I was alone, staring at a leaf, trying to figure out if it was maple, oak, or something else. My handbook for the botany merit badge didn’t show any leaves like this one. I stood still for two or three minutes, studying. Then I felt a pinching on my ankles. I batted it off, then looked down and saw what it was.
I had been standing for several minutes in the largest ant bed I had ever seen. It was several feet wide, and I, the Godzilla of ant-world, had crushed half of their great nation while identifying leaves. The ants were staging a retaliation that ranged from my shoes, which were covered, up past my knees. I ran, tossing my shoes off as I entered my troop’s campsite. Other scouts laughed as I quickly pulled my pants off and brushed dozens of ants from my legs. (Luckily, there were no girls at the camp.)
A remarkable discovery about ants and bees is that they are able to make decisions effectively without a leader. With a total absence of central control, ants make decisions based on signals received from other ants about their environment. In this way, they can test the distance of food sources, detect threats, and, in my case, respond to those threats. All of this happens without leadership.
Although National Geographic gave major press to this burgeoning study of “swarm intelligence” in July 2007, Solomon was aware of how ants work thousands of years ago:
Go to the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
officer, or ruler,
she prepares her bread in summer
and gathers her food in harvest.
— Proverbs 6:6-8, ESV
If you have noticed how in a flock of birds or a school of fish, the entire group seems to turn as one, then you have been aware of “swarm intelligence” as it appears in nature.
New Testament Manuscripts
If we look at my unfortunate encounter with ants, we can learn two things that also apply to the spread of New Testament manuscripts:
1. I had no reason to fight them until I realized they had spread.
2. Once they have spread, there is no central mechanism by which I can control (or destroy) all of them.
I can simplify my two points about the New Testament in another way: in the beginning, there was no motive to change the manuscripts, and later, there was no power to change them.
Earlier, No Motive
Signals can spread through an ant community quickly; likewise, on a human timescale, the spread of New Testament manuscripts would be relatively fast and unnoticed in the beginning. Most importantly, the gospels, Acts and letters spread without central control. At any stage, however early, there would be no means of knowing where every manuscript is or what every manuscript says. Without seeing the future, no opponent of Christianity would know the power that any of the New Testament books would carry, and therefore would have no motive to change them.
People who argue that the Bible has been changed by political heavyweights imagine a world in which Jesus appointed Peter as pope and the two marched triumphantly over the ruins of Roman civilization and religion. But Christianity first spread under a hail of persecution, execution and imprisonment. A few letters from a converted Jewish scholar to the converts of his cult would not have raised the eyebrows of the affluent. Christianity did not look good on resumés. It would have repelled the power-hungry and offended the money-minded. Christianity began as the religion of the little Lamb.
Later, No Power
In the absence of any religious “big brother,” no one could change every manuscript of the New Testament, and even if they changed one, the community would find out easily. (Case in point, 1 John 5:7.) For instance, if someone changed every manuscript in Asia Minor, the community could find out by comparing a copy from Jerusalem; this is actually how the modern science of textual criticism verifies our New Testament’s authenticity. In this sense, the swarm cannot be defeated or manipulated. It grows, spreads and influences. It is self-organizing and self-protecting.
The next time a self-styled scholar tells you that the New Testament has been changed, ask them to provide a year it was changed, a person who changed it, or a manuscript that was corrupted. If they point to 1 John 5:7, Mark’s longer ending or the adulteress of John 8, they have proven themselves wrong; the fact that we have found these additions means that the rest of our manuscripts are authentic, because no one has ever had enough power to change every manuscript in existence.