Science and the investigation of the New Testament documents

Hebrew Bible. Asaphesh,
Hebrew Bible. © Asaphesh,

And now for something a bit different… The reliability of the Bible is an important question, and the many scientists who are Christians have weighed the evidence for this at some point in their lives. A couple of weeks ago, the Biblical scholar Dirk Jongkind gave a seminar at the Faraday Institute on ‘Science and the investigation of the New Testament documents’. Jongkind’s research is on some of the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament, and in his seminar he explained why he thinks the overall message of the Bible is preserved, despite variations between manuscripts. What follows is a summary of some of what he said, but I recommend watching the video for fuller information.

Scripture is basic to the activity of theology, so good access to the original wording is essential. Unfortunately the first copies of the New Testament have been lost. What’s more, what manuscripts we do have show evidence of corruption during transmission. The job of textual critics such as Jongkind is to investigate what might be the oldest recoverable wording.

In recognition of his scientific surroundings at the Faraday Institute, Jongkind used genetic analogies throughout his talk. He also stressed that – like most scientists – he is a critical realist: there are many possible versions of the history of the New Testament, but only one of them can be true.

The task of textual criticism is made more difficult by the fact that some scribes would use several source documents, transmitting a conglomeration of errors, and making it impossible to construct a straightforward phylogenetic tree of manuscripts as they were copied from one to another. So biblical scholars must apply a different approach. Of course the number and quality of manuscripts available increases as the centuries go on: fragments for the first couple of centuries AD, through to complete gospels in the 5th and 6th centuries. Early translations into other languages are also useful for cross-checking.

The very early Christian church was scattered across Europe and North Africa. The evidence from manuscript fragments at this time is that differences in wording were introduced, but the decentralised nature of the church meant that a conspiracy to deliberately doctor the gospels was impossible. Wholesale editing would have been possible when the church became politically powerful in the fourth century, but enough manuscripts remain from this time to confirm that this didn’t happen – instead a range of different copying errors have been introduced in manuscripts written in different locations.

Interestingly, though there is variation between texts, there is no ‘speciation’ – no large-scale traditions of alternate forms of the text were established. Most of the variation in manuscripts appears to be due to copying errors, but there are some examples where texts seem to have been deliberately edited, and when these have been identified they have been removed or bracketed in future translations of the Bible. Mistakes in copying were made, mutations of every type: substitutions, insertions, deletions, transpositions and so on. The most common mistake was to mix up words from a previous or subsequent section of the text.

It seems that if manuscripts were not copied closely enough, they were removed from circulation – to use the genetic analogy, they lost their ‘fertility’. One detail that helped the correct transmission of the bible is the ‘redundancy’ in the message: the same thing is said in different gospels, and backed up by different parts of the bible, so subsequent variants that contradict this are easy to spot. The interconnectedness of Christian teaching is also helpful: it is easy to spot other ideals sneaking in. The most common changes in the text have caused no theological conflict because they simply express the same thing in a different way.

The bottom line is that while the overall message of the Bible is trustworthy, the idea of the ancient text of the Bible being preserved word for word with no room for uncertainty is a caricature – rather like some popular notions about scientific ‘facts’. When asked about this during the question time, Jongkind said that most Christian theologians would probably be happy with the statement that God could have preserved scripture without corruption, but he did not desire it so. So we live with a certain amount of greyness on the edges of some things, and that is part of our critical engagement with not just the Bible, but the whole world. As Terry Pratchett said, ‘Reality is not digital…but analog’.

10 thoughts on “Science and the investigation of the New Testament documents

  1. Clare Redfern February 21, 2013 / 1:41 pm

    This is a nice summary Ruth, but I think it is overstating his case to suggest he implied the overall message of the bible is trustworthy (though he might, of course, think that). What he implied was that the transmission of the earliest available texts of the gospels are true to the overall message of earlier texts. Whether those texts themselves are a true account of real events is a different matter. That would take another seminar at least to scratch at the surface of the topic (and to include the whole bible – well a few years worth of seminars are probably needed!)


