1. Bibliographical Test

By James M. Rochford

The bibliographical test (also called lower criticism or textual criticism) asks if the manuscripts from the first-century were accurately transmitted to us today. Were the original NT documents distorted over time?

Many modern people believe that the New Testament was passed down to us like a game of Telephone.[1] I’m sure you remember the game of telephone from grade school. You might begin with the phrase, “Games are played in this space” and you end with the phrase, “James has an ugly face…” (at least, that’s how I remember it from grade school). By whispering the phrase from person to person, the message becomes distorted and unintelligible. Critic Bart Ehrman estimates that there are roughly 400,000 variations in the New Testament.[2] He writes, “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”[3] However, this claim is misleading for a number of reasons:

First, the reason why we have so many variations in the New Testament documents is because we have so many manuscripts. Textual critic Daniel Wallace observes, “No classical Greek or Latin text has nearly as many variants, because they don’t have nearly as many manuscripts. With virtually every new manuscript discovery, new variants are found. If there was only one copy of the New Testament in existence, it would have zero variants.”[4] This objection is similar to criticizing a muscle car for burning too much fuel. The engineer might retort: “The only reason this car burns so much fuel is that it burns so much rubber!” In the same way, Ehrman’s criticism actually serves to demonstrate one of the greatest strengths of the New Testament documents: the thousands of manuscripts that support it.

Josh McDowell The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict[5]

Author Book Date Written Earliest Copies Time Gap

No. of Copies

Homer

Illiad 800 B.C. 400 B.C. 400 yrs. 643
Herodotus History 480-425 B.C. 900 A.D. 1,350 yrs.

8

Thucydides

History 460-400 B.C. 900 A.D. 1,300 yrs. 8
Plato 400 B.C. 900 A.D. 1,300 yrs.

7

Demosthenes

300 B.C. 1,100 1,400 yrs. 200
Caesar Gallic Wars 100-44 B.C. 900 A.D. 1,000 yrs.

10

Livy

History of Rome 59 B.C. to A.D. 17 4th century (partial) mostly 10th century 400 to 1,600 19 copies
Tacitus Annals 100 A.D. 1,100 A.D. 1,000 yrs.

20

Pliny Secundus

Natural History A.D. 61-113 A.D. 850 750 yrs. 7
New Testament   A.D. 50-100 A.D. 114 (fragment)

A.D. 200 (books)

A.D. 250 (most of NT)

+ 50 yrs.

100 yrs.

150 yrs.

5366

 

Regarding these manuscripts, textual critic Daniel Wallace writes, “Many of these are fragmentary, of course, especially the older ones, but the average Greek New Testament manuscript is well over 400 pages long. Altogether, there are more than 2.5 million pages of texts.”[6] We have everything from full Bibles (dating to the fourth century) and fragments dating to the early second century:

Fourth century—Full Bibles: Codex Vaticanus was a 4th century full volume of the NT. It was buried in the Vatican library in Rome for centuries before it was discovered.[7] Likewise, Codex Sinaiticus was a 4th century full volume of the NT. When it was discovered, they were slicing up these manuscripts and using them to start fires! These two versions are sometimes called the “Neutral Text” against which the other manuscript families are compared.[8]

Third century—Partial Bibles: The Chester Beatty Papyri date to AD 200, and they contain much of the gospels, Acts, most of Paul’s epistles, Hebrews, and the book of Revelation.[9] In addition, the Bodmer Papyri (P66) dates to AD 200, and it contains a complete copy of John, part of Luke, 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude.[10]

Earliest Manuscript—AD 125: The John Ryland’s fragment is an excerpt from John 18:31-33, which was found in a coffin in Egypt, and it is dates to AD 125! This fragment is only 3 inches in diameter, but it shows that John was written before this time. Moreover, if John was dated before this, then the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) must be dated even earlier. This places all four gospels well within the NT.

First century fragment of Mark? Textual critic Daniel Wallace claims that a first century fragment of Mark has been discovered, and he plans to release more findings in time.

Second, variations are not contradictions. For instance, imagine if your wife said, “I love you.” And then, she said, “You are loved by me.” And, finally, she said, “You know I love you.” You would not tell her that she was contradicting herself; instead, you’d probably tell her that she was repeating herself. Similarly, New Testament scholars Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace point out that many variations in the New Testament documents are similar to this. For instance, they note that in the Greek language there are 16 different ways to state the simple phrase: “Jesus loves John.”[11] Therefore, most of the variations that Ehrman notes above are simply word order, spelling differences, or other insignificant variants, which do not change the meaning or message of the original author. In fact, Ehrman even admits to this! He writes,

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.[12]

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.[13]

Besides textual evidence derived from New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by the early Church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.[14]

Third, in the one percent of disputed text there is nothing theological at stake. Bock and Wallace write, “We noted the kinds of errors that are to be found in the copies. The vast majority of them are quite inconsequential. And less than 1 percent of all textual variants both affect the meaning of that verse (though none affects core doctrine) and have some plausibility of authenticity.”[15] Apologist Norman Geisler explains this concept in this way.[16] Imagine if you received a letter that said:

“#ou have won the five million dollar Reader’s Digest sweepstakes!”

Perhaps (being the skeptic that you are) you disregard the letter as completely unintelligible. After all, you cannot read the first letter of the message! But imagine that a week later, you receive another letter, which said:

“You #ave won the five million dollar Reader’s Digest sweepstakes!”

This would bring the message of the letter into focus, wouldn’t it? By comparing the two documents, you would be able to reconstruct the original letter with a high degree of reliability. While this is surely an oversimplification, the same is true for the textual criticism of the New Testament. These variations in the text don’t stop us from “cashing in” on the core message of the New Testament.

To conclude, the NT passes the bibliographical test with flying colors. Regarding Ehrman’s skepticism, one scholar observes: “Ehrman’s skepticism is more existential than evidential. It originates in his own autobiography more than the autographs.”[17] We wholeheartedly agree with his sentiment.

[1] Bart Ehrman uses this telephone illustration to describe the oral traditions before the New Testament was written down. See Ehrman’s lecture series: “The History of the Bible” from The Teaching Company. Lecture 5: “The Beginnings of the Gospel Traditions.” Track 4.

[2] Ibid., 89.

[3] Ibid., 90.

[4] Ehrman, Bart D., Daniel B. Wallace, and Robert B. Stewart. The Reliability of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011. 33.

[5] McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1999. 38.

[6] Ehrman, Bart D., Daniel B. Wallace, and Robert B. Stewart. The Reliability of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011. 33.

[7] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 65.

[8] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 70.

[9] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 72.

[10] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 72.

[11] Bock, Darrell L., and Daniel B. Wallace. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007. 56.

[12] Emphasis mine. Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: the Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. 207.

[13] Emphasis mine. Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: the Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. 62.

[14] Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament (Oxford, 2005), 126.

[15] Emphasis mine. Bock, Darrell L., and Daniel B. Wallace. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007. 71.

[16] Geisler, Norman L., and Thomas A. Howe. When Critics Ask: a Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1992. Introduction.

[17] Kresta, Al. Dangers to the Faith: Recognizing Catholicism’s 21st-Century Opponents. Huntington, Indiana: Sunday Visitor, 2013. 152.