Friday, March 13, 2009

More Variants than Words in the New Testament!

Quote of the day:

there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus p. 10

This is one of the most abused quotes from Ehrman's NY Times Bestseller Misquoting Jesus. Strictly speaking the quote is not factually incorrect - there are around 200,000-300,000 textual variants among our New Testament manuscripts.

However, there are two main issues with this quote that allows it to be abused. (1) Firstly, there is the use of these figures for what Ehrman calls "comparative terms" (Misquoting Jesus, p. 10). (2) Secondly, there is the unambiguous opening for what these textual variants are and mean.

The first issue is rather easily explained. By no means is this comparison suggesting that every word of the New Testament is disputed (or that there are thousands of errors!). What this figure actually demonstrates is that we have a lot of manuscripts for the New Testament. We have to put this claim into perspective - we have over 1 million+ pages of NT manuscripts. So, these variants don't seem as big as a deal as those attacking the NT would like us to think - and this is without exploring the next question! That is, what are these variants and what do the actually mean?

What are the variants?

As Prof. Daniel Wallace (Professor of New Testament Studies; Director for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts) puts it:

"Once it is revealed that the great majority of these variants are inconsequential—involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, word order changes, and the like—and that only a very small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus. Indeed, only about 1% of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable. The impression Ehrman sometimes gives throughout the book—and repeats in interviews—is that of wholesale uncertainty about the original wording, a view that is far more radical than he actually embraces."

‘The Gospel According to Bart', Daniel B. Wallace

Or as Prof. Bart D. Ehrman (James A. Gray Distinguished Professor) himself puts it in Misquoting Jesus:

"To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.

'Misquoting Jesus', Bart D. Ehrman.

"In fact, most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and and away the [sic] most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another”

'Misquoting Jesus', Bart D. Ehrman

So now we know what these hundreds of thousands of variants are. In my experience (as testified to above by the experts) it is a rather difficult task in finding textual variants that lead to a change in meaning. But, alas, there are still some, albeit very few, textual variants among the thousands of NT manuscripts - so onto the next question!

What is the Impact of these variants?

As so simply put by the late Bruce M. Metzger (Collard Professor Emeritus of New Testament Language and Literature) in an interview with Lee Strobel:

Strobel: "How many doctrines of the church are in jeopardy because of variants?"

Metzger: "I don't know of any doctrine that is in jeopardy"

Strobel: "So the variations, when they occur, tend to be minor rather than substantive?"

Metzger: "Yes, yes, that's correct...The more significant variations do not overthrow any doctrine of the church. Any good Bible will have notes that will alert the reader to variant readings of any consequence. But again, these are rare."

In short - there is nothing new or changeable about this statement. The quote is simply there for shock value - to present a meaningless comparison and playup these variants.

Don't be fooled by it!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for putting it into perspective but i think you should clear up some definitions for people