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Debunking the Evidence for a Historical Jesus, Part 2: "But We Have 24000 Manuscripts!"

Updated on February 18, 2014

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How Many Copies do we Have - And Are they Reliable?

Christians claim that, with over 24000 manuscripts of the New Testament, it is therefore historically reliable and verifiable. Nothing could be further from the truth. When considering the manuscripts that we do have, we have to consider when they were written, who they were copied by and how they compare to other copies - and the fact that the large majority of them are nothing more than fragments, it leaves a lot to be desired.

As far as the number of manuscripts - sure, the numbers seem impressive until you consider something. for up until 300 years after christ's death, there were no professional scribes to preserve them. According to renowned scholar and author, bart ehrman, there are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the new testament. While minor spelling mistakes are relatively insignificant, there are also a huge amount of deliberate alterations that need to be taken seriously. There are no existing New Testament manuscripts from the 1st century, and there are no originals. the first documents that we have are fragments - not entire copies, and they date to 100-200 years after the 1st century. There is around a 300 year period of nothing at all - and any number of changes, alterations, additions or subtractions could have occurred the early stages.


Forgeries and Fragments

Additionally, there are evidences of forgeries in the new testament itself. Paul's letters warn against false teachers that are writing in his name. This goes to show that textual forgeries were already occurring at the time the earliest pieces of the New Testament were being written. In fact, a large majority of biblical scholars today discount half of Paul's letters were not written by Paul - in addition to the letters of James, Peter, John and Jude. Although christian apologists claim that a lot of people wrote scripture under a famous or recognizable name, the practice was almost universally condemned in the ancient world - sometimes to the point of death.

Lee Strobel in the "case for Christ" is quoted as saying: "What the New Testament has in its favor, especially when compared with other ancient writings is the unprecedented multiplicity of copies that have survived...the quantity of NT material is almost embarrassing in comparison with other works of antiquity" Which seems to be the exact argument that you're using.

However, the oldest complete texts of the bible are the Codex Siniaticus and Codex Vaticanus - which date to the 4th century. That's hardly a few generations after the death of Christ. It's a gap of 3-400 years.

The earliest "manuscript" in existence is, in fact, a scrap. It's called P52, and it could fit on a credit card. It's a scrap of the gospel of John and that fragment is dated at the earliest to 150 AD. A whole hundred years after Christ's supposed death and resurrection.

None of the remaining fragments in existence date earlier than 125 Ad - so none of them exist from the lifetime of eyewitnesses. The SECOND oldest fragment, after P52 is the Egerton Papyrus 2 does not come from any known gospel at all. When you count fragments as documents, the number is inflated to impressive numbers, sure. The uncomfortable fact remains that for the first thousand years of christianity only fragments and scraps remain, and they cannot possibly assist in the reliability of the original manuscripts. There simply are not entire books of the new testament dating from the first century lying around to be examined.

the 24000 manuscripts seem impressive - until you realize that they all came centuries later. The 2856 Greek text manuscripts (or fragments thereof) were all written in the 9th century - or even later. All of the 24000 intact copies are younger (by several hundred years) than the oldest complete bibles mentioned above, which themselves date back to 300 AD or later.

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    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth 

      3 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      I completely agree, Catherine. Despite what apologists like to claim, forgery in the ancient world was NOT commonplace, and it was incredibly discouraged. I'll have to look up the verse where Paul says false teachers are writing in his name, but it's clear that this was a rampant problem in early Christian communities. Since the earliest Christian writings are known to contain several forgeries, not counting the gospels which are falsely attributed but not forged, it is a fact that the new testament contains lies. How can a book with blatant lies be the infallible word of a god?

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 

      3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Having texts that are widely copied are proof of popularity, not accuracy or truthfulness. Copying also provides lots of opportunities for forgery. Even Paul was claiming that texts bearing his name were forgeries? I did not know that. And it was happening during his own lifetime when he was there to deny them. Wow! Half of the writing attributed to Paul are now known not to have been written by him. Be careful when you quote Paul--you may be quoting a forger.

    • Joseph041167 profile image

      Joseph Mitchell 

      4 years ago from Nashville TN 37206.

      Thank you very much JMcFarland, this paper here is very good, done well, and important, and I like it, just sitting here studying some of your material. I never forgot you. You and I would probably not be on the same page every issue and have serious issues, but I needed to come back and study your material tonight, and this is a good one here, and thank you so much.

