An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
PART 1: Examining the Record
Chapter 3: The Documentary Evidence – Were Jesus’ Biographies Reliably Preserved for Us?
The Pinto Fires Story
- Strobel’s chapter-opening anecdote this time is about his discovery of confidential Ford memos that proved the company knew that the Pinto could explode if struck from behind, but deliberately decided not to correct the flaw in order to save money and increase the car’s luggage space.
- Strobel stresses his responsibilities as a reporter in verifying that the documents he discovered were genuine. He says that the same care must be taken in verifying the authenticity of the gospels, which he continues to refer to as the biographies of Jesus. “How can I be sure that these modern-day versions . . . bear any resemblance to what the authors originally wrote?” (Lee Strobel, THE CASE FOR CHRIST, p. 56)
- How can we be sure the four gospels are telling the whole story? Are there other biographies that have been censored by the church? If so, how do we know these were not as accurate as the four that were included in the New Testament canon?
- The authenticity of the documents themselves is not the only important concern. More on that later.
The Second Interview: Bruce M. Metzger, Ph.D.
- Bruce M. Metzger, Ph.D., author, THE NEW TESTAMENT: ITS BACKGROUND, GROWTH AND CONTENT, and many other books on the New Testament. Master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, masters and doctorate from Princeton University, chairman of the New Revised Standard Version Bible Committee.
- Strobel spends most of a page describing Metzger’s appearance (neatly combed white hair, rimless eyeglasses, etc.), his “obscure and austere office,” and putting over Metzger’s sense of humor (Metzger keeps a tin of ashes in his office, the remnants of a copy of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible burnt in protest by a fundamentalist preacher in 1952 because, Metzger says, he objected to the use of the word “comrades” in place of “fellows” in Hebrews 1:9.
- I kinda like this guy so far.
- Strobel also notes Metzger’s “hesitant” speech and his tendency to speak in “quaint phrases like ‘Quite so.’”
- There are worse things. Feigning objectivity to manipulate credulous readers into agreeing with your point of view, for example.
Copies of Copies of Copies
- Strobel pretends to be skeptical about the lack of surviving originals of New Testament documents. How can we have confidence in the accuracy of the modern New Testament if all we have today are copies of copies of copies?
- Metzger says that this isn’t a problem unique to the New Testament, that many ancient documents survive only in far more recent copies of lost originals. But the number of copies of New Testament documents can give us confidence of its authenticity. Being able to examine and cross-check many different copies, from different regions, allows for the drawing of an accurate picture of what the original document was like.
- Prompted by Strobel, Metzger also points out the importance of the age of the earliest copies — some as old as within a couple of generations from the originals.
- Exchanges like this are where Strobel’s decision to write this like a novel really backfire on him. If he were summarizing Metzger’s arguments, or even just giving us a transcript of their interview, he could leave out his leading questions, which only remind us that he has no credibility as an objective journalist.
A Mountain of Manuscripts
- Metzger describes the huge number of surviving copies of the New Testament (over 5,000) compared to other ancient books like the works of Tacitus (only two manuscripts) or Josephus (nine manuscripts of The Jewish War).
- “That was a mountain of manuscripts compared to the anthills of Tacitus and Josephus!” (p. 60) Strobel’s exclamation point, not mine.
- Strobel claims: “. . . the manuscript evidence for the New Testament was overwhelming when juxtaposed against other revered writings of antiquity[.]”
- The evidence for the existence of the various books of the New Testament may be overwhelming, but again that is not the only thing we must consider.
The Scrap That Changed History
- Strobel asks about the earliest surviving portion of the New Testament. Metzger describes a fragment of papyrus containing a section of chapter eighteen of the gospel of John. Its discovery led scholars to shift the estimated date of the writing of John to earlier than the long-assumed 160. Instead, it probably dated to between 100 and 150.
- The fragment overturned many scholarly opinions that questioned the reliability of the gospel of John.
