Receive the Word

The Moody experience was intense. I decided to major in Bible theology, which meant taking a lot of biblical study and systematic theology courses. Only one perspective was taught in these courses, subscribed to by all the professors (they had to sign a statement) and by all the students (we did as well): the Bible is the inerrant word of God. It contains no mistakes. It is inspired completely and in its very words—“verbal, plenary inspiration.” All the courses I took presupposed and taught this perspective; any other was taken to be misguided or even heretical. Some, I suppose, would call this brainwashing. Misquoting Jesus (p. 4) So rather than actually having the inspired words of the autographs (i.e., the originals) of the Bible, what we have are the error-ridden copies of the autographs. Misquoting Jesus (p. 5). 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, evidently, in thousands of ways. Misquoting Jesus (p. 7) I’ve indicated, already at Wheaton I had begun to question some of the foundational aspects of my commitment to the Bible as the inerrant word of God. That commitment came under serious assault in my detailed studies at Princeton. Misquoting Jesus (p. 8). Bold mine.

Ehrman seems to start with the belief that if the originals were inspired of God and fully inerrant, it must remain that way, in order to remain inerrant. He seems to be asking, ‘if only the originals were inspired, and the copies were not inspired, and we do not have the originals, how are we to be certain of any passage of Scripture?’ In other words, God would never allow the inspired inerrant Word to suffer copying errors. Why would he perform the miracle of inspiring the message to be fully inerrant, and not follow up with the miracle of inspiring the copyist, to keep it inerrant? First, we must note that God has not given us the specifics of every decision he has made in reference to man. If we start the, ‘why did God not do this or do that,’ where would it end? For example, why did God just not produce the books himself, and miraculously deliver them to persons such as Moses? Why did he not use angelic messengers to pen the message, or produce the message miraculously? God has chosen not to tell us why he did not inspire the copyists, so it remains an unknown. However, I would contend that if one can restore the text to its original wording through the work of textual criticism, to an exact representation thereof, you have, in essence, the originals.

In the end, what we do know is that the Jewish copyists and later Christian copyists were not infallible like the original writers. The original writers were inspired by “Holy Spirit,” while the copyists were guided by “Holy Spirit.” However, do we not have a treasure-load of evidence from centuries of copies? Regardless of the recopying, do we not have the Bible in a reliable critical text and trustworthy translations, with both improving all the time? It was only inevitable that imperfect copyists, who were not under inspiration, would have errors creep into the text. However, the thousands of copies that we do have, these enable the textual scholars to trace these errors. How? Different copyists made different errors. Therefore, the textual scholar compares the work of different copyists. He is able to identify their mistakes.

A Simple Example

What if 100 persons were asked or hired to make a handwritten copy of Matthew’s Gospel, with 18,345 words. These persons fit in one of four categories as writers: (1) struggles to write, and has no experience as a document maker, (2) a skilled document maker [recorder of events, wills, business, certificates, etc.], (3) a trained copyist of literature, and (4) the professional copyist. There is little doubt that these copyists would make some copying errors. However, it would be impossible that they would all make the same errors. If a trained textual scholar with many years of religious education, including textual studies, and decades of experience, were to compare these  100 documents carefully, he could determine which are erroneous, and restore the text to its original form, even if he had never seen that original.

The textual scholars of the last 250 years, especially the last 50 years have had over 5,750 Greek manuscripts to work with, several of them dating back to the second century C.E. Some of these textual scholars were very skilled in their craft, and to study the life of any of the hundreds that have lived throughout this era, would impress on us that we have nothing short of a mirror reflection of the original in our critical text (Greek New Testament, 5th Revised Edition[1] and Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament 28th edition),[2] namely, an exact representation.

Hundreds of scholars throughout the last three centuries have produced what we might call a master text, by way of lifetimes of hard work and careful study. Are there a few places where we are not 100 percent certain? Yes, of course. However, we are considering merely a handful of places in a text that contains 138,020 words. In addition, in these places, the alternative reading is in the footnote. Ehrman’s expression ‘error-ridden copies’ is a bit misplaced, and certainly misleading indeed, because we have many manuscripts that were copied by professional copyists that are just the opposite, almost error free. So, when he says ‘we only have error-ridden’ copies, he is misleading us by the emphatic expression on two fronts. First, there are many copies that are almost error free and negates his “only.” Second, textual scholarship can easily identify 99 percent of those errors that only make up 25 percent of the text, as 75 percent of the text is error free.

400,000 to 500,000 Variants in the Manuscripts

With this abundance of evidence, what can we say about the total number of variants known today? Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more! We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all. Perhaps, as I indicated earlier, it is best simply to leave the matter in comparative terms. There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. Misquoting Jesus (pp. 89-90)

Ehrman has some favorite layman ways of expressing the problems that he uses without qualification, in every interview I have seen of him before a lay audience (which includes seminary students), he presents one or more of his favorites, without qualifying them:

  • Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more!
  • There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
  • We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.
  • We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.
  • In the early Christian centuries, scribes were amateurs and as such were more inclined to alter the texts they copied.
  • We could go on nearly forever talking about specific places in which the texts of the New Testament came to be changed, either accidentally or intentionally.
  • The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book.

It is true that Ehrman has said that, the majority of the manuscript variants are not substantial. However, from my observation, this comes when he is in front of scholars that would know otherwise. I would argue that in a larger number of cases he is focusing the laypersons on a large number of variants and there being substantial. Each of the above favorite snippets by Ehrman left unexplained are an exaggeration, misinformation, misleading, and just a failure to be truthful. Many layperson-churchgoers have been spiritually shipwrecked in their faith by such unexplained hype. What the uninformed person hears is that we can never get back to the originals or even close, that there are hundreds of thousands of significant variants that have so scarred the text, we no longer have the Word of God, and it is merely the word of man. How such a knowledgeable man cannot know the impact, his words is having is beyond this writer.

