Textual Criticism and Inerrancy

P52-2-450hGreetings once again, and welcome to a fun and controversial topic!  Rest assured, as usual we will ensure we think clearly about it.  Over the past few months, I’ve been taking a New Testament Textual Criticism course from Dr. Dan Wallace, who is likely one of the greatest New Testament scholars and textual critics alive today.  Textual criticism is not simply criticizing the New Testament text, it refers to the science and the discipline of trying to recover the original text of the ancient autographs (original writings themselves).  I thought I’d share a few lessons learned and observations from this fascinating course (link above if any would like to take it).

  1.  I suspect most Christians think we are more sure than we actually are about what the originals said.  Now, I am a Biblical inerrantist, but I may have to adjust my view to encompass the autographs only.  That is, do our current translations accurately reflect what was originally written?  The fact is, we just don’t know.  We do not have any of the originals, and within the first few decades after the originals were written, we see differences in the texts.  Which (if any) accurately reflects the original?  We can’t be sure.
  2. The Bible we have today is sound in its history and its doctrine, but likely contains text that was not in the original.  Let me tell you what I mean by this.  We know, with a high degree of certainty, that there are passages in our Bibles today that were almost certainly not in the originals.  Some of the passages may have been in the originals, but have been edited or altered.  However, all of these variations make absolutely no difference whatsoever in the core doctrines and history of Christianity.  Textual critics today have categorized all variants (there are literally hundreds of thousands of them) into viable and not viable, and into meaningful and not meaningful.  Many of the variants are viable (they are actual variants, real no-kidding differences in the texts), but are meaningless.  An example here might be the spelling of the name “John,” which in some manuscripts has one “n” (Ioanes) and in other manuscripts has two (Ioannes).  This is a viable variant, but it is meaningless.  Those that concern us today are those variants that are both viable and meaningful, which Dr. Wallace says encompass less than one half of one percent of all known variants.  Of all these meaningful and viable variants, only two are longer than a word or a phrase — the long ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) and John 7:53 – 8:11.  Let’s look briefly at these two.
    1. Mark 16:9-20.  If you have a Bible handy, turn to this passage and it is almost sure to have a caveat — after verse 8, mine (NET) says, “The Gospel of Mark ends at this point in some witnesses [manuscripts], including two of the most respected manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus)…”  It goes on for several paragraphs, in quite some detail.  My NIV also says, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9 – 20.”  According to Dr. Wallace, there is not a textual critic alive today who thinks that these verses were in the original.  However, there are many scholars who think the case against these verses is weak, and many believe firmly that they belong in the Bible.  Without the original, there is no way to be sure — but this is a prime example of a meaningful and viable variant.
    2. John 7:53 – 8:11.  This portion of the Bible, called the pericope adulterae (story of the adulteress) is well known to most Christians.  “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!”  We’ve all heard the story.  But, like the long ending of Mark, this is not in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts we have, and most textual critics today do not think it was part of the original text of John.  It is another meaningful and viable variant, but again without the original we cannot be certain, and it makes no difference in the core doctrines of the Christian faith.

These are the two most famous textual variants, but there are many more.  Others are shorter — only a word or two in many cases — but they cast additional shadows on how sure we can be that we have an accurate representation of the original texts.

The last verse of Luke is likely a conflation (combination) of two different texts (text types) — my NIV and NASB say the disciples went about “praising God,” but others say “blessing God.” What did the original text of Luke say?  Again, we don’t know — and many modern translations today simply say, “…praising and blessing God.”  They combine the two.

We also see differences in the Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5:7.  The oldest and most reliable manuscripts are missing the Trinitarian formula, called the Comma Johanneum, they say simply, “For there are three that testify, the Spirit and the water and the blood” (NET).  Some translations (KJV) have added a second trinity to read, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost:  and these three are one.  And there are three that bear witness in Earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood:  and these three agree in one.”  However, this longer trinitarian formula was likely added by the church at a later date, to solidify the doctrine of the Trinity in Scripture.  It is almost certainly not in the original.  The longer reading is absent from nearly all manuscripts, only present in a few very late ones.

The list is actually quite long — in Phil 1:14, 1 Thess 2:7, Mark 14:65, Luke 5:30, Mark 1:1 and Mark 1:2, John 14:17, Rev 1:4, and numerous other places in Scripture.  However, we’ll stop here, as I think the point stands.  So, where does that leave us?

