Feel free to copy me

In my last blog I discussed David’s census. One of the most common responses to the conflicting numbers presented is “copyist error.” In fact, the entire field of textual criticism centers around “copyist error” and attempting to determine what is, and what is not, an error introduced by a person making a copy.

Once we concede that the manuscripts we have contain errors that were not in the original, it is difficult to be persuasive that the originals were either inerrant, or even inspired. How can we determine what we have now is error or not?

The census presents two different numbers as to how many people were counted. Same census, different numbers. A solution presented is that one of the persons copying the numbers, mis-wrote or made a mistake, and introduced error. The story presents two different years of famine for punishment, 3 or 7. Again, a simple solution being that a copyist, at some point, inadvertently put in a “3” for a “7.” (or vice versa if you prefer.)

These are numbers we can clearly see conflict. If the believer agrees that the numbers we see conflict were due to error, is it not equally as likely that numbers that stand alone may also contain copyist error? Is it persuasive that the ONLY numbers that ever had any copyist error are the ones that we just happen to catch by two differing accounts? Could a copyist, for example, bolstered some numbers, to make a story sound more dramatic? Have David killing 10’s of thousands?

And why should it be limited to numbers? We also see names that conflict. Certainly if a copyist can introduce error in a number, they equally can introduce error in names. Or what about geography? Abraham is reported as traveling as far as the city of Dan. (Gen. 14:14) The only problem is that “Dan” was named after one of the 12 tribes 500 years later! (Joshua 19:47) Now there are arguments that there was another Dan that disappeared (oddly, right in the same line as the subsequent Dan) or that the city name was changed from Dan to Leshem and then coincidently back to Dan.

The better argument is that the story of Abraham was not recorded until long after Dan was an established city, and the author simply used the then-modern name of the city. Or could this, too, be a copyist error? Some writer “correcting” a mistaken name, and putting in what they thought was the correct one?

You see, once we concede there are any copyist errors, without the originals to compare, the best we can do is extrapolate back to the closest copy to the original, and even that becomes a matter of speculation. All of which is well and fine, if we were talking about a human book. But Christians proclaim that the Bible is unique. Different. Divine. I thought the idea was to propel its divinity, not indicate it is comparable to human efforts. The worst arguments that the Bible is unique are the ones that say it is like everything else.

Remember the simple game of telephone? Where you have twenty people in a circle, and the first whispers something to the second, the second whispers what they heard to the third, and so on? By the twentieth, we hear how the sentence has changed dramatically, and laugh. Let’s take that one step further. Instead of a circle, imagine a hub of a wheel, with spokes out.

Assume that the originator provides a document to a person on the hub, call them person 1. Person 1 will provide a copy (or the original) to two People, Person 2 (also on the hub) and Person A (on a spoke.) Then Person(s) 2 and 1A will provide a copy (or the original) to two People, and so on. The question comes up, as to which is the better document? If Person 1A introduces an anomaly, but Person 2 is more accurate, Person 2A is more accurate, Person 3 is more accurate, than someone literally farther from the original could be more accurate than the copy received from Person 1A! Person 3A is four times removed from the original, Person 1A1 is three times removed, and more incorrect. If a person on a hub provides an error, then every person on that spoke will also have that error. If Person 1 introduces an anomaly, ALL of the copies will be modified.

You can start to conceptualize how an error, introduced, can grow fairly quickly. Even to the point that the witnesses in favor of the error could outnumber the original, still in existence! It gets worse. In telephone, Person number 15 has to wait for the whisper to reach them. But particularly in New Testament times, the statements contained in the books would be transported by word of mouth faster than in written form. In our exercise, Person 15 could receive the written copy from Person 14, and already have a pre-formed opinion as to what was contained in the writing. “No, that is not how I heard it, I should make a correction.”

And it is also true that these books were not created in a vacuum. It is possible that rather than one copy, a scribe could have been comparing two. Which brings into play the trouble of which one does the scribe rely upon if there was a conflict?

It is not until the Early Third Century that we begin to have large portions of scripture to begin to compare textually for these copyist errors. Do you know what percentage of the New Testament we have conclusively dated on Papyrus prior to the Third Century? A portion of 18 verses. That is it.

Depending on when one dates the books, this is a time of 100-150 years before we start to have large sections to compare! We do not know if we are looking at copies of an original, a copy of a copy, or a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. We simply have no way of knowing.

In dating these books, we hear a made-up rule of thumb that there were 10 years between Mark and Matthew because that is a speculative guess as to how long it would take to make that copy. The first scrap we have with Mark (P45) is in the third century. Using a late date for Mark, say 70 CE, and an extremely early date for P45, say 200 CE, what happens when we apply this “rule of thumb”? It is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy!