- Is the date the only reason to question the reliability of John?
A Wealth of Evidence
- Metzger mentions the oldest complete (or nearly complete) manuscripts of the New Testament: the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus, both dating to around 350 A.D.
- Metzger puts the total number of ancient Greek manuscripts at 5,664. Added to those: between 8,000 and 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and 8,000 copies in Ethiopic, Slavic and Armenian, making a total of around 24,000 surviving manuscripts.
- To Metzger this means we can have great confidence that these manuscripts are reliable copies of the originals, especially when compared to other ancient books.
- Strobel breaks format again to introduce more evidence for Metzger’s claims, this time citing F.F. Bruce, author of The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, who says that the New Testament has better textual attestation than any other work of ancient literature. Strobel also mentions former British Museum director Frederic Kenyon, who said that the interval between the original composition and the date of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament are shorter than with any other ancient book.
- Strobel ends the section by pivoting to the subject of errors in the New Testament. He says, “. . . what about discrepancies among the various manuscripts? . . . Now I wanted to zero in on whether these copying mistakes have rendered our modern Bibles hopelessly riddled with inaccuracies.” (p. 63)
Examining the Errors
- Strobel and Metzger concede that there are thousands of variations among the surviving ancient New Testament manuscripts due to copying errors. But Metzger (getting a good piece of a nice fat pitch from Strobel) emphasizes that these errors do not render the gospels untrustworthy.
- Metzger makes excuses for the scribes who copied the documents — poor eyesight, lapses in memory, etc. But he also cites the fact that Greek is an inflected language, meaning that word order is less important than in English, as a factor that renders many of these copying errors irrelevant.
- Despite the high number of variants in the manuscripts, Metzger says there are no church doctrines threatened by any of the inconsistencies. He mentions I John 5:7-8, a reference to “the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost,” missing from the earliest manuscripts, but counters by citing other verses present in early manuscripts that refer to the Trinity, though preserving that doctrine. As for the missing verses of I John, Metzger says “[Metzger]‘I acknowledge that is not part of what the author of I John was inspired to write.’” (p. 65)
- This is a rather nonchalant admission that a portion of the gospel has been tampered with since the writing of the original.
- Strobel breaks format again to introduce outside evidence in support of Metzger, this time citing Norman Geisler and William Nix, who claim that the New Testament has survived from antiquity to the modern day in a form that is 99.5% pure.
- Strobel and Metzger leave out a few important variants. The example they cite of I John 5:7-8 is relatively unimportant, it seems to me, especially when you consider that both the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus — the oldest surviving near-complete manuscripts of the New Testament — are missing the Pericope Adulterae, or the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. The Pericope isn’t found in any of the earlier fragments that Metzger mentions, or in any manuscript dated earlier than the late 4th century.
- Both the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus also lack the last twelve verses of the gospel of Mark, the so-called “longer ending” that even Bruce Metzger himself admits — though not in this book — was not a part of the original text of Mark. The longer ending includes Mark’s version of the Great Commission: “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” (Mark 16:15-16)
- The Vaticanus also lacks Luke 22:43-44, which is the only passage in the gospels referring to the agony at Gethsemane, where Jesus is so upset that he begins to sweat blood. And, like the longer ending of Mark, Bruce Metzger himself has written that in his opinion this passage was added to Luke to counter the doctrine of Docetism, or the belief that Jesus was not fully human and therefore did not actually suffer.
- At the time this book was written (first published in 1998), Bruce Metzger had been studying the New Testament for over 60 years. He knew about these missing verses in the oldest manuscripts. He knew that simple copying errors from inattentive scribes couldn’t account for this. And yet he tells Strobel, emphatically, that no church doctrine is affected by these missing verses.
