Hi there! Last week we covered the trustworthiness of the Gospel's authors. Along a similar line, today we'll discuss whether or not our biblical manuscripts are accurate. Chapter 28 of Natasha Crain's Keeping Your Kids on God's Side asks, "How do we know the Bible we have today says what the authors originally wrote?" Considering that we have none of the original texts, it's an excellent question. As you probably know, what we do have access to are copies of copies of copies...on and on. So, are these copies giving us an accurate portrayal of the original texts of the Gospels? I'll briefly summarize Natasha's take on things.
Natasha first defines textual criticism as "the study of the copies of any written document whose original is unavailable, for the purpose of determining what the original said." While acknowledging that there are as many as 300,000 to 400,000 textual variants in the New Testament manuscripts, she emphasizes that this number is proportional to the extremely large number of manuscripts we have which amass to *over 20,000 manuscripts. Furthermore, one must understand the types of variants that exist to truly understand whether or not these variants affect the meaning of the texts. She offers four categories that are somewhat self-explanatory.
1) Spelling differences
2) Minor differences that don't don't affect translation
3) Differences that affect the meaning of the text but aren't viable: This type of variant might affect the meaning of the text but would not represent the original text.
4) Differences that affect the meaning of the text and are viable: Although less than 1% of the textual variants fall into this group, Natasha notes that this is the category of concern because of its potential theological implications. She offers two examples that demonstrate that Christians need not worry about NT variants, as they have no bearing upon Christianity's core doctrines:
a) Most of us are probably familiar with the story of the adulterous woman in John 7:53-8:11 in which Jesus tells her accusers, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). The majority of scholars believe that this story was not in the original text (meaning that it was added by a scribe at a later date), yet Natasha explains that this has no affect on any core theological doctrines.
b) In her second example, she points out that the ending of Mark 16, verses 9-20, was not present in our oldest manuscripts. Thus, the text ends with the women fleeing from the tomb in fear. As such, the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and the disciples along with the Great Commission were later additions. Again, Natasha determines that this has no bearing upon core doctrines.
She concludes, "We could continue looking at examples, but we’ll get to the same bottom line: No core doctrine is called into question by any New Testament variant. Even Dr. Ehrman has acknowledged, 'Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament'.” (Misquoting Jesus p.252)
So, there you go, guys. There's absolutely nothing to be concerned about because Natasha has once again waved off any concerns regarding the reliability of the Bible. However, the skeptics of the world are not so easily convinced. I see one glaring and unresolved problem. Not only did the creator of the universe not care to preserve the original texts of his own word, he didn't even bother to maintain the integrity of the copies of copies that we do have. How is that acceptable? Who cares whether or not the core doctrines of the Bible are affected when the very book from which they were established has been altered and thus compromised? Let's look at this from a more critical perspective.
First of all, in regard to the quote Natasha provided above, Dr. Ehrman, in fact, devotes an entire chapter of Misquoting Jesus to "Theologically Motivated Alterations of the Text," alterations which undoubtedly influence our view of the very nature of Jesus himself. Furthermore, in a post titled "Do Textual Variants Really Matter for Anything?" Dr. Ehrman offers some further context to his statement:
Let's consider just one of several examples that Dr. Ehrman provides in his post, the doctrine of the Trinity. As any Christian or former Christian knows, the importance of the Trinity to Christianity cannot be overstated. Yet, does it matter that the only verse in the Bible that explicitly supports this idea (1 John 5:7-8) is a later addition not found in the original NT? While it should matter, theologians work around this by subjectively interpreting an array of other related verses to support the idea that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one. He states, "That's the thing about theology: it is not dependent on any one verse for any of its views, but on an entire panoply of verses on a range of topics that are interpreted in light of each other and in light of the Christian tradition to produce a view that is seen as theologically acceptable."
*Although Natasha does not pursue the following argument, I think it's relevant and worthy of discussion. Christian apologists often want to point out the vast number of NT manuscripts that are available to us in contrast to other ancient classical texts. Recently, apologist Sean McDowell described the extensive number of manuscripts as a stack that would be more than a mile high. Amazing! Unfortunately, quantity does not equal quality. In his post titled, "Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context," Matthew Ferguson reveals, "When analyzed in context, the paucity of Pagan texts is due primarily to the fact that the main apparatus of textual transmission during the medieval period was Christian monks and the church . Accordingly, there was more interest in preserving Christian texts than Pagan ones." Additionally, Dr. Ehrman notes, "Over 94% of these manuscripts come to us from after the ninth Christian century – so 800 years or more after the books of the New Testament were first written and placed in circulation." Why is this problematic? Because the earliest copies, the ones that scholars would hope to be the most closely aligned to the original, are in reality the ones that are the most errant. Rather than being professionally transcribed, literate members of Christian congregations (p.51) were doing the work and often altering the texts while they were at it (Misquoting Jesus p.151-152). Does that matter? It should if you consider the Bible to be the divinely inspired and inerrant word of God.
When I step back and look at things without my Christian goggles on, what I see in the Bible is exactly what one would expect to see if God does not exist.