. Harvard Theological Review / Volume 98 / Issue 01, pp 23-48
- ↑ Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (Oxford University Press, Fourth Edition 2005), pg. 51
- ↑ Erwin Fahlbusch, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 2: E-L (William B. Eerdmans Publishing 1999), pg. 242
- ↑ Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (Oxford University Press, Fourth Edition 2005), pg. 50
- ↑ Michael Wood, In Search of the Trojan War (Facts on File 1985), pg. 124
- ↑ Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels by Gary R. Habermas Originally published in the Christian Research Journal / vol. 28, no. 1, 2005.
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 Establishing the Gospels’ Reliability By William Lane Craig
- ↑ Brian Auten interviews Daniel Wallace
- ↑ Ben Witherington, III, What Have They Done with Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History--Why We Can Trust the Bible (HarperOne; First Edition 2006)
- ↑ Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP Academic, 2nd Edition 2007), pg. 332
- ↑ Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (Eerdmans 1987), pg. 29-30
- ↑ Textual Reliability of the New Testament By JP Holding. Tektonics Apologetics Ministry
- ↑ Bible version debate By Wikipedia
- ↑ New American Standard Bible - Readable, Trusted, Literal, & Timeless By The Lockman Foundation
- An Interview with Daniel B. Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts By Justin Taylor
- Modern Myth: All but 11 verses of the NT could be constructed from the writings of the early church fathers by jasondulle
- Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then? Part 1 - Biola Chapel By Daniel Wallace
- William Lane Craig critiques Bart Ehrman By William Lane Craig
- Textual Stability of NT Writings by Larry Hurtado on February 10, 2011
- Significant textual variants. Interesting variations in the gospel manuscript tradition. By Text Excavation