One Good Myth Deserves Another
I’ve had inquiries about a claim, supported by questionable Muslim sources, that have alleged to have busted a myth about textual criticism and Biblical reliability. And so I’d say they do, actually – but they’re also perpetuating misinformation of their own.
The myth they bust is one that claims that if all NT manuscripts from ancient times were destroyed, we could reconstruct all but 11 verses of the NT from the Ante-Nicene church fathers alone. Note that there’s two limitations here, in what I’ll call Version A:
* all but 11 verses
* The Ante-Nicene Fathers
However, that’s not what I always heard. What I have always read — from scholars and the apologetics works I read — is that it’s more like Version B:
* practically the entire NT (no specific number of verses)
* the church fathers — which includes Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene fathers
Unfortunately, it seems that some folks are thinking that Version A and B of this argument are the same — and while these critics do a credible job of debunking Version A, Version B is quite solid — and it’s maintained by all the textual critics (from the range of Wallace to Ehrman) and by the worthwhile apologists I know (including Strobel, and I allude to the point in Trusting the New Testament as well).
So’s who’s actually using Version A? A Google search found a handful of non-entities advancing Version A, and the original blog entry has commenters giving anecdotal testimony saying that they heard “ministers” present it. A non-Christian thinks he heard Gary Habermas make the argument some years ago on a video, and later says he saw it in a book by Strobel or McDowell. Hmm, well — I can believe McDowell used it. But it is definitely not in Strobel’s Case for the Real Jesus — that’s got Version B.
The Islamic site lists several sources it claims reports Version A, but they are all low-level apologetics works, and out of the perhaps a couple of dozen listed, I have only ever read 1 or 2 of them – long ago. And I’m not really that interested in checking all of them. However, I did check two. One, a chapter by Jimmy Williams, does report a slight variation of Version A; however, it says 15-20 verses instead of 11, and the date range is also a bit post-Nicean (down to 450 AD). Another, by Greg Johnson and Michael Ross, does report Version A more or less the same as it is. But that’s still not Version B, which comes from the far more credible sources.
To make matters worse, even the blog entry author confuses the two versions — saying that the myth is presented by Metzger and Ehrman in The Text of the New Testament. However, what Metzger and Ehrman offer is Version B, not Version A — and oddly, the blog author essentially admits this, as he acknowledges that Metzger and Ehrman do not give a precise number of verses, and do not specify the range of the “church fathers” writings. Well, uh, then that’s not the myth. It appears the Muslim site is just as confused, as it refers to the two versions of the argument as though they were the same, but calling Version B a “somewhat less dramatic tempered format.” It’s somewhat more complex than that – we’re talking about a difference of about 300 versus up to 1100-1200 years, and many more authors and preserved works.
The phrase “church fathers” seems, admittedly, used ambiguously at times. But more credible sources offer the threefold division I noted above, with Nicea as the fulcrum. If we include all of those authors in those three time periods, it would frankly be harder not to believe we would be able to reproduce nearly all of the NT from their works — especially as this would include voluminous commentaries by authors like Jerome, and such theologians and Ambrose and Basil, and even a couple of popes and ecumenical councils. I don’t know how many verses would be unattested in that larger collection, but chances are it would be less than 100, statistically speaking (my rough estimate, given number of years, authors, and works).
My own anecdotal information indicates that atheists, too, are confusing Version A and B. So — consider this fair warning to be on the lookout.