Textual Criticism: Bart Erhman & the New Testament text

The book ‘Misquoting Jesus’ (2005), by Bart Ehrman (a professional textual critic and ex-Christian), has been cited widely as presenting an overwhelming case for the unreliability of the textual transmission of the New Testament. Ehrman’s work is neither a breakthrough nor a revelation.1 2 He raises no new textual difficulties, contributes no new evidence, and in a number of cases his arguments stand well outside the established scholarly consensus.3

The following key statements made by Ehrman are frequently used to criticize the accuracy of the Greek New Testament.

‘We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.’ 4

The overwhelming majority of these differences are of no significance at all.5

‘Mistakes multiply and get repeated; sometimes they get corrected and sometimes they get compounded. And so it goes. For centuries.’ 6

There is general agreement that the original text is recoverable despite these errors.7 The very fact that they are identifiable as errors is because the genuine text is still available.

‘In almost every instance in which a change of this sort occurs, the text is changed in order to limit the role of women and to minimize their importance to the Christian movement.’8

Such claims have been exaggerated; out of the entire New Testament a mere 15 verses are most commonly discussed, and there is no consensus that even all of these are clear indications of deliberate misogynist alterations.9

‘The more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realized just how radically the text had been altered over the years at the hands of scribes, who were not only conserving scripture but also changing it.’ 10

Deliberate changes made to the text were extremely rare.11 12

‘Anyone reading a book in antiquity could never be completely sure that he or she was reading what the author had written.’13

The accuracy of copies was typically far higher than Ehrman implies.14 15

Ehrman makes a number of concessions which did not receive the same media attention as his sensationalist claims, and are typically overlooked or ignored by skeptics and atheists. He acknowledges that a large number of variants increases the likelihood of the original text being uncovered, 16 that the variants ‘do not detract from the integrity of the New Testament’, 17and that most are ‘completely insignificant, immaterial’.18

Erhman acknowledges the copying process ‘was by and large a “conservative” process’, 19 that the scribes’ major aim ‘was not to modify the tradition, but to preserve it’, 20 that most scribes ‘tried to do a faithful job’, 21 and that most changes ‘have nothing to do with theology or ideology’. 22 Ehrman does not believe the recovery of the original text of the New Testament is impossible,23 24 concluding it is possible to recover ‘the oldest and earliest stage of the manuscript tradition for each of the books of the New Testament’.25 26

  1. ‘Misquoting Jesus for the most part is simply NT textual criticism 101.’, Wallace, ‘The Gospel According to Bart: A Review Article Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (49.2.328), 2006. []
  2. ‘There is nothing really earth-shaking in the first four chapters of the book.’, ibid., p. 332. []
  3. ‘Chapter 2 (“The Copyists of the Early Christian Writings”) deals with scribal changes to the text, both intentional and unintentional. Here Ehrman mixes standard text-critical information with his own interpretation, an interpretation that is by no means shared by all textual critics, nor even most of them.’, ibid., p. 328. []
  4. Ehrman, ‘Misquoting Jesus’, p. 7 (2005). []
  5. ‘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.’ Wallace, ‘The Gospel According to Bart: A Review Article Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (49.2.330), 2006. []
  6. Ehrman, ‘Misquoting Jesus’, p. 57 (2005). []
  7. ‘Yet Ehrman remains well aware that textual critics can, in his words, “reconstruct the oldest form of the words of the New Testament with reasonable (though not 100 percent) accuracy”.’, Jones, ‘Misquoting Truth’, pp. 47-48 (2007); the quotation from Ehrman is a statement from his book ‘Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew’, p. 221 (2003). []
  8. Ehrman, ‘Misquoting Jesus’, p. 182 (2005). []
  9. ‘In a recent contribution to text-critical assessment of Acts, however, Michael Holmes challenges this scholarly conjecture of what he calls an “alleged” antifeminist bias in the Western texts, stating that “the claim, though often repeated, has not, to my knowledge, been examined in a thorough or comprehensive fashion.” In his detailed examination he rightly argues, in my view, that many scholars have taken variants or tendencies that appear in Codex Bezae and over-generalized them to describe Western texts as a whole, overlooking that Bezae is only one representative of this text type, and possesses idiosyncracies of its own.’, Brock, ‘Scribal Blunder or Textual Plunder? Codex Bezae, Textual-Rhetorical Analysis, And the Diminished Role of Women’, in Stichele & Penner (eds.), Her Master’s Tools?: Feminist and Postcolonial Engagements of Historical-Critical Discourse’, Global Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship, p. 257 (2005). []
  10. Ehrman, ‘Misquoting Jesus’, p. 207 (2005). []
  11. ‘Intentional theological changes make up very, very few of the textual variations in the NT and therefore, on a relative scale, have little significance for determining the overall state of the text. The vast majority of scribes, in fact, did not intentionally change the text whenever they felt like it.’, Kruger, ‘Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart D. Ehrman’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (49.2.338), 2006. []
  12. ‘If indeed, the number of textual variants is as high as he claims (400,000?), then theologically motivated changes make up such a slight portion of this amount that one wonders why they are being discussed in the first place.’, ibid., p. 338; he adds ‘Not surprisingly, such a discussion of numbers is notably absent from this chapter, because they seem to work against Ehrmans’s point, rather than for it.’, p. 338. []
  13. Ehrman, ‘Misquoting Jesus’, p. 46 (2005). []
  14. ‘In order to argue selectively against Christian manuscripts, Ehrman must show that Christian copying was worse than most, which he has tried to do by arguing that Christian scribes were non-professional (even at times illiterate) and therefore prone to mistakes.’, Kruger, ‘Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart D. Ehrman’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (49.2.338), 2006. []
  15. ‘Even if there were not 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.’, ibid., p. 338. []
  16. ‘And so it goes—the more manuscripts one 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.’, ibid., p. 87. []
  17. ‘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.’, ibid., p. 87. []
  18. ‘To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.’, ibid., p. 207. []
  19. ‘It is probably safe to say that the copying of early Christian texts was by and large a “conservative” process. The scribes—whether nonprofessional scribes in the early centuries or professional scribes of the Middle Ages—were intent on “conserving” the textual tradition they were passing on.’, ibid., p. 177 []
  20. ‘Their ultimate concern was not to modify the tradition, but to preserve it for themselves and for those who would follow them.’, ibid., p. 177. []
  21. ‘Most scribes, no doubt, tried to do a faithful job in making sure that the text they reproduced was the same text they inherited.’, ibid., p. 177. []
  22. ‘It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the only changes being made were by copyists with a personal stake in the wording of the text. 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.’, ibid., p. 55. []
  23. Ibid., p. 210. []
  24. ‘A number of scholars—for reasons we saw in chapter 2—have even given up thinking that it makes sense to talk about the “original” text. I personally think that opinion may be going too far.’, ibid., p. 210. []
  25. ‘For my part, however, I continue to think that even if we cannot be 100 percent certain about what we can attain to, we can at least be certain that all the surviving manuscripts were copied from other manuscripts, which were themselves copied from other manuscripts, and that it is at least possible to get back to the oldest and earliest stage of the manuscript tradition for each of the books of the New Testament.’, ibid., p. 62. []
  26. ‘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.’, ibid., p. 62. []

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