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Do Textual Variants Really Matter for Anything?

QUESTION:

I got the impression (I can’t remember where or if you said this… or if Bruce Metzger said it) that no significant Christian doctrine is threatened by text critical issues… and so, if that is the case, who cares if, in Mark 4: 18, Jesus spoke of the “illusion” of wealth or the “love” of wealth. I mean, who cares other than textual critics and Bible translators?

 

RESPONSE:

This is a very good question, and one that I get a lot.  I’ve given an answer to it before on the blog, but since it periodically reappears, I thought that maybe I should give it another shot.

The first thing to emphasize is a point that I repeatedly make and that many people seem never to notice that I make (especially my fundamentalist friends who very much object to my views about textual criticism):  of the many hundreds of thousands of textual variants that we have among our manuscripts, most of them are completely unimportant and insignificant and don’t matter for twit.   Why should any of us care that much if a scribe spells a word one way or another way, if it’s the same word?   Many of *them* didn’t seem to care!  But each different spelling counts as a textual variant!

There are many (many!) textual variants that are (virtually) impossible to replicate in English.   That is to say, if a verse is worded in two different ways, they mean exactly the same thing, even though in Greek they appear different.

So variants like *that* don’t matter much.   And that’s most variants.

But there are other variants that matter a *lot* — variants that change what a verse means or even what an entire *book* means.  That matters!

Before explaining that, let me deal head on with the objection that no variants threaten any “significant Christian doctrine.”   I’m not sure that’s *entirely* true – depending on what one means by the term “threaten.”   For example, there is only one verse in the entire New Testament that explicitly teaches the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, 1 John 5:7-8 – “There are three in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.”   That’s the Trinity – three persons who are all one.  The doctrine is explicitly stated nowhere else.   But this verse was not originally in the New Testament.  It is a later addition.

But does the fact that the only verse explicitly to teach the Trinity was not in the NT “threaten” the doctrine of the Trinity?  Of course not.  Theologians will turn to other passages that do not explicitly teach the doctrine in order to provide support for their views that there is a Trinity (for example: verses that say that Jesus is God and that God is God; but the problem is that these verses do not lay out the doctrine that the three are one – so they don’t teach the doctrine of the Trinity [since there are *other* non-trinitarian ways of thinking that both Jesus and God could be God].  Or verses that mention Christ, the Father, and the Spirit: but again the problem is that *these* verses don’t say that Christ and the Spirit are God and that there is only one God – in other words, again, they do not lay out the doctrine of the Trinity.  Only this one verse, which was not originally in the NT, spells out the doctrine of the Trinity). That’s the thing about theology: it is not dependent on any one verse for any of its views, but on an entire panoply of verses on a range of topics that are interpreted in light of each other and in light of the Christian tradition to produce a view that is seen as theologically acceptable.   Because of the way that theology *works*, a textual variant by its very nature cannot “threaten” any doctrine.  Even if a variant reading says the precise opposite of what a doctrine teaches, theologians can incorporate it into their views by reading it in light of what other contrary texts say.

But does the fact that variants cannot, by their nature, threaten significant doctrines mean that variants are therefore always unimportant and insignificant?  In my view there’s a very simply answer to the question: NO WAY!!!

Why is it that “threats to significant doctrines” are taken to be the only standard of what is important to the Christian religion?   In my view this idea is completely wrong-headed.   There are SCORES of things that are important to Christianity that are not “significant doctrines.”  Here’s the example I often use, and have probably used on the blog before:  suppose tomorrow morning we were all to wake up only to discover that in every Bible on the planet the books of Numbers, Ezekiel, Proverbs, Mark, and 1 Peter were no longer to be found.  They had simply disappeared.  They no longer existed.   Which “significant Christian doctrines” would then be affected?   None.  Zero.  Zilch.   Does that mean the disappearance of the books would be insignificant?  No, on the contrary, it would be HUGELY significant.  Significance is not determined solely on the basis of the effects on Christian doctrine.

For one thing, not only the presence of books in the Bible (such as Numbers, Ezekiel, and Mark) matter, but their *interpretation* matters.   Does it “matter” if Jesus is portrayed in Mark as an angry man instead of a compassionate one?   I would think it matters.  And it hinges on a textual variant.  Does it matter if the Gospel of Luke indicates that Jesus became the son of God at his baptism instead of from eternity past?  I should think so.  Does it matter whether the Gospel of John ever identifies Jesus as the “unique God” or not.   It matters big time.  Does it matter if a book – such as Luke – rejects the very idea that Jesus’ death was a substitutionary atonement?  In fact, depending on which variant you choose, Luke either has or does not have a doctrine of the atonement (and thus either has, or doesn’t have, a completely *different* understanding of Jesus’ death from other NT writers).   Does it matter whether John’s Gospel tells the beautiful story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (a story found only in some manuscripts of John, and nowhere else)?  Does it matter if Jesus’ disciples ever see Jesus after his resurrection in Mark’s Gospel?  Does it matter ….    Well there are lots of points at which I could ask if it matters.

