I Cannot Believe Because the Bible is Unreliable

Church at the Cross, Grapevine (2016) – Many people claim that the Bible is merely a human book, irrelevant, full of errors, and unreliable as an authoritative source of truth for all people. But, what does the evidence suggest? Can we trust the Bible? Speaker: Dr. Dan Wallace (author and Sr. Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary).

Bart Ehrman’s Methodology Exposed

After noting the problems in Bart Ehrman’s book, TRUE FREE THINKER notes — using Bart Ehrman’s own methodology — just how many of these variants accumulated over time:

…I do not know how many copies Misquoting Jesus has sold but it is reported that “Within the first three months, more than 100,000 copies were sold.”

The way it works is as simple as it is deceptive: you multiply the 16 variants by how many times they have been reproduced. As the 16 have been reproduced 100,000 (in three months alone) you multiply these and so the total of variants in Misquoting Jesus equals: 1,600,000.

And that, boys and girls, is how Bart Ehrman manages to make sensational claims that gain him notoriety and quite a few shekels….

Which is why this Q&A with Ehrman is so powerful:

In the appendix to Misquoting Jesus, added to the paperback version, there is a Q&A section. I do not know who the questioner is, but it is obviously someone affiliated with the editors of the book. Consider this question asked of Ehrman:

  • Bruce Metzger, your mentor in textual criticism to whom this book dedicated, has said that there is nothing in these variants of Scripture that challenges any essential Christian beliefs (e.g., the bodily resurrection of Jesus or the Trinity). Why do you believe these core tenets Of Christian orthodoxy to be in jeopardy based on the scribal errors you discovered in the biblical manuscripts?

Note that the wording of the question is not “Do you believe…” but “Why do you believe these core tenets of Christian orthodoxy to be in jeopardy…?” This is a question that presumably came from someone who read the book very carefully. How does Ehrman respond?

  • The position I argue for in Misquoting Jesus does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.

Suffice it to say that viable textual variants that disturb cardinal doctrines found in the NT have not yet been produced.

  • Daniel B. Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publications, 2011), 54-55.

See also this post.

A Short Study Defining “Inerrancy” (Updated)

In the appendix to Misquoting Jesus, added to the paperback version, there is a Q&A section. I do not know who the questioner is, but it is obviously someone affiliated with the editors of the book. Consider this question asked of Ehrman:

✦ Bruce Metzger, your mentor in textual criticism to whom this book dedicated, has said that there is nothing in these variants of Scripture that challenges any essential Christian beliefs (e.g., the bodily resurrection of Jesus or the Trinity). Why do you believe these core tenets Of Christian orthodoxy to be in jeopardy based on the scribal errors you discovered in the biblical manuscripts?

Note that the wording of the question is not “Do you believe…” but “Why do you believe these core tenets of Christian orthodoxy to be in jeopardy…?” This is a question that presumably came from someone who read the book very carefully. How does Ehrman respond?

✦ The position I argue for in Misquoting Jesus does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.

Suffice it to say that viable textual variants that disturb cardinal doctrines found in the NT have not yet been produced.

Daniel B. Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publications, 2011), 54-55.

So with all that in mind (one should familiarize themselves with the first part of this), can we then define what we mean by biblical inerrancy, of course my favorite definition comes from the main text I used at the seminary I attended.  I will also give definitions from some other main text that other seminaries use as well.

“…inerrancy means that Scripture in the original manuscripts[1] does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”[2]

In case you didn’t catch what that sentence meant is “that the Bible always tells the truth, and that it always tells the truth concerning everything it talks about.”[3]

In the index in the back under “inerrancy” you find some of the following topics under that heading: allows for free quotation; allows for ordinary language; allows for round numbers; allows for textual variants; allows for uncommon grammar; allows for vague statements; human language doesn’t prevent.  I will choose one example from this list so you can get the “gist” of what Grudem is saying:

A similar consideration applies to numbers when used in measuring or in counting. A reporter can say that 8,000 men were killed in a certain battle without thereby implying that he has counted everyone and that there are not 7,999 or 8,001 dead soldiers. If roughly 8,000 died, it would of course be false to say that 16,000 died, but it would not be false in most contexts for a reporter to say that 8,000 men died when in fact 7,823 or 8,242 had died: the limits of truthfulness would depend on the degree of precision implied by the speaker and expected by his original hearers.

This is also true for measurements. Whether I say, “I don’t live far from my office,” or “I live a little over a mile from my office,” or “I live one mile from my office,” or “I live 1.287 miles from my office” all four statements are still approximations to some degree of accuracy. Further degrees of accuracy might be obtained with more precise scientific instruments, but these would still be approximations to a certain degree of accuracy. Thus, measurements also, in order to be true, should conform to the degree of precision implied by the speaker and expected by the hearers in the original context. It should not trouble us, then, to affirm both that the Bible is absolutely truthful in everything it says and that it uses ordinary language to describe natural phenomena or to give approximations or round numbers when those are appropriate in the context.