3.  We can have confidence that our text reflects the original in well over 99% of cases, but there are some that remain in question.  So, what’s the bottom line for the Christian? We can have confidence in Scripture, and in our history and our core doctrines, but we need to be careful in our definition of inerrancy.  Our Bible today, no matter which translation you use (NIV and NET are my favorites), contains text that likely wasn’t in the original, contains additions and deletions and adjustments by scribes, and includes mistakes (scribal errors).  Does this mean Jesus didn’t exist?  No.  Does this mean the Bible is unreliable?  No.  Does this mean Christ wasn’t raised from the dead?  No.  Does it mean Christianity is false?  No.  But I think it’s important for Christians to realize that our beloved Bible is subject to the same “messy” process of transmission and translation as any other ancient work.

For further study, look at the course referenced above, or the book “The Text of the New Testament” by Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, check out the website for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts or the Evangelical Textual Criticism website.

15 thoughts on “Textual Criticism and Inerrancy

  1. Very interesting. I’m reading a book on textual criticism right now and trying to get me head around the major issues, which you describe very well. Thank you and I’m looking forward to more clear-thinking posts!

  2. Pingback: A brief look at Textual Criticism – Perfect Chaos

  3. This is an excellent post! Steven Colborne’s post brought me here, and this is the post I’ve been looking for information like this for a long time! Thank you for your contribution and your clear and concise speech.

  4. Michael M,
    As the proverb says, one man’s case seems secure, until his neighbor comes and cross-examines him. Dr. Wallace almost habitually presents the evidence in a one-sided and unbalanced way, favoring the Alexandrian Text and dismissing the Byzantine readings. He is quite incorrect about both Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11. Some of the text-critical notes he contributed in the NET are inaccurate, also, and should be corrected. So I would just advise caution before locking in your final answer on these particular questions.

    As for adjusting your view so as to ascribe inerrancy only to the autographs: is that not already the standard position, as declared in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy decades ago?



    • Thanks James — outstanding comment. However, I fear you misunderstand me. It sounds like you think I took the Wallace Credo course, and thereby developed my views on inerrancy. This is absolutely not the case. I also took several courses on it during my Master’s in Theology at Biola, and have read Metzger’s books as well as Geisler’s and many others, studying the views of Mohler, Enns, France, and others. That said, I agree that Dr. Wallace favors the Alexandrian text, but it is demonstrably false to say that he “dismisses” the Byzantine readings. The two are not inseparable…I mean that to favor one reading is not to dismiss the other, nor does the fact that he favors the Alexandrian make him wrong about any of his conclusions. You say he is “quite incorrect” about Mark and John, and that’s your opinion — but do I take your opinion, or do I take the opinion of Wallace, Metzger, and Ehrman? You also advise caution, which I appreciate and respect, but I assure you that I have not arrived at these conclusions haphazardly.

      With regard to CSBI, I think you make a faulty assumption by stating that it is the “standard position.” It is for many evangelicals, but there are many who reject it or disagree with it as well, not least of which are many Fuller seminarians. You might also find, as pointed out by both VanHoozer and Enns in “Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy), that what you call the “standard position” is really just the “standard position” for North American evangelicalism, not for Christianity. It also seems clear that Enns rejects the CSBI as going too far — and Geisler (based on his book “Inerrancy”) would likely reject it as not going far enough. Finally and most importantly, this “standard position,” if it is such, is highly inconsistent with what I experience in my daily teaching ministry of now over 30 years — I still find many (I’d say a strong majority) who believe that the Bible they hold in their laps is inerrant. CSBI would disagree, as would I.

      I freely admit that I am still at the beginning of my studies on New Testament Textual Criticism, but at this point I still stand by the points made in my blog. Just read your blog on the defense of Mark 16:9-20, looking forward to reading more. Thanks again.

  5. That, I believe, was edifying. Very heady and without being all the more learned in textual criticism, I fear any comment on my part beyond this would be foolish.

    Mike, Brother, so thankful to call you a Friend in Christ. Thankful you continue your great work in the Faith. Thankful you love the Lord, that you love your family, and your neighbor.

  6. I think this is an important topic to consider for Christians. From my interactions in dialogue and debate, I find that a good number of Christians believe that Jesus went around speaking Shakespearean English and everyone had a KJV in the first -century CE. The reality is that most of your corpus comes after the 9th century, more than 90 percent. The other fragments and manuscripts which are claimed to come before, have not been radiocarbondated. So I would out that up to a full 100 percent.

    In essence, what you consider to be the NT is nothing more than a medieval fabrication.

    • Archiveislam, I think we have mixed agreement here. I certainly share your amusement with the many Christians who think Christ spoke King James English, and handed the KJV directly to the translators by divine hand. While I agree there are many Christians who believe this, please do not make the mistake of thinking that this is the majority view within Christianity, or that very many educated, clear-thinking Christians believe this.