- The missing Pericope Adulterae arguably isn’t a doctrinal issue, though its omission does somewhat alter the character of Jesus, and deprive the church of one of its most famous stories. And I find it interesting that the Great Commission, found in the other gospels, is missing in these important early copies of Mark, which was the first gospel to be written, but I’ll let that one slide, too. But the missing passage about the agony of Gethsemane? I can’t just let that one slide. Why? Because it pertains to the nature of Jesus — Christology, as the field that studies it is called. And beliefs about the nature of Jesus — was he fully human? fully divine? — are most definitely matters of church doctrine. In fact, the question of whether Jesus was fully divine — and thus human in appearance only, and incapable of actually suffering on the cross — or fully human — and thus not divine, wasn’t settled until the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451, when the doctrine of hypostasis was introduced. That council established that Jesus had a dual nature, both fully divine and fully human — the hypostatic union. Evidence for the divinity of Jesus is found all through the gospels, but what is one of the strongest indications of his full humanity? Luke 22:43-44, the agony at Gethsemane, where we see Jesus suffering so acutely that he not only sweats blood, but an angel arrives to comfort him. By Metzger’s own admission (again — elsewhere, not in his interview with Lee Strobel here) the agony at Gethsemane is missing from the oldest and most trusted manuscripts and was probably added deliberately to discredit the doctrine of Docetism. I’d call that putting a doctrine in jeopardy, wouldn’t you?
“A High Degree of Unanimity”
- Metzger describes three criteria used by the early church leaders to determine which documents were included in the canon: (1) the books must have been written by either apostles or followers of apostles, (2) the books must agree with church tradition, and (3) the books had to have continuous acceptance and usage by the church at large.
- Criterion (1) is at best unevenly applied, since (as Dr. Blomberg told us previously and as Metzger reminds us) Mark and Luke were not apostles and were not eyewitnesses to the events they wrote about, but were merely recording hearsay. And remember also that Mark was the first gospel written, and was a source for Matthew and Luke.
- Criterion (2) doesn’t inspire confidence in the historical authenticity of the gospels. The requirement that all documents agree with church tradition would seem to disqualify any testimony that would contradict that tradition. It would result in a canon that reinforced the church’s preferred narrative, rather than an objective history.
- Criterion (3) would favor books that were popular, but not necessarily true. Previously, Craig Blomberg noted the lack of testimony that is critical or contradictory to the gospel account as evidence that the gospels are factually reliable. But these three criteria cited by Metzger, especially (2) and (3), would have encouraged the church — the people who were spreading these stories — to disregard any such criticism or contradictory testimony if it did exist.
- “[Metzger:]‘When one studies the early history of the canon, one walks away convinced that the New Testament contains the best sources for the history of Jesus.’” (p. 67)
- What does it say about how certain we can be regarding the history of Jesus that, according to this prolific New Testament scholar, the gospels — which are not eyewitness accounts, and are rife with contradictions and inconsistencies and obvious late additions that do affect church doctrine despite Metzger’s claims to the contrary — are the best sources?
- The non-canonical gospels (Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Thomas, etc.) are all much more recent and “generally quite banal.”
The “Secret Words” of Jesus
- Metzger describes the Gospel of Thomas as being written around the year 140 (or about 40-50 years after the Gospel of John).
- Metzger gives the late date for the writing of Thomas; some scholars estimate it as early as 60, which would make it older than the Gospel of John.
- Metzger says Thomas includes many familiar sayings of Jesus, but also that “[Metzger:]‘. . . there are some things in Thomas that are totally alien to the canonical gospels.’” (p. 68) Things such as pantheism and some very misogynistic teachings from Jesus (“women are not worthy of life” and the declaration that women must make themselves males in order to enter heaven.
