What did it say? Does it matter?

Inerrancy is a high standard for anyone to claim. Without error. One single slip in the smallest detail and the adjective is revoked. Most of us struggle to write an inerrant tweet, but I was trained up to believe that the entire Bible we read is perfect… free of human corruption and reliable in every word, adequate to hang doctrine and all decisions of life.

In the Answers in Genesis statement of faith, they attest that the Bible’s “assertions are factually true in all the original autographs”, which is a newly-common phrasing among believers. By “original autograph”, they mean the very first copy… the papyrus pages that the authors composed their work upon. This caveat allows for errors or problems to be blamed on corruption of the original text by centuries of scribes making copies of copies of copies.

This week I was listening to Bart Ehrman debate Craig Evans on the question “Are the gospels reliable?”. While by no means the most pointed or significant evidence presented in the talk, a particular section dealing exactly with manuscript variations caught my ear.

I wanted to dig in deeper to the Biblical scholar’s argument, so I’m taking you along for my ride. Here is what was said by Dr. Ehrman, along with my own interjections.

The following view is the view of skeptics — that we don’t have the originals, we have only copies, and that thousands of copies have thousands and tens-of-thousands of mistakes.

And this is also the view of non-skeptics. It’s the view of every scholar who works in this field.

Everybody agrees we don’t have the originals, we have thousands of copies, and the thousand copies have tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of differences among them.

Are any of these differences important?

An excellent question.

Did Jesus say, “Let the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her”? It’s a wonderful and familiar saying of Jesus, but it’s based on a scribal variation that is an error. It was not originally in the New Testament gospels.

Did Jesus say, “Neither do I condemn you go and sin no more?” Well, does it matter whether Jesus said it or not? Turns out, it’s only in a textual variant. It was not in the original New Testament.

Page NB (52) of Papyrus 66, a codex of John’s Gospel from about AD 200, illustrates the omission of the Story of the Adulteress from early manuscripts.

Both of these quotations are from the tale of the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11, though the problem section begins at 7:53.

I memorized this book in seventh grade in the NIV version which bears the disclaimer, “The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.” This bothered me even then, but I was merely a lad and my leaders were unfazed by this problem, so I went along.

The first manuscript to contain the story is from around 400 C.E., nearly 300 years after the believed date of John’s authorship. In the codex shown here, the end of the second line is verse 7:52 and “again Jesus spoke to them” is the third line, which is now 8:11. The apocryphal story became wedged in-between these lines in subsequent manuscripts of the ninth century.

The 7th chapter is not the only place this tale has shown up uninvited. In 4% of the Greek manuscripts where the story is included, it is located in completely different chapters or even in different gospels. Perhaps anywhere the papyrus had blank space, like a doodle a savior might allegedly sketch in the dirt.

It seems clear the continued inclusion is due to tradition, the warm narrative and catchy Jesus sound-bytes, rather than textual confidence. It is not material penned by the writer of John. See more here and here and here.

Did Jesus say, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes in me and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not will be condemned”? It’s found only in a textual variant.

Ehrman is referencing Mark 16:9-20. The professed ending to that gospel is considered by most scholars to be a later addition because it is a) omitted in the earliest complete copies of the Bible (around 350 AD); b) also missing from groups of later copies; c) has stylistic changes from the rest of the book, and d) there is a second completely-different, alternate, forged ending on other manuscripts.

It seems some scribes didn’t think verse 8 was a suitable ending, so they appended their own fan fiction. See here and here and the NIV footnotes in the link above.

“These are the signs that will accompany those who believe. In my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them. They will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Does it matter if Jesus said it? It certainly matters to the Christian groups in the Appalachian Mountains who practice snake handling as part of their worship services.

This quotation is from the same added-ending portion of Mark 16, so see the above.

If you’re not familiar with snake handling, it is a practice where modern church-goers literally reach into a swarm of venomous snakes during a worship service and gratuitously handle the reptiles to prove their faith. If the handler is bitten and dies, then they fail the faith test.

The primary supporting scripture is a forgery, which doesn’t seem to be the most crazy aspect of the risky animal interaction.

Did Jesus give the entire Lord’s Prayer or just half of it, as in Luke? Does it matter? It depends on which manuscript you read.

I assume Ehrman is comparing the Matthew and Luke accounts of the most quotable of all passages, the Lord’s Prayer. The Luke version is indeed significantly shorter, relative to the length of the passage. This difference is obvious to any reader in any translation… though he is right that both accounts cannot be inerrant transcripts. (The fact that the prayer would have been spoken in Aramaic, not as written in Greek, aside.)

In the context of a textual variant, the only notable one I could find is related to the doxology at the end of the Matthew version. “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” is not found in the oldest Matthew manuscripts nor in any Luke manuscripts, so was likely added by a scribe in the 4th century. See here and here and here.

Some hypothesize this phrase was borrowed from 1 Chronicles 29:11-13. This would keep the addition from being heresy, but lend evidence to skeptics who notice that the New Testament is largely a loose retelling of Old Testament tales… in the spirit of The Force Awakens refreshing A New Hope.

