The Reliability of the New Testament: Despair or Hope?

Recently, I attended the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary – the topic was “The Textual Reliability of the New Testament: A dialogue between Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace”. 

The seminar was stimulating, to say the least, for me, but rightfully so – seeing as how the topic is directly pertinent to what I do with my life. I think it is fair to say, though, that the issue being addressed is pertinent to all who claim to believe in the inspiration of Scripture (whatever that might mean for you). The question, “Can we trust the Bible?” is a serious one. What hangs in the balance for Christians is not just an ancient document like Plato’s Republic or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which found to be changed would not really affect the livelihood of anyone to any great degree, but the explicit revelation of God to his people, which really does have the potential to shape lives.

The problem with text criticism in the church (the disciplined concerned with studying the available manuscript evidence for a written work, when the original is no longer in existence, in order to discern the original wording) is that most Christians are completely ignorant of the discipline (they assume the KJV Bible that they read is exactly what Paul wrote) or they have been mislead by a popular level book (like Misquoting Jesus). For the most part, this is the church’s fault for leaving the lay community in the dark about text critical issues. After all, text criticism is not a new discipline. The scholarly community has been engaging in text criticism for quite some time (really since Erasmus and even earlier) and the major text critical issues (which are exaggerated in recent pop level books) have been dealt with for at least 50 years and have had no effect on orthodoxy

Where the church could have (and should have) been proactive in informing the Christian community (and those on the fringe) about text criticism, a small percentage of scholars have capitalized (and I do mean financially) on this issue by playing off society’s fascination with what I like to call “the scandalous Jesus”. Now the church is on the defensive – reacting to a brush fire which is increasingly fueled by sensationalism. Leading the “scandalous Jesus” craze is NT scholar Bart Ehrman, author of the NYT best seller, Misquoting Jesus.

Bart Ehrman “discussed” the reliability of the New Testament with evangelical NT scholar Daniel Wallace a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary (and one of the leading scholars and text criticism and Greek – he wrote his 400+ page dissertation on the Greek word “the” – yowza). Much could be mentioned about the debate, but I will keep this as brief as possible.

To my surprise, at the end of the day Ehrman and Wallace agreed on a lot. Here is what they agreed on: There exist over 5,000 extant manuscripts written in Greek which date from as early as the second century (around 50 years after Revelation was written). There are around 138,000 words in the Greek NT we have today. For every word in the New Testament, there are at least two variants (not uniform in wording) which comes out to about 400,000 variants. This means there are more differences than words in the NT. No two manuscripts are identical. The scribes who copied these manuscripts obviously made mistakes – sometimes unintentionally, sometimes intentionally. Many pop-level books basically leave this information here to dangle in front of the unsuspecting reader, but this is not the end of the story. And people like Ehrman know it. In short 99% percent of the differences are either unintentional mistakes in spelling and other nonsense errors or intentional, theological “glossing” that is easily identified, which means that the large majority of the variants in no way affect the meaning of the text. Of the 1% considered “meaningful and viable”, none directly affect or change doctrine. This means that both Ehrman and Wallace essentially agree that the transmission of the NT from the earliest manuscripts to the latest was for the most part careful and faithful. More importantly, this means that they both agree that we can essentially get back to the original wording of the earliest manuscripts.

Where do they disagree? The only ammunition Ehrman had was the ambiguity surrounding the transmission of the text from the original (1st century) to our earliest copies (2nd century). He constantly repeated, “all we have are copies of copies of copies…” His basic assertion was that we simply have no way of knowing what happened to copies in that first century. His position is one of despair. For Ehrman, because we cannot know what happened, it follows that there was utter corruption of the text within that first century. Therefore, we cannot trust the wording of the 2nd century manuscripts. Therefore, Jesus is probably not who the NT portrays him to be.

Is our only option despair? Absolutely not. Astute readers will recognize that just because we don’t know for certain what happened in those first fifty years, it does not follow that the text must have been corrupted. In fact, we have many reasons to believe that there was faithful transmission in the first century. There is much to support this view, but I will only mention a few things. For one, the transmission of the text was rather faithful from the 2nd to the 3rd century, so why not from the 1st to the 2nd? This would be especially true considering the testimony of the eyewitnesses still alive in the first century. Also, we must remember that texts were not copied like the telephone game. The text was carefully copied by trained workers by hand and even more, they had earlier copies by which to check their work. In the telephone game, this would be equivalent to the last player checking with the 3rd, 2nd or even 1st player in line for wording. The last wording would be must more faithful to the original!

Much more could be said about the debate and about the issue of text criticism, but this post is already quite lengthy. I hope more than anything that it was encouraging to you. Remember, we are people who start with faith and seek understanding. Hope overshadows despair. 

Seth