So I’ve been thinking about the origins of Christianity and the texts that we have which concern it. Then I watched Richard Carrier’s new presentation on why he thinks Jesus didn’t exist, and I started thinking about this again. The question I have, particularly for Christians, is
What sort of effect, and what magnitude of an effect, do you believe the process of textual transmission from 0CE to 1000CE had on what we can look at today concerning the origin of Christianity?
This includes the number, quality, and contents of the ancient texts around the time of Jesus, for example. I think there are a number of uncontroversial claims we can make about this question.
- The Christian church had a near monopoly on the textual transmission for over 1000 years, so any and all texts went through this bottleneck of transmission.
- Texts were written in other people’s name (e.g. 1 Peter, Letter to Timothy, etc…), whether well-meaning or not.
- Texts were modified during this period, either deliberately or not.
- Not all texts were preserved.
This fourth point is key, because it plays into what we have to look at now. First, only texts deemed important would generally be copied. So we would expect to have more texts of the canonical view, whatever that happened to be. Secondly, alternative theologies, different perspectives, hostile and critical treatments would not make the cut. This isn’t deliberate censorship, it is simply a product of the limited attentional energies of scribes. Thus, these texts would be exceedingly rare or non-existent, thus giving a very different picture of the real situation at the time. Thirdly, contrary views could possibly be deliberately destroyed, and we have evidence of that happening sometimes as well.
Now, apologists will often make the claim that the Biblical texts that we do have are very near the originals, or we can reconstruct a near original from the comparison with the many copies we have. They often point out that we have many more copies (and earlier copies) of Biblical texts than, say, of Plato’s texts. Fair enough. But this is what we would expect from the points above, and so it is not surprising.
I have two thoughts on this. Firstly what I always wonder is how much of what we have is really a collection of the “winner’s” texts. If there were (as we know to be the case) many different views of Jesus around the time, many with conflicting perspectives, would much of them survive the points above? This is easily verified by the Dead Sea Scrolls, where texts were hidden from the deliberate process of the early church purging the conflicting theological texts. If the Library of Alexandria hadn’t been burned, would we have the same view of Christianity as we have now? It’s like, if the Discovery Institute were the only publisher of science textbooks for 100 years, would we even know science? At least in the case of science, there is the natural world to consult to confirm, but no such confirmation comes from historical texts. Of course what we don’t have we can’t really use in an argument, but it does make one wonder, and should make one highly suspect of any text that has survived the points above.
Secondly, and this is the part that really gets me, is the fact that there is not a single mention in the first century of Jesus as a person, except for the Gospels and less than a handful of known other sources which are either Christian forgeries (i.e. the interpolations in Josephus) or contested texts (i.e. Tacitus). Here, one might cry “argument from silence fallacy”, but the key difference is the process described above. Given what we know about the process of textual transmission for 1000 years, we would expect any significant, outside reference to Jesus to be enthusiastically copied and distributed, and yet we still have such a paucity of data? We have complaints from early church fathers, such as Origen and Justin Martyr, concerning the lack of early reference to Jesus in, say, Josephus so we know it mattered to them. So much so that someone felt that Josephus needed to be modified to include a reference! This point, for me, is what undermines my confidence in the existence of Jesus.
I would say that for me, personally, I am agnostic on it. I am not convinced that he existed at all – I don’t find any of the arguments compelling – however, I wouldn’t bet strongly that he didn’t exist. Still an interesting question, though.