This post responds in the negative to the question posed above, and contends in favour of academic consensus that the transmission process of the New Testament/gospel manuscripts is quite reliable given the nature of the transmissional process itself. It will compare the New Testament/gospel manuscript transmission with an example of an unreliable chain of transmission in the form of the “game of telephone.”
The time in which Christ lived there were no printing presses, so documents needed to be hand copied by scribes onto manuscripts, which would then be stored. This was a common method if the ancients wished to keep records of what they felt to be important to them.
One of the charges leveled at the New Testament/Gospel transmission process is something like the “game of telephone.” According to this, a single message is introduced to someone on one end of a chain/line of people, and at the end of it being handed down via the chain, the message which comes out bears no resemblance to what it was at the beginning. In other words, the message became corrupted somewhere within the chain. This corruption of the original message also purportedly applies to the process of manuscript transmission of the New Testament/Gospels. It posits that there was an original message perhaps written on the earliest manuscript(s), and that over time, as it was copied and handed on (from one scribe to the next set of scribes and copyists), it was corrupted, and that this corruption is what we have in our final form (i.e. in the gospels as they are now printed in the New Testament that Christians read). This final form is nothing like the original message, and there is little reason to deem it a reliable witness to the historical Jesus.
However, there is reason to doubt this scenario on grounds that the transmission of New Testament/gospel manuscripts, as it occurred over time, was quite unlike the evolution and corruption of a message one finds in the game of telephone. The ultimate advantage the New Testament/Gospel manuscripts have is in that rather than being transmitted by a single, sole chain (like in the game of telephone) there are multiple chains of transmission. For instance, the original gospel manuscript was copied, and that copy was copied by several scribes, and then that copy was further copied by more several scribes, and so on, until we possess many thousands of these manuscript copies (we will look at the number of manuscripts in a follow up post). This functions as valuable means of comparison, and by comparing them together the textual critic can arrive at a good idea concerning the content the original manuscript would have contained. The results have been successful given that textual critics have been able to identify what words, sentences, and paragraphs were in the earliest manuscripts, and what was likely added later by a scribe for some other purpose. A good example is the ending to Mark’s gospel (the portion running from 16:9 until 16:20) which is not in the earliest manuscripts, and was almost certainly added by a later scribe, possibly in the early 2nd century. Many mainstream Bible translations include footnotes acknowledging the possible lack of originality of these Markan verses. It seems clear that given the views of textual critics combined with the limited number of such footnotes noting unoriginality elsewhere within the gospels, one can be fairly certain that the gospels as they are printed in Bibles are almost exactly the same as the original manuscripts.
A further reason to doubt the game of telephone analogy involves the nature of transmission itself: oral versus textual. Oral transmission, at least in the version of the game of telephone, seems to have a lack of control (i.e. someone later in the chain cannot access the message at an earlier stage) whereas by the very nature of copying manuscripts such control and access would be possible. It is not unlikely that the original manuscript, if not the earliest of them, was available to later scribes copying its contents. This allows an access to earlier manuscripts, which allowed scribes to double check their own copies if they needed to.
Finally, unlike the game of game of telephone, largely deemed a lighthearted game for children, the scribes of New Testament/Gospel manuscripts were serious about their task. It is not unlikely that they (most of them at least) would have attempted to be accurate as a result, and as such, one might wonder at the applicability of the game of telephone analogy.
Also important to note is that no textual critic believes the New Testament/Gospel manuscripts to be error free. Like any other ancient set of manuscripts, they possess certain, often minor, transmissional errors. These include, but may not be limited to, occasionally miscopied numbers, incorrect spelling of names, or garbled copying of words, and so on. These are often innocent mistakes on behalf of a scribe likely due to a lapse in concentration or because of something else (i.e. poor lighting). According to Ehrman,
“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” (1).
Although Ehrman notes the insignificance of these textual changes one might be concerned with his claim of “hundreds of thousands” of these changes. Are our manuscripts so error ridden? What might strike one as a surprise, however, is that the more textual changes one has in the manuscripts the better, simply because it means textual critics have more manuscripts in number to work with in order to reconstruct the original message. The fewer the manuscripts the fewer changes; the greater number of manuscripts the more changes. The latter scenario is preferable because the rule of thumb is the more manuscripts to work with the merrier. Wallace writes similarly: “The vast majority of them are quite inconsequential. And less than 1 percent of all textual variants both affect the meaning of that verse (though none affects a core doctrine) and have some plausibility of authenticity” (2). If Wallace’s 1% figure is to be believed, it would claim that one is able to trust 99% of what she finds in the gospels as representative of the original manuscript. This is not impossible, but other textual critics have posited a slightly lower statistic often ranging from around 96 to 98%. Either way, it’s usually in the high 90s range.
That one can reason to this fairly strong conclusion is because of the sheer number of manuscript copies textual critics have to work with, which allows them to contrast and compare, and therefore catch transmissional changes, errors, and distortions whenever they occur. It seems then that the transmission of the New Testament/Gospel manuscripts are quite reliable, and that this position is warranted in the absence of a reasonable doubt. As noted, no-one claims the process to be perfect, but the claim is that it is reliable enough to allow readers of the gospels to be fairly certain that what they holds in their hands are very close to what the original gospel authors would have written.
1. Ehrman, B. 2005. Misquoting Jesus. p. 208.
2. Wallace, D. 2010. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. p. 71.