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.
Bart Ehrman in his book Misquoting Jesus offers this very challenge. He suggests that the New Testament manuscripts are so riddled with scribal errors and mistakes (some even intentional) that there is no way to have any certainty about the words of the original authors. In essence, he argues that the New Testament text has been changed–irreparably and substantially changed in the battles over heresy and orthodoxy–so that it is no longer meaningful to discuss what Paul wrote or what Matthew, Mark, or Luke wrote. We simply do not know. All we have are manuscripts. And these manuscripts date hundreds of years after the time of the apostles and vary widely from one another. So, what does the “New Testament” say? It depends, argues Ehrman, on which manuscript you read. He declares, “What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them…in thousands of ways.” (1)
Thus Ehrman uses textual criticism to argue that doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy are meaningless–the doctrines only pertain to the original text and we cannot know what the original text said. But there are substantial doubts about this hyper-skeptical approach to textual criticism. In response, this article will focus upon the New Testament text and offer four theses that embody an approach more consistent with the kind traditionally taken in the field of textual criticism. If these four theses are valid, then we have good reasons to think we are able to recover the New Testament text in a manner so very close to the original that there is no material difference between what, say, Mark and Matthew wrote, and what we have today.
We have good reasons to think the original text is preserved (somewhere) in the overall textual tradition.
The first step in answering these questions about the transmission of the New Testament text is to gain a better understanding of the manuscript resources at our disposal. Discussions about whether a text has been “changed” always involve the comparison of manuscripts. As scholars seek to know how much any writing of antiquity has been changed and, more importantly, as they seek to establish what that writing would have originally said (by tracing those changes through the manuscript tradition), the more manuscripts that can be compared the better. The higher the number of manuscripts, the more assurance we have that the original text was preserved somewhere in the manuscript tradition.
When it comes to the quantity of manuscripts, the New Testament is in a class all its own. Although the exact count is always changing, currently we possess over 5,700 manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek alone. (2) No other document of antiquity even comes close. Moreover, we possess thousands more manuscripts in other languages. The total for just our Latin manuscripts of the New Testament exceeds 10,000 copies, and we possess thousands more in Coptic, Syriac, Gothic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and other languages. In addition to all these manuscripts, there are also a countless number of citations of the New Testament preserved in the early church fathers. So many, in fact, that Bruce Metzger has famously declared: “So extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” (3)
Such a scenario, from a historical perspective, is truly remarkable. As Eldon Epp has said, “We have, therefore, a genuine embarrassment of riches in the quantity of manuscripts we possess….The writings of no Greek classical author are preserved on this scale.” (4) Thus, if there were ever an ancient writing that had enough extant manuscripts that we could be reasonably assured that the original text was preserved for us in the multiplicity of copies, then the New Testament would be it. Epp notes, “The point is that we have so many manuscripts of the NT…that surely the original reading in every case is somewhere present in our vast store of material.” (5) Gordon Fee concurs: “The immense amount of material available to NT textual critics…is their good fortune because with such an abundance of material one can be reasonably certain that the original text is to be found somewhere in it.” (6) In other words, due to the vast number of manuscripts, the challenge of textual criticism is different from what we might expect–it is not that we are lacking in material (as if the original words were lost) but rather we have too much material (the original words, plus some variations).
The vast majority of scribal changes are minor and insignificant.
Having seen that we have good reasons to think that we possess the original text within our manuscript tradition (along with some scribal variations), we now turn our attention directly to these scribal variations. Do these variations present a considerable problem? How different are the manuscripts we possess? One might think we could just add up all the textual variations and we would have our answer. As we shall see, however, the answer to these questions is not as simple as providing a numerical figure. All scholars agree that there are thousands of textual variants throughout our many manuscripts–maybe as many as 200,000–though no one knows the exact number. Ehrman seems eager to suggest even higher numbers: “Some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more!” (7) Indeed, numbers matter very much to Ehrman. For him, the sheer volume of variants is the deciding factor and sufficient, in and of itself, to conclude that the New Testament cannot be trusted. He even offers the dramatic statement, “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” (8) Ehrman’s statistical enthusiasm aside, mere numbers do not tell the whole story.
What is overlooked in the numbers-only approach to assessing textual variation is the kind of textual variation we are talking about. It is a question not simply of quantity but of quality. The vast majority of textual variations in the New Testament are ones that can be legitimately regarded as “insignificant.” (9) This means that these textual variants have no bearing or no impact on “the ultimate goal of establishing the original text.” (10) These are typically minor, run-of-the-mill scribal slips that would exist in any document of antiquity (New Testament or otherwise), and thus occasion no real concern for the textual scholar–and certainly are not relevant for assessing whether a document has been reliably passed down to us. Examples include spelling differences, nonsense readings, meaningless word order changes, and the like. Even though these types of changes are quite abundant (Ehrman is correct about that), they are also quite irrelevant. Thus, simply adding up the total textual variations is not a meaningful exercise in determining the reliability of textual transmission.
The numbers-only approach to evaluating textual variants also fails to take into account the very thing we noted above: the impressive quantity of manuscripts we possess. Obviously, if we possessed only five Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, then we would have very few textual variations to account for. But since we have over 5,000 Greek manuscripts (not to mention those in other languages), then the overall quantity of textual variants will dramatically increase because the overall number of manuscripts has dramatically increased. The more manuscripts that can be compared, the more variations can be discovered. Thus the overall quantity of variations is not an indication of scribal infidelity (as Ehrman suggests) but is simply the natural consequence of having more manuscripts than any other historical text.
Of the small portion of variations that are significant, our methodology can determine, with a reasonable degree of certainty, which is the original text.
