How significant are the differences between the copies?

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Stats breakdown

Bart Ehrman early on says in his book Misquoting Jesus 

“Depending on whos estimate you follow, there are at least 200,000, possibly 300,000 or maybe even 400,000 textual variants involving portions of the New Testament, far more than there are words of the New Testament”.

Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus

400,000 errors that can sound pretty worrying at first glance, but what does that really mean? Well firstly, the reason we have so many variants is because we have so many manuscripts and no printing press. We have 2.6 million total pages of Greek manuscripts and when you do the math, that’s one variant every 6.5 pages..not that much when you think about it!

Secondly, the texts fall into two different categories, the differences: meaningful & viable. Meaningful: does it change the meaning of the text; Viable: does it have a possibility of representing the original wording. 1/5th of 1% of all textual variants are both meaningful and viable

75% are spelling errors or differences in these 400,000 don’t effect meaning of the text at all with the majority being about the spelling of a word. There are many different Verb and noun forms in ancient Greek that could be written with or without a final ‘N’. The greek letter for an ‘n’ was a ‘nou’ so a scholar call these movable ‘nou’s’. 

Wallace compares it to examples such as this in terms of understanding:

“Let me give an illustration of the kind of mistakes that you’ll get in some of these early manuscripts that are not intentional but can easily be detected. If someone said to you, just as the preamble to the constitution says “we the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect onion” you’d say “wait a minute it’s not onion, it’s union! You made a mistake you wrote ‘o’ instead of ‘u’ a nobody would know that, that’s not going to be a thing where we’re wondering if they meant cucumber. We know it means union and though that’s the kind of mistakes we get in these early papyri. And so they’re easily fixable and what happens is the next generation of scribes typically fixes those kinds mental farts if you will. They didn’t quite get it right and they know what the problem was”.

Daniel B. Wallace, Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary

These types of changes were orthographic errors (like Colour vs color, geographical location differences), Homonyms (when the reader said one word, but the scribe wrote a homonym: a word that sounds the same but means something different and is spelt differently) and Deliberate changes (clarifications or intended corrections by scribes. Their intention wouldn’t be to corrupt the changes but to clarify something in the text for the reader).

Dan Wallace notes that the spelling differences (0.06 total% go the text) could happen because there was no spelling dictionary that said “here’s how you spell words” in fact John was a very creative speller. In the space of 8 verses in John 9 he spells the exact same verb in 3 different ways in 3 verses. Spelling is not an issue that affects anything, we can’t bring our modern grammatical standards to an ancient language.

15% of the variations in Greek synonyms and transpositions cannot even be translated. Then there are minor differences such as synonyms or a definite article with a proper name (they have no effect on translation). There are also errors we have determined were not in the original text.

9% do effect meaning of the text but are from very late documents and are resolved by looking at earlier manuscripts through the process of textual criticism.

Less than 1% (⅕ of 1% according to Wallace) do effect meaning of the text and are from early manuscripts but none of these variants actually challenge or effect essential christian doctrines which are displayed in numerous other places in the New Testament. Some will find the fact it’s not 100% disturbing, but its key to say no christian doctrine, no ethical mandate, no command for christian living or belief depends on any disputed text. 

“Of the hundreds of thousands of textual variants that we actually have, the smallest group are those which are both meaningful and viable. It’s less than 1/5th of 1% of all textual variants. Yet these are the ones non-Christians always hear about, the ones sceptics talk about, the ones that make the news because they’re so interesting and seem to destroy the Christian faith. It’s a very small fraction”.

Daniel B. Wallace, Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary [paraphrased] – Film: The God Who Speaks

Conclusion

We began with Bart (bad Bart) and we’ll end with Bart (good Bart). In the appendix to Misquoting Jesus, tucked away in the paperback version only is this response when he is asked why he is in disagreement with his mentor Bruce Metzger. He responds to the shock of the reader who’ve been swimming in Bad Bart theology

“The position I argue for in “Misquoting Jesus does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament”.

