The Bible: After All the Canon Debating, Copyist Errors, Translation Issues and Subjective Interpreting, Is It Still the Book for Me? (Part 4)

Sometimes Christian apologists say there are only three options to who Jesus was: a liar, a lunatic or the Lord. But there could be a fourth option—legend.

Bart Ehrman

To read the Part One Introduction, Go Here.

To read Part Two on the Old Testament Canon, Go Here.

To read Part Three on the New Testament Canon, Go Here.

Part Four: The Transmission of the New Testament

Even if we have the right 66 books of the Bible, as we tried to prove in the last two essays, there remains a significant problem in being sure that we have the right content.  Even if Matthew, Mark, 1 John, et. al, are the correct books, New Testament believers face several issues as to how things could have changed in these writings over time: There are decades between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels. There are decades between the original writings and the copies we actually have.  And there many, many differences in the copies we do have because copyists changed what was written on accident and at times on purpose.

They’re Gone, Just Like Original Coke…

So a problem for Bible believers arises when we learn that of all the original copies of the 66 books, we have zero today. None remain. We only have copies, and more specifically, copies of copies of copies at best. And in most cases, copies that are centuries after the original was written. And since copyists made errors, sometimes on purpose, this is cause for concern. At least in theory.

Furthermore, since the Gospels were written decades after the events actually happened, how do we know they got the stories correct? A cursory study of how we got the Bible will dispel the notion that even though God inspired the Bible authors to write what they did, generally speaking it is not as simple as a man sitting down and hearing God (either out loud or in their minds) tell them what to write. Particularly in the New Testament, and most particularly the Gospels, they were inspired to write by experiencing, reading and hearing about Jesus. Their writings mostly came from what they learned, not from direct or even ambiguous dictation from God.

That leads us to the topic of how the New Testament was transmitted.  Note that for the sake of space, we will only deal with the New Testament instead of the entire Bible.

Witnesses Not To What They Believed, But What They Saw

So, Jesus died either in A.D. 30 or A.D. 331. Even by the earliest date offered, Mark was written in A.D. 60. And the other Gospels are after this date, all written between A.D. 70 and 95, most likely. So that leaves any where from 30 to 60+ years between the events and the record of the events. The problem with this is at least twofold: did they really accurately remember what happened after such a long time had passed and did they change the content of Jesus’s life to make him something he wasn’t, i.e., “God”?  Given time, stories can change into legends. And make no mistake, modern scholarship is accusing the New Testament of this.

Let’s start with this: The Gospels were written by eyewitnesses2. John and Mathew were apostles, Mark wrote through Peter and Luke did scientist-like research through the apostles and eyewitnesses.  The word “witness” and “eyewitness” is a dominant theme in the New Testament as proof that what the apostles were saying is true–I strongly encourage you to read Luke 1:1-2, 24:36-49; Acts 2:32, 3:15, 5:31-33, 10:39-41, 13:29-31, 26:16; 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and 2 Peter 1:16 for evidence. Note especially that Jesus appeared to 500 people according to 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.  Christianity began with empirical evidence, events that could be experienced with the five senses and shared from that starting point.

In the NT, the word “eyewitness” was not merely a courtroom type description as we think of it today3. The apostles were not just saying they saw something and could testify to it. They were saying something deeper–that they had first hand experience with Jesus and what he did4. They were more than observers talking to the police; they were students telling stories and passing on the teachings of the greatest Man who ever lived.

With that as a background, it is helpful to know how memorization worked in the 1st century church.  A few things are notable.

I Bet You Never Thought Will Smith Could Help You With This Topic

First, we should note that Jesus’ sayings were by intention easy to memorize. They were rhythmic and his followers used mnemonic devices and put his teachings into poetic form to help remember them5.

I have often compared this to how easily we remember musical lyrics, especially when put to an incredible beat. The theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is the example I always sing when teaching this in sermon or lecture form. I have not seen an episode of this show in 10 years or more, yet I can without hesitation start into, “Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped turned upside down…” and sing it all the way through. I guarantee I will still know the lyrics 20 years from now. There are more words in The Fresh Prince theme than in 1 Corithians 15:3-7, which is the basis of the Christian faith as found in the Apostle’s Creed. I am confident I that I know as many song lyrics as there are words found in any of the Gospels. Keep in mind, no matter how much the lyrics to any song matter to me, the teachings of Jesus mattered to the early church far more. That memorization mattered more than anything else in history.

