Chapter Two: The Copyist of the Early Christian Writings

        Dr. Ehrman begins the chapter by leveling a charge at the manuscripts and the copyist. He writes, “Those few that were produced in multiple copies were not all alike, for the scribes who copied texts inevitably made alterations in those texts-changing the words they copied either by accident (via a slip of the pen or other carelessness) or by design (when the scribe intentionally altered the words he copied).” (1)  He goes on to further describe how the church fathers Origen and Dionysius lamented the mistakes made to manuscripts.  Additionally, he adds that even a non-believer such as Celsus was aware of the problems with Christian manuscripts.  Furthermore, the early manuscripts were written in “scriptuo continua” in which the writings contained no punctuation.  Thus, this process generates problems in translation.  Taken on the surface, Ehrman paints a very bleak picture of having any hope at all of retaining the original meaning and intent of the New Testament authors.  Is this really the case?  To begin with, let’s discuss the mistakes themselves, the testimony of those early church fathers, and the issue of “scriptuo continua”, and see if we can salvage some hope for the scriptures.

     By his own admission, Ehrman writes, “In fact, most of the changes found in our 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.” (2)  This is, in fact, is the case and Ehrman seems to downplay it.  Timothy Paul Jones writes, “Most of the 400,000 variations stem from differences in spelling, word order, or the relationship between nouns and definite articles—variants that are easily recognizable and, in most cases, virtually unnoticeable in translations…In the end, more than 99 percent of the 400,000 differences fall into this category of virtually unnoticeable variants.” (3)  As we can plainly see, none of the mistakes effect any changes in Christian doctrine but involve, for the most part, the definite article.  The definite article is simply “the” in English.  While English has simply one way to spell it, Greek has around 24 different spellings depending on the case, number, and gender of the nouns that it precedes.  Additionally, Greek doesn’t use the article like English does.  Dr. Mounce notes, “You will soon discover that the Greeks do not use the article the same way we do.  They use it when we never would, and they omit it when English demands it.  Languages are not codes, and there is not an exact word for word correspondence.  Therefore, we must be a little flexible at this point…Greek often uses the definite article before a proper name. You may omit the article in your translation of proper names…Greek often includes the article with abstract nous such as “the Truth” although English does not normally use the article.” (4)  As we can see, the article was used extensively, with multiple forms, and would be an easy oversight for untrained scribes.  However, this makes absolutely no difference in the main thesis of a text.  To reiterate, not one of these errors will affect one facet of Christian doctrine or belief.  The discrepancies or mistakes that fall into other categories we will address with subsequent posts later.  Here is another point regarding Greek to remember.

    Greek is a descriptive language.  I will list out here that there are actually sixteen ways to write, in Greek, the English phrase, “Jesus loves Paul.”

1. ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ Παῦλον                                                                                                                 2. ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ τὸν Παῦλον                                                                                                            3. ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ Παῦλον

4. ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ τὸν Παῦλον

5. Παῦλον ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ

6. τὸν Παῦλον ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ

7. Παῦλον ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ

8. τὸν Παῦλον ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀγαπᾷ

9. ἀγαπᾷ ᾿Ιησοῦς Παῦλον

10. ἀγαπᾷ ᾿Ιησοῦς τὸν Παῦλον

11. ἀγαπᾷ ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς Παῦλον

12. ἀγαπᾷ ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς τὸν Παῦλον

13. ἀγαπᾷ Παῦλον ᾿Ιησοῦς

14. ἀγαπᾷ τὸν Παῦλον ᾿Ιησοῦς

15. ἀγαπᾷ Παῦλον ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς

16. ἀγαπᾷ τὸν Παῦλον ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς  (5)

 

     As we can see, all these phrases would constitute a variation in the text.  However, it wouldn’t change one thing about the statement that the phrase is making.  Discussing this in relation to “Misquoting Jesus”, Daniel Wallace writes, “The number of variants is as high as 400,000.  This is true enough, but by itself is misleading.  Anyone who teaches NT textual criticism knows that this fact is only part of the picture and that, if left dangling in front of the reader without explanation is a distorted view.  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.” (6)  And again, it is noted that, “Indeed, once a person realizes that such changes are a normal part of the transmission of any historical document, then they cease to be relevant for the discussion of the New Testament’s reliability (lest all antiquity slip into obscurity).  Such variants should be expected in historical documents, not put for as scandalous. (7)

     The early church fathers did notice discrepancies as Ehrman has pointed out.  His point does stand.  However, Origen makes this statement as a side-note uttered out of frustration and not out of a scientific analysis.  Dionysisus appears to do the same.  As far as Celsus, there may be another translation available of what he was actually saying about Christians.  The alternate reading states, “Some believers, like persons who lay violent hand on themselves in drunken rage, have corrupted the gospel from its original wholeness, into threefold, fourfold, and manifold editions and have reworked it so that they can answer objections.’ (8)  In light of this translations, it would appear that Celsus is not discussing New Testament errors but subsequent divisions of the gospel into 3-4 divisions namely, Matthew, Mark , Luke, and John. 

