Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Youth Group Series "F.A.Q.": Week 2 - How do we know our copy of the Bible is a reliable copy?

Last week, we helped the students see that the evidence is strongly in favor of the traditional New Testament canon. This week, we wanted to provide some confidence in the textual analysis of the Bible--how do we know that the New Testament is a reliable copy of the original autographs?

To do this, we played three games that helped illustrate the point.

Game 1:  Text Race

There's no better way to learn textual criticism than to do it yourself.

We divided into teams and each team selected a leader. The leader was given the same passage (Luke 4:1-3, ESV) to copy by hand, as quickly as they could--but as accurately as possible.

Those leaders then took the copies back to their teams and the teams had to copy them as many times as possible, also as accurately as possible. The first team to make 5 copies, wins. (You could do 10 or 15 or 20, depending on youth group size.)

Then the real contest began.

I took the original copies that the leaders had made and threw them away. The youth group--now all working together--then had to re-create the original document from their copies.

What this did was help drive home some points very quickly. Without any training whatsoever, they quickly realized that by comparing the copies to each other, one could very quickly see which ones were flawed manuscripts and which were legitimate. Some of the ones they had were complete copies, and some only fragments (because one team had not yet finished all of theirs). Some had commas or misspelled words while others did not.

So the teams worked together and found that it was actually rather easy to recreate the original accurately (and they did so!). They simply had to look at the evidence and make wise decisions.

The points:
1.  The more copies you have, the easier it is to recreate the original.
2.  The earlier/more original the copies, the better.

Game 2:  Basketball Shoot

Next, we had a basketball shoot. We picked the six most commonly-quoted texts from this time period:  Tacitus' Annals of Imperial Rome; Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War; Caesar's Gallic Wars; Homer's Iliad; and the New Testament.

One youth group member played on behalf of each book.

The key metric here is, "How long a time span existed between the original writing and our earliest existing manuscript?" Obviously, the smaller the time gap, the better for our analysis.

So what we did was that each player had to stand 1 foot away from the goal for every 50 years of time span gap.

The measurements are:

  • Tacitus:  20 ft
  • Thucydides:  26 ft
  • Caesar:  20 ft
  • Plato:  24 ft
  • Homer:  10 ft
  • New Testament:  1 ft

The players then shot baskets, the question being--which one is the most likely to score consistently? Obviously, the one playing for the New Testament, because the gap between him and the goal is so small.

The points:
1.  Compared to other works of the same era, the New Testament manuscripts are FAR more reliable, because we have copies which date 10x closer to the original than we do of the next best ancient text.

Game 3:  Milliliter drinking game

Yes, we had a drinking game at our church youth group. Don't worry, it was Dt Mountain Dew.

So again, one person had to play for each of the works above. This time, the question is how many copies of early manuscripts do we have?

So what we did is that each person had to drink 1 mL of soda for each early manuscript copy that we still could lay hands on today.

As a result, there wasn't much drinking going on for most of them:

  • Tacitus:  2 mL
  • Thucydides:  8 mL
  • Caesar:  10 mL
  • Plato:  7 mL
So for most of them, they were getting a few drops of soda--barely enough to taste.

Next, we upgraded to the Iliad--which has several hundred early manuscripts available to us today.  For the boy who was representing the Iliad, he had to try and drink down two cans of soda. (He was able to get one down without puking.)

This really drove home the point to them that the Iliad had more early manuscripts than all these other ancient works added together.

So what about the New Testament? Well, for him...

I pulled out a two-liter.

Then another.

Then another.

Then another.

In total, we needed 12 two liters, representing 24,000 early manuscripts of the New Testament. (Only 9 are pictured here because I let the poor kid keep three as a prize.)

The point was driven home well:  we have FAR more early manuscripts of the New Testament than of any other ancient text. Add all of the others together and you still have 98% fewer than the New Testament texts!

Bringing it all together

So in our discussion time at the end, we discussed exactly what we learned this week. The kids got the following understanding:

1. We have far more early manuscripts of the New Testament than we do of the other ancient works.
2. We have far earlier manuscripts of the New Testament than we do of other ancient works.
3. The ancient New Testament texts agree with one another 99.5%, mostly spelling and grammatical differences. 
4. By comparing these texts to each other, we can accurately re-create the original documents.
5. There are really only two texts in doubt: Mark 16:9-20, and John 7:53-8:11. The Mark passage is repeated elsewhere in the current canon, and the John passage also shows up in some early fragments of Luke. So both are probably fine, but even if you throw them both out, you receive no doctrinal changes.

It was a fun and informative week. 

And so our case continues to build:
Week 1 - The New Testament canon has not been corrupted  by false books or left out important books.
Week 2 - The New Testament we hold today is an accurate representation of the original.
Next Week - What does it mean when we say the Bible is inspired and inerrant?


  1. "The John passage also shows up in some early fragments of Luke"??

    Eh? Are you sure you know what you're talking about?

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  2. Oh just kidding I will give more than that. :)

    The ivp commentary did a solid job and it is summarized here: http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/John/Jesus-Forgives-Woman-Taken