Even if the vast majority of textual variations are insignificant and irrelevant to determining the original text of the New Testament, there still remains a small portion of textual variants that can be deemed “significant”–that is, they change the meaning of the text in some fashion. Thus one might conclude that these sorts of changes present a real challenge to the textual integrity of the New Testament (and thus a challenge to inerrancy and inspiration). However, such a conclusion would be built upon an assumption that we have no way to determine which of these significant variants were original and which were not. Put differently, significant variants would be a problem if we could assume that every one of them was as equally viable as every other. The problem with such an assumption is that it stands in direct contradiction to the entire history of textual criticism–indeed, to the very existence of the field itself–which has consistently maintained that not all textual variants are equally viable and that our methodology can determine (with a reasonable degree of certainty) which is the original text. If that is the case, then these few “significant” textual variants do not materially affect the integrity of the New Testament because, put simply, we can usually spot them when they occur.
For example, one of the most commonly mentioned “significant” variants is found in 1 John 5:7-8, known as the Comma Johanneum. The italicized portion of the following verses is found in only a handful of manuscripts: “For there are three that testify: in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.” Out of thousands of Greek manuscripts, only eight contain this variant reading–and four of those have the variants added by the scribe into the margin–and the earliest of these is tenth century. Moreover, the variant is attested by none of the Greek Fathers and is absent from almost all our early versions. In the end, despite the fact that this variant found its way into the Textus Receptus (and thereby the King James translation), the text-critical evidence is decidedly against it being original to John’s Epistle. What then do we make of this variant (and ones like it)? No one can doubt it is “significant” in that it affects the theological understanding of this verse. However, it simply has no claim to originality and therefore does not impact our ability to recover the original text of the New Testament.
The remaining number of truly unresolved variants is very few and not material to the story/teaching of the New Testament.
We have argued that even “significant” variants do not present a problem for the integrity of the New Testament because our text-critical methodology allows us to determine, with a reasonable degree of certainty, which is the original text. However, a very small number of significant variants remain where our methodology is not always able to reach a certain conclusion in either direction. In such a case, we may have two (or more) different readings and not know for sure which one is the original. For example, in Mark 1:41 Jesus sees a leper and is “filled with compassion.” Some other manuscripts declare that when Jesus saw the leper he was “filled with anger.” Although the external evidence is in favor of “filled with compassion,” a number of internal considerations (e.g., which reading would the scribe have likely changed?) suggests that the original may have been “filled with anger.” In short, it is difficult to know which reading is original.
It is here, then, that we come to the rare instances where a particular reading of the New Testament text is unclear. Do these instances suggest we should abandon doctrines such as inspiration or inerrancy? 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. In these rare instances, such as Mark 1:41, it is clear that either reading is consistent with the teachings of Scripture. Although “filled with anger” certainly changes our understanding of the passage–Jesus was likely expressing “righteous indignation at the ravages of sin” (11) on the world, particularly the leper–this perspective on Jesus fits quite well with the rest of the book of Mark where he shows his anger in 3:5 in a confrontation with the Pharisees and in 10:14 as he is indignant with his disciples. But it is also consistent with the Jesus of the other Gospels. Particularly noteworthy is John 11:33 when Jesus is faced with the plight of Lazarus, and the text tells us he was “deeply moved,” a term that can be better understood to mean Jesus felt “anger, outrage or indignation.” (12) Was Jesus angry at Lazarus? No, the context suggests he was angered over the ravages of sin on the world, particularly as it affected Lazarus. In the end, whichever reading in Mark 1:41 is original, neither is out of step with the Jesus of the New Testament.
Moreover, given how rare these remaining unresolved variants are, it would be nothing short of irrational to conclude, on the basis of these instances, that we “don’t even know what the original words of the Bible actually were.” (13) That is a grand overstatement that does not follow from the evidence we have seen. Even with these remaining unresolved variants, the message of the New Testament is very much intact. It is not at all in doubt. All the central teachings of the New Testament–whether regarding the person of Jesus (divinity and humanity), the work of Jesus (his life, death, and resurrection), the application of his work to the believer (justification, sanctification, glorification), or other doctrines–are left unaffected by the remaining unresolved textual variations. Thus there is nothing problematic or inconsistent about saying we believe in the inspiration or inerrancy of those teachings.
In the end, we must beware of falling into the false dichotomy inherent to Ehrman’s approach. For him, the quest for the original text is somewhat of an “all or nothing” endeavor. Either we know the wording of the original text with absolute certainty in every single instance without exception (meaning we have the autographs, or perfect copies of the autographs), or we can have no confidence at all in the wording of the original text. It is one or the other. What is driving this sharp dichotomy? At the end of Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman reveals the core theological premise behind his thinking: “If [God] really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he miraculously inspired them in the first place.” (14) In other words, if God really inspired the New Testament there would be no scribal variations at all. But does inspiration really require that once the books of the Bible were written that God would miraculously guarantee that no one would ever write it down incorrectly? Are we really to believe that inspiration demands that no adult, no child, no scribe, no scholar, no one would ever write down a passage of Scripture where a word was left out–for the entire course of human history? Or is God prohibited by Ehrman from giving revelation until Guttenberg and the printing press? (But there are errors there, too.) It seems clear that Ehrman has investigated the New Testament documents with an a priori conviction that inspiration requires zero scribal variations–a standard that could never be met in the real historical world of the first century.
In contrast, we must remember that God has chosen to give the Bible in real history. Although we do not have absolute certainty about the original text in every single instance, we have sufficient certainty about the original text that enables us to be confident that we possess the authentic teaching of Jesus and his apostles. And since we possess that authentic teaching, there is nothing to suggest we cannot affirm its inspiration and inerrancy.
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.