Posted by Clark Bates
April 27, 2018
I find myself with feet in two worlds. For the past ten years I have been a Christian apologist, writing online and speaking at various venues. In that time, my philosophy of apologetics and the particulars of my theology have matured. I have honed my talks and narrowed my area of focus so that I no longer feel the need to be a master of all things. And through this process I have always been pursuing higher education. I’ve earned a Master’s of Divinity degree, and I’m now pursuing a Master’s of Sacred Theology degree, so that I can continue on to a PhD.
Through this time, the field of textual criticism has always been an interest, but in the last few years it has finally become an area where I am formally studying. Suffice it to say, that I believe this will be the realm of my PhD as well. I have the honor of being part of the Greek Paul Project with the Museum of the Bible, closely examining medieval manuscripts of the pastoral epistles. I am by no means an expert, but through my studies I am personally acquainted with several experts, some of whom were featured in the recent Fragments of Truth film.
It may come as a surprise to some to know that the “camp” of textual critics and the “camp” of Christian apologists, don’t always get along. In many ways they disagree. The chief point of disagreement is how to rightly handle the data. For many textual critics, apologists are seen as grabbing hold of any “exciting” or “titillating” detail that might sway an audience in favor of the text and taking it to unwarranted extremes. Ironically, I don’t know of many apologists who actually know that they are viewed this way, but there are apologists who think textual critics are too unwilling to take the evidence to the next step. So, here I am, an apologist and aspiring textual critic, trying to bridge the gap. I would like to see apologist be more balanced with how they handle Textual Criticism, and I would like to see textual critics extend more grace to apologists, who often don’t know that they’re even presenting anything in error.
This brings me to the point of this article. On April 24, for one day only, the movie Fragments of Truth was released in theaters. This documentary film leads audiences, with the guidance of the eminent professor Craig Evans of Houston Baptist University, to various places in the world that house the oldest and best-preserved manuscripts of the New Testament. This film has caused no small stir in both camps, and while I had no intention of offering a review for the film, based on the responses I’ve seen, I feel I should say something, and I will try to do so here. I will note that if you would like a more professional review of the film from textual critics in the field, I recommend two reviews, here and here.
The film itself opens up a world mostly unknown to the lay person in the church pews. Dr. Craig Evans serves as a more-than-capable guide, opening with the story of the discovery of the Oxyrynchus Papyri, the largest single manuscript discovery in recorded history. Explorers Grenfell and Hunt came upon this abundance of manuscripts buried among layers of strata in what used to be a trash dump in Oxyrynchus, Egypt. Among these manuscripts were New Testament fragments and collections dating as early as the late second and early third centuries.
The film then takes viewers to various locations in Europe that house some of the more exciting manuscripts available. The audience is treated to high-fidelity images of early fragments, codices (books), and pages from the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Woven into these images are interviews with established Textual Critics and New Testament scholars, all ultimately espousing the same message, “The New Testament is Historically and Textually Reliable.” By the end of the film, if the viewer has been able to follow some of the more difficult streams of dialogue, they are left with what feels to be incontrovertible evidence that the New Testament always existed in a stable fashion and that the textual variants (differences between manuscripts) that do exist are so minimal as to make no difference to the text.
I want to say up front that I agree with the claim that the New Testament we possess today is reliable, and I come to this conclusion from studying the evidence for and against the textual variants that exist. However, I also believe very strongly that apologists, like pastors, are to be “above reproach” in the way that they handle evidence, and because of this, some of what I will say in this critique may upset certain readers.
It has always been my practice when reviewing popular level books to begin my critique with the negative. This is not because I have any personal vendetta against the author, but because I feel that the last thing I want a reader to hear from my review is the positive (and I do try to find the positive in every book). I’ve decided to do the same with this film. I have to say that I enjoyed the movie, but when it was over, I left the theater with an uneasy feeling. It took some time and reflection to understand why I felt this way, but I believe I can pinpoint several reasons for it:
Michael Heiser and the New Testament Canon – At the outset, I should note that the entire interview with Dr. Heiser feels out of place with the rest of the film. This is not only becasue it seems out of pace with the rest of the movie, but also the content of the interview. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software in Bellingham, Wa., is an expert in Hebrew and Semitic languages, and a prolific author. However, his interview discusses the origin and formation of the New Testament Canon. This is clearly meant to counter the fantastical claims of internet gurus and pop authors like Dan Brown, who seem to believe that the New Testament was decided by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century at the Council of Nicaea.