This is a bit of a hyperbole, of course, because we do NOT have a 10 year rule of thumb, and since Matthew and Luke copied Mark, we could say their first appearance validates Mark. I merely point that out to impress how little we know about the formation of these books at the most critical time of their compilation, and how we have no idea as to the number of copies (one? None? Twelve?) made before we begin to have a frame of reference.

All allowing time for copyist error.

Which raises the question—how much was God involved in the transcribing of the Bible? Assuming, for the moment, that God literally inspired the original works. That God only inspired certain works. How much God-involvement was there in the preservation of those works? To begin, review the extremes:

On the one hand we could have God actively, continually and forcefully involved in every transcription, every translation, every copy, every single verse. All copies would be exactly as the original. Every time a verse was cited, it would automatically appear with the correct spelling, words, punctuation and sentence structure. It would be physically impossible to ever introduce an error, no matter how hard one tried. The copyist could become lazy in making the copy.

Admit it. How many typing in word processors (and I assume you are not typing on typewriters) with the “auto-correct” on, have become lazy with spelling? You pound out “envrinment” figuring the computer will figure out you are trying to type “environment” and do the correct spelling for you? Come on. There has to be at least ONE other person besides me guilty of this offense.

With God actively involved at every step we could do the same with the Bible. Want to copy John 3:16? Start writing, “God…love…world…gave…begotten…son...whosoever..” and the next thing you know John 3:16 appears in perfect form and syntax. We could never have another errant copy again. (By the by, this would certainly go a long way towards eliminating atheism!)

Or take the other extreme. God inspired the original, and then was completely hands-off. Whatever copies were made, whatever errors were introduced, He had no intervention. Almost a deistic creator of writing—make it and let it go on its own.

This introduces other problems. What if God inspired the Gospel of Jairus? What? You never heard of the Gospel of Jairus? That is because God was completely hands-off. Sadly, his daughter inadvertently used it to start a fire, and the inspired Gospel was heard of no more. All God did was inspire it in the first place. Whatever happens after that is completely up to humans.

If this proposition is true, what books are inspired and what are not? Why couldn’t the Gospel of Thomas be inspired? Just because it was not well-preserved by humans makes no difference. Using this as an extreme, that most certainly does not disqualify it from inspiration.

We lose any ability to determine what is inspired and what is not. God did not leave any distinguishing marks on those original inspired books. Nothing by which a human could say, “Hey, that’s God’s signature, so we know it was inspired.” The Wisdom of Solomon could be inspired. The Epistle of Barnabas, 1 Clement, the Shepard of Hermas all qualify. 2 Peter may not be. Revelation is up for grabs. And where is there any time-limit on God? He could STILL be inspiring books, and then letting the chips fall where they may. I know many Christians that wish Mere Christianity was inspired!

And what if 2 Timothy was not inspired? We wouldn’t even have the word “God-breathed” by which to claim anything was God-breathed! This becomes just as unworkable as the all-involved God, without any way to determine what was originally inspired, and what was not.

Most believers fall somewhere in-between these two extremes, in that God is somehow partially involved, not only in the original manufacture of these books, but their eventual transcription and prominence in the Christian community. Now the only thing left to do is determine a method, a system, by which we can ascertain where God was involved, and where he was not.

Remember, we started off this discussion on copyist error in numbers. Our method must incorporate some way, some reason, by which we determine either God didn’t care about numbers being mis-copied, or God actively desired numbers to be mis-copied, or some other reason by which God stays involved, and lets errors through.

And this method must include areas besides numbers. However God treated numbers, the method must either make an exception, for some reason, for numbers, OR it must equally treat other areas, such as names, places and events as to how God chose to preserve them or not.

We are aware of the addition of the Story of the Adulterous woman, or the ending of Mark, or the Johannine Comma. Our method must include a way, in which God either did not care, or tacitly sanctioned, or merely allowed such errors to creep in. Textual criticism would reduce to the use of this method to determine God touching it or not.

Seriously, by what means can we possibly come up with any way in which to determine where God was involved in the preservation or not? I cannot fathom, nor have I seen any such system proposed. How can we account for the variations in every single manuscript? Look at the variations we see. This method would require accounting for these variations, why God was involved, or if he stopped being involved, when he stopped.

What I see is a method by fatigue. To avoid the hard work of actually coming up with a method, one throws up one’s hands, and says, “God is involved with what we have today.” What we see is what God was involved in. If there is an error, then God was not involved. If there is not, God was. What we have comes from the inspired. If we don’t have it, it wasn’t inspired.