The stories of Jesus were told and shared by the early church in the decades leading up to the writing of the Gospels. As a result, the content was memorized (to varying levels of specificity) by a large group of people and not by a select few6.   Group memorization helps with accountability.  If I sang the Fresh Prince song around people who knew it and said, “In East Los Angeles, born and raised…” people would correct me.

Please understand that when I say memorize I do not mean that they memorized every single word that Jesus said in the same way we “memorize” the pledge of allegiance. Some teachings were memorized quite well, as Paul did in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, accurately quoting the words of Christ from the Last Supper in Luke 22:19-207. Yet other times the way the Gospels recount the teachings of Jesus have differences such as Luke 6:27-36 reading differently than its parallel account in Matthew 5. Also of note is that when the Gospel writers relate stories, they often differ in details, most notably how different the four accounts of the resurrection are in specifics about what happened that morning.  That issue will be dealt with in Part 6 of this series, but for now it suffices to say that a Christian should not measure the memorization of the early church against modern expectations of memory as we often see in the academic world.  The early church was concerned more with the big picture and less with details.

I’m Not Afraid of Q, Or Any of the Alphabet

It is also obvious from reading the Gospels that we cannot say that all four writers sat down and wrote what they remembered just from their own memories.  The first three especially share so much information in common that it is certain that they used each other and other sources to get their information.  Which is not a problem at all since there were more than four men who knew the stories.

Mark is generally considered the first to be written for several reasons.  Mark omits a lot of material from Luke and Matthew (the thought being he would have included things like Jesus’s birth narrative had he written after the other two), his “grammar” is worse (his writing is more redundant and clunky that the other two) and his Gospel contains things that are hard to read for us: things like the failings of the apostles and limitations of the power of Jesus and, even in one case (Mark 2:26), an apparent mention of the wrong king by Jesus in giving an OT story8.  Matthew and Luke iron many of these things out: they add more to the story, they tell the same stories with less redundancy and better wording (even though they are longer by word count, Luke and Matthew generally tell the same stories as Mark with less words–in other words, they edit him, if it is true they wrote after him) and they avoid things like the mention of the king in Mark 2:269.  Taken together, all of this leads many–but not nearly all–scholars to put Mark first and claim that Luke and Matthew used his material.

Another issue related to this arises when we see that Luke and Matthew have a lot of similar material that is not found in Mark at all.  This leads us to believe they shared a common source for their writings other than Mark10.  Many in the academic world have deemed this source as “Q” because we have no idea what the source is11.  I suppose it is the unknown that scares people because this is often cited as a reason the Gospels are unreliable.  Yet, Christians need not fear this “Q” source.  All it means likely is that Matthew and Luke both used the same eyewitness, certainly an apostle, who had written things down, as a reference for their writing on Jesus that would become their version of the Gospel. Some scholars believe that apostles wrote things about Jesus down in notebooks in the era before the Gospels, even if we do not have those records either12. But If your faith is ruined by the fact we don’t know what source Luke and Matthew shared in writing their Gospels, your faith is in the wrong thing.

So that takes us to the first writing of each Gospel. The next enormous problem arises in the missing original writings, as previously mentioned.   We have no original of any of the 27 books.  What do we have?

Tens of Thousands, That’s a Lot

We have 5,800+ manuscripts in Greek of the New Testament13.  But let us qualify that number.  While it is an astronomically large number compared to other works in antiquity, it does not mean we have 5,800 copies of the complete New Testament.  Most of them are partial manuscripts, containing a few verses or a book or a set of the Gospels, etc14.

Even still, we have a lot to work with as far as manuscripts and the entire NT is found several times over in those nearly 6,000 manuscripts.  In addition, there are also tens of thousand of other manuscripts in Latin from very early in Christian history and from other languages like Syrian and Coptic15.  Including NT quotes from early church fathers, we have a sea of information in which to figure out what the original wording was for all passages in the NT16.  Ultimately, we find new manuscripts every year and the more we add, the higher degree of certainty we have about the wording of every verse in the New Testament17

The Ink Was Barely Dry 

How early are these manuscripts?  This matters because, generally speaking, you want manuscripts that are closer to the time of the original.  Date is not the only thing that determines the quality of a manuscript, but it is important.  We have manuscripts as early as 125 A.D., just a few decades after the NT books were written (between 50 A.D. and 100 A.D.)18.  But please know that we have very few that early.  The vast majority of our manuscripts are hundreds of years old.  Only about a dozen are from the 2nd century19.  I say to be as honest as I can with you about the data.  I do not think it serves Christian apologists well to mislead people, even if not intentionally, with this information.