      You are also correct that most of our New Testament manuscripts come after the 9th century, and although there is some debate, I would grant that 90% is a fairly accurate estimation. We have about 5,500 manuscripts from after the 9th century, and about 450 from prior. However, I’m afraid that’s where our agreement ends.

      Do you have source data or references for your claims that follow? They’re really quite extreme, and most are demonstrably false. For example, you say that “the other fragments and manuscripts…have not been radiocarbon dated,” which is almost completely false. We have several hundred manuscripts “which are claimed to come before” the 9th century, and nearly all of them have been through that process, often multiple times. I assume you are primarily talking about Codex Sinaitics and Codex Vaticanus, neither of which have been radiocarbon dated, but that point is basically meaningless. There are many ways of determining the approximate age of a manuscript, some of them more accurate than radiocarbon dating, which has frequently been shown to be unreliable. The fact that Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus have not been radiocarbon dated is completely irrelevant to their age or authenticity, and completely irrelevant to this discussion. The claim that the documents dated prior to the 9th century have not been radiocarbon dated, or the claim that they have not been reliably dated, or anything like that is simply and plainly false. That said, it is your final conclusion that is most concerning. In short, your claims — even if all completely true — do not lead to the conclusion you’ve drawn.

      First, you seem to equate the documents being “medieval” with the documents being “fabricated.” Those are two separate and completely unrelated claims. That is, even if the New Testament is proven to be medieval, that does NOT mean that it is a fabrication, it is a clear non-sequitur to say that because it is medieval, then it is a fabrication. But let’s look at that first claim. You actually falsify your own claim by admitting that we have hundreds of documents from well before medieval times, some as early as the second and third century, and many more by the fourth. If the Middle Ages — according to Webster — is from the 5th through the 15th century, then that claim is clearly false. The New Testament predates “medieval” times by hundreds of years, in fact, our oldest surviving documents are nearly complete (and in some cases, wholly complete) copies of the New Testament from early to mid-third century. The claim that the New Testament is “medieval” is demonstrably false.

      Second, the other half of your closing claim is that the New Testament is a “fabrication.” Not a forgery, and not a fiction — a fabrication. I’m not sure how you’re using that word, but it essentially means that it is “made up.” Do you maintain, then, that the events it records actually didn’t occur? They were “made up,” or fabricated? Then how do you account for the multiple independent eyewitness testimonies, the external corroboration, the archaeological evidence, and numerous other evidences that could be offered to support the historicity of these events? We already know the first claim (they were not radiocarbon dated) is false, we know your second claim (the New Testament is medieval) is false, what evidence can you provide to support your third claim — that it is fabricated?

      • Woah, that is quite the reply. I hope to do justice in mine.

        You mentioned:

        ” 90% is a fairly accurate estimation”
        ———Just for your record:
        “94% of our surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament date from after the ninth Christian century. That is 800 years (years!) after the so-called originals.” – Ehrman

        “. For example, you say that “the other fragments and manuscripts…have not been radiocarbon dated,” which is almost completely false……early all of them have been through that process, often multiple times ”
        ———–I may be incorrect. Please provide references of either an academic work, paper or better yet papyrus number. The onus is on you to show the test has happened, and not on me to show a test hasn’t happened.
        ” I assume you are primarily talking about Codex Sinaiticus”
        —–The “garbage-bin” manuscript is a fabrication. Some links from my blog below:

        ” Codex Vaticanus”
        —-another forgery https://islamicarchives.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/codex-vaticanus-corruption/

        “there are many ways of determining the approximate age of a manuscript, some of them more accurate than radiocarbon dating, which has frequently been shown to be unreliable. ”
        —Wouldn’t ACTUAL science be more objective than paleography? Seriously, your telling me, looking at a writing, is more SCIENTIFIC ?

        “The claim that the documents dated prior to the 9th century have not been radiocarbon dated, or the claim that they have not been reliably dated, or anything like that is simply and plainly false. ”
        —-Don’t say I am wrong, prove I’m wrong.

        ” even if the New Testament is proven to be medieval, that does NOT mean that it is a fabrication, it i.”
        —Are you a KJV-onlyist? Just curious.

