Let us, for the sake of argument, invent a historical event. Let’s say that after the decisive Battle of Cannae, but before the extended stalemate/delaying tactics period, the possibility has arisen that the Romans and Carthaginians fought one more major battle near the city of Terracina. Let’s say that it’s something that has been hinted at, but there was no direct evidence and precious little indirect evidence until recently when a series of manuscripts were discovered that had previously unknown historical documents and have allowed us to track down a larger collection of previously unknown documents, including several dozen records of the Battle of Terracina.
Historians immediately begin rifling through the documents, excitedly attempting to pick apart this heretofore undocumented battle. But they quickly run in to a problem. Some of the documents claim that the battle took place near Terracina. Some claim that they took place near a city a few miles away called Ad Turres. Some documents claim that Hannibal won the battle handily, while some claim that the Romans very nearly carried the day before being forced to retreat when one of their key commanders died. A pattern quickly emerges where in all but one case the documents that say the battle was fought at Ad Turres was an unquestioned victory for Hannibal and the documents that say the battle was fought at Terracina was a close-fought thing. But that one remaining document says that Hannibal won the battle decisively at Terracina. It, unlike the other two, is also the only document that does not reference previous works. It also contains information that is repeated in all of the other documents, much of which is shared across both sides types, but it has a lot of unique data and points out several unique features of the terrain around Terracina.
No documents can be dated before the year 100 CE, more than three centuries after the Second Punic War. But the document from 100 CE is, in fact, the one unique document.
The historians see the pattern and formulate what’s called the Terracina Hypothesis. They posit that the singular document is based on the oldest source and, therefore, that the one, single document (known as T1) that says that Hannibal won a decisive victory near Terracina is the oldest, with the other documents all based off of it. Further, they posit that the two different tales depend on two later modifications different modifications. They hypothesize that there were two different documents, now known as X1 (antecedent to the Ad Turres documents) and Y1 (antecedent to the Terracina documents), that both made mistakes and were copied forward, while the T1 document was lost to the historical record sometime around 100 CE.
This is where the Hannibal at Terracina story rests for about a decade. Books are written about it, textbooks modified to indicate it. Everyone is satisfied by the explanation. Then two things happen.
A certain Professor Jones then begins a close study of the various Terracina sources for an upcoming book, during which he discovers two things that had been missed before.
First, The T1 document makes reference to several place names that did not exist before 50 BCE. The document also makes reference to a prominent citizen of the city who was not alive during the Second Punic War, but who has been referenced as living in the area a generation later. Originally these errors were taken as alternate spellings of similar places that were known to exist in Terracina and an individual who was known to be a minor Roman general at the time of the Second Punic War. This new information casts doubt on the validity of the T1 document and it’s placement as the original document. Second, he discovers that there was a mis-translation of a section that only survives in one of the documents that claims the battle occurred near Ad Turres. According to the original translation, the scribe who wrote the document had claimed to be making a copy of someone else’s copy of the original, but he actually claimed to have been entrusted with the original document and was working off of it. This may or may not be the truth, but the those two bits of information are enough to cast serious doubt on the Terracina Hypothesis.
Meanwhile, an archaeological expedition operating near the ancient town of Terracina made two interesting discoveries. The first is that there are an awful lot of Carthaginian artifacts in the area and there is evidence that there was, in fact, a battle. The second is that it’s still possible to make out several different landmarks mentioned in all three accounts. This provides strong evidence that all three accounts recorded the same events.
Our professor from above takes the new information he has uncovered and the new archaeological evidence and formulates a new hypothesis. He theorizes that there was, in fact, a X1 document and a Y1 document. But they did not follow the T1 document, but were the independent creation of two different writers while T1 came from a third source.
The biggest obstacle is, of course, the different city names given. X1, according to the new hypothesis, was simply written by a scribe who was a bit lost and didn’t know the name of the actual city near which the battle took place. Accurate descriptions of the immediate terrain lend credibility to the account.
