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Tampering with the Text: Was the New Testament Text Changed Along the Way?

Did the text contained in the books of the New Testament change over time? Although we can never have absolute certainty about the original text, we can have sufficient certainty that enables us to be confident that we possess the authentic teaching of Jesus and his apostles.

  • Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger Authors
  • 2022 16 Sep
Tampering with the Text: Was the New Testament Text Changed Along the Way?

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.

- The remaining number of truly unresolved variants is very few and not material to the story/teaching of the New Testament. 

If these four theses are valid, then we have good reasons to think that we are able to recover the New Testament text in a manner that is so very close to the original that there is no material difference between what, say, Mark and Matthew wrote and the text we have today. Although we can never have absolute certainty about the original text, we can have sufficient certainty that enables us to be confident that we possess the authentic teaching of Jesus and his apostles. Let us consider each of these theses in turn. 

Thesis 1: The Wealth of Extant Manuscripts

The first step in answering these questions about the transmission of the New Testament text is to gain a better understanding of the manuscript resources at our disposal. Discussions about whether a text has been "changed" always involve the comparison of manuscripts. After all, if we only possessed a single manuscript of the New Testament, there would be no discussion of scribal variations and changes—we would not know of such things unless we compared one copy with another copy to see where they differ.5 Although such a scenario may, on the surface, seem desirable (because then we would not need to worry about debating which variants were original!), having only one manuscript would raise a substantial problem: how would we know that we possess, in this one single manuscript, the words which were originally written by the author? If this single manuscript were simply a later copy of the original (which is most likely the case), then there is a good chance that some scribal mistakes, errors, and other variants have slipped into the text during the copying process. With only a single manuscript in our possession there is no way to be sure that no words have been lost or altered. Therefore, as scholars seek to know how much any writing of antiquity has been changed, and, more importantly, as they seek to establish what that writing would have originally said (by tracing those changes through the manuscript tradition), the more manuscripts that can be compared the better. The higher the number of manuscripts, the more assurance we have that the original text was preserved somewhere in the manuscript tradition. 

But it is not just the high quantity of manuscripts that is desirable for the textual critic but manuscripts that date as closely as possible to the time of the original writing of that text. The less time that passed between the original writing and our earliest copies, the less time there was for the text to be substantially corrupted, and therefore the more assured we can be that we possess what was originally written. Unfortunately, these two components of every textual critic's wish list—numerous copies and also some with an early date—are relatively rare in the study of most documents of antiquity. As we shall see, most of our ancient historical sources are attested by few manuscripts that are often very late. 

The Quantity of New Testament Manuscripts 

Not surprisingly, ancient manuscripts are hard to come by. Most have perished over the ages for a variety of reasons—burned in garbage dumps, destroyed by foreign armies, rotted or decayed, damaged by insects or rodents—or have simply been lost.6 Historians never have as many pieces of evidence as they would like. For example, the writings of Tacitus from the first century, widely recognized as one of the greatest Roman historians, survive in only three manuscripts, and not all are complete.7 Consider also the writings of Gaius from the second century, a Roman jurist who is well known for his essential accounts of Roman law under emperors like Marcus Aurelius. Most of his writings are lost and his key work, The Institutes, is preserved in just three manuscripts—but the text "rests almost exclusively" on just one of them.8 The sizable History of Rome by the first-century historian Velleius Paterculus, which covers large portions of Roman history, including the life of Julius Caesar, comes down to us in a single, mutilated manuscript.9 The work Jewish War by Josephus, a trusted Jewish historian from the first century AD, is better attested with over fifty extant manuscripts, but the text is mainly dependent on about ten of them.10 

By contrast, the New Testament manuscripts stand out as entirely unique in this regard. Although the exact count is always changing, currently we possess over 5,500 manuscripts (in whole or in part) of the New Testament in Greek alone.11 No other document of antiquity even comes close. Moreover, we possess thousands more manuscripts in other languages. The total for just our Latin manuscripts of the New Testament exceeds ten thousand copies, and we possess thousands more in Coptic, Syriac, Gothic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and other languages.12 Indeed, there is no exact number because there are so many of these different versions that not all have been formally catalogued. In addition to all these manuscripts, there are also a countless number of citations of the New Testament preserved in the early church fathers,13 so many, in fact, that Metzger has famously declared, "So extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament."14 

Such a scenario, from a historical perspective, is truly remarkable. As Eldon Epp has declared, "We have, therefore, a genuine embarrassment of riches in the quantity of manuscripts we possess. . . . The writings of no Greek classical author are preserved on this scale."15 If there were ever an ancient writing that had enough extant manuscripts that we could be reasonably assured that the original text was preserved for us in the multiplicity of copies, the New Testament would be it. Again it is Epp who notes, "The point is that we have so many manuscripts of the NT . . . that surely the original reading in every case is somewhere present in our vast store of material."16 Fee concurs, "The immense amount of material available to NT textual critics . . . is their good fortune because with such an abundance of material one can be reasonably certain that the original text is to be found somewhere in it."17 In other words, due to the vast number of manuscripts, the challenge of textual criticism is a different one than we might expect—it is not that we are lacking in material (as if the original words were lost), but rather we have too much material (the original words, plus some variations).  When it comes to reconstructing the original text of the New Testament, the latter position is much preferred over the former. 

It is here that the contrast between the New Testament and classical works becomes acute. Ehrman's hyper-skeptical approach should be challenged not by insisting the New Testament text should be treated in the same way as classical works—for he may argue that we do not know the text of the classical authors either—but by insisting that the New Testament text should be treated differently. After all, if we supposedly lack assurance regarding the preservation of the classical texts due to their paucity of manuscripts (although it is doubtful whether scholars really do treat classical works with such agnosticism), then how could we not have much greater assurance of the preservation of the New Testament text due to its abundance of manuscripts? This is precisely the sticking point for Ehrman's position. He wants to be skeptical of both sets of writings (New Testament and classical), in spite of the fact that the historical evidence for the two is vastly different. To insist that the New Testament is as unknowable as classical works is to render the historical data utterly irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Such a position, at its core, proves to be substantively unhistorical—the conclusions are the same regardless of the evidence. 

It is precisely for this reason that one wonders how much textual material would be enough for Ehrman to regard a text as sufficiently knowable. Would seven thousand Greek manuscripts be enough? Ten thousand? What if we had many more manuscripts of an early date (more on this below)? Would that be enough? One gets the impression that no matter what the evidence is, it would not change the outcome. The bar always seems to be set just a bit higher than wherever the evidence happens to be—like the Greek myth of Sisyphus who thought he had finally done enough to push the boulder to the top of the hill only to find it rolled back down again. As we shall see, there is only one thing that would seem to satisfy Ehrman's requirements: the autographs themselves. 

The Date of the New Testament Manuscripts 

If manuscripts of ancient documents are (generally speaking) relatively rare, then early manuscripts are even more so. As noted above, the smaller the gap of time between the writing of an ancient text and our earliest copy of that text, the more assurance we have that we possess what was originally written. Unfortunately, small gaps of time are the exception and not the rule. Of the manuscripts of Tacitus, the earliest is ninth century, nearly eight hundred years after it was originally written.18 For Josephus's Jewish War, virtually all of its manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, and the earliest of these is from the tenth century, nearly nine hundred years after the original time of publication. The only manuscript earlier than this is a very fragmentary papyrus from the third century that is virtually illegible.19 The single extant manuscript of the History of Rome by Velleius Paterculus is dated to the eighth or ninth century—approximately eight hundred years after its initial publication—but was subsequently lost and now survives only in a sixteenth century copy.20 The primary manuscript for Gaius's Institutes fares a bit better and is dated to the fifth century, about three hundred years after the original.21 Such gaps of time are not unusual in the manuscript traditions of many of our classical works. As Epp sums it up, "As is well known, the interval between the author and the earliest extant manuscripts for most classical writings is commonly hundreds—sometimes many hundreds—of years, and a thousand-year interval is not uncommon."22 

However, again, the New Testament situation is entirely different. The New Testament was written approximately AD 50-90, and our earliest New Testament manuscript, P52, preserves a portion of John's Gospel from c. AD 125, only thirty-five years later.23 Other early manuscripts include P90 (John, second century), P104 (Matthew, second century), P66 (John, late second century24), P98 (Revelation, second century), P4-P64-P67 (Luke and Matthew, late second century25), P46 (Pauline epistles, c. AD 200),  P103 (Matthew, c. AD 200),  P75 (Luke and John, c. AD 200-22526), and many others. Of course, even our major fourth-century codices, Sinaiticus (א)and Vaticanus (B), which contain nearly the entire Greek Bible (Old and New Testaments), are still quite early compared to the manuscripts of most classical works. 

The brief span of time between the production of the New Testament and our earliest copies gives us access to the New Testament text at a remarkably early stage, making it very unlikely that the textual tradition could have been radically altered prior to this time period without evidence for those alterations still being visible within the manuscript tradition.27 Put differently, if a particular manuscript of a New Testament book (say, Mark) had been changed by a scribe in the late first or early second century, it is unlikely that the change would have been able to replace the original reading quickly enough so that our third- and fourth-century copies of Mark would fail to preserve the original text at all (thus creating a situation where we would not even know the text had been changed). Frederik Wisse comments: 

There is no indication that the Gospels circulated in a form different from that attested in the later textual tradition. . . . If indeed the text of the Gospels had been subjected to extensive redactional change and adaption during the second century, the unanimous attestation of a relatively stable and uniform text during the following centuries in both Greek and the versions would have to be considered nothing short of a miracle.28 

The textual tradition of the New Testament, therefore, has a stubborn quality about it. Although a scribe can change an individual manuscript (or an individual reading), changing the overall textual tradition is much more difficult than one might think—the fact that there are so many other copies in circulation makes this virtually impossible to do. Kurt and Barbara Aland note that "one of the characteristics of the New Testament textual tradition is tenacity, i.e., the stubborn resistance of readings and text types to change. . . . This is what makes it possible to retrace the original text of the New Testament through a broad range of witnesses."29 Again they declare: 

The transmission of the New Testament textual tradition is characterized by an extremely impressive degree of tenacity. Once a reading occurs it will persist with obstinacy. . . . It is precisely the overwhelming mass of the New Testament textual tradition which provides an assurance of certainty in establishing the original text.30 

In other words, Aland and Aland are arguing that the multiplicity of witnesses, combined with the stubbornness of the textual tradition and the early date of our manuscripts, make it more than reasonable to presume that the original text is preserved within our overall manuscript tradition (even though any given copy would have variants31). 

However, despite the fact that the New Testament text, again, has substantially earlier textual attestation than most any other document of antiquity, this still does not seem to satisfy Ehrman. For example, he argues that we cannot know that we possess the text of Galatians because our earliest copy (P46) was written nearly 150 years after the original was composed.32 One wonders, would Ehrman's conclusions change if, say, we had a copy of Galatians from the middle of the second century (c. AD 150) or even earlier? This seems unlikely. Elsewhere in Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman argues that we can never really know what Galatians says because it is possible that one of the very first copies of Galatians could have had a mistake and maybe all of our extant copies derive from that single faulty copy.33 Thus, armed with this hypothesis about what might have happened in the early stages of the transmission (a hypothesis that cannot be proven), Ehrman is always able to claim we can never know the original text, no matter how early our extant manuscripts are. Once again, we see how Ehrman's conclusions seem impervious to the historical evidence—the date of our manuscripts does not really matter because, in principle, the text of Galatians (or any book) can never really be known. 

So, in the end, Ehrman's expressed concerns over the 150-year gap of time are somewhat of a red herring; they make the discussion appear to be about the historical data when it is really about an a priori decision never to acknowledge that a text can be sufficiently known unless we have 100 percent, unequivocal, absolute certainty. In other words, we can never claim knowledge of a text unless we have the autographs themselves (or a perfect copy of them). Needless to say, if this is the standard, then it will never be met in the real world of historical investigation. 

Thesis 2: The Extent of Textual Variation

Although the prior discussion has many layers of complexity, the overall point is a simple one: the impressive quantity of New Testament manuscripts, combined with the early date of many of those manuscripts, makes it historically reasonable to conclude that we possess the original text of the New Testament within the overall textual tradition (though not necessarily in any single manuscript). Therefore, as noted above, we actually have too much information—we not only possess the original text but also many textual variants. With this, we transition into the next stage of the discussion. Now we are no longer dealing with the question of whether we have the original New Testament text in our manuscript tradition but how we separate the original text from the variants. Do these variants present a considerable problem? How many of these variants are there? How different are the manuscripts we possess? 

One might think we could just add up all the textual variations and we would have our answer. However, as we shall see, the answer to these questions is not as simple as providing a numerical figure. All scholars agree that there are thousands of textual variants throughout our manuscripts—maybe as many as four hundred thousand—though no one knows the exact number. Ehrman seems eager to draw attention to this fact, if not to suggest even higher numbers: "Some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more!"34 Indeed, numbers matter very much to Ehrman. For him, the sheer volume of variants is the deciding factor and sufficient, in and of itself, to conclude that the New Testament cannot be trusted. He even offers the dramatic statement, "There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament."35 However, Ehrman's statistical enthusiasm aside, mere numbers do not tell the whole story. When other factors are considered, a more balanced and full-orbed picture of the New Testament text begins to emerge. 

The Nature of the Textual Changes 

All textual changes are not created equal. This fact, of course, is the fundamental reason why a numbers-only approach to textual variants is simply not viable. We need to ask not only how many variants there are but what kind of variants there are. It is a question not simply of quantity but of quality. It is for this reason that Eldon Epp and other textual critics recognize thatthere are certain kinds of textual variants that can legitimately be regarded as "insignificant."36 This term simply refers to variants that have no bearing or no impact on "the ultimate goal of establishing the original text."37 These are typically minor, run-of-the-mill, scribal slips that exist in any document of antiquity (New Testament or otherwise) and thus occasion no real concern for the textual scholar—and certainly are not relevant for assessing whether a document has been reliably passed down to us. And here is the key: these "insignificant" variants make up the vast, vast majority of variations within the New Testament text.38 Categories of insignificant variants include the following:39 

1) Spelling (orthographical) differences. It turns out that scribes in the ancient world often made spelling errors/changes just like writers in the modern day. Examples of this sort of change abound. (a) If certain words ended in a nu, that nu would often be dropped by the scribe if the following word started with a vowel (this is known as the moveable nu). But scribes were not always consistent with this practice and often differed from one another, and would even change patterns within the same manuscript. (b) Scribes used a variety of different abbreviations, and not all were identical. For example, if the last word in a line ended with nu, sometimes scribes would abbreviate it by dropping the nu and putting a horizontal line in its place.40 (c) Scribes would often interchange i and ie (or ei) in the spelling of words, which was often a form of phonetical spelling rather than a formal scribal error.41 And on it goes. The variety of spelling differences in manuscripts seems endless and every one of them counts as a scribal variation.42 

2) Nonsense readings. Occasionally scribes would make a mistake that would render a verse nonsensical and thus the mistake can be quickly identified as not being the original reading of the text. For example, sometimes scribes would accidentally skip a line in their copying (called haplography), and this would create incoherent readings. A well-known example is found in John 17:15 of Codex Vaticanus (B), where the scribe skipped a line and left out the bracketed portion: "I do not ask that you take them from the [world, but that you keep them from the] evil one." Needless to say, this produces a nonsensical reading that is clearly not original! Such mistakes may tell us about habits of a particular scribe, but they have no bearing on our ability to recovery the original text. 

