Over the past couple of weeks, we have been posting a series on The Heresy of Orthodoxy with Dr. Michael Kruger. In this final installment, we close our series by discussing the transmission of the New Testament text in early Christianity. How reliable is our New Testament today? You can also follow the previous installments to our series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.
Was the New Testament Text Reliably Transmitted?
AK: We talked about canon. Let’s talk about the actual text that we have in our Bibles, especially the New Testament. As you know, some of the recent detractors of the reliability of Scripture have alleged that the copyists—the ones who were responsible for essentially copying and preserving the copies we have today—were incompetent; they were negligent perhaps and in some other ways actually corrupted Scripture rather than faithfully preserving it. How would you respond to that charge?
MK: Yes, that charge is widespread—the idea that early Christian scribes were amateurs or some have even said that there were some scribes that tried to copy and couldn’t even read and things like this. We respond that there’s tremendous evidence for the high quality of early Christian scribes and copyists. And you can determine the quality of the scribes in lots of different ways. One of the ways you can do it is through the handwriting of the manuscripts. It used to be said in prior generations that early Christian manuscripts were sort of workaday copies and weren’t really that elegant, showing that Christians scribes didn’t really know what they were doing. But actually newer discoveries have challenged that. We have a number of manuscripts that have quite elegant script, even nearly a calligraphic hand, that shows scribes really knowing what they were doing. The other thing I would say that tells us about quality of the scribes is the quality of the text they copy. Now, we have some manuscripts of the New Testament that we can clearly see are copied by poor quality scribes. But we have many that show really meticulous, careful work; they’re fixing their mistakes when they make them; the script is well-written and spaced well in the text; they’re conscientious about their work and have other scribes come and check their work. That does not suggest an amateurish operation. The final thing I’ll mention about our scribes is we also have evidence of an early Christian book technology that is so well-developed that you don’t get that by having sort of disjointed, disorganized amateur scribes. It’s well-known now that the early Christian use of the codex as well as the abbreviations of the nomina sacra are the kind of things that are so uniform and so consistent—how do you get that without scribal network that’s fairly well-developed? So these really show that we have reasons to trust our text.
AK: I think those that are watching us may be interested in you elaborating a little bit on the nomina sacra that you mentioned. I remembered when I first heard about this, I was utterly fascinated by it—David Trobisch’s work, for example, and others. How does the use of nomina sacra—after you explain what that means—demonstrate the competence of scribes and the scribal culture?
MK: Nomina sacra, of course, is just the Latin phrase for “sacred names.” It’s referring to a special abbreviation that Christian scribes used for certain Greek words—the Greek words for “God,” “Jesus,” “Lord,” and “Christ” were the original words that were abbreviated. And there are specialized abbreviations that only Christians were using; so it’s not like they took it from the secular culture. There are abbreviations that showed devotion and adoration for the divine name. And here’s the real kicker about the nomina sacra is how early and widespread they were. We can hardly find a New Testament manuscript that doesn’t include the nomina sacra. As far back as we can go, even P52, there’s good reason to think, included the nomina sacra. Across the empire, early, geographically widespread—this is the thing that made a manuscript distinctively Christian. To have that level of scribal uniformity, organization, coherence suggests a scribal culture, a scribal network, a book technology that was fairly developed. If you think about it, how do scribes know how to do this? Do they send out an ancient memo to the scribal world saying, “Hey, everyone use the nomina sacra.” It suggests a lot of interaction and a lot of unity and a lot of collaboration, which doesn’t suggest the Christian copying process was piecemeal, disorganized, and sort of isolated. But rather it has an overall coherence about it. And I think that’s tremendous evidence for the reliability of the text.
AK: I agree. Let’s move to the second area—which some people might say is a skeleton in our closet—which is the number of variants that we have in the New Testament. Bart Ehrman, one of his famous lines that repeats ad nauseam in some of the popular interviews is that we have more variants than there’s actually words in the text of the Greek New Testament. So how we respond to that charge?
