Jesus’ resurrection – the argument from weirdness (pt 1)

As I previously blogged (quite a while ago) there are actually decent reasons to think Jesus might, actually, have risen from the dead. In this article I want to consider another reason, what I call the “argument from weirdness.” This will come in four parts; today is part 1.

In its most basic form, the “argument from weirdness” simply observes that the early Christian Church, Jesus, and the Christian religion are profoundly weird. They did and said things that seemingly defy normal human behavior. And when people – lots of people, spread across geography and time – act really weird then it is worth our while to try and understand why they are acting so weird.

And when we look at the early Christian Church it seems the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the best candidate for explaining that weirdness. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves…

What’s so weird?

The first thing to ask is, what was so weird about the Church that it deserves our attention? First, the fact that they really loved their New Testament. They loved it so much, in fact, that they copied it over and over again. They translated it into other languages and then kept copying it again and again and again in those other languages.

But we cannot really call this “weird” unless we have some idea of what was “normal.” Let’s consider some other works of history to establish a baseline from which to compare the New Testament.

First things first; in terms of the entire scope of writing that we have from Europe and the Middle East roughly 2,000 years ago, the overwhelming majority of it has been lost to history. In some cases we only know about authors are roughly what they wrote because other authors quote them. So the ground-level baseline is “almost nothing survived from that period of time.”

Almost nothing, but not quite nothing.

Of what survived, here are a few of the key pieces of Greek literature from antiquity and the number of copies we those works that have survived all those centuries so we can read them in their original languages. Here’s a little chart (stolen from an interview with Dan Wallace) showing some of the key pieces of literature from antiquity and the number of surviving copies that we have.

[Sorry, it’s a little small; just click on it.]

There are only three copies of the works of Tacitus today. Some of the others do a little better with a few dozen. Suetonius pulls into the lead with over 200 manuscripts surviving the test of time; making it all the way to today.

And then there is the New Testament. The numbers in that chart are actually a little old; we now have over 6,000 manuscripts of the New Testament (in whole or in part) that have survived 2,000 years of weather, coffee spills, improper storage, persecution and whatever else might have limited their likelihood to survive.

Six Thousand copies.

And that’s just in ancient Greek. When you add other ancient languages into which the New Testament was translated (Latin, Coptic, etc) the total number of ancient manuscripts reaches into the tens of thousands; somewhere just shy of 30,000 last time I looked. Per Wikipedia,

Parts of the New Testament have been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work, having over 5,800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages

That so many copies of the New Testament would stand the test of time is remarkable in itself, but what’s even more remarkable is that there were so many copies of the New Testament in the first place.

Stop and think about that for a minute. The New Testament predates the printing press. It predates Microsoft Office and it’s ctrl-C, ctrl-V functionality. Every single one of those manuscripts – every one of those tens of thousands – was hand copied.

Now take a minute to thumb through a New Testament, if you have one nearby. Ask yourself how long it would take you to hand-copy the entire New Testament. Here are some statistics on the New Testament:

  • 27 books in the New Testament
  • 7,956 verses
  • Roughly 138,000 words

Every single word. Every single verse. Every single book.

By hand!

And remember, the roughly 30,000 figure I listed earlier is only the copies that have survived. What that means is that the early Church made even more copies over the centuries than just those that survived. In all likelihood the total number of copies that were made must have been several magnitudes larger than the number of copies that survived. After all, it’s hardly likely that they made 30,100 copies and 30,000 of them survived to today. Fat chance. It’s far more likely that hundreds of thousands of copies – hand copies – of the New Testament were produced in antiquity and “merely” a few tens of thousands survived the test of time.

The honest observer will note that such active, sustained, copying and distribution of literature – at that particular point in history when everything had to be hand copied – is weird! That’s not normal. Even Suetonius who has 200 manuscripts that managed to survive the test of time is not normal, but the New Testament takes “not normal” to a whole new level. And to sustain that level of copying for hundreds of years, across multiple continents, and in numerous languages just makes the magnitude of weirdness all the greater.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and it would seem the Church overtook the Roman Empire with an army of scribes, not an army of soldiers. And what an army it must have been; copying and distributing furiously, and consistently, for so many centuries!

So that’s weird, and that’s point number one, now let’s segue to the next concept we will explore. Why were they copying it? Because they wanted to distribute it to everybody across the Roman Empire (and beyond). The early Church believed that the message contained in their Scriptures was so important that they wanted everybody to know about it.

And the New Testament is squarely, unambiguously and totally centered on the person of Jesus. He is the central figure, and clearly the underlying motivation behind every piece of writing contained in the New Testament. So when the early church was frantically copying the New Testament over and over and over again, it was in the hope that each copy would be distributed to the individual churches across the Roman Empire, and used to spread the news about this Jesus fellow.

Because of this we should reasonably ask, who was this Jesus guy that people were so passionate about copying and distributing literature about him? Bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of those who tirelessly transcribed the New Testament those tens of thousands of times never met Jesus.

In part two we will turn our attention to this Jesus guy – the founder of Christianity – and see what it is about him that inspired such endless toil.

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