Interviews With the Authors: Myths and Mistakes—James Prothro

Series Introduction: Leigh Ann Thompson | Interview: Sarah Allen and James Prothro

In November, the book Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism—edited by Peter Gurry and Elijah Hixson— hit the shelves. Each chapter in the book considers a “myth” about manuscripts and the text of the New Testament and offers a response with helpful information for apologists and lay people who are interested in how data about manuscripts influences our understanding of the reliability of the text of the New Testament.
Some of the authors of Myths and Mistakes have kindly participated in interviews with the CSNTM interns about their contributions. Over the next few weeks, we will post these written interviews here on CSNTM’s blog. We hope you enjoy learning from the book’s contributors, and we highly recommend purchasing the book for yourself!

James Prothro is the author of the chapter entitled “Myths about Classical Literature” in the recently published work, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, in which he explains the need for apologists to clarify the content of the number(s) of manuscripts they present in comparative arguments. Classicists use a “functional manuscript count” that eliminates some existing documents which do not contribute to their textual decisions. New Testament textual critics, on the other hand, often include the number of all known artifacts in their count, called an “inclusive manuscript count.” Prothro earned his PhD from the University of Cambridge and studied classics at Washington University in St. Louis. He currently serves as an assistant professor of theology at Ave Maria University and as a sub-editor of The Religious Studies Review.

What makes a good understanding of the classics so important when doing textual criticism and considering the reliability of the Bible?

For textual criticism, knowing classics can help us appreciate the task that New Testament textual critics have and also appreciate how hard they are working on their methods. There is a plethora of New Testament manuscripts, in all probably around five thousand. Most classical works have far fewer, and most of them are copies made much later than some of the early manuscripts we have for the New Testament. Many classicists, therefore, do their work by whittling down their manuscripts to a smaller number of ones they really need to use to get at the best, earliest text. For the New Testament, it is much more complex, so it requires a more complex kind of method. This is also important for apologetics. People defending the reliability of the NT regularly suggest that if we trust classical works then we have to trust the NT since the NT scholar has more to work with to get the words right. But usually they give an inaccurately low number for classical works, citing a functional, whittled-down number that doesn’t actually reflect the number of manuscripts that exist for classics. Understanding how classical text criticism works can help apologists compare numbers more fairly.

You mention in your chapter that the growing number of New Testament manuscripts should affect the arguments used by apologists. How do you think they should rephrase their statements?

The numbers of all manuscripts—both of the New Testament and of classical texts—should be accurately presented if they are going to be presented, especially if someone is going to hang the New Testament’s reliability on it. But more importantly, I think that the larger number of New Testament manuscripts presents a great opportunity for an apologist to talk about text-critical method, how we use what we have to choose what words most probably go where in our printed Greek Bibles and ultimately in people’s translations at home. Having more manuscripts doesn’t necessarily mean we have got the right text. What it means is that we have more to work with. What makes the real difference is whether our methods are up to the task of helping us sift through the material and come to a sufficiently reliable conclusion about what’s most likely the earliest recoverable text in a given line of the New Testament. And we do have good methods and are improving them to the best of our knowledge. This is a great jumping-off point for an apologist to highlight the methodological refinements of the coherence-based-genealogical-method and the work of the INTF or the CSNTM. Explaining that helps people know that we don’t just have more stuff; we have the tools to make the best use of it and achieve a reliable text.

You acknowledge that apologists are strapped for time in fact-checking their numerical data research and that the variety of data out there is immense. What resources should apologists use on the classics to better ensure that the data they use is accurate?

My chapter in Myths and Mistakes suggests several places to go for better data. The Leuven Database of Ancient Books is a helpful place to start—though one can’t just count down the page and have the true “number” (it is more complicated than that). Apologist Clay Jones has also gone to the trouble to update numbers for apologists, and my chapter has references to recent articles by papryologists and others. Better, I would suggest citing a classicist, and to remember that you may be reading a functional rather than exhaustive number of manuscripts even there. But my more enthusiastic advice would be not to get too specific about numbers. Defending a particular number may take time better spent elsewhere, and even a perfectly accurate number will change with the next discovery. Even counting the New Testament manuscripts can be dodgy when we get overly specific (Jacob Peterson’s chapter in Myths and Mistakes illustrates this well.) More important, the apologetic point of the comparison doesn’t need that many numbers: it can be established just on the basic claim that there are more manuscripts of the New Testament and that we have manuscripts of relatively earlier date compared to classics. If one wanted to be more specific about numbers, I would maybe offer one or two examples and give more specific information about the state of this or that classical text. Focusing on fewer allows apologists to do more work with less material and show their work to the audience rather than reproducing charts from other apologists with questionable numbers.

Based on what you believe to be the goal of New Testament Textual Criticism, what is the most effective way to count manuscripts?

For apologetics, the best way to count the manuscripts is to research in the right places and, always, be generous. One of my favorite quotes from Ambrose of Milan is “No one heals himself by wounding another.” It’s a comparison but not a competition. And the actual reliability of the New Testament isn’t helped by making it one. It’s tempting to drive down the classical numbers to suggest that people who believe they know what Herodotus recorded should at least believe what Luke did, which can be an effective argument, but at the end of the day Christian apologists don’t want people to believe Luke the same way they want them to believe Herodotus (and I wouldn’t believe everything in Herodotus even if I had an ancient sound recording of him confirming that he actually said it). And if we are quite blunt—returning to your question—counting manuscripts comparatively actually has nothing to do with the goal of textual criticism because knowing how many more manuscripts we have of John than Plato’s Republic does not help us reconstruct the earliest recoverable text of John. The comparison with classics can offer people something good to chew on, but the real question of the text’s reliability is done by the real work of critical method, and talking about that is the best way to get others to consider whether they should trust that the scholars are doing a good job.

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