White and Ehrman on textual criticism
I have a PDF copy of a transcript of a debate between James White and Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the New Testament text.
This was a really interesting debate. But in the end, I thought the whole debate came down to one question which was never adequately answered (or even asked) by either side. The question is this: How likely is it that more than one copy was made from the autographs?
You see, if it turns out that only one copy was made from the autographs, and then the autographs were lost, then no amount of textual criticism can reconstruct what the autographs said. The best we can do is reconstruct what the earliest copy said from which multiple copies were made. If the first copy made from the original Matthew had any mistakes in it, and if that’s the only copy that was ever made (or the only copy whose progeny survived), then it would be impossible to ever reconstruct exactly what the original said.
According to James White, since we have multiple lineages of copies, and all these copies go back to an original source, then not only are all the mistakes carried forward, but whatever was in the original was carried forward as well. Whenever you have a multitude of textual variants for one passage, the original version will be among them. So White believes that the entirety of the autographs have been preserved somewhere among all of our manuscript evidence. But that is only true if multiple copies were made from the original. It’s not true if only one copy was made from the original and the one copy had mistakes.
I don’t think Erhman was arguing, necessarily, that there was only one copy made from each document. He was just arguing that since it’s possible, and since we can only reconstruct the earliest copy from which multiple copies were made and lineages survived, that we cannot be sure that our reconstruction perfectly reflects what the originals said. He made it sound worse than that, though. In his scenario, there was one copy from the autograph, and then one copy of that copy, and then one copy of that copy. And the final copy was copied multiple times. So we can only reconstruct a copy of a copy of a copy, but never the autograph.
So it all comes down to that one question. How likely is it that more than one copy was made of the original autographs? What do you think?