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11/10/2007                                                                                       View Comments

Fragmented Apologetic

Reposted from the Freethought Cafe by J.C. Samuelson

Christians often make much of the manuscript attestation for the Bible. Popularized by Josh McDowell in his book, "Evidence that Demands a Verdict," this particular apologetic is frequently offered to support the assertion that the Bible is not only historically reliable, but divinely preserved. Basically, it's reasoned that if archaeologists have recovered many more manuscripts for the Bible than any other ancient text, and those texts don't differ substantially from one another, it means the Bible must be a unique and special document.

Certainly the Bible is unique in some respects. As an ancient document, it stands well above its peers in that its components were authored over a span of several centuries, making the fact of its substantial attestation that much more impressive. Many other ancient documents have been lost entirely, being known to us only second or third hand. It's very easy to understand how this might seem to mean something. The Bible is also special historically in the sense that it tells the story of a people and their sometime devotion to an Iron Age religion that helped motivate them to carve a place for themselves in a brutal world. With the addition of the New Testament, it showed how some transitioned away from the former faith, retaining some of the former disciplines while promising a more humanistic way of living. As a cultural icon, it is remarkable because many different cultures adopted its teachings, though for the most part these have absorbed and become softened by the influence of Enlightenment rationalism. As a result, believers of today are an almost entirely different species of theist than those that existed thousands of years ago.

Before continuing, I should note that the reason for bringing this topic up is that the family of a man who possessed an ancient fragment of the Hebrew Bible since 1947 has turned it over to the Yad Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. Containing verses from the Book of Exodus, including the famous words, "Let my people go, that they may serve me," the fragment is estimated to be more than a thousand years old.

Fragments like this are treasured because they fill in manuscript gaps and help scholars to reconstruct, as closely as possible, the history and linguistics of the day. In particular, this fragment fills a gap in the Aleppo Codex, the oldest copy of the Masoretic Text in one manuscript, which is widely considered to be the most authoritative manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. Christians, of course, refer to the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament. The find is important because more than a third of the Codex is missing.

"We have only about 60 percent of the codex - more than a third is still missing," said Aron Dotan, professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages at Tel Aviv University. Missing from the Codex are most of the Torah, or Pentateuch. The Pentateuch refers to the first five books of the Old Testament.

The news of this find reminded me of the apologetic mentioned above because it highlights one of the problems with assertions concerning the Bible's manuscript attestation. Regardless of how many fragmentary manuscripts we have, they are still fragments. Unless they all fit together to form a contiguous whole - which they don't, at least on their own - there is room to doubt that present versions of the Bible accurately reflect the original document. To accomplish the task of maintaining its integrity more or less intact, scholars refer to other ancient copies, such as the Septuagint or the Dead Sea Scrolls, in order to give the Bible its presently tenuous continuity. In other words, its relevance today depends on the continued efforts of historians, archaeologists, linguists, and translators. In a word, humans. Indeed, the fact that it's been preserved as well as it has been merely indicates that people were interested in preserving it, not that a divine agency was involved.

Another somewhat more obvious objection would be to say that no matter how many copies one has, if the content is faulty, it remains faulty. In other words, a lie is a lie no matter how many times it's repeated. More to the point it wouldn't even matter if we had the original documents in hand, though admittedly that would be both fascinating and helpful. None of this should be taken as implying that the Bible authors were dishonest, though. There are many ways in which a person can perpetuate false information without requiring intentional deception. Nevertheless, if the originals contained the same material, we would be only marginally better off in the sense that it might allow us to settle arguments concerning its long-term consistency. We would still be left with the prospect of accepting the superstitious dogmas of an Iron and Bronze age people. In any case, to date no one has uncovered the originals so the point is moot.

Scholars have done a remarkable job with what they have to work with, of course, but there doesn't appear to be anything supernatural about the preservation or (debatable) consistency of modern Bibles. Still, what they're working with isn't what many people imagine. Copies and fragments of copies survive, but often in a much degraded state, and that's just the beginning. Many of them have scribal errors, marginal notes, copyist corrections or substitutions, and of course all of them must be translated into modern languages, a painstaking process that yields less-than-perfect results. Simply put, the Bible looks just as we'd expect it to given a mundane origin.