We should also note that language can make vague or imprecise statements without being untrue. “I live a little over a mile from my office” is a vague and imprecise statement, but it is also inerrant: there is nothing untrue about it. It does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact. In a similar way, biblical statements can be imprecise and still be totally true.  Inerrancy has to do with truthfulness, not with the degree of precision with which events are reported.[4]

Another definition comes from a newer systematic theological 4-volumn set, it reads as follows:

…the inspiration of Scripture is the supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit who, through the dif­ferent personalities and literary styles of the chosen human authors, invested the very words of the original books of Holy Scripture, alone and in their entirety, as the very Word of God without error in all that they teach (including history and science) and is thereby the infallible rule and final authority for the faith and practice of all believers.[5]

Another popular text in seminaries defines inerrancy in this way:

By “inerrancy” we mean that as a product of supernatural inspiration the information affirmed by the sentences of the original autographs of the sixty-six canonical books of the Bible is true.

By “true” content we mean propositions that correspond to the thought of God and created reality because they are logically noncontradictory, factually reliable, and experientially viable. Therefore, as given, the Bible provides a reliable guide for healthfully experiencing the physical, mental, moral, and spiritual realities that people face in time and eternity.

To grasp the truth that was given, as fully as possible, a passage of Scripture must be taken (interpreted) by a believer in accord with its author’s purpose; degrees of precision appropriate to that purpose at that time; and its grammatical, historical, cultural, and theological contexts (all under the illumination of the Holy Spirit who inspired it).[6]

One of my favorites comes from large theological treatise, I will here only put his definition, however, the author goes on for about four pages defining some of the ideas and words used in that smaller definition:

We may now state our understanding of inerrancy: The Bible, when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it af­firms.[7]

One must also keep in mind the psychological foreboding that all of us have.  The question is thus: in order to suppress our biases as much as possible, is there a construct and model in which one should view any literary work with in order to test it internal soundness?  Besides what I will again post as some rules all persons should follow in order to limit his or her preconceived values and biases they bring to the table, C. Sanders, a famous military historian, in his Introduction to Research in English Literary History, lists and explains the three basic principles of historiography.  These are the bibliographical test, the internal evidence test, and the external evidence test.

Bibliographical Test

The bibliographical test is an examination of the textual transmission by which documents reach us.  In other words, since we do not have the original documents, how reliable are the copies we have in regard to the number of manuscripts (MSS and the time interval between the original and the extant (currently existing) copies?

Internal Evidence

Internal Evidence, of which John Warwick Montgomery writes that literary critics still follow Aristotle’s dictum that “the benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself.”  therefore, one must listen to the claims of the document  under analysis, and do not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualified himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies.  As Dr. Horn continues:

“Think for a moment about what needs to be demonstrated concerning a ‘difficulty’ in order to transfer it into the category of a valid argument against doctrine.  Certainly much more is required than the mere appearance of a contradiction.  First, we must be certain that we have correctly understood the passage, the sense in which it uses words or numbers.  Second, that we possess all available knowledge in this matter.  Third, that no further light can possibly be thrown on it by advancing knowledge, textual research, archaeology, etc….  Difficulties do not constitute objections.  Unresolved problems are not of necessity errors.  This is not to minimize the area of difficulty; it is to see it in perspective.  Difficulties are to be grappled with and problems are to drive us to seek clearer light; but until such time as we have total and final light on any issue we are in no position to affirm, ‘Here is a proven error, an unquestionable objection to an infallible Bible.’  It is common knowledge that countless ‘objections’ have fully been resolved since this century began.” (see more)

External Evidence

Do other historical materials confirm or deny the internal testimony provided by the documents themselves?  In other words, what sources are there – apart from the literature under analysis – that substantiate its accuracy, reliability, and authenticity?[8]

Of course there will be people who refuse to use the tools that literary critics and legal scholars have devised to keep as much prejudice out as possible.  My final story I wish to share with the reader explains what this looks like better than I ever could:

Psychological Prejudice

But even a sound epistemic system, flawless deductive reasoning, and impeccable inductive procedure does not guarantee a proper conclusion. Emotional bias or antipathy might block the way to the necessary conclusion of the research. That thinkers may obstinately resist a logical verdict is humorously illustrated by John Warwick Montgomery’s modern parable:

Once upon a time (note the mystical cast) there was a man who thought he was dead. His concerned wife and friends sent him to the friendly neighborhood psychiatrist determined to cure him by convincing him of one fact that contradicted his beliefs that he was dead. The fact that the psychiatrist decided to use was the simple truth that dead men do not bleed. He put his patient to work reading medical texts, observing autopsies, etc. After weeks of effort the patient finally said, “All right, all right! You’ve convinced me. Dead men do not bleed.” Whereupon the psychiatrist stuck him in the arm with a needle, and the blood flowed. The man looked down with a contorted, ashen face and cried, “Good Lord! Dead men bleed after all!”

