Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Do We Have the Word of God in light of Textual Variation?

In my post titled "Answering the Objections of Dogs and Hogs: Judge Not!" I said this about the well known passage about the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11):
First, it must be noted that this quote from John 8:7 is the section dealing with the woman caught in adultery, commonly known by scholars as the Pericope de Adultera. Almost every evangelical textual critic over the last 100 years has considered John 7:53-8:11 to be a dubious portion of the text, which means that it was probably not an original part of this gospel. It is found in various places throughout the manuscript tradition of John's gospel (after 7:36, 44, and 21:25) and even one extant manuscript places it after Luke 21:38. Also, the earliest manuscripts and many early versions do not have this section at all. Many manuscripts that do have it contain scribal notations that indicate that it was not an original part of John's gospel. The vocabulary and style in this section are very different from John's own writing style and the traditional placement of 7:53-8:11 interrupts the flow of thought that naturally occurs between verses 7:52 and 8:12, further suggesting that this section is an interpolation. Finally, no Greek church father comments on this passage before the 12th century, further suggesting that this passage was not original to John's gospel. I favor the scholarly opinion that suggests that this narrative is a true historical event that occurred in Jesus' ministry that circulated as oral tradition in the early church but was never included in the original New Testament writings. Instead, this oral tradition was later added as an extended marginal note in some early manuscripts and because it is in harmony with Jesus' ministry it eventually made its way into the text of John's gospel as we have it today.
I received the following questions in response:
"Are you saying that God has allowed His Word to be corrupted by forgeries and that the Bible is not, as it is today, 100% the Word of God?"
We have the word of God. However, God in His providence has allowed the Greek and Hebrew manuscript copies to have errors in them. 99% of these errors and corruptions are untranslatable into English and consist of minor mistakes such as misspellings (i.e., the "movable nu" variant), reversal of word order, etc. The remaining ~ 1 percent of textual corruptions consists primarily (but not exclusively) of the two famous examples of interpolation in the gospels (Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-8:11), the comma Johanneum (i.e., 1 John 5:7-8 in the KJV/TR), and other examples of skipping lines when copying from one manuscript to another, and minor expansions found in the later Byzantine manuscripts from which the KJV's edition of the textus receptus is largely based on (i.e., "the Lord Jesus Christ" in one Greek text vs. only "Jesus Christ" in another). It is important to note that contrary to the claims of Bart Ehrman, none of these textual variants affects the overall meaning or message of the New Testament. I have read most of Ehrman's popular work on the subject of textual changes changes the message of the New Testament (i.e., The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and Misquoting Jesus) and he simply overstates the case. For more information, I would encourage you to read "The Gospel according to Bart" by Dan Wallace, PhD. Some of the notes that scribes put into the margins of these manuscript copies eventually made their way into the text over a long period of time for various reasons. Some scholars think this is the case with the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). It is important to state clearly at this point that all evangelical text critical scholars agree that there are thousands of very minor copyist errors and a few interpolations in the manuscript copies of the Bible because this is exactly what the manuscript evidence shows us. To deny this is to stick your head in the sand, intellectually speaking. Not one Greek manuscript among the 5700+ Greek manuscripts reads exactly word for word like another Greek manuscript. This is exactly what you would expect if the manuscripts were copied by hand through the centuries and that is exactly what the scholars have found.

The only group that denies most of this information are King James Version only advocates. I went to a TR-only seminary (i.e., Textus-Receptus only) which is a type of King James only-ism, so I am very familiar with their arguments since I sat in their classes, read their propaganda, and discussed these issues with my KJV-only professors in private conversations. As an aside, the Textus Receptus only position says that the Greek text underlying the KJV New Testament is superior to that of the critical Greek text that most modern translations come from. However, the New King James translation is a modern translation based upon the same Greek text as the KJV, but when I argued for using it in seminary, I was shot down because it was suggested to me that the NKJV has some bad translations in it that undermine orthodoxy. I then responded, "Well, in 1611 the KJV translators didn't know about the Granville-Sharp construction in Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1 and thus the KJV obscures the deity of Christ in those verses, so shall I avoid using the KJV too?" I received no meaningful response. I wasn't convinced of their position then and I am not convinced now. Here's why: (1) Any KJV only advocate runs into the same problem when they make the KJV the golden standard because different KJV Bibles read differently depending upon who published it (Oxford or Cambridge) and when it was published (i.e., the 1769 revision done by Benjamin Blaney). Second, if you are going to argue that the Greek text that underlies the KJV (i.e., the TR) is superior and on that basis we should accept it, which TR shall we accept? There were originally five editions of the TR produced in the early 16th century by the Roman Catholic scholar Desiderius Erasmus and the one that underlies the 1611 KJV is not exactly like any one of those original five editions. Worse yet, the KJV translators themselves in the original preface to the 1611 KJV said that they believed that even the worst translations could still be called the word of God.
"Once you let the door open for one passage, on what basis must we insist that no other books have been corrupted in some similar fashion?"
Some of the books of the OT and NT have been corrupted in a similar fashion but (1) not to the extent that it destroys the meaning and message of the entire book and (2) the variants in question have been well known and well published by evangelical textual scholars for over a hundred years. This is why modern translations have footnotes indicating such things. Even early editions of the KJV had marginal notes to indicate when a particular variant reading was present in the manuscript tradition. For example, all modern translations have a footnote indicating that Mark 16:9-20 is an interpolation in the text of Mark's gospel. While most Greek manuscripts contain this passage, the earliest manuscripts do not. This passage and John 7:53-8:11 are the largest and most well known textual variants in the New Testament. Based upon internal and external evidence, the majority of scholars believe that Mark 16:9-20 was added later in order to smooth out Mark's abrupt ending at 16:8. Much of the vocabulary of verses 9-20 is very different from the rest of Mark's gospel, suggesting that verses 9-20 are not original. Early scribes used special marks in their manuscripts to indicate that they thought verses 9-20 were spurious. The church fathers Eusebius and Jerome indicated that almost all Greek manuscripts in their day lacked it. Also, there are two other endings of Mark that are found in the manuscripts, thus suggesting to us that none of them are original. Most evangelicals believe that verses 9-20 were a very early attempt by a well-meaning scribe to smooth out the end of Mark's gospel after verse 8. In all fairness, it is important to note that verses 9-20 were known by several second century fathers (Tatian, Irenaeus, and possibly Justin Martyr), however, the internal and external textual evidence weighs against their inclusion. Nevertheless, we have the word of God as it comes to us in the gospel of Mark, we just have sufficient textual evidence demonstrating that verses 9-20 were added on later.