Briefly, a word about gaps is appropriate. The argument might be offered that even though not all of the pieces of the puzzle are available now, one day they will be and we who do not believe will be forced to eat crow. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, after all. This argument, however, has no teeth for two reasons already suggested or hinted at. First, as was noted above, even if we had the originals we would still face acceptance of ancient superstitious dogmas, a dubious proposition at best in light of modern science. Second, we might co-opt a question from another context and ask why God would present us with a puzzle to solve rather than clear, robust guidance as is usually claimed.

All in all, the extraordinary claims of apologists suffer from the very audacity that makes the claims extraordinary in the first place. As with other arguments, ordinary claims are far easier to support, beg fewer questions, and have greater explanatory power.

Having given a rough sketch of how one skeptic views the Bible, allow me to define what would seem to qualify as extraordinary evidence in favor of the extraordinary claim of divine authorship, at least personally. If archaeologists were to uncover an original, complete manuscript of the Old Testament dating to the time of Moses (roughly 15,000 years ago), and equivalent New Testament manuscripts made up of all the Gospels and Epistles dating to approximately the middle of the 1st-century, all of it existing in immaculate condition in spite of the rigors of time, and confirmed scientifically as being of the requisite age, such evidence would be something truly extraordinary.

I won't be holding my breath.

Have a great weekend and stay tuned.

23 comments:

Jeff P said...

JC, thanks for the post. I had a roommate in medical school who was radically "touched" by the Josh McDowell "Evidence that demands a Verdict." He currently is in Colorado Springs, receiving "training" and will ultimately devote his life as a medical Christian missionary overseas. The "textual test of time" argument seems to be one that appealed to Ted Haggard before he fell from grace. I appreciate your logical flow of ideas presented in the post--thanks.

Joe B said...

Basically, it's reasoned that if archaeologists have recovered many more manuscripts for the Bible than any other ancient text...it means the Bible must be a unique and special document.

The point about the relative frequency with which the Bible texts have been preserved should be considered in light of the preservers penchant for periodically destroying other ancient works.

fjell said...

@joe b: oh snap!

Let's not forget that early Christianity was like friggin' Theological Idol.

fjell

Mary R. said...

The fact that those fragments/manuscripts are being discovered or recovered doesn’t eliminate the fact that they were copied from the traditions, myths and legends of other civilizations prior to them.

J. C. Samuelson said...

Thanks for the kind words so far. I do need to register a rather major correction though:

If archaeologists were to uncover an original, complete manuscript of the Old Testament dating to the time of Moses (roughly 15,000 years ago)...

This passage is way, way off in terms of the number of years. Moses dates to around the 13th-century BCE, and when I proofread this, I missed my blatantly erroneous math mistake here (it was about 1:00 AM yesterday when it was finished). My fried brain counted the 13 centuries as 13 millenia because simultaneously I was thinking of the 2,000 years since demarcation between BCE and CE.

The correct amount of time then should be roughly 3,300 years, not 15,000.

Bill said...

Great piece JC. Very informative. As I am typing this I am watching a great show about the history of the earth on the History Channel. It told of the first discovery of a rock formation off Scotland(I can't remember if it was the 1700's or 1800's) that made a scientist realize that the age of the earth according to Genesis was bullshit. I would love to be watching this show with a YEC.

xrayman

Dan Marvin Follower said...

Bill Said:
"It told of the first discovery of a rock formation off Scotland(I can't remember if it was the 1700's or 1800's) that made a scientist realize that the age of the earth according to Genesis was bullshit."

No it's not BS. What they claim is nothing more than the devil's deception.

Satan (The father of lies) plants stuff like that out there to deceive others.

Dan Marvin follower said...

And why should you believe what the "History Channel" says?

What makes it more credible than the Bible? Why should you believe what they say?

Prove to me that what the History Channel and those scientists said about that rock, and when the world was created is true.

SEO said...

Hey Xrayman,

Author Jack Repcheck has a book out on this called, "The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth's Antiquity."

It's a quick and easy read.

Jeff P said...

Dan Marvin Follower: I truly miss that old--was it Saturday Night Live show?--Church lady with her "could it be SATAN?" charm.