Misquoting Jesus, p252

“This is the guy Whose works Muslims and atheists are basing their wild claims that the orthodox have so corrupted the text that is must not have been orthodox at all originally. They don’t know what they’re talking about, but they’re basing it on Dr. Ehrman’s work. He does know what he’s talking about and I happen to disagree with him about a number of things, but I don’t disagree with him over this. In fact in our three debates, at the end of each debate I say “by the way I think you agree with me Bart the central Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants and I put this screen up (quote Bart Ehrman’s book stating this fact). He’s never disputed it. He said it, it’s in print. He can’t deny himself”. 


Daniel Wallace, Fragments of Truth documentary

So absolute scepticism is undue, we can be very sure based on all the evidence we have what the original says. It’s either in the text, or in the footnotes, it hasn’t escaped our view.

James White in a lecture poignantly asks this of the critic 

“The onus is on the sceptic, the New Testament sets the standard in providing clear evidence of its trustworthiness. If that is not enough, is it possible the sceptic has set a standard that is unreasonable? And if so, why?”

James White

And this same question could also be asked of the Christian, have they set a standard that never existed but has been put onto the text that we need immaculate English? Or French? Or even perfect Ancient Greek? Scholars have noted that even the New Testament sometimes quotes from the Hebrew Old Testament and other times from the Septuagint. The intention is not in the source, but what it says and why. When it says that the New Testament is inspired, where does that say we need every Greek letter? Is not every meaning and teaching more important? This is what has been considered by New Testament scholars.

Variation examples

1 Thessalonians 2:7

It is either

  1. …We were “gentle” among you
  2. ..we were “little children” among you.

The difference in Greek between the two is one letter and both fit in well with the context

Romans 5:1

It is either

  1. “Let us” have peace with God
  2. “We” have peace with God

The difference is one letter in Greek and both make sense in the context.

1 John 5:7

Everyone knows this passage is a later insert and Christians don’t need it anyway

“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”

It was a late addition that came in from the Latin and is not in any Greek manuscript. This verse doesn’t really help us with the trinity as it seems to be trying to do as it doesn’t explain the doctrine or the nature of each member. It is so vague it could be used to support Arianism or Modalism heresies. Early Church Father argued for the trinity without the need for this verse (for example, Gregory the Wonderworker, Novatian, Tertullian, Pope Dionysius & Hippolytus of Rome).

Removing this verse doesn’t do anything for the trinity.

John 1:18

some manuscripts say 

  1. “the only Son” 

Or

  1. “the only God” 

Scholars note that it would simply mean culturally he who was God himself. Does either reading change Christian doctrine? No John affirms Jesus is God in several places and that he is the son of God (John 1:14 1:34; 3:16-18; 20:31 in several places (John 1:1; 8:58; 20:28).

Matthew 24:36

Some early manuscripts omit the line “nor the son”. If this is omitted is still doesn’t affect Christian doctrine. The parallel reading found in Mark 13:32 has no textual doubt from early manuscripts and mentions “nor the son”. Plus Matthew 24:36 still says “Only the father knows” meaning the son wouldn’t in its use of Only.

Mark 1:41

some early manuscripts (Codex Bezae) say Jesus moved with anger to heal the leper, not that he moved “with compassion”. Some scholars do not believe anger was in the original reading, however some hold anger is the original reading..is this a problem even if this is true? No, there are other passages in Mark depict Jesus expressing anger (Mark 3:5; 10:14) and there is no variation with them in manuscripts. There is nothing inconsistent with a Jesus who gets angry anyway (Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-24) and Jesus being angry might make more sense in the passage. 

Prior to this Jesus is preaching in the synagogue and then after this healing took place in public. A leper was considered ritually unclean. Anyone in contact with a leper is considered unclean and had to go into the wilderness and we see this in v45 of the same chapter. Having to heal the leper publically could have stalled his ministry and Jesus asking the leper to keep it unknown. So it being made public could well have made Jesus angry, this isn’t a textual problem. That’s a scenario that’s entirely plausible.