Emotional prejudice is not limited to dull-witted, the illiterate, and poorly educated. Philosophers and theologians are not exempt from the vested interests and psychological prejudice that distort logical thinking. The question of the existence of God evokes deep emotional and psychological prejudice. People understand that the question of the existence of God is not one that is of neutral consequence. We understand intuitively, if not in terms of its full rational implication, that the existence of an eternal Creator before whom we are ultimately accountable and responsible is a matter that touches the very core of life.[9]

And I would be remiss to note how the Christian world looks at what “the inspired Word of God” means to the individuals involved in the writing of Scripture. Do these lose their person-hood? Do they become automatons? Losing all ability to self, or control like automatic writing in paganism or the occult? These are important questions:

Orr says that inspiration “must be held to include the insight given by the divine Spirit into the meaning of the history, through which holy men are enabled to write it for the instruction of all ages.” But that is never taught in the Scriptures.

Dr. Edward Young, one of the most careful and devoted scholars on the matter of the inspiration of the Scriptures, makes a slip here, we believe. He strongly teaches the verbal inspiration of the Scripture but says:

According to the Bible, inspiration is a superintendence of God the Holy Spirit over the writers of the Scriptures, as a result of which these Scriptures possess Divine authority and trustworthiness and, possessing such Divine authority and trustworthiness, are free from error.”

He is right that the Scripture has divine authority and is free from error. I do not think, however, that the term “superintendence” is the proper word for the work of the Holy Spirit. The Bible never indicates that the Holy Spirit breathed on men or superintended men as they wrote. Rather, David said, “The Spirit of the Lord spake by me” (II Sam. 23:2). And “God spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1). And the men of God who wrote were rather “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Pet. 1:21), or literally, “as they were borne along by the Holy Ghost.” Superintendence is too weak a word and leaves the initiative with men, with the Holy Spirit somewhere near and more or less supervising, checking. But according to the Scriptures, the initiative was with God the Holy Spirit and men are His instruments in writing the Scriptures.

Drs. Lindsell and Woodbridge say about the Bible writers:

They retained their own styles, personalities and self-command. Their personal powers were not suspended but sharpened. The Holy Spirit commanded the operation; but Moses, John and Peter remained Moses, John and Peter while writing. Because of the close, sustained, continuous, effective supervision of the Holy Spirit, the Bible is the inspired Word of God.

Now, the end the good doctors declare is correct. The Bible is the inspired Word of God. It is true that the writers were not automata. In some sense they did retain their own style and personalities and self-command. But the Bible never says that “their personal powers were… sharpened.” Whether or not their powers were sharpened we do not know. The unintended indication is that here, if men have enough illumination, enough supervision by the Holy Spirit, they could write the perfect Word of God. But that is not what the Bible teaches and surely not what Lindsell and Woodbridge intended to convey.

But Lindsell and Woodbridge correct themselves on the pre­ceding page:

“Inspiration” is not mere “Illumination.” The Holy Spirit illumines one’s soul before he can understand spiritual truth (See I Cor. 2:10-12.) But when we speak of the inspiration of the Bible, we do not have in mind this sort of spiritual percep­tion. We do not mean merely that the intuitive faculties of the writers were quickened, or their spiritual insights clarified. Their “inspiration” was different, not only in degree but also in kind, from the heightened powers of ordinary men, even of men known for their spiritual genius. The inspiration of the Biblical authors was unique: it was special, direct, reliable, life-giving, inerrant.

That is better. The Bible does not come from “the heightened powers of ordinary men, even of men known for their spiritual genius.” If “the intuitive faculties of the writers were quickened,” the Bible says nothing about it, and it is obviously not necessary to the kind of inspiration the Bible teaches. There is no evidence that the “intuitive faculties” of Balaam were quickened when by inspiration he gave a prophecy he did not want to give nor that the “intuitive faculties” of Caiaphas the high priest were quickened when he prophesied that Christ would die for the people, meaning something else. When God breathed out the words of the Bible, and the Bible discusses it, it never speaks of men’s “intuitive faculties” being quickened nor of their “height­ened powers” nor that “their personal powers were… shar­ened.” I am sure that, without intending to do so and trying to someway explain the human color and imprint in the Scrip­tures, good men say about this more than the Bible itself says here.

Let us say it again: the Scriptures did not come from height­ened powers or quickened senses nor by simple illumination of the Holy Spirit. God Himself gave the Scriptures and inspi­ration was far more than some superintendence or supervision of spiritually illumined men with heightened faculties.[10]

A really good article chronicling various theories on this is here: Who Wrote the Bible: God or Man? Another great post on the matter that does a bang-up job on bullet pointing the issues of textual transmission is this post: History of the Bible: How The Bible Came To Us.