Dan Marvin Follower: when the world was "created" can be proveable, but it won't be easy for you to be convinced--it'll take some work:

Get an undergraduate degree in archeology with some background in other earth sciences and anthropology, and then go on for your gradute studies with field work archeology. Discuss the data, findings, and research the topic with experts in the field, then go ahead and get a graduate advisor and work toward your PhD. Then, defend your thesis in front of your department. When and if you're awarded your PhD, work on your passion and begin to publish in recognized, respected, and peer reviewed journals. Receive the feedback from others in your field, from all over the world, at your level. You will then be able to "take the word" of the scientist with some degree of respect and clarity.

I'm sorry I just can't enable your naivety, even if it is intended to "save" us all.

AtheistToothFairy said...

Jeff P wrote:
"Dan Marvin Follower: when the world was "created" can be proveable, but it won't be easy for you to be convinced--it'll take some work"
----
Jeff,
Our fundie clan here works this way:

They will first deny any and all evidence, that goes against their bible 'facts'.

When the evidence eventually becomes overwhelming against their cherished beliefs, then they switch gears and insist that Satan is making the facts fit his own agenda.
So if you succeed in convincing someone like Dan here, that the earth and human race are far older than the bible would indicate, then there is no doubt in their minds that the devil planted false evidence to fool all the non-xtian scientists.

I tell you Jeff, the devil sure is a whole lot busier than the xtian god is.
The devil has to keep planting false evidence around the earth and galaxy to fool us, as well as tempting us 24/7 to sin away, while god just sits back on his throne and doesn't even bother to answer a single xtian prayer.

If rewards were being handed out for hard-work, then the devil surely would win hands-down over the lazy xtian god.
Of course, the devil is just as imaginary as their god is, but if one wanted to count up who did the most evil in the bible, guess who wins that award?


ATF (who keeps wondering why the xtian god is put on-hold by the devil he created long ago)

Jeff P said...

AtheistToothFairy:

You're right of course--it really MUST BE SATAN! Church lady wasy correct!

Brent S said...

Too bad Christians can't see the irony of their own behavior. The man (presumably) calls himself "Dan Marvin Follower." Is it my misunderstanding, or is Dan Marvin a person?

A person, not a God. These idiots are following other men, giving them wealth, power and a sense of importance to which they are not entitled.

And if they are following men today, why is it such a stretch to realize that has always been the case?

Thackerie said...

I wouldn't be so hard on "Dan Marvin Follower." I suspect he (or she) is just spoofing in the same vein as the aforementioned Church Lady. After all, how likely is it that Dan Marvin could actually inspire anyone (other than men in white coats) to follow him?

Can't Spell Christ Without Shit said...

Does this statement that many christians like to make sound familiar to most of you?

"I can clearly see that the devil has a hold of you".

Now what's funny about that statement is for a group of people (Christians) who claim that "Bible God/Jesus" is so powerful, they sure do seem to give a lot more credit and glory to Satan then they do their own God.

From the way christians tell it, Satan seems to have more control over the human race than God does.

God can't seem to get most people's attention it would seem. Sounds like Satan is the great communicator. Not Bible God.

If God is so powerful, I wonder why he can't seem to convince people to follow him? It seems to me that Satan knows how to win friends and influence people.

As far as God being lazy. It does seem that way doesn't it? I guess he's too busy being glorified or he is still resting from all of that creating he did thousands of years ago when he created the heavens and the earth.

Of course if it all turns out that it's Allah who is the real God, he doesn't respond because he's probably just too busy having his 72 virgins fan him with giant feathers and hand feed him grapes.

Bill said...

Hey Mr Can't Spell Christ without Shit. You made some excellent points. I once asked a devout xtain why I couldn't find God after trying to hard and I really did try hard. She stated that Satan had me in his grips.

You are so correct when you are saying that obviously the communication skills of Satan far outweigh that of Yawah.

It was always in my understanding that Satan doesn't stand a chance against God. I guess we can see that to be misguided information. Satan makes his presence known loud and clear where as God seems to be napping most of the time.

xrayman

Ryan said...

I was amused and impressed by Dan Marvin and his "lie of satan". Dan believes that he has presented an argument, and then figures "I showed them, huh?"

