For some time Christian apologists have been making outrageous claims such as: “The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best attested historical event of the ancient world”, or “There is more evidence for Jesus Christ than for Julius Caesar”, or “The NT texts have been proven to be the most reliable historical texts of the ancient world”, or “If you distrust the NT then you also have to throw out every single other surviving text from ancient history” etc. ad nauseum.
These claims are heavily dependent upon an argument known as “The bibliographical argument”, as popularised by Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel. Simply put, this argument claims that as there are far, far more surviving fragments and manuscripts of the NT then for any other ancient text, and since the earliest surviving fragments date far closer to the original date of composition then for any other text, that this means that the NT is therefore more reliable than any other historical text.
The reality is that this argument is simply 100% bunk. Real textual critics do not use this test in determining the accuracy of a historical work. This argument has been around for quite some time, and it was refuted many years ago. The claims about there being more evidence for Jesus Christ then Julius Caesar are likewise completely untrue. Christians however have to the best of my knowledge never made any attempt at responding to its refutation, but simply continue to use the argument in complete denial of the natural response to it. Due to the isolation of many Christians and the natural way in which the human ego will avoid facing facts that would naturally lead to the breakdown of its false sense of identity, Christian scholars, apologists, preachers and laymen continue to use this argument (and variations of it) and make claims as to the textual integrity of the NT.
This has to stop. Christians have to realize that they have been duped by the conmen acting as their leaders, and concede that this argument and all the claims that stem from it are completely erroneous.
Orthodox Christianity depends very heavily upon a literal reading of the NT as historically and theologically accurate texts. As such, Christian apologists are heavily invested in attempting to provide evidence and/or arguments for their reliability. Whilst there are many criticisms launched against Christianity and many reasons given by non-Christians for rejecting the gospel, many people (such as myself) find various reasons to reject the historicity of the Gospel accounts, and view them either partly or wholly as works of fiction. Likewise, many people (such as myself) believe that the texts that we have today have undergone significant interpolation and redaction from their original form.
So, contrary to the claim that textual criticism has shown the NT texts to be the most reliable of all ancient historical works, real textual critics and historians have concluded the exact opposite: That the NT texts we have today have been heavily modified from their original form, and that even the original forms of these texts were not necessarily historically accurate. There are really two separate (but related) questions here: 1) That of the accurate or inaccurate transmission of the NT texts, and 2) That of the historical reliability or unreliability of the original form of the texts. In making the claims that the NT texts have shown themselves to be reliable and that there is more evidence for Jesus then anyone else in classical history, Christian apologists are conflating two separate claims into one (though it should be noted that occasionally some of them have noted this fact and attempted to make the two cases separately).
Starting with 1), it is indeed true that there are far, far more surviving NT fragments and manuscripts then for any other work in classical history. Likewise, it is also true that some of the earliest fragments (note that these are not complete manuscripts) date very close to the original date of composition (P52 being probably the best example). However, this does not in any way present evidence that the NT texts we have today have been transmitted faithfully from their original conception. Rather, we have extensive evidence that pretty much all early Christians wrote pseudographical texts (that is, they forged them in the name of notable figures) and modified pre-existing texts (whether to create a new text altogether, or simply create their own version of an already existing text).
The earliest NT fragments are generally dated from the mid-2nd century to the early 3rd (1), and the earliest complete manuscripts date from the 4th century onwards. Whilst Christian apologists and biblical scholars have been known to argue for 1st century dating for a number of fragments, these dates have not been accepted by secular paleographers (who study the scripts and papyrus to attempt to determine a date range for a manuscript). Christian apologists and scholars consistently give only the earliest possible date for a manuscript (and even then rely on disputed dates and fringe claims – such as that there is a fragment of Mark amongst the Dead Sea scrolls (2)). For example, regarding P52 Christian apologists and scholars have consistently given its dating simply as 90CE, when its original date range was proposed as roughly 100-150CE, whilst most accept the range of 125-175CE, and many actual paleographers have argued that we should extend the range into the early 3rd century CE (3). In this case the actual fragment itself is miniscule; hence we cannot judge the accuracy of later copies against this copy, as it contains only 5 verses.
