Dealing with Textual Variations
The Integrity of the New Testament - Special 2013 Series
[From The Editors: This article is one of a series we are running this year. The 2013 series is called "The Integrity of the New Testament" and deals with textual criticism. Can the New Testament be trusted? Has it been corrupted through time? Can we know what God has said? It should be obvious how important this topic is. This is especially so given the climate of society today and its attitudes toward the Bible. We wish this series to help everyone understand the process of the Bible's history as a document and why we can have confidence in its message. Near the end of the year we are planning to publish these twelve articles in book form (Kindle, Nook and old fashioned print and ink).
"My professor said there are thousands of differences in the various Bible manuscripts.” “Why is Mark 16:9-20 in italics in the Bible?” “The Bible wasn’t put together for hundreds of years and then it was assembled by a church council who decided what books were in and what books were out.”
All of those questions go to the core issue of the manuscript evidence for the authenticity and inspiration of the Scriptures. In a time when fewer and fewer people have genuine faith in the Bible as God’s authoritative Word, we need to be prepared questions like these. The Bible is not like the Koran - there is no “official” version so that we can simply dismiss any variations as “unauthorized.” The reality is there are variants in the text, there are and were questions about which books belong in the canon, and so we must be ready to help people make sense of these questions. In this essay I want to propose several key ideas that will be helpful as we try to assist others who may be confused and concerned about the Scriptures’ integrity.
The beginning point is never cause someone to doubt the Scriptures. I have been in a Bible class where the teacher talked about difficulties in the text in such a way that by the time class ended there was a crisis of faith in many present. The teacher confessed his own doubts about the textual situation, equivocated about possible solutions and eventually made it sound like errors had quite possibly crept into the Bible. That is entirely unacceptable. Do we need to be honest about Bible difficulties? Of course we do. We want to handle the text honestly and be forthright with any difficulties we encounter. But in the end we believe God inspired the Bible and protects the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Peter 1:23-24). We believe the Scriptures are what they claim to be: God’s Word. That conviction needs to shine through all that we say. In most conversations about textual matters, we will be the one with the most information and the most understanding of the issues at stake. That means if we fumble and display doubt such can only confirm the non-believer’s view that the Bible is a hoax, or cause a fellow believer to lose faith. If someone who is “in the know” distrusts the text, where does that leave everyone else? In Psalm 73 Asaph confesses doubts but then says he kept them to himself: “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed the generation of Your children” (Psalm 73:15). Let us do the same! Don’t float tentative ideas, make compromises, offer “maybe the critics are correct” or do anything that erodes confidence in the inspiration of the Bible. It is folly to destroy faith in the Bible’s reliability one day and then expect to teach people to obey and follow it the next. We must continually affirm the Bible’s genuineness and reliability.
The next key is to know the questioner. Paul’s brilliant quotations from pagan poets in Acts 17:28 is so impressive because it shows he could vary his approach. Instead of quoting from the Old Testament to make connections with the audience and prove his points, he shifted his strategy because the Athenians did not know the Old Testament. Paul spoke so that his listeners could hear and understand. We must do the same. When someone asks a question about the text of scripture we need to think about who is asking this question and why so we can answer appropriately. If the question comes from a non-believer our answer may be significantly different than if it is asked by a brother in Christ in a Wednesday night Bible class. There is no “one size fits all” solution to questions about textual variants. There are as many different questions as there are variations and questioners! It is up to us as the one with some learning of the matters involved to separate out what is essential, what must be answered, and at what depth we need to go with that answer.
As we do that the key is to figure out if the questioner is seeking evidence upon which to build faith or reassurance for faith that is already present. An atheist challenging the Bible as the invention of men needs one sort of response (perhaps heavily laden with details and citations of textual authorities). A sister in Christ who simply wants to know why Acts 8:37 isn’t in the new Bible she purchased needs an entirely different answer. Solomon tells us “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). Listen and think carefully first, then speak!
