Bart Ehrman’s book “Misquoting Jesus” has been a New York Times bestseller since its publication in 2005, which William Lane Craig has indicated has caused enormous doubt within the lay Christian community about whether our New Testament should be considered valid. The intention of the present article is to offer an overview of several key points made in the book, along with evidence-based responses to help Christians determine whether to trust the New Testament. Ehrman’s book creates doubts and this article serves to diminish them.
The following quotation exists in one edition of Bart Ehrman’s book “Misquoting Jesus,” yet is not present in either the initial edition or its most recent. A few points are emphasized here in bold type. In his 2015 debate with Bart Ehrman, Dan Wallace referenced this quotation, which led me to dig it up. Click here to enjoy the debate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyABBZe5o68
“Bruce Metzger, your mentor in textual criticism to whom this book is dedicated, has said that there is nothing in these variants of Scripture that challenges any essential Christian beliefs (e.g. the bodily resurrection of Jesus or the Trinity). Why do you believe these core tenets of Christian orthodoxy to be in jeopardy based on the scribal errors you discovered in the biblical manuscripts?”
Bart Ehrman’s Answer:
“Bruce Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was both my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me in the field. And even though we may disagree on important religious questions—he is a firmly committed Christian and I am not—we are in complete agreement on a number of very important historical and textual questions. If he 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.
The position I argue for in Misquoting Jesus does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. What he means by that (I think) is that even if one or two passages that are used to argue for a belief have different textual reading, there are still other passages that could be used to argue for the same belief. For the most part, I think that’s true.
But I was looking at the question from a different angle. My question is not about traditional Christian beliefs, but about how to interpret passages of the Bible. And my point is that if you change what the words say, then you change what the passage means. Most textual variants (Prof. Metzger and I agree on this) have no bearing at all on what a passage means. But there are other textual variants (we agree on this as well) that are crucial to the meaning of a passage. And the theology of entire books of the New Testament are sometimes affected by the meaning of individual passages.
From my point of view, the stakes are rather high: Does Luke’s Gospel teach a doctrine of atonement (that Christ’s death atones for sins)? Does John’s Gospel teach that Christ is the “unique God” himself? Is the doctrine of the Trinity ever explicitly stated in the New Testament? These and other key theological issues are at stake, depending on which textual variants you think are original and which you think are creations of early scribes who were modifying the text.”
Before I begin, let me note that the New Testament teaches the doctrine of atonement in a variety of passages (e.g., 1 John 2:2; John 3:16, 10:11; Hebrews 7:27; Romans 5:10, Galatians 3:13). John’s Gospel highlights Jesus’ divinity more than any of the Synoptics by emphasizing His miracles and the “I AM” statements. The Old and New Testaments offer support for the Trinity in a variety of passages. Click here for information concerning the Old Testament: https://christian-apologist.com/2018/09/26/is-the-holy-trinity-found-in-the-old-testament/
Despite what Bart Ehrman indicated above concerning the overall validity of the core tenets of Christianity in the New Testament, he builds a case in “Misquoting Jesus” that causes great doubts for some Christians and agnostics. Included within his case are the following points: (1) the vast majority of early Christians (as other ancient near east populations) were illiterate and unschooled; (2) paradoxically, unlike other religions in the ancient near east, Judaism and Christianity were book-based; (3) we do not have the original versions of the New Testament books; we only have successions of copies over hundreds of years and each succession of a copy is likely to pass on any scribal errors (or intentional modifications) from the one before it; and (4) we can identify dubious passages that are unlikely to have been in the original manuscripts.
- The vast majority of early Christians (as other ancient near east populations) were illiterate and unschooled.
- Paradoxically, unlike other religions in the ancient near east, Judaism and Christianity were book-based.
According to Ehrman, between 85 and 90% of the regional population at that time could not read (p. 38). On page 39, Ehrman states: “In the Gospel accounts, we find that most of Jesus’s disciples are simple peasants from Galilee – uneducated fisherman, for example. Two of them, Peter and John, are explicitly said to be “illiterate” in the book of Acts (4:13).”
He further distinguishes the early Christians from people of other religions. “My point is that letters were important to the early Christian communities. These were written documents that were to guide them in faith and practice. They bound these churches together. They helped make Christianity quite different from the other religions scattered throughout the empire, in that the various Christian communities, unified by this common literature that was being shared back and forth (cf. Col. 4:16) were adhering to instructions found in written documents or ‘books'” (p. 23).
Ehrman does acknowledge the higher levels of education and literacy rates of the early church fathers, Luke (the medical doctor), Paul, and other wealthier, more literate Christians who often accompanied or hosted the apostles in their ministries. He states that the wealthier earlier church members would have hosted Christians in their homes for worship since Christians did not have church buildings in the first couple of hundred years. The wealthy hosts may have employed scribes to copy the writings of the apostles, which they would have had read to those visiting their homes (following Paul’s directives).
Ehrman makes the claim the wealthy would have likely used “non-professional” scribes who were Christians or perhaps literate slaves, yet it is reasonable to assume some of the scribes they used could have been professional and employed. Either way, the scribes sometimes made errors in their transcriptions and Ehrman claims the non-professional ones were more likely to make more errors.
Ehrman continues by pointing out than an early “learned” pagan critic named Celsus poked fun at early Christians, referring to them as drunks, ignorant, and lower-class people. Around seventy years later, (~ 248) Origen responded and did not deny the lack of education in some of the populace. Celsus’ original book, “The True Word” has been lost to history, yet Origin’s response in “Contra Celsus” has been recovered.
Ehrman states (p. 40): “One of the great features of Origen’s book is that he quotes Celsus’s earlier work at length, line by line, before offering his refutation of it. This allows us to reconstruct with fair accuracy Celsus’s claims.” (One might note the level of confidence Ehrman has for the validity of Celsus’ manuscript when we only have Origen’s transcription of his book relative to his confidence in the validity of the books of the New Testament!)
Of these assertions, one must note that (1) education levels of Christians were not claimed to be significantly less than those of their Roman or Greek pagan counterparts; (2) unlike the pagan tradition, the Christian and Jewish traditions were book-based; (3) the prescience of the Judeo-Christian tradition in backing their belief systems in written Scriptures should be highlighted. Despite the fact that only ten to fifteen percent of early Christians could read, they understood the importance of retaining written evidence; and (4) until 313, when Constantine legalized Christianity, early Christians had no legal protections and were sporadically persecuted and sometimes martyred. Peter, Paul, James, Stephen, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp are examples of the martyrdom of early church leaders. There was no material incentive to fabricate stories to appeal to the masses when the motivations to be a Christian were intrinsic only.
- We do not have the original versions of the New Testament books; we only have successions of copies over hundreds of years and each succession of a copy is likely to pass on any scribal errors (or intentional modifications) from the one before it.
When responding to this issue and concurrently endorsing the viewpoint that the Bible is inerrant, Christians often make the assumption that the original manuscripts of the New Testament were God’s Word and thus free from any errors. Successions of copied manuscripts may have been subjected to scribal errors, but that does not discount the validity of God’s Word altogether. Note that the only way to create new texts of the Bible until 1438 when the printing press was invented was to copy the old by hand, letter by letter. When biblical scholars piece together all available Greek manuscripts from ancient times, we are able to make a confident assessment of what the original versions stated. And as Bart Ehrman pointed out at the outset, this assessment includes confidence in what is said concerning the core tenets of Christianity.
According to William Lane Craig, the New Testament contains about 138,000 words. Of those words, only 1% are contested by biblical scholars and editors who have pieced the multitude of evidence we have together to create their biblical translations. Please click here for Craig’s video response: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zANl-OcPnfI
Ehrman claims we have around 400,000 textual variants in our copies of biblical manuscripts, but despite what seems like a large number, they (1) do not substantively modify the meaning of the text (which I will detail below), and (2) are not significant relative to the extraordinary number of historical manuscripts we have retained from ancient times. Note two examples of textual variants are a misspelled word, which likely would not be passed on to the next version, or a flipped title, such as saying “Christ Jesus” instead of “Jesus Christ.”
According to McDowell and McDowell (2017), we have retained much ancient biblical evidence. We currently have 5,856 Test Testament early Greek manuscripts (with the earliest date of 130 or earlier) and 18,130 Non-Greek manuscripts (with the earliest date in the late third century.) The 5,856 Greek manuscripts contain more than 2.6 million pages!
