2nd Hand Sources

Virtually all of our sources (The Early Church Father’s writings, The New Testament, etc.) are second hand or manuscripts dated decades, sometimes centuries, after the originals. How do we defend our faith when someone brings up this skeptical outlook?

Do we have any sources that are first hand?

How do we know that through Bias, manuscripts weren’t slightly changed overtime?

Everything we know about history is mostly from second hand sources, many of which might be inaccurate. Whether it’s American history, European history, Greek history or whatever, we have to compile, compare, and analyze all the sources and gauge their reliability.

We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that Scripture has been copied down the ages with 98% accuracy with the other 2% minor unimportant differences.

Suppose someone said he found an unknown work of Shakespeare. You look at it and see that it is written in modern English. You would know at once it was a fake.

That’s an obvious example of a science called textual criticism. It has been around for a long time, but it has recently exploded with the advent of computing technology.

Scholars will feed many thousands of ancient documents into computers which analyze them for spelling, sentence structure, idioms (slang), references to other works, etc. They can, with a very high degree of accuracy, spot copyists errors (called glosses) and incongruent content. They can precisely date a writing, usually to within a decade. They can tell, give or take fifty miles, where the author learned to write. By studying word usage and frequency they can tell if two works were written by the same person (which is how we know beyond all reasonable doubt that the guy that wrote Romans did not write Hebrews).

No, but the same is true of texts much younger than the Bible, and is just a feature of historical literary study. See also the description of the manuscripts of the Iliad linked in my other comment.

How do we know that through Bias, manuscripts weren’t slightly changed overtime?

We do not know, but there are things which we can do to identify alterations, such as being aware of common types of errors, and we can trace the ‘genealogy’ of variants in texts to produce not only lines of descent but candidates for probable original forms (based on their being the apparent ‘ancestor’ of the lines of descent). ‘Witnesses’, i.e. the quoting of our text by others, can also be useful in establishing alterations if we can date those witnesses.

While none of this is easy to do, the Bible has been intensively studied for two thousand years, and we have a remarkable wealth of manuscripts and witnesses for it, making it extremely unusual in the degree of certainty which we can have about its original form.

Um, “glosses” are not copyists’ errors: they are editorial explanations of obscure elements of a text. John 1:41’s “the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ” is a gloss.

They can precisely date a writing, usually to within a decade. They can tell, give or take fifty miles, where the author learned to write. By studying word usage and frequency they can tell if two works were written by the same person (which is how we know beyond all reasonable doubt that the guy that wrote Romans did not write Hebrews).

Sorry, but it is nowhere near that precise, or that simple. When a date for an ancient text is derived from internal evidence alone (i.e. from the form of language which it uses), the margins of error for time and space are often measured in centuries and whole kingdoms (and the space one is even worse for widely-propagated languages, like Latin). As for word usage being proof of the same or different authorship, it is subject to the most basic of analytical problems: limited sample sizes make author identification difficult or even impossible.

While stylometry works reasonably well for consistent, prolific, modern writers, life becomes much more complicated when dealing with more experimental but less fruitful authors, even when they are quite recent. Studies of known authorship demonstrate that one author can have a range well beyond that of another (fig 1 - meaning that using the latter as a guide for “maximum plausible variety” would lead to disqualifying texts from the former’s catalogue of works), or have an individual range greater than the distance between that author and another (fig 3 - meaning that the works of one author could be misattributed to the other). Further, even good usage of it fails to quell motivated doubts.

The other thing is that ancient writers often collaborated with their scribe, secretary, or amanuensis, because they usually dictated to somebody else who then helped smooth it out. So if Paul was working with Rough and Ready Bob on one letter, and then he had Super-Smooth Cool Pen Luke on another, you would get two different styles.

This wasn’t just a Jewish thing, either. We know a lot about Cicero’s secretary, who was a slave named Tiro who invented his own shorthand system. We still use bits of it today, in certain styles of ampersand. Cicero maintained stability of style by having the same secretary from his youth onward, and by having him hear the same philosophy and rhetoric lectures in Athens that he did (yep, even though he was a slave). They were both smart guys and good writers, but the whole was greater than the parts.

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