3) Singular readings. Sometimes a certain reading exists in only one Greek manuscript and no other. Such singular readings—and there are thousands of them—have little claim to be the original text and therefore are irrelevant in assessing the reliability of the manuscript tradition. For example, P66* is the only (known) manuscript where John 17:12 has Jesus declare to the Father in his high priestly prayer, "I kept them in my (mou) name, which you have given me." All other manuscripts read, "I kept them in your (sou) name, which you have given me." 

4) Meaningless word order changes. One of the most common scribal changes involves word order (known as transposition). Unlike English, Greek nouns are inflected and thus their function in the sentence is not determined by word order but by their case. Therefore, the vast majority of word order changes in Greek do not affect meaning at all. For example, again in P66, John 13:1 reads toutou tou kosmou ("this world"), whereas the original likely read tou kosmou toutou ("this world")—no difference in meaning whatsoever. Another common word order change, especially in the Pauline epistles, is "Jesus Christ" for "Christ Jesus," or vice versa. Every word order change (and every various possible combination) counts as a variant. 

5) Definite articles on proper nouns. Unlike English, Greek can include articles in front of proper nouns: "the Jesus," "the John," or "the Andrew." However, there is no consistency in this practice among early Christian scribes and the presence or absence of the article before proper nouns rarely affects the meaning.43 For example, a number of manuscripts (A Δ f1 f13 1241) include the article (tou) in front of the name "Simon" in Mark 1:16, whereas most other manuscripts leave it out. Either way the English translation is the same: "Simon." Every time a scribe includes or omits an article in front of a proper noun, it counts as a textual variant. 

Of course, this brief overview of insignificant scribal changes is not exhaustive, and other categories could be added (e.g., scribes replacing personal pronouns with their antecedents). But the overall point is clear. Even though these types of changes are quite abundant—Ehrman is correct about that—they are also quite irrelevant. Thus, simply adding up the total textual variations is not a meaningful exercise in determining the reliability of textual transmission. 

Textual Changes and the Quantity of Manuscripts 

The numbers-only approach to evaluating textual variants also fails to take into account another very critical piece of data: the impressive quantity of manuscripts we possess. Obviously, if we possessed only five Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, then we would have very few textual variations to account for. But if we have over five thousand Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (not to mention those in other languages), then the overall quantity of textual variants will dramatically increase because the overall number of manuscripts has dramatically increased. The more manuscripts that can be compared, the more variations can be discovered. Thus, the quantity of variations is not necessarily an indication of scribal infidelity as much as it is the natural consequence of having more manuscripts than any other historical text. 

Incredibly, then, Ehrman takes what should be positive historical evidence for the New Testament (the high number of manuscripts) and, somehow, turns the tables to make it evidence for its tendentious character—a remarkable feat, to be sure. One wonders what Ehrman's conclusions would be if we actually did possess only five manuscripts of the New Testament and thereby had very few textual variants. Would the lack of textual variants then be regarded as positive evidence for the New Testament's reliable transmission? We suspect not. One wonders if the objection would then be that we have too few manuscripts. It is a losing affair either way. Thus, once again, we see a familiar pattern emerging. Regardless of the evidence—whether the manuscripts are many or few, whether the variants are many or few—Ehrman's conclusions would remain unchanged. 

Thesis 3: The Reliability of the Text-Critical Method

Part 1 of this article series demonstrated that the vast majority of textual variations are insignificant and irrelevant to determining the original text of the New Testament. However, that leaves a small portion of textual variants that can be deemed "significant." The definition of this term has two aspects: (1) "significant" textual variants are simply those that are not included in the "insignificant" category discussed above; and (2) "significant" variants are those that in some sense affect the meaning of the passage (though the effect can range from fairly minimal to more substantial). 

Even though the quantity of these significant variants is quite small compared to insignificant ones, some of them can still impact our understanding of New Testament passages (as we shall see below). Thus one might conclude that these sorts of changes present a real challenge to the textual integrity of the New Testament. However, such a conclusion would be built upon an assumption that we have no way to determine which of these significant variants were original and which were not. Put differently, significant variants would be a problem if we could assume that every one of them was as equally viable as every other. The problem with such an assumption, however, is that it stands in direct contradiction to the entire history of textual criticism—indeed, to the very existence of the field itself—which has consistently maintained that not all textual variants are equally viable and that our methodology can determine (with a reasonable degree of certainty) which is the original text.44 If that is the case, then these few "significant" textual variants do not materially affect the integrity of the New Testament because, put simply, we can usually spot them when they occur. 

Examples of Significant Variants 

It may be helpful for us to review some examples of significant variants, though we can only scratch the surface of the issue here. For instance, in Mark 1:14 we are told that Jesus came preaching the "gospel of God." However, some fifth-century (and later) manuscripts—such as Codex Alexandrinus (A) and Codex Bezae (D)—read the "gospel of the kingdom of God." The cause for this slight change is obvious: the phrase "kingdom of God" is quite common throughout Mark (and the other Synoptic Gospels) and the scribe was likely harmonizing 1:14 with these other passages (a very common cause of scribal variations). Is there a difference in meaning between "gospel of God" and "gospel of the kingdom of God"? Perhaps. But the difference is hardly a cause for concern. And even if the difference were substantial, it matters little because the textual evidence is clear that Mark originally wrote "gospel of God."45 Mark 1:14 is a very typical example of a "significant" variant. 

However, there are other "significant" variants that have a more substantial impact on the meaning of a text. Two examples will suffice. One of the most commonly mentioned variants is found in 1 John 5:7-8 and is known as the Comma Johanneum.46 The italicized portion of the following verses is found in only a handful of manuscripts: "For there are three that testify: in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree." Out of hundreds of Greek manuscripts, only eight contain this variant reading—and four of those have the variants added by the scribe into the margin—and the earliest of these is tenth century.47 Moreover, the variant is attested by none of the Greek fathers and is absent from almost all our early versions. In the end, despite the fact that this variant found its way into the Textus Receptus (and thereby the King James translation), the text-critical evidence is decidedly against it being original to John's epistle. What, then, do we make of this variant? No one can doubt that it is "significant" in that it affects the theological understanding of this verse. However, it simply has no claim to originality and therefore does not impact our ability to recover the original text of the New Testament.48 Nor is our understanding of the Trinity in the slightest dependent on this verse—indeed, the orthodox conception of the Trinity can be derived from many other New Testament verses and was well in place for centuries before this variation would have been widely known. 

A second example is Mark 16:9-20, known as the long ending of Mark.49 Most modern English translations bracket off this portion of the text and note that two of our earliest manuscripts of Mark, Codex Sinaiticus (א) and Vaticanus (B), do not contain the long ending. Moreover, the long ending was unknown in a number of early versions (including a number of Latin, Syriac, and Armenian manuscripts) and was not mentioned by prominent Greek fathers such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen. There is also the problem of non-Markan vocabulary in the long ending, as well as the awkward transition between 16:8 and 16:9. In short, most scholars agree that the long ending of Mark was not original to his Gospel. So, what is the impact of this particular variant? There is no doubt this textual change is "significant" both in regard to its scope (twelve verses) and also its content (resurrection, drinking poison, picking up snakes). But, since we can clearly see that these verses are an addition, they bear no impact on our ability to recover the original text of Mark. There may be residual questions regarding why Mark would end his Gospel in verse 8 (which we cannot enter into here), but the textual evidence is quite clear that he did not write verses 9-20.50 

Theologically Motivated Changes 

There has been a long-standing discussion in the world of textual criticism concerning the degree to which scribes intentionally altered passages of the New Testament to better conform to their own theological preferences. Ever since the well-known statement from Westcott and Hort that "there are no signs of deliberate falsification of the text for dogmatic purposes,"51 there has been a steady chorus of scholars intending to show the opposite to be the case. The idea of theologically motivated scribal changes can be traced back to Kirsopp Lake and J. Rendel Harris and more recently to scholars like Eldon J. Epp and his well-known book The Theological Tendency of Codex Cantabrigiensis in Acts.52 Ehrman joins this chorus in a number of his recent books, but most notably The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, where he argues that scribes in the early church were not merely disinterested copyists who mechanically transmitted the text in front of them, but, in one sense, continued "writing" the New Testament text by changing it to adapt to the theological and social challenges of the day.53 Thus, argues Ehrman, these scribal changes need to be understood within the context of the early church battles over heresy and orthodoxy—battles that not only affected the development of the New Testament canon but affected the development of the New Testament text itself. 

Because these theologically motivated changes can affect the meaning of a passage (though just how much is in doubt), they are rightly considered to be "significant" textual variants. A few examples may be helpful. In Luke 2:33, after Simeon blesses the baby Jesus, we read, "And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him." However, a number of later manuscripts read, "And Joseph and his mother marveled at what was said about him" (K X Δ Θ Π Ψ). Ehrman argues that this scribal change is designed to bolster the doctrine of the virgin birth—an issue that was often challenged by some heretical groups like the Ebionites—by making sure no one can (mis)use this passage to argue that Jesus had a human father.54 A second example comes from 1 Timothy 3:16 which, speaking of Christ, declares, "He was manifested in the flesh." However, other manuscripts show a scribal change which then makes the verse declare, "God was manifested in the flesh" (אe A2 C2 Dc K L P Ψ). Ehrman again argues that this scribal change was intentional and designed to state the divinity of Christ in more explicit terms.55 In the midst of all the Christological debates in early Christianity, scribes may have wanted to make sure this verse expressly affirmed that Christ was God come in the flesh. A third example is found in John 19:40 where Jesus' body is being prepared for burial. We are told there that "they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths." But the fifth-century codex Alexandrinus (A) reads, "So they took the body of God and bound it in linen cloths." This very obvious Christological change again appears to have been introduced for theological reasons—perhaps to keep Docetists from arguing that since Jesus was God he could not have had a real flesh-and-blood body.56 

How should we assess Ehrman's arguments with regard to intentional scribal changes? Let it be said at the outset that Ehrman's detailed textual work in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture is where he is at his best. Overall, this is a very impressive monograph with much to offer the scholarly community in its assessment of the history of the New Testament text. Surely Ehrman's overall thesis is correct that, on occasion, scribes did change their manuscripts for theological reasons. That being said, there are two issues that need to be raised. First, although Ehrman is correct that some changes are theologically motivated, it seems he too quickly passes over equally (if not more) plausible explanations that are not nearly as provocative. For example, in 1 Timothy 3:16 above, the scribal switch to "God was manifested in the flesh" can be naturally explained by the fact that the word for "who" (OΣ) is very close to the abbreviation for "God" (ΘΣ). A simple scribal slip would easily turn one word into the other. However, Ehrman still maintains that the change was theologically motivated because four of the uncial witnesses (א A C D) show that OΣ ("who") was actually corrected by the scribe to read ΘΣ ("God")—meaning the scribe did it consciously. But the fact that these four scribes did it consciously is not the same as saying they did it for theological reasons. These are not the same thing. These scribes may have simply thought the prior scribe got it wrong; or maybe they simply corrected it according to what was in their exemplar. Moreover, a number of other majuscules have ΘΣ ("God") but not as part of a correction (K L P Ψ), so there is no indication that they did it intentionally. In the end, the explanation for the variant in 1 Timothy 3:16 is likely a very boring one. Simply a mistake. 

A second issue with Ehrman's work has to do with the overall conclusions that can be drawn from it. Let us assume for a moment that Ehrman is correct about the motivations of the scribes in every single example he offers—they all changed the text for theological reasons. But how does this change our understanding of the original text of the New Testament? What is the real payoff here in terms of assessing the New Testament's integrity? Not much. Ehrman's study may be helpful to assess scribal habits or the nature of theological debates in early Christianity, but it has very little effect on our recovery of the original text because in each of the instances he describes we can distinguish the original text from the scribal changes that have been made. In other words, even theologically motivated changes do not threaten the integrity of the text for the simple reason that our textcritical methodology allows us to spot them when they occur.57 

It is here that Ehrman finds himself in somewhat of a conundrum. On the one hand, in Misquoting Jesus he wants the "original" text of the New Testament to remain inaccessible and obscure, forcing him to argue that text-critical methodologies cannot really produce any certain conclusions. On the other hand, in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture he needs to argue that text-critical methodologies are reliable and can show you what was original and what was not; otherwise he would not be able to demonstrate that changes have been made for theological reasons. Moisés Silva comments: 

There is hardly a page in [The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture] where Ehrman does not employ the concept of an original text. Indeed, without such a concept, and without the confidence that we can identify what the original text is, Ehrman's book is almost unimaginable, for every one of his examples depends on his ability to identify a particular reading as a scribal corruption.58 

The essence of Ehrman's argument, then, seems self-defeating. He is using theologically motivated scribal changes as a reason for why we cannot know the original text, but then he must assume we can know the original text in order to prove these scribal changes. Which one is it? In the end, it seems that Ehrman wants to be able to have his text-critical cake and eat it, too. 

Unfortunately, it seems the agenda in Misquoting Jesus is forcing Ehrman not only to deny the overall reliability of the field of textual criticism—the very field to which he has committed his life's work—but to deny even his own prior scholarly works. 

What, then, is driving these inconsistencies in Ehrman's text-critical approach? Inevitably, it goes back to his commitment to the Bauer thesis and, in particular, his application of the Bauer thesis to the field of textual criticism. Even though the field of textual criticism has historically argued that some variants really are more original than others, the Bauer thesis implies that, in one sense, all textual variants are inherently equal. After all, why should one form of the New Testament text be considered genuine and not another? Who is to say which text is right? Different Christians in different regions experienced different textual variants (and to them these variants were the word of God). It seems, then, that Ehrman is being pulled back and forth between these two competing positions—historical textual criticism that privileges one reading over another and the Bauer thesis, which suggests no reading can really be regarded as superior. The latter position seems to be prevailing when Ehrman declares, "It is by no means self-evident that [reconstructing the original text] ought to be the ultimate goal of the discipline . . . there may indeed be scant reason to privilege the ‘original' text over forms of the text that developed subsequently."59 

Thus, Ehrman's Bauer-driven approach to textual criticism is more radical than one might first realize. His claim is not simply that the battles over heresy and orthodoxy altered the original text, but he goes one step further to say that the battles over heresy and orthodoxy imply that there is no original text. Put differently, the Bauer hypothesis does not just explain the cause of textual variants, but it determines what our attitude should be towards textual variants. They are all equal. Once again, it is clear that Ehrman's conclusions are driven less by the discipline of textual criticism and more by his prior commitment to the Bauer thesis and the pluralistic nature of early Christianity. 

Thesis 4: The Impact of Unresolved Variants

The prior section has argued that even "significant" variants do not present a problem for the integrity of the New Testament because our text-critical methodology allows us to determine, with a reasonable degree of certainty, which is the original text. However, a very small number of significant variants remain where our methodology is not always able to reach a certain conclusion in either direction. In such a case, we may have two (or more) different readings and not know for sure which one is the original. Although these "unresolved" variants are quite rare, they are the only legitimate places where the New Testament text is genuinely in question, and therefore they need to be addressed. 

Examples of Unresolved Variants 

Needless to say, the question of what constitutes an "unresolved" variant is not always easy to answer (and cannot be fully resolved here). Certainly we cannot regard a variant as "unresolved" simply because there is some disagreement about its originality amongst scholars—after all, it seems that some sort of argument could be made for almost any variant reading if someone really wanted to try. Instead, we are talking here about a situation where there are two (or more) possible readings and the evidence for each reading (whether external or internal) is relatively equal, or at least close enough that it is reasonable to think that either reading could have been original. Again, a few examples may help. 

In Mark 3:32, the crowd sitting around Jesus said to him, "Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you." However, evidence from some other early Greek manuscripts (A D) and Old Latin, Old Syriac, and Gothic witnesses (combined with some strong internal considerations) suggest that the original may have been "Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside, seeking you." Even the editorial committee of the UBS Greek New Testament was divided on the question, which has prompted a number of English translations to include a footnote in this verse with the variant reading.60 Whichever way one decides, very little is at stake here. We know from other passages that Jesus had sisters (Matt. 13:56), and no doubt they would have been concerned about him along with the rest of the family. Another example, Mark 7:9, reads, "And he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish (stesete) your tradition!'" But, a number of majuscules (א A K L Δ Π ), some of which are quite early, substitute "keep" (teresete) for the word "establish" (stesete). Given the similar spelling and similar meaning of these words, it is quite di"cult to determine which gave rise to which. However, either way, it leaves the meaning of the passage virtually unchanged. 

Both of the above examples are typical "unresolved" variants—not only are they very rare, but most of the time they affect the meaning of the text very little (and thus are relatively boring). But Ehrman has suggested that there are some other hard-to-solve variants that do impact the meaning of the text in a substantive manner. For example, Luke 22:43-44 describes the anguish of Jesus in the garden: "And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground." These verses are attested by a number of important witnesses including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Eusebius, and other church fathers. However, these verses are also omitted by a number of important witnesses as well as Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Consequently, it is difficult to be sure whether the verses are original to Luke.61 The question, then, is whether either option raises a substantial problem or changes any biblical doctrine (Christological or otherwise). We know from other passages that Jesus felt great anguish in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:37-38; Mark 14:34), and that he was a real human being that could suffer temptation and sorrow (Heb. 2:17-18). Moreover, we have other accounts where angels attended Jesus in times of great need (Mark 1:13). These realities remain unchanged whether we include or omit this reading. Thus, either option seems to be consistent and compatible with what we know about Jesus and his ministry. 

Ehrman offers another example from Mark 1:41 ('()) where Jesus sees a leper and was "filled with compassion" (splagchnisthei). Though this reading has superior external support in its favor (א A B C K L W Δ Θ Π f1 f13), Codex Bezae (D) and a number of Old Latin witnesses declare that when Jesus saw the leper he was "filled with anger" (orgistheis). Although the external evidence is in favor of "filled with compassion," a number of internal considerations (e.g., which reading would the scribe have likely changed?) suggest that the original may have been "filled with anger." In short, it is difficult to know which reading is original.62 So, again, we ask whether either option raises a substantial problem or issue related to the teaching of the New Testament. Although "filled with anger" certainly changes our understanding of the passage—Jesus was likely expressing "righteous indignation at the ravages of sin"63 on the world, particularly the leper—this perspective on Jesus fits quite well with the rest of the book of Mark, where he shows his anger in 3:5 in a confrontation with the Pharisees and in 10:14 as he is indignant with his disciples. But it is also consistent with the Jesus of the other Gospels. Particularly noteworthy is John 11:33 where Jesus is faced with the plight of Lazarus, and the text tells us that he was "deeply moved" (enebrimesato), a term that can better be understood to mean Jesus felt "anger, outrage or indignation."64 Was Jesus angry at Lazarus? No, the context suggests that he was angered over the ravages of sin on the world, particularly as it affected Lazarus. In John 11:33, then, we have a vivid parallel to what might be happening in Mark 1:41—both are examples of Jesus showing anger toward the effects of sin in the midst of performing a miracle of healing and restoration. In the end, whichever reading in Mark 1:41 is original, neither is out of step with the Jesus of he New Testament. 

Unresolved Variants and Biblical Authority 

It is here that we come to the crux of the issue regarding biblical authority. Do we need to have absolute 100 percent certainty about every single textual variant for God to speak authoritatively in the Scriptures? Not at all. When we recognize not only how few unresolved variants exist but also how little they impact the overall story of the New Testament, then we can have confidence that the message of the New Testament has been sufficiently preserved for the church. All the teaching of the New Testament—whether regarding the person of Jesus (divinity and humanity), the work of Jesus (his life, death, and resurrection), the application of his work to the believer (justification, sanctification, glorification), or other doctrines—are left unaffected by the remaining unresolved textual variations.65 Belief in the inspiration of the original autographs does not require that every individual copy of the autographs be error-free. The question is simply whether the manuscript tradition as a whole is reliable enough to transmit the essential message of the New Testament. As we have seen above, the manuscript tradition is more than adequate. It is so very close to the originals that there is no material difference between what, say, Paul or John wrote and what we possess today. 

Of course, as we have seen above, Ehrman has taken a very different approach. For him, the quest for the original text is somewhat of an "all or nothing" endeavor. Either we know the wording of the original text with absolute certainty (meaning we have the autographs, or perfect copies of the autographs), or we can have no confidence at all in the wording of the original text.66  Unfortunately, this requirement of absolute certainty sets up a false dichotomy that is foreign to the study of history. As historians, we are not forced to choose between knowing everything or knowing nothing—there are degrees of assurance that can be attained even though some things are still unknown. This false dichotomy allows Ehrman to draw conclusions that are vastly out of proportion with the actual historical evidence. Although his overall historical claim is relatively indisputable (that the New Testament manuscripts are not perfect but contain a variety of scribal variations), his sweeping conclusions simply do not follow (that the text of the New Testament is unreliable and unknowable). We can have reliable manuscripts without having perfect manuscripts. But it is precisely this distinction that Ehrman's "all or nothing" methodology does not allow him to make. 

As a result, addressing the historical evidence (the nature and extent of textual variants) will not ultimately change Ehrman's conclusions about the New Testament. It will not change his conclusions because it is not the historical evidence that led to his conclusions in the first place. What, then, is driving Ehrman's conclusions? Ironically, they are being driven not by any historical consideration but by a theological one. At the end of Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman reveals the core theological premise behind his thinking: "If [God] really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he miraculously inspired them in the first place."67 In other words, if God really inspired the New Testament there would be no scribal variations at all. It is his commitment to this belief—a theological belief—that is driving his entire approach to textual variants. Of course, this belief has manifold problems associated with it. Most fundamentally, one might ask, where does Ehrman get this theological conviction about what inspiration requires or does not require? How does he know what God would "surely" do if he inspired the New Testament? His approach certainly does not reflect the historical Christian positions on inspiration (except perhaps those in the King-James-Only camp).68 Instead, Ehrman seems to be working with an arbitrary and self-appointed definition of inspiration which, not surprisingly, just happens to set up a standard that could never really be met. Does inspiration really require that once the books of the Bible were written that God would miraculously guarantee that no one would ever write it down incorrectly? Are we really to believe that inspiration demands that no adult, no child, no scribe, no scholar— not anyone—would ever write down a passage of Scripture where a word was left out for the entire course of human history? Or is God prohibited by Ehrman from giving revelation until Gutenberg and the printing press? (But there are errors there, too.) 

It seems clear that Ehrman has investigated the New Testament documents with an a priori conviction that inspiration requires zero scribal variations—a standard that could never be met in the real historical world of the first century. Ironically, as much as Ehrman claims to be about real history, his private view of inspiration, by definition, prevents there from ever being a New Testament from God that would have anything to do with real history. Not surprisingly, therefore, Ehrman "concludes" that the New Testament could not be inspired. One wonders whether any other conclusion was even possible. 


Did the battles over heresy and orthodoxy in earliest Christianity affect the transmission of the New Testament text? Yes. No doubt a variety of scribal changes are due to these early theological disputes. But do these changes affect the text in such a way that we cannot be sure what it originally said? Not at all. Since the New Testament is a historical book that has been passed down to us through normal historical means (copying manuscripts by hand), then it inevitably contains the normal kinds of scribal variations that we would expect from any document of antiquity. No doubt some of these scribal variations were intentional and motivated by the theological debates of the day. However, the New Testament is different from most other ancient texts in a fundamental way: the wealth of manuscript evidence at our disposal (both in quantity and date) gives us good reasons to think that the original text has not been lost but has been preserved in the manuscript tradition as a whole. Given the fact that the vast number of textual variants is "insignificant," and given that our text-critical methodology can tell which "significant" readings are original and which are secondary, we can have confidence that the text we possess is, in essence, the text that was written in the first century.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Excerpt taken from The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger (Crossway). 

The Heresy of Orthodoxy
Copyright ©2010 Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger
Published by Crossway Books 
A publishing ministry of Good News Publishers 
1300 Crescent Street 
Wheaton, Illinois 60187

Footnotes from The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger (Crossway), "Tampering with the Text."

1 For discussion of the posture/position of ancient scribes and whether they ever made copies without an exemplar in front of them (e.g., by dictation), see D. C. Parker, New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 154-57; T. C. Skeat, "The Use of Dictation in Ancient Book-Production," Proceedings of the British Academy 42 (1956): 179-208; and Bruce M. Metzger, "When Did Scribes Begin to Use Writing Desks?" in Historical and Literary Studies, Pagan, Jewish, and Christian (Leiden: Brill, 1968), 123-37. 

2 This does not mean that ancient writers were always content with the amount of scribal mistakes. On occasion they would complain of how a scribe (or someone else) made so many blunders that the original document was tainted. For example, Martial complains about his copyist, "If any poems in these sheets, reader, seems to you either too obscure or not quite good Latin, not mine is the mistake: the copyist spoiled them in his haste" (Epig. 2.8). 

3 Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (San Francisc Harper Collins, 2005), 7 (emphasis in original). 

4 One need only compare Misquoting Jesus to B. H. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1881); Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989); and Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). The concept of an "original" text (and our ability to recover it) has been challenged in recent studies. Although there is not space here to attempt a resolution of this question, see the following for more discussion: Parker, New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts, 337-38; idem, The Living Text of the Gospels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 203-13; Eldon Jay Epp, "The Multivalence of the Term ‘Original Text' in New Testament Textual Criticism," HTR 92 (1999): 245-81; Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 272-74; William L. Petersen, "What Text Can New Testament Textual Criticism Ultimately Reach?" in New Testament Textual Criticism, Exegesis, and Early Church History: A Discussion of Methods, ed. Barbara Aland and Joel Delobel (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1994), 136-52; and J. Delobel, "The Achilles' Heel of New Testament Textual Criticism," Bijdr 63 (2002): 3-21. 

5 Of course, this is a general statement. There are two ways we could notice scribal variations even if we possessed only a single manuscript: (1) nonsense readings that suggest the scribe made a blunder; in such cases conjectural emendations would be necessary; and (2) corrections within the text itself from a second scribal hand could give indications of what the readings of other manuscripts may have been. For example, 􀂛66 (second-century codex of John) has a number of scribal corrections in the text; see Gordon D. Fee, Papyrus Bodmer II (􀂛66): Its Textual Relationships and Scribal Characteristics (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1968), 57-75. 

6 Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 33-41. 

7 L. D. Reynolds, ed., Texts and Transmissions: A Survey of the Latin Classics (Oxford:  Clarendon, 1983), 406-11. There are numerous later Italian manuscripts of Books 11-16, all of which are based on the single earlier medieval manuscript Laurentianus 68.2 (known as the "second" Medicean). For more, see Clarence W. Mendell, Tacitus: The Man and His Work (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), 294-324. 

8 Reynolds, Texts and Transmissions, 174. The primary manuscript (Verona, Chapter Library XV) is actually a "palimpsest," which means the parchment was reused at a later date to copy another text, and the original text of The Institutes is only visible underneath it. The two more fragmentary manuscripts provide little new information (P.Oxy. 2103; Florence, Laur. P.S.I. 1182). 

9 Reynolds, Texts and Transmissions, 431-33. 

10 Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), xxvii-xxxi; Heinz Schreckenberg, Die Flavius-Josephus-Tradition in  Antike und Mittelalter (Leiden: Brill, 1972).

11 The official numbers are kept at the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung (Institute for New Testament Textual Research) in Münster, Germany. In personal correspondence, Daniel B. Wallace writes that, "Although the o"cial tally by Münster is now 5,773, and although the CSNTM has discovered dozens of MSS not yet catalogued by Münster, there are several MSS that have gone missing, have been doubly catalogued, or are parts of other MSS. Ulrich Schmid told me a few months ago that the actual number weighed in at 5,555. But I think it would be safe to say that there are over 5,600 now." 

12 For a fuller discussion of the manuscripts, see Aland and Aland, Text of the New Testament, 185-221. 

13 For more on texts in the fathers, see Gordon D. Fee, "The Text of John in Origen and Cyril of Alexandria: A Contribution to Methodology in the Recovery and Analysis of Patristic Citations," Bib 52 (1971): 357-73; idem, "The Use of the Greek Fathers for New Testament Textual Criticism," in The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, ed. Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 191-207; and M. J. Suggs, "The Use of Patristic Evidence in the Search for a Primitive New Testament Text," NTS 4 (1957-1958): 139-47. For examples of attempts to extract texts from the fathers, see the Society of Biblical Literature series edited by Michael W. Holmes, The New Testament in the Greek Fathers, Texts and Analyses (1998-present). 

