Documentary Review: Fragments of Truth

I had planned on seeing the new documentary Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy on opening night and writing a review for today’s article, but the projector in the theater wasn’t working, so my plans have changed. The Moses Controversy is scheduled to be shown again on Saturday, March 16th, and Tuesday, March 19th, so hopefully I’ll be able to write a review for next weekend, but by then it will be to late to see it in the theater.

I decided to write today’s article about the documentary Fragments of Truth, which came out in 2018. My wife and I saw it in the theater, and I watched it again recently and took many notes. I hadn’t planned on writing a review yet, so this is sort of a bonus (for me, and I hope you). Since I’m writing this rather quickly, I’m using quite a few quotes I’d written down when I watched it again, rather than doing as much research as I like to do. Some of the information here is from other sources, but most of it is from the documentary.

Fragments of Truth focuses on the manuscripts of the New Testament which have been transmitted from the Apostles to us over nearly 2,000 years. The documentary is narrated by actor John Rhys-Davies1, but it’s only a small part of the documentary. Fragments is presented by Craig A. Evans, a Biblical scholar and professor. Dr. Evans is one of the world leading experts in the study of the Historical Jesus, or the study of Jesus in the historical and cultural context of the first century Israel. He has written or edited over 70 books and hundreds of articles. He’s studied the Dead Sea Scrolls and many ancient manuscripts, and participates in archaeological digs. His research makes him well qualified to teach on the subject of ancient manuscripts. Dr. Evans interviews about a dozen experts on ancient manuscripts in Fragments.

The Christian Old Testament was written over a period of nearly 1,000 years, from about 1,400 B.C. to about 400 B.C. Prior to Jesus, it was written almost exclusively on scrolls, rather than in books (and scrolls are still used in Synagogues for the first five books of the Bible, the Hebrew Torah). The New Testament authors wrote in books rather than scrolls; the proper name for a hand-written book is a codex (plural: codices). Codices have benefits over scrolls, and allow writing on both sides of the sheet, reducing the cost of the material, and makes it easier to find passages and makes transportation easier.

Those texts that were prepared for reading in church and that were intended to be treated as scripture by the community are almost entirely written on codexes. So when we talk about copies of texts around at the time, the physical form in which they were put is a significant indicator of the purpose for which they were put.2

During the first five centuries of the Christian era, 90% of all Christian books were written on a codex, and only 14% of all non-Christian books were written on a codex. So this was the first, and probably only, time in the history of the church where we were actually ahead of the technological curve.3

The purpose of Fragments of Truth is to show the New Testament Gospels and letters haven’t been corrupted since the they were originally written. Many critics (and some groups who claim to be Christian but have heretical beliefs) claim the New Testament has been radically changed since the autographs (the originals) were written by the New Testament authors. The claim that the New Testament writers didn’t consider Jesus God is incorrect. The fact is, the evidence shows New Testament was faithfully transmitted to us. The New Testament authors clearly, unequivocally wrote that Jesus is God; that is not some later addition or modification to what was originally written.

In fact, the motivation for changing something in order to produce an effect is taken away because people don’t know it would have the effect. And even then, you might be able to change one Gospel, the one that’s in your locality, but you wouldn’t know about the other three. Let’s say you’re in the year 100. Let’s say that all four Gospels have been written. You don’t know there are going to be four Gospels to go and change all four of them. So there are these problems, when you try and locate a period when someone could have changed all four Gospels, I want to know: When is it? Is it the year 100? 110? 120? Just give me the period, because whenever you make that claim, I’m going to find difficulties. If you start saying someone was changing the Gospels around the year 160, then I’m going to have the problem that the Gospels have been spreading for quite some time by now. There’s a four Gospel collection, but also Gospels are being transmitted individually. Are you going to change both of those?4

There are two passages in dispute: Mark 16:9-20 (a longer ending of Mark) and John 9:2-11 (the woman caught in adultery). Some ancient manuscripts have these verses and some don’t. The style of the writings are inconsistent with the rest of their respective books, so most scholars don’t believe these are part of the original writings. Most Bibles indicate these passages are in doubt, but make them available for the reader to study. When translators have doubts about the correct wording of a passage, usually a footnote indicates the possible alternate readings for the passage.

In a sense, if someone tries to do anything, you get this mess of evidence and that’s great because that shows you there’s been no conspiracy to try and make all the evidence look the same. It also gives you a lot more certainty about all the other passages, because you know if someone had tampered you would get that sort of pattern showing up. The fact that one pattern doesn’t show up. So I want to say that really throughout the whole of history there’s never been an individual who’s been in a position to make deliberate, substantial changes across the New Testament. There’s never been an emperor, there’s never been a Pope, there’s never been anyone who’s been in a position to do that.5

Fragments of Truth also discusses how long the autographs may have lasted. Some manuscripts still exist which are over 1,500 years old, so it’s reasonable to think the autographs may have lasted 200-300 years, and maybe longer.

Tertullian, writing around the year 190, in a tractate called Prescription against the Heretics—in chapter 36, he complains of the heretics who mutilate the text, and he says, “If you don’t believe me, then check out the autographs of Paul’s Letters,” and he mentions a few letters by name, “which you can find in Hierapolis, in Asia Minor.”6

In fact, another bishop, writing in the early fourth century—Bishop Peter—he says the same thing about the Gospel of John, that the original could still be seen at Ephesus.7

Tertullian wrote 100 years or more after all of the New Testament books had been written, and Bishop Peter wrote more than 100 years after Tertullian. So the originals existed a long time and could be used to compare copies. It’s quite likely there were many copies made of the letters, especially since the churches were commanded to read the letters in different churches.