But what of the other discrepancies? The professor’s hypothesis explains it thusly:
The Battle of Terracina was the first major battle after Hannibal completely wiped out the Roman legions at Cannae, which followed Hannibal’s decisive victories at Lake Trasimene and Trebia. Another decisive victory would cause complete despair in Rome and invite the possibility of a complete victory for Hannibal if he could figure out how to exploit the situation. The Y1 document, then, was a bit of Roman propaganda, to say, “Well, Hannibal won, but we bloodied him pretty well and he’ll have to be far more careful in the future.” The X1 document, meanwhile, was written by someone traveling with Hannibal who did not know the area, but recorded a great Carthaginian victory, possibly as propaganda, but equally likely to be an accurate account of the battle due to the consistent Roman inability to deal with Hannibal. The T1 document, meanwhile, was actually the last document produced. It was based, at least partially, on some sort of local tradition, most likely oral, which had been modified slightly between the original event and when it was finally recorded, thus accounting for the inconsistencies in place names.
This theory then becomes known as the Jones Hypothesis. Jones presents it at a symposium and publishes some papers. Several other historians review his papers and take a look at his sources, re-check his translations, and do the whole peer review thing. They conclude that it’s a good theory. It is then largely accepted as the most likely explanation for what happened at Terracina and why we have three different stories and becomes the standard academic explanation for what happened. This does not mean it is universally accepted. Some historians still hold to the old Terracina Hypothesis. But the general consensus falls to the side that Jones has the right idea.
Interestingly enough, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Jones Hypothesis is right. It may well be that the Romans nearly did win the day and no propaganda was needed on the Roman side. It might also be that there was no battle, but that Hannibal’s army encamped in that location and two factions in his army that was a large collection of disparate peoples from all over started fighting each other in an event that was later recorded as a major battle. But the Jones Hypothesis best fits the information we have available, which is why it is generally accepted within the academic community.
Now, then, I’ve told a story here about the formulation of two different hypotheses about a historical event. Even though I’ve made the event up, we can say for the sake of the illustration that we’re reasonably sure that the event actually did happen. Note what we had available: several different accounts that differed in specifics but agreed on a general idea of what happened. Note, too, what we did not have: original source documents or, for that matter, any documents dated within three centuries of the event. To this we then added archaeological evidence and external research (the place names given and whatnot).
Note, though, the thing that no one in this story did at any point: add up the number of manuscripts found and divide by their proximity to the original event in order to come up with some bullshit, hyper-accurate statistic of “accuracy.” That’s history, that’s propaganda. What the actual (pretend) historians did was take the various accounts, figure out the points of difference and commonality, and iron out a specific narrative.
If you’re reading this and you’re the sort of person who wants to believe Ravi Zacharias, I’d be willing to bet you just thought, “But you’ve just disproved your original point!” And if you didn’t think that, well, I’m going to just hand you a freebie right here. So, y’know, pay attention.
“Aha,” you’ll point out, imaginary internet debate partner, “Doesn’t the huge number of New Testament manuscripts we know of mean that we can be sure we have created an accurate composite of the story of Jesus. Perhaps even, I don’t know, 99.6% sure? Doesn’t that just prove the New Testament is true?”
The short answer is, “No.” But I’m guessing that you’ll be wanting the long answer. You imaginary internet debate partners are so hard to please.
In the book Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman tells a story about a page from the Codex Vaticanus he has hanging in his office. His explanation of the paper is basically this: there is a passage at the beginning of Hebrews that contains the Greek word PHERON in most manuscripts. The passage translates to “Christ bears all things by the word of his power. In the original of the Codex Vaticanus, however, the scribe replaced PHERON with PHANERON, which translates to “Christ manifests all things by the word of his power.” Another scribe later came along and replaced “manifests” with “bears.” Still later another scribe came and put “manifests” back in, then added the note, “Fool and knave! Leave the old reading, don’t change it!” Ehrman then says:
I have a copy of the page framed and hanging on the wall above my desk as a constant reminder about scribes and their proclivities to change, and rechange, the texts. Obviously it is the change of a single word: so why does it matter? It matters because the only way to understand what an author wants to say is to know what is words – all his words – actually were. (Think of all the sermons preached on the basis of a single word in a text: what if the word is one the author didn’t actually write?) Saying that Christ reveals all things by his word of power is quite different from saying that he keeps the universe together by his word!
Bear in mind, too, that the Codex Vaticanus is one of those 5600 source documents that supposedly creates a 99.6% accuracy. Counted among them, too, is the P52 fragment mentioned by BeamStalk in the comments on the first Ravi Zacharias entry. Well, actually, to call P52 a fragment is practically an insult to fragments everywhere. Not only does it not contain a complete book of the New Testament, it doesn’t even contain a complete thought couched in a single complete sentence.
