“Text Criticism” is an academic discipline devoted to the study of ancient writings. Text criticism is best known as the study of handwritten manuscripts from before the age of printing. In particular, the most studied and most controversial work in the world of text criticism is the New Testament.
Text criticism got its start when translators noticed differences between manuscripts. Translators would compare manuscripts and find instances where they would have to choose between manuscripts for passages with differences.
Text criticism mostly involves comparing the various manuscript copies of a work in an effort to recreate the original text. This is an issue because scribes did sometimes make errors when making a handwritten copy, and because scribes sometimes are known to have made deliberate changes to the text that they were copying. The originals of the New Testament books were written in Greek. Industrious text critics seek also to inform their text criticism by examining the early translations of the New Testament books into Latin, Coptic, Syriac and other languages.
The fact that there are some differences between the texts of ancient manuscripts got noticed by Bible critics, who were able to flourish after the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the world of text criticism was dominated by anti-Christian Bible critics for 150 years before Christian scholars began to get any traction to counter the prevailing anti-Christian academic bias.
Text criticism was so tilted as an anti-Christian project that many Christians were advised to avoid the subject entirely. My own denomination (Lutheran Church –Missouri Synod) recently encouraged a theologian to leave a seminary faculty because he took a position on a particular issue of text criticism that we do not support. Doctrinal control in this sort of issue simply reinforces the entire field of text criticism as an anti-Christian project. It does not have to remain like this. There is a lot of room for improvement in this field of academic study.
In fact, I am writing this post to report on some really useful Christian text criticism. I have a brief book review, but before I can get to that I have a longwinded introduction about the best known popular book of Biblical text criticism.
Bart Ehrman, bad guy
The best-known popular book of text criticism is an anti-Christian bestseller named Misquoting Jesus, by Bart Ehrman. Ehrman is an anti-Christian (former Evangelical) professor of religious studies. Ehrman made really good money by taking anti-Christian ideas from his academic papers and blowing them up for popular consumption, with irreligious publishers and bookstore chains who were happy to pump his products for profit. This particular book was heavily promoted by HarperCollins and rode the wake of the success of The Da Vinci Code to bestseller status in 2005.
Misquoting Jesus serves as an introduction to text criticism and Bible deconstruction. Ehrman describes the ways that the manuscript texts differ and discusses reasons for the differences.
Ehrman has an agenda. He attributed base motives to orthodox Christians. According to Ehrman, the handful of significant differences found in the ancient New Testament manuscripts are all due to orthodox scribes changing the text to make it conform to their version of orthodoxy.
The central part of Misquoting Jesus picks up some of what Ehrman had written in his 1993 book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. He cited several Bible passages where there is some scholarly consensus that the original texts of the New Testament books probably differed from modern translations. In Misquoting Jesus he mostly stayed with the best-documented cases. There are a small number of passages in which Christian scholars agree that there is substance to the dispute.
Ehrman pumped them up, making the absolute most of the possibility that the changes served to advance orthodox Christianity at the expense of a variety of heresies. Misquoting Jesus is an indictment of early Christians for changing the Bible in order to write “competing Christianities” out of the Christian movement. He concludes that you cannot trust anything in the Bible because of these few examples of problems in the text. Ehrman sells online courses, makes mass media appearances and has written follow-up books to rehash this assertion.
Ehrman’s book made the bestseller list. Lots of books were written that engage with and criticize Misquoting Jesus. That is sort of a problem. Every denominational press published two or more books that were written as responses. There were at least three Lutheran books, and three Presbyterian books, and five Baptist books, at least four by “Evangelicals,” plus over a half dozen Catholic books (maybe as many as ten?). With all that competition, it is no wonder that no single one of them became well known. And without an outsized publicity campaign, most of them became known only to committed Christians, of the sort who were not surprised by any of the factual information presented in Misquoting Jesus, but who were simply looking for succinct rebuttals.
Of course, none of these books attract much attention fifteen years later, and so you have to be specifically looking to find them. And, even if you are looking for them they can be hard to find. I am convinced that Google purposely downgrades denominational publishers and seminaries in search results unless you name the denomination in your search keywords.
Most of those books in response to Misquoting Jesus were by pastors and theologians. Their chief complaints were “Ehrman is reading the text wrong,” “Ehrman makes out like some things are more “profound” than is warranted,” “Ehrman emphasizes numbers that are theologically meaningless,” “Ehrman misses the chief meaning of the passage,” and “Ehrman glosses over the fact that there are lots of other, undisputed passages, that provide the same orthodox reading or otherwise support an orthodox interpretation of the subject passages.”
The ones I thought were most interesting were theologians who pointed out that there have been so many heresies in church history that any textual change that took away from one heresy would tend to give support to some opposing heresy, so it would be mostly a fruitless exercise for Christian scribes to make any deliberate changes to the texts.
There were other books besides the ones by pastors and theologians, written by Christian historians. The historians complained that “Ehrman got the history mangled,” and “Ehrman has some logical faults in his arguments” and “Ehrman is favoring disputed late dating of the manuscripts,” and “Ehrman emphasizes manuscripts that are of later dates.”
I have a handful of these books on my shelves.
Dan Wallace, good guy
Four years ago I found a book that is different. This one does not refute Misquoting Jesus on the basis of bad history, poor theology or faulty logic. It dives into the depths of Ehrman’s predecessor scholarly work The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, and takes him on, directly showing that Ehrman was doing text criticism wrong.
This book was published in 2010. It is a collection of articles that address some of the chief entries in Misquoting Jesus, review the scholarship behind the passages in dispute, and demonstrate that Ehrman messed up as a text critic. Since the authors are all Baptists, it is not a surprise that it did not attract much attention beyond Baptist and Evangelical seminaries, and professors of text criticism.
The book is demanding of the reader but also surprisingly accessible to a knowledgeable Christian layman, if you are willing to raise your game a bit. It took me a long time to read it because I keep following the footnotes to the internet to read up on issues that have been argued by the text critics, but you don’t have to take months to read this book if you are willing to gloss over some citations you don’t recognize. If you do like footnotes, this book has hundreds. If you skip the footnotes, you could probably read the whole book in a couple of days.
Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament is a multi-author book edited by Dan Wallace, and with an introductory chapter by Wallace that summarizes the chapters that follow. It is a book of text criticism. All but one of the other authors are colleagues of Wallace or were PhD students of Wallace at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Passages that were tortured by Bart Ehrman get a thorough examination. Some get rehabilitated, and some don’t. Ehrman’s conclusions are thoroughly discredited. I found it to be fascinating, but then I can be pretty nerdy when it comes to the Biblical texts.
“Least Orthodox is preferred”
The second chapter is an article by Philip M. Miller, in which he criticizes Ehrman on methodologies. One of the themes that keeps recurring in the other chapters is Miller’s accusation that Ehrman has displayed a theological position:
“The least orthodox reading is to be preferred.”
By this he means that Ehrman always rationalizes a conclusion that supports the least orthodox option in questions regarding the text. The Christian text critics sometimes agree with Ehrman on the particulars, but mostly they don’t. Miller just pointed out that Ehrman was strictly consistent in the way he concluded, every time, that the reading that should be considered the most authentic happened to be the reading that was furthest from the orthodox Christian teachings.
This does not actually result in readings that are outright heretical. It does result in several places where, if Ehrman’s recommendations were to be followed, the Bible text would be changed to make it more ambiguous.
The chapters of Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament (hereafter Revisiting the Corruption) cover Ehrman’s methods and then undertake the textual issues in John 1:1, Matthew 24:36, and a review of verses that refer to Jesus as G-d (John 1:1, 1:18, 20:28; Acts 20:28; Gal. 2:20; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1). One chapter applies text criticism to the Gospel of Thomas, just to show how that frequently-cited Gnostic book fares in comparison to the canonical Gospels.
99 % agreement
Another thing I found interesting is that Ehrman says one thing in his popular books and something very different in his scholarly works. In particular, Ehrman writes in his pop books that little of the New Testament can be trusted. But in scholarly papers he has something very different to say. Dan Wallace noted this: “I am not sure what Ehrman believes.” Wallace then juxtaposed quotes by Ehrman from scholarly articles and books that sounded “reasonable” with quotes from Ehrman’s pop books and interviews that convey a radical belief that little of the New Testament can be trusted at all.
“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. … And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places. … [T]hese copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are.” (Quoted from Misquoting Jesus, p. 98, cited in Revisiting the Corruption, p. 24.)
Contrast the above disparagement of the New Testament with this statement by Ehrman in a presentation to the Society of Biblical Literature:
“In spite of these remarkable [textual] differences, scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the original words of the New Testament with reasonable – although probably not one hundred percent – accuracy.” (cited in Revisiting the Corruption, p. 24.)
And in the Appendix to Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman had nice things to say about his mentor Bruce Metzger, a Christian and very highly respected scholar. Wallace cited this comment by Ehrman:
“If [Metzger] and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands.” (Misquoting Jesus, p. 252.)
Text criticism particulars
The reasoning involved in rooting out the likely causes of variations between manuscripts can be arcane or straightforward, but it always requires great care and good materials to work from. Several particular instances are described in Revisiting the Corruption.
In one case Ehrman had made a conjecture that turned out to be wrong through no fault of Ehrman’s. What happened was that in 1993 Ehrman was using the best available photocopies of one of the manuscripts. A few years later, the museum that owns the manuscript made higher-quality (higher resolution) photos available, which resolved a disputed word in favor of the traditional orthodox reading.
In another case, the author of one of the chapters made a pretty compelling case that the variant manuscript was the product of a scriptorium, where the situation was one scribe reading aloud from a single copy, while two or three (or more) other scribes each wrote a copy. If the scribe was a little unfamiliar with Greek, or just in a bit of a hurry, or maybe a little hard of hearing, he could be guilty of writing homonyms. This idea was prompted by the discovery of other homonyms elsewhere in that same manuscript, in cases where they resulted in nonsense words that have been known to scholars for a long time and easily dismissed as irrelevant errors. The author guesses, with good reason (there are other clues), that the scribe who transcribed that manuscript was not visually examining the manuscript he was copying. No orthodox conspiracy is required, and also there is no good reason to alter the text of the Bible on the basis of this manuscript.
There was another case in which Ehrman supposed that the error in a manuscript was intended to counter a particular heresy, but the manuscript in question was dated to a time many decades before that particular heresy arose.
Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament is not nearly such an easy reader as Ehrman’s pop books. It would be really helpful to pastors and teachers who need support to defend the New Testament against critics who consider Ehrman to be a superstar. It is a serious work that deserves more attention than it got.
The anti-Christian “Religious Studies” professors in dozens of universities have incorporated Ehrman’s assertions into their coursework on the New Testament. They should not be trusted. They represent these courses as “neutral” and “scientific,” but they have a theological agenda, and it is not good.
Rather, trust the New Testament; it is reliable.