What’s in a name? some reasons why we can trust the Bible
In another session this morning I heard Amy Orr-Ewing give a presentation on ‘why trust the Bible’?
This is a perennial criticisms atheists have with the Christian message – that the Gospels are bad history and can’t be trusted.
Orr-Ewing’s presentation largely covered much material I’d heard before. She outlined some of the textual history of the New Testament and demonstrated that the New Testament enjoys a textual history unparalleled with any other ancient work. She also dealt with questions surrounding the corruption of the text and responded to criticisms that the variances between manuscripts in the New Testament render the documents unreliable. She outlined four types of variations in the New Testament documents:
- Spelling mistakes and nonsense readings. These account for 75% of differences.
- Changes that can’t be translated e.g. synonyms or word order
- Meaningful but non-viable readings. Where changes have been made, but it’s clear the later reading can’t be sustained.
- Meaningful and viable readings. This is the most significant category, for if the textual transmission of the New Testament were to be unreliable and changeable, this category of readings would be large. As it turns out, this is the smallest category accounting for less than 1% of variations and no cardinal belief is at stake. And very often there is a note in the English translations of the Bible to indicate this e.g.the longer ending of Mark or the woman caught in adultery in John [contrary to Christopher Hitchens’ claim that Bart Ehrman was the first scholar to make these discoveries known]
Orr-Ewing also made the fascinating assertion that the textual history of the New Testament strengthens the reliability of the Gospels. This is because the textual variants we have demonstrate that there was:
- A lack of a central authority in determining what was in and out [although I’m not so convinced by this. Richard Bauckham would suggest that this authority lay originally with the Apostles who were the guarantor of the veracity of the tradition]
- No suppression of alternative texts (incidentally this is in contrast to Islam)
Orr-Ewing made some fascinating comments about the content of the Gospels. She responded to some of the claims of Bart Ehrman who asked the question, where did these Gospel authors get their information from? Given that the Gospels were written outside of Palestine and the authors were Greek speaking, Ehrman proposes that the Gospel authors couldn’t have been eyewitnesses.
Orr-Ewing responded by utlising some research in names of people and places. She suggested that the patterns of names used in the Gospels were consistent with frequency and usage of names in first century Palestine. For example the nine most common names in Ancient Palestine represented 41% of all names. In the Gospels, these same nine names represent 40% of the named characters in the Gospels. Moreover the way characters were referred to in the Gospels were consistent with how rare or common a name was e.g. a very common name like Simon required designation such as ‘the Zealot’ whereas a rarer name like Philip didn’t require designation
Possibly most fascinating were the references to geographic place names. The hypothesis is that a person unfamiliar with the geography of a land is unlikely to be able to share accurate geographic information. Interestingly each of the Gospels record around 12-14 place names. Yet the apocryphal gospels (generally agreed to not be based on eyewitness testimony) have virtually no reference to specific place names. This is entirely consistent if the author were not familiar with the geography of the land.
The best way of accounting for the consistent use of names and geography was that the authors had intimate knowledge of the surrounding culture and place. This would suggest that the authors were most likely utilising eyewitness testimony in their recollections. The Gospel authors weren’t simply foreigners writing without any connection to the stories they were writing about.
This also suggests that the Gospels have a sense of authenticity which strengthens the case for their trustworthiness.