        ” But let’s look at that first claim. You actually falsify your own claim by admitting that we have hundreds of documents from well before medieval times, ”
        ——- I am saying you CLAIM them to be, and if we radiocarbondate them, they too would be dated to the middle ages. But prove me wrong…

        “Then how do you account for the multiple independent eyewitness testimonies, the external corroboration, the archaeological evidence, and numerous other evidences that could be offered to support the historicity of these events?”
        —— Let’s go down this rabbit hole….Here comes Josephus and Tacitus!

        We already know the first claim (they were not radiocarbon dated) is false, we know your second claim (the New Testament is medieval) is false, what evidence can you provide to support your third claim — that it is fabricated?”
        —-The first and second points have been addressed above. The third point is simple, the evidence points to it. Whether it be:

        1 John 5:7 https://islamicarchives.wordpress.com/2016/09/05/the-fabrication-of-comma-johanneum-1-john-57/

        Pericope Adulterae: https://islamicarchives.wordpress.com/2016/09/07/let-him-who-is-without-sin-cast-the-first-stone-not-in-the-bible/

        Last 12 verses of Mark: https://islamicarchives.wordpress.com/2018/01/07/biblical-ignorance-leads-to-snake-related-deaths/

        And just generally it is forged according to Biblical Scholarship:

        “virtually half the New Testament was written by impostors taking on the names of apostles like Paul. ”

        And one last quote:

        “This kind of realization coincided with the problems I was encountering the more closely I studied the surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. It is one thing to say that the originals were inspired, but the reality is that we don’t have the originals—so saying they were inspired doesn’t help me much, unless I can reconstruct the originals. Moreover, the vast majority of Christians for the entire history of the church have not had access to the originals, making their inspiration something of a moot point. Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places. As we will see later in this book, these copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are. Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.””


        With all due respect, you rely on a corpus which is shady at best.

      • Archiveislam, great response, thank you. I think at this point it’s clear that we won’t agree or change the other’s view, at which point I often decide it is best to go our separate ways. I’m currently on a retreat in the Shenandoah Mountains with limited connectivity, so this will be my lost post on the exchange, at least for a while.

        1. Continuing to argue a point I’ve granted — that 90% of our manuscripts are after the 9th century — only serves to bog down the discussion. And quoting Ehrman to a Christian actually weakens your argument, it doesn’t strengthen it. Ehrman was a great textual critic and by many estimations he still is, but he has plainly and publicly stated that is goal is to destroy Christianity…in short, his credibility is largely lost among many Christians. Regardless, the point stands, and is granted.

        2. “Please provide references of either an academic work…”. No, I’m not going to do your homework for you. The “onus” is actually on you, not me, since you made the original claim, and as you likely know, “he who makes the claim bears the burden.” That’s why I asked you in my last post for references or sources for your claim, which you have not provided.
        In addition, as I mentioned in my last post, your reliance on radiocarbon dating is troublesome, and likely does not do the work you want it to do. Just because a document hasn’t been radiocarbon dated does not mean it is unreliable, or false, or anything else. It just means it hasn’t been radiocarbon dated, and as I said, there are many other ways to determine the approximate age of a manuscript, some of which can be even more reliable than radiocarbon dating, which is often unreliable and occasionally impossible.
        I never mentioned paleography, but since you brought it up, you must understand that paleography is “actual science,” and that is not the only method of dating I’m talking about. I’m not telling you that looking at a writing is “more scientific,” I never made such a claim, I am simply saying that it is ALSO scientific. Even if I grant ALL your points, it still doesn’t demonstrate to any degree that these documents are fabrications. That is, even if they date to medieval times, that STILL doesn’t mean they are fabrications. You simply haven’t (yet) provided a shred of evidence to support that claim.

        3. We are not debating the authenticity or reliability of Sinaiticus or Vaticanus, I mentioned them only as known examples of pre-9th century manuscripts that have not been radiocarbon dated. I read all of the blogs you linked several times, and again you fall victim to the non-sequitur. Your blogs, and those of Ehrman and Metzger and Wallace, readily point out the well-known facts that these manuscripts show evidence of addition, modification, scribal error, and other anomalies, as nearly all ancient manuscripts do. However, that does NOT mean that they are a fabrication. It doesn’t mean they are “made up.” You can say they are unreliable, or that they are inaccurate, you may even claim that they are forgeries, but you cannot deduce from any of the facts in your blogs or others that the stories in those manuscripts are fabricated/made up. This is (another) clear non-sequitur.

        4. Am I a KJV-onlyist? Are you kidding? Did you read how I started my last response? Have you read any of my other blogs? No, in fact, I am militantly against those who are KJV-only, and I maintain (and can probably prove) that the KJV is one of the least accurate and least reliable translations of our New Testament. And you didn’t answer the non-sequitur — even if the New Testament is proven to be medieval, that does NOT mean that it is a fabrication.