“Becoming angry only strengthens the image we see of Jesus in this gospel by making it wholly consistent with the other texts that speak of his anger. It doesn’t significantly alter the picture we have of Jesus but instead strengthens what Mark says elsewhere.

Bock & Wallace, Dethroning Jesus, p67

Hebrews 2:9

Most manuscripts say Jesus died by the Grace of God, however, 3 from 10th century say he died “apart from God”. Many early church fathers (Origen Theodore, Theodoret of Mopsuestia, Ambrose, Fulgentius & Jerome) seem to affirm this reading, as well as a few later translated manuscripts. How does this affect christian doctrine? Some passages say Christs death was given to us by the grace of God (Romans 5:15; Ephesians 2:5; Galatians 2:2) Others say Jesus died apart from God (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Strong cases can be made for either reading. Either way, the variant does not affect christian doctrine as both readings are covered elsewhere in the New Testament.

The problemchild texts

There are two passages that are ultimately the cause of the controversy, the one’s everyone’s interested in talking about, and they are the long ending of Mark and the woman caught in adultery in John’s Gospel.

Ending of Mark

All ancient copies of Mark agree on Mark 16:1-8 but it seems strange to end there for modern ears. The later verses were added in the medieval era. Mark’s gospel most emphasises the failure of the disciples and this gospel coming out would’ve been to people who’d known about Jesus’ resurrection. If Mark was written as tradition goes in the 60’s to Christians as persecution was heating up, there would have been those who failed Jesus, those who felt like giving up. They could have taken comfort that even the original closest disciples of Jesus had their moments. Yet Jesus was able to continue using them. 

The later verses added add the resurrection (which is present in the other gospels); the great commission (Matthew); and then a strange ending on healing and exorcisms and…snake handling?! And deadly venoms?! (Not in the other Gospels). The history of the 20th century in the appalachian mountains is rife with small rural KJV only congregations that practice snake handling and venom drinking and all of them sooner or later had fatalities. We should be glad we don’t have to defend such insertions into the text.

Woman caught in adultery John 7:53 – 8:11

It is generally agreed this event probably happened, even liberal sceptical scholars like Bart Ehrman say this is probably something that happened, it aligns with his teaching and adds nothing new. There’s no one in the first century Jewish world that we know of who would have had such a lenient approach to a person caught in such a situation. If Jesus didn’t say this, who on earth would? That’s the question some have tried and failed to answer in the first century context.

It’s probably true, but certainly unlikely in the original John’s gospel. It doesn’t appear in all the oldest manuscripts. Sometimes it appears at the end of John or the middle of Luke or the end of Luke. It’s the story of a homeless story looking for a place to exist. Some scribes felt it was too important not to include. So such a text is spotted by textual critics, it stands out and can be moved into the footnotes, or, many Bibles bracket the text with a note saying it’s not in the early manuscripts.

Scholarly take

Craig Evans sees the passage in John doesn’t sound like John and the same can be said for Mark:

“There’s no way that this has slipped under the radar, it’s caught. We go back to our earliest text and the passage in John for example just isn’t there. And scholars note that the language in the passage doesn’t sound much like Johns language. And when we look at the ending of Mark some of the same reservations are registered there too”.

Craig Evans, Fragments of Truth documentary

Would we lack anything if these passages were removed? Daniel Wallace responds:

“If we didn’t have these two passages what would we be lacking? The same things that are taught about Jesus like the story of the woman caught in adultery, that he forgives sin, we see many times in the gospels. If that were the only place we had him forgiving someone’s sins then we’d be in trouble. Mark 2 for example, the paralytic whose dropped down through the roof of Peters house. Jesus tells him his sins are forgiven. So we have those kind of things. We have parallels of the kind of person Jesus was already seen elsewhere. And in Mark 16, the kind of things that Jesus does we see in that passage really are probably pulled largely from the Books of Acts and Luke and Matthew by somebody in the first half of the second century adding that to Mark’s gospel. So there’s really nothing lost in that”.