It is here that we come to a fork in the road as we answer questions about the text of Scripture. We cannot appeal to faith when dealing with unbelievers. However, if we get a question from a Christian then we might do well to ask ourselves “Just how much reassurance does this person need?” Hitting him or her with lengthy and detailed descriptions of the process of textual criticism may just be overload. It is not a mistake here to point to some key facts (like mentioning that we have more manuscripts of the New Testament than any other ancient work) but the real play here may be to faith. God has promised to protect His Word: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25). Attacks on the Bible are, therefore, ultimately attacks on God. Do we trust the Lord? Do we really believe that He sent His Son to die for us but then didn’t or wouldn’t protect His Word so that we could know about what He did? These kind of common sense questions make the issue one of faith, rather than mastering a lot of technical lingo or remembering a bunch of statistics. Again, that won’t work for an unbeliever, but certainly can help a brother or sister in Christ.
Don’t be afraid. We should speak our convictions with boldness. David didn’t hem and haw with Goliath. He told Goliath exactly what God would do and advanced with courage (see 1 Samuel 17:45-46). We can be just as confident when we defend the Bible in conversation and debate. The reality is that God’s Word can stand up to any textual critic, objection, or supposed “proof” that it is in error. For as long as it has been around, it has been beat upon as evil people tried to destroy it. It lasts and will last because it is of God! Yet sometimes we act as if Bart Ehrman or one of his cronies will destroy the Bible. We are intimidated by their academic credentials and sophisticated arguments. For certain, we should not underestimate the Bible’s enemies if we want to “handle the Word rightly” (2 Timothy 2:15), but we must know they cannot prevail. The best arguments that the enemies of Scripture make today are miserably weak and are nothing new. The Bible’s critics have always failed and they are still failing because they are attacking the truth. Such is a foolish and fruitless effort that will never succeed. This means we have nothing to fear!
Point out a few facts. Lots of people have a sort of “everyone knows” knowledge about the Bible. But this “knowledge” consists largely of half-truths and urban legends that somehow work their way into the public’s mind until they are accepted without question. There is lots of this kind of conventional wisdom. For example, everyone knows you are supposed to drink eight glasses of water a day. Everyone knows that if you drop a nail in a glass of Coca-Cola it will dissolve. And everyone knows the Bible was written hundreds of years after Jesus’ time, and then assembled by some kind of conspiratorial cabal in a backroom to further certain political agendas. When we face this kind of ill-informed and misinformed mind set a few facts can go a long way to knock the props out from under an aggressive unbeliever, and build more faith in a Christian. Here are some facts that we can make use of in conversation to very good effect:
* While we must admit there are some textual variations in the Bible, those variations certainly prove there was no conspiracy to produce one “version” of Scripture. All the different textual traditions show there was no cover up or conspiracy. Indeed, if every manuscript read exactly the same then we would suspect that something like that had occurred. The very “proofs” the unbeliever uses to attack the Bible actually supports the authenticity of the canonical process.
* It can be helpful to remind people who think the New Testament wasn’t treated as Scripture or viewed as inspired that nearly 100% of the New Testament could be re-created from the early church father’s writings, who quote it as authoritative scripture. These men lived from the end of the first century to the middle of the second century. Within a very short time of the books of the New Testament being written, they were treated as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16).
* Not a single cardinal doctrine of Scripture is established by a disputed passage. Not one. If we gave up all the passages the textual critics get so excited about, our Christianity would not be significantly changed.
* Once again we can use the enemies of Scripture to help our cause. When someone attacks the canon of Scripture and says it is unsure, or was settled by “church decree” hundreds of years after the fact, remind your listener that the heresies and heretics did us all a favor by forcing the early church to identify what was and was not Scripture. When people are saying a book isn’t Scripture then decisions have to be made. Is it inspired Scripture or not? That sort of thing didn’t happen hundreds of years later. It was happening in the first century (1 John 2:19; 2 Thessalonians 2:2).
* Yes, there are textual variations in the manuscripts of the Bible. However, the vast bulk of those variations cited by the Bible’s enemies have to do with variations in spelling, word order and other obvious and unimportant differences.
* The New Testament was written for wide dispersal (see Colossians 4:16; Galatians 1:2). How do you assert that Jesus rose from the dead and was seen by hundreds of witnesses when people who were still alive when these events supposedly occurred will read and hear such?
* Despite what everyone knows, a nail won’t dissolve in a glass of Coca-Cola,1 and there is no medical documentation or proof that eight glasses of water should be drunk every day.