    • Ruth Bancewicz February 21, 2013 / 3:01 pm

      Yes I think you’re right. The question that is often asked is – the texts have been modified so surely the message isn’t reliable? That’s what he’s addressing here. The question of the reliability of the earliest documents is the subject of another seminar – though I know that he thinks they are reliable too. Maybe he needs to come back and do another seminar!


      • Derek J White February 21, 2013 / 4:48 pm

        Yes, ‘inference’ is not evidence. However, it is most certainly the case, that Dirk does offer good reasons why the charge—‘lost in transmission’ is not the last ‘word’ on the reliability of what was actually said and written by the gospel writers. Of course assumptions are the ‘bread of life’—often held by those with other presuppositions . I have been privileged to attend a few sessions given by Dirk (and others) at the European Leadership Forum etc. and have always found them faith affirming. Thank You Ruth. Derek W.


  2. Ben Gillespie February 21, 2013 / 4:22 pm

    Dirk Jongkind sounds like a very interesting person. I’m looking forward to following his work. I’m a member of Woodland Hills Church in St.Paul, Minnesota. Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy are pastors there. Greg (Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, works with BioLogos) and Paul (Professor at Bethel University) wrote an incredible book in support of the synoptic gospels. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition.


  3. Richard Irving February 24, 2013 / 4:10 pm

    Thanks so much for your excellent writings. As a regular reader I appreciate your valuable insights. Doctors Bancewicz and Redfern provide stimulating and challenging thoughts. Accuracy in transmission is a worthy study and well attested. In the Dead Sea scrolls the Isaiah scroll is remarkably consistent with our present day version. Often our focus is on proving the historicity of gospel accounts to others. Aside from a few references in the Roman historian Josephus all our information comes from Christian authors. Since there is no outside superior source to validate our scriptures, proving historical accuracy is difficult. But this does not determine the true value of our scriptures. The transcendent Holy Spirit that inspired the first authors in their writing also inspires us in our reading today. When we read the Bible in faith, the same Spirit interprets the text to our hearts and lives. For me, this is the true value and unique wonder of our Bible.


    • michala June 13, 2013 / 5:55 pm

      I find biblical history reads like mythology but in fact most of the characters and places did and still do exist.archaeology has recently discovered the city of david king solo mons kingdom plus many other places viewed as just ‘ myth’ its very easy to dismiss the bible as myth just because there is no evidence- it may be discovered in the future as like science something new is always being discovered.some archaeologists use the bible as a reference.


  4. Ben Gillespie June 13, 2013 / 6:39 pm

    I’m a layperson from Cambridge, MN. I love reading about these subjects. Here is a link to some info I put together about some artifacts, manuscripts… In Support of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and Faiths (Please feel free to delete this comment if you do not want links in the comments.). A lot of the quotes are pulled straight from Wikipedia. I used a lot of other respected sources as well.


    • Ruth Bancewicz June 14, 2013 / 8:52 am

      Thanks, interesting! On the numbers of manuscripts thing, a friend who studies classics at university said that some monks destroyed manuscripts of non- Christain texts, so that argument doesn’t really work up. The others are interesting though.


  5. Ben Gillespie June 15, 2013 / 3:01 am

    Thank You Ruth. That’s a great point. I have heard things like that too. I’ve never studied it. That being said, I’ve also heard (from a Bible Studies proffesor named Maxie Burch) that monks SAVED a lot of Greek works from being destroyed. Also, in Philip Jenkin’s, The Lost History of Chirstianity (which was AWESOME), he talks about a Nestorian Patriarch named Timothy (8th and 9th century), who helped to translate Greek works like Aristotle. Very interesting stuff to talk about. Thanks for the opportunity.


    • Ruth Bancewicz June 17, 2013 / 2:25 pm

      Absolutely – I imagine ‘approved’ works were preserved, and it was all dependent on local factors, etc etc… There’s a niche for a classicist to write a book for us on this topic I’m sure!


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