Do We Have Reason To Doubt The New Testament/Gospel Manuscript Transmission Process?


The time in which Christ lived there were no printing presses, so documents needed to be hand copied by scribes onto manuscripts, which would then be stored. This was a common method if the ancients wished to keep records of what they felt to be important to them.

One of the charges leveled at the New Testament/Gospel transmission process is something like the “game of telephone.” According to this, a single message is introduced to someone on one end of a chain/line of people, and at the end of it being handed down via the chain, the message which comes out bears no resemblance to what it was at the beginning. In other words, the message became corrupted somewhere within the chain. This corruption of the original message also purportedly applies to the process of manuscript transmission of the New Testament/Gospels. It posits that there was an original message perhaps written on the earliest manuscript(s), and that over time, as it was copied and handed on (from one scribe to the next set of scribes and copyists), it was corrupted, and that this corruption is what we have in our final form (i.e. in the gospels as they are now printed in the New Testament that Christians read). This final form is nothing like the original message, and there is little reason to deem it a reliable witness to the historical Jesus.

However, there is reason to doubt this scenario on grounds that the transmission of New Testament/gospel manuscripts, as it occurred over time, was quite unlike the evolution and corruption of a message one finds in the game of telephone. The ultimate advantage the New Testament/Gospel manuscripts have is in that rather than being transmitted by a single, sole chain (like in the game of telephone) there are multiple chains of transmission. For instance, the original gospel manuscript was copied, and that copy was copied by several scribes, and then that copy was further copied by more several scribes, and so on, until we possess many thousands of these manuscript copies (we will look at the number of manuscripts in a follow up post). This functions as valuable means of comparison, and by comparing them together the textual critic can arrive at a good idea concerning the content the original manuscript would have contained. The results have been successful given that textual critics have been able to identify what words, sentences, and paragraphs were in the earliest manuscripts, and what was likely added later by a scribe for some other purpose. A good example is the ending to Mark’s gospel (the portion running from 16:9 until 16:20) which is not in the earliest manuscripts, and was almost certainly added by a later scribe, possibly in the early 2nd century. Many mainstream Bible translations include footnotes acknowledging the possible lack of originality of these Markan verses. It seems clear that given the views of textual critics combined with the limited number of such footnotes noting unoriginality elsewhere within the gospels, one can be fairly certain that the gospels as they are printed in Bibles are almost exactly the same as the original manuscripts.

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