Or do other textual variants matter? Does it matter whether the doctrine of the Trinity is explicitly taught in the New Testament? The only verse that comes close to teaching it directly is 1 John 5:7 and 8, “There are three that bear witness in heaven: the father, the Word and the Spirit, and these three are one.” Does it matter if that’s in the New Testament?

Perhaps it would be surprising to the average pew-sitter how little scriptural evidence there is for the idea of a father, son and holy spirit as one being. It is certainly never taught directly, as is done confidently from modern pulpits. However, the audience of a debate such as this would probably be aware of the monotheistic machinations made to reconcile the disparate and vague ideas in the Scriptures.

But in the context of doctrines resting on manuscript variants, I assume he is referring to the fact that most modern translations of 1 John 5:8 say “the Spirit, the water, and the blood” rather than “the father, the Word and the Spirit”. This obviously weakens the best Trinity evidence.

Does it matter whether the Gospel of Luke teaches a doctrine of atonement or not? The view that Jesus died for the sake of others. It depends on a textual variant.

For those who don’t speak Christianese, the doctrine of atonement is the teaching that the specific purpose of Jesus’ death was to pay for the sins of mankind. This is a core tenet of the modern Christian faith.

However, the book of Luke is silent on this sacrificial suicide mission, save two verses Luke 22:19-20. “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.'” If you’ve been in a protestant church for communion, you’ve heard them.

Unfortunately, as the NIV footnote tells us, “some manuscripts do not have given for you … poured out for you.” Without those phrases, the reason for Jesus’ life and death is a mystery. Paul’s letters let us know that this idea was very much in dispute in the early church. No wonder a well-meaning someone might want to put clarifying words into the messiah’s mouth to advance a particular theology.

Does it matter if Jesus was in such agony before his arrest that he sweat blood? It’s found in only a single textual variant the Gospel of Luke.

When I was a kid, clergy and family members would trot out Jesus’ physiological response in Luke 22:44 as a point of science proving Biblical claims. A condition called hematidrosis was documented in the 1960s as a very rare condition in which a human sweats blood. This discovery seemed very affirming.

However, one need look no further than the NIV footnotes for scholarly consensus that “many early manuscripts do not have verses 43 and 44.” The condition may be based on reality, but this spectacular Jesus claim likely is not.

Does it matter that entire words, lines, paragraphs and pages were left out by some scribes?

Does it matter that there are numerous places in the New Testament where scholars cannot decide what the original text said?

Does it matter that there are some places where we will never know what the original author said? Does that matter, or not?

These claims are a little broad for analysis here, but I trust that the above examples are evidence of what is meant. From his decades of scholarly work, Erhman famously attests in his book “Misquoting Jesus” and numerous lectures that “there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”

That’s a lot.

Many evangelical scholars claim that it doesn’t matter, but I don’t believe them because these scholars devote their lives to studying the Greek manuscripts. Why would they do that if it doesn’t matter?

Major evangelical seminaries raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for manuscript projects to study these manuscripts. Why would they do that if it doesn’t matter?

It does matter.

Is the Bible a trustworthy reliable guide? If so, what if we don’t know what it originally said?

For some people, these facts don’t matter. And if you’re one of them, well and good. But if you’re someone for whom this does matter, then I would urge you to start reading and start thinking about the gospels of the New Testament as critical scholars have described them.

When I was a fundamentalist believer, accepting the reality that portions of the modern Bible are little more than “best guess” would have been beyond devastating. How many sermons did I sit through micro-analyzing the subtleties of specific wording? What was the point when the wording the sermon rests upon is interpolation, not inspired original?

And it gets worse.

The earlier you go to look at the manuscripts, the more differences you find. The earliest copies have the most mistakes. What would happen if we found copies that were still earlier? The only evidence we have is the evidence that survives, which suggests that in the early periods of copying there was the most mistakes made. How many were made the first month? Or the first year? Or the first decade? How many mistakes were made in the copy of the copy the copy which served as a copy of all the copies that we now have? We have no way of knowing.

None of this is likely to change anyone’s mind, as it takes no evidence to assert that God was looking after His word during those early centuries, even if for some reason He wasn’t taking the same care later on when we could watch.

For me, this is just more fuel to the fire that the Bible is nothing more than a collection of writings imagined by men, edited by men over centuries and falsely propped-up by men who collectively know better. There is no mark of the divine.

Do these facts matter to you? Or is having the basic general gist of the instructions for your eternal destiny good enough? Let me know in the comments.

6 thoughts on “What did it say? Does it matter?

  1. Hi Paul,
    Sorry for the delay getting you the response I promised – you present a lot of info here. Much of which I can’t tackle in a reply bubble (let alone from an iPhone). Anyway, here’s my thoughts.

    First, excellent. From a devout Christian, one whose mind you did not change, you really care to focus on the challenges, provide scholarly sources, and bring experience that helped guide the processes. I really mean, well done.

