Part 5: Have Biblical Texts Been Reliably Transmitted? Responding to Bill Nye’s Major Error

This will be the final post in my Ham/Nye debate analysis series. I will not fully analyze the 5-minute rebuttals or the 5-minute counter-rebuttals, since I didn’t find much about them remarkable (save for the point I’m about to highlight). Instead, I’d like to focus this concluding post on what I believe is the most serious allegation made by Nye during the entire event and explain why it is demonstrably false.

In his 5-minute rebuttal and again in his 5-minute counter-rebuttal, Nye makes the following claim (I’m paraphrasing Nye, but you can go back and listen to his own words in the freely-available video recording on YouTube):

The Bible, published in American English, has been translated many, many times over the last three millennia. It is much like the telephone game, where you get a translation of a translation of a translation. How can that be considered an accurate record of the world?

(For an explanation of what he meant by “telephone game,” see HERE.)

My jaw dropped when I heard this argument come out of Nye’s mouth. While I realize that this misconception about the Bible has by no means been eradicated from pop-culture, it truly did surprise me to hear someone as intelligent (and allegedly well-informed) as Bill Nye trot out this dead argument. It shouldn’t have, I suppose. The fact that he used it betrays his utter failure to investigate the true situation regarding biblical manuscripts, transmission and translation of the texts (or any ancient texts), and the science of textual criticism.

Nye was, I submit, trying to support his assertion that science is much more reliable as a source of truth about the material world than the Bible is. I don’t wish to argue whether or not Scripture makes scientific claims. Rather, I want to address the underlying falsehood of Nye’s statement: that the Bible isn’t a reliably preserved historical document. Note that this is a totally different question than whether or not everything in the Bible is true (though I certainly believe it to be inerrant as originally written and as intended by the divinely-inspired authors). Nye’s comments directly insinuate that the Bible we have is very unlikely to be anything like what was originally written.

Here is a very brief and highly condensed outline of the case for the accurate preservation of Scripture.

New Testament:

  1. We have a veritable abundance of New Testament manuscripts written in the original Greek. The latest figure I have on file is 5,795 manuscripts. The count could be even higher by now. Scholars can examine these documents and freshly translate them today without having to worry that the original meaning was lost in translation from one language to another, to another, etc. over thousands of years.
  2. rylandsWe have ancient manuscripts that were penned very close to the time of the events that they describe. For example, we have manuscript fragments that date to within one or two generations of the historical events they record, partial manuscripts that date to within 125 years of the events, and full New Testament manuscripts that date to within 300 years. This means that there was very little time for any major copying errors/changes to be introduced. Furthermore, remember that once a manuscript was copied, the original was not suddenly gone. The copy coexisted with its source for a non-negligible length of time, and it isn’t unreasonable to assume that cross-checks were made for quality control. Not to mention, as successive copies began to be made, many eye-witnesses were still alive and could point out inaccuracies in the reproduced text.
  3. In addition to manuscripts in the original Greek, we have thousands upon thousands of ancient biblical manuscripts that were translated into Latin (~10,000) and even more (~10,000-15,000) in languages such as Syriac, Coptic, Slavic, Ethiopic, and Aremenian. Now, what is so incredible about this situation is that we can examine all extant manuscripts, written in a variety of languages, and do a comparison. To summarize and speak plainly about a very long and complex process: discrepancies can be examined within this large available sample size to see about when textual changes emerged (are they in the oldest manuscripts, or just in later ones?) and how many manuscripts contain a particular variation. Then, the textual critics can arrive, with a high degree of confidence, at the wording of the original manuscripts. It turns out that textual scholars have a high degree of certainty on 99%+ of the wording of the New Testament. The remaining 1% of variation that has not been resolved does not affect one single cardinal doctrine of Christianity.

The Old Testament

The books that make up the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) are more ancient (some of them much more so) than the New Testament. However, we can still point out some very important facts about the reliability of its transmission.

  1. isaiah One key body of evidence is the Dead Sea Scroll find from Qumran, Israel. The papyrus scrolls, some of which date back to the 3rd century B.C. (the youngest ones date to about 100 AD), were unearthed from 1947 to 1956. The vast majority of the scrolls are in the original Hebrew with a few in Aramaic and a few in Greek. The scrolls contain about 200 copies of biblical books, most of them fragmentary. Almost all books of the Hebrew Bible are represented among them (Nehemiah and Esther are the two books missing). The Great Isaiah scroll is the crowning find of the excavation, as it is the best preserved of the scrolls, one of the oldest, and it is almost complete. It shows remarkable agreement with the much later manuscripts, and corroborates our current best translations extremely well. This nullifies the claim that the past 2000+ years of copying and translation have rendered the Old Testament unfaithful to what was originally written.
  2. Elba Extra-biblical archaeological finds have corroborated a lot of the historical content of the Old Testament. For example, the famous Elba archive in northern Syria, which dates back to 2400-2500 B.C., confirms the location of several biblical cities in addition to corroborating previously doubted names and personal titles used in the Old Testament. In addition, the Elba library demonstrated that people of such an ancient time were totally capable of detailed record keeping, making it entirely reasonable to believe that Moses authored the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis included) and may have even done so using records compiled by Abraham much earlier. Other extra-biblical archaeological finds have verified customs and cultural details described in the Old Testament.
  3. It is significant that New Testament writers quote the Old Testament frequently, and they very likely had manuscripts even older than the oldest ones that have survived until today.

Now, the above information is simply intended to support the assertion that the Christian Scriptures have been correctly transmitted. But this is an essential part of the cumulative case for the truth of Christianity in that it shows our texts to be reliable versions of what was first written down by eyewitnesses so very long ago.

Bill Nye could say that the biblical texts teach an erroneous science, or that they teach no science at all. The first point could be contested, based on how the text is interpreted and according to genre considerations. Some Christian scholars would even agree with the second point. But Nye is not justified in his over-arching claim, that the biblical texts are not trustworthy because they have been hopelessly corrupted over thousands of years of re-translating and copying. There is no evidence for that assertion, and much evidence against it.

I’d like to make a few closing remarks on the Nye vs. Ham debate overall. I don’t believe anyone “won” that debate, because for the most part, it was two people talking right past each other. Nye doesn’t believe the Bible to be a reliable record of history, much less natural history, and Ham uses the Bible as a literalistic filter for any and all evidence left from natural history. They really had no common ground on which to meet and debate. This is why I view intelligent design theory as a far superior tool in exploring the scientific data and making a case for a Designer. It starts from what we all observe.

I think the event was, in some ways, damaging to the project of Christian apologetics. It likely reaffirmed misconceptions many hold about the Christian community as a whole, particularly how we handle scientific evidence and how we approach epistemology.

Finally, I’d like to be clear that it has never been my intent in this series to denigrate the young-earth creationist community. While I do not share their beliefs on many science and faith issues, I have high academic respect for many scholars who happen to hold that position, for many scholars who hold a more evolutionary view than my own, and I have Christian love for all. Please understand that rejecting a viewpoint is not at all the same thing as rejecting someone personally. 

I hope my debate evaluation has been helpful. Thank you to those who have emailed with kind remarks about this series and to those who have shared it on your blogs and social media.