In previous centuries some critics have argued that the Gospels may not have been written before the 4th century. Such claims can now be rejected with absolute certainty. However, we do still have a fairly wide range between the 1st -2nd centuries CE, to which we should note that markers which many apologists and scholars have used to claim early dating (such as the Apostolic fathers) are no-where near as solid as they would like. Either way, one cannot claim that the NT texts were written any later then the mid 2nd century (though perhaps the range on a few could be extended to as late as 170CE-ish). Likewise, one cannot argue that significant interpolation or redaction was taking place after the 4th century.
However, one can indeed claim that significant interpolation and redaction was taking place in NT texts throughout the 2nd century by various early Christian sects. The NT texts we have today are basically all Catholic versions, and whilst early proto-orthodox church fathers accused their opponents of mutilating the texts, we have significant evidence of proto-orthodox Christians doing the same. Take the Gospel of Mark for example. It is common knowledge that the earliest manuscripts all ended at 16:8 with the women fleeing the empty tomb, there are three different variations on additional verses that are extant in different manuscripts (4), and a number of early church fathers actually discussed this issue, and concluded that 16:8 was the original ending. Hence the majority of modern scholars also favour this conclusion. Hence, we have here a perfect example of additional verses being added after the end of a NT Gospel. All up we therefore have four different variations on the ending of Mark that have survived to this day (and we should point out that they are all Catholic versions).
Most mainstream NT scholars and historians accept Markan priority; that is, they accept that the Gospel of Mark was written first amongst the NT Gospels, and that Matthew and Luke both added material to Mark, and John was written later as a response. The evidence for this is overwhelming and involves very simple logic. Obviously it should be noted that whilst Mark has no nativity narrative (but rather begins at the baptism of Jesus), both Matthew and Luke do. Therefore, according to the theory of Markan priority, this means that the authors of both Matthew and Luke added their nativity narratives to Mark’s Gospel (amongst other changes). Hence, this means that the very genesis of these texts is in interpolation and redaction.
To further this point we should note that there were alternate Gospels in use by heterodox Christian sects for which we have good reason to believe that they were effectively versions of Matthew and Luke. Heterodox Jewish Christians (Ebionites, Nazarenes etc.) used Gospels that were almost certainly related to Matthew (known as the Gospel of the Ebionites, Gospel of the Nazarenes, Gospel of the Hebrews etc.). Likewise, the Marcionites had a version of Luke known as the Gospel of the Lord. The interesting thing about this is that the church fathers tell us that these heterodox versions of Matthew and Luke also had no nativity narrative, but rather also began at the baptism (chapter 3 of Matthew and Luke). And what would you know, but amongst the earliest extant fragments of Luke there happen to be an example that is missing the nativity narratives (chapters 1-2) and begins with the baptism (chapter 3)(5). What a coincidence! So, one way or anther, we can see that the nativity narratives of both Matthew and Luke (upon which the virgin-birth claim for Jesus is built) are the product of interpolation and redaction by proto-orthodox Christians (early Catholics).
Likewise, many modern scholars believe that the Pauline Epistles contain many interpolations, and are subject to heavy redaction. I am not going to go into this here today, though I will cover it in upcoming articles (I certainly favour a radical version of this theory). Likewise, some scholars have argued that our version of Revelation is considerably longer than the original (and again I also favour this conclusion). So, early proto-orthodox church fathers repeatedly claimed that their opponents had modified their versions of texts, which are also in our NT canon. However, whether or not this is true, we have good reason to believe that early Catholics did the same. Thus all complete surviving versions of the NT texts (which all post-date the 2nd century, when it appears there was much modification of these texts taking place) contain at least some (and most probably many) variations on the original versions. So, that’s out with part 1) of the Christian apologists claim.
Before moving on to part 2), It is important for me to point out that arguing that the NT texts have undergone significant changes from their original forms does not mean that the original form of these texts were true (as some might argue), and that the problems with Christianity are only present due to the changes in these texts. Rather, I believe that the original forms of the NT texts were themselves the products of competing early Christian sects that all had their own dogmas, which were themselves a combination of various schools of thought, teaching a complex web of human ideology and superstition alongside sublime universal spiritual truths.