How to Count Textual Variants

SEE How to Count Textual Variants

Now, let us return to the mindset of Bart Ehrman. Let us look at what he says to a person, who asked him a sincere Bible question in a recent debate with Daniel Wallace. Since the debate, Wallace has called him on his words, and Ehrman offers a reason that is really no reason at all, for which Wallace correctly informs him that his words have an impact.[3]

Daniel Wallace Calling Ehrman out on His Words

During the Q&A time in our debate, someone from the audience asked a question of you about what it would take for you to regard our copies of Mark to be “trustworthy.” You responded:

Well, if we had early copies—if we had copies of Mark—suppose next week there’s an archaeological find… say it’s in Rome, and we have reason to think that these ten manuscripts that were discovered were all copied within a week of the original copy [sic] of Mark and they disagree in, uh, .001 percent of their textual variation, then I would say ‘that’s good evidence!’ And that’s precisely what we don’t have.

Ehrman’s Weak Reply

I’m sorry you took an off-the-cuff comment of mine with intentional exaggeration to be a literal statement of my standards of evidence. (Why do you do that??) Of course, I didn’t calculate in my mind that I would require one-millionth deviation for it to be good evidence. Good grief!

Wallace Informs Ehrman How Words Impact

Regarding your post on the TC-list, you’re saying that before more than 1400 people who were deciding whether the manuscript evidence was at all reliable—people who sincerely and earnestly wanted to get straightforward answers by both of us—you intentionally exaggerated your standard when folks were hanging on your every word? To call this off-the-cuff is unwarranted. The individual was asking a serious question, and you gave no hint in your mannerism or tone that you were giving anything but a straightforward answer. Why do you do that?

You have a responsibility when making public statements to be more accurate than sensationalist in your assessment. I’ve talked to several folks about your comment; no one thought you were intentionally exaggerating. As a master teacher, you know how important clear communication is.

Wallace has offered the truth of the matter here, words have an impact, if you do not qualify them, they can cause serious damage. Ehrman has a tendency to offer what I perceive to be as sarcastic jokes during debates. I believe he does this at times, to get the audience laughing so he can sidestep his inability to offer a response to something that has been asked of him. He has debated many scholars at present, and this writer feels that he has not done well with any of them because his information in such popular books for laypersons does not hold up under the scrutiny of textual scholars that possess the same equal level of knowledge.

Concession or Concealment?

In fact, most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another. Scribes could be incompetent: it is important to recall that most of the copyists in the early centuries were not trained to do this kind of work but were simply the literate members of their congregations who were (more or less) able and willing. Misquoting Jesus (p. 55)

One might think that the above is Ehrman’s concession, where he is going to help the reader finally, when he says, “most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders.” You might have thought that Ehrman was going to say thereafter that ‘these types of blunders are easy to recognize and correct, giving us confidence that most of the changes are easily fixed.’ If you thought that, you were sadly mistaken because this concession is only a means to propagate the ‘incompetence of the scribes.’ As you saw earlier in this book and will see later, this is not the case.

Ehrman’s Missing Information on the Textual Variants

As he has already conceded, most variants are accidental. He also was kind enough to help us appreciate just what kind of accidents we are considering. However, this is as far as Ehrman takes us, for we are not told that they are trivial and easily resolved. Let us list some of the most common variants.

MISREPRESENTING JESUS_Third Edition

Division of Words: As we learned early on, the manuscripts were written without any division between words (GODISNOWHERE is either ‘God is no where,’ or God is now here.) Therefore, it was quite easy to come up with the wrong division.

Similar Endings: The scribe looks away from the exemplar[4] to pen the word or phrase, and when he looks back, to see what is next, his eyes skip down the page to a similar ending, picking up there, leaving out what lie in between.

(Homoioteleuton) Similar Endings: Some of the Greek letters were quite similar (whether capital or lower case), making them easy to confuse.

(Haplography) Single Writing: The scribe writes a letter or word once when it should have been written twice.

(Dittography) Double Writing: The scribe writes a letter or word twice when it should have been written once.

(Metathesis) Change of Place: The scribe accidentally changes the order of the letters or words.

Sight Issues: A scribe or lector has poor eyesight, and so he would have found it difficult to distinguish between the Greek letters. This would be especially true if the exemplar he was working from had not been written with care.

Memory Issues: The scribe looks at his exemplar and takes a clause into his mind, and in the process of looking away to perform the task of copying it, he struggles with his recall, and writes any of the following: a synonym for one of the words, or alters a couple of the words, transposed letters in one of the words, inserts words from a parallel passage.

Hearing Issues: The scribe possesses faulty hearing, and when the lector[5] is reading the words from the exemplar, which is to be taken down in the scribe’s copy, the pronunciation is unclear, causing the scribe to choose the wrong word at times. (An English example being ‘there’ and ‘their.’) In addition, early on, Greek vowels and diphthongs were pronounced alike, which could cause confusion.

Writing Issues: The scribe here would make mistakes that are similar to the ones under the hearing issues. The error is not derived from what he saw in his exemplar, but in what he penned in his copy.

In the beginning, I had asked you to keep the phrase “accuracy of statement” in mind, because there are many ways that one can express the information, leading the person to believe or think one thing, which is completely not the case. We have seen that thus far and there is more ahead.

[1] The UBS5 is designed for translators and students.

[2] NA28 is designed for scholarly research.

[3] textualcriticism@yahoogroups.com

[4] A master copy of a text, from which further copies were made from

[5] A lector is a reader of an exemplar text to a room full of scribes, who are taking down and producing manuscript copies.