The Problem of Universals and the Textual Transmission of the New Testament Documents

I’ve just finished reading The Heresy of Orthodoxy. I highly recommend it as an antidote to the skepticism of New Testament critics such as Bart Ehrman. In fact, I am using the book as one of my texts this summer for a class I am teaching on Apologetics.

The last section of the book deals with the question of textual transmission, that is, how the original texts were copied and disseminated in the ancient world (remember—no printing press, no internet—if others were going to benefit from early Christian works, they needed to be copied by scribes). Since we don’t have the original autographs of each New Testament document, a question arises: how do we know that the text hasn’t been changed along the way? Enter, the science of textual transmission. Since we have copies (lots of copies) of various New Testament documents, many of which are early (that is, the time between the copy and the original is relatively short, especially in comparison to copies of other ancient documents) we are able to faithfully reconstruct the original text.

A question I have been thinking about is this:

Why did God not allow the original text (autographs) to be preserved?

One answer, perhaps, has to do with man’s tendency to worship religious relics (compare 2 Kings 18:4), that is, the sign(s) of God, instead of God himself.

I think there is a better answer, and it relates to the philosophical doctrine of universals. A universal is an abstract object—e.g., a property or proposition—that can be multiply-instantiated. Consider propositions such as “Jesus is Lord,” or “The just life is the happy life.” When a pastor reads Scripture each week to a congregation or a professor quotes Plato to a class, the exact same proposition (read by the pastor or the professor) is instantiated in the minds of the audience. This reality, that the same object can be multiply-instantiated by distinct individuals gives rise to the philosophical doctrine of universals. Now, given the reality of universals, we find a better answer to our question:

If God allowed the original text (autographs) to be preserved, we would actually have less certainty that the text is accurate.

This can be seen by making a distinction between a type (a universal) and a token (an instance of the universal):

Consider:  red, red, blue

Question:  How many words are on the screen?

Answer:  two word types (the universal) and 3 word tokens (the particular instance of the type).

How does this related to the New Testament documents? The Autograph tokens are gone, but not the autograph types. If we have accurate copies of the original, then we have the autograph text.

So, Perhaps it is better to have a procedure for reproducing the text everywhere (call it textual transmission), so that we can cross-check and verify all the copies with each other in order to determine the original words.

If we didn’t have copies, but only the autograph of the New Testament, we would have no way of knowing that the single manuscript in our possession had not been altered over the last 2,000 years. So, it was actually better for God to diffuse the original through many manuscript copies.

For more on the problem of universals and God, see my article (just published with Metaphysica) on “The Problem of Universals, Realism, and God.”



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