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.

Pageviews this week: