Tampering with the Text: Was the New Testament Text Changed Along the Way? (part 1)
- Friday, July 23, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger (Crossway).
The only way that the New Testament books (and any type of writing) could be broadly circulated in the ancient world was if they were first copied by hand. A scribe would have to sit down with the original document and copy it word for word onto a piece of papyrus or parchment.1 Of course, in our modern day, well after the time of Gutenberg's printing press, such dependence on handwritten manuscripts seems strange to us. We give little or no thought to how a book is copied and assume that whichever copy of a book we pick off the shelf will look identical to every other copy. In ancient times, however, it was quite normal (and even expected) that scribes, no matter how professional, would occasionally make mistakes.2 These scribal variations—slips of the pen, misspellings, word order changes, etc.—were an inevitable part of literary life in a pre-Gutenberg world (and even, toa lesser degree, in a post-Gutenberg world). Fortunately, as seen in the previous chapter, we have good reasons to think that early Christians possessed a solid scribal infrastructure that would have minimized the impact of such variations. Nevertheless, we still need to examine the New Testament manuscripts themselves. Are these manuscripts very different from one another? Are there reasons to think the text has been substantively changed along the way? And did the early Christian battles over heresy and orthodoxy affect the transmission of the text? It is the purpose of this chapter to answer these questions.
It is important that we begin by noting that some scholars have already given an answer. Bart Ehrman would answer "yes" to all of the above questions. In his book Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman argues that the New Testament manuscripts are so riddled with scribal errors and mistakes (some even intentional) that there is no way to have any certainty about the words of the original authors. In essence, he argues that the New Testament text has been changed—irreparably and substantially changed in the battles over heresy and orthodoxy—so that it is no longer meaningful to discuss what Paul, or Matthew, Mark, or Luke, wrote. We simply do not know. All we have are manuscripts. And these manuscripts date hundreds of years after the time of the apostles and vary widely from one another. So, what does the "New Testament" say? It depends, says Ehrman, which manuscript you read. He declares, "What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don't have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them . . . in thousands of ways."3
Although Ehrman presents his who-knows-what-the-text-originally-said approach as part of mainstream textual criticism, it actually stands in direct opposition to many of his fellow scholars in the field (and even seems to be out of sync with his own writings elsewhere). Historically speaking, the field of textual criticism has not embodied the hyper-skepticism evident in Misquoting Jesus but has been more optimistic concerning the recovery of the original text (or at least something very close to it).4 In response to Ehrman, therefore, this chapter will put forward four theses that embody an approach that is more consistent with the kind traditionally taken in the field of textual criticism.
- We have good reasons to think the original text is preserved (somewhere) in the overall textual tradition.
- The vast majority of scribal changes are minor and insignificant.
- Of the small portions of variations that are significant, our text-critical methodology can determine, with a reasonable degree of certainty, which is the original text.
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