The reason why I (and others) argue that there is significant evidence of interpolation and redaction in the NT texts is that we wish to encourage everyone to take an honest look at the NT canon for what it is, and be realistic about attempting to reconstruct what can be known about Christian origins. Likewise, we seek to counter erroneous claims such as those made by Christian apologists.
Anyways, moving onto part 2), I believe I have already briefly summarized my reasons for rejecting the original Gospel narrative as being largely (if not wholly) fictional in other places (6). Let me now just give a quick summary of reasons why I (and others) reject the historicity of the Gospel narratives. Firstly there is the very obvious fact that the Gospel authors largely re-wrote portions from the Hebrew Bible to suit their new narrative, using techniques known as midrash or pesher. The stories of Jesus feeding the five and four thousand (Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-10) are clearly rewritten from the story of Elisha doing the same in 2 Kings 4:43-44. What’s more likely, Jesus did exactly the same miraculous thing that Elisha did, or that the author of Mark copied a mythological motif from the Hebrew Bible? Obvious examples of this are found through the Gospels (and Acts), and even the dialogue of Jesus on the cross is lifted straight from Psalm 22. I’m not going to go into detail here; there are plenty of online resources that do so, and people can read my own summary one day when I get around to publishing part 2 of my book on religion (I still need to publish part 1 first).
So, large portions of the Gospels can be rejected as non-historical as they are clearly derived from the Jewish scriptures. Secondly, we have the somewhat contested reality that the Gospels also drew liberally on pagan (Greek, Egyptian, Roman etc.) mythology and literature. The most obvious examples are that the Gospel of Mark (which we should remember is the original template from which the others were drawn) was written to deliberately parallel the works of Homer (primarily the Odyssey). Whilst this thesis hasn’t yet achieved widespread acceptance, I believe it is only a matter of time (I gave a few examples in my article referenced in endnote 6, otherwise look up an online summary).
And then there are the clear parallels to the Osirian cult/Mystery religions (amongst other general pagan parallels, such as miraculous, non-sexual (and sometimes virginal) birth). I’ve discussed this in a little detail already elsewhere (7), but lets just summarize again. The Osirian cult involved the belief that Osiris had been killed and brought back to life, and Egyptians sought to associate themselves with Osiris in order to attain eternal life through sharing in his resurrection. The Egyptians went to great lengths to preserve the bodies of the dead (and hence believed in a physical resurrection), had public rites where the passion of Osiris was played out, in which they mourned at his death and celebrated at his return to life 3 days later. They ate ritual cakes in the shape of Osiris, ritually cleansed themselves in the Nile and even had amulets with a symbol of Osiris as a tree (the Djed) superimposed over their symbol of eternal life (the Ankh, which is a cross with a loop. Look up Djed-Ank amulets).
The Greek (and Roman and other) Mystery religions superimposed the primary themes of the Osirian cult upon the myths of various other gods (Dionysus, Demeter, Orpheus, Attis, Adonis, Mithras etc.), resulting in a whole category of cults which promised eternal life to their followers through identification with a god that had died and returned to life. In most cases this was pretty explicit in pre-Christian sources; a handful of examples require significant discussion to explain this though. Anyways, as Richard Carrier has succinctly stated many times, if you were living just prior to Christianity and you were asked what a pseudo-Jewish version of a Mystery religion would look like, you could have predicted literarily every single feature of Christianity (through a synthesis of the Mystery cults and Messianic Judaism). This doesn’t mean that Christianity is primarily pagan (as clearly one way or another it has largely Jewish roots), but that it’s founders practiced syncretism in one way or another.
So, the Gospel narratives are heavily dependent on both Jewish and pagan mythology and literature. Furthmerore, we have various historical difficulties (if not impossibilities) within the Gospels, such as the cleansing of the temple incident (which is a major feature of the narrative), or the circumstances surrounding Jesus’s trial. We have the fact that Christians couldn’t decide amongst themselves when Jesus was born (was it 6-4BCE, 6CE or 100BCE?), or how long his ministry was for, or exactly when he was killed.