There are no perfect copies of the Bible, even though the original writings were infallible and inerrant by virtue of their nature as God-breathed texts. All evangelical scholars today teach that inerrancy only applies to the original writings and not the copies. God has preserved His word. He just hasn't chosen to do so through perfect copying practices. God's means of preserving His word has been done through the multiplication of thousands of manuscripts, translations, and editions over a large geographical area in a very short period of time. This was the providential mechanism He used to prevent any one group of people from making wholesale, fundamental changes to the Scriptures. Since the most rigorous argument against inspiration and inerrancy in light of textual variation comes from Dr. Bart Ehrman, I will conclude with a summary of Dr. James White's argument against Ehrman's claims. Ehrman says in Misquoting Jesus,
In particular . . . I began seeing the New Testament as a very human book. The New Testament as we actually have it, I knew, was the product of human hands, the hands of the scribes who transmitted it. Then I began to see that not just the scribal text but the original text itself was a very human book. This stood very much at odds with how I had regard the text in my late teens as a newly minted “born-again” Christian, convinced that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God and that the biblical words themselves had come to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As I realized already in graduate school, even if God had inspired the original words, we don’t have the original words. So the doctrine of inspiration was in a sense irrelevant to the Bible as we have it, since the words God reputedly inspired had been changed and, in some cases, lost. Moreover I came to think that my earlier views of inspiration were not only irrelevant, they were probably wrong. For the only reason (I came to think) for God to inspire the Bible would be so that his people would have his actual words; but if he really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he had miraculously inspired them in the first place. Given the circumstance that he didn’t preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn’t gone to the trouble of inspiring them. [Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 211.]
Take note of Ehrman’s critical assumption: textual variation precludes inspiration. Ehrman argues that if God really inspired the text of the Bible then there would be no variants since inspiration would also require word-for-word preservation in the succeeding copies. Think about this scenario very carefully. How would God fulfill Ehrman’s requirements for this type of preservation had He wanted to preserve the Bible this way? Would the scribe that started to misspell a word because of eye fatigue immediately burst into flames? Would an angel appear and shout, “STOP NOW, Write that word with TWO nu’s!”? All such scenarios seem absurd because the critical assumption is flawed to begin with. Ehrman’s requirements amount to this conclusion: God could not, by definition get His revelation to man outside of His chiseling the entire Bible on a huge rock, or more to the point, until the invention of the modern photocopier. Textual variation is part and parcel of any ancient manuscript; whether the Bible, the Qu’ran, Tacitus, or Josephus. So, Ehrman’s assumption provides a presuppositional means of arguing that no divine revelation by definition could be transmitted before the premodern era. This means that before the photocopiers, you can’t be sure of any historical document; including your own hand-written signed birth certificate. There is no denying that God could have prevented all textual variation in His word through elaborate technological or supernatural mechanisms, but He didn’t. But this begs the real question: Why should we believe textual variation precludes inspiration when Jesus and the apostles had no such standard given the fact that both Jesus and the apostles freely quoted from the Septuagint and sometimes they quoted a textual variant? (!) They not only rejected Ehrman’s assumption, but they also, (like the KJV translators) believed that even imperfect translations could be called “The Word of God”. What’s worse is that even if we did have a master copy of the Bible somewhere then Ehrman would probably use its singularity as the strongest argument against its antiquity and accuracy. Thus, it seems that Ehrman gets to deny divine revelation in either direction; regardless of the scenario.

