Sunday, April 29, 2018

Faithlife's 'Fragments of Truth': A Review

On Tuesday, April the 24th, Faith Life released its docudrama, “Fragments of Truth” in which the overarching question addressed; “Is the text of the New Testament reliable?” I had the opportunity to view the film with a few friends. Here are my thoughts.

Craig Evans is the main commentator throughout the documentary and the main thesis of the film is drawn from his paper published a few years ago,

Craig A. Evans, “How Long were Late Antique Books in Use? Possible Implications for New Testament Textual Criticism,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 25.1 (2015): 23-37.

In this paper, Evans’ main thesis is that the “autographs and first copies” of the New Testament writings survived into the second and third centuries and were “in a position to influence the form of the Greek text.” Here is the full abstract of the paper;

“Recent study of libraries and book collections from late antiquity has shown that literary works were read, studied, annotated, corrected, and copied for two or more centuries before being retired or discarded. Given that there is no evidence that early Christian scribal practices differed from pagan practices, we may rightly ask whether early Christian writings, such as the autographs and first copies of the books that eventually would be recognized as canonical Scripture, also remained in use for 100 years or more. The evidence suggests that this was in fact the case. This sort of longevity could mean that at the time our extant Greek NT papyri were written in the late second and early to mid-third centuries, some of the autographs and first copies were still in circulation and in a position to influence the form of the Greek text."

When his piece was published a few years ago there was quite a backlash from scholars in the discipline of papyrology and New Testament Textual Criticism. For example, Brice Jones, over on his blog, gave a scathing review and many high profile scholars such as Malcolm Choat, J.K. Elliott (featured in the film), Gregg Schwendner, and Brent Nongbri (who was mentioned in the film) gave their criticisms in the comments section of the article.
There are many assertions made in the film that many scholars (including myself) will disagree upon. I would recommend looking at other blogs for a point-by-point discussion. In this review, I wish only to draw intention to a particular weakness in Evans' argument, namely this, that closeness in time and proximity to the "autographs" (even if they survived 200 years) leads to stability in textual transmission.
I will highlight two reasons why this argument is flawed, 1) a failure to precisely define the term 'autograph,' and 2) an assumption that a direct copy or (to use Evans' term) "first copies" from the so-called 'autograph' equals textual stability.
In order to illustrate my point I will quote a section from my article "What are the NT Autographs?";
"Though the topic at hand concerns literary compositions, two documentary examples of a petition to the Egyptian Prefect Publius Ostorius Scapula (ca. 3—10/11 CE) provide a rare glimpse of multiple draft copies of the same work; P.Mich.inv. 1436 and P.Mich.inv. 1440. Although both papyri were written by the same person, inv. 1436 contains several additions and corrections which favors its identification as the first draft of inv. 1440. The text of both papyri are fragmented and incomplete, lines 2-10 of inv. 1436 were repeated in lines 11-17 of inv. 1440. The scribe revised the text of inv. 1436 above lines 6, and 8, and marked line 9 for deletion, nonetheless, these alterations were not integrated into the text of inv. 1440. Therefore, it must mean that there were “additional rewritings, now lost” of the petition. Though inv. 1440 is a polished copy with no extant editorial alterations, it “was apparently not dispatched, but was unearthed together with the much-corrected copy, inv. 1436”." (Mitchell, 302-303)
P.Mich. inv 1436 showing extensive editing

P.Mich. inv 1440 revealing that no revisions from inv 1436 were retained
This case is particularly thorny because it is difficult to know which papyrus is the original 'autograph,' because the "extensive alterations made in the same hand as the main body of text is precisely the clue that indicates their autographic nature" (Mitchell, 304). In other words, the closer one gets in time and proximity to the 'autograph' can sometimes lead to textual instability. That is, unless one precisely defines what one means by 'autograph.'

Despite these flaws in Evans' argument and other shortcomings in the docudrama, Reuben Evans the director, the camera crew and other editors did a fantastic job on the visuals. The images of the manuscripts were fantastic and at times simply breathtaking. They did a wonderful job at production and the quality was excellent (though the Q&A segment at the end was a bit dry). I will recommend this documentary to friends, if only to entice them with beautiful images of P66 and other treasures of Biblical manuscripts and pique their interest in the rich history of the transmission of the New Testament.

[EDIT: You can find the documentary "Fragments of Truth" on YouTube here]

Hanson, Ann Ellis, “Two Copies of a Petition to the Prefect,” Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphic 47 (1982): 233-243;

_______________, “The Archive of Isidoros of Psophthis and P. Ostorius Scapula, Praefectus Aegypti,”
BASP 21.1-4 (1984), 81-83.

Mitchell, Timothy N., "What are the NT Autographs? An Examination of the Doctrine of Inspiration and Inerrancy in Light of Greco-Roman Publication."
JETS 59/2 (June 2016): 287-308.