And then we have the bizarre case whereby the Epistles (which are commonly thought on very strong grounds by pretty much everyone to pre-date the Gospels) seem to be completely ignorant of the earthly narrative of Jesus. The authors of these letters only cite revelation (visions) and the scriptures (the Greek version of the Hebrew bible) as their sources, and they even cite the Hebrew bible verbatim as the words of Jesus (thus again confirming the methodology of the authors of the Gospels).
Compare this to the special pleading that is presented by Christian apologists and scholars to argue for the reliability of the NT texts, and there is simply no comparison. I can understand if Christians or mainstream scholars may wish to dispute the strength and scope of some of the evidence I have mentioned above for my case (though I stand by my conclusions). However, even if we downgrade things a little we still have the case that there is no way that a reasonable and informed person can believe that the Gospels are literal, historically reliable accounts.
So, we can see that the whole bibliographical argument thing is just one big charade, a house of cards. And it’s not like I’m the first person to point this out, or that it is only mythicists and/or radical critics who are seeking to make this case. Nobody outside Christian apologetics gives any credit to the bibliographical argument. It is just plain wrong on so many counts, and its use is simply ignorant and dishonest.
As for that claim that there is more evidence for Jesus Christ than for Julius Caesar. Well, we have portraits of Caesar from his lifetime, coins from the same, letters that he wrote himself, various references to him in literature etc. Most significantly, the historicity of Caesar is affirmed because he is central to Roman history. That is, one could say that he was both central to the foreground and background of Roman history in the 1st century BCE. Julius Caesar is everwhere in Roman history of this period; you simply cannot discuss Roman history of the time without him. We do have reason to be suspicious of some of the things later historians said about Caesar, but this is not decided on the basis of the amount of time passed since his time when they wrote, nor the extant number of manuscripts.
Jesus however is generally placed in the foreground of Jewish history in the 1st century CE (though the Nazarenes placed him 100 years earlier, as attested by Epiphanius and the Babylonian Talmud), but nobody really takes much (if any) notice until the 2nd century when Christians go around preaching of him. The foreground of Jewish history is important to understanding the Christian religion (as the Jewish wars and the destruction of the Temple is very significant in the origins of the Gospel narrative at very least); however one could easily discuss Jewish history of the period without mentioning Jesus (as apparently did Justus of Tiberius, likewise for Philo, and then there is the question of Josephus?)
So, again the claim that there is more evidence for Jesus Christ than Julius Caesar is just plain bunk. It is based upon the erroneous bibliographical argument, and uncritical acceptance of claims from Acts and the Epistles of large numbers of witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection. In truth these are simply faith claims of religious scriptures, all belonging to the one category or religious literature after-the-fact. They do not count as historical evidence, any more than Hindu texts being evidence for the historicity of Krishna, or the Pyramid texts being evidence of Osiris, or the Bacchae being evidence of the historicity of Dionysus. Likewise, even though Greek historians and mythographers such as Diodorus and Euhemeris believed that prominent gods had been great men (and women) of old who had been made into legends, it doesn’t really count as evidence that they were.
Anyways, it is obvious that Christians are being lied to by their leaders. Christians are supposed to uphold a strict ethical code, which involves always speaking the truth. However, the reality is that the ego will blind people to their actions in order to sustain its identity. Hence, Christians repeatedly make false claims and employ appalling arguments in order to try and hold their ground, and push onto the ground of others.
Let us remember here that it is not simply that Christian apologists wish to be left alone in peace to believe what they believe, and leave the rest of the world out of it. Rather, Christian apologists wish to claim that their beliefs are historical facts, at which point conservative Christians wish to force their religion upon others. Let us remember that Christianity has been largely intolerant of other faiths over the course of its history (amongst other legitimate issues), and that conservative Christians today still attempt to gain privilege in secular nations (in funding programs to teach Christianity in public schools in Australia, in attempting to teach “Creationism” alongside biological evolution in classrooms in America, etc.). Conservative Christians wish to claim that all those outside their faith (and not just that, but outside their particular version of their faith) are damned to an eternity of torment. Hence, it is important that we counter their misinformation.
5) P75: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papyrus_75. We should note that for Matthew there is the case of P64 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magdalen_papyrus), for which the earliest portion is again from chapter 3. However in this case the fragment is so miniscule that it is missing just about everything, so we should be cautious about reading too far into it.