A Story Like That’s Gotta Be True!

The question then may arise about the time lapse (several decades) from the first writing to the copies we have.  Fifty years is a long time for copyists to change things and make Jesus into a legend.  There are several reasons why I do not believe it’s reasonable to think that the Gospels became legends between the first writing and the first copies we have.  One is there wasn’t enough time–it was and is very hard to create a legend in just a few decades.  Secondly, the content of the Gospels doesn’t lend itself to legend.  A lot of what you find in the Gospels is embarrassing historically: women are prime witnesses, the apostles are ignorant and humiliated at times, and Jesus comes across weak and powerless, among other things20.  Also the Gospels are very specific in details, which opposes legendary writing21.

Back to the manuscripts themselves, a Christian can very satisfied with what we have.  It gives us a reliable base with which to work.

And They Would’ve Gotten Away With It, If It Weren’t For Those Pesky Text Critics

The problem is having this many manuscripts gives us an outrageous amount of differences in the manuscripts.  By accident (because of poor eyesight, fatigue and slips of the pen) and on purpose (because they felt they could improve the writing), copyists changed things while copying22.  Estimates are that there are several hundred thousand differences in the manuscripts we have, making the task of trying to figure out what the original words were very arduous and time consuming23.  

Fortunately, the process of what is called textual criticism, which is both an art and a science, does this work for us.  To be totally upfront, the vast, vast majority of differences in NT manuscripts are not meaningful to any level.  A substantial percentage of changes by copyists are things like spelling, word order and changing pronouns to nouns for clarity in long passages24.  According to Wallace, 99% of textual variants (the differences in the manuscripts) are not “meaningful and viable,” meaning they do not change the meaning of a verse or text to any real level or cannot be attested in a significant amount of manuscripts25.

How Do They Do It? 

There are several “rules” that text critics use to govern how to go about determining which wording is correct when there are differences.  Aland and Aland give 12, which include:

  • Only one reading can be original (“correct”)
  • Greek manuscripts are given higher authority than other languages
  • the type of manuscript takes precedence over internal evidence (i.e., it matters more how early and reliable the manuscript is than what we think the reading should be based on its context in the Bible, etc.)
  • the quality of the manuscripts with a given reading is more important than the quantity of manuscripts with a given reading
  • and several others26.

These rules sometimes go head to head against each other and there is no rule that automatically trumps other rules.  This is an art at times and common sense must be applied to when deciding on a reading where the criteria make the decision more confusing27.

Different text critics may have differing criteria but at the end of the day, what they are deliberating matters because we want the original wording of every verse in the Bible. But to be completely straightforward, they could be wrong on all the significant textual variants–those that affect the meaning of verses and can be attested in a fair amount of manuscripts–and the Bible barely changes and definitely does not change in its main point, purpose and the vast majority of its teachings.  I think it will help to see some practical examples.

Who Took These Verses Out of My Bible?!? (Non-KJV Users Only)

Missing Verses 

Unless you are using the KJV Bible, your Bible will not have verses like Acts 8:37 and John 5:4.  Why?  Because when the KJV was written 400 years ago we did not have as many manuscripts or as early manuscripts as we do now.  So with earlier and better manuscripts available to us, many text critics have decided that these verses are not original and were added on purpose by eager copyists who wanted to add explanatory notes.

John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20 

Unlike the previous verses, these passages have not been taken out of modern versions of the Bible, but many text critics believe based on the best manuscripts that these passages were not original28.  Many Bibles put a note with these stories that say as much.  It is my opinion that Bibles will not take these stories out because they fear they will not be able to sell copies when people think they have “subtracted from God’s word”.  In reality, it is believed copyists added to it by putting in passages like these.  In the John passage, it is likely the story is true but that John didn’t include it in his Gospel and that a copyist felt that he should have.

