Do Textual Variants Show Christianity is False?


Some people are extremely critical of textual variants in New Testament manuscripts, claiming God would have prevented variants from occurring in the manuscripts (if He could have), so the existence of variants prove God doesn’t exist and the Bible isn’t true. My article Why did God Allow Variants in the New Testament Manuscripts? argues God was not only justified in allowing variants in the manuscripts (not that any of God’s actions need a justification), but that it follows a pattern of how He uses people to accomplish His will.

Textual variants occur when a scribe (or publisher) makes changes to a text when copying (or printing) it. The majority of New Testament textual variants are unintentional, and the majority of those are spelling changes or mistakes. In most cases, scholars can determine what the original word and spelling was. Intentional changes can be as innocuous as different spellings for a word (e.g. color (American) or colour (British)), or the variants could be several verses in length (as in two cases in the New Testament)1. Textual Criticism2 is the attempt to determine what the author of the text originally wrote.

Dr. Bart D. Ehrman is a world-class scholar of New Testament Textual Criticism, but he’s not a Christian. Dr. Ehrman grew up in a Christian household, and attended Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College (another Christian school) and received his doctorates from Princeton Theological Seminary, studying under one of the world’s great New Testament Textual Critics, Dr. Bruce Metzger (a Christian). In spite of his background, Dr. Ehrman became an agnostic because he believes the variations he saw in the New Testament manuscripts shows the New Testament wasn’t true. In his book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, he writes:

I kept reverting to my basic question: how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes—sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? 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….”3

Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies, of copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places….these copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are. Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.4

Those statements may seem pretty discouraging for Christians, but there’s more to the story. In 1964, Dr. Metzger wrote one of the definitive texts on New Testament Textual Criticism, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration5, which has a pro-Christian perspective, emphasizing that the variations in the New Testament manuscripts don’t change the meaning of the text. The book is a scholarly work, and the fourth edition is still used in academia today.

In 2005, Drs. Metzger and Ehrman collaborated on the fourth edition of The Text of the New Testament, but in 2005 Dr. Ehrman also published the popular-level book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, criticizing Christianity because of textual variations. Which book should be trusted, the scholarly one showing the New Testament is reliable in spite of the variants, or the popular-level one emphasizing the New Testament isn’t reliable because of the variants? Dr. Daniel B. Wallace is another world-class New Testament Textual Critic, and the founder of Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. He’s reviewed Dr. Ehrman’s books and commented:

It seems that Ehrman puts a far more skeptical spin on things when speaking in the public square than he does when speaking to professional colleagues.6

Dr. Ehrman does make some admissions in Misquoting Jesus regarding variations in New Testament manuscripts:

Most of these differences [in the New Testament manuscripts] are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today (and they didn’t have dictionaries, let alone spell check).7

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 results of mistakes, pure and simple – slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled word, 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…. Sometimes scribes grew inattentive; sometimes they were hungry or sleepy; sometimes they just couldn’t be bothered to give it their best effort.8

…the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.9

Dr. Ehrman paints a very bleak picture in his popular-level books of the reliability of the New Testament. He claims in Misquoting Jesus that the scribes were incompetent, but even then the variants don’t affect the theology of the New Testament. In spite of his repeated attacks on the Bible, he ultimately admits it’s reliable. It seems to me that he wanted to stop believing in Christianity, and used textual variants as an excuse.

What most distinguishes the work [Misquoting Jesus] are the spins Ehrman puts on some of the data at numerous junctures and his propensity for focusing on the most drastic of all the changes in the history of the text, leaving the uninitiated likely to think there are numerous additional examples of various phenomena he discusses when there are not.10

Several times in the Gospels, Jesus referred to the writing of Moses11, and there was always the implication that the first five books of the Bible were accurately transmitted to Him over the intervening 1,500 years. Even though God’s chosen people turned away from Him many times, and even forgot about the One, True God, the books of Moses were still handed down through the centuries. The religious leaders in Jesus’s time knew there wasn’t a single standard text for their scriptures, as evidenced by still-existing scrolls written in the centuries before Jesus lived (the Dead Sea Scrolls are the most famous). The copies available to them had slight differences, but Jesus didn’t seem to consider those differences significant.

Interestingly, scholars believe that when Jesus did quote from the Old Testament that he actually quoted from the Septuagint12, a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. This is strong evidence against the belief some people have that the scriptures can only be understood in their original languages, or that there’s only one English translation of the Bible that’s accurate.

Since the original New Testament manuscripts no longer exist, it is impossible to be absolutely certain what the Biblical authors wrote, but we can be certain the text hasn’t been corrupted over the past two millennia. Even a world-famous agnostic has admitted that! Variations in the manuscripts show the copying process was error-prone, like all human activities, but textual criticism shows our modern Bibles are faithful representations of the originals.

Resources

  • Erhman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005) (Caution: written by an agnostic)

Footnotes

  1. Mark 16:9-20 (ESV), John 7:53-8:11 (ESV)
  2. Criticism: the work or activity of making fair, careful judgements about the good and bad qualities of somebody/something, especially books, music, etc. (Oxford Learners Dictionary, 2nd definition)
  3. Erhman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005) Page 7.
  4. Erhman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005) Pg. 10
  5. Metzger, Bruce M. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, Third Enlarged Edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992)
  6. Wallace, Daniel B. (Editor) Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011) 25. (Amazon) (Logos)
  7. Erhman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005) Pg. 10-11.
  8. Erhman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005) Pg. 55.
  9. Erhman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperOne, 2007; Paperback) 252. Quoted in Wallace, Dan. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018) (IMDB.com) (Amazon.com)
  10. Blomberg, Craig. A review of Bart Ehrman’s, “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why” (Denver Journal, 02.01.06) (Accessed 02-Sep-2019)
  11. And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27 ESV); For if you believed Moses, you would believe me [Jesus]; for he wrote of me. (John 5:46 ESV); Search for Moses on BibleStudyTools.com
  12. Andrews, Edward D. Why do the Many New Testament Quotations and References to the Greek Testament Instead of the Hebrew not Mean the NT or OT Authors Made a Mistake? (Christian Publishing House, June 25, 2019) Accessed 04-Apr-2020.

Follow, Like and Share

Leave a Reply (The first message from an e-mail address must be approved by a moderator)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.