The Man From Earth

Movies discussing books, a common recipe for inaccuracy

The Man from Earth

Last week I watched the 2007 movie The Man From Earth. The story revolves around a university professor who confesses to his colleagues that he is 14,000 years old, having begun his life as a caveman. It sounds interesting, but it’s not, at least in terms of plot. Most of the movie involves the main characters sitting around a room talking and trying to figure out if the protagonist is crazy. The most action-packed moment is when some movers show up to cart away some boxes, all while the main characters drone on. Still, the movie does raise thought-provoking questions that stem from a hypothetical person moving through thousands of years of earth history.

I won’t give away the plot, but I will point out that the movie goes to particular lengths to discredit the Christian religion. Even the lone Christian in the story—Edith—defends her beliefs in ways that would trouble almost any pastor or priest. As a Christian myself, I didn’t necessarily have a problem with the film dissing on my belief system. Living in a pluralistic society has numbed me to such concerns. But I did take issue with one of the main arguments the movie used to poo-poo the Bible, a method that has a direct impact on being a well-read person.

The argument essentially goes like this: The Bible has been changed so many times in history, so you can’t trust what it says anymore. (Because much of the movie’s plot revolves around Jesus and his followers, when it says “the Bible,” it refers primarily to the New Testament.) I’ve heard this reasoning before from atheists and adherents of other religions, and it simply baffles me. It’s bizarre because even a cursory examination of the history of the Bible, and of the New Testament in particular, shows that it has experienced almost no significant changes whatsoever.

The movie misstates the history of the Bible in two ways. The first glaring error is in equating “translations” with “sources.” One character responds to Edith’s concern for the integrity of God’s Word by stating, “There are a dozen New Testaments, from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to Tyndale, all the way to King James.” He forgot to mention Spanish and Japanese versions. Clearly, none of these translations represents an altering of the source material from which each translation derives. It’s laughable that the stable of learned professors appearing on the movie’s stage can’t seem to make this distinction. So much for a college education.

The second fallacy, and one I’ve heard more often outside of the film, is that the source text itself has been changed throughout the centuries, usually (it seems) as a means of subjugating and controlling the masses. The problem with this logic is that we have portions of New Testament content going back to just 100 years after they were written, and complete books going back to the third century. A near-complete Gospel of John known as Papyrus 66 dates to the late second century, likely less than 150 years after it was written. Some fragments of John exist that are decades earlier than this. Naturally, there could have been changes in the early years, but most detractors insist that the updates have been nonstop for over a thousand years. A look back at these older manuscripts provides quick verification of any transmission changes or scribal errors that may exist in later editions.

Of course, there are transmission changes and scribal errors. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. But the vast majority of these changes are minor errors, changes due to the evolution of languages over time, and other similar updates. In the relatively few cases where blatant changes in the meaning do appear, scholars simply look back to older, well-vetted texts for verification.

Beyond the old scraps and portions of biblical canon, libraries are also filled with the writings of the Early Church Fathers. These believers, writing in the decades and centuries that followed the birth of the church, regularly quoted from what became the New Testament books, and included first- and second-century commentary from the viewpoint of those closest to the original writings. Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna were three of the earliest such writers; the latter two were disciples of the Apostle John. Their writings provide additional support for Christian doctrines at a time when the religion was too small to necessitate people-enslaving modifications to the texts.

The Bible is full of miraculous claims and other statements that push the limits of credibility. But those represent issues of the religious and philosophical sort that are always fodder for fervent debate. But issues about the source of the biblical text are a completely different issue. If someone who claims to be well-read won’t deal with the part of the argument for which scientific inquiry is possible (textual analysis), how can I expect to take their views seriously when they delve into an argument of ideas? For this and other reasons—especially the boredom factor, I give The Man From Earth two-and-a-half out of four stars.

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