The issue of the tenacity of the text is one of the important points that was raised by Dr. White in his debate with Dr. Ehrman recently (the debate can be obtained here). One of the illustrations of the tenacity of the text is the illustration of a jigsaw puzzle set that includes 1,010 pieces although only 1,000 are the pieces to be included (with 10 pieces that are additional). Ehrman does not admit this principle of the tenacity of the text, insisting instead that there are places (at least one - perhaps many) where the original reading of a text is lost. There may, in Ehrman's mind, be 1,010 pieces but less than 1,000 of those go with this puzzle.
It's important to distinguish the issue of tenacity; in its most basic form the tenacity argument simply asserts that we have all the pieces that make up the original text. It does not say that we can easily distinguish between readings. It also does not say whether the majority text has been interpolated (the prevailing view in modern criticism) or whether the older texts are deficient (a view popular among advocates of the majority text).
I came across the following comment on a theological discussion forum:
At best [The 1,010 pieces for a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle illustration] gives an understandable graphic/picture that is helpful in presenting the nature of the situation faced by text critics. However, despite the reality of "tenacity" it would be overly optimistic and wrong to presume that we nevertheless possess all the pieces that are required to perfectly complete the puzzle. Indeed we do have an overabundance of pieces regarding certain aspects of the puzzle picture, but it is not correct to suggest we have no vital pieces yet missing. We do not, and cannot, know that we possess somewhere in the available manuscripts the autographa, however autographa may be defined! We cannot say that if we have three manuscripts of a text that one of them accurately reflects the original.(source)
This comment was questioned by one of the participants, and the following clarification was provided:
My point is simply that at this juncture we cannot affirm with surety that no vital pieces are yet missing. The problem here is simply that the text witnesses we possess only touch the fringes of the 2nd century. We have, at present, no way of knowing what may have dropped out very very early in manuscript transmission, in first century or early second century. In respect to the New Testament the earliest manuscript witnesses are of varying earliest age. We can presume we have all the vital pieces, and it is indeed possible, perhaps even probable, that we have them. But to suggest that is the case is by no means a certainty.(same source)
What can we make of this sort of rejoinder? There are several answers to be given.
From a purely materialistic standpoint (ignoring the supernatural), it is possible to be radically skeptical of anything. The radical skeptic demands proof beyond any doubt, and there are few things that the radical skeptic is willing not to doubt. Such a process, though, is just speculation.
An argument premised on skepticism is fundamentally flawed. It employs what I refer to as the skeptical fallacy. The skeptical fallacy is seen in the following:
1) P should be accepted IFF (i.e. if and only if) it has sufficient warrant.
2) P is susceptible to doubt and consequently P does not have sufficient warrant.
3) Therefore P should be rejected.
I've stated it a bit informally to compress it. The fallacy lies in the fact that the reasoning, if it were true, undermines the minor premise. After all the minor premise is itself a proposition that is subject to doubt. That is to say, one can doubt whether susceptibility to doubt is a legitimate attack on warrant.
But I digress. The point is that bare speculation over the merely hypothetical possibility of matter being lost in transmission is not a well-grounded and reasonable objection to the position of tenacity. Thus, to the extent that the rejection is based solely on speculation, it is an unreasonable objection.
2. Confusing the Issues
The issue of whether we can "perfectly complete the puzzle" is not the same as the issue of tenacity. I suppose it is reasonable to mention this concern, because completing a 1,000 piece jigsaw perfectly with extremely high confidence of having obtained the proper result is possible by nature of the way that pieces fit together (or don't, in the case of the extraneous pieces).
In other words, it is easy to see how the illustration could (through the fact that the analogy is not perfect) lead someone to an incorrect conclusion. It is important to understand that not every textual variant is easy to resolve. Picking at random from my copy of Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, I note that there is a textual variant with respect to the word "γὰρ" ("gar") in Romans 14:5. The majority text omits the word, but a number of ancient copies of the text, ancient translations of the text, and early Christian and heretical usages of the text include the word. Is the word original? It may be hard to tell, and the fact of tenacity doesn't make the life of the textual critic much easier for puzzles like this one.
What tenacity does do is suggest that the original text was either with the γὰρ or without the γὰρ, but not with some other word than γὰρ in the place of γὰρ, or with a word or phrase following γὰρ that cannot be found in any manuscript, translation, or ancient quotation. Tenacity of the text suggests merely that we have the original reading, not that we know with 100% in each case what that original reading was.