MK: Well, you know statistics are tricky things, right? They can be revealing sometimes and they can also cloud the issue other times. The statistic about the number of variants we have is one of those things. I actually don’t necessarily disagree with what Ehrman about the number of variants. I think we may have between two-hundred thousand plus variants. What needs to be clarified though about that number is why we have such a high number. People think that that’s because we have so many mistakes. That’s not actually why. The reason we have such a high number is because we have so many manuscripts. Each time you discover a new manuscript of a book, you have a new opportunity to discover scribal slips and scribal mistakes that you wouldn’t have known about before. And so every new discovery of a manuscript, you can learn about more scribal variations. That doesn’t necessarily have to do with whether the scribal variations change our confidence in what the text says; you can just start adding up more of of those. If you have five copies of a book, you’re only going to have a very small number of variations. If you have five thousand copies of a book, you’re going to have thousands and thousands of variations. So the first thing I would say is that it just doesn’t account for the fact that the only reason we even know about these variations is because we have so many manuscripts. You feel like we’re almost a victim of our own success.
AK: Yes, you can’t win. If you just have a few, then you only have those few manuscripts. If you have a lot, you’re going to have more variants. But then some people won’t like the number of variants.
MK: It seems like you’re in a Catch-22 there. The other thing I would say about the high number of textual variants is that we need clarify with people about the kind of mistakes these are. It’s not just enough to talk about quantity, we need to talk about quality. The vast majority of these mistakes, as people know, are spelling errors. It tells us that people in the ancient world couldn’t spell much better than people in the modern world. And that’s maybe no surprise. But it doesn’t really change the meaning of the text. There’s other kinds of changes—I won’t go into it here—that happen that don’t necessarily affect the meaning of the text. So when the dust settles, you realize that those number of variants don’t change anything meaningfully. You still have a very reliable, faithful text. The story isn’t changed. You don’t reach a different conclusion. You don’t have a different doctrine. You have the same story that you started with.
AK: So tell us a little bit … how would scribes, whether later on in monasteries or earlier in some other venues, typically copy? Would they hear the text read out loud? Would they copy it from another copy physically in front of them? And how would that lead to certain types of errors, whether of hearing or seeing?
MK: Well, actually scribes did their copying in a multiplicity of ways. We know that many of them had an exemplar in front of them that they copied from visually and they would go letter by letter or even word by word depending on the scribe and copy it down. Whenever you did that process there would always be opportunities for normal mistakes in copying—the gap of the time between looking at the word on the exemplar and by the time you got to the page and wrote it down, people can flip the word around, they can flip the word order around, they can replace it with a synonym, they can make mistakes—that does happen. So the scribal process was tedious. But what we see is the scribes being very careful about those kinds of things and always having a system to check their error. And scribes also copied orally. We know that scribes would … to save time there would be multiple scribes in a room with the exemplar up front and they would read the word and all the scribes would at once would copy the word … which most of the time works out well, but sometimes Greek words sound the same but are spelled differently just like in English. If I said the word, “there,” you might think is it, “there” or “their” or “they’re”? Those sorts of things happen too. Even with those kinds of errors that seep in—which are very by the way and every ancient document experiences those kinds of errors—we still have no reason to doubt the general integrity of our text.
AK: Of course, it is true that as Christians we don’t really put our faith in any errant copies, but ultimately in the original text. Now, of course the question that some might ask along those lines is then is if the current manuscripts only are 99% accurate then do we only have a 99% authoritative inerrant and inspired text? How do we explain to people that we can have a 100% confidence in the Bibles that we actually have?
MK: I always remind people that textual criticism is really a separate question than inspiration. Inspiration has to do with whether what God says in the Bible is true. Textual criticism is: do I have the words that God said in the Bible? So we can heartedly affirm, I think, inspiration. Even though, on the text critical level, we need to our homework and get our way back to the original text. We can get back with such a high level of certainty that we can hold our Bibles up with all the confidence we need to say, “Yes, this is the 100% inspired Word of God.” People get hung up on not having the autographs and I think that’s a mistake. I think what people are confusing is the autographs as a physical object rather than thinking of the autographs as the original text. I think we do have access to the original text, not because we have the physical, original autograph, but because the original text is preserved in a multiplicity of manuscripts. So people think, “If I don’t have the physical original text of Romans that Paul wrote, I don’t have Romans.” We think, “No,” because God could have preserved the text of Romans in a multiplicity of manuscripts even if we don’t have the original one. We can’t confuse the autographs with the original text. You can have the original text without having the autographs. That’s an important distinction to make.
AK: So essentially, in our book then, to wrap this up, what we conclude is in the words of my oldest daughter who graduated from UNC where Bart Ehrman teaches, where you went and your wife went, who I told the thesis of the book. She said, “Dad, what you’re telling me is essentially that you can be an intelligent, smart, thinking person and still have confidence in the Bible.” I said, “You got it! That’s exactly right.”
MK: Fantastic way to end. I agree 100%.