All this defining and understanding above is key for any person to start dissecting Scripture (or as some would view it, scripture) on a level playing field with others who come to this conversation as well.

Here is an often heard MANTRA that Credo House deals with nicely: “You Can’t Use the Bible to Prove the Bible

….This statement is not only wrong, but completely misunderstands its own argument; ironically, it makes the exact circular assumptions that it accuses believers of.

1. The “Bible” is not one book

When we are talking about “proving” or evidencing the truths of the Gospel message, we have to put our historian hats on (not our religious hats). The argument is meant to place Christians in this rather odd situation where they sound like they are saying the Bible is true because it says it is true. But the Bible is not one book. In fact, the term “Bible” is not in the Bible. The Bible is a collection of works that spans over a thousand years, written by dozens of authors, some who are connected, some who are not. All together there are sixty-six books in the Protestant Bible.

When we are talking about the claims of the “New Testament,” we are talking about the story of Christianity, the very foundation and apex of Christianity as it deals with the incarnation of Christ, who he was, and what he did. But even then, to say one can’t prove the New Testament with the New Testament is quite ill-informed and unreflective. The designation “New Testament” (along with its list of books) is not even in the New Testament. Like with the whole Bible, it is just a name given to a certain related corpus of writings that speaks about the story and implications of the advent of Jesus Christ. There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament.

If one were to look at this with a historian’s eye, to say we cannot use the Bible to prove or evidence the Bible is about the most misguided thing one could possibly say. What does that mean? Are you saying that we cannot use the testimony that the book of Matthew gives to evidence Mark? Or that one cannot attempt to piece together Galatians with the Book of Acts? Of course you can. In fact, you must. These twenty-seven documents, all written around the same time, all telling similar stories, must be used to prove or evidence each other. If not, the historian is not being a historian, but something entirely different.

2. One must assume the inspiration of the Bible to say the Bible can’t prove the Bible

You see, if a person says, “You can’t use the Bible to prove the Bible,” he probably doesn’t realize he is borrowing a bit from the Christian worldview in order to even make such an assertion. What is being borrowed? The idea of the basic unity of Scripture or the single-authorship of the Bible. The only way to say the Bible can’t prove the Bible is to presume the inspiration of Scripture. Otherwise, there is no reason to link the canon of Scripture together in such a way. For the non-Christian especially, the Bible should be seen as sixty-six ancient documents, all of which stand or fall on their own. In order to make them stand or fall together, one must assume a single authorship of some sort. At that point, the argument becomes self-defeating, as the very statement (“You can’t use the Bible to prove the Bible”) proves the Bible!

…continue on for #3…


Footnotes


[1] For the seminary student:

The significance of the distinction between inerrant autograph and errant apograph may be seen from another angle. What difference would it make, some have asked, if the autographs did contain some of the errors that are present in the copies? Is not the end result of textual criticism and hermeneutics by both nonevangelical and evangelical essentially the same? As far as the results of textual criticism and hermeneutics as such are concerned, the answer to this last query is yes. By sound application of the canons of textual criticism, most by far of the errors in the text may be detected and corrected. And both nonevangelical and evangelical can properly exegete the critically established text. But the nonevangelical who fails to make a distinction between the inerrancy of the autographs and the errancy of the copies, after he has done his textual criticism and grammatical-historical exegesis, is still left with the question, Is the statement which I have now reached by my text-critical work and my hermeneutics true? He can only attempt to determine this on other (extrabiblical) grounds, but he will never know for sure if his determination is correct. The evangelical, however, who draws the distinction between inerrant autograph and errant apograph, once he has done proper text-critical analysis which assures him that he is working with the original text and properly applied the canons of exegesis to that text, rests in the confidence that his labor has resulted in the attainment of truth.

Some critical scholars have suggested that the distinction between inerrant autographs and errant apographs is of fairly recent vintage, indeed, an evangelical ploy to minimize the impact of the “assured results of textual criticism” upon their position. This is erroneous. Augustine’s statement, which represents the opinion generally of the Patristic Age, is a sufficient answer to demonstrate that the distinction is not a recent novelty:

I have learned to defer this respect and honor to the canonical books of Scripture alone, that I most firmly believe that no one of their authors has committed any error in writing. And if in their writings I am perplexed by anything which seems to me contrary to truth, I do not doubt that it is nothing else than either that the manuscript is corrupt, or that the translator has not followed what was said, or that I have myself failed to understand it. But when I read other authors, however eminent they may be in sanctity and learning, I do not necessarily believe a thing is true because they think so, but because they have been able to convince me, either on the authority of the canonical writers or by a probable reason which is not inconsistent with truth. And I think that you, my brother, feel the same way; moreover, I say, I do not believe that you want your books to be read as if they were those of Prophets and Apostles, about whose writings, free of all error, it is unlawful to doubt.

Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 91-92.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 90.

[3] Ibid., 91.

[4] Ibid., 91-92.

[5] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: Introduction: Bible, vol. I (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), 498.