John Adams once wrote “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”3 Since we are in the right and have the truth we do well to marshal the facts and keep pressing them!
We should also work to help people understand what their Bible is: just a translation. Some people haven’t given much thought to how we got the Bible. That means when the preacher says “the Bible is inspired and completely accurate and without errors” they pat the Bible in their lap reassuringly. But the translation of Scripture in their lap is not inspired, or perfect because God did not ever guarantee to inspire the translators. Only the original autographs of Scripture were perfect. No translation is. Famous illustrations, like the Wicked Bible can help people understand this. The Wicked Bible was published in 1631. Due to a printing error, Exodus 20:14 did not read “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Instead, since the word “not” had been accidentally omitted, the Wicked Bible said “Thou shalt commit adultery!” This helps people see that God did not miraculously move on the translators of the Bible to prevent mistakes. That sets us up to say “We are not claiming any translation is perfect, only that the originals were perfect. What we have today substantially and accurately recreates those originals faithfully enough so that we can know how to obey and please God.” We have now lowered the bar considerably for what we must account for and prove. Indeed, by showing that translations are not infallible, we have moved the ground over to discussing how the manuscripts were copied and were they copied faithfully. That takes a lot of pressure out of the conversation. Most people intuitively will feel uncomfortable with the assertion that a document that was hand copied for thousands of years never had a single “typo.” Common sense says we should expect a few of those. We let the air out of the balloon when we point out that isn’t the issue, and never was the issue. Instead, we are talking about whether our English Bible today accurately conveys the truth found in the original text of Scripture. As we then talk about the care scribes made in their copying work, how few significant textual variants exist, and how little of the New Testament is disputed, it becomes easy to help people feel very certain they can read their English translation of the Bible and know God’s will.
Finally, we want people to understand the textual critic is their friend. Brethren get uncomfortable when someone says “there are questions about this verse.” The italicized sections of John 8 or Mark 16 seem to make people nervous. Further, the name “critic” seems to evoke an image of some mean-spirited individual, perhaps on a college campus somewhere, who wants to destroy people’s faith in the Scriptures. Perhaps there are such folks but we want people to see that the textual critic is the friend to those who love the Bible. Daniel B. Wallace, the outstanding scholar and textual critic, defines textual criticism as the “discipline that attempts to determine the original wording of any documents whose original no longer exists.”4 That means textual critics are trying to determine what is and is not Scripture. Isn’t that what we are all interested in? If a verse has somehow entered the text of the Bible that isn’t genuine - it was not Holy Spirit inspired - then what should we do with it? Take it out! We don’t want what is not from God! If the textual critic can prove it is an addition or a poor translation or that it comes from a manuscript that is not well attested then they have done us a favor. The King James Version’s rendering of 1 John 5:7 is classic example: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” At one time the King James translation was thought to be what John wrote. Better analysis and better manuscripts caused textual critics to realize it was not. The English Standard Version gives 1 John 5:7 as “For there are three that testify,” omitting the clause about the Father, Word and Holy Spirit because the manuscript evidence for that phrase demanded its removal. Did that undermine the doctrine of the Trinity? Certainly not. But it did give us a different view of that passage. We should be thankful for that, not angry. We have to be honest with the text, and honest with ourselves. If it isn’t God’s words then it doesn’t belong in God’s Word! That means “Christians need to be thankful for the work of textual criticism, for without it, we would not know what the text says” (Doy Moyer).
When someone asks a question about textual variations - either innocently or to start an attack on the Bible - we need to see that as an opportunity. It is a chance for us to consider the foundations of our faith and to boldly and courageously help others do the same, or to realize that error has no chance in the battle with truth. Let us learn the facts about how we got the Bible and why there are textual variants. Then, with wisdom and care, let us help others come to faith in God’s word.
1. For a good write up on this urban legend see http://joshmadison.com/2003/12/14/will-coke-dissolve-a-nail-experiment/
2. Hey, even the Mayo clinic says so! http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/water/NU00283
3.John Adams, “Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,” December 1770.
4.Justin Taylor, “An Interview with Daniel B. Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts,” posted at http: //thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor accessed on March 21, 2012.
By Mark Roberts
From Expository Files 20.9; September 2013