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Textual Criticism

The Achilles Heel of Inerrancy?

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Do we need to have absolute 100 percent certainty about every single textual variant for God to speak authoritatively in the Scriptures? Not at all.

Over the years, challenges to biblical authority have taken a lot of different forms. People have offered historical challenges: Do we really know where these books come from? Are we sure about their date and authorship? Others have offered hermeneutical challenges: Can we really understand what the Bible says? What about all the different interpretations? And, most fundamentally, people have offered truth challenges: Is the Bible correct in what it teaches? Does it contradict itself? In recent years, however, a new sort of challenge has become more common (though it is not really new at all). It is not a challenge about the authorship of books, or the interpretation of them, or even about whether they contradict themselves. Instead, it is a challenge about whether we really have the words of Scripture in the first place. Given that the Scriptures have been passed down to us through the centuries in handwritten manuscripts, and we possess only copies of the original autographs (most likely copies of copies of copies), how can we be sure that this transmission process has been accurate? How can we be sure the words have not been changed, altered, or lost? This is the challenge of textual criticism. The challenge is not about how we know these words are right, but about how we know we have the right words.

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1 [ Back ] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005), 7 (emphasis his).
2 [ Back ] Manuscripts vary in size--some are fragmentary and contain only small portions of the New Testament, and others are more complete and contain most (if not all) of the New Testament.
3 [ Back ] Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 86.
4 [ Back ] Eldon Jay Epp, "Textual Criticism," in The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, eds. Eldon Jay Epp and George W. MacRae (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 91.
5 [ Back ] Epp, "Textual Criticism," 91 (emphasis mine).
6 [ Back ] Gordon D. Fee, "Textual Criticism of the New Testament," in Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, eds. Eldon Jay Epp and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 6.
7 [ Back ] Ehrman, 89.
8 [ Back ] Ehrman, 90.
9 [ Back ] Eldon Jay Epp, "Toward the Clarification of the Term 'Textual Variant,'" in Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, eds. Eldon Jay Epp and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 57.
10 [ Back ] Epp, "Toward the Clarification of the Term 'Textual Variant,'" 57.
11 [ Back ] William L. Lane, The Gospel According to St. Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 86.
12 [ Back ] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 415.
13 [ Back ] Ehrman, 14.
14 [ Back ] Ehrman, 211.

Michael Kruger is associate professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, Florida).

Issue: "Inspiration and Inerrancy" March/April 2010 Vol. 19 No. 2 Page number(s): 41-44

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