[6] Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology: Three Volumes in One, vol. I (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 160-161.

[7] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books/Academic, 1998), 259.

[8] Taken primarily from, Bill Wilson, ed., A Ready Defense: The Best of Josh McDowell (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 43.

[9] R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 69-70.

[10] John R. Rice, Our God Breathed Book – The Bible (Murfreesboro, TN: Sword of the Word Publishers, 1969), 72-74.

See more on the Canon here.


Extended Video Presentations


Did the Ancient Church Muzzle the Canon?

Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then? Part 1

Part 2

This next video is a very interesting video in that it is an argument on a Temple Library and the transmission of Scripture. Great presentation… shows that there are breakthroughs in Biblical history waiting to be correlated.

The Gospel Coalition (Januray 2015) – Lecture by John Meade. Meade speaks on the authenticity of the Bible. This video is part of ‘The Bible: Canon, Texts, and Translations’ playlist: YouTube Playlist.

This next video is a lecture from Masters Seminary, Theology I Lecture 08 “Authority and Canonicity of Scripture”

And a greatr study is with R.C. Sproul, and he makes a point that has eluded me a bit until now, and they are:

Roman Catholic View:

  • The canon is an infallible collecting of infallible books.

The Protestant view:

  • The canon is an fallible collecting of infallible books.

The Qur’an vs. the Bible’s Transmission

This is an addition to the recently discovered oldest piece of a Qur’an manuscript... dating to before Muhammad. Many will ask what the difference is between how the Bible and the Qur’an were “compiled” into the books we read today. Here is a bit of the difference.

This is the quote Dr. Wallace was roughly referring to via Ehrman in the video above:

In the appendix to Misquoting Jesus, added to the paperback version, there is a Q&A section. I do not know who the questioner is, but it is obviously someone affiliated with the editors of the book. Consider this question asked of Ehrman:

  • Bruce Metzger, your mentor in textual criticism to whom this book dedicated, has said that there is nothing in these variants of Scripture that challenges any essential Christian beliefs (e.g., the bodily resurrection of Jesus or the Trinity). Why do you believe these core tenets Of Christian orthodoxy to be in jeopardy based on the scribal errors you discovered in the biblical manuscripts?

Note that the wording of the question is not “Do you believe…” but “Why do you believe these core tenets of Christian orthodoxy to be in jeopardy…?” This is a question that presumably came from someone who read the book very carefully. How does Ehrman respond?

  • The position I argue for in Misquoting Jesus does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.

Suffice it to say that viable textual variants that disturb cardinal doctrines found in the NT have not yet been produced.

Daniel B. Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publications, 2011), 54-55.

The below LARGE excerpt comes from: Daniel B. Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publications, 2011), 34-40.

Ehrman has asserted, “If we have very few early copies—in fact, scarcely any—how can we know that the text was not changed signifi­cantly before the New Testament began to be reproduced in such large quantities?”38 I am not sure what large quantities he is speaking about, since there are more MSS from the third century than there are from the fourth or fifth century.39

But how can we know? It is a legitimate question. There is a way to be relatively confident that the text of the fourth century looked re­markably like the earliest form of the text. P75 has large portions of Luke and John in it—and nothing else. Codex B has most of the NT in it. If B and P75 are very close to each other yet B often has the more primi­tive reading, we can extrapolate that the text of B is pretty decent for the rest of the NT. When it agrees with a MS such as Codex Sinaiticus, which it usually does, that combined reading almost surely goes back to a common archetype from deep in the second century.40

Nevertheless, Ehrman has carefully and ably described the trans­mission of the text. He has detailed how the winners succeeded in conquering all with their views and emerged as the group we might call “orthodox.” What he has said is fairly accurate overall. The only problem is that his is the right analysis but for the wrong religion. Ehrman’s basic argument about theological motives describes Islam far more than Christianity. Recent work on the transmissional history of both the NT and the Qur’an shows this clearly. Consider the following points:

1. Within just a few decades of the writing of the Qur’an, it underwent a strongly controlled, heavy-handed editing, geared toward “or­thodoxy” that weeded out variants that did not conform.

But the NT, as even Ehrman argues, did not suffer this sort of con­trol early on. Instead, Ehrman has often suggested that the earliest de­cades were marked by free, even wild copying.41

2. Calif Uthman was in charge of the earliest segment of this heavy-handed editing of the Qur’an. He systematically gathered up any nonconforming MSS and destroyed them. The originals were destroyed as well.42 Uthman then claimed that his “canonical” text was the exact equivalent of the autographs.

There is no real evidence that inexact copies of the NT were de­stroyed by ecclesiastical authorities.43 Indeed, there is evidence that just the opposite took place: defective or deteriorating copies might be placed in a jar or storage room but not destroyed.44

3. The closest we come to heavy-handed control for NT MSS did not occur until at least the ninth century, long after the major Christological disputes had ended.45 Even then, we do not see defective MSS getting destroyed.