On top of our manuscripts, biblical scholars can verify content using quotations from early church fathers. Prior to 325, we have 36,389 citations of the books in the New Testament from Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Eusebius (McDowell & McDowell, 2017).
In comparison, the earliest manuscript of the second most popular ancient book, Homer’s Iliad (written around 800 BC), is dated around 415 BC and we currently have between 1,800 and 1,900 surviving manuscripts (McDowell & McDowell, 2017, p. 57).
Harvard-educated Gleason Archer, who had learned more than thirty languages, mainly those of Old Testament times) taught for more than thirty years at the graduate seminary level in biblical criticism. He makes the following assertion (McDowell and McDowell, 2017, p. 69):
“As I have dealt with one apparent discrepancy after another and have studied the alleged contradictions between the biblical record and the evidence of linguistics, archaeology, or science, my confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture has been repeatedly verified and strengthened by the discovery that almost every problem in Scripture that has ever been discovered by man, from ancient times until now, has been dealt with in a completely satisfactory manner by the biblical text itself – or else by objective archaeological information. The deductions that may be validly drawn from ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, or Akkadian documents all harmonize with the biblical record; and no properly trained evangelical scholar has anything to fear from the hostile arguments and challenges of humanistic rationalists or detractors of any and every persuasion.”
- We can identify dubious passages that are unlikely to have been in the original manuscripts.
Bart Ehrman has identified a handful of passages in the New Testament, which he believes are dubious. I will discuss the three that seem the most important: the adulterous woman whom Jesus forgave (John 8:2-11), the longer ending of Mark (Mark 16: 9-20), and the Johannine comma with an explicit reference to the Trinity (1 John 5:7-8). Ehrman makes the claim all three passages were added later – and evidence suggests his claims are accurate. Whether the passages were added due to the passing down of an oral tradition or to the theological leanings of the scribes, we cannot be certain. While the first two passages have been retained in current translations, one should note the Johannine comma is only retained in the King James Version of the Bible.
While we do not have another example of the passage in John 8: 2-11, the other Gospels fill in the “rest of the story” concerning the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb from Mark 16:9-20. We further have support for the Trinity from a variety of Old Testament and New Testament passages, though not as explicit as 1 John 5:7-8.
If these passages do not directly impact your belief that Jesus was crucified, died and buried – and on the third day He rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures, it is unlikely their inclusion in the New Testament based on later additions will make any difference to you. They do not impact Christianity’s core tenets concerning Jesus’ resurrection and the salvation we are offered for accepting Him as our Lord and Savior.
In his conclusion, Ehrman states: “The Bible is, by all counts, the most significant book in the history of Western civilization. And how do you think we have access to the Bible? Hardly any of us actually read it in the original language, and even among those of us who do, there are very few who ever look at a manuscript – let alone a group of manuscripts. How then do we know what was originally in the Bible? A few people have gone to the trouble of learning the ancient languages (Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, etc.) and have spent their professional lives examining our manuscripts, deciding what the authors of the New Testament actually wrote. In other words, someone has gone to the trouble of doing textual criticism, reconstructing the “original” text based on the wide array of manuscripts that differ from one another in thousands of places. Then someone else has taken that reconstructed Greek text, in which textual decisions have been made (what was the original form of Mark 1:2? Of Matt. 24:36? Of John 1:18? Of Luke 22:43-44? And so on), and translated it into English. What you read is that English translation – and not just you, but millions of people like you. How do these millions of people know what is in the New Testament? They “know” because scholars and unknown names, identities, backgrounds, qualifications, predilections, theologies, and personal opinions have told them what is in the New Testament. But what if the translated have translated the wrong text? It has happened before.” pp. 208-209.
Given market demands for accurate information and the availability of a multitude of ancient evidence that has been used to reconstruct our original New Testament books, it seems exceedingly unlikely that any substantive errors are present today. Thank you for your time.
Ehrman, B. (2005). Misquoting Jesus. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco. pp. 252-253.
Helyer, L.R. (2012). The Life and Witness of Peter. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. pp. 19.
McDowell, J. & McDowell, S. (2017). Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Life-changing Truth for a Skeptical World. Nashville, TN: Harper Collins Christian Publishing.