Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Double Standard

As anyone who has followed this blog will notice, I am a fan of Bart Erhman. I have read several of his books and listened to several of his Great Courses from The Teaching Company. Perhaps I identify with him because we are close in age and I also became a born-again Christian in my teens although I did not stick with it as long as he did. When he was studying at the Moody Bible Institute, I was a regular listener of their radio station WMBI. I was attending DePaul University at the time and I often would hop off the el or subway at Chicago Street to browse in Moody's bookstore when shuttling between DePaul's Loop and Lincoln Park campuses. In addition to blogging about Dr. Erhman, I frequently comment on other blogs where his works are discussed.

One of the things that evangelical Christians complain about is Ehrman's claim that there are more variants in the New Testament manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament itself. The Christians complain that he is just being provocative and that this is misleading because most of the variants have no effect on the meaning of the text. Well I will admit that Ehrman describes the number of variants this way for dramatic effect, but even conservative scholars admit that this is true. Moreover, Ehrman consistently qualifies his statement by acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of the variants are trivial.

On the other hand, conservative scholars and apologists like to talk about the sheer number of New Testament manuscripts to achieve the same sort of effect that Ehrman seeks with the sheer number of variants. However, in my experience, the Christians are much less likely to qualify their claim by acknowledging that 85% of those manuscripts date from more than 1000 years after the original. Some do, but most do not.


  1. Your final paragraph drove the hypocritical nail right home.

  2. One shouldn't forget that the much later manuscripts are important because they match, and testify to, the much earlier manuscripts.

    A book copied from an original 1000 years after the original, that is still accurate to the original is telling. It means the book was preserved even if the original was disintegrating.

    Inscribed metal plates that don't rust or get broken would be nice- but we're usually stuck with paper copies (At least we were until the printing press and electronic age).

    I'd recommend looking at the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri (P45, P46, and P47) as well as P66 (discovered by Martin Bodmer). These are significant codexes (in terms of length) all dating from 150-250. If these codexes match later manuscripts, then those later manuscripts should be considered accurate copies. You can draw your own conclusions from there.

  3. I won't argue that that the later manuscripts are irrelevant, just that the distribution of the manuscripts over time is an important qualification.

  4. Here is a fascinating article by Dan Wallace about how a tiny change from 'spirit' to 'Spirit' can wreck the whole meaning of a passage of scripture.

    Not that any of the 300,000 variants that exist in the manuscripts alter doctrine in the least, of course.

  5. I would agree there is a bit of exaggeration on both sides.

    I do wonder what method we should use as to calculate variants. Take the simplistic Acts 23:6 in which some manuscripts have Paul saying he was a “son of a Pharisee” and others have a plural: “son of Pharisees.” As an example, say there are 4 manuscripts which have singular “Pharisee” and 5 that have plural “Pharisees.”

    Is this one variant? 4 variants? 5 variants? 9 variants? In the Greek, the plural is the change of two (2) letters, so does this change the number of variants? What if the word order is modified in one manuscript to say “son of Pharisee, a Pharisee myself”? (It is not, by the way.) Would this just be one more variant, or does it cause the number to exponentiate?

    What consistent method do we come up with to count the number of variants—if it is so important? (I frankly don’t care what the number is.)

    As to the Christian number of manuscripts, I likewise wonder what year we use as a cut-off. At what point do we say, “No more manuscripts can be used in the count.” 200? 500? 1000? 1450? (the printing press) More importantly--why is that year we use significant? If we use 600 CE, for example, what justification do we have to use no manuscripts written in 601?

    I see they like the 25,000 or 30,000 number. Why? Because it seems like such a huge number. Yet what is not indicated is how many of those are translations (Latin or Coptic) nor the years. Do we use Greek as a cut-off as well?

    I think you are right—if Christians want to use more manuscripts, it should be pointed out that the more manuscripts we throw in the mix is one more manuscript which will disagree with another. True, it may agree with another as well, simply tossing out a number does not necessarily imply uniformity or agreement amongst that many manuscripts.

  6. I found an article in the Chicago Tribune today that made me smile. The headline was "Vatican: It's OK to believe in aliens." I cut it out and now I don't know what to do with it. I kind of wanted to send it to aunt Barbara, but I know she wouldn't give a crap what the Vatican has to say about anything.

  7. That reminds me of Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven when he tries to explain what planet he is from: "it's the one the Saviour saved." The gatekeeper reponds "The worlds He has saved are like to the gates of heaven in number - none can count them."

  8. I had not heard of this gentleman before but will definitely check him out.

    Your blog gives me a lot of food for thought