What if the New Testament was Changed Very Early? What We can Learn from the Library of Alexandria

Posted by Clark Bates
March 5, 2019

How do you know the New Testament wasn’t changed early on?  This is a fairly common question in the realm of skepticism, and it’s honestly a question we shouldn’t dismiss out-of-hand.  Have you ever asked yourself this question?  If you’re reading this article, it’s likely that most of you would answer it, “no”, that you don’t believe the New Testament was changed early on.  But why do you believe this?  All Christians WANT to believe this, but if pressed, what would you say?

For many who have studied apologetics, there’s the tendency to reach immediately to the number of manuscripts that exist for the New Testament.  You’ve probably heard the argument that because we have so many (at least 5,400 in Greek, more than 20,000 overall), and because this number exceeds the number for all other ancient works by such a large margin, there is no reason to believe it has been changed.  But allow me to push back on this some.  If the argument being made is that, since modern scholarship accepts these other, less-attested, works to be trustworthy, they have no reason to doubt the New Testament, then there is some validity to that.  You might call this the “What’s good for the goose” defense.  All we’re really saying in such an argument is that scholarship and skeptics should be consistent in their standards and methodology.

But what if I told you that most scholars willingly acknowledge that most classical works, particularly from Ancient Greece, were changed?  And I don’t mean spelling errors or word placement, but complete changes to words, removal of chapters, new endings, and more!?  What does that do to the argument?  Because, what they are arguing is not that these works haven’t been changed, but rather that they are trustworthy to represent the most widely transmitted text, or possibly the most genuine text for a particular region (and in some cases not even that!).  When you consider how regularly and widely written stories were changed over time in Ancient Greece the challenge to the New Testament texts becomes slightly more sobering.

Allow me to add one more point: The number of NT manuscripts cannot answer this question.  At least not on the basis of their count alone.  As it has been correctly stated by Bart Ehrman and many other skeptics, the vast majority of NT manuscripts come from an era 900 years or more removed from the time of Jesus.  Yes, we have earlier manuscripts, but the closer to the 1st century CE that you get, the fewer and fewer they become.  So much so, that by the time you get to the 2nd-3rd century, many of them are merely fragments and not complete texts.  With all this in mind, how do we know the New Testament wasn’t changed early?

A Lesson from the Greeks

I don’t want to offer a new response to this question necessarily, but I would like to offer a nuance to part of the common answer.  Remember that I said the number of manuscripts does not answer this question on its own.  That’s because having a lot of manuscripts doesn’t make them right.  It’s certainly easier to check the accuracy of a manuscript when there are much fewer copies.  After all, 3 copies can only differ so much.  This is actually what we have with the manuscript evidence for the Christian book known as 2 Clement.  There are only 2 known copies in existence and one is incomplete.  This means that we have very little work that can be done to compare the two for differences, but it also limits how confident we can be as to its original content.  The advantage of the multiplicity of NT manuscripts is that, while it creates a much larger pool of data, it allows us many opportunities to trace variation in the text.  A necessary byproduct of this is that with more copies, more variations will exist.  An advantage is that in many cases, though not all, it can be possible to see how a change came to be made early on and influenced later changes as the manuscripts were copied.  By doing this, it is also possible to trace the change back to what appears to be the most likely wording, prior to the change.  However, this doesn’t answer the question entirely.  What if the NT was changed BEFORE the earliest full copies of the NT books we possess?

Here’s where the nuance comes in.  As far as can be determined, the great Library of Alexandria was built during the reign of the Ptolemy’s somewhere between 323 BCE and 246 BCE.[1] This happened during the time when book making began to increase in the ancient world and rulers were beginning to see the value in acquiring them.  Estimates at the height of the Library’s popularity were that it contained anywhere from 40,000 to 400,000 book rolls.  What is of greater interest to the discussion here is not the library, but the nearby Museum of Alexandria.  Formally a temple in honor of the Muses, equipped with a priest, it was also the center of literary and scientific study.  To be clear, members of this community were men like Eratosthenes (c. 295-214 BCE), famous for his attempts to measure the circumference of the earth (bet you were taught everyone believed it was flat back then); that is to say the smartest men alive.  Many learned and literary men visited this community and undertook the examination and copying of manuscripts.

