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Does a Christian apologist aiming to uphold the accuracy and reliability of modern Bibles require a strong understanding of textual criticism? Put differently, when making a comprehensive argument supporting the truthfulness of various claims within the Bible—such as the Genesis creation story or the historical account of Jesus's resurrection in the Gospels and Acts—would the Christian apologist need to rely on arguments from textual criticism to substantiate the claim that the content in our contemporary Bibles is indeed accurate and reliable, despite thousands of years of transcription, translation, and potential manipulation since the writing of the original manuscripts?

If possible, I would appreciate answers referencing books that have been published at the intersection of Christian apologetics and textual criticism.


Food for thought for those who think apologetics is an irrelevant or unnecessary discipline

These are some of my previous questions on this topic. Some of the answers are quite insightful and worth the read:

Apologetics vs. Evangelism?

What is the biblical basis for proving God's existence using purely rational arguments, and how is this reconciled with the essential role of faith?

What is the Biblical basis for Christians partaking in formal intellectual debates with atheists and skeptics?

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  • Seems a bit passive aggressive for a user to down vote a question without leaving any reason. Additionally, I actually think it would be great to hear the deeper insights the downvoter may have to offer. Maybe the question I'm asking is too obvious or trivial to be worthy of an answer? Maybe it's worded in a way that makes it hard to understand what I'm asking? Maybe the mere act of asking the question is perceived as too disrespectful of established orthodoxies? Maybe the mere act of entertaining the possibility of errors in the Bible automatically makes the question deserving of a downvote?
    – user61679
    Commented Apr 25 at 0:17
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    Here's a non-passive, non-aggressive upvote to balance it out, +1. Answers may vary, but the question seems reasonable. Commented Apr 25 at 3:28

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It depends on the argument one is trying to make.

If one seeks to defend Christian beliefs via:

  • Natural theology consistent with Biblical teachings, textual criticism will not really be a factor
  • The personal witness of the Holy Ghost affirming a Biblical teaching, textual criticism is not relevant
  • Extra-biblical historical data that is supportive of Biblical claims, then textual criticism of the Bible would play at most a minor role
  • The reliability of the Biblical record - then textual criticism will matter a great deal

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The resurrection specifically

Let's consider the 4 bullet points above.

Natural theology on its own won't make an argument for the resurrection.

If one is confident in the witness of the Holy Spirit that Jesus rose from the dead, one's conclusion can stand independent of the judgement calls of manuscript scholars, and is unaffected by changing pressures in contemporary academic consensus.

There are historical arguments that Jesus' resurrection is the best explanation of the historical data, regardless of the position one holds on the inspiration of the Bible. These arguments tend not to put much emphasis on textual criticism. Even a Biblical text that is just somewhat reliable is adequate to make these arguments.

However, an argument that Jesus was resurrected--because the Bible reports it--will need to defend its source. Textual criticism can be used to attack this source (e.g. this text is suspect therefore one should be doubtful that the original authors said/believed these things), or to defend this source (e.g. the original text can be constructed with a very high degree of accuracy, therefore we can be confident that the original authors said/believed these things).

This approach is used by the channel Apologica, which treats the reliability of the Biblical text as logically prior to the authority of the Biblical text.

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More specific claims

The more specific the theological claim, the more challenging it is to make a strictly Biblical argument if the Biblical text is suspect, so appealing to the discipline of textual criticism to show reliability is increasingly relevant.

A very specific claim such as the content in our contemporary Bibles is indeed accurate and reliable, despite thousands of years of transcription, translation, and potential manipulation since the writing of the original manuscripts can only be made by comparison to the originals. This requires either perfect knowledge of the originals (currently inaccessible through non-Omniscient sources) or a best reconstruction of the originals--which is exactly what textual criticism seeks to provide.

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Application

Nobody believes the Biblical account of the creation or the resurrection solely because a historian told them to.

Rather, textual criticism is typically used as a defensive weapon by those who have multiple bases for trusting the Biblical record, and wish to respond to counter-arguments. That is, textual criticism is more often used to defeat negative arguments rather than to make positive arguments for Biblical Christian beliefs.

Textual criticism on its own does not address the authority of the text or the validity of its claims.

Those seeking to make a positive argument might make a cumulative case for trusting the message of the Gospels using the following points of emphasis:

  • Were the authors in a position to know what they were talking about? Yes. (historical claim)
  • Were the authors in a position to be fact-checked if they fabricated the story? Yes. (historical claim)
  • Do we have a reasonably reliable copy of the authors' original words? Yes. (text-critical claim)

However, it is worth pointing out that believing the message of the prophets and apostles strictly because of historical & text-critical arguments would be strikingly at odds with what is actually taught in the Bible--e.g. see John 14:26, John 16:13, 1 Cor. 2:4. It is a foundation which, like the sand of Matthew 7, moves too much to support the weight of eternal consequences on its own.

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Further Reading

For a summary article defending the reliable transmission of the New Testament text see The Manuscripts Tell The Story: The New Testament Is Reliable.

For a deep-dive in scholarly tomes, 3 of eminent scholar Bruce Metzger's most significant works are listed below, and are available through archive.org

For a more recent work defending the Gospels, see Peter J. Williams' Can We Trust the Gospels?, which approaches the question from multiple angles, including textual transmission.

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    @Mark thanks for the sharp text-critical eye in catching my scribal errors (aka typos) =) Commented Apr 29 at 13:31
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The bible is not meant to create arguments primarily it is meant to be preached in authority. Arguments of course are parts of scripture and extremely important to be argued but these are God’s arguments declared not debated at the heart of it. Even the devil knows that! So he did not temp Jesus by saying ’How do you know your scriptures are accurate?’