The truth is, God has preserved the text of the Bible, just not in the way that Ehrman assumes that it should have been done. This has been carried out providentially through the much less miraculous means of (1) textual multifocality
– a wide, rapid uncontrolled copying of the text, and (2) textual tenacity – the nature of the copying process tenanciously preserved all the readings in the manuscripts; both the corruptions and the original. It is far more amazing to see that God has taken the work of multiple authors, written in multiple locations, in multiple contexts, writing to multiple audiences, during a time of Roman persecution, working through the very mechanisms of history, and in that process create the single most and best attested text of the ancient world where less than one percent of the text requires scholars to engage in serious examination of the sources to determine the original reading. Even Ehrman admits that the text has been preserved in such a way that today’s textual scholars are merely “tinkering” since the task is for all intents and purposes completed. Ehrman said, “. . . at this stage, our work on the original amounts to little more than tinkering. There’s something about historical scholarship that refuses to concede that a major task has been accomplished, but there it is.” (Bart D. Ehrman, “Novum Testamentum Graecum Editio Critica Maior: An Evaluation,” TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism [1998], revision of a paper presented at the Textual Criticism Section of the 1997 Society of Biblical Literature conference in San Francisco.)] As Dr. James White noted, “Over 5,700 manuscripts, fifteen hundred years of transmissional history, multiple authors, and the combined wrath of Rome and the Gnostics – yet we have the NT we possess today. That is miraculous indeed!" [James R. White, The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations?, (Bloomington, MINN: Bethany House, 2nd Ed. 2009), 307.]


  1. Dusman -- thank you for putting this together. I recently was in a discussion with a commenter who made very Ehrman-esque arguments, and this, really, was the response:

    Why should we believe textual variation precludes inspiration when Jesus and the apostles had no such standard given the fact that both Jesus and the apostles freely quoted from the Septuagint and sometimes they quoted a textual variant? (!) They not only rejected Ehrman’s assumption, but they also, (like the KJV translators) believed that even imperfect translations could be called “The Word of God”.

    It's a very complex situation that very few of us are qualified to comment upon, but your last paragraph up above is a remarkable summary.

  2. Hi John,

    It's a complex issue indeed and I certainly am not an expert, but I know enough to know when I'm being snowed by guys like Ehrman as well as KJV-only guys. I recommend all Christians to do a little reading in the field of textual criticism and become familiar with the basic issues of canonicity, textual transmission, etc. so that they can answer these common objections. Thanks for reading!

  3. God is a living and breathing God. He put his breah in us and is not prone to mistakes. We are exposed to what the Holy Spirit deems we need for the growth this shot time on earth is desingned for. Just believe we are loved by a God whose plan is so much larger than we can comprehend. "Now that your rose in in bloom a light hits the gloom of the grave."

  4. For those who are interested, I had a lengthy discussion with James Snapp regarding the ending of Mark in a thread earlier this year. His last replies to me were posted around the time when Dave Armstrong began his responses to me on other issues, and I've been writing a lot of material in response to Dave since then. I also had some overtime at work and other responsibilities to tend to. I should be returning to the discussion with James later this year, and I intend to let him know by email if I decide to continue the discussion with him (I haven't read through his latest replies yet, so I can't judge whether there's anything there I'd want to respond to or how much of it). But what's posted already should be useful for anybody who's interested in the subject.

  5. Mr. Snapp,

    When a Christian evangelist/apologist like Dustin does a post critiquing a sworn enemy of the faith such as Bart Ehrman, it is mutinous on your part to give public aid and comfort to the enemy by knifing him in the back. One Bart Ehrman is already one Bart Ehrman too many. We don't need more enemy collaborators.

    I'd add that the sorts of objections you raised have already been addressed by a variety of NT scholars and textual critics (e.g. Darrell Bock, D. A. Carson, Gordon Fee, Dan Wallace).

    Go ride your hobby horse somewhere else. This is not the time or place.

  6. Brother Steve,

    I think you are looking at this the wrong way. Dusman thanked me, and I interpret that as a sign that he took my brief comment in the helpful spirit (however candid) in which it was intended. Improvement is more likely to be made when one notices where there is room for it.

    As for critiquing Bart Ehrman, btdt. It's precisely because Dr. Ehrman has a background in textual criticism that extra care is needed when describing this sort of manuscript-evidence, instead of simply absorbing Metzger's Textual Commentary, rephrasing it, and imagining that the work is done.

    And, no; the objections I have raised have not been adequately addressed by Bock, Carson, Fee, or Wallace. Wallace is the best textual critic of the four, and in Wallace's recent comments about Mark 16:9-20 in "Perspectives on the Ending of Mark," he made several errors. And he still hasn't corrected the citation-errors about Mk. 16:9-20 in the NET, even though he was informed about them years ago.

    If there is wisdom in fixing the fence where it needs mending, then this was a suitable time for brief comments such as mine. If the only cost of improving Dusman's future statements about Mark 16:9-20 is that I'm called a mutinous back-stabber, I think I can live with that absurd and unfair charge.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.