Bart Ehrman, James White, & Textual Criticism


It’s been a while since my last post and I figured I would post something involving transmission of the bible, something I have been doing a little study into lately. This subject is a little difficult to read up on but extremely rewarding because of how it impacts your view on the bible. When you really know how things were transmitted it helps you also to defend against the many attacks that are waged against the authority of the bible. First, I will show some of this criticism by displaying a section from the book Jesus Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman, a major critic of Christianity.

Even though Misquoting Jesus seemed to stir up a bit of a hornet’s nest, at least among conservative evangelical Christians, its overarching theses were almost entirely noncontroversial. I would summarize them as follows:

  • We don’t have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament.
  • The copies we have were made much later, in most instances many centuries later.
  • We have thousands of these copies, in Greek—the language in which of all the New Testament books were originally written.
  • All of these copies contain mistakes—accidental slips on the part of the scribes who made them or intentional alterations by scribes wanting to change the text to make it say what they wanted it to mean (or thought that it did mean).
  • We don’t know how many mistakes there are among out surviving copies, but they appear to number in the hundreds of thousands. It is safe to put the matter in comparative terms: there are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
  • The vast majority of these mistakes are completely insignificant, showing us nothing more than that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today.
  • But some of the mistakes matter—a lot. Some of them affect the interpretation of a verse, a chapter, or an entire book. Others reveal the kinds of concerns that were affecting scribes, who sometimes altered the text in light of debates and controversies going on in their own surroundings.
  • The task of the textual critic is both to figure out what the author of a text actually wrote and to understand why scribes modified the text (to help us understand the context within which scribes were working).
  • Despite the fact that scholars have been working diligently at these tasks for three hundred years, there continue to be heated differences of opinion. There are some passages where serious and very smart scholars disagree about what the original text said, and there are some places where we will probably never know what the original text said.

The conservative evangelical response to my book surprised me a bit. Some of these critics criticized Misquoting Jesus for “misleading” people—as if facts such as those I have just cited could lead someone down a slippery slope toward perdition. A number of critics indicated that they didn’t much appreciate my tone. And a whole lot of them wanted to insist that the facts I laid out do not require anyone to lose their faith in the bible as the inspired word of God.

That last point is one with which I might take issue: there are certain views of the inspiration of Scripture, such as the one I had pounded into me as a late teenager, that do not stand up well to the facts of textual criticism. For most Christians, who don’t have a conservative evangelical view like the one I had, these textual facts can be interesting, but there is nothing in them to challenge their faith, which is built on something other than having the very words that God inspired in the Bible. And I certainly never intended to lead anyone away from the Christian faith; critics who have suggested that I myself stopped being a Christian once I realized there were differences among our manuscripts are simply wrong and being ridiculous.

In any event, as I indicated, these theses themselves were almost entirely noncontroversial. Who can deny that we have thousands of manuscripts? Or hundreds of thousands of variants? Or that lots of the variants involve spelling? Or that scholars continue to debate what the original text was in lots of places? All of these statements are factually true.

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: HarperCollins. 2009. Print

As you can see, there is a little bit of a challenge to what Ehrman would call a “conservative Evangelical view.” The question is, if these facts are true about the bible, how can we trust it? Do they really destroy the veracity of the bible? Can we really know what is being said? To answer this I will enlist the help of James White, a Christian apologist and scholar. This is from the book The King James Only Controversy where James is arguing that the number of textual errors found in the copies actually allow us to trust the bible. Because of the length I will only post part of his writing now, and will later post the rest.

To Err is Human

Men make mistakes, even when they are trying really hard. The greatest baseball player still strikes out. The greatest basketball player will miss the clutch free-throw and lose a game once in a while. The best archer will sometimes fire an arrow wide of the target. To err is human.

I am sitting at a computer writing this work. The computer checks my spelling (even while I am typing!), suggests other terms, and even analyzes my grammar. It prints out exactly what I tell it to print, and nothing else. And yet, I have made mistakes already in what I have written that others have pointed out to me as they have reviewed my work. Just today I was shown a rather obvious error in a later chapter. To err is human, even when that human is computer assisted.

