A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Misquoting Jesus: Chapter Three (4 of 9)

Texts of the New Testament

Chapter three is an excellent overview of the many and various editions, manuscripts of the New Testament and the differences between them. He begins the chapter by noting that as the years progressed, �a kind of professional scribal class came to be part of the Christian intellectual landscape, and with the advent of professional scribes came more controlled copying practices, in which mistakes were made much less frequently� (71).

It was the fourth century that saw the advent of the professional scribe. Eventually monks took up the practice of copying �texts carefully and conscientiously� (73). The scribal copying of texts continued until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, which revolutionized the copying process. Ehrman also notes that most of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that we have come from the medieval period (73).

From his discussion of the professional scribal class, Ehrman proceeds to give good and readable overviews of the Latin Vulgate, the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament and the first published edition of the Greek New Testament. Ehrman�s discussion of Mill�s apparatus of the Greek New Testament (published 1707) is quite helpful as he highlights the ensuing controversy Mills created (after his death) by the publication of his apparatus, which caused some Protestants to question the reliability of the New Testament in its then current form, others to respond to Mills with long detailed arguments analyzing each variant reading, and some Catholics who used the apparatus to discount the Greek in favor of the Latin Vulgate. It was Richard Bentley of Trinity College, Cambridge who disagreed with all in the midst of the fray, arguing that the variant readings did not make the faith questionable since the variants had existed long before Mill�s highlighted them. It stands to reason that the more copies of a manuscript one has, the more variants there will be and the books of the New Testament are the most copied of any ancient manuscripts. Mill�s work in pointing out the 30,000 variants �do not detract from the integrity of the New Testament; they simply provide the data that scholars need to work on to establish the text� (87).

Ehrman briefly highlights the four types of Greek manuscripts available to us: 1) papyrus (the oldest written manuscripts dating from the second to seventh centuries); 2) majuscules (written in the form of large �capital� letters on parchment made from animal skins, which date from the fourth to the ninth centuries); minuscules (written in small lettered form often in a script that looks somewhat like modern cursive writing. These manuscripts date form the ninth century onward.); and 4) lectionaries (written in minuscule form which contain readings from the New Testament for the purpose of worship). Ehrman also notes the ten thousand additional manuscripts in other languages (Latin, Syriac, Coptic, etc.).

When one looks at all these manuscripts, how many variant readings are there? While scholars differ in their estimates, Ehrman says the estimates are somewhere between two and four hundred thousand. He states, �There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament� (90).

Ehrman closes the chapter with a more detailed treatment of the two kinds of changes made in copying�accidental and intentional.

This chapter is a well-written survey of the text of the New Testament. Ehrman is a gifted writer able to write about a complex subject in a clear way without thinning out the content.

Two questions:

1) One page 84 Ehrman states, �If one did not know which words were original to the Greek New Testament, how could one use these words in deciding correct Christian doctrine and teaching?� What variant readings call into question Christian doctrine and teaching? I am still waiting for at least one example.

2) Ehrman speaks of some changes that are nonsensical. He gives the example of John 5:39 where Jesus tells his detractors �search the Scriptures�for they bear witness to me.� In one manuscript the last verb was changed to a word that sounds similar, but makes no sense. It reads, �search the Scriptures�for they are sinning against me.� I raise this example because the person not familiar with textual criticism will read Ehrman�s statement that there are between 200,000 and 400,000 variants in the available texts of the New Testament and get the clear impression that it is impossible to know the original. Yet, how may of those variants are of no material significance, just as John 5:39? We know the latter reading of that verse must be wrong, so it simply does not qualify as important. In addition, how many of the those variants are quite minor (e.g. leaving out a letter or a word, equivalent to a �typo�? And how many are simply the same variant in different manuscripts counted each time we find it?

It will be my contention that the vast majority of variant readings are ultimately of little importance (not that it is unimportant, however, to study them); but that argument must wait until we move further through the book.


Ted M. Gossard said...


Those who don't know Greek can get a pretty good idea of variants on some level, if they have the copy of the NKJV that has the variant readings listed below. These, of course, are only the deemed major variants. But they help one see just how insignificant the differences are. Most of the time, I recollect reading, the variants are arguably more on style than substance: just a different way of saying the same, or much the same thing.

I appreciate you working through this book like this. Thanks.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Yeah, it was Bruce Metzger, Ehrman's teacher, who himself said that 90% of the text of the New Tetament is settled as to what it actually said. The remaining 10% affects no major point of Christian doctrine or teaching.