5,000 Manuscripts of the New Testament? NOPE!

From: Don Martin To: Bob Hyde

Bob Hyde said "Outside of Science." to Richard Smith, adding:

BH> Ancient literature: We have 643 manuscripts for Homer's
BH> Iliad, which is second in manuscript authority after
BH> the New Testament of the Bible. We have over 5,000
BH> manuscripts to establish the New Testament. It would
BH> seem therefore that in this regard, the New Testament
BH> is the #1 piece of ancient literature in the world.
BH> I hope this clarifies what I was saying.

It clarifies that you have a very tenuous grasp of what you are talking about, and none at all of the significance of such numbers.

To the latter point, you would appear to suupose that such a numeric difference actually _has_ some significance to some point or other (i.e., that it is meaningful), when in fact it has none. We have a great many more living persons with an IQ <90 than we have persons with an IQ >160: would you therefore maintain that the views of the numerous dolts are of more value than those of the few geniuses?

But where your assertion gets _really_ foggy is in the details. How do you define "manuscript"? Obviously, it means something written (script) by hand (manu), but before around 1450 or so when the printing press was invented, _all_ books were manuscripts.

Since the invention of printing, the term "manuscript" (MS) has come to mean "original", either the author's holograph or copies thereof made by amaneunses under the author's direction: the term has been extended to cover typewritten copies or printout by those persons.

In this sense, no MSS exist of either the Illiad or the NT.

What you refer to as MS are no more than copies of published works, published the way things were before the development of mass production of words, by scribes making copies of other copies. In the ancient world, this would have been done both by stables of scribes turning out numerous copies simultaneously and by individuals making their own from a borrowed copy, either personally, or by means of a scribe hired for the purpose.

The great Library of Alexandria was built by a law upon all travellers entering the city, requiring that all books in their possession be surrendered to the Library. There the books were copied, and the originals returned to the traveller in a month or so. Keep doing this for a few centuries, and you can build up a pretty good collection. Holders of modern copyright would object to such a practice, but that is the way things were done back then.

Not having the author's copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke and whatnot, the fallback position is to speak of the "earliest known MS" of these, under the presumption that the closer the copy is to the original, the more accurately it will preserve the words of that original. I do not know the earliest known MS of the NT (I expect Curtis Johnson does--he seems to have all this stuff in direct recall), but apart from the material from the Dead Sea Scrolls, I would guess that little of it dates from much earlier than the 3rd century of the common era. Were you to do some specific research on those "over 5,000 manuscripts to establish the New Testament" (which weasel terminology I shall address next), I would expect you to find that the great majority of them date to the medieval period--copies at some remove from the original, but perhaps the best we've got.

Now then, what criteria must a MS meet to number among your "over 5,000 manuscripts to establish the New Testament"? Is this number confined to those books currently included in the NT, or does it contain also the gospels rejected from the canon (in other words, is there some discrimination regarding content, or do you include anything vaguely Christian)? What does it _mean_ "to establish the New Testament?" Certainly, the Old Testament would be considered by many to be foundational to the New. Do you so regard it? If so, do you also include the long tradition of commentary on the OT that predates the NT? Where you have an "oldest copy known" of, say, the Book of Mark, do you then exclude the more recent versions from the 5000? If you do not exclude them, what is your reason for so doing, apart from swelling that number? (This is about as meaningful as having one MS Whitman poem and 199 xeroxes thereof and claiming to have 200 MS Whitman poems--yes, they are all apparently handwritten, but what of it?)

Once you have firmed up your criteria for inclusion, you may wish to consider the objects you are comparing: The Illiad, a work of literature and the NT, the holy writ of a proselytizing religion based in mystic ways on the value of The Word. The Zeus-believing Greeks/Romans and whatnot never regarded the Illiad as anything other than a great story; they certainly did not see it in the same way as Christians regard the NT. Theirs was a religion of rites and rituals to keep the supernatural at bay: they did not expect to be made one with the supernatural, nor had they been "chosen" by that supernatural to fulfill some grand destiny. No book played so central a role in their lives as did the NT in the lives of the Christians, so the two books are not comparable as cult items.

Neither are they comparable in terms of age: the Illiad is dated from around 850 BCE; the NT was written nearly a millenium later (around 70-150 CE for the gospels, though earlier for Paul) and assembled into its present form, with some books accepted and others rejected in the 3-4th century CE.

Nor are they comparable in terms of "mission". Christians were under what many of them regarded as a positive command to proselytize: no such notion drove the pagan religionists. Such a motivation causes copies to be made. At any given monent in this country, there are probably more copies of "Watchtower" floating around than copies of the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Does that mean that Watchtower is better than Poe? It certainly is not better written, nor does it contain the breadth of human experience and feeling that Poe's work does. If you object that Watchtower is "truer" because it is promoting god and Poes does not, then you need to make the case for the existence of that god and the worth of that promotion and not bother counting the difference is numbers of copies.

And finally, though a great deal more could be said of that fatuity of your assertion, whatever it may be, they are not comparable in terms of their political standing during the intervening years. For over a millenium, the NT has been the cornerstone of those with political power in Europe (which power included a practical monopoly on publishing when all of the working scribes were monks and priests), while the Illiad was a specimen of the pagan tradition, demonized by those Christians in power. We have no way of knowing how many copies of the Illiad had the writing scraped off to furnish refurbished writing material for Christian tracts, but we do know that very many classical Greek texts were so recycled.

There endeth ye view.

Additionally, Curtis Johnson provided his own honest view, offering details of textual scholarship that few know so well as he. You do not appear to have honestly exchanged views with him, either.

Now, why might that be?

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