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.
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.
“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.