Copyist Errors and Estimations in the Bible

Many critics of Christianity express indifference to the principles of textual criticism when it comes to explaining claims of error in the Biblical text. They reject all explanations involving copyist error, even though they are of the same type used by textual critics in secular studies to resolve difficulties. And this being the case, we may refute their arguments by seeing what they would result in if carried to their logical conclusion.

The works of Tacitus contain a known numerical error which has been faulted to a copyist mistake. Two geographic locations are described as being 25 miles apart. But we know that the locations are actually 125 miles apart, not 25. Hence Tacitean and classical scholars deduce that a copyist error changed the original CXXV to XXV.

Now using this example, consider what one Skeptic's objections do to the science of textual criticism.

The common apologetic defense that somebody copied something incorrectly, is wholly unsupportable in light of the fact that the originals no longer exist. How do they know it was copied wrong?

Likewise, the originals of Tacitus no longer exist. How do we know it was copied wrong?

If the conflict exists in the copies, then it is logical to assume it is present in the originals as well, absent evidence to the contrary.

So then: It is logical to assume that the error in Tacitus was in the original? We have no evidence to the contrary --- not even a variant or other document with another number, as we have in the Bible in most cases.

...the apologists can hardly argue copyist errors to explain contradictions, then assert inerrancy in all other parts of the Bible.

So we can not use a copyist error to explain Tacitus, then assert his reliability elsewhere?

Our writer says more on this subject, calling copyist-error explanations a "gimmick" or an "excuse" --- but the bottom line is that there are certified textual-critical methods for resolving such problems in any ancient text, and a bare dismissal of these is not sufficient argument against them.

....since the alleged originals no longer exist and with so much disagreement among the allegedly accurate copies, there is no way scholars can ever know for sure what the originals actually said. Any version on the market must be a product of educated guesses, consensus, and weighing the validity of manscripts.

Secular textual critics, who operate under the same basic rules as biblical ones, would be very surprised to hear that there is "no way" to know "for sure" what original said. Of course, one might speculate that a given work by Tacitus on history was once a guide for dental hygiene practices, but the level of certainty for recovery is far, far higher than the implication above insists.

And so, how do we discover a copyist error?

An overriding supposition in textual criticism assumes error in copying before assuming error in the original --- this is simply good manners. It is presumptuous to assume error upon the creator of a work, as it is far more likely, given the time and the number of hands an ancient document has usually passe through, that a copyist erred. This is so whether we have corroborating evidence or not.

The second factor is, indeed if there is corroborating evidence supporting what appears to be a more correct reading. For Tacitus, all we have is the mere fact that the 2 locations referenced are known to be about 125 miles apart.

But we have better evidence for most Biblical problems of this sort. Take these verses from the KJV, where they have not been corrected with text-critical principles:

1 Kings 4:26 And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen.
2 Chron. 9:25 And Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen; whom he bestowed in the chariot cities, and with the king at Jerusalem.

Which is correct? Textual critics have determined that the second is correct, and 1 Kings has been hit by a copyist error, citing as support:

Compare this now with a Skeptic's commentary when a fellow Skeptic pointed out the high probability of a copyist error in this instance:

First, although the alleged originals no longer exist, there are thousands of manuscripts claiming to be accurate copies of the alleged originals. When scholars decided to write the following versions--KJ, RS, ML, AS, NASB, MT, LV, JB, NIV, TEV, NWT, and etc.--they went through either some, many, most, or all of the manuscripts, compared what was said in each, reached a common consensus, and chose to use 40,000 in 1 Kings 4:26 and 4,000 in 2 Chron. 9:25. In order for there to have been a copyist error, the same incorrect figure had to have been copied in scores if not hundreds and thousands of manuscripts, certainly not one or two. Are you saying hundreds, if not thousands, of copyists made precisely the same error when they copied 1 Kings 4:26 and 2 Chron. 9:25 from the autographs? They not only copied incorrectly but made the same erroneous change?...What do you think are the odds of that happening?...The attempt by biblicists to pawn this problem off on one lone copyist or scribe in some monastery somewhere who happened to make one simple mistake is rather amusing, in light of the fact that thousands of manuscripts are involved with the same verse.

Our Skeptic here is indifferent to the actual process of textual composition in ancient times and the matter of textual "families". He has envisioned a single original which was the source of all copies, when in fact the lack of materials and skilled scribes in ancient times dictates that there were very few copies made to begin with, so that there is no instance of a single scribe transcribing the same error into hundreds, thousands, etc. manuscripts.

What there would be is a single scribe making the error once, an error which is then preserved as successive single manuscripts are transcribed, until such time as mass copying procedures and schools existed -- and then, the error is preserved in thousands of manuscripts. It happened with Tacitus, and it happened with the Bible.

Second, even if there were a copyist mistake, you could never be sure which figure was copied incorrectly. Was it the 40,000 figure that should have been 4,000 or the 4,000 figure that should have been 40,000? Because you could never know for sure, you might just as well expunge these two parts of the Bible. One is definitely incorrect, and you'll never know which.

This is of course false, as we have seen above. Beyond that, should we expunge that part of Tacitus that contains the numerical error?

Third, and very important, is the fact that the manuscripts contradict one another, and until the original is produced, the contradiction stands. Biblicists are asking us to ignore a contradiction staring us in the face, in favor of a theory that can in no way be substantiated. The fact is that the contradiction stands, and will continue standing until evidence is produced to the contrary. The burden of proof lies on he who alleges. Because the contradiction is clear and obvious, I am under no obligation to prove a contradiction exists in manuscripts which biblicists can't even prove existed. Biblicists, on the other hand, are obligated to prove there was no contradiction in the original writings, which they are wholly incapable of doing.

So, likewise, the error "stands" in Tacitus -- and I could say:

"Greco-Roman historians are asking us to ignore an error staring us in the face, in favor of a theory that can in no way be substantiated. The fact is that the error stands, and will continue standing until evidence is produced to the contrary. The burden of proof lies on he who alleges. Because the error is clear and obvious, I am under no obligation to prove an error exists in manuscripts which Greco-Roman historians and textual critics can't even prove existed. Greco-Roman historians and textual critics, on the other hand, are obligated to prove there was no error in the original writings, which they are wholly incapable of doing."

It would be interesting to see our Skeptic deliver this message before an audience of professional historians and textual critics.

One additional note, on approximations. No Tacitean scholar would assert that Tacitus was in error because the distance between the locations was 123.5, or 124.7, or 126.2 miles apart, rather than precisely 125. The capability of precision measurement devices is a relatively recent development, so that approximations and round-offs can not be regarded as errors.

It is irresponsible to take the standards of accountancy that demand an exact agreement to the penny and apply them arbitrarily to ancient documents, many millennia old. This is not the right way in which to understand a document.