     Another interesting point about Ehrmans logic regarding scribal activity and ancient testimony is here presented by Michael Kruger.  In his review of Ehrman’s book, he writes, “If the overall transmission of manuscripts in the ancient world is as Ehrman describes, then one wonders how all of ancient history is not thrown into obscurity and uncertainty.  Indeed, if manuscript production was such a ‘hit and miss’ affair, we have no grounds to think that any account of ancient events should be received with any confidence—not to mention the very ancient testimonies that Ehrman appeals to in order to show that scribal activity was uncertain (testimonies which themselves are preserved in manuscripts!)  Of course, Ehrman does not question the authenticity of those testimonies, because it is clear that he only desires to call into question the value of Christian manuscripts.” (9) 

     Oftentimes, as I read Dr. Ehrman’s writings, I notice that he seems to have a split personality something akin to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  It’s difficult to tease out if Mr. Bart “the happy agnostic” or Dr. Ehrman “the textual critic who has some remnants of faith” is writing.  A good example of this is the issue of “scriptura continua.”  In Misquoting Jesus, Mr. Bart, “the happy agnostic” writes, “One of the problems with ancient Greek texts (which include all the earliest Christian writings, including those of the New Testament) is that when they were copied, no marks of punctuation were used, not distinction made between lowercase and uppercase letters, and even more bizarre to modern readers, no spaces used to separate words.  This kind of continuous writing is called scriptuo continua, and it obviously could make it difficult at times to read, let alone understand, a text.” (10)  Meanwhile, in his book, “The Text of the New Testament, it Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration,” Dr. Ehrman the critical scholar with remnants of faith writes, “It must not be thought, however, that such ambiguities (those created by scriptuo continua) occur very often in Greek.  In that language it is the rule, with very few exceptions, that native words can end only in a vowel (or a dipthong) or in one of three consonants.  Furthermore, it should not be supposed that scriptio continua presented exceptional difficulties in reading, for apparently it was customary in antiquity to read aloud, even when one was alone.  Thus, despite the absence of spaces between words, by pronouncing to oneself what was read, syllable by syllable, one soon became used to reading scriptio continua…The experience of Hermas, who says he copied a little scroll of heavenly origin “letter by letter, for I could not make out the syllables, suggest that the normal method of copying books was by syllables.” (11 parenthetical note mine for clarity) Please note, that the data presented in Misquoting Jesus is the same data that is presented here.  What has changed?  Not the data, but Dr. Ehrman or Mr. Bart’s interpretation of this data.  What’s even more impressive is that the fourth edition of the “Text of the New Testament” was published the same year that Misquoting Jesus was published.  The explanation offered by Dr. Ehrman and Dr. Metzger in the “Text of the New Testament” seems to make the most scholarly sense.  The one offered in misquoting Jesus discounts the evidence that this issue was not really an issue at all.  Thus, even Dr. Ehrman doesn’t really believe what he is writing in Misquoting Jesus.

     In the conclusion of this chapter, Dr. Ehrman attacks two points of scripture.  First, the Marcan appendix, and secondly, the woman caught in adultery.  I will fully develop a defense for these passages in the future, but for brevity sake, I will post those later.  Suffice it to say that there is some evidence that may point to their original status.

     Again, it must be reiterated, that in a largely illiterate society, with scribes that were making theological and blunderous mistakes to manuscripts, and where writing utensils were very crude, to only have 90 percent of the errors to make absolutely no change in Christian doctrine points to inspiration.  Only God could do something like this and in fact, there is no other book from antiquity that compares to the accomplishments of either the New Testament or the Old for that matter.  This points to God being behind the text despite its errors. 