If Paul wrote his letters in the 50’s and 60’s; if the Gospel writers wrote their Gospels in the 60’s and 70’s of the first century, and the autographs remained in use for 150 years, that takes us all the way into the early 3rd century. We have continuity from the autographs to these early copies we have. And those early copies would’ve had the same duration, the same longevity, which takes us right into the 4th century, where we have the complete Greek New Testament, like Codex Vaticanus, or Codex Sinaiticus. And when those were written, these other papyri that you can now see in Geneva or in Dublin or wherever, they were still in existence. And so this idea that oh, well, who knows what Paul originally wrote in his letters, or who knows what the Gospel writers originally said about Jesus, there’s no foundation for that kind of skepticism. This has been commented on by Fred Wissie, long-time professor at Yale, remarked one time that the stability of the Greek New Testament text is such that he considered it nothing less than a miracle. I thought that was an interesting thing. He wasn’t being pious or theological, no intended apologetic there in his observation. But he ought to know, because as a scholar of Coptic Gnostic texts, he knew what instability was all about.8

Fragments of Truth mentions a few of the thousands of ancient manuscript of the New Testament which still exist. For most of these, it’s quite possible the autographs still existed when they were written.

  • Papyrus 45 (P45)
    • Contains: Verses from all four Gospels
    • Date: about A.D. 200-250
    • Location: Chester Beatty Library (Dublin, Ireland)
  • Papyrus 66 (P66)
    • Contains: Most of the Gospel of John
    • Date: about A.D. 200
    • Notes
      • Oldest known near complete copy of John
      • Written about 100-120 years after the autograph
  • Papyrus 19 (P19)
    • Contains: Matthew 10:32-11:5
    • Date: about A.D. 300-500
    • Location: Bodleian Library (University of Oxford, Oxford, England)
  • Papyrus 64 (P64 / Magdalen papyrus)
    • Contains: Matthew 26:23, 31
    • Date: A.D. 150-250
    • Location: Magdalen College (Oxford, England)
    • Note: Oldest manuscript in England
  • Codex Bezae
    • Contains: Parts of the Gospels, Acts, 3 John
    • Date: A.D. late 300’s-early 400’s
    • Location: Cambridge University Library
    • Languages: Parallel Greek and Latin; Latin based on text going back to about A.D. 200
  • Codex Vaticanus
    • Contains: Most of the Bible, plus part of the Catholic Apocrypha
    • Date: A.D. 300-350
    • Location: Vatican Library (since at least 1475)
    • Note: Some scholars believe it might be one of 50 Bibles commissioned by Emperor Constantine in A.D. 331 when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
  • Papyrus 75 (P75)
    • Contains: Most of Luke and a small part of John
    • Date: A.D. 175-225; some scholars believe closer to A.D. 300
    • Location: Vatican Library
    • Notes
      • Similar to Codex Vaticanus
      • Earliest papyrus which has more than one book on the same page: the end of Luke and the beginning of John.
  • Papyrus 52 (P52)

…if we apply these observations to the ancient Christian writings, the first papyrus books of scripture that Christians produced, dating back to 200 like P66 and P45, we have to wonder when those were written out by scribes, in the year 200 or whenever, we have to realize that some of the originals of the New Testament, what we call autographs, may well have been still been in circulation. And, of course, their very first copies made in the first century, could still be in circulation….if the observations are applied to New Testament scriptures, then there’s the possibility that we have this continuity from the original text to what we now have in our museums and libraries today, like P45, P66, P75 and others, and a continuity between them and the great codices, like Vaticanus sand Sinaiticus which contain the entire Bible, the complete  New Testament as well as the Old Testament, so what it suggests is there really isn’t any room for the idea, these theories, that there have been wild, crazy changes made or that there are so many errors or so much corruption in the text we really don’t know what it originally said. The evidence strongly suggests otherwise. The evidence suggests that the Bible that we have now is the same as the Bible when it was originally produced long ago.9

…I would say we can have a great deal of confidence that we have the original wording on the printed page of a Greek New Testament. It’s either in the text or it’s in the footnotes. We know what Paul said, we know what the rest of the writers of the New Testament wrote because of this vast amount of great manuscript evidence we have from early on through the centuries.10

The evidence shows there simply isn’t any way the writings of the New Testament could have been corrupted, either intentionally or unintentionally, without being detected. The evidence strongly shows the New Testament we have today is an accurate representation of what the original authors write. There is simply no time in history where the message could have been changed to take an ordinary man and change the teachings of the Apostles to make Jesus into God. Fragments of Truth is worth watching if you’re curious if the New Testament writings were accurately copied through almost 2,000 years.

Resources

  • Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018)

Footnotes

  1. Gimli and the voice of Treebeard in the Lord of the Rings, and Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and many other roles.
  2. Hurtado, Larry. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018)
  3. Wallace, Dan. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018)
  4. Williams, Peter. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018)
  5. Williams, Peter. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018)
  6. Evans, Craig A. The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts, (Lexham Press: 2014) Section 7.
  7. Evans, Craig A. The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts, (Lexham Press: 2014) Section 7.
  8. Evans, Craig. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018)
  9. Evans, Craig. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018)
  10. Wallace, Dan. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018)
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  1. […] and it was as interesting as I had expected. This review will be much shorter than my review of Fragments of Truth last week, because I wasn’t able to  stop the film to take notes and write down quotes. […]

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