(This will be a three-part series.)
Many skeptics consider criticism of the New Testament text a significant argument against Christianity. Why did Bart Ehrman initially become so popular among skeptics? He addresses a lot of issues outside of his expertise, such as the problem of evil and Jesus' resurrection, but his popularity has been due primarily to his work on the text of the New Testament. Yet, there isn't much there for skeptics to use. On some of the most foundational issues related to the text, Ehrman agrees with conservative Christians:
"Most of these [textual] differences are completely immaterial and insignificant....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....when scribes made intentional changes, sometimes their motives were as pure as the driven snow....And so we must rest content knowing that getting back to the earliest attainable version is the best we can do, whether or not we have reached back to the 'original' text. This oldest form of the text is no doubt closely (very closely) related to what the author originally wrote, and so it is the basis for our interpretation of his teaching....In a remarkable number of instances - most of them, actually - scholars by and large agree [about what the earliest attainable text said]....It is probably safe to say that the copying of early Christian texts was by and large a 'conservative' process. The scribes - whether non-professional scribes in the early centuries or professional scribes of the Middle Ages - were intent on 'conserving' the textual tradition they were passing on. Their ultimate concern was not to modify the tradition, but to preserve it for themselves and for those who would follow them. Most scribes, no doubt, tried to do a faithful job in making sure that the text they reproduced was the same text they inherited." (Misquoting Jesus [San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005], pp. 10, 55-56, 62, 94, 177)
We have a large amount of evidence about the nature of the text from the second century onward. Thus, skeptics who (unwisely) want to keep making a major issue of the text of the New Testament have to push their speculations about widespread textual corruption back into the earliest decades of church history. That timeframe, therefore, is where the discussion should be focused, yet textual discussions often don't focus there. Since we have so much evidence from manuscripts and other sources from the second century onward, discussions are often heavily weighted toward a consideration of that evidence. And it does have some significance. But I would recommend that Christians only address that later data briefly, then spend most of their time on the earliest decades of church history. The implications the later sources have for earlier church history are worth discussing at length, but establishing the state of the text in the second century and later shouldn't be our focus. There isn't much doubt that we have a lot of data on the text of the gospel of John, for example, in manuscripts and other sources from the second century and beyond, and it's widely acknowledged that the textual differences in that timeframe are relatively minor. What Christians need to do, primarily, is get explicit and detailed about the implications that evidence has for the earliest decades of Christianity and discuss in detail the other evidence relevant to those earliest decades. What I want to do in this series of posts is briefly outline some of the issues that ought to be brought up.
It's often noted that the text is more varied early on than it is later. The earlier manuscripts differ from one another more than the later manuscripts differ from each other. We're supposed to conclude, therefore, that textual variations probably would have been greater in the earliest decades of church history. But that's like saying that a turtle would do better than a snail in a race with a horse. So what? Neither would even come close to winning, so replacing a snail with a turtle doesn't accomplish much. There isn't much significance in saying that textual variation increases as we go earlier into church history if the earliest levels of variation aren't nearly what they would need to be in order to sustain the critical theories.
Keep in mind that people living in the earliest generations of church history didn't anticipate archeology and other means by which we've discovered manuscripts and studied the text of the New Testament. It's not as though they knew when they would have to stop altering the text so much and begin being more conservative with the text, as if they knew that they only had several decades to carry out their textual corruption. How likely is it that such disregard for the original text early on would be followed by such consistent concern for textual preservation? A concern for textual preservation in the earliest decades of church history makes more sense of the later data. We don't assume some sort of major shift in beliefs and practices as our default position.
Ironically, skeptics often make much of the alleged disunity of early Christianity, even pushing back their theories of major discord as early as New Testament passages like Galatians 2. Supposedly, Paul was opposed to James, Petrine communities differed from Johannine communities, etc. Yet, they suggest that there was some sort of unified corruption of the New Testament text. There was significant unity in early Christianity, but it was a unity on issues like the virgin birth and the resurrection, not unity in the form of something like a post-apostolic worldwide denomination or church hierarchy that had widespread control over the manuscript record. Arguments about widespread textual corruption have to take into account factors such as the number of people involved, the organizational independence of the relevant individuals and groups, the ease with which any opponent of such corruption could have preserved his own copies of the text and made known what the corrupters were doing, etc. Skeptics who understand the problems with conspiracy theories in politics and other areas of life ought to be consistent by discerning the problems with conspiracy theories about early Christianity.