14 Metzger, Text of the New Testament, 86. 

15 Eldon Jay Epp, "Textual Criticism," in The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, ed.  Eldon Jay Epp and George W. MacRae (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 91. 

16 Epp, "Textual Criticism," 91 (emphasis added). For a similar point, see also Eldon Jay Epp,  "Textual Criticism in the Exegesis of the New Testament, with an Excursus on Canon," in Handbook to the Exegesis of the New Testament, ed. Stanley Porter (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 52-53. 

17 Gordon D. Fee, "Textual Criticism of the New Testament," in Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, ed. Eldon Jay Epp and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 6. 

18 MS. plut. 68.1, Codex Mediceus. 

19 Pap. Graec. Vindob. 29810. 

20 This manuscript (Basle AN II 38) is actually a copy of an earlier manuscript dating from the eighth-ninth century, which is now lost; see discussion in Metzger, Text of the New Testament, 34. 

21 The other two fragments date from the third (P.Oxy. 2103) and sixth centuries (Florence, Laur. P.S.I. 1182) but offer very little of the text. 

22 Epp, "Textual Criticism," 91. 

23 C. H. Roberts, "An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library," BJRL 20 (1936): 45-55; for an even earlier date of c. #$ 100, see K. Aland, "Neue neutestamentliche Papyri II," NTS 9 (1962-63): 303-16. 

24 A date for 􀂛66 in the first half of the second century has been suggested by Herbert Hunger, "Zur Datierung des Papyrus Bodmer II (􀂛66)," Anzeiger der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 4 (1960): 12-33. 

25 Skeat has argued that 􀂛4-􀂛64-􀂛67 forms the earliest four-gospel codex and dates from the late second century; see T. C. Skeat, "The Oldest Manuscripts of the Four Gospels?" NTS 43 (1997): 1-34. Skeat has been challenged on this point by Peter M. Head, "Is 􀂛4, 􀂛64, and 􀂛67 the Oldest Manuscript of the Four Gospels? A Response to T. C. Skeat," NTS 51 (2005): 450-57. 

26 The original editors of 􀂛75 proposed a date between #$ 175 and 200, making this a possible second-century text, but that is debated. See V. Martin and R. Kasser, Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV (Geneva: Bibliotheca Bodmeriana, 1961), 1:13. 

27 Helmut Koester, "The Text of the Synoptic Gospels in the Second Century," in Gospel Traditions in the Second Century: Origins, Recensions, Text, and Transmission, ed. William L. Petersen (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 19-37, has argued that the New Testament text could have been radically changed by the time of (and during) the second century. For the opposing view see Larry W. Hurtado, "The New Testament in the Second Century: Texts, Collections, and Canon," in Transmission and Reception: New Testament Text-Critical and Exegetical Studies, ed. J. W. Childers and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2006), 3-17; and Frederick Wisse, "The Nature and Purpose of Redactional Changes in Early Christian Texts: The Canonical Gospels," in Gospel Traditions of the Second Century, ed. Petersen, 39-53. 

28 Wisse, "Nature and Purpose of Redactional Changes in Early Christian Texts," 52-53. 

29 Aland and Aland, Text of the New Testament, 70 (emphasis added).

30 Ibid., 291-92 (emphasis original). 

31 It is important to note that we do have a number of manuscripts in the early centuries of Christianity whose text is rightly characterized as "free" or "loose," leading to more variants and more original readings. The classic example of this is the fifth-century Codex Bezae (D). For more on this fascinating manuscript, see D. C. Parker, Codex Bezae: An Early Christian Manuscript and Its Text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). 

32 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 60. It is interesting to note that the very impressive study of Günther Zuntz on 􀂛46 had a much more positive conclusion: "The excellent quality of the text represented by our oldest manuscript, 􀂛46, stands out again. . . . Once the [scribal errors] have been discarded, there remains a text of outstanding (though not absolute) purity" (Günther Zuntz, The Text of the Epistles: A Disquisition upon the Corpus Paulinum, Schweich Lectures [London: British Academy, 1953], 212-13). For more on the text of Galatians in 􀂛46 and other early manuscripts see Moisés Silva, "The Text of Galatians: Evidence from the Earliest Greek Manuscripts," in Scribes and Scripture: Essays in Honor of J. Harold Greenlee, ed. D. A. Black (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1992), 17-25. 

33 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 59. Even if Ehrman's hypothesis about how Galatians was copied in its earliest stages were true, we can still work back to a text that is so very near the original of Galatians that it would be more than su"cient for knowing what Galatians said. In fact, Ehrman acknowledges as much: "This oldest form of the text [of Galatians] is no doubt closely (very closely) related to what the author originally wrote, and so it is the basis for our interpretation of his teaching" (p. 62, emphasis original).

34 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 89. 

35 Ibid., 90. 

36 Eldon Jay Epp, "Toward the Clarification of the Term ‘Textual Variant,'" in Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism, 57. As a point of clarification, Epp prefers to use the term "readings" to refer to insignificant changes, and reserves the term "variant" for changes that are significant or meaningful. Although such a distinction is helpful, we are using the term "variant" here in both senses: to speak of insignificant and significant changes.  

37 Epp, "Toward the Clarification of the Term ‘Textual Variant,'"57. 

38 No one knows the exact numbers. Wallace estimates that insignificant variants (as I have defined them here) would constitute approximately 80-90 percent of known textual changes (though this number is inexact because we use different categories). See J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 63. 

39 Categories 1 to 3 below are included by Epp in his definition of "insignificant" readings (Epp, "Toward the Clarification of the Term ‘Textual Variant,'"57), and I have added categories 4 and 5. 

40 E.g., John 1:4 in 􀂛66 drops the nu at the end of anthropon. 

41 Francis T. Gignac, A Grammar of the Greek Papyri of the Roman and Byzantine Periods, vol. 1: Phonology (Milan: Istituto Editoriale Cisalpino-La Goliardica, 1976), 189-91. Examples of such a practice abound in Codex Sinaiticus; e.g., tapinos for tapeinois, kreinai for krinai, and dynami for dynamei. Skeat and others have suggested such phonetical spelling can be evidence a manuscript has been produced by dictation. See Skeat, "Use of Dictation in Ancient Book-Production," 179-208. 

42 It is important to note that the type of changes in view here are the ones that are merely orthographic. On occasion, a spelling error may produce a new word and affect the meaning of a passage. For example, the well-known variant in Romans 5:1 could read, "We have (echomen) peace with God," or "Let us have (echomen) peace with God." 

43 It is possible that articles before proper nouns may occasionally be anaphoric (referring to a previous referent) and thus may be translated in a slightly different manner. E.g., Acts 19:15, ton Paulon epistamai, can be translated, "This Paul I recognize." Either way, it is hardly a substantive difference. 

44 Of course, there is not space in this short chapter to review the basic methodological principles of New Testament textual criticism. For more on that subject, see Metzger and Ehrman,  text of the New Testament, 300-343; Aland and Aland, Text of the New Testament, 280-316; Eldon Jay Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism; Ehrman and Holmes, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research, 237-379; David Alan Black, ed., Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002). 

45 Not only does "gospel of God" have solid external support, but the existence of the shorter reading better explains the rise of the longer one (due to harmonization), whereas the opposite scenario is quite difficult to explain. 