4. One cannot have it both ways; there cannot be wild copying by untrained scribes and a proto-orthodox conspiracy simultaneously producing the same variants. Conspiracy implies control, and wild copying is anything but controlled.

On the one hand, there was uncontrolled copying of MSS in the earliest period, but this was largely restricted to the Western text form.46 On the other hand, there was a strand of early copying that may appear to be controlled. This is the Alexandrian family of MSS. Yet the reason that MSS of this text form look so much like each other is largely be­cause they were in a relatively pure line of transmission.47 There was no conspiracy, just good practices.

5. The reason why Islam has Qur’an MSS that so closely resemble each other is precisely because this was official dogma, there was over­zealous control in the copying of the MSS, and there were severe reper­cussions to any who erred significantly in their scribal duties. All MSS ultimately derived from a single copy—a copy that was not identical to the original text.48

Contrast this with the NT: from the earliest times, the NT was translated into a multitude of languages.49 The transmission of the text was a growing, living thing, not constrained by ecclesiastical controls until long after Christianity became legalized. Even then, we know of nothing like what we see in Islam: scribes not only made plenty of mis­takes, but they even complained in the margins of their manuscripts about the weather, the length of the MS they were copying, the clogging of the ink, and so on.50 This sort of living, hands-on, messy relationship of the scribes to their holy scriptures is unheard of in Islam. In short, the Qur’an copying practices were more related to apologetics, while the NT practices were more related to life.

6. Further, ever since canon was a term meaningfully applied to the NT, there was never a sense that only the Greek MSS were Scripture. To be sure, the Reformation sparked a return to the original languages of the Bible, but the reason was not only purity of the text but clarity in the proclamation of the message. It is no accident that the Reformers were the catalyst for the great European translations of the Bible—translations into the language of the people that could be considered the very Word of God by the average layman. By way of contrast, the only true Qur’an is the Arabic Qur’an. All translations are officially suspect. Thus what Ehrman is describing is right on target but for the wrong religion. He is describing what has occurred in Islam, not in Christianity.

7. What Westcott said over a century ago is relevant to this discussion:

When the Caliph Othman fixed a text of the Koran and destroyed all the old copies which differed from his standard, he provided for the uniformity of subsequent manuscripts at the cost of their historical foundation. A classical text which rests finally on a single archetype is that which is open to the most serious suspicions.51

What we see in the NT copies is absolutely nothing like this. Ehrman tries to make a case for significant theological alterations to the text of the NT by a group that did not have control over the text from the begin­ning, but the historical ingredients for his hypothesis are missing. It is like trying to bake a cake with romaine lettuce and ranch dressing.

As Small points out,

The original NT text (the autographic text-form in Epp’s categories) has been kept remarkably well, and one form of the Qur’an text, a strongly edited one (a canonical text-form in Epp’s words), has been preserved remarkably well. This Qur’anic text form (the one attributed to Uthman though probably a little later—ca. 700 AD) preserves authentic material, but not in the forms in which it was originally used or in the complete collection assembled in writing or orally during Muhammad’s lifetime. Instead, it is a very selective, heavily edited text. In contrast, the NT is not really the product of an official process of intentional editing and so preserves more of the original text within the extant manuscripts. This can be said just on the basis of Islamic tradition concerning the collections attributed to have been made by the companions of Muhammad. In the twenty years after Muhammad’s death until Uthman’s project to standardize the text, these versions were used extensively in other parts of the growing Islamic empire, apparently as authoritative scripture. Some of these are reported to have been in use into the 900’s AD until they were finally suppressed around 934. My research in the manuscripts also demonstrates that the majority of the earliest manuscripts contain this edited text, with the handful of palimpsests pointing to other textual traditions that were successfully suppressed. These palimpsests contain the same variety of textual variants that one can see between the Western and Alexandrian text-types in the NT tradition—showing that there was a period when the Qur’an text was more fluid than the majority of manuscripts and Islamic dogma would lead one to believe. Muslims assume and state that this Uthmanic text was the original text, though even their traditions go against the view. It contains original material, but the original form of that material cannot be reconstructed because Uthman de­stroyed the autographs and had his authoritative version written in a defective script which allowed the growth of competing written versions and oral recitation systems. Their theological view of me­chanical inspiration keeps them from adequately engaging with their own historical sources. What they have done instead is selectively choose reports that they can use to construct a straight line of “per­fect” transmission while ignoring the facts which disagree with the theological construct they want to hold of an eternal book perfectly transmitted. I think Uthman’s version does probably represent the main lines of Muhammad’s teaching, though for political reasons certain parts may have been left out. But we can’t tell for sure be­cause the autographs were destroyed, not that they wore out in use. And the main point to get to in all of this is still that the NT and the Qur’an teach very different things. Also, for whatever integrity one wants to grant to the transmission of the Qur’an, the NT needs to be regarded as having more integrity in its transmission process since there was not such an official editing process after the books were written. In light of all of this, I think Bart Ehrman’s arguments are much more appropriate for the Qur’an because for it there can be demonstrated an official program of textual standardization which was maintained over three centuries, and in some respects to this day.52

