Occasionally a conspiracy theory comes along that is so compelling that it actually becomes mainstream “science.” This is actually quite common in the scientific community. In just my lifetime, the world was supposed to end at least three times due to apocalyptic climate events. I can recall at least two blockbuster Hollywood movies from my childhood that detailed the impending demise of the Earth. Seeing that I am writing this article now, that clearly never happened. In my relatively short time on Earth, I have learned that scientists have a tendency to do more storytelling than actual science. This especially applies to the scholars and “Scientists” of the Critical Text.
A Conspiracy Theory That Makes the Flat Earthers Blush
According to the Critical Text scholars, the Bible was originally penned according to God (possibly), but quickly became corrupted due to the fact that Christians haphazardly and carelessly copied the text. Due to persecution, wars, and the fact that these manuscripts were scribed on highly sensitive papyri, we do not have any direct extant manuscript evidence that the entire New Testament existed until around the fourth century. Only lists of canonical books and extant quotations, often paraphrased, let us know that the Bible wasn’t a fourth century invention. So while it is commonly accepted that a Christian text existed, the exact form of the original is unknown. Shortly after the fourth century, which is the first time in history that we have evidence for a complete New Testament, Christians engaged in a massive, multi-regional conspiracy to amend the text to solidify orthodoxy.
They added stories and passages, smoothed out grammar, and amplified Christ’s divinity. As a result of this conspiracy, the majority of New Testament manuscripts are largely uniform and do not represent the original form of the text. This obviously could not have been God’s work. Fortunately for the church, God was watching and acted. Not wanting His people to permanently corrupt the text, He providentially stashed the Scriptures away in barrels, caves, trash heaps, the Vatican, and a monastery lined with skulls, knowing that Christians would not find them. Nearly 1800 years later, God appointed it time that the true text of Holy Scripture should be found by more reasonable men, only not in totality. Despite God’s best efforts, some portions of the text were permanently corrupted by Christians in their attempt to solidify orthodoxy and harmonize the text to fix contradictions that were present in the original. The original may exist in the totality of the manuscript tradition, though, as some scholars say, we wouldn’t know it even if that were the case.
A Grand Conspiracy
Like all conspiracy theories, the Critical Text proposes that a wide spread network conspired to deceive and manipulate a population of people. In this case, the Christians changed the Bible, and were successful in deceiving the people of God for over 1,000 years. One way to scrutinize such theories is to call into question the technological sophistication and coordination of such an effort. How could the United States have faked a moon landing under the nose of the American people? The amount of coordination and precision to execute such a conspiracy without evidence would have had to be breathtaking. In the same way, such a grand recension of the Biblical text would have been stunningly secret, as we have no evidence that anything like that ever happened. If the Christian church did indeed fix the Biblical text, it would be the most well organized conspiracy in the history of the world.
There are two main stories that are told when it comes to explaining the manuscript tradition of the New Testament text. The first is detailed above. The second is that these early manuscripts are anomalous survivors that don’t represent the original as well as the majority of manuscripts. Rather than proposing a grand conspiracy, the lack of pure majority text manuscripts in the first four hundred years of the church can be justified using the same explanation the Critical Text scholars use to explain why there is no uniform “text-type” at all in the first 500 years of the church – wars, persecution, and fragile manuscripts. Both stories share the same common thread, only one of them requires a grand conspiracy to fill in the gaps. It should not shock anybody that the papyrus which the New Testament was written on, which has a maximum shelf life of 500 years, didn’t survive in any substantial way into the 21st century.
There is a reason Occam’s Razor is such a popular principle. The simplest of two explanations that accounts for all the facts is more likely to be correct. So what is more simple, that a few manuscripts were severely corrupted during a time of persecution and doctrinal dispute, or that the majority of manuscripts were corrupted in a grand conspiracy to change the text of Scripture? The lack of manuscripts in the early church is easily explained by what is known by everybody who has studied that time period – war, persecution, fires, and manuscript decay. The uniformity of later manuscripts is most easily explained as simply being the continuation of the same tradition that previously existed. All factors are accounted for with the second scenario, and the variation in the majority tradition is explained in the same way variation is accounted for in the minority tradition. There is no need to imagine a grand conspiracy theory to explain something that has a rather simple explanation.