Greetings 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.