Textual Transmission Bottlenecks

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Texts were written in other people’s name (e.g. 1 Peter, Letter to Timothy, etc…), whether well-meaning or not.
  3. Texts were modified during this period, either deliberately or not.
  4. 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.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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3 Responses to Textual Transmission Bottlenecks

  1. Brian: Do yourself a favor, and read Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

  2. brianblais says:

    David, although I’d love to, I definitely don’t have time to slog through 800+ pages of this kind of stuff, especially when I am behind in my reading for my day-job! 🙂

    However, because of your comment, I did just listen to the 2-hours of Bauckham on the Unbelievable podcast (which I’ll blog about sometime later), read a few websites, and listened to about an hour of Robert Price on the topic. In all of that (where I leave still unimpressed with Bauckham’s thesis), I don’t see how this changes anything. We have plenty of cases of eye-witnesses either distorting what they report in their interpretation, memory, observation, or transmission of the events. Thus, even if we believe Bauckham’s thesis that the Gospels represent eye-witness testimony (which I don’t buy for a second), this still doesn’t change the fact that other contemporaneous reports of the events, possibly skeptical and critical reports, would simply not have survived the bottleneck above.

    No matter how you slice that, the textual transmission bottleneck should give one pause when thinking we have a complete picture of the events being reported.

  3. seeker says:

    Brian,

    Even if Bauckham’s arguments about the NT being eyewitness accounts were entirely correct, that still wouldn’t be very convincing, because the real issue isn’t whether the NT was written by eyewitnesses, rather the issue is whether the NT accounts are reliable; and being an eyewitness does not necessarily help much in that regard.

    Here’s a recent report about some woman who showed up perfectly healthy long after her “eyewitness” friends and family had attended her funeral.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/23/sharolyn-jackson-philadelphia_n_3806803.html

    And here’s an even more amazing report about the “eyewitness” Barclay family, who welcomed their “missing son,” Nicholas, back into their home a couple of years after he’d been kidnapped, even though he was obviously an imposter with different colored hair, different colored eyes, minimal English skills, and a five o’clock shadow that their real son would have needed a ton of hormone shots to have produced.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric_Bourdin

    As the two stories indicate, eyewitnesses can make some pretty mind-boggling mistakes, so “mistake” seems like it might be a much more plausible explanation than “miracle” here, even if Bauckham’s “eyewitness” arguments are largely correct.

    Eyewitnesses can also conjure up some pretty amazing “fish stories.”

    To take just two obvious examples:

    Even journalists with ready access to eyewitness accounts and a professional responsibility to verify and report facts accurately have been known to exaggerate pretty wildly. “Life” magazine, for example, is known to have exaggerated the background of some of the early astronauts, crediting some of them with dramatically better academic and/or athletic performance than they actually had. Hero worship clearly may have played a role here. Why couldn’t it have played a role in the NT?

    Hero worship and its close relative, demonizing enemies, may also be a problem for the reliability of specifically Christian sources, and David Marshall himself could be used as the example here, as the numerous, obvious errors in his book on the new atheism demonstrate. (A partial list of those errors is at http://www.amazon.com/Lying-for-Jesus/forum/Fx61EWY90T921G/TxA0V8UU8RZAKF/1/ref=cm_cd_et_up_redir?_encoding=UTF8&asin=0736922121&newContentID=MxH7OSHGJVSE0V#MxH7OSHGJVSE0V.) Many of Marshall’s errors could be classified as “eyewitness errors,” and Marshall continued to ignore or even defend virtually all of his obviously erroneous claims, even after the errors had been pointed out to him. And as a subsequent post in the cited string points out, Marshall made numerous additional mistakes in trying to defend his original mistakes. Both of those facts tend to undermine the presumed reliability of eyewitness accounts. If modern Christians with ready access to all kinds of research materials make so many obvious errors and continue to defend obviously mistaken claims even after those mistakes are pointed out, then why should the accounts of the early Christians be trusted as accurate? So “fish story” also seems like it might be a more plausible explanation than “miracle.”

    Bottom line, I doubt that faith is based on evidence; rather I think that faith is based on faith; and Christians who try to show otherwise frequently end up tailoring the evidence to fit their case rather than tailoring their case to fit the evidence.

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