Foundations: No.82 Spring 2022

Book Reviews

Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism

Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry Eds., InterVarsity Press (2019), 372pp, (£19.54 Amazon)

The reliability of the text of the New Testament is constantly challenged and debated, with sceptics pointing to the many thousands of variants and arguing that we cannot possibly know what the original text said. Consequently, any contemporary apologist needs to be equipped to answer questions about the text and the manuscripts. Even ordinary Bible readers are faced with usually over 500 textual notes in modern translations, and sometimes a lot more. These can raise doubts and questions for the uninformed. Exegetes and preachers need to be able to navigate and assess the arguments for different readings and to explain their decisions to others.

This book is not a how-to book about textual criticism, but it is a very helpful corrective to the huge amount of misinformation that is out there on the whole subject. It is aimed primarily at non-specialist Christians, but it will be helpful for specialists too. Whist aimed at non-specialists it cannot be described as an introduction to the subject. Some knowledge and understanding of the basic issues around textual criticism is assumed.

One classic example critiqued in the book is the comparison between manuscript numbers for the New Testament and those for various classical texts. F.F. Bruce made this argument in his The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? Several high-profile apologists come in for criticism for updating the New Testament numbers and not updating those for the classical texts. Bruce claimed there were just nine or ten copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Today you should say over 250! Several apologists claim that Homer’s Iliad is only attested by 643 manuscripts, following Metzger in 1963. Today that would be over 2,500! Bruce claimed about eight manuscripts for Herodotus, and this should be updated to over 100. Bruce also claimed only eight manuscripts for Thucydides which was not a fair comparison even at the time he wrote.

Against these updated figures, the New Testament is still far better attested with around 5,300 Greek manuscripts. We should recognise, however, that 83% of these come from the tenth century or later. Only just over sixty manuscripts cover the entire New Testament. Many others are fragmentary, and the large majority are text-critically unnecessary. This is not to say that the argument has no value, but that it should not be overemphasised.

Another frequently repeated apologetic argument states: “If we compile the 36,289 quotations by the early church fathers of the second to fourth centuries, we can reconstruct the entire New Testament minus 11 verses.” The only problem is that it is entirely false. Sadly, it was an Islamic apologetic organisation that took the time to investigate the origins of this myth and to expose how false it is.[1] In a very best-case scenario, perhaps 54% of the New Testament could be reconstructed from the church fathers, but it is often very difficult to assess what is or is not a direct quotation as opposed to citing the sense of the passage, and sometimes conflating several passages. Christians should avoid repeating false claims which can easily be exposed in the internet age.

There are several misconceptions around the number of variants in the New Testament. Estimates vary widely. A detailed study of all the variants in Philemon found 3.53 non-spelling variants per word. A similar study for John 18 found 3.86 variants per word, and another for Jude found 3.67 variants per word. Extrapolating these statistics across the entire New Testament, which consists of 138,020 words, would mean that there are around 500,000 variants in our Greek manuscripts. This does not include spelling variants, or variants from patristic citations or early translations. Bart Ehrman is quite correct to say that there are more variants among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

One misconception about this is that these are counted by adding up how many manuscripts attest to each variant. Some apologists have claimed that if one variant is attested in 4,000 manuscripts then this counts as 4,000 variants. This claim goes back to B.B. Warfield and continues to be repeated today, but it is just not true. That would count as one variant.

For John 18 there are 3,508 variants across 1,659 manuscripts in a text of around 800 words. This works out at an average of one distinct variant per 434 words copied, which is not a bad level of copying accuracy. 1,360 of these variants can be ruled out as nonsensical, but that still leaves a lot of variants to assess. Compare this with NA28 which includes 154 variants in John 18, and UBS4 which includes just ten. Top commentators might discuss a handful of variants in this chapter. But, where the rubber hits the road in actual use, none of the modern English translations notes a single variant in this chapter – not even the richly footnoted NET. The point is that the vast majority of variants are just not worth looking at.

In total UBS4 notes variants affecting over 1,500 words in the New Testament out of a total of 138,020, or around 1 per cent. Most of these do not affect meaning significantly, but some do. Let’s not forget the well-known disputed pericope about the woman caught in adultery and the ending of Mark as the most significant examples. There are others too, but it remains correct to say that no foundational doctrine or ethical practice depends on a disputed text.

This is an edited book with fifteen chapters written by upcoming scholars in the field, each addressing different issues relevant to textual criticism. Many other popular myths are addressed, including myths about the dating of manuscripts, myths about copyists and transmission, myths about orthodox corruption, and myths about canon. I hope that the examples I have given you above give you a flavour of the content. Included is a bibliography and five indices as well as a foreword by Professor Daniel Wallace.

If you are at all interested in textual criticism, then this book is highly recommended. If you are an apologist who wants to make sure you have your facts right, then this book is required reading in my view. Pastors and theologians who want to update their understanding of textual criticism would benefit too. A very helpful, and sadly much needed corrective to the many myths and mistakes made by well-known authors in this area.

Tim Dieppe
Head of Public Policy, Christian Concern


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