 

 

Endnotes

  1.  Ehrman, Bart, Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Harper Collins Pub, New York, NY, 2005, page 46.
  2. Ibid, page 55.
  3. Jones, Timothy Paul, Misquoting Truth, a Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus.” Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2007, page 43-44.
  4. Mounce, William, Basics of Biblical Greek, Zondervan Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI, 1993, page 39.
  5. Wallace, Daniel, “The Gospel According to Bart” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, June 06, page 3.
  6. Ibid, page 4.
  7. Kruger, Micheal, “Review of Misquoting Jesus:  The Story of Who Changed the Bible and Why.”  Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, 2006 page 1.
  8. Jones, page 40.
  9. Kruger, page 2.
  10. Ehrman, page 48.
  11. Metzger, Bruce, Ehrman, Bart, The Text of the New Testament, Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2005, page 22-23.
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Chapter One: The Beginnings of Christian Scripture review of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus

          Dr. Ehrman begins the chapter with establishing the fact that both Judaism and the subsequent Christianity with springs forth from it were “religions of sacred texts and books.”  He writes, “…they located sacred authority in sacred books.  Christianity at its beginning was a religion of the book.” (1)  The meaning of this statement is somewhat misguided.  Let me explain.  By saying that Christianity was a “religion of the book” Dr. Ehrman means that whole of the religion was rooted in written documents.  On the surface, this statement appears true.  However, I would like to point out that the mission of Jesus was never to write a book.  His mission has been to establish relationship with the humans that He created and loves dearly.  This is easily seen by what is written in these books.  As I stated previously, the totality of scripture can be summed up in two statements.  First, it records the God encounters that select humans have experienced.  Secondly, it consists of the instructions of godly men who lived in intimacy with Him.  Hence, Christianity, at its outset, was not primarily a religion of the sacred books, it was a religion of experiencing God and these experiences then became recorded as “sacred texts.”  Christianity, since its outset, is about making “the God encounter possible”, then it preserved these encounters into a text.  Scripture was always secondary to the experience of intimacy with the Creator of the universe.  We never hear from Jesus, “Verily, Verily, I say unto you, that I have come to produce inerrant and inspired autographs that will replace Me in the Trinity.”  Yet, this seems to be the position of many conservative evangelicals except their scholars as has been previously noted.  Unfortunately, it is this thinking that led Dr. Ehrman to view scripture as he currently does.  Again, it is not his fault; it is the faulty theology that exalts the Bible to the level of God.  Additionally, this seems to be the premise that Dr. Ehrman presents in first chapter to debunk scripture.  Mainly, that the autographs contained the original text and if they are lost forever then God must be unknowable because He didn’t preserve for us the record of the originals which made Him known to us.  This logic is simply not acceptable.  God is to be experienced in spiritual communion and the biblical text is not necessary for encounters with God.  Scripture is mainly the launching pad towards the experience but it is the relationship that is to be exalted.  And if, it is a relationship, then God must; therefore, be knowable.  Not through the text, but through the relationship.  For example, when I first started dating my wife, she wrote me a couple of letters and emails.  I didn’t come to know her through the letters and emails (although they were an instrument of getting to know here) I got to know her through the relationship.  To be specific, I got to know her by spending time with her.  It is the same way with God.  To get to know Him, we spend time with Him, in worship, prayer, meditation, fellowship with other believers, and yes, through the record of the biblical text.

     Misquoting Jesus is a wonderful and challenging book.  There are things that I read in it that I have never really heard before.  I guess I have heard of them but have never given them serious consideration.  This book challenges me to give them consideration.  One such example is this, “Scholars have long suspected that some of the letters found in the New Testament under Paul’s name were in fact written by his later followers pseudonymously.” (2) Dr. Ehrman doesn’t go into serious discussion of this topic so neither will I.  However, I do want to give a quote regarding his position because it is neither the main consensus of history nor of modern scholarly opinion.  Dr. Ehrman specifically mentions the pastoral letters of I and II Timothy and Titus as suspect.  The Nelson Study Bible writes:

     “The letter names Paul as its author, and the authors statements about his life are consistent with what is known of him.  The early church fathers Clement of Rome and Polycarp accepted the letters as one of Paul’s, as did Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria.  Early in the nineteenth century, some scholars began to question Paul’s authorship of the Pastoral Epistles.  Critics claimed that these letters were “pious forgeries” written in the second century.  They leveled four different attacks on the integrity and authenticity of these letters.  First is a historical problem.  Since the chronological references n these letters do not correspond with the book of Acts, critics assume that the letters were written at a much later time by an impostor.  However, the letters could have been written soon after the events described in the book of Acts.  Many scholars hold that Paul was acquitted and released from the imprisonment described n Acts 28, and then traveled for several years in Asia Minor and Macedonia.  During this time he wrote the disputed letters.  Eventually he was imprisoned in
Rome again, and then died in Nero’s persecution.  Second, critics argue that the Pastoral Epistles do not fit Paul writing style.  These letters contain a number of words that occur only here in the New Testament but are common in the writings of the second century.  This is taken as evidence that the letters are form the second century.  The weakness of this argument is that there is a limited body of literature form the second century form with to draw such a dogmatic conclusion.  The third point relates to the form of church leadership described in the Pastoral Epistles.  The structure of authority, including elders and deacons seems to represent a more developed, second-century church.  However, it is clear from Phil 1:1 that the offices of elder and deacon were already functioning during Paul’s ministry.  The fourth argument involves theology.  Critics claim that the heresy combated in the Pastoral Epistles is the full-grown Gnosticism for the second century.  While it is true that Gnosticism was not fully developed until the second century, it is also certain that the heresy began slowly and evolved before it became a complete theological system.  Paul dealt with similar false teachings in Colossae.  The heresy if First Timothy appears to e an early form of Gnostic teaching that combined elements of Judaism, Persian thought, and Christianity.  There is no reason therefore, to conclude that first and Second Timothy are not authentic Pauline Epistles.” (3)

