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January 26, 2016


Suppose that I give you several copies of a sequence of numbers.

For example, suppose the sequences are like this:

  •  0,  1,  2,  1,  3,  5,  8, 13
  • 0, 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13
  • 0, 1, 1, 5, 3, 5, 8, 31
  • 10, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13
  • 0, 1, 1, 4, 3, 5, 8, 13
  • 10, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 31
  • 0, 1, 1, 2, 6, 8, 13
  • 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21
  • 0, 93, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13
  • 0, 1, 1, 2, 0, 5, 8, 12
  • 0, 1, 1, 2, 13, 5, 8, 13
  • 0, 1, 1, 2, 13, 5, 8, 13
Can't you tell that the sequence I intended to be giving you is this one:
  • 0,  1,  1,  2,  3,  5,  8, 13
Notice that I did not once actually give that sequence.

Each copy is off in one or two places, or possibly missing a member or having an extra.

Still, the result seems pretty clear.

Or does 'the sheer diversity of the evidence make it awfully difficult to discern'?

So, what the challenger is saying is that police investigating a murder should only look at one piece of evidence or accept the testimony of only one of the 15 witnesses, because having too many clues makes it harder to discern what actually happened?

Take that one to court.

Maybe a clearer way of illustrating WisdomLover's point would be this:

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy moon.

the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy moon.

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy moon

The quick brown fox jump over the lazy moon.


There are clearly many, many, many ways to diversify this sentence and virtually none of them make it difficult to discern the original sentence.

liljenborg's point is well taken. The answer to this challenge lies in the central problem of the challenge itself. The fact that we have so many copies of the Bible, both partial and complete, allows textual scholars to get closer to discovering the original message.

If we only had 10 copies of the Bible with lots of discrepancies between them, it would be harder to determine the original text (though not impossible). But with thousands of copies, the job becomes easier even though the number of discrepancies increases.

Also, the nature of the discrepancies is important. Most of the discrepancies found in the copies of the Bible are like the example Remington provided. It's easy to determine the original sentence.

The question often addresses the transmission of copies of the NT autographs. We hold the autographs to be authoritative given the short period of writing the NT and the quick dissemination into the various regions where the Church had grown. We know what the variants are precisely because we have such an abundance of copies as demonstrated by my august fellow commenters.

The OT is a little bit different. Given the rather long history of the writing of the OT and the fact that these writings were fairly localized in Canaan, Egypt, and Babylon at different times, we recognize some divinely superintended redaction into the final form of each of the writings such that the Masoretic text is generally held to be authoritative while earlier forms were sufficiently authoritative before the prophetic redactions. That treats the scholarship fairly and is true to the presupposition of faith necessary to accept the evidence of the covenantal nature of divine revelation and understand its full import.

I have taken Dr. Wallace's ITunesU course on textual criticism. A crucial lesson is the second one, An Embarrassment of Riches. We have thousands of documents, from shards to full folios.

This jives well with the citation of the Apostolic Fathers from Clement of Rome to Justin Martyr. All Gospels are quoted, and almost the full collection of epistles as well (hard to find quotable material of the short letters of John and Jude, not because of their non-existence, but rather to their brevity and capability of other longer sources to be used. This suggests overall familiarity of the Apostolic character of the New Testament.

This, by the way, is the Dr. Wallace who, in debating Bart Ehrmann, caught his opponent's interest in implying that first century manuscripts were on the verge of being discovered.

It was the such discovery of ancient papyri which scuttled the late nineteenth century theories which placed the New Testament corpus completely in the second century. That notion is dead. Who knows whether textual criticism (a methodology used by both the conservative historical-grammatical school and liberal historical-critical method) will soon dispel the notion the challenge proposes.

Wrt textual criticism, you cannot assume that the most frequent variant is the original one, you cannot even assume that it most likely is the original one in some contexts. If you find two variants A and B with the former occuring in ten thousand manuscript copies and the latter just occuring in one, then B could still be the original one, and if B occurs in the *oldest* available manuscript, then scholars would actually conclude that B is more likely to be the original.
And note that the original is not necessarily preserved at all, if both A and B involve, say, grammatical constructs that are extremely uncharacteristic (or even completely unknown) for the time in which the original was written, then scholars would conclude that neither A nor B corresponds to what the autograph said.
Textual criticism is a *very* complex field.


In the example I gave, the original was not preserved. None of the copies I gave was right. Yet the right result was fully recoverable.

Indeed, there are more errors in the example than there are members of the original sequence.

Notice also that, in my example, sometimes the reason you would strongly favor one number over another may not just be frequency. There are a few cases where simple inversions have occurred (31 instead of 13, 2 in column 3 and 1 in column 4, instead of the other way round...etc.).

Also, you might be able to judge by the general sense of a passage which variation is correct. I tried to capture this in my example by making the 'original' sequence the first few members of the Fibonacci sequence. Once you get that, you know exactly how the sequence should go. One of the variations errs by simply adding the next member of the sequence.

As for the age/frequency issue, I get your point, though I suspect that the text experts will also take into account the fact that if you have a lot of copies that are pretty old that say one thing, and only a few that are a little older that say something else, the more frequent, but somewhat newer, variation may still be the more likely variation. This is because those that made all those somewhat newer copies would have had access to documents even closer to the original than anything we have today.

Let's say that by 2050, George Lucas, his life unnaturally extended by the midi-chlorians, actually manages to rid the world of every copy of Star Wars where Han shot first. Let's also suppose that most of the discussion of whether Han or Greedo shot first is lost. What we do have is a bunch of discussion from 2020 which says that in the original, Han shot first. But there are also a few accounts from 2002 that say Greedo shot first (these accounts are from viewers who have only ever scene the Lucas-'enhanced' editions).

I think, in that case, it would still be reasonable to assume that Han shot first, even though no copies where Han shot first exist anymore, and even though our oldest accounts of the movie say that Greedo shot first. The reason this makes sense is that 2020 viewers would still have had access to plenty of copies of Star Wars that pre-date 2002.

Finally, I'm not assuming that textual criticism is a simple thing. I am assuming that it is a field where significant and unambiguous results can be obtained (as opposed to it's illegitimate step-sister field...historical, a.k.a. higher, criticism).

The only one really the assuming that textual criticism is simple is the challenger. He's assuming that since each document is liable to bring in more errors, that things are getting worse and worse. This is simplistic and wrong.

If we must be simplistic, a better assumption is that each document is bringing in more and more corrections, so that things are getting better and better.

The vast majority of differences are things like not crossing your t or dotting your i. The rest of the differences are in texts that do not alter any of the fundamental doctrines.

If the world were truly a result of evolution, shouldn't we expect a whole lot of atheists to be indifferent or complete adherents. For under scientific naturalism, Christianity vs. atheism/other religion is simply a choice like Chocolate/Vanilla. Some people may have no opinion of Chocolate but be just happy consuming it. But no, we find visceral hatred towards Christianity confirming what the Bible says we should expect.

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