What is “Aunt Sally’s Secret Sauce”?

I’ve heard Greg Koukl from the Christian organization Stand to Reason use an analogy he calls “Aunt Sally’s Secret Sauce” to show how the New Testament was likely transmitted in the early church.

  • Aunt Sally has a secret elixir to make herself look younger
  • Aunt Sally decides to share the recipe for the elixir with friends
  • Each friend shares the recipe for the elixir with their other friends
  • There are now 30 copies of the recipe, but only one original
  • Aunt Sally’s dog eats the paper with the secret recipe, so the original is lost
  • Aunt Sally asks her friends for a copy of the recipe, but all of their copies have been eaten by the owners’ dogs
  • Aunt Sally asks her friends’ friends for their copies
  • Aunt Sally now has over 20 second-generation copies of the recipe for her secret sauce
  • Aunt Sally notices a few differences, but the recipes are basically the same
    • Some have misspellings
    • Some are difficult to read due to poor handwriting
    • Most say “chop then stir”, but one says “stir then chop”
    • Most have the same ingredients, while one is missing an ingredient and two have an extra ingredient

Would Aunt Sally be able to accurately reconstruct the original recipe for the elixir? Only the most ardent skeptic would say “No”. The misspellings are easily recognized. The extra ingredient is quickly noticed. The missing ingredient could simply be a mistake during the copying. Most of the text in most of the copies is the same, so any changes stand out.

The oldest reference I’ve found to this analogy is an article by Melinda Penner titled Aunt Sally’s Secret Recipe, but I’ve heard Greg use this analogy several times while listening to his podcasts. Each time he has used slightly different phrasing, but the core information remains the same. Notice the title of this post is “Aunt Sally’s Secret Sauce”, but the first item says “elixir”. Is it a sauce or an elixir? Sauces and elixirs are different, but both words communicate the point of this post. I’ve heard Greg use the words interchangeably in his podcasts, so I chose to do the same in this post. Just as I have no reason to believe Greg is mis-communicating the analogy, I have no reason to believe the New Testament has been corrupted since those books were written.

The New Testament was likely transmitted in the early church in a manner similar to the way Aunt Sally’s Secret Sauce was copied. Letters were written to one church and passed along to other churches. The Apostles wanted to teach as many people as possible, and Paul actually commanded the letters be read in different churches.

  • After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16 NIV)1
  • I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters. (1 Thessalonians 5:27 NIV)

Aunt Sally’s Secret Sauce is an example of textual criticism. Scholars review as many manuscripts as possible to find the differences between manuscripts, then determine what the most probable original reading was. The more manuscripts scholars can examine, and the closer in age to the original those manuscripts are, the greater confidence the scholars will have that they know what the original wording was.

“The number of manuscript copies of the New Testament is mind-boggling. In Greek alone, we have more than 5,800 copies, consisting of 2.5 million pages of text. In addition, we have more than 10,000 Latin manuscript copies. If that’s not enough, there are more than 5,000 manuscripts in other languages, such as Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Gothic, Ethiopic, and Armenian. In total, there are more than 20,000 handwritten manuscripts of the New Testament in various languages.”2

“This means that our New Testament is 99.5% textually pure. In the entire text of 20,000 lines, only 40 lines are in doubt (about 400 words), and none affects any significant doctrine.”3

Resources

Footnotes

  1. The letter Paul refers to as “from Laodicea” has been lost, and is not part of the Christian New Testament Canon.
  2. Kunkle, Brett. What We Have Is What Was Written. (Stand to Reason, March 5, 2013) (Blog, Accessed October 5, 2018)
  3. Geisler, Norman L. and Nix, William E.  A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago, IL:  Moody Press, 1986), 475. (Amazon.com)
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