     Dr. Ehrman levels a similar charge at the letters written by Peter.  Similar arguments could be listed here but for sake of brevity, and also because Dr. Ehrman doesn’t fully develop his thought, we shall not either.  Suffice it to say, that there is just as much scholarship and history to state that Peter was the author. (4)  Additionally, Dr. Ehrman takes a cheap shot at Jesus teaching on divorce.  He writes, “On some occasions these authoritative interpretations of scripture appear, in effect, to countermand the laws of scripture themselves.  For example, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘Whomever divorces his wife should give her a certificate of divorce’ [a command found in Deut. 24:1], but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife for reason other than sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”  It is hard to see how one can follow Moses’ command to give a certificate of divorce, if in fact divorce is not an option.” (5)  I call this a “cheap shot” because it is the same argument that the Pharisees of old put to Jesus in the gospel of Mark.  It reads, “The Pharisees came and asked Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ testing Him.  And he answered and said to them, ‘What did Moses’ command you?’  They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and to dismiss her.’  And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote this precept.  But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh, so then , they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore, what God has joined together let not man separate.”   In the house His disciples also asked Him again about the same matter.  So he said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her.  And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:2-10)  One of the expectations of Messiah was that He would fully explain and develop the Torah.  This is exactly what Jesus is doing here.  Dr. Ehrman doesn’t fully develop the argument which is why I call it a “cheap shot.”  But, Jesus clearly answers Dr. Ehrman’s question as He did with the Pharisees.

       In the end, Dr. Ehrman makes three profound points about early Christian writing.  First, the society that produced them was largely illiterate.  Second, the utensils used for writing were very crude which lead to problems with preservation and lead to mistakes with writing.  Thirdly, the scribes themselves oftentimes made intentional and unintentional mistakes.  These are facts and no one can dispute them.  However, the conclusions that one can draw from this data becomes the issue.  I take issue with Dr. Ehrman’s conclusion of the data.  He points at the data and determines that it is evidence of the un-inspiration of scripture.  In my estimations, he has it backwards.   What Dr. Ehrman doesn’t tell us is that despite the issues, every major tenet of Christian doctrine is preserved to the present day.  I point at this data and conclude:  Who else but God could preserve the heart of Christianity despite the fact that the society was illiterate, the writing materials and mediums were crude, and theologically biased and sloppy scribes would make mistakes.  I point at this and say God must be behind it!  This is a point that Dr. Timothy Paul Jones makes in his book which refutes Dr. Ehrman.  He writes, “Where Ehrman errs is in his assumption that these manuscript differences somehow demonstrate that the New Testament does not represent God’s inerrant Word.  The problem with this line of reasoning is that the inspired truth of Scripture does not depend on word-for-word agreement among all biblical manuscripts or between parallel accounts of the same event…Yet, when someone asks, Does everything in Scripture and in the biblical manuscripts agree word-for-word?  That person is asking the wrong question.  The answer to that question will always be a resounding no.  Instead, the question should be, though they may have been imperfectly copied at times and though different writers may have described the same events in different ways, do the biblical texts that are available to us provide a sufficient testimony for us to understand God’s inspired truth?” (6)  To this question, we must answer with a resounding, yes!

    The real question about the beginnings of the scripture we have not addressed in this review.  For example, who were the authors, when did they write, what did they write, and how do we know that what we have today carries the same central themes?  These questions are involved and lengthy and I will try to answer them in a subsequent posts.

    Endnotes

  1.  Ehrman, Bart, Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Harper Collins Pub, New York, NY, 2005, page 20.
  2. Ibid, page 23.
  3. Radmacher Earl D. (General Editor), The Nelson Study Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN, page:  2039.
  4. Also see the Nelson Study Bible on pages 2128 and 2113.
  5. Ehrman, page 30-31.
  6. Jones, Timothy Paul, Misquoting Truth, a Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus.” Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2007, page 31-32.