3. Rapid, Decentralized Transmission
Despite the claims of some modern Roman Catholics, the text of the New Testament was recognized as Scripture while the apostles were still alive and was distributed by the apostles and the other disciples widely. We can see that it was treated as Scripture during the lives of the apostles from Peter's reference to Paul's writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.) as well as Paul's reference to Matthew's gospel as Scripture (1 Timothy 5:18 For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward. & Matthew 10:10 Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat.) as well as his reference to the gospels generally as Scripture (1 Corinthians 15:3-4: For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:).
Indeed, some of Paul's epistles were intended as circular letters to be distributed to multiple churches. Thus, for example, the Epistle to the Galatians is addressed to "the churches of Galatia" (Galatians 1:2) and likewise the Revelation of John is addressed to seven specific churches (John 1:4 and following) in Asia minor. Furthermore, undermining the idea that there was a central papal authority and unity church at Rome, Paul addresses his epistle to the Romans to "all that be in Rome" (Romans 1:7 - see also the litany of salutations in chapter 16).
Paul founded churches over a wide geographic area constantly commended the Scriptures - especially the Old Testament but also the New (Acts 17:2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,). Paul even intentionally did not go places that other Christian missionaries had gone (Romans 15:20 Yea, so have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man's foundation:).
This wide geographic dissemination of churches and emphasis on Scripture naturally lead to a widespread dissemination of Scripture fairly quickly. Especially since ministers were supposed to be preaching not their own ideas or thoughts but the Word of God (2 Timothy 4:2 Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.)
Furthermore, once the Scriptures were widely disseminated, there was no mechanism for central control that could be effective until the time of Constantine when Christianity began to have strong political connections. By then it was too late - there were manuscripts and translations of the New Testament across an enormous geographical region extending at least as far south as Ethiopia, east to Persia, West to what is now France and north to Scotland. There is evidence that some fairly early Christians even evangelized western China (legend - at least - has it that the Apostle Thomas was the early missionary in this direction), although I am not aware of any textual manuscripts that they left behind from the earliest days.
In view of this widespread dissemination of the text, we have an enormous number of witnesses to the ancient text of the New Testament. Some parts of Scripture (for example the Gospels) may have more copies and other parts (for example, John's epistles) may have fewer copies. Likewise a few books (Hebrews and Revelation, for example) may have more copies in one geographic area than another. Likewise, some manuscripts are more or less highly correlated with other manuscripts, to be sure (for example, there are a significant number of Byzantine manuscripts that are similar to one another from the 10th century to the 16th century). Nevertheless, the widespread dissemination of the text during the times of persecution guarantees (as much as is possible) that we have a text that has been free from any intentional tinkering. Likewise the large number of extant texts confirms (again, as much as is possible) that nothing has been lost inadvertently in the course of transmission. If there were only one or two copies, something could accidentally fall out in transmission. However, when there are hundreds or thousands of copying procedures going on independently over the globe in a variety of languages, the chances of the same thing falling out by accident is fairly remote.
4. Providential Preservation
Although the item (3) above does get us back at least to the state of the text in the late second or early third century with an extremely high level of confidence as to tenacity, there remains the issue of whether there was any significant alteration in the first century or the early second century. On challenge in this area is that the papyrus upon which 1st and 2nd century manuscripts were written is not an especially durable material. Thus, while it is reasonable to expect that there were a vast number of manuscripts of the text of the New Testament at this time, there are only about 12 manuscripts that date back to the second century (one or more of which may possibly date back to the first century).
This is by no means a small feat. It is fair to say that there is no contemporaneous text with any similar level of attestation. As Dr. Ehrman was forced to concede, if one calls the gap between the originals and the copies "enormous" one must call the gap between the originals and copies of other ancient texts "ginormous" by comparison.
But science can take one only so far. Textual criticism as an art cannot absolutely ensure the reliability of transmission of the text back to the very beginning.
There is, however, another reason to believe that no vital part of the text has been lost:
Matthew 24:35, Mark 13:31, and Luke 21:33 each state: Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.
Likewise, Isaiah 55:11 states: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.