        5. Again, you rely on radiocarbon dating as the only way to know the age/date of a document, AND you assert/assume that IF we radiocarbon date them, they’ll be dating to the Middle Ages, AND you falsely conclude that IF we radiocarbon date them, and IF they date to the Middle Ages, THEN they are fabrications, which is false. I don’t need to “prove you wrong,” again, you can do your own research to see how these documents were dated. You can also dismiss all that work, make your own ad hoc (non-evidenced) assumptions, and follow a non-sequitur to a false conclusion. You’ve already been “proven wrong” by the dating work done on the manuscripts so far, if you reject that work and go with your own ad hoc assumptions, there is simply nothing to “prove wrong.”

        6. Unlike many of the people you have obviously engaged with in this debate, I don’t “run down the rabbit hole” of Josephus and Tacitus, though those are two potential sources. We know Josephus was tampered with in later years, so I never use him. But there are many others — some scholars say as many as 40 — who recorded events that are recorded in the gospels, or who corroborate Biblical testimony. So I return to my question, which (again) you didn’t answer. How do you account for the multiple independent eyewitness testimonies , external corroboration, archaeological evidence, and other evidence that supports the historicity of these events? Do you reject it all our of a philosophical (not religious or scientific or evidential) presupposition? In case you didn’t notice, this is the logical fallacy of circular reasoning, or “begging the question.” These stories are a fabrication, so any evidence or testimony that disagrees with that assumption must be wrong. This circular reasoning amounts to your third logical fallacy so for (along with ad hoc and non-sequitur), keep going — you’re batting for the cycle!

        7. You clearly haven’t done your homework. I already blogged on the comma johanneum, the pericope adulterae, as well as the long ending of Mark. Yet again (this is getting tiring), these examples do not show the New Testament to be a fabrication. In the comma Johanneum, we know with a high degree of certainty that this verse was edited/amended by the Church, probably after the Council of Trent, and there is hardly a modern translation (besides that KJV) that maintain the “Father, Spirit, Word” translation. But this doesn’t mean it’s a fabrication (made up), it means it was edited many hundreds of years later for theological or religious purposes. It simply does a not follow (another non-sequitur) that the stories in John’s gospel are made up. The pericope and the long ending of Mark are unknowns — probably not in the originals (which we don’t have), and I spent many paragraphs on these sections in my blog. Again (and again, and again), our uncertainty as to whether or not these sections are part of the original manuscripts does nothing, absolutely nothing, to further the conclusion that they are fabrications. Some of our ancient manuscripts include these passages, some don’t. We don’t know what the original contained. That does not mean that the stories in the gospels are fabrications.

        8. Your CNN link is laughable, since it’s simply a restatement of more Bart Ehrman, and the book it refers to (“Forged”) has been throroughly critiqued — and in many cases, falsified and defeated — by many different Christian scholars. Your last quote — unattributed in your response, but I recognize it as another from Ehrman — has also been responded to, many times, by Christian scholars including Metzger and Wallace. The way Ehrman counts variants is also ridiculous, but he must use his method to arrive at his conclusion about there being “more differences…than there are words in the New Testament.” This has been written about extensively (especially by Wallace). For example, one of the variant we track is how John spelled his name. Was it “Ioanes,” or was it “Ioannes?” Did he spell is name with one “n” or two? We simply don’t know. Thinking humans count this as ONE variant. If the name of John appears 200 times in the Bible, then Ehrman counts this as 200 “differences.” He’s ridiculous.

        I must get back to my work…if your approach here is simply to regurgitate Ehrman — Forged, Misquoting Jesus, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, and so forth — then you’re probably wasting your time. Do your own research. Take some classes in New Testament Textual Criticism. Read Wallace and Metzger. Better yet, learn the Greek and examine the documents for yourself, as I’ve done in many cases. Your concluding comment — that our corpus is “shady at best” — is just as demonstrably false as the rest of your claims have proven to be. The New Testament is the best-attested, most strongly evidenced document in all of ancient history. Call it “shady,” if you like — and dismiss it, along with all the rest of ancient history and historiography.

        Finally, would you mind sharing your persuasion, just for context? Are you a Christian, a critic, a Muslim, or just someone interested in the topic?

  7. Though there are many inconsistencies in your reasoning and argumentation , I will let you have the last word. I think as a Muslim and you as a Christian, we can at least agree with the following prayer:

    May God guide us to the truth, whatever it may be!

    Amen. Enjoy your retreat! Best Regards.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s