Dan, this pitiful attempt at an argument goes back to the days when scientists began to find dinosaur fossils. xians were anxious and defensive--the earth was far older than their bibles told them. The best that the clergy could come up with was that these bones were planted there by the devil.

Many times, xians have withheld medical care from their children, thinking that they have been healed by prayer and faith. This has resulted sometimes in the death of the child. I think the Webmaster might have some news stories, such as children being denied their Insulin, with diabetes being a lie of Satan.

Dan, when you point to hard, objective reality, and then close your eyes and call it a lie of Satan, you are indulging in a childish last resort.

And what exactly are you a follower of? You seem to be lost.

Can't Spell Christ Without Shit said...

Thanks Bill.

I told a christian one time that they sure do enjoy praising Satan and giving him a lot of credit. I told him that as a matter of fact, he hardly ever gives his God credit for doing anything or touching people. I told him that he gives Satan more credit for reaching people instead.

Of course, this christian got highly offended and said, "I do not give Satan glory!!!!"

Ryan Said:
"The best that the clergy could come up with was that these bones were planted there by the devil"

That's always the christian's most used excuse whenever their lazy, and uncaring mythical God fails to show his face.

Funny how their "Mythical Bible God" feels the need to hide behind his lowly cult followers doesn't it?

Darth Vader is my father said...

What Dan the Man stated is so funny, I'm kinda thinking that he planted it there just to make us laugh and/or get mad. Admit it, Dan: You're a troll just trying to piss off this site full of thinking, rational humans.

What kind of all-powerful being would make it like the following: that we will burn for ETERNITY because we can't fall at his feet . How could he be so damned needful of our utter devotion that we will suffer forever if we don't declare ourselves followers? Come on, surely you jest. Doesn't that strike you as just a tad petty? Now how could anyone with half a brain believe such nonsense? I guess if you can believe that a man was in the belly of a whale for weeks and lived, you'll believe anything. And if you actually accept that a woman turned around against gawd's command to look at the destruction of her city, then changed into salt, then anything is possible.
Sheesh.

But please don't blame me for this post. The devil is probably working through me to help damn more souls. After I finish here, I'm gonna go watch some porno, drink some whiskey, then move some rocks to help fool the scientists. Hahahaha, I've got you guys just where I want you!

Dan Marvin needs to turn to the darkside said...

Do not resist the power of the dark side Dan.

jfraysse said...

Hi JC:

Seems the FTC is doing great! Another well-written piece, notwithstanding the math error at 1am in the last paragraph – no worries, I certainly knew what you meant!

I do have one observation concerning that last paragraph. Right now I can rationally ignore the Supernaturally Good, Evil and Ridiculous verses in the Bible and focus on its more practical and positive attributes, if I so choose. However, if we were to find a miraculously preserved, originally dated document, as you posit, this would indeed be “extraordinary”, but what would it mean? Presumably it would still be imbued with all the “evil bible” passages, conflicts and down right impossible theologies, right? If so, I would really be worried, as it would appear that there might really be a Supernaturally Evil God preserving its Supernaturally Evil Word!

An altogether worrisome prospect, methinks!

Anonymous said...

"The correct amount of time then should be roughly 3,300 years, not 15,000."

That would make my son-in-law very happy since he is convinced the earth is only 6000 years old.

J. C. Samuelson said...

Jfraysse,

...if we were to find a miraculously preserved, originally dated document, as you posit, this would indeed be “extraordinary”, but what would it mean? Presumably it would still be imbued with all the “evil bible” passages, conflicts and down right impossible theologies, right? If so, I would really be worried, as it would appear that there might really be a Supernaturally Evil God preserving its Supernaturally Evil Word!

I'm glad I didn't think of that at 1 AM. Fortunately, I was just thinking in terms of the extraordinary claims concerning the Bible's origins. The implications kind of lay at the back of my foggy mind, and so I was able to sleep. Thank YOU for bringing the image of a fiery furnace of eternal damnation to my brain again! ;)

Yes, the FC is doing pretty well. Better than I expected, at any rate, although readership is pretty much limited to a few people I already know, either online or off. Our resident troll of late here at ExC paid a visit (Dan Marvin), and generated quite the comment storm on one thread. He seems to have desisted after having been told he'd worn out his welcome, though.