Fragments of Truth

Are the New Testament manuscripts reliable? Can we trust the Bible as we have it today—or has it been so skewed and twisted that it gives a distorted picture, like a fun-house mirror?

These are the questions that a new documentary called Fragments of Truth seeks to answer. Produced by Faithlife Films, which has brought out other faith-related movies, Fragments is well-produced and provides compelling evidence for the trustworthiness of the New Testament Scriptures.

The host for the documentary is Dr. Craig Evans, a noted biblical scholar and expert in Christian origins at Houston Theological Seminary. Evans takes us on a whirlwind tour around the world, from north Africa to England to the European continent, in search of the most ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. Along the way, he interviews experts across a variety of disciplines: textual criticism (the science of assembling the authentic text), papyrology (a branch of study dealing with ancient papyrus documents), archaeology, and others.

Looming behind much of the conversation and investigation of the film is a charge that is often leveled by skeptics of Christianity against the Bible, and the New Testament in particular. “Surely,” the criticism goes, “those early manuscripts did not get passed down without error!” Others will go further (for example, the novelist Dan Brown) and claim that Christians even altered the texts in order to reflect their beliefs about God. The title of a book by bestselling critic Bart Ehrman encapsulates the charge: The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. In other words, Christians nefariously “corrected” the Scripture to fall in line with “orthodoxy.”

Simply at a logical level this claim doesn’t hold water. Why would Christians knowingly alter their own Scriptures to reflect what they knew to be a lie? The usual, cynical answer is: power. But for at least the first three centuries after Christ the Church was largely marginalized, persecuted, or even ignored; there were no power grabs to be had. Moreover, such conspiracy theories presuppose a level of coordinated action and alteration that would be unlikely even in our hyper-connected age. How much less in an age of parchment and papyri rather than smartphones and social media.

So Fragments focuses its attention more so on the concern about the Scriptures being haphazardly assembled, prone to error over time. And here is where the movie really shined in my opinion. Drawing on state of the art research into the materials of ancient manuscripts, Evans and company demonstrate that, far from being disposable or easily destroyed, such texts could often remain in circulation (when properly cared for) for a century or more easily. Thus, the “autographs” (original copies) of the Gospels and Epistles would have continued to be available for consultation by scribes, believers, and skeptics alike (and indeed we have testimonies to the fact from the 2nd century AD).

There is also the matter of what are called “textual variants”—that is, small or subtle differences in the various manuscripts. It is true that no two of the more than 5,000 New Testament manuscripts are exactly alike; before the printing press, this is not remarkable. It is also true that the total number of variants in aggregate among all the manuscripts is something on the order of 400,000. Someone might hear such a thing and jump to the conclusion that the text is hopelessly corrupt and fragmented. But the question is: how significant are these variants? And do they impinge on significant doctrines?

Greek scholar Daniel B. Wallace says that, with any textual variant, you need to ask two questions. First, is it viable? That is, is it a legitimate variant or just a misspelling, etc. Secondly, is it meaningful? Does it affect anything, or is it something like an extra letter? He states in the documentary that less than one percent of all the variants fit both these categories. And of those, an infinitesimal number bear more than a passing mention. Actually, it’s basically two: John 8.1-11 and Mark 16.8-20. And neither of those compromise core biblical teaching. None other than Ehrman himself, the atheist, concedes that no cardinal doctrine is jeopardized by these (or any other) variants.

Fragments of Truth presents the case for the reliability of the New Testament in an accessible and compelling way. At times it does get a little heady, and it would have benefitted from some better editing (there was a fair amount of repetition, though perhaps that was by design). And one added bonus for Lord of the Rings fans: Jonathan Rhys-Davies, who plays the dwarf warrior Gimli in the LOTR films, narrates the film. Overall, it’s much recommended.

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