There are dozens and dozens of citations in this work. As I sit here copying from a book, I make errors. My eyes skip to the next line; I misspell a word; I skip a phrase, or insert a phrase that is not in the original. Copying is difficult work, even with good lighting, a fresh set of eyes, and good conditions (a cool, air-conditioned room, no major distractions, etc.). Humans make mistakes when copying things. We were not born to be copy machines.

The scribes of old made errors, too. Even the best professional scribes had bad days. They made mistakes in what they were copying, even when they were copying the Scriptures. They worked under much more difficult situations. They often worked in the cold or the heat, and their lighting was almost always inferior to a good fluorescent lamp. May of them had to work long hours at what they were doing. Fingers cramped, backs ached. You may think of one of those long essay tests from college to get a slight idea of the rigor of the work. All of these things contributed to the simple fact that there is not a single handwritten manuscript of the Bible, in Greek or Hebrew, that does not contain, somewhere, an error, an oversight, a mistake. To err is human.

What kind of mistakes did scribes make? Most errors (the technical term that is used incessantly in scholarly works is “textual variants”) were of little importance and are easily recognized today. A scribe might misspell a word. He might skip a phrase, or even a whole line, due to his eye catching a similar word, or a similar ending, somewhere else on the page as he looks back at the text he is copying (another technical term is used for this, the “exemplar”). There are all sorts of examples of this in the New Testament, as we will see when we examine textual variants in chapter 7.

Other errors had to do with hearing. In some instances a place called a scriptorium was set aside specifically for the production of manuscripts. One individual would read from the “master” document, and the others scribes would copy down what he was saying. It is easy to understand how certain kinds of mistakes could occur here. We all can imagine how the mind could wander after a few hours of listening to someone reading a text while you labor to write down what they are saying. Words that sound alike but differ in spelling could easily be substituted, and this is exactly the kind of thing that has been discovered.

Another kind of “scribal error” has to do with harmonization. Let’s say you were used to the way a particular phrase sounds in a particular passage of Scripture because your pastor uses that verse all the time in church. But let’s say that a similar phrase occurs elsewhere in Scripture—similar, but not exactly the same. As you are copying that other passage of Scripture it would be very easy to inadvertently make that passage sound like the one you are accustomed to. You might not even know you had changed anything! But this kind of harmonization is found in many, many places. We will see numerous examples of this later, but looking at at least one right now would be helpful.

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he said, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:2, NASB). This phrase early on had a part in the liturgy of the church. It was a Christian greeting, a blessing of sorts. Many people continue to use it in that way to this very day. But when writing to the Colossians, Paul was not as complete in his wording as when he wrote to the Ephesians. Instead he wrote, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Colossians 1:2, NASB).

Now place yourself in the position of a scribe who has memorized Ephesians 1:2. Each Sunday you hear “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” as you leave the worship service. It is second nature to you. Now you start making a copy of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. You start into verse 2 of chapter 1. “Grace to you and peace…” “Ah, I know this one!” you think to yourself. And so you write out the whole phrase, as you are accustomed to hearing it, and move on with verse 3. In the process, you have added an extra phrase, “and the Lord Jesus Christ,” without even knowing it. Or perhaps you look back at the original you are copying and notice that it does not say “and the Lord Jesus Christ.” “That is strange,” you might think. “It should say that! Well, the guy who copied this must have just missed it. I’ll fix it…” And so you put it in, again due to your familiarity with the same phrase but in a different context. This kind of harmonization is easy to understand, and it explains many of the most commonly cited examples of “corruption” on the part of KJV Only advocates. Indeed, this very example, Colossians 1:2 (the KJV does have the added phrase, “and the Lord Jesus Christ”), is found in nearly every KJV Only work in print as an example of an attempt to downgrade the lordship of Jesus Christ. Instead, it is a perfectly understandable mistake involving harmonization between one passage and another. The fact that all modern translations have “and the Lord Jesus Christ” at Ephesians 1:2 should certainly cause us to question anyone who would ask us to believe that there is some evil conspiracy at work behind the non-inclusion of the same phrase at Colossians 1:2. If someone is tampering with the texts, why not take out the phrase at Ephesians 1:2? We will start to sound like a broken record as we point this out over and over again.