Concerning conforming the text to the Medieval standard, though there is a general parallel to this situation to the Qur’an’s, I see it having a fundamental difference, that while the changes to the NT were gradual, relatively late in the history of transmission, and pri­marily for liturgical reasons and to improve the style, the Qur’an’s form of the consonantal text was determined and maintained from very early on (within 30-70 years after Muhammad’s death) for rea­sons which had a large ideological/dogmatic component at the outset, and then that form was further shaped and developed with diacritics and vowels to maintain and serve various agendas during the next 200 years until the Sunnis came out on top politically in the 900’s and were able to canonize their version of the text.53

In another respect, when Ehrman discusses whether God has preserved the text of the NT, he places on the NT transmissional process some rather unrealistic demands—demands that Islam tradi­tionally claims for itself with respect to the Qur’an but that no bona fide Christian scholar would ever claim was true of the NT MSS. As is well known, most Muslims claim that the Qur’an has been transmitted perfectly, that all copies are exactly alike. This is what Ehrman demands of the NT text if God has inspired it. Methodologically, he did not abandon the evangelical faith; he abandoned a faith that in its biblio-logical constructs is what most Muslims claim for their sacred text. Or as C. S. Lewis put it,

The moment [the miracle] enters [nature’s] realm, it obeys all her laws. Miraculous wine will intoxicate, miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy, inspired books will suffer all the ordinary processes of tex­tual corruption, miraculous bread will be digested.54

To sum up the evidence on the number of variants, there are a lot of variants because there are a lot of manuscripts. Even in the early centuries, the text of the NT is found in a sufficient number of MSS, versions, and writings of the church fathers to give us the essentials of the original text.


 Footnotes


38) Lost Christianities, 219.

39) The next line, however, suggests that he is speaking about medieval MSS: “Most surviving copies were made during the Middle Ages, many of them a thousand years after Paul and his companions had died” (ibid.). The juxtaposition of this sen­tence with the one questioning whether we can know how significant the changes were prior to this time is, at best, misleading. Ehrman would acknowledge, as would most textual critics, that the MSS produced in the Middle Ages are hardly our most reliable witnesses to the NT text and that we have several sufficient wit­nesses prior to that time on which to reconstruct the wording of the earliest form of the text.

40) Cf., e.g., Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, 277-78, 312. Hort believed that when K and B agreed, their reading went back to a very ancient common ancestor. That it was not a near ancestor was demonstrated by the thousands of disagreements between these two manuscripts, suggesting that there were several intermediaries between the common ancestor and these two majuscule docu­ments (B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, vol. 2, Introduction [and] Appendix [Cambridge: Macmillan, 1882], 212-50). Cf. also Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 312: “With the discovery . .. of T66 and P75, both dating from about the end of the second or the beginning of the third century, proof became now available that Hort’s Neutral text goes back to an archetype that must be put early in the second century.”

41) Cf., e.g., Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 124. I will discuss the nature of the early copying soon enough, but for now I simply point out that according to Ehrman, there was extensive uncontrolled copying of the NT in the earliest period.

42) Ehrman opines that perhaps the NT autographs were destroyed. Not only is there no evidence that this was the case, there is second-century evidence that the auto­graphs would have been revered.

43) See nn. 34 and 44 for discussion.

44) Colin H. Roberts (Manuscript, Society, and Belief in Early Christian Egypt [London: Oxford University Press, 1979], 6-8) gives ample evidence that early Christians took over the practice of Jews to “dispose of defective, worn-out, or heretical scriptures by burying them near a cemetery, not to preserve them but be­cause anything that might contain the name of God might not be destroyed” (ibid., 7). He was dealing with the earliest period of Christian copying but noted that the Nag Hammadi MSS (“outside our period”) seem to fit this pattern as well. In ad­dition, he cited the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Chester Beatty papyri, as well as several other examples. In more modern times, it is noteworthy to mention the New Finds manuscripts at St. Catherine’s Monastery of Mt. Sinai. Discovered in 1975, quite by accident, was a geniza that housed about 1,200 manuscripts and 50,000 frag­ments of manuscripts. The latest date of any of the MSS was from the eighteenth century; the earliest was the fourth century (about two dozen leaves or fragments from Codex Sinaiticus). Among the less orthodox MSS were the Protevangelium of James and the Assumption of the Virgin. When I visited the monastery in Sep­tember 2002, Archbishop Damianos expressed surprise to me that the Protevan-gelium was among the New Finds manuscripts. I discovered the Assumption of the Virgin inside the Protevangelium, occupying a new quire.

