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. 



5 thoughts on “The Reliability of the New Testament: Despair or Hope?

  1. I think that one of Dr. Ehrman’s points was that the earliest manuscripts exhibit the most variation. If so, there is good historical reason to believe that that the copying of the first century or two was much less accurate than later copying.

  2. 1. Who are you? Were you at the conference too?
    2. It is true that Dr. Ehrman has argued that the earliest manuscripts exhibit the most variation. It is also true that there is some evidence which would support the idea that the earliest manuscripts exhibit the most variation. However, the point is not that there is (maybe?) more variation. The point is that the variation (in whatever form) is not so obtuse that one cannot have a really good idea as to what those earliest manuscripts communicated.
    3. Michael Holmes (Bethel) demonstrated fairly well that the transmission from the 2nd to the 3rd century was quite careful and accurate.
    4. Even if second century copying was not that accurate (which I believe and others have demonstrated is an inflated and misleading theory), it still does not follow that first century transmission was also poor.
    5. You still have to consider the eyewitness/apostolic testimony.
    6. I appreciate your thoughts. Thanks.

  3. I am a skeptic who was not at the conference, but I downloaded the audio and I have been listening to it.

    The problem with the early manuscripts, as Dr. Ehrman articulated it, is that there is much less manuscript evidence and the ones we have show a higher rate of variation than the later ones. As I understand it, the variants in the earlier manuscripts would be harder to resolve than the variants in the later manuscripts because there is so much less evidence to work with. I think that Dr. Ehrman might agree that we could get back to 200 A.D. (perhaps) with reasonable certainty, but before that things get speculative.

    I have not listened to Dr. Holmes presentation yet. I will do that next.

  4. I wish I had time (and room) for more details concerning the transmission of the texts that we have and the process involved in established the text. As much as I have room to say here is that the large majority of NT text critical scholars (even non-evangelical) agree that the original reading of the earliest manuscripts can be established with fair certainty. I encourage you to read more on text criticism (outside of Ehrman) if you have not already done so.
    At the end of the day, the thrust of this discussion seems to come down to how you choose to interpret the data. You are right that the logical conclusion of the data is not absolute certainty; however, it is also not absolute despair.
    I followed some of your discussions with Dr. Wallace (who is by far more qualified to answer your questions that I am, which means you probably won’t hear anything better or new from me). I also read around your blog a bit. I understand that we both come to the table with different sets of baggage. The resolution to this discussion is by no means an intellectual assent – it will most assuredly require the unpacking of personal luggage – jam-packed from years of the stuff of life.
    I say this to you because I want you to know that I am NOT the guy telling you that the answers are easy or that truth can be made evident through a comment on a blog spot.
    Again, I appreciate your discussion.
    Good chatting with you.

  5. The thing of it is that I don’t think Ehrman and Wallace really disagree that much about text criticism. For me, the question of whether the text of the New Testament is reliable boils down to the question “Reliable for what?”

    My point is that reliability is not a fixed concept; it varies with the application. Sometimes, lack of information is enough to render a thing unreliable. If an airplane has not been through the standard pre-flight safety check, it’s not reliable. Even if it’s in perfect working order and capable of passing the check with flying colors, no pilot should take it up and no passenger should board it. On the other end of the spectrum might be my fifteen-year-old lawn mower. If I can get it started by the tenth try and it doesn’t die more than a half dozen times while I am cutting the grass, it meets my criteria for reliability. The same electric motor that might be perfectly reliable in a vacuum cleaner might not be reliable in a respirator.

    That’s why I am not persuaded by people who compare the textual reliability of the New Testament to something like the Iliad. After all, what am I going to use the Iliad for other than having an enjoyable read and getting some insight into an ancient culture? There could be an awful lot of variants in there and I would still consider it perfectly reliable for those purposes.

    The New Testament, on the other hand, is used for so much more and my question is whether it is reliable for the purposes that it is used. For instance, suppose that Paul wrote something sympathetic about homosexuals in his letter to the Galatians. If we had that verse, we might look at the verses in his other letters that touch on the subject as being directed only against specific groups at specific times and we might look at the Old Testament passages on the subject as anachronisms on a par with the bans on eating shellfish. However, suppose that some scribe in those first 150 years looked at it and said, “This can’t be right,” and deleted it.

    Is the text of the New Testament reliable for purposes of deciding social policy towards homosexuals? Is it reliable enough to ban homosexuals from military service? Is it reliable enough to saddle people with a lifetime of guilt over a trait that they cannot control? Is it reliable enough to send a young person into a coercive and potentially destructive course of therapy in order to repress his or her natural desires? I would certainly never think that the Iliad was that reliable.

    In my opinion, the problem is that the New Testament text is not sufficiently reliable for the purposes to which it is put. I did once try to raise these questions with Dr. Wallace, although I never quite felt like I was getting my point across. I don’t think there is much point in pursuing it with him now.

    Thanks for the conversation.

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