These passages assure us that no important part of Scripture will be lost. Someone may point out that the passages mentioned above in the gospels relate to Jesus' prophecy in particular and that the Isaiah text (as in Isaiah 45:23) is relating specifically to Isaiah's prophecy. Nevertheless, these passages inform us as to the character of God and his care for his word.
Likewise we read in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works." This passages shows the value of the word of God and again, when taken with God's many statements about his care for his people, confirm that no important text of Scripture will be lost.
We additionally see the care of God's word in the transmission of the book of Jeremiah. There were two forms of the book. The original of the first form was destroyed by an ungodly king, but God ensured that Jeremiah would rewrite the original and add to it many additional words:
23 And it came to pass, that when Jehudi had read three or four leaves, he cut it with the penknife, and cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until all the roll was consumed in the fire that was on the hearth. 24 Yet they were not afraid, nor rent their garments, neither the king, nor any of his servants that heard all these words. 25 Nevertheless Elnathan and Delaiah and Gemariah had made intercession to the king that he would not burn the roll: but he would not hear them. 26 But the king commanded Jerahmeel the son of Hammelech, and Seraiah the son of Azriel, and Shelemiah the son of Abdeel, to take Baruch the scribe and Jeremiah the prophet: but the LORD hid them. 27 Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, after that the king had burned the roll, and the words which Baruch wrote at the mouth of Jeremiah, saying, 28 Take thee again another roll, and write in it all the former words that were in the first roll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah hath burned. 29 And thou shalt say to Jehoiakim king of Judah, Thus saith the LORD; Thou hast burned this roll, saying, Why hast thou written therein, saying, The king of Babylon shall certainly come and destroy this land, and shall cause to cease from thence man and beast? 30 Therefore thus saith the LORD of Jehoiakim king of Judah; He shall have none to sit upon the throne of David: and his dead body shall be cast out in the day to the heat, and in the night to the frost. 31 And I will punish him and his seed and his servants for their iniquity; and I will bring upon them, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and upon the men of Judah, all the evil that I have pronounced against them; but they hearkened not. 32 Then took Jeremiah another roll, and gave it to Baruch the scribe, the son of Neriah; who wrote therein from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of the book which Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire: and there were added besides unto them many like words.
Likewise, when Moses broke the first tables of the law, God gave him a new copy:
Exodus 32:19 And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.
Deuteronomy 9:17 And I took the two tables, and cast them out of my two hands, and brake them before your eyes.
1 And the LORD said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest. 2 And be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning unto mount Sinai, and present thyself there to me in the top of the mount. 3 And no man shall come up with thee, neither let any man be seen throughout all the mount; neither let the flocks nor herds feed before that mount. 4 And he hewed two tables of stone like unto the first; and Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up unto mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tables of stone. 5 And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.
Finally, we see further evidence of God's care for the text of Scripture in the specific admonitions given both to Moses and the Apostle John:
Deuteronomy 12:32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
18 And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites: 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them: 20 That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel.
18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: 19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
Even someone will rightly say that the first set of admonitions were specifically for the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), and even if someone will further claim that the last admonition should be limited to the book Revelation, nevertheless all three passages show the care that God has of his word.
This is confirmed by the fact that the Word of God is our spiritual bread:
Deuteronomy 8:3 And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.
Matthew 4:4 But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.
And finally by the fact that failure to heed the word of God results in judgment:
2 Chronicles 34:21 Go, enquire of the LORD for me, and for them that are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that is found: for great is the wrath of the LORD that is poured out upon us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD, to do after all that is written in this book.
The text of the New Testament has been preserved for us in the myriad copies that exist - there are some extra pieces thrown into the jig saw puzzle kit, but all the authentic pieces are there for us. There is excellent scientific evidence in support of this conclusion, in the form of the enormous number and extreme antiquity of the copies that we possess. Although science can only take us so far, only through the fallacy of skepticism can folks doubt that the text we have is substantially the same as the text that was given. Finally, of course, it must be emphasized that the science of textual criticism, as valuable as it may be, is not the ground of our faith.
When we are presented with a copy of the Bible we do not accept it as God's word simply because its transmission is well-attested. The reliability of its transmission is simply a confirmation to us. In fact, of course, natural science could never provide the answer to the most important question of authorship.
Accepting the Bible as God's word may be supported by various reasons, but is ultimately a matter of faith through the work of the Holy Spirit in a person's heart:
Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Galatians 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,
1 Thessalonians 2:13 For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.