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This article addresses the subtle ways Bible critics, particularly Agnostic Bart D. Ehrman, use to discredit God’s Word. From exploiting textual variations to presenting established facts as shocking revelations, these detractors continually attempt to undermine the credibility of the Holy Scriptures. The article provides an insightful critique of their methodology, drawing on sound scholarship and an in-depth understanding of Bible history.
The Bible has consistently faced antagonists throughout history. Previously, these adversaries played into Satan’s agenda through various means, including burning Bibles, persecuting and executing translators, publishers, and mere Bible readers. Currently, skeptics and nonbelievers continue to contribute to Satan’s aim, albeit more discreetly.
A prime example of this is the book “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why” by Agnostic Bart D. Ehrman, published on February 6, 2007. Aimed at creating a sensational impact, this book highlights well-known scholarly consensus as breaking news. For instance, it emphasizes that Mark 16:9-20, which includes details such as believers handling snakes and consuming poison without harm, is not part of the original text. It further argues that John did not write John 7:53-8:11 (the story of the adulterous woman) and that 1 John 5:7 is an added passage. This book also lists several other biblical texts as dubious or not original.
Following these examples, the book suggests a scholarly agreement on approximately 400,000 textual variations in the New Testament. An ordinary reader might erroneously conclude that these represent significant alterations, akin to John 7:53-8:11 or Mark 16:9-20. However, this is misleading. It’s not feasible for the Bible to contain 400,000 such fraudulent passages, nor for the New Testament to hold 400,000 erroneous texts akin to 1 John 5:7. Why? Because the New Testament only comprises about 138,162 words.
The purpose of Ehrman’s book, under the guise of new and shocking revelations, is to cast doubt on the Bible’s credibility by focusing on long-established facts regarding certain counterfeit passages. As early as 275 years ago, Johann Jakob Griesbach, in his critical edition of the Greek New Testament, already acknowledged such passages as not originally part of the Bible.
Ehrman’s book misrepresents the evidence consistently, showing a misuse of scholarship. He frequently employs certain phrases, without qualification, to exaggerate the problem:
- “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.”
Specifically, Ehrman’s claim that “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament” can be misleading for those unfamiliar with the subject, making them believe there are more variations than words. In reality, these 400,000 variants are found across 5,898 Greek New Testament manuscripts.
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, and 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 sometimes does this to get the audience laughing so he can sidestep his inability to respond 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.
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 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 lies in between.
 A master copy of a text, from which further copies were made from
(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, 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, insert words from a parallel passage.
Hearing Issues: The scribe possesses faulty hearing, and when the lector 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.
 A lector is a reader of an exemplar text to a room full of scribes who are taking down and producing manuscript copies.
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.
Elsewhere, 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.
The Impact of Scribal Errors in the Transmission of the New Testament
 What lies below is from another article with this heading title as its title. I saw no need to reinvent the wheel.
Despite the inevitability of such scribal errors, it’s crucial to note that these discrepancies are usually minor and do not significantly alter the core theological teachings of the New Testament. The process of textual criticism has been invaluable in identifying and rectifying these mistakes, thereby aiding in our pursuit of the most accurate rendering of the original text.
Textual critics utilize principles such as lectio difficilior potior (the more difficult reading is the stronger) and lectio brevior potior (the shorter reading is the stronger) to evaluate variant readings. They also consider the manuscript evidence – the age, geographical distribution, and textual family of the manuscripts that carry a particular reading.
Given this, the study of scribal errors serves not as an indictment against the trustworthiness of the New Testament but rather as a testament to the scrupulous care and devotion of the early Christian community in preserving and restoring the words of the New Testament. Despite the human element, it has not been left to chaos or uncertainty.
The accuracy and integrity of the current New Testament text are not the result of a miraculous event, as some King James Version Onlyists (KJVO) assert. Instead, the painstaking work of textual scholars and the diligent efforts of copyists over the centuries have contributed to the preservation and restoration of the New Testament.
The transmission of the New Testament is a testament to the countless scribes who meticulously copied the manuscripts, often under challenging circumstances. These dedicated individuals played an instrumental role in preserving the Scriptures for future generations. Despite the inherent risk of scribal errors, their work has been remarkable in maintaining the essential content of the texts.
Building on this foundation, textual scholars such as J. J. Griesbach, Karl Lachmann, Konstantin von Tischendorf, B. F. Westcott, F. J. A. Hort, Eberhard Nestle, Kurt and Barbara Aland, and Bruce M. Metzger have laboriously compared and evaluated thousands of manuscripts. Their meticulous work has significantly contributed to reconciling variances, determining the most probable original readings, and restoring the New Testament text with impressive accuracy.
Therefore, while it’s true that scribal errors do exist in the transmission process, the tireless work of textual critics has ensured that we have a New Testament that very closely aligns with the original writings. The claim that the New Testament was miraculously restored overlooks the profound and rigorous work done by generations of scholars and scribes, whose commitment to preserving and restoring the text provides us with a reliable and accurate New Testament today.
Furthermore, the wealth of manuscript evidence for the New Testament far surpasses any other ancient text. We possess over 5,800+ Greek New Testament manuscripts, in addition to thousands more in Latin and other ancient languages. To put this in perspective, the Iliad by Homer, one of the most famous works of ancient Greece, survives in around 1,800 manuscripts, none of which are originals.
When discrepancies arise, they often reside in minor details, not in major doctrinal matters. An example of this is Mark 1:2-3 (ESV). Some early manuscripts read “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,” while others have “As it is written in the prophets.” The difference, while real, does not affect Christian doctrine; both versions affirm the fulfillment of prophecy in the ministry of John the Baptist.
Christian apologists and even some text scholars love to say, “While scribal errors in the transmission of the New Testament do exist, their impact does not detract from the integrity of the message conveyed.” This is absolutely true, but sadly, they stop there. While this is true, they always omit the most important fact. They really need to incorporate what I am about to say into their data because they seldom mention these facts.
They have not fully captured the full scope of the meticulous work that textual scholars have done. The laborious efforts by renowned scholars such as J. J. Griesbach, Karl Lachmann, Konstantin von Tischendorf, B. F. Westcott, F. J. A. Hort, Eberhard Nestle, Kurt and Barbara Aland, and Bruce M. Metzger indeed have significantly contributed to restoring the New Testament text to its original form.
In the course of their work spanning over 450 years, these textual critics have striven to reconcile the various manuscript discrepancies, bringing us closer to the original autographs than ever before. For example, the 1881 edition of the Greek New Testament by Westcott and Hort reflects an impressive degree of accuracy, with an agreement of 99.5% to the 2012 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament.
Moreover, the discovery of the papyri in the 20th century validated and reinforced these scholars’ rigorous work, underscoring the accuracy of Westcott and Hort’s earlier endeavors. With the combination of the Westcott and Hort Greek New Testament and the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, we have, as you rightly pointed out, a New Testament text that has been restored to a remarkable 99.99%.
It is essential to understand, then, that while scribal errors do exist in the transmission of the New Testament, they in no way detract from the integrity of the message conveyed. In fact, thanks to the meticulous scholarship of numerous individuals dedicated to textual criticism, we can be confident that the New Testament we have today very closely mirrors the original writings.