What the New Finds illustrate is that the practice of burying MSS at Mt. Sinai was taking place after the eighteenth century and sufficiently prior to modern times to have been forgotten by the monks. After Tischendorf’s last visit in 1859, the monastery became increasingly flooded with visitors. This suggests that the geniza was filled prior to this time. And the fact that leaves from Sinaiticus were buried there—both from the Pentateuch and from the Apostolic Fathers (i.e., the outer leaves of the codex, which would be most prone to be loosed from the book)—may imply that Tischendorf was mistaken when he said that the monks were burning leaves of this codex. For our purposes, it is enough to note that the normative practice of ancient Christians, even perhaps to modern times, was to bury or hide sacred texts rather than destroy them.

45) T. J. Ralston (“The Majority Text and Byzantine Texttype Development: The Sig­nificance of a Non-Parametric Method of Data Analysis for the Exploration of Manuscript Traditions” [PhD diss., Dallas Seminary, 1994]) notes (in agreement with von Soden’s assessment) that there was a large editorial push by at least one scriptorium in the ninth and eleventh centuries, resulting in carefully produced copies that were very close to each other.

46) It is not entirely insignificant that Ehrman’s preferred reading in several places that seem to impact Christology is found in the Western text (e.g., Luke 3.22; John 20.28). The burden of proof certainly rests with the one who would argue that such a textual tradition has the original wording when the carefully copied tradition of Alexandria does not. He admits that the Western text is less likely to preserve the best reading when it lacks support of the Alexandrian witnesses (Misquoting Jesus, 131). I do agree with Ehrman in at least one Western reading, however. But ὀργισθείς in Mark 1.41 has compelling internal evidence in its favor.

47) Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 131.

48) This is not at all what the NT transmission was like. See the following discussion of the work of Uthman in canonizing the Qur’an by starting with his own MS as the progenitor of all that would follow. Ehrman speculates, without a shred of evi­dence, that this same phenomenon occurred for NT books: “[W]hat if only one of the copies served as the copy from which all subsequent copies were made…?” (Misquoting Jesus, 59).

49) Keith Small, a scholar in the United Kingdom who has recently completed his doc­toral thesis on a comparison of the NT textual transmission and the Qur’an textual transmission (“Mapping a New Country: Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manu­scripts” [London School of Theology, 2008]), noted in an email on March 25, 2008, “There was not a program of translation to spread Islam through having people read the Qur’an, like there was with the Christian Scriptures. Though one early jurist, Abu Hanifah (d. AD 767), did rule that a person could recite a vernacular translation in their prayers, he also is said to have retracted that ruling. The earliest extant translation I know of is one done into Persian about AD 956 (Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, World Bibliography of Translations of the Meanings of the Holy Qur’an, Printed Translations 1515-1980 [Istanbul: Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture], xxiii).”

50) See Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, 29, for illustrations. Having this sort of marginal note in the Qur’an is unheard of. But some of the marginal notes in the NT MSS are rather impious, showing that the copying was meant more for the masses than for apologetic reasons.

51) Brooke Foss Westcott, Some Lessons of the Revised Version of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1897), 8-9 (italics added). Credit is due to Keith Small for pointing this reference out to me.

52) Email from Keith Small, Mar. 11 2008,

53) Email from Keith Small, Dec. 30, 2007. For an excellent survey on the transmission of the Qur’an, see now Keith E. Small, Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts (Idaho Falls, Idaho: Lexingon, 2011).

54) C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Touch­stone, 1996) 95 (italics added).

Did Copyists Copy the New Testament Correctly? Daniel Wallace

Mars Hill Church (2014) – The New Testament: Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then? Dr. Daniel Wallace is one of the foremost New Testament scholars in the world today. In his Best Sermon Ever, he shares with Mars Hill important teaching on the origin of the New Testament and whether or not what we read in our Bible translations today is the same as what was written in the original manuscripts. If you or a friend have ever had doubts or questions about the validity of the New Testament, or the Bible in general, this is the sermon to watch.

Dr. Daniel Wallace is a native Californian, a pastor, and a former surfer. He transplanted to Texas and has taught for more than 28 years at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he is the professor of New Testament Studies. One of his students over the years was Pastor Dave Bruskas, one of our Executive Elders at Mars Hill Church. Dr. Wallace is also the Executive Director of the Center for the Study of the New Testament Manuscripts. He earned his B.A. at Biola University and went on to earn a ThM degree and PhD from Dallas Theological Seminary. His postdoctoral studies have taken him around the world from Australia to Africa. He has been part of writing, editing, or contributing to more than 24 books. Dr. Daniel married his wife, Pati, 40 years ago and they have four sons and two granddaughters.

Mundane Monday ~ Dr. Daniel Wallace (Canon & Early Christianity)

See more on the Canon here.

Did the Ancient Church Muzzle the Canon?

Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then? Part 1 & 2 ~ Biola Chapel

Dr. Willaim Lane Craig Deals with Erhman at Azuza Pacific: