It is written:
1 Peter 1:25-BUT THE WORD OF THE LORD ENDURES FOREVER.” Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you.
One famous skeptic of the Bible, Bart Ehrman, has claimed that the New Testament cannot be trusted because there are so many “variants” in the manuscripts of the New Testament. Craig Evans provides this insightful synopsis of Ehrman’s background:
“Bart Ehrman became a believer as a teenager and after his conversion was nurtured in a conservative setting. He enrolled at Moody Bible ble Institute in Chicago, went on from there to Wheaton College and Wheaton College Graduate School, where he earned degrees in New Testament, ment, and later completed M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees at Princeton Theological cal Seminary under the direction of Bruce Metzger, the venerable dean of New Testament textual criticism. I want to spend more time with Ehrman, for his books have sold widely and have had far more influence than the publications of the other scholars considered in this chapter. It was the study of textual variants-the usual myriad scribal errors and glosses that are found in handwritten books from antiquity and the Middle Ages-that caused Ehrman to question his faith. In short, he found what he took to be errors in Scripture. Errors in Scripture, thinks Ehrman, mean that the words of Scripture can no longer be viewed as God’s words.” (Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, 264-269 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP Books)
Ehrman had noticed what almost all students of the New Testament recognize: the scribes who made manuscript copies of the New Testament made some errors in their work. There were misspelled words, repeated lines, omitted words, etc. Ehrman came to believe that this meant the message of the New Testament had not been accurately preserved.
What shall we say to these charges?
First, we need to realize how the number of variants have been arrived at. It is usually claimed by some that there are over 400, 000 “errors” in the New Testament manuscripts. This is true: however, it is not explained how this number of errors are actually counted.
Whenever a scribe would misspell a word in a text, later scribes would reproduce that misspelled word, producing potentially hundreds of “errors” in the text.
Would that mean that therefore the message of the manuscripts had been somehow corrupted?
Well, let’s use Ehrman ourself as an example:
“Yet there is an ambiguity in saying 200,000 variants exist, since these represent only about 10,000 places in the New Testament. If a single word were misspelled in 3,000 different manuscripts, they are counted as 3,000 variants. Once the counting procedure is understood, and the mechanical (orthographic) variants have been eliminated, the remaining significant variants are surprisingly few in number. In his recent popular book, Misquoting Jesus, agnostic New Testament critic Bart Ehrman contends there are so many “errors” (variants) that we don’t know how many there are, perhaps 4,000. He asserts, “These copies differ from each other in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are.”5 Ironically, the way Ehrman counts “errors” (variants), there were 1.6 million errors in the first printing of his book. For there were 16 errors, and the book printed an alleged 100,000 copies.6 Yet Ehrman would be shocked if someone denied the credibility of his book based on this count. Similarly, no one should deny the credibility of the Bible on Ehrman’s count. Ehrman himself admits the biblical variants do not affect the central message of the Bible. He wrote, “In fact, most of the changes found in early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the 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.”. (Norman L. Geisler & William Nix, From God To Us: How We Got Our Bible, 243 (Kindle Edition); Chicago; Moody Publishers)
So if Ehrman were to use his own argument, then the message of his book has been entirely lost!
What proves too much proves too little.
Second, as has been pointed out also, over 99% of these “mistakes’ in the manuscripts are nothing more than misspelled words!
“The overwhelming majority of these four hundred thousand supposed variations stem from differences in spelling, word order, or the relationships between nouns and definite articles. In other words, a copyist simply switched a couple of letters, misheard a word, or skipped a line of text. Such variants are readily recognizable and, in most cases, utterly unnoticeable in translations!…In the end, more than 99 percent of the four hundred thousand or so differences fall into this category of variants that can’t even be seen in translations!12” (Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies And The Cross: How To Intelligently Counter The Ten Most Popular Theories That Attack The Gospel Of Jesus, 1527-1537 (Kindle Edition); Lake Mary, Florida; FrontLine).
Third, when we factor this number of “scribal errors” into our study, what do we learn?
“4. How significant are the variants? It is easy to leave the wrong impression by speaking of 200,000 “errors” that have crept into the text due to scribal mistakes and intended corrections. There are only 10,000 places where these 200,000 variants occur. The next question is, How significant are those 10,000 places? Textual critics have attempted to answer that question by offering percentages and comparisons. a. Scholars Westcott and Hort estimated that only about one-eighth of all the variants had any weight, as most of them merely involve mechanical matters such as spelling or style. Of the whole, then, only about one-sixtieth rise above “trivialities,” or can in any sense be called substantial variations. Mathematically that would compute to a text that is 98.33 percent pure whether the critic adopts the Textus Receptus, Majority Nestle-Aland Text, or some eclectic text of the New Testament. b. Ezra Abbott gave similar figures, saying about 19/20 (95 percent) of the readings are various rather than rival readings, and about 19/20 (95 percent) of the remainder are of so little importance that their addition or rejection makes no appreciable difference in the sense of the passage. Thus the degree of substantial purity would be 99.75 percent. c. Philip Schaff (p. 177) surmised that of the 150,000 variations known in his day, only 400 affected the sense; and of those, only 50 were of real significance; and of this total, not one affected “an article of faith or a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of Scripture teaching.” d. A.T. Robertson (p. 22) suggested that the real concern of textual criticism is of a “thousandth part of the entire text That would make the reconstructed text of the New Testament 99.9 percent free from real concern for the textual critic.” (Ed Hindson & Ergun Caner (General Editors), The Popular Encyclopedia Of Apologetics: Surveying The Evidence For The Truth Of Christianity, 99-100 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Harvest House Publishers)
The amazing degree of unity within the New Testament manuscripts is one of the great evidences that the Bible has indeed been preserved for us, just as God promised.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.
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