Responding to David Cross’ Bible Quote

I’ve seen the image below floating around a few times, and to save my fingers, I’d like to just post my thoughts here, and then share this post when I see the below quote being shared by my friends.

The image that floats around

I am not an expert in this field, nor have I done any significant research into the area of textual criticism.

I am merely a church worker with some theological education, and I view the affects of a quote like this pastorally: If people believe what this man says, without looking into it, it could halt, or hinder their growth in faith, or it may contribute to their decision to reject it.

But a quote like this is (mostly) unfounded. And I don’t fault David Cross for this — he’s a comedian, not a scholar.

I will try my best to respond to this quote in the order that it was written, and I will seek to do so in a manner that doesn’t simply reject it out of hand.

The level that I wanted to engage this quote at is slightly above a facebook comment, so bear with the length and boring segments in this text.

Most of my resources will be from Wikipedia because…well…this isn’t a paper I am writing for a class. :-)


“Back when the Bible was written…”

The bible was written over several thousands of years, but let’s start in looping the Old Testament (the Jewish Tanakh) together first; however, he is likely only referencing the New Testament in his whole quote.

“Written, then edited, then re-edited…”

The Tanakh was composed from many scrolls, and there were strict procedures for Jewish Scribes in regards to copying them; if two letters even touched when they were not supposed to, the whole scroll was to be thrown away. Not only were Jewish scribes meticulous during this time period, but the surrounding ancient near eastern cultures were as well.

Read up here:
Brief Link
Scholarly Link

Because of these procedures and practices, the Tanakh remained consistent over the years.

The books within the Tanak were originally written in Hebrew, however, a Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew texts was composed within the 3rd century BCE, and this translation is even quoted by some of the new testament writers, and would later be known as the Septuagint.

To further account for the accuracy of the Tanakh, modern scholarship benefits from the discovery of the Dead sea scrolls in the 1940s-50s, which are a collection of scrolls from the Tanakh that dated back to the last three centuries BCE, up until the first Century CE. These scrolls are some of the earliest intact manuscripts of these books, and were found to be in agreement with the manuscripts that had been found before that time.

“Then translated from Dead Languages…”

I am assuming that he is referencing the New Testament here, and since I have already covered the languages of the Tanakh, I will go into the New Testament.

Most scholars believe that the New Testament was written in Koine Greek, though the predominant language that Jesus would have spoken to the people was likely Aramaic (Syriac), which was the common language of the time and region, known by both the Hebrews and the Gentiles. Koine Greek, though dead now, was the form of greek ushered into the region by Alexander the Great in the 300s BCE, and it continued to be a language in use until Medieval Greek came in in the 300s CE. However, Koine Greek remained the official court language of the Byzantine Empire until its demise in 1453.

We can then conclude the Koine Greek, though an older form of Greek, was known in the ancient world, and was used in many of our sources accounting for the History of Alexander The Great, and up.

“Then re-translated, then edited, then re-written…”

The New testament, as we know it in english, was largely influenced by what is called the Textus Receptus, which was the Greek Translation of the text used by William Tyndale’s New Testament, as well as the King James Bible. However, the bulk of the manuscripts used to make this translation date to the 12th Century in the Byzantine Empire, and thus are not the earliest texts.

Because of the late and specific source of the manuscripts, there are differences between them, and the earlier manuscripts found, including verses in the King James Bible, that are not found in early Greek manuscripts. Thankfully, there are earlier translations of the Greek New Testament that David Cross doesn’t seem to be aware of.

Codex Vaticanus — 300–325 CE
This text pre-dates the Christianization of Rome in 380, as well as the Council of Nicea which Constantine called in 325 CE
Codex Sinaiticus — 330–360 CE
Codex Alexandrinus-400–440 CE
Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus — 450 CE

“…all based on stories that were told orally 30 to 90 years after they happened to people who didn’t know how to write…so…”

These stories were told orally during and after Christ’s ministry on earth, and for many in Christ’s audience during his teachings, the oral tradition was more trustworthy than the written tradition, and in fact, Rabbis, and Jewish men who had trained to be a Rabbi, “were raised and trained to deliver this oral tradition accurately”.

As for actual written accounts of Christ’s Ministry and Teachings, the following could have been the progression:

“The first stage was oral, and included various stories about Jesus such as healing the sick, or debating with opponents, as well as parables and teachings.
In the second stage, the oral traditions began to be written down in collections (collections of miracles, collections of sayings, etc.), while the oral traditions continued to circulate
In the third stage, early Christians began combining the written collections and oral traditions into what might be called “proto-gospels” — hence Luke’s reference to the existence of “many” earlier narratives about Jesus
In the fourth stage, the authors of our four Gospels drew on these proto-gospels, collections, and still-circulating oral traditions to produce the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” (Source)

Some scholars place the Gospel of Mark as the earliest Gospel Account, with a date as early as 66 CE, a little over 30 years after Christ’s ministry on earth. However, the above list seems to allow for written accounts to be in existence at earlier dates.

As for the writing ability of first century Jews and Gentiles in the Palestinian region, it is unlikely that Jewish men wouldn’t be able to read and write, at least at a basic level, due to their upbringing in a Hebrew temple where they were expected to read and write.

As for the ability to read and write in Greek, they have Alexander the Great to thank for that, who sought to bring Greek Culture into lands he had conquered, which resulted in the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Tanakh, as well as the establishment of schools in which the Hebrew people would learn the Greek language.

Therefore, the audience at the time would likely be able to read and write in both Hebrew and Greek, as well as possibly Aramaic/Syriac.


Conclusion

With the discovery and study of the above Codexs, the discoveries of the thousands of Old and New testament manuscripts we have today, as well as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is reasonable to state that modern scholars have plenty of texts to base their research on, and that the inconsistencies in the texts are generally weeded out, or notated, in modern translations of the Holy Bible.

English Bibles have largely been influenced by the King James Bible because of its influence on our world; however, modern english translations do not fear parting ways with the King James version when earlier manuscripts seem to contradict the manuscripts used in making the King James.

In conclusion, David Cross does not seem to be aware of the advancements in modern scholarship, or in the discoveries of early manuscripts of the text. Instead, he is making blanket statements that do not stand up to the facts that we know today, and are in some ways “old news” in the field of textual criticism.

Helpful Video Links about Textual Criticism:
What is Textual Criticism?
What sources are used to determine the text of the Bible?
How does Textual Criticism Work?
In the transmission of the Bible like the telephone game?
Scholarly Debate Video