46 For more on this variant see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1994), 647-48; Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, 146-47. 

47 61 88v.r. 221v.r. 429v.r. 636v.r. 918 2318. 

48 The recent volume by Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2009), offers a rebuttal to many of the criticisms of Misquoting Jesus and continues to insist that the variant in 1 John 5:7 is important and meaningful (p. 186). But Ehrman is missing the point entirely about this text. The reason this variant does not affect the integrity of the New Testament text is not because it is insignificant (Ehrman is correct that it changes the meaning of the passage), but because the textual evidence is so clearly against it that we know it is not the original reading. If we can tell it is not the original reading, then it does not matter how meaningful the change is. Ehrman seems so unduly fixated on the impact of the change that he misses the fact that the evidence against the variant speaks compellingly against its originality. 

49 The studies on the long ending of Mark are too many to mention here; some helpful reviews of scholarship can be found in Joseph Hug, La finale de l'evangile de Marc: Mc 16, 9-20 (Paris: Gabalda, 1978), 11-32; Paul Mirecki, "Mark 16:9-20: Composition, Tradition, and Redaction" (PhD diss., Harvard University, 1986), 1-23; Virtus E. Gideon, "The Longer Ending of Mark in Recent Study," in New Testament Studies: Essays in Honor of Ray Summers in his Sixty-Fifth Year, ed. H. L. Drumwright and C. Vaughan (Waco, TX: Markham Press Fund, 1975), 3-12; and James A. Kelhoffer, Miracle and Mission: The Authentication of Missionaries and Their Message in the Longer Ending of Mark (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 5-47. 

50 For more discussion on why Mark would end his Gospel at verse 8 see Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Patrick D. Miller, eds., The Ending of Mark and the Ends of God: Essays in Memory of Donald Harrisville Juel (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 2005); P. W. van der Horst, "Can a Book End with a gar? A Note on Mark XVI.8," JTS 23 (1972): 121-24; K. R. Iverson, "A Further Word on Final gar (Mark 16:8)," CBQ 68 (2006): 79-94; J. Lee Magness, Sense and Absence: Structure and Suspension in the End of Mark's Gospel (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986); and David Alan Black, ed., Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: 4 Views (Nashville: Broadman, 2008). 

51 Westcott and Hort, New Testament in the Original Greek, 2:282. 

52 Kirsopp Lake, The Influence of Textual Criticism on the Exegesis of the New Testament (Oxford: Parker, 1904); J. Rendel Harris, "New Points of View in Textual Criticism," Expositor 7 (1914): 316-34; Eldon J. Epp, The Theological Tendency of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis in Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966). 

53 Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). These same arguments appear in more popularized form in Misquoting Jesus, 151-75. 

55 Ibid., 77-78. 

56 Ibid., 83. 54 Ehrman, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 55. 

57 In Ehrman's recent rebuttals in Jesus, Interrupted, this point still goes entirely unaddressed. He continues to repeat how meaningful these changes were, but the examples he picks are often changes that virtually all textual scholars acknowledge to be unoriginal; e.g., the pericope of the adulterous woman in John 7:53-8:11 (p. 188). 

58 Moisés Silva, review of D. C. Parker, The Living Text of the Gospels, WTJ 62 (2000): 301-2. 

59 Bart D. Ehrman, "The Text as Window: New Testament Manuscripts and the Social History of Early Christianity," in The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research, 361 n.1. For a similar sentiment see Donald Wayne Riddle, "Textual Criticism as a Historical Discipline," ATR 18 (1936): 220-33. 

60 Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 70. 

61 Ehrman argues that they are not original, and we would tend to agree (Misquoting Jesus, 138-44), though we would disagree with his assessment of the impact of this variant. See further the discussion in Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 151; Ehrman, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 187-94; Bart D. Ehrman and Mark A. Plunkett, "The Angel and the Agony: The Textual Problem of Luke 22:43-44," CBQ 45 (1983): 401-16; Jerome Neyrey, The Passion According to Luke: A Redaction Study of Luke's Soteriology (New York: Paulist, 1985), 55-57; and Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 179-84. 

62 For fuller discussion see Bart Ehrman, "A Sinner in the Hands of an Angry Jesus," in New Testament Greek and Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Gerald F. Hawthorne, ed. Amy M. Donaldson and Timothy B. Sailors (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 77-98; William L. Lane, The Gospel according to St. Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 84-87. 

63 Lane, Gospel according to St. Mark, 86. 

64 D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 415. 

65 In Jesus Interrupted, Ehrman argues that whether or not a variant affects a cardinal Christian doctrine should not be relevant in determining why it matters. He declares, "It seems to me to be a very strange criterion of significance to say that textual variants ultimately don't matter because they don't affect any cardinal Christian doctrine" (p. 186). But, again, Ehrman seems to be missing the point that his evangelical critics are raising when they say these changes "don't matter." No one is suggesting that whether Jesus sweated blood in Luke 22:43-44 is completely irrelevant—of course it is important to know what the original text said and of course it is important not to say something happened when it did not in fact take place. In this sense, then, all would agree that variants such as these "matter." But if one asks whether such a variant changes the overall Christian message about Jesus, his mission, his humanity or divinity, or any other central doctrine, then the answer is clearly "no." In this sense, the variant "doesn't matter." Surely Ehrman would agree that the central doctrines of the faith "matter" more than peripheral ones. For example, an unresolved variant dealing with justification surely matters more than one pertaining to the question of whether Jesus sweated blood in one particular instance. If one were wrong about whether Jesus sweated blood, the consequences are very minimal and affect only a minor historical detail. If one were wrong about justification, on the other hand, the message of the gospel itself is at stake. Therefore, when evangelicals say these variants "don't matter," they simply mean that they do not affect the ability of the New Testament to accurately deliver the divine message of the Christian faith. The reason evangelicals insist on emphasizing this fact is because this is precisely the thing Ehrman denies in his books—he insists that these textual variants do affect the overall Christian message. For this reason it is largely due to Ehrman claiming too much for these textual variants that has led evangelicals to rebut him the way they do. But this is not to suggest that evangelicals consider comparatively insignificant variants completely unimportant or irrelevant. 

66 Remember here the fundamental argument of Ehrman: "We don't have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies" (Misquoting Jesus, 7). It seems Ehrman is fixated on the issue of he autographs almost as if inspiration has to do with the physical artifacts themselves rather than the text they contain. However, historically speaking, inspiration has not been about the autographs as a material object but about the text they bear. Since you can have the text of Paul without having the autographs of Paul, then it is clear one does not need the autographs to have an inspired book. It would be helpful if Ehrman would distinguish between having the original text (by which he means having the autographs), and knowing the original text (which can be achieved through the study of the overall textual tradition). 

67 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 211. 

68 Gordon D. Fee, "The Majority Text and the Original Text of the New Testament," in Studies in the Theory and Method, 183-208. Fee notes that some advocates of the Majority text (e.g., Wilbur Pickering) are motivated by the fact that "contemporary NT textual criticism cannot offer us total certainty as to the original NT text" (p. 189). It seems that Ehrman and Pickering, ironically, share the same goal/requirement: total certainty. It is just that they go about solving the quest for total certainty differently. It drives Pickering to embrace the Majority text and it drives Ehrman to reject that anything can be known about the original text. See also Daniel B. Wallace, "The Majority Text Theory: History, Methods, and Critique," in The Text of theNew Testament in Contemporary Research, 297-320.