Immediately we see the problem. This becomes a self-authenticating solution.

1. God preserved these particular scriptures because they are inspired.
2. We know these particular scriptures are inspired because they were preserved.

If the only method we have, to determine either inerrancy or inspiration, is that we have to accept what we have, it becomes no method at all. God’s involvement appears the exact same as any human involvement.

Arguing for how this book looks, acts, transcribes, introduces errors, and is canonized just like any other book is not even remotely compelling for the claim that it is any different. Oh, sure, it is unique. All books, including my teen-age daughter’s diary are unique. The Bible is getting an ad hoc definition of being unique, by conforming the definition of uniqueness to exactly what the Bible is.

We know what ad hoc is—after the fact. If someone is dating a fellow and it doesn’t work out, they say, “Oh, he would not have made a good husband anyway.” Whether he would or would not have, AFTER the fact, when it is no longer an option, he is ruled a poor candidate.

Same thing with the Bible. After the fact we have it, it is defined as unique for its properties. One of the claims that the Bible is unique is how various writers all agreed on the same principles. O.K. Then why not add 1 Clement (another writer) and make it even MORE unique because there are even MORE writers? Or add the Gospel of Peter? Or the Gospel of Thomas? Seems to me, if agreement among various writers is the qualifier, we can find a whole bunch more to REALLY make the Bible stand out. The only reason this is used as an indicator of the uniqueness of the Bible is that it already has a number of different writers.

This is the same act performed with inspiration. An ad hoc determination that what we have stems from the inspired originals, when we have no clue what the originals stated, nor any method to determine original inspiration, nor any method to determine how God was involved in maintaining accurate copies.

Finally—a story on humanity.

I have no clue how many hours I have spent in courtrooms. We sit and wait and wait for our case to be called, watching other cases. Assuming I have seen 5 cases a day (which is quite low for some periods of my life, and high for others) I have seen upwards of 20,000 cases for various reasons. Judges will see 5,000 cases in a year or more.

And some Defendant will have exactly one case—his. He hasn’t seen the 3,500 cases before him, nor will he see the 1,500 cases after. At best, he will see the same 5 cases I get to see waiting for our turn.

Now this defendant is thinking of some way to explain to the judge why he didn’t appear for the previous court hearing, where he was likely going to be sent to jail. The easiest excuse readily available? “I forgot.” But even he knows that is not very believable, since most people are intimately aware of their brushes with the judicial system, nor will the judge be very sympathetic.

So blame it on someone else. That’s the ticket. And in America, it is the United States Postal Service. The Defendant pipes up, “I never received my notice in the mail.”

I suppose they expect the Judge to pause, think for a second, and say, “O.K. I can see that. Things DO get lost in the mail. It must not be your fault.”

But what that defendant doesn’t know (it is, after all, his only case) is that the Judge has heard that exact same excuse before. Three times. That day. And five times the day before. And eight times the day before that. And 25 times the week before. And 100 times the month before. In a Judge’s lifetime, s/he could hear it 25,000 times!

The defendant is presenting the same, tired, excuse that 1000’s before him have presented, and 1000’s after. What makes this excuse, at this time, any different?

I once heard a Judge say, “You know, after hearing how little of my mail gets delivered, I sometimes wonder if the Postal Carrier has some grand conspiracy against me. ‘Ho Ho! A letter from Judge Smith? I will toss that in the wastebasket, because certainly that could never be important.’ After hearing how no mail sent from this courthouse is able to reach its intended recipient, I wondered if there was some great black hole that sucks our mail from the box before it even reaches the post office. And you know what? The funny thing is, every notice we send for someone to come pick up their bond money, THAT notice they seem to get!”

See, we have heard this excuse thousands of times. To the defendant, since it is his/her first shot at it, they think it is unique. To us, it is the same lame excuse the hundredth time over.

I get the same sort of feeling when the Bible is discussed. With the Bible, any errors that portray its humanity should be overlooked, or not considered. With the 1000’s of other books, it is an indication of not being divine. We should overlook the fact that our copies have copies, and variant readings. That is not a sign of humanity, but divinity. We should overlook the fact that inspiration is a circular argument. That is a sign of divinity, whereas other books that make the same claim are clearly human.

What I see is a defendant, scratching their head and coming up with the same excuse that millions of other human endeavors have stated.

If one is going to claim that there are copyist errors in the Bible, time to step up. Explain how the errors we see make it divine, whereas the errors in other books make them human.