Someone recently asked me about some points made in a lecture on YouTube by a prominent evangelical pastor named John MacArthur, who is also a well-known author in fundamentalist/evangelical camps. Let it be known: MacArthur is not a scholar. He does not have a PhD and his theological training is from fundamentalist institutions such as Bob Jones University. So, it absolutely amazes me that people continue to buy this guy's books and invite him onto reputable news programs like CNN to learn from him. His agenda is purely apologetic and he is a militant opponent of anything that goes against the Bible (e.g., evolution, homosexuality, etc.).
The lecture here is on the ending of Mark, and the question to me concerned the part where MacArthur is talking about the numbers of extant manuscripts of the NT over against those of classical literature. Now, I could only listen to a few minutes of this so I don't know everything that MacArthur says in the lecture (nor would I really want to). In any case, he is trying to show that we have far more manuscripts of the NT than classical texts. So here are a few excerpts from the lecture, which you can view on the YouTube video beginning at 19:45:
"The writings of the early church fathers also confirm the accuracy of the gospels. There are over 19,000 quotations from the gospels in the writings of the fathers. So whether you’re reading a Greek manuscript, a Syriac Bible, or whether you’re looking at a Latin Vulgate or whether you’re reading a quote from a church father, it is crystal clear that they all had the same thing. They would be reading essentially in their language what you’re reading today in yours because yours is drawn from those ancient manuscripts.
Now let me give you something to compare with all of that. The second most common ancient document in the manuscript world is Homer’s Iliad. Remember that when you went to college and you had to read that epic poem called the Iliad by Homer? Next to the New Testament, there are more copies of Homer's Iliad than any other piece of literature. Oh, by the way, there are 643 of them. 643? Small change, compared to 25,000. And oh, by the way, the oldest one is from the 13th century A.D. and Homer wrote in the 8th century B.C. We don’t have anything even close to when Homer wrote. Who knows whether Homer ever said any of that?
Some of you may have heard of Herodotus the Greek historian. He wrote history. In fact, Herodotus could be the father of historians…He wrote in the 5th century before Christ and we have 8 manuscripts of Herodotus’ Histories and the earliest is 1,300 years after he wrote.
No one bothered to protect those [classical texts]. Nobody bothered to preserve those. But boy did they work hard to protect the word of the living God. They knew what they had. With so many accurate manuscripts you can know with no hesitation that the Bible you hold in your hand is a true English translation of the original autographs, as they’re called, preserved accurately."
McArthur thinks every ancient New Testament manuscript in every ancient language preserves the exact same text ("they all had the same thing"), which is also the same text we have in modern English versions. Wow.
Just a few points.
A check this morning in the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (LDAB) brought up 1,549 manuscripts of Homer's Iliad—far more than 643. The first one in that list (P.Köln Gr. 3 125) dates to 2nd-1st century B.C.E.—about 15 centuries earlier than what MacArthur claims is the date of the earliest copy of the Iliad! I myself have published a 3rd century C.E. papyrus of the Iliad.
Another check in the LDAB brought up 53 manuscripts of Herodotus (not 8) and the second one in that list (P.Duke 756) dates to 2nd-1st century B.C.E., about 11 centuries earlier than what MacArthur claims is the date of the earliest copy of Herodotus!
MacArthur's facts are flat out wrong, his analysis of the evidence is flawed, and his presentation of the evidence is extremely manipulative. If MacArthur is an example of Christian teaching then Houston, we have a problem. Of course this is not even the biggest problem with MacArthur, but I do not have the time, energy, or desire to open that can of worms.