    • Ashleign profile image

      Ashleign 

      4 years ago

      Julie! Awesome work here. I especially love the comments. You better be careful though.. You don't want to burn for an eternity, nor make macaroni necklaces for an eternity.. If the bible teaches us anything, we learn, if you are good, and praise god, he will kill your family, rain fire on your house, kill your livestock, and plague you, all to prove a point to satan.. We also learn the bible is all plagiarism.. A mistranslated plagiarized version of Greek Mythology.. Love the hub!

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth 

      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      I am also fascinated with Tudor England (partially because my family legend maintains that I'm somehow related to Henry VIII but I don't know if it's true or not). I'm also fascinated with the middle ages, etc. I just love history in general. things become a lot less clear the farther back you go. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    • Georgie Lowery profile image

      GH Price 

      5 years ago from North Florida

      I'm not very scholarly but, as an atheist, I certainly appreciate the work you are doing here even in the face of the abuse you are taking for doing it. One of my favorite periods in history is Tudor England, from which we have many sources, documents, letters and decrees that have survived intact and here scholars are still trying to break it all apart to determine fact from fiction. Your period of history starts well before theirs does so I can't imagine the journey you're undertaking. I am looking forward to the next part. :)

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth 

      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Thank you very much, Wayne. I think o many people just assume that Jesus was historical that they never care to examine the evidence for themselves. When they start looking into it, the result is often astounding. It's easier for people to dismiss it out of hand than really consider the implications, and it's always nice to run into a like-minded individual who is interested in searching for the truth. Thanks for stopping by.

    • wayne barrett profile image

      Wayne Barrett 

      5 years ago from Clearwater Florida

      Julie, I for one, as someone who has also researched the subject, agree with you. My study was not as extensive as what you have here, but from what I have seen, your information is true and correct. good work!

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth 

      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      I write all of my hubs as time permits. I have already addressed Talmudic evidence, without specifically referring to the Babylonian Talmud that has similar references and I don't feel as though i need to address the Talmud again. I will address the others when I have free time available to write. I get the sneaking suspicion, however, by your style of writing and the substance of your post that you're just another incarnation of Taze - and if that's the case, future comments from you will be disallowed as well.

    • tsadjatko profile image

      TSAD 

      5 years ago from https:// www.consumeraffairs.com/ online/ hubpages. html

      I'm curious, in your Part 1 hub comments https://hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/Debunking...

      You said you would comment on

      Evidence from the Babylonian Talmud

      Evidence from Pliny the Younger

      Evidence from Josephus

      Evidence from Lucian of Samosata

      When do you plan to address those subjects?

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth 

      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      How can a conversation ever bad or dangerous? How is my hub detracting from anything? No one is forcing you (or anyone else) to read our comment on it. We disagree and have a difference of opinion. So what? Isn't that what conversations are for? What exactly are you so afraid of?

    • SwordofManticorE profile image

      SwordofManticorE 

      5 years ago from Burlington

      No it is not good. But that is your choice. Such hubs take are attention away from discissions with other christians.

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth 

      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Awww, sword - here I was actually starting to like you. How can a conversation ever be a bad thing, as long as both sides act respectfully? What do you possibly have to be afraid of in a simple discussion with a stranger if you're so certain that you're right?

    • k12rswow profile image

      k12rswow 

      5 years ago from New England

      Sword,

      I like McFarland, we can blow some intellectual steam once in a while. It's all good.

    • SwordofManticorE profile image

      SwordofManticorE 

      5 years ago from Burlington

      To all Christians who read this nonsense. Don't allow the athiests to draw you into a discussion. It is a waste of your time. This hub is another useless trap.

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth 

      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Threats? They kind of lose their weight when you don't believe any of that crap, just sayin.

    • k12rswow profile image

      k12rswow 

      5 years ago from New England

      Your biblical literature won't help your soul come judgement day.

    • JMcFarland profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth 

      5 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      yes we do. Biblical scholars have dated the existing manuscripts we have against other ancient literature and the research in this article is sound. I'm sorry you don't like it, but it is the truth, and anyone in the field of biblical literature will confirm it.

    • k12rswow profile image

      k12rswow 

      5 years ago from New England

      """""""the 24000 manuscripts seem impressive - until you realize that they all came centuries later."""""""

      You don't know that.

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