The original documents that make up the New Testament had a limited life. Since there was no printing in those days, copies were made by hand, and copies of copies, and so on. So how reliable was the copying? If you investigate this question you’ll find an enormous range of answers.
Sceptics will tell you there have been so many changes in transmission we can’t have any confidence in the text. The early church has altered what was written, they say, to suit their doctrinal agendas, and copying was like a game of “Chinese Whispers” (excuse the racism, but that is the term often used) where the message is distorted as it is transmitted.
On the other hand, christian apologists say we have so many more copies than any other ancient manuscript, and this allows us to verify that copying has been accurate, there are few doubtful words and no christian doctrine is affected by the uncertainties.
How can we get a handle on the truth between these two extremes?
Getting a balanced view
Up until now, I tried to read both sides and then make a judgment. I read Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted to get the sceptical view from an eminent scholar. I read FF Bruce’s old classic The New Testament Documents: are they reliable? and some of Dan Wallace’s reviews of Ehrman’s claims to get the response of christian scholars. But I was still left with a vast difference in conclusions, and had to try to make a judgment based on my own very inexpert assessment.
But now that has all changed, as I was given Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (2019) edited by Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry as a Christmas present.
Sometimes a book is revelatory, answering questions I am concerned about and filling in important information I was missing. This is one such book. It was highly recommended by New Testament scholar the late Larry Hurtado, whose blog I used to follow and who I greatly respected. And it lives up to his praise.
Crucially, the editors right from the start lay out the sceptical and christian apologetic “extremes”, and make it clear that they will be avoiding both ends of the spectrum, and explain why. The authors are mostly young academics working and studying in New Testament textual analysis. They are mainly (apparently) christians, but they believe that christian apologetics has not always been honest in this area.
So they give many examples of apologetic and sceptical claims that are not supported by the evidence, and then outline what they see as more correct conclusions, supported by impressive references. This book is both scholarly and easy to read (mostly).
I have been devouring the book eagerly. Here is some of what I have learnt.
Over-statements on both sides
Dating of manuscripts
The dating of a NT manuscript is not a precise process, and the book recommends that a range of dates of at least 50 years should always be used. The earliest known document is a very small section of John’s Gospel known as P52, dated 125-175 CE (some would argue for a wider range of simply somewhere in the second century). Sometimes sceptics and christians alike give single dates at the end of the range that most suits their purposes.
How good is the New Testament documentation?
Apologists like to compare the number of copies and the time gap between the original and our earliest copy with the same information about other ancient documents, for it shows the New Testament in a favourable light. But unfortunately, sometimes they use out-dated information, and sometimes they count all NT documents but only useful manuscripts for other texts, making the comparison more favourable, but not fair.
Several chapters in the book outline how difficult it is to calculate and compare numbers and dates, and provide some up-to-date comparisons, which they see as both approximate and of lesser value than sometimes claimed. Nevertheless, the NT still is in a favourable position regarding documentation.
Accuracy of copying
Sceptics have likened copying to a game of Chinese Whispers, where it is easy for words to be mis-heard and passed on inaccurately, justifying this by arguing that the scribes who copied the NT were amateurs, not experienced professionals. But the experts say that this is overstated. The scribes were mostly competent transcribers, with the result that the NT manuscripts
show the same levels of care, experience and accuracy that one could reasonably expect of any ancient text.
Furthermore, significant checking was undertaken, either by the scribe himself or a supervisor, and many manuscripts contain correction in the margins. The end result is that while many errors were made, many were corrected.
Among all the known copies of parts of the New Testament there are many variant readings, due mainly to wrong spelling, accidentally missing a word, writing the wrong word, or changing the word order. Many claims are made about the number and significance of these variants, but few explain how such a number is estimated.
This book bases its estimate on extrapolating from several NT sections or books which have been well analysed, and concludes that there are about 500,000 variants among about 5,300 Greek manuscripts, which comes out at 3-4 variants per word in the whole New Testament, though there are generally only a few occurrences of most variants. That is certainly not a small number! However, taking a different perspective, we find that, on average, scribes made one mistake or change in every 400-500 words they copied, which doesn’t sound nearly so bad.
Some apologists and sceptics will favour the statistic that most agrees with the view they are promoting. But the truth (apparently) is that most variants are so obvious they can be ignored. A few dozen variants have significance, though many can be resolved because we have so many copies of each book.
Some scholars believe that many of the variants were not accidental, but the result of trying to harmonise the text with orthodox doctrine. Apologists argue this was minimal or didn’t happen at all.
Again, the truth seems to be in the middle. The key is to examine the full text copied by a particular scribe, and see how many times words were changed to move towards an accepted doctrine, and how many times opportunities for that type of alteration were not taken. On this basis, some documents show clear signs of a doctrinal bias in the variant readings, while other variations that are sometimes claimed to have bias are judged not to be deliberate because they are isolated examples.
No doctrine is compromised?
We might well wonder if any christian doctrines are thrown into doubt because of the variants. Apologists say no, and this book agrees regarding major doctrines, but says some “non-core” teachings are affected. It also seems that NT support for the doctrine of the Trinity is weakened slightly when spurious variants are weeded out.
Can we reconstruct the NT from later writings?
I find this one rather strange. Some apologists claim that even if we had lost the entire set of manuscripts, we could reconstruct almost all of it from the writings of christians in the second and third centuries.
The book shows this claim doesn’t make sense. It isn’t always easy to tell when an early christian was quoting scripture, they certainly didn’t always quote accurately, and even if we ignore this, only about 50% of the NT is apparently quoted in the early church fathers. This seems to be an undocumented claim from the 19th century that apologists have quoted without properly checking their sources.
Are the “right” books in the Canon of the New Testament?
Even if the texts were all copied accurately, how do we know the right books are included? The book references 18 canon lists promulgated in the first 4 centuries, plus many collections of writings in codex (an early form of a book, rather than a scroll) form. It concludes that the canon lists are the best source of what the early church believed was inspired and authoritative, and these show that most of the present New Testament was widely accepted with little dispute, and a few popular works were widely considered useful but not canonical. Nevertheless, a few books (Revelation, 2 & 3 John, Jude, 2 Peter) were often disputed.
Take home messages
It seems unfortunately true that many christian apologists accept what previous apologists have written without verifying sources. This leads to the repetition of a number of spurious or doubtful claims. The writing, copying and canon processes for the New Testament were less certain and more error-prone than many apologists admit. We christians really must deal with the scriptures that God has given us, not the scriptures we’d expect.
Sceptics too can distort the evidence, though perhaps not quite as much. But many of the conclusions sceptics draw from the evidence appear to have also been insufficiently researched, and some mistakes are also being repeated by them.
The interesting truth seems to be that while there are uncertainties and variations, the text of the New Testament is as reliable as the text of other ancient documents, and variations can be identified and assessed more readily because of the large number of documents available.
The evidence throws doubt on the idea of a perfect set of original writings, and shows there are uncertainties in the Bible we read. But it also indicates that the text is well preserved with few important texts in doubt.
If we insist on perfection or nothing, then we’ll end up with nothing. But if we take it as it is, the New Testament is a generally reasonably reliable expression of what was originally written.
I have discussed these issues in more detail in The reliability of the New Testament text, which I have significantly updated recently.
Right side of top graphic: Flickr (Public Domain)