CHAPTER 11: Do variations destroy the message?

[Excerpt from Chapter 11: Transmission “Do We Read What They Wrote?”]

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Critic Bart Ehrman estimates that there are roughly 400,000 variations in the New Testament.[1] He writes, “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”[2] However, this claim is misleading for a number of reasons.

For one, the reason why we have so many variations in the New Testament documents is because we have so many manuscripts! That is, the more manuscripts we have, the more variations we’ll find. Textual critic Daniel Wallace explains,

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.[3]

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.

In addition, Ehrman fails to point out a very important point: variations are not the same as 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. That is, she is merely saying the same thing in three different ways. 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.”[4] 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, at the end of his book, 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.[5]

It would have been nice if Ehrman had made this admission at the beginning of his book, rather than waiting until the end! For this reason, it seems safe to say that while there are thousands of variants, these variations do not imply contradictions. Most importantly, these variations don’t change the message of the original author.

Moreover, only one percent of the New Testament is seriously disputed by textual critics today. However, even within this disputed one percent, there is nothing theologically significant at stake.[6] 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.[7]

Apologist Norman Geisler explains this concept in this way.[8] 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.

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[1] Ibid., 89.

[2] Ibid., 90.

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

[4] 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.

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

[6] Ehrman claimed that these changes do affect the theology of the NT in each of these instances: Mk. 16:9-20; Jn. 7:53-8:11; 1 Jn. 5:7-8; Heb. 2:8-9; Mk. 1:41; Mt. 24:36; Jn. 1:18; 1 Jn. 5:7-8. Ibid., 208. However, even these examples do not demonstrate his point. Each of the doctrines in these passages could be supported in other places of the New Testament; sometimes even in the same chapter or book.

[7] 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.

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