Daniel B. Wallace, Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary 

Is any fundamental Christian belief in the balance based on these texts?

“And so in the two places in 27 books, or a total of about 20,000 lines of Greek text as the whole New Testament would be written out, only two passages of any length contain any doubt. But there is no doubt because the manuscript evidence is so substantial and so early, we can identify them as ringers, they really don’t belong in the text and you could add to that 2-3 passages with either a verse and a half —2 verses at most and it’s the same thing”.


Craig Evans

Textual critic Bruce Metzger remarked that there were only 40 lines out of 20,000 where there was any doubt at all about how it should originally read and out of those 40 lines, they don’t involve one single significant Christian teaching. 

“It needs to be stressed that these passages change no fundamental doctrine, no core belief even though much emotional baggage is attached to them. The probability of them not being part of the original text has been understood for more than a century. Yet no theological formulations have been altered”. 

Bock & Wallace, Dethroning Jesus, p64

In just about any study bible will tell you these are additions, this is not hidden away. No disputed variants are hidden from Christians, they’re in your bibles, just often overlooked.

Every letter?

so do variants pose any problem in themselves? Arn’t we supposed to have the inerrant word of God preserving every letter for all time? Some modern Christians have claimed as such, but this view of scripture was not even kept by the church fathers. The real purpose of the New Testament was to preserve the faith handed down to them form the apostles, not to create an inerrant relic as some have turned the Bible into. The apostles didn’t apply this standard. Most of the time the apostles quote from either the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT) and sometimes the Septuagint (LXX). They didn’t expect every single word to be perfect for it to be an authoritative witness being handed down.

Here are a few examples of this practice

  1. Luke quotes Psalm 117:27 is quoted in Luke 13:35 (LXX reading) and then again in Luke 19:38 (MT reading)
  2. Hebrews quotes Psalm 2:7 in Hebrews 5:5 (LXX) and also in Hebrews 1:5 (MT)

The point of the New Testament is to preserve the message of Christ and what he did for us, and it has been with a 99.8% accuracy. It is the gospel that saves, not perfect copying. So has the Gospel been preserved? Undoubtedly, every core teaching and belief? Easily, numerous times in numerous places. 

“Let me put it this way: What did Peter and the original followers of Jesus proclaim following the experience of the resurrection? … Peter and the rest of the apostles proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, for them this was the good news. This was conclusive evidence that God was at work in the ministry and the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Peter didn’t stand up and proclaim “Men of Israel I have good news; the Bible is verbally inspired and therefore inerrant and, moreover, the Gospels can be harmonised.”… it was the reality of the resurrection and it’s impact on those who heard and responded to it in faith that propelled the New Testament forward, not mistake free “scripture””.

Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus, p28-29

Example manuscript chain evidence

In some places we can see the exact chain of copying a manuscript received, as seems likely with P75 (the predecessor) and Codex Vaticanus (the latter document)

Bock & Wallace suggest

“Two of the oldest manuscripts we have, P75 & Codex Vaticanus have exceptionally strong agreement and they are amongst the most accurate manuscripts that agree today. P75 is about 125 years older than Vaticanus, yet it is not an ancestor of Vaticanus, instead, Vaticanus was copied of an earlier manuscript, P75.” (See Porter 1962, 363-76; 1967, 71-80).

