Wednesday, December 25, 2013

When could the New Testament have been changed?

I've written before that when the Qur'an was written, it sanctioned the Bible. It wasn't for another century or two that it became impossible to ignore the contradictions between them. For example, the Qur'an says Jesus wasn't crucified. Muslims have responded to this by suggesting that the Jews and Christians changed their Bibles after the Qur'an was written, but apart from the conspiracy-theory nature of this suggestion (Jews changed the Old Testament, and Christians also changed their Old Testament in exactly the same way?) it simply doesn't work: we have hundreds of copies of the New Testament in Arabic that predate the composition of the Qur'an -- about 500 before 500 AD. All of these copies are consonant with the New Testament we have today, as well as the thousands of copies in other languages from the pre-Islamic era.

Another point to make here, one that illustrates how conspiracy-theory-ish the claim is, is that the church was so widespread at this time that it would have been logistically impossible to change all of the copies in the same manner. But since all the copies we have are consistent, if the NT was altered, the alterations must have been done to all the copies. This raises the question of at what point did the church reach this state of being too widespread for all the copies of the NT to be changed?

The answer is: very early. When Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans, he said explicitly that he had been wanting to visit the churches in Rome for many years. Romans is dated to the mid- to late-50s AD. So within about 20 years of Jesus' crucifixion, most commonly dated to 33 AD, there were Christian churches in Rome. And of course, we also know that there were churches throughout Asia Minor (Turkey), Greece, and North Africa by this point as well. If we take Rome as the furthest extent of the Gospel, it means the Church had spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean by the middle of the first century AD. In fact, Paul also tells the Romans that he planned to go to Spain to plant churches there, and there is an ancient tradition that he was successful in this before returning to Rome to eventually be martyred (1 Clement 5:6, written in the 90s AD, states that Paul had preached the Gospel to the "farthest bounds of the West" which would not have merely referred to Rome). And this only addresses the western expansion of the Church from Jerusalem, not south (think of Philip and the Ethiopian), north, and east -- there is, again, an ancient tradition that the apostle Thomas made it as far as India by 52 AD, and was martyred about 20 years later on India's east coast. The Saint Thomas Christians in India date their origin to this period.

Of course, the NT was still being written throughout the second half of the first century, but copies of the various books were made and sent to as many churches as possible. By the end of the first century, it would not have been possible to change all of the copies of the NT documents because the church was just distributed over too large of a geographical area. So if the documents were going to be altered, it had to be done before this point. It would not have been logistically possible to change all the copies of the NT in the same way after the end of the first century -- and that's being very liberal.

Moreover, the Apostolic Fathers, students of Jesus' apostles, were quoting the NT by the end of the first century, in close succession to each other. Their quotes are not only consistent with each other, they are also consistent with the NT we have today. So if anyone tried to alter the NT after the Apostolic Fathers began writing, they would have had to go through those writings and alter their quotes as well -- and again, altered all the copies of their writings in the same way. This is just ridiculously implausible. So the NT couldn't have been altered after this point.

But the flip-side of that coin is that the NT couldn't have been changed before the end of the first century, or even the early decades of the second, since before this point, Jesus' disciples and some of his apostles were still alive and could repudiate any tampering of the texts. The apostle John lived to about 100 AD, and Quadratus specifically states in the early second century that there were people still living who had been healed by Jesus. These people would have had enormous influence in the early Church simply because they knew, saw, spoke with Jesus himself. If someone tried to change the documents while they were still alive, they would have protested it, and their protestations would have won the day given their status as eye- and ear-witnesses to Jesus' ministry. So the NT couldn't plausibly have been changed before the end of first century, and it couldn't plausibly have been changed after the end of first century.

Here's another coin for you: the NT was translated from Greek into Latin and Syriac by about 150 AD. After this, these languages had different copying traditions. Yet all of the copies in these languages are totally consistent with each other. This fact by itself doesn't allow any tampering of the NT documents after 150 AD. If someone tried to alter the NT, the best they could have done (ignoring the previous points) is to alter all the copies in one of the languages, not all three. The copying of the texts in these languages were independent of each other, and yet they are all consistent, so any tampering of the original text would have had to have taken place before the translations were made by 150 AD.

But, as noted above, the Apostolic Fathers, who wrote between 90 and 160 AD, refer to and quote the NT extensively, and these quotations are all consistent with each other, with all of the earliest copies of the NT that we have, and with the NT we have today. Some of these individuals may have even survived to 170 AD when the Muratorian fragment lists the books accepted in the NT canon -- Polycarp, a student of the Apostle John, was martyred either in the mid-150s or late-160s AD, for example. And because of their authority to relay first-hand information of what Jesus' apostles had believed and taught, the Apostolic Fathers held important positions in the church. The same reason why the NT couldn't have been altered before the apostles and other eyewitnesses had died applies here as well, although the case here is weaker as the Apostolic Fathers were not themselves eyewitnesses of Jesus' ministry. Thus the NT could not have been altered before about 155 AD when the Apostolic Fathers were all dead, but again, it could not have been altered after 150 AD when the NT was translated from Greek into Latin and Syriac.

Besides, any alteration of the documents recording the events of Jesus' life would have been met with a great outcry by those who were being tortured and murdered because of their belief that these documents were reliable, and in fact, were revelation from God. There is simply no feasible point in time when the NT could have been altered. Of course, this doesn't mean that the documents were correct when they were written, although the presence of the eye- and ear-witnesses to Jesus' ministry makes it plausible that they were. But that's a post for another day. Here, I'm just arguing the narrower point that the NT we have today is essentially the same as it was when it was originally written.


Tyson said...

Hi Jim. This is my first time reading your blog after many years. It's great to see you still sharing your thoughts online. I still remember your short fiction of the Christian in the arena, testifying that he sat at the feet of Polycarp who had heard the firsthand witness of John. It's strengthens my faith to remember that I am a recipient of the good news that was entrusted to the apostles and those "reliable men qualified to teach others" that came after.

Jim S. said...

Hi Tyson! I'm back in the States now, in fact I'm back in the Pacific Northwest now. I started a separate blog for all my short stories (here), and the one you're thinking of is "Witness", which is my only one that's not speculative fiction.