Chapter Three: The Text of the New Testament

  In Chapter three, Dr. Ehrman again paints another bleak picture for the scriptures.  He describes the earliest scribes as. “Because they were not highly trained to perform this kind of work, they were more prone to make mistakes than professional scribes would have been.  This explains why our earliest copies of the early Christian writing tend to vary more frequently from one another and from later copies than do the later copies (say, of the high Middle Ages) from one another.” (1)  However, as Michael Kruger notes, “Even if there were no formal scriptoriums in the second century (and we are not sure), there are substantial indicators that an organized structured, and reliable process of transmission was in place amongst early Christians.  For example, scholars have long recognized that the virtual unanimity throughout all of early Christendom in its use of the codex (as opposed to the roll) reveals a striking degree of structural unity.  Moreover, scribal features such as the nomina sacra, which are also found in virtually all early Christian manuscripts (even second-century copies), show a ‘degree of organization, of conscious planning, and uniformity of practice among the Christian communities which we have hitherto had little reason to suspect, and which throws a new light on the early history of the church…such textual evidence is simply ignored by Ehrman in order to bolster the claim that Christian scribal activity was unreliable.”(2) 

     He goes on to describe how professional scribes came into the church in the fourth century and manuscript quality greatly improved and a more standardized text became available.  However, he adds, “It would be a grave mistake, though, to think that because later manuscripts agree so extensively with one another, they are therefore our superior witnesses to the ‘original’ text of the New Testament.  For one must always ask:  where did these medieval scribes get the text they copied in so professional a manner?  They got them from earlier texts, which were copies of yet earlier text, which were themselves, copies of still earlier texts.  Therefore, the texts that are closet in form to the originals, are, perhaps unexpectedly, the more variable and amateurish copies of early times, not the more standardized professional copies of later times.” (3)  The he tells us that Latin eventually replaces Greek and that all scholarly works for centuries used the Latin Vulgate which was produced by the greatest scholar of the day, Jerome.  One need not hold out hope for the Vulgate, according to Dr. Ehrman.  He writes, “Today, there are nearly twice as many copies of the Latin Vulgate as there are Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.” (4)  Hope for the scriptures didn’t improve much with the advent of the printing press.  Although, the Vulgate was the first major work printed by Gutenberg’s press, the Latin was still considered superior to the Greek and some didn’t conceive of publishing a multilingual edition until sometime later.  However, even the “Complutension Polygot” (which juxtaposed Hebrew, Latin, and Greek of the Old Testament and Greek and Latin of the New Testament) is somewhat suspect because no one really knows exactly what manuscripts they used in translation.

     Dr. Ehrman bashes the textus receptus of Erasmus by saying, “It appears that Erasmus relied heavily on just one twelfth century manuscript for the gospels, and another, also of the twelfth century for the book of Acts and the Epistles—although he was able to consult several other manuscripts and make corrections based on their readings.  For the book of Revelation he had to borrow a manuscript from his friend and German humanist Johannes Reuchiln; unfortunately, this manuscript was almost impossible to read in places, and it had lost the last page, which contained the final six verses of the book.  In his hast to have the job done, in those places Erasmus simply took the Latin Vulgate and translated its text back into Greek, thereby creating the same textual readings found today in no surviving Greek manuscripts.” (5)  He applauds the work of the Mill New Testament which he states, “On the basis of this intense thirty year effort to accumulate materials, Mill published his text with apparatus, in which he indicated places of variation among all the surviving materials available to him.  To the shock and dismay of many of his readers, Mill’s apparatus isolated some thirty thousand places of variation among the surviving witness, thirty thousand places where different manuscripts patristic (church fathers) citations, and version had different readings for the passages of the New Testament.” (6)  However, what are we really seeing with Mill’s work.  To be sure, it was a profound work.  But, as Michael Kruger points out, “it is well known that comparing Greek manuscripts with manuscripts in other languages, and citations form the Fathers, is not the same as comparing Grek manuscripts with one another.  Translation from one language to another brings in all sorts of variations and church fathers are known for loose citations of the New Testaments, citations from memory, and for paraphrasing and conflating citations.  Thus, again, the numbers are not all they appear to be.” (7) 

   Then, Dr. Ehrman makes one of the most insightful statements of the entire books, thus far.  Up to this point he paints a very bleak picture for the scriptures.  However, Dr. Ehrman, paints a profound picture regarding what this entire section means to us, the readers and lay people.  He writes, “The more manuscripts on discovers, the more the variant readings; but also the more the likelihood that somewhere among those variant readings one will be able to uncover the original text.  Therefore, the thirty thousand variants uncovered by Mill 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, a text that is more amply documented than any other from the ancient world.” (8) Notice closely what Dr. Ehrman is saying here.  He is telling us that the originals autographs are somewhere within the texts that we have now.  Hence, it is the job of textual criticism to tease them out.   This is an amazing statement.  Dr. Ehrman is saying that the more manuscripts we have the better the chances that we can determine what was written on the original autographs.  Hence, the multiple amounts of manuscripts and their variations aptly assist us in purifying the text.  This begs the question to Dr. Ehrman.  Why did you even write this Misquoting Jesus book in such a style that detracts from this profound statement? Furthermore, doesn’t the fact that the text is the most amply documented from the ancient world bespeak of some type of divine intervention, or dare I say, inspiration?  Perhaps, we have exactly what God intended us to have.  Perhaps, “it is the glory of God to conceal a matter but the glory of kings to search it out.” (Proverbs 25:2)  This sentiment is also echoed by Michael Kruger.  He writes, “Indeed, once a person realized 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 Testaments reliability.  Such variants should be expected in historical documents, not put forth as scandalous…Ehrman also doesn’t mention that the vast majority of these textual variants are easily spotted and easily corrected.  Indeed, the entire science of textual criticism (of which Ehrman is an obvious proponent) is committed to this every task.  But, Ehrman almost gives the impression that 400,000 variants exist and we have no idea what was original and what was not, throwing the entire New Testament into utter obscurity.  That is simply misleading.  In this regard, Ehrman wants to be able to have his text-critical cake and eat it too.  One the one hand, he needs to argue that test-critical methodologies are reliable and can show you what was original and what was not, otherwise he would not be able to demonstrate that changes have been made for theological reasons.  But on the other hand, he want the “original” text of the New Testament to remain inaccessible and obscure, forcing him to argue that text-critical methodologies cannot really produce an certain conclusions.  Which one is it?” (9) 

     Dr. Ehrman lists a number of “errors” in the latter part of the chapter.  These fall into two categories.  First, he lists accidental types and secondly, intentional types.  Not one of these errors affects any major tenet of Christianity and it is commonly acknowledged that they exist and that they simply don’t matter all that much.  As Timothy Jones writes, “From my perspective, a significant alteration would be one that requires Christians either to rethink a vital belief about Jesus Christ—a belief that w might find in the Apostles Creed, for example, or to doubt the historical accuracy of the New Testament documents.  Yet, when I look at the changes in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, I find no ‘highly significant’ alterations.” (10)

 

Endnotes

  1. Kruger, Micheal, “Review of Misquoting Jesus:  The Story of Who Changed the Bible and Why.”  Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, 2006 page 2
  2.  Ehrman, Bart, Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Harper Collins Pub, New York, NY, 2005, page71,.
  3. Ibid, page 74.
  4. Ibid page 75.
  5. Ibid, page 78-79.
  6. Ibid, page 84.
  7. Kruger, page 3.
  8. Ibid, page, 87.
  9. Kruger, page 2.
  10. Jones, Timothy Paul, Misquoting Truth, a Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus.” Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2007, page 54.
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