    Second, and to represent the believer, I ask the question you ask, but with different emphasis: does it really matter? I’m not asking your question, does the inerrancy matter, I’m asking does the big picture matter? If every point you made (Jesus’ prayer, doctrine of baptism, doctrine of trinity, etc) matter? Ultimately you say ‘yes’ and I agree but or differences fall how they matter. I’ll summarize the difference this way:

    When you apply the doctrines of the trinity you apply them like a test question; is God 3-in-1 or something else? I apply the doctrine of the trinity as a fallible way of expressing an infallible concept.

    This falls under the umbrella statement – his ways are not or ways (or his ways are higher than my ways). I don’t think you would be surprise that Christians believe completely understanding God is impossible this side of heaven.

    So where does that leave us with infallibility? Is the bible inerrant? AND if we ever find out it has errors what are we to do with it?
    The answers here represent the parts of the bible you didn’t even discuss. You don’t address the things believed authentic and original (all the Gospels discuss the death burial and resurrection of Jesus!). That doesn’t even begin to describe the writings of Paul who (as near as I can tell) isn’t screaming infallibility in his writings but is professing the infallibility in Jesus. He even writes, if angels come professing anything different than the good news of Jesus, flee from it.

    So, while I love learning about the bible, it’s the Bible’s introduction of Jesus that points the relational nature of God (both testaments) and therefore asserts the infallibility of the original autographs…not our ability to mess up (even the best things).


    1. Totally understand. Thank you for going above and beyond… I enjoy our thoughtful discussions.

      Rather than indulge my urge to address point-by-point, since you are elevating to the big picture, I’ll return my take as such.

      My honest and earnest quest to find evidence for my life long Christian faith lead me instead to find…
      – the plain reading of creation and the flood are contradicted by science, and markedly borrowed from older texts
      – there is no archeological evidence of the Exodus, nor any other Biblical event as anything more than historical fiction
      – the Pentateuch was compiled, edited and massively rewritten several times over centuries
      – the gospels are not eyewitness accounts, but written many decades later in an entirely different language than the principals would have spoken, crafted with invented events in an attempt to create prophecy, layering in more and more outlandish supernatural claims in successive retellings
      – a significant portion of Paul’s writing in canon are accepted to be forgeries
      – there are textual changes over the centuries in the content to sway doctrine one way or another

      This scratches the surface, but the question to me is… with so much unreliable (or reliable only within contorted apologetics), why would anyone cherry-pick the most extraordinary claims (a relational God, sin, afterlife) as reliable? How can any of it be kept if most of it can be rejected or dismissed?

      The Bible has every mark of being a book written by humans creating god(s) in man’s image, and no mark of divine authorship in the midst of the above and more.

      If you are like I was, you know all the apologetic rational talking points, that work only if one starts defending the book. These are beyond hollow when one is looking for evidence of the positive claim that the scriptures contain truth.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you sharing. Honestly. I try to learn something every time someone is willing to engage; I find I’m learning more than average in your thoughts and posts. I can’t say enough nice things about how well your blogs are written, presented, and how valuable I find them. I wanted to ask one clarification question and another random question at the end.

        First, I think it’s is safe to say I’m not easily swayed (as I think you were once in my place, I’m hoping you will entertain me for a time). When you say, ‘plain reading’ what does that mean, and how is plain reading different than the intent of Genesis 1? I guess I should also make sure I ask, what do you believe is the intent of Genesis 1?

        Second (my random question). You replied to some of my comments on ACL. Another one of the guys, Nate S., enjoyed our dialog and had some thoughts/questions (to be honest I’m not sure which or both) for you, but didn’t want you to feel like it was ‘gang-up-on-Paul’ or anything like that. Out of respect for you, I’m asking if it’s ok if he joins that dialog; you can totally say no. Like I said, random question, but I didn’t want to change the mood–I can’t emphasize enough how appreciative I am that you are willing to share. Thanks again.


  2. Roger — (how annoying that WordPress limits the number of threaded responses)

    By plain reading, I mean a literal, non-symbolic, non-figurative interpretation. The kind of scientific-fact-relaying meaning a modern first-time Bible reader or child would come away with. I was raised and trained as a fundamentalist in the spirit of the kind of young earth creation espoused by Answers in Genesis or Kent Hovind, to name a few. That’s what I mean.

    I have since come to know of the full spectrum of interpretations the family of Christians give to Genesis, each attempting to discern what it would have meant to the first readers and what eternal truths it is intended to convey anywhere from wholly figurative to wholly scientific. I quite respect the non-science-denying takes of people like those at BioLogos.

    If you’re asking me personally, I think Genesis 2 was an oft-edited localization of Canaan’s ancient creation myth, while Genesis 1 is conquering Babylon’s Enuma Elish with a Jewish scrub and stuck at the head of the scriptures around 600 BCE to assist in cultural melding.

    As for Nate, this is the internet… the more the merrier. To quote Han Solo, in the most pleasant of intents and tones, “Bring ’em on.”


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