This chain brings Wallace to state

“The combination of these two manuscripts in a particular reading must surely go back to the very beginning of the second century”

Bock & Wallace, Dethroning Jesus, p47

Benefit of not having autographs

There’s an other side to the debate often less expressed in popular discussion and that is the benefit of not having the Autographs.Think about it, if we had one document, we’d be hoping for the best, but we have 5,700 that bring us to 99.8% accuracy? Having more carries more weight and when it has this level of accuracy, the many favours the one. For each verse in another manuscript gives attestation to that verse with many having hundreds of attestation 

Michael Kruger contributes to the discussion by pointing out really the obvious thats often missed. If Christianity is based on the autograph, how could you ever leave first century? Lock the manuscripts in a secret bunker to protect them? 

“What good is a belief in inerrancy if this only applies to the original autographs? We don’t have the original autographs so how can we believe in inerrancy? But I think this objection makes a fundamental mistake. It assumes that when we talk about the original text it thinks of it only as a physical object. As if we have to have the original author pass to have access to the original texts, and since those physical objects are lost we don’t have access to the original texts. But the text itself, the words of God themselves are not not a necessary object you can put in a museum. The words of God can be preserved in other ways beyond just the autographs, and we think that’s what happened”.

Michael J Kruger, Professor of Early Christianity, Reformed Theological Seminary – Film: The God Who Speaks

Accusation: Some sceptics claim you can never know what the original text says is to claim you 

Response:

  1. This is Self refuting — You have to claim some special knowledge that everyone else lacks and know that it is truly lost, but how would you know that?
  2. It also undermines all of historical investigation
    1. If we can never know, what’s the point of any academic historical study? Why don’t we all just stop?
    2. All historical or even scientific investigation can never yield 100% certainty. Our goal is to arrive at the most logical and parsimonious explanation which is what we do in other areas of investigation
    3. Why set the bar to an unreasonable standard with the New Testament if you’re not going to do it with other areas as well?
    4. Scholars argue the originals are still in the manuscript tradition and from this (textual criticism), we can rebuild what the originals said

Another objection: extrapolation — the highest rate of variants is in our earliest manuscripts from the 2nd and 3rd century

Ehrman suggests that prior to the establishment of the canon at the councils of Hippo and Carthage in the late 390’s it was quite probably there was a higher frequency of textual variants than afterwards. And the further back you went from the end of the 4th century, the more frequency in variation there would be. This is partially true, There is a slightly greater frequency of textual variants, but it’s the same frequency in the 380’s as in the 150’s AD. 

Response:

  1. It is an association fallacy — the scribal habits of copyists from the 2nd and 3rd century doesn’t necessarily apply to earliest copyists
  2. This objection also discounts the originals and 1st generation copies would still be around to cross check for accuracy during this time and particularly in the 1st century. Many of the apostles and members of the first church would also still be around to prevent doctrinal changes
  3. This objection gets us nowhere. If we extrapolate variation in our manuscripts backwards, we also have to extrapolate the percentages based on what we do have. So 0% of doctrinal changes is still 0% based on estimated increases on what we have. So this attack doesn’t really help the critics

There’s no evidence of a growing trajectory the further back you get.

Accusation: didn’t the earliest generations of Christians not consider these documents to be sacred? So they would not have been careful with copying

  1. This objection is silly because even copyists of a secular document were careful enough to make sure it was accurately transmitted. This was not a frivolous task for anyone
  2. We can also challenge the accusation the earliest Christians did not consider these words scriptural or not
    1. Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr quote the New Testament several times. Polycarp even refers to the letter of Ephesians as scripture and Justin Martyr refers to the New Testament writings as the memoirs of the apostles
    2. So there’s evidence in early christian writings that they consider the NT documents as authoritative and worthy of respect
  3. If you want to claim the NT has been changed you need evidence, claims without evidence are worthless, baseless conjectures
    1. NT documents were spread all over the ancient world and we’ve recovered several manuscripts from the second and third century and in various regions during persecution and places where Christians had no political power. There was never any central control over the NT and no ability to produce drastic changes
    2. Manuscripts lost to that time period have been rediscovered today and none of them contradict ANY doctrine, there are no doctrinal changes 


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