It became immediately aware to them, just as it does to us today, that if they wanted a copy for themselves, they would have to copy it, but the copies they possessed at the library and museum were not the same.  You might say this was the dawn of textual criticism.  It was the work of the first six librarians housed at the Museum (Zenodotus, Apollonius Rhodius, Eratosthenes, Aristophanes, and Aristarchus) that created the methods of copying and annotation that preserved the Greek texts we have today.[2]  This is why it matters to us in regards to the NT.  Because of the work of these men, the excessive changes made to the works of Homer began to cease.  How?  Well, we possess fragments of Homer that date back to the 3rd century BCE and the text in these papyri varies quite a lot from the printed copies in most libraries today.  Many lines are added or omitted in these fragments, but within a short time, these versions of Homer stopped being transmitted.  The question is, why?

The answer is that the scholars of Alexandria made a determination about what the text of Homer would look like and successfully imposed this determination upon it until it became the standard Homeric text against which all others would be measured.  They did this by possibly creating a master copy for public use, or even employing multiple professional scribes to produce many copies for dissemination.  How this relates to the NT is found in the centralized authority.  The changes found in the earliest copies of Homer were implemented by a singular centralized authority (the Museum of Alexandria) that was able to control the final and future product.  This is an actual historical example of intentional change early in the life of a book.

Who’s the Boss?

If we return to the question from the start, we must ask, if the New Testament was changed early, who changed it?  Who had the power to change it?  The answer is no one.  In 2 Peter 3:15-16 we read that the apostle Peter and those to whom he is writing are aware of the letters of Paul.  So familiar are they with these letters that when Peter says that they are “difficult” to understand, he has no need to explain what he means.  This suggests that the copying of the Pauline epistles was already in progress by the mid-to late 1st century and they were widespread.  In the epistle of 1 Clement, dated by many to the early 2nd century, the author(s) show(s) familiarity with the Pauline epistles and the Gospels using quotations recognizable from the manuscripts we currently possess.[3]  The evidence of the earliest Christian communities, is not of a unified whole, organized under one central power structure, but multiple communities, growing throughout the Roman empire, and not always in theological agreement.  Yet they were communities actively engaged in the copying and spread of the New Testament text.

By the time of emperor Constantine in the 4th century, copies of various NT books were scattered throughout the empire.  The number of manuscripts that were being produced, in conjunction with the widespread locations producing them, rendered any potential change, like that seen in the Museum of Alexandria, impossible.  Even if someone were to suggest that a change like this was orchestrated under Constantine, it would be impossible to change those manuscripts that came before him.  A further reality is that those manuscripts that come after Constantine, some of the first complete Bibles we possess, have clear evidence of corrections.  As is popularly stated against the reliability of the NT, no two manuscripts are exactly alike!  If no two manuscripts are exactly alike, then they could not have been changed early on to any prescribed standard!

Conclusion

What we have with the NT is not merely a lot of copies.  We have a wealth of material evidence with a striking degree of agreement that existed hundreds of years before a centralized power structure was in place to enforce any unilateral actions in the church.  What we also have in that same wealth of material evidence is enough disagreement to rule out any actual authoritarian change prior to the oldest manuscripts we possess.  Therefore, we have a greater degree of reliability, not only with the text of the New Testament, than with any other document in history, but also with the historical accuracy of its original message.

 

 

[1] The earliest record of its building is the Letter to Aristeas which also recounts the creation of the LXX, however it is widely known that the Letter contains a great number of inaccuracies.

[2]L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 8.

[3] 1 Clem 13:1; cf. 1 Cor. 1:31/ 1 Clem. 13:2; cf. Matt. 7:2/ 1 Clem. 15:2; cf. Matt. 15:8, Mk. 7:6/ 1 Clem. 34:8; cf. 1 Cor. 2:9/ 1 Clem 36:2-5; cf. Heb. 1/ 1 Clem. 46:8; Matt.18:6, Mk. 9:42/ 1 Clem. 56:4; Heb. 12:6

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