To his credit, Dr. Heiser quickly asserts the ridiculousness of this myth, pointing out that the records of the Council exist and are free to be viewed online for anyone (like here). At no point during the council is the New Testament even discussed. It’s at this point that the interview takes a questionable turn and Dr. Heiser appears to take back with his left hand what he just gave with his right. He states that Constantine declared Christianity the “religion of the empire”, something that is not recorded historically, and that he asked the bishops of Nicaea to produce 50 copies of the New Testament to distribute to various regions in Rome. This part is recorded by the church historian Eusebius who was present at the Council. But it is here that Dr. Heiser’s imagination seems to overwhelm the historical evidence. He concludes that this decree of Constantine put the bishops’ “feet to the fire” to make a formal New Testament canon. Clearly suggesting that there was no accepted canon prior to Nicaea and that the canon was a direct result of Nicaea. It is asserted that votes were made on the books to include, prayerfully expecting the Holy Spirit to guide, and although everyone was not satisfied with the results, the 27 books we now read were the result. None of this assertion can be demonstrated historically. No mention is made of the various canonical lists that existed prior to the 4th century, or the unity within the church regarding the majority of texts existing in the modern NT. And ultimately, there is no way to even officially know what book were in the fifty copies made, making Dr. Heiser’s entire presentation spurious.
The Ghosts of Bart Ehrman and Brent Nongbri – When discussing the reliability of the New Testament texts, mention is made of both Dr. Bart Ehrman and Dr. Brent Nongbri. For most apologists, Dr. Ehrman is well known, but for those that aren’t aware, Dr. Nongbri is a research fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia. Nongbri has a PhD from Yale University and specializes in religious studies, particularly early Christianity, and Dr. Ehrman is a tenured professor of Greek and the New Testament at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Both maintain that the reliability of the New Testament is something to be questioned, if not rejected, and both have formulated various intellectual, scholarly arguments in favor of their positions.
Where the film misses an opportunity in this regard is by only mentioning these men, almost as specters to the Christian faith, without ever speaking to them directly. Each person’s objection is mentioned only briefly, and not given the depth of inquiry each deserves. They are just as quickly dismissed as if there is nothing to their claims. I don’t agree with the conclusions of either scholar, but it would better serve the purpose of the film and the audience to give each man an opportunity to present their objections directly, rather than having them caricatured by those who disagree. By the film avoiding this opportunity, it leaves the careful viewer feeling as though they are being fed a particularly biased presentation. (note that I’m not saying every skeptic or point of disagreement deserves airtime, but both of these men are mentioned in the film by name)
Evans and the Everlasting Autographs – This last point, I believe is the primary reason that I left the theater uneasy. The entirety of the film builds to a crescendo of New Testament Reliability, wherein the proverbial “nail in the coffin” is revealed. Dr. Evans highlights research that he conducted and published in 2015. His claim: manuscripts at the time of the writing of the New Testament had a much longer life span than anything we see today. How long you might ask? Dr. Evans claims that they were still in use 100+ years after their writing.
The way that this is presented in the film, it has made me believe that the entire purpose of this movie was to present the conclusions of Dr. Evans’s article en masse to an audience who will not challenge, but only disseminate it as established truth. The problem that I have with this are many, but chiefly it is that Dr. Evan’s claims are far from accepted in the text critical community. To support his claim in the film, he makes use of 4 key examples: 1. George Houston’s “Papyrological Evidence for Book Collections in and Libraries in the Roman Empire”, 2. The Dead Sea Scrolls, 3. A reference from Peter, Bishop of Alexandria and Tertullian, 4. A basket of book rolls found by Grenfell and Hunt at Oxyrynchus. (a few other examples are given in the article upon which the film information is based)
Several objections to Dr. Evan’s proposal are as follows:
- Regarding the work by George Houston, the work is primarily focused on libraries maintained in northern Egypt, much like Oxyrynchus, which is a dry and arid climate. This climate is exceptional for the preservation of manuscripts, particularly papyri, because of its environmental conditions. The conditions in this region of Egypt are not exemplary of the rest of the Roman world, nor of the regions from which the Gospels and Epistles are thought to have been penned;
- Similar to the objection of the use of Houston’s work as an example for all of the NT writing, the DSS(Dead Sea Scrolls) were discovered in a similarly dry and arid climate. They cannot be used as an example for all manuscripts as the conditions for their survival are unique to the region;
- Regarding the statements by Peter of Alexandria and Tertullian, the authenticity of the citation of Peter, is doubted by many, not the least of which is Dr. Daniel Wallace who also appeared in the film. Tertullian’s citation, also questioned for authenticity, hinges on the interpretation of the Latin ipsae authenticate litterae eorum rendered by some as “their (the apostles) own authentic writings” but preferred by Dr. Evans to mean “autographs”. For many, the preferred understanding is an unmutilated copy, as opposed to the claims of the heretics Tertullian is engaging with; namely, that there are no uncorrupted texts of the NT. In either circumstance, the claim is questionable and ultimately inconclusive;
- The argument remains the same as that for the DSS. Grenfell and Hunt made their discovery in Oxyrynchus, in that particular climate. Manuscripts from other regions of the world, have not been preserved as well as those in this region of Egypt. While parchment (animal skin) manuscripts have endured longer, papyri are susceptible to the ravages of mildew and rot, leaving any existing examples from other regions to be few and far between.