And this doesn’t even get in to the fact that the writers of the four Gospels had different ideas about what the Christ story actually meant. It doesn’t get in to the fact that Paul wrote his epistles without a full knowledge of the Christ story or a complete understanding of it’s importance. It doesn’t get in to the fact that the letters attributed to Paul offer a somewhat different theology than the one attributed to James and are still different from the letters attributed to Peter. For that matter, the letters attributed to Paul offer a different theology than the letters attributed to Paul that we’re pretty sure Paul didn’t actually write (basically, the three “pastoral epistles:” 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus).
Meanwhile, there’s an extremely important bit of this discussion that I haven’t even encroached upon. It boils down to a simple concept:
There’s no one telling me that I will go to Hell if I don’t accept the Jones Hypothesis to explain the Battle of Terracina.
When people like Ravi Zacharias trot out their stupid statistics to explain why the Bible we have today is a more accurate book than, say, Homer’s Illiad or the Histories of Herodotus, they unwittingly do the Bible a great disservice. See, I don’t have to believe that Helen of Troy actually had a face capable of launching a thousand ships that then remained beached outside of Troy until the night a large wooden horse filled with Greeks was wheeled up to the gates. And I don’t have to accept Herodotus’s version of the Life of Cyrus as the absolute, definitive story of the life and times of Cyrus the Great.
So, yes, we can have a pretty good idea that we have the ability to find an accurate picture of the New Testament. But that just means that the New Testament is subject to the same exact scrutiny I’d place the Illiad or the Life of Cyrus under. And under that scrutiny the New Testament fails miserably, as it is an internally inconsistent document that is not well-supported by external evidence. In fact, it’s basically not supported by any external evidence. And there’s actually external evidence that neatly undercuts the validity of the Bible.
You have to approach the Bible with the attitude that you will believe it in order to believe it. So when an apologist like Ravi Zacharias makes the argument that you can support the Bible with historical evidence what he actually does is undercut the validity of the said document. He invites inquiry of the document and insists that the Christian faith will fall apart if the Bible is shown to be unreliable.
Skeptical inquiry in to the Bible does exactly that.
This is, basically, a modified use of the “Two-Source Hypothesis” of the origin of the four Gospels, natch.
Everything here is massively oversimplified. I’m creating a scenario and attempting to tell a quick and useful story about how historians do things. That means that an awful lot of convenient things have to happen to make the narrative, y’know, work and be usefully easy to understand.
Generally speaking, the evidence of battle takes the form of two things: discarded, damaged, and broken implements of war and graves. The occupants of said graves generally provide evidence that they did not go peacefully in to that good night. There will be shattered skulls, broken bones, and no evidence that the bones had the time to heal. You could basically call Ducky to the scene of an ancient battlefield and he’d be able to do his thing right there. With some modification.
Either way, if you get enough bodies from the same general time period in the same place you can generally determine if you’re looking at the local cemetery or a battlefield. You can also generally determine if the people died violently or peacefully. It’s exceptionally hard to figure out the precise circumstances of death, however. By which I mean, we could determine there was a battle, but not who won or who killed whom in the process.
There’s an accent mark on the O that I’m not entirely sure how to reproduce. But it doesn’t technically matter for the purposes of my retelling of Ehrman’s story.
Again with accent marks…
For that matter, I don’t. One of the weasel things Bible “historians” do is point to archaeological evidence to show that there were cities and whatnot in the Middle East and Levant in the Bible times and crow, “See, the Bible is right!” Archaeological evidence has shown there was a city in Troy and has shown that one of the incarnations of Troy was destroyed at about the time Homer’s Illiad would have existed. That doesn’t mean that Achilles, Hector, and Menelaus were there. And Athena, Apollo, and Zeus sure as shit weren’t, either. Oh, and Hephaestus probably didn’t forge the armor of Achilles in the fires of Olympus, in case you’re wondering.
Word 2007 insists that I want to use the word "forget" here. I'll be honest, I find the red lines and spelling auto-correct to be helpful sometimes (but don't get me started on the iPhone's auto-correct. Every single time I try to write "hell" it changes the word to "he'll." That's annoying as he'll). I find the green lines to be helpful sometimes, specifically since I have a bad habit of hitting the space bar twice very quickly without realizing it and I do have a habit of writing sentences that don't exactly have specific subject-verb agreement in them when I'm getting flowery. So the grammar correct can help me keep an eye on some things. But, so help me, I have no clue what the hell they were thinking with the little blue squiggly lines.