XFiles Friday: Evolution of the New Testament Canon

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 9.)

Last time, we saw Geisler and Turek argue that it couldn’t be mere coincidence that non-Christian reports of what Christians were saying agreed so closely with what Christians were saying. “How could non-Christian writers collectively reveal a storyline congruent with the New Testament if Jesus never existed?” they proclaim (ignoring the obvious answer: the same way people who are not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can reveal a consistent storyline about the Hound of the Baskervilles even though Sherlock Holmes never existed).

From here, G&T move on to the question of whether or not the New Testament accounts are believable, which they say hinges on two questions: Do we have accurate copies of the NT texts, and do those documents tell the truth? We’ll look today at the first of these two questions.

Do we have accurate copies of the original New Testament texts? Any Bible college graduate (like me) can tell you that the answer is pretty much yes, due to the very large number of copies we have. As it happens, we have an unusually large number of manuscripts from the second century and later, including not only the canonical New Testament as we have it today, but also a number of apocryphal and pseudepigraphical texts that didn’t quite make the canonical cut. Thanks to this large number of documents, we can scientifically reconstruct what the original text must have been with a high degree of accuracy by applying the same analytical methodology is is used to discover the evolutionary history of modern species.

In evolutionary science, we don’t need a copy of the DNA of each ancestor of a modern species in order to find its place in the evolutionary family tree. Because evolution works by copying genetic information, with slight variations, from one generation to the next, we can rebuild the most likely history by combining similar variations in the genotype. In other words, if we have an ancestral species whose genes match the pattern “AAAAA”, and one of its decendants produces the pattern “BAAAA”, we’ll have two separate patterns, the “A-series” and the “B-series”. If, at some later point, we find a descendant species with the pattern “BAAAF” and another with the pattern “AAAAD”, we can be reasonably certain that the first is descended from the B series ancestor, and the second from the A series.

It’s never quite that simple, of course, but you get the general idea. The process of copying information, introducing slight variations in one copy, and then continuing to make copies of the altered version (with additional slight variations), is a process that produces a distinctive pattern: a nested hierarchy. If you have the end result, and you know that it was produced by copying with variation, then you can reconstruct the nested hierarchy even if you don’t have the very earliest versions to refer to. It’s true for evolution, and it’s also true for textual criticism, the science of reconstructing the original first century texts.

Do Geisler and Turek really trust this particular methodology? That depends. When they were discussing evolutionary theory (aka “Darwinism,”) they were highly doubtful. How can this possibly work? How can you trust all this guessing about things that happened before there were any people around to observe them? Don’t you need a copy of each and every transitional form in order to reconstruct an organism’s evolutionary history? Apparently, just being able to ask such questions means you shouldn’t trust the evolutionary method when it documents evolution.

When the exact same method is used to reconstruct the New Testament, however, Geisler and Turek have not a qualm about taking scholars’ word for it. Of course this method works, anybody can see that. The pattern is unmistakable. Even when the variations are found in the quotes and/or paraphrases cited by early Church Fathers, you can identify where it fits in the textual “phylogenetic tree” by comparing the wording of the quote to the various other wordings in the collection of extant manuscripts. The same methodology that lets us discover our evolutionary ancestors also allows us to discern the original first century texts with a very high confidence. It’s not infallible, of course, but it’s still high enough for most cases. So why don’t they trust this same method when scientists apply it to biology?

Geisler and Turek make much of the fact that, of all the different variant readings, few change the actual meaning of the text, and none change it in a way that would affect a significant Christian doctrine. While this might be debated in certain specific instances, let’s assume for the moment that it’s true. Is this really all that remarkable? Well, no, because the New Testament canon was constructed sometime later, in the third century, and any book that contradicted what the Church regarded as “authentic” apostolic teaching was obviously not written by an apostle, right? We do have a number of first century manuscripts that do contradict Christian teachings, but most of these don’t count because their contradictions led the Church Councils to exclude them from the official canon.

Geisler and Turek spend a fair amount of time on the science of textual criticism, and in fact it’s one of the more scientific aspects of what you might call theology. They do a pretty fair job of describing how the analysis works, and what the manuscript evidence is. Obviously, they’re hoping that this brief foray into genuine scientific methodology will lend a greater sense of authority and reliability to the rest of their argument as well.

As G&T themselves point out, however, having accurate copies of the original documents is only part of the story. The real question is whether or not these documents represent a true account of actual events. And even if their account is “true,” which definition of “truth” are we using? If it’s only “true” in the same sense as Christians believe Jesus is “truly” present whenever two or more are gathered in his name, even a “true” account doesn’t quite tell us whether the events described were literal, physical realities. The best we can do to discover the truth of the first century documents is to compare them to what we find in the real world. Reality is truth; are the Gospel stories consistent with that truth, or only with some other, more subjective “truth”?

Tune in again next week…

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