Many misunderstand the nature of apologetics as viewed by someone with faith. Nobody ever cane to faith through apologetics but simply by believing in God’s word. Nobody ever lost their faith through being exposed to criticism of scripture because faith can’t be defeated or lost. Gods word being internally perfect and completely persuasive and self-evident to those that believe requires no apologetics.

Faith once exposed to the power of God’s word recognizing the voice of God, that also always existed in a lesser extent in their conscience and in nature, knows as fact that God will not allow his word to be destroyed or corrupted. This confidence of faith is not because of their confidence in textual criticism, nor in apologetics, nor in human reasoning but in God.

How would you defend a lion? Just let him out of the cage:

Hebrews 4:12-13

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

So we have three topics

  1. the scripture- necessary to prove the truthfulness of them with 100% self sufficiency and self-evident to all that believe.
  2. Apologetics- an interesting past time whereby a believer may untangle unimportant ideas that are presented to him either by his confused foolish self or the devil or his agents. Any of these with any significance are answered not through logic or philosophy but from (1)
  3. Textual Criticism- where subject to a holy frame of mind, is in the realms of biblical scholarship, translation and being involved in the historical preservation of a reliable Bible. The premise that all texts degrade to a point of becoming unreliable is proven untrue in the case of scripture. Those who do so can’t fail in their task of providing good reliable translations because God will ensure they maintain the Bible’s integrity even if he were to use monkeys to carry out the work. Those who work without faith and with wicked motives hoping to find little problems and then exaggerate them from mole hills to mountains (and there are only two kinds of scholars (wicked or holy) they are just people creating straw man arguments and wasting their life under the power of sin that (1) condemns.

Back to the question, how important than is textual criticism to apologetics.? Strictly speaking only scripture is needed for any meaningful apologetic so textual criticism (when part of biblical scholarship by a believer and in the aid of supporting and believing in a good translation) is important to maintain a good bible translation as does happen. For apologetics it is not necessary because apologetics is not necessary. However it’s not completely without value. I find engagement in apologetics helps some clarify their faith and also become more confident in their faith due to the weakness of all human reasoning as compared to scripture. They also get to exercise logic freed from the powers of sin by understanding scripture more and how it applies to our current world.

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  • Thanks Mike for sharing your thoughts. Given that you see apologetics as a rather unnecessary past time, I'm intrigued to know what you think about the following questions: 1, 2, 3.
    – user61679
    Commented Apr 25 at 0:37
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    @Mark - When I say apologetics is unnecessary I mean generally. Love is the final rule of conduct so if a person genuinely has some weird question based on their confused state, love will condescend to listen and try to help them transition from human reason to scripture and there may be some common ground on the reason part where truth meets philosophy or other religions. This is meant as a brief transition to the scriptures. Love is patient in this. All the persuasive power is in scripture . So by saying apologetics is not necessary I do not oppose apologetics just far lower than preaching,
    – Mike
    Commented Apr 25 at 1:35
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    @Mark and to bring my own personal view more down to home. For example C.S. Lewis I like reading his thoughts. But consider him a literary type that can’t be equalled in persuasiveness to a random redneck somewhere in a little town convinced of the love of God and delivery his sermons to a little church known by nobody. Persuasiveness is merely the holy spirit opening up his word through anyone highly educated or not so much. So that the power of God does not rest on human reason.
    – Mike
    Commented Apr 25 at 1:55
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It is field focused on the text of the Bible. To prove the textual accuracy or reliability of the New Testament, you don't need to study the details of textual criticism yourself. You can do that easily by quoting the best historians and scholars of TC.

Perhaps the leading, and by far most popular, skeptic and critic when it comes to contemporary Christianity is the agnostic Bart Ehrman. However, Ehrman still affirms the historical nature of the gospels, writing that “If historians want to know what Jesus said and did they are more or less constrained to use the New Testament Gospels as their principal sources. Let me emphasize that this is not for religious or theological reasons—for instance, that these and these alone can be trusted. It is for historical reasons, pure and simple” Ehrman, 2008. The New Testament. p. 229.

... But what does the historian make of these errors? How do they impact the historian’s effort in reconstructing the original texts? Professor Bart Ehrman explains that “of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for any-thing other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us”.Ehrman, 2005. Misquoting Jesus. p. 208.

Textual reliability of the NT is itself not directly focused or required for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Dr Craig of reasonablefaith has argued in his debates that to prove the resurrection, the gospels only have to be generally reliable in the specific claims, not entirely. In other words, you need to learn historian's skills to prove the resurrection.

Secondly, you don't need to learn TC in order to the Genesis creation story. For that, you need to learn ancient literature. Narrative, literary criticism. Advance reading: The Art of Biblical Narrative, by Robert Alter.

Thirdly, textual criticism will be helpful as a Christian apologist against superficial dogmas concerning the Bible. The dogmatic community takes away the authorship and form of Biblical literature which leads to unreasonable presuppositions leading to misrepresentation and thus, undermining of the religion for the unbelievers. Christian scholars found their skills more useful to clear traditional misconceptions of the religious people, rather than to convert unbelievers. There have also a danger of potential misrepresentation of TC facts presented by popular Christian apologists.

If you want to learn textual criticism, find reasons for your interest and study it as a science like any other, rather than going with an agenda. Learning Greek and then reading a standard TC book like the: The Text of the New Testament its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration by Ehrman and Metzger will be sufficient. Learning basics and essentials of the field you are interested is always helpful, especially if you find motivated to dig deeper in this topic to answer others.

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