- Metzger says “[Metzger:]‘Now, this is not the Jesus we know from the four canonical gospels!” He suggests that these differences with the canonical gospels account for Thomas not being included in the New Testament. But this only makes sense if you start with the canon, not if you examine the gospels one at a time and compare them to the others. There are aspects in each of the four canonical gospels that are alien to the other three. For example, in Mark Jesus claims he does not know when the world will end; in Luke we get the only description of John the Baptist’s nativity, and the only mention of John the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb when the pregnant Mary was nearby; in Matthew, the Jewish aspect of Jesus is stressed more than in the other three gospels; in John, Jesus talks about himself as divine, using the first person in a way we don’t see in the synoptic gospels: “I am the light of the world”, “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” All of those aspects of those individual gospels are alien to the rest of the gospels. Like the Gospel of Thomas, they have things in common with the other gospels, and they have elements that are unique that aren’t found in the other gospels.
- “[Metzger:]‘I think the Gospel of Thomas is an interesting document, but it’s mixed up with pantheistic and antifeminist statements that certainly deserve to be given the left foot of fellowship, if you know what I mean.’” (pp. 68-69)
- I think it’s great that a renowned Christian Bible scholar like Bruce Metzger believes antifeminist statements don’t belong in the New Testament! Because there’s plenty of it in there to get rid of. For example, in I Corinthians Paul teaches that women should be silent in church and be obedient. In Ephesians, Paul commands wives to submit to their husbands just as they would to the Lord. In I Timothy, women are told to dress modestly and are forbidden from teaching or usurping authority from men. These sentiments are echoed by Peter in I Peter, as well. So can we toss these books from the canon, too?
The “Unrivaled” New Testament
- Following the pattern established by the first two chapters, Strobel comments on how persuasive Metzger had been. He reiterates the fidelity of the modern New Testament copies to the originals, and the consensus among the early church that led to the canon. He again dismisses of the extra-canonical gospels and epistles, quoting Eusebius to declare them “[Strobel quoting Eusebius on the non-canonical material:]‘Totally absurd and impious.’”
- Is “impious” really the sort of description that would mean anything to a skeptic or an objective journalist?
- Strobel asks Metzger how his research has impacted his personal faith. “[Metzger:]‘I’ve asked questions all my life, I’ve dug into the text, I’ve studied this thoroughly, and today I know with confidence that my trust in Jesus has been well placed.’
“He paused while his eyes surveyed my face. Then he added, for emphasis, ‘Very well placed.’” (p. 71)
- I wonder if any of Strobel’s experts will report that their faith has been weakened by their research . . .
- I’ve been hinting at it all this time, so here it is finally: establishing the accurate transmission of the gospels from the time of Christ to today does nothing to persuade me of the truth of their claims. While the documents themselves may have been faithfully copied from generation to generation down these many centuries (and I find evidence in Strobel and Metzger’s own arguments that they have not), all this means is that the modern copies of the gospels are accurate, not that they are historically true. There are two very good reasons why “accurately transcribed gospels” does not get you any closer to “true gospels”:
- First, the source of the gospels. By Metzger’s own reckoning, the four gospels became canon because they met certain criteria, including that they were authored (or assumed to have been authored) by either disciples of Jesus or disciples of disciples. Would you trust a biography of L. Ron Hubbard written by David Miscavige?
- Second, the incredible nature of their claims about Jesus. The gospels, along with the other books of the New Testament, don’t merely record the life and moral philosophy of Jesus — they claim he was literally the son of God, a miracle worker capable of healing the sick with a touch, raising the dead, and returning to life from his own death. That the documents making these claims are very old and relatively free of copying errors is irrelevant. Imagine early Mormon writings are discovered by archaeologists excavating the ruins of Salt Lake City 2,000 years from now. They are compared to the latest printings of the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, etc., and found to be in total agreement. Does that mean that Jesus visited North America following his crucifixion? Or that Joseph Smith was visited by an angel? Or that the golden plates and the magic stones are not the crude inventions of the imagination of a shameless con artist?
- Establishing that the documents containing the gospels have been reliably preserved is all well and good (or it would be, at least, if it were possible). But unless you can make a strong case for why I should accept what those documents say as reliable history, it’s a useless argument.
Next time: Chapter 4: The Corroborating Evidence: Is There Credible Evidence for Jesus Outside His Biographies?