There is a clear imbalance in the presentation of the film, culminating in the most dubious claim serving as its linchpin. What troubles me about this the most is that the film didn’t need any of these areas to make it successful. The interview with Dr. Heiser could have (and I would argue, should have) been cut from the film entirely, opposing perspectives could have been featured alongside the standard claims, and Dr. Evan’s argument could have been left out, or even modified to acknowledge it as a “possibility” rather than a certainty, and the film’s intended message would not have been hindered in any way.
After all that, it may sound like I hated this film, but nothing could be further from the truth. I have disagreements with the film, and where we disagree we disagree in firm ways, but it is not from a sense of animosity. In fact, there is quite a lot about the film that I enjoyed.
- The Manuscripts – The highlight of Fragments of Truth are the manuscripts themselves. P66, P75, P52, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Bezae and others, are all featured in the film, with some of the highest quality imagery that I have ever seen. Even the images retained by the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, while excellent, cannot compare to what these filmmakers have accomplished. Not only are the manuscripts filmed, but they are seen in close-up detail, and in ways in which their proximate size and condition can be readily observed. The “realness” of these copies is enough to pierce the heart of any apologist and excite those of us who still long to see them firsthand.
- The Production Value – I can’t think of a single faith-based documentary that I have seen with the level of production value that this film has. Whether it’s the historical re-enactments or the location shots in Cambridge, Oxford and elsewhere, the viewer is treated to an engaging and fascinating story. Too many Christian films that contain an excellent message, are plagued with poor production quality, making the film almost impossible to endure, but in the case of Fragments of Truth, you are treated to both.
- The Scholars – When a Christian company makes a film about the reliability of the Bible, you expect to see Dr. Daniel Wallace. He has been a central figure in American manuscript study for many years, and it is always educational to hear from him. However, where Fragments of Truth really contributes to the discussion, is with some of the other scholars, not well known to the American Christian community. Men like Andrew Smith from Shepherd’s Seminary, Peter J. Williams from Tyndale House at Cambridge, Larry Hurtado from the Uinversity of Edinburgh, and the eminent J.K. Elliott, Professor Emeritus at Leeds. Even though I don’t entirely agree with his methodology, I could personally listen to professor Elliott talk for the entire length of the film. Giving these men an opportunity to speak to a global audience on a topic that has been their livelihood, is great gift to them and us.
- The Message – While I have been critical of several key points in the film that I believe are misleading, the message of the film, that the New Testament is a reliable document, is one that needs to be repeated. What’s more, it needs to be repeated with the evidence to back it up. And this film attempts to do that. Overall, it’s an encouraging film that will leave most viewers with a renewed confidence in their faith. For some audiences, being told that certain sections of Scripture are likely not original may be troubling, but very few are familiar with the field of textual criticism and because of this, they look at it with a level of suspicion. This film helps to bring that field of study into the light and show audiences that it’s staffed with many men and women who merely seek to know what the Bible truly says.
This film is another tool in the resource bag of apologetics, but it must be handled rightly. As I have pointed out above, there are areas of this film that need clarification and should not be repeated as established fact. I am begging my fellow apologists to resist the urge to add Dr. Evan’s claims to their presentations until they have taken the time to read his article and those who have responded to him. Rightly divide the evidence, before presenting it.
In the coming days you will undoubtedly read several different reviews for this film. If you are only exposed to the apologetic community, you will probably only hear rave reviews for the film. If you are in the textual criticism community, you will probably only read negative reviews for the film. I feel that the truth is found somewhere in the middle. I would like to see this film shared with many Christian communities, if for no other reason, so that they might see the documents that I hold very dear, and to know that there are those who have devoted their lives to tracing the origins of the book they hold in their hands and so closely to their hearts.
 Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Book IV, Chapter XXXVI.
 Edmon L. Gallagher and John D. Meade, The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity; Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited; Charles Hill and Michael Kruger, The Early Text of the New Testament.
 Evans, Craig A., “How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use–Possible Implications for NT TC” (Bulletin for Biblical Research 25,1 2015), 36-37.
 https://bible.org/article/did-original-new-testament-manuscripts-still-exist-second-century-0; Peter of Alexandria, Fragment I.
 Tertullian, Prescription Against the Heretics, XXXVI, I-II.
 An example of this is the 4th century manuscript PSI I 103, a manuscript in one of the only surviving papyri collections from the Nile River Delta. The only reason it survived was that it was carbonized in a fire.