Thousands and Thousands of Variants

You may hear someone speaking of the thousands of variants in the manuscripts of the Bible, and in one sense, they are speaking the truth, as there are thousands of variants. One number that appears often in this context is 200,000 variants in the New Testament alone! But just as it is wise to listen closely to what a politician is saying, it is wise to look closely at this claim as well. If you put ten people in a room and asked them all to copy the first five chapters of the Gospel of John, you would end up with ten “different” copies of John. In other words, no two handwritten copies would be absolutely identical to each other. Someone would skip a word that everyone else has. One person would misspell that one word that they can never get right. Someone would probably skip a line, or even a verse, especially if there were similar words at the beginning or end of the verse before and the verse after. So you would end up with a lot of variants. But would you not have ten copies of the same book? Yes, you would and by comparing all ten copies you could rather easily reproduce the text of the original, because when one person makes a mistake, the other nine are not likely to do so at the very same spot.

When people speak of huge numbers of variants, they are referring to the fact that when one manuscript has a unique spelling of a word at one point, this creates a variant over against all other manuscripts. There are currently over 3,500 manuscripts catalogued of parts of the New Testament alone. Obviously, with each one having small differences from each other, the number of “variants” becomes very high indeed. However, that does not mean that you have 5,000 different renderings of the New Testament. One can, by comparison of these many, many manuscripts, reproduce the original, just as we did above with the ten copies of the Gospel of John. Due to the fact that we are dealing with a more complex situation in the NT (the much longer period of time, the fact that we are working with copies of copies, etc.), things are not nearly as easy as our example would lead us to believe, but the principles are the same.

Taking the number mentioned above, 200,000 we first note that these variants occur in only about 10,000 places. How important are these variants? How do they impact the text? Textual scholars have answered in different ways, but with the same result. Westcott and Hort, the two men most vilified by KJV Only advocates, indicated that only about one eight of the variants had any weight, the rest being “trivialities.” This would leave the text, according to Westcott and Hort, 98.33 percent pure no matter whether one used the Textus Receptus or their own Greek text! Philip Schaff estimated that there were only 400 variants that affected the sense of the passage, and only 50 of these were actually important. He asserted that not one affected “an article of faith or a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other and undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of Scripture teaching.” The great American Greek scholar, Dr. A.T. Robertson, whose familiarity with the most intimate details of the Greek text is abundantly verified by his massive 1,454 page A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, indicated that areas of real concern regarding textual variants amounted to but “a thousandth part of the entire text.” It is because of this that Dr. B.B. Warfield could state that “the great mass of the New Testament, in other words, has been transmitted to us with no, or next to no variations.” As Dr. Gordon Fee put it:

“It is noteworthy that for most scholars over 90 percent of all the variations to the NT text are resolved, because in most instances the variant that best explains the origin of the other is also supported by the earliest and best witnesses.”

The reality is that the amount of variation between the two most extremely different manuscripts of the New Testament would not fundamentally alter the message of the Scriptures! I make this statement (1) fully aware of the wide range of textual variants in the New Testament, and (2) painfully aware of the strong attacks upon those who have made similar statements in the past. KJV Only advocates are quick to attack such statements, but I stand by it and will document its truthfulness throughout the rest of this book. The simple fact of the matter is that no textual variants in either the Old or New Testaments in any way, shape, or form materially disrupt or destroy any essential doctrine of the Christian faith. That is a fact that any semi-impartial review will substantiate.

 White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Minneapolis: Bethany House. 1995. Print.


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