Mark 1:41 

Based on contradicting textual variants, this verse either says Christ was moved with “compassion” or was moved with “anger”29.  Text critics differ on which is correct, with most Bibles choosing “compassion” but with some prominent critics, including Ehrman and Wallace, arguing for “anger”.  In addition to manuscript type evidence, it is argued that a copyist would be much more likely to change “anger” to “compassion” (to make Jesus seem less harsh) than the other way around30.  The truth is that it does not matter to any meaningful level what the word should be because in Mark you find Jesus both angry and compassionate and even two verses later in Mark 1:43, Jesus seems angry.  It matters to the meaning of the verse, but does not matter to the image Mark gives of Jesus in his Gospel.  Nothing substantial is changed.

Matthew 24:36

There is a textual variant here in that some manuscripts leave out “nor the Son” in Jesus’s words when talking about how no one knows the day or the hour of His return31.  You can see the issue theologically if you think about it: without the words “nor the Son” it eliminates Jesus as someone who doesn’t know the hour of his return.  With the words, it makes Jesus look ignorant and less than omniscient, which would hurt the image of Christ in the Gospels as God in the flesh.  So apart from manuscript quality, it could be argued that a copyist eliminated the words “nor the Son” to ‘protect’ Jesus’s divinity.  The truth is that there is good manuscript evidence to keep keep the words out of Matthew 24:36 and even if that were not true, in the parallel passage in Mark 13:32 we find the verse with the phrase “nor the Son” and no textual variation there30.  In other words, if this copyist intentional change is to try to be used to cast aspersions on the quality of our manuscripts and therefore, to cast doubt on the New Testament, then the copyists surely messed up in Mark 13:32 by not eliminating the three disputed words33.  For me personally, it does not affect my view of the deity of Christ no matter what Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32 say because Phillipians 2 says that Christ gave up some rights as God to come to earth and be human. This surely could include some bits of knowledge only God has.

I could go on and on and give many more examples, but I hope that you can see from these few that even the textual variants that change the meaning of passages or add and subtract words and passages do not affect the message of the NT in the slightest.  Every core doctrine and essentially every thing I have ever taught from the Bible in the last 20 years as a pastor is wholly unaffected by whether Jesus was mad or compassionate in Mark 1:41.   You can leave John 7:53-8:11 in the Bible or take it out and nothing of substance changes.  The work of text critics is crucial to having a good Bible.  But the variants they deal with do not hold major Truth meaning in the balance.

Very Well Placed

Bruce Metzger, who until his death earlier this century was one of the premier text critics in the whole world, once told Lee Strobel that after all of his years of studying the NT canon and the manuscripts of the NT, that his Christian faith in the Bible was “very well placed”34.  That is how I feel after staying this topic, both from sides.  There are a lot of issues surrounding the transmission of the NT, but legions of men and women have given their lives’ work to proving that what we have is reliable.  That we have the words God wants us to, at least in 99.9% of the NT.  I am confident that what I believe from the NT and whole Bible is the truth about the One God of the universe.

Read Part Five Here.

  1. N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus, 7
  2. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitneses, 5-7
  3. Ibid. 117
  4. Ibid.
  5. Komoszewski, Sawyer and Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, 37-38
  6. Ibid, 33-34
  7. Bauckham, 281-82
  8. Robert Stein, The Synoptic Problem, 48-65
  9. Ibid.
  10. James G. D. Dunn, The Oral Gospel Tradition, 61-62
  11. Ibid.
  12. Bauckham, 287-88
  13. Daniel B. Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, 27
  14. Ibid, 28
  15. Ibid, 29
  16. Ibid, 30
  17. Stanley Porter, How We Got the New Testament, 66
  18. Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 26
  19. Wallace, 27-28
  20. Tim Keller, A Reason For God, 106-108
  21. Ibid, 109-110
  22. Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, 250-271
  23. Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 88-90
  24. Wallace, 40-42
  25. Ibid, 42
  26. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, 280-82
  27. Ibid.
  28. D. C. Parker, The New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts, 341-343
  29. Wallace, 21.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid, 45-48
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, 93
Series Navigation<< The Bible: After All the Canon Debating, Copyist Errors, Translation Issues and Subjective Interpreting, Is It Still the Book for Me? (Part 3)The Bible: After All the Canon Debating, Copyist Errors, Translation Issues and Subjective Interpreting, is it Still the Book for Me? (Part 5) >>

Gowdy Cannon

I am currently the pastor of Bear Point FWB Church in Sesser, IL. I previously served for 17 years as the associate bilingual pastor at Northwest Community Church in Chicago. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married nearly seven years and have a 3-year-old son, Liam Erasmus. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

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