It is not good enough, in my view, to say that in fact it does *not* matter if Luke has a doctrine of atonement, because Mark and Paul clearly do, so you can find the doctrine of the atonement in the NT even if Luke doesn’t have it.  That is doing the work of the theologian (which, in fact, I do not object to) rather than the work of the interpreter.   If it turns out that Mark does have a doctrine of the atonement, and that Luke has a *different* understanding of Jesus’ death, then you have to figure out which one is right – especially if they cannot be reconciled.   And that leads to an entirely different approach to the books of the New Testament.  And that in itself is highly significant.

So, in short, it’s true that variants may not overthrow the Nicene Creed.  But for anyone interested in the meaning of the books of the New Testament, they are highly significant.


Why Was The Gospel of Matthew Attributed to Matthew?
Papias on Matthew and Mark

19

Comments

  1. kendalynx  November 29, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman, I am surrounded by dogmatic fundamentalists on a daily or weekly basis. “Normal” conversations are challenging at times. Are you aware of any formal programs which teach cross-apologetics for the lay person?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2014

      Ha! No, I’ve never heard of such a thing, but it’s an interesting idea. For starters I’d suggest my book Jesus Interrupted.

      • kendalynx  December 1, 2014

        Thanks, I have that book and reread it and Hitchen’s God Is Not Great, over and again. I found references to the purposed idea, but it appears to be more correctly called counter-apologetics.

  2. sharding4  November 30, 2014

    Full disclosure I’m not a Christian, but if I were I’ve always thought I would favor the inspiration of the received texts over the modern approach of attempting to reconstruct the original text through textual criticism. I by no means want to devalue the methods or results of textual criticism, it’s just not the method I would employ to reach the inspired word of god. What if a gospel author published more than one edition of his work, and that accounts for certain textual variants? So Luke circa 82 CE is inspired but Luke circa 87 less so? And how could these sinful, imperfect writers be the perfect conduit for the divine word? If instead the divine word were viewed as a living text recognized as passing through the hands of authors, copyists, translators, scholars, and committees, perhaps that would bring us all closer to the inspired word. And I mean replacing “Peace on earth good will towards men” with “Peace on earth among men of his (God’s) good will.” Who really got that one right?

  3. fishician  November 30, 2014

    It also makes a huge difference to those who hold to the doctrine of divine inspiration accompanied by inerrancy and infallibility. I’ve always thought that if the original writings were inspired to the point of inerrancy, then all the copiests have to be inspired, and all the translators have to be inspired. And then I have to be inspired to understand it properly! But the multitude of variations and translations and interpretations shows that this is not so.

  4. Atethnekos  December 1, 2014

    For Plato, we do think that textual variants matter. They matter, because they can change what Plato meant, and we try to determine that.

    *However*, if we cannot definitively decide between two variants for example, that is not some terrible problem. We’ll just note how the interpretations would differ in the two cases and move on. Even if we had Plato’s autographs, we would still often have to do essentially the same thing anyway, because we wouldn’t definitively know which meaning of a word Plato was using in many cases.

    If we were all treating the New Testament works as about on par with other important works of classical antiquity (a sort of methodological naturalism), then it seems the same perspective would probably hold for the NT books. But, Professor, do you think this sort of perspective might result in putting some pressure on your field? That is, could the comparatively large efforts spent on textual criticism of the New Testament deliver larger returns if it was spent on other works?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2014

      Yes, probably so. The reason, of course, for so much work on the NT is that so many (including most of the scholars doing the work) consider it to be a divine revelation.

      • Dr_Freed  December 2, 2014

        Very interesting post, thanks! Can I ask a follow-up question on this last comment of yours? Would you be willing to provide estimates for the percentage of the following?

        1) biblical scholars who are Christian (and break this down into evangelical vs liberal Christian),
        2) translators / textual critics who are Christian (and break this down into evangelical vs liberal Christian),
        3) authors of books on the “historical Jesus” who are Christian (and break this down into evangelical vs liberal Christian).

        I’m only after a rough estimate (or anything more concrete if you have it). It concerns the often-heard apologetical statement that “most of the specialists who work in this field think that [claim X about/from the Bible] is true”. If a sizeable proportion of these specialists also happen to believe the Bible is divine revelation, then this of course reduces the stock we should put in the mere numerical fact that “most of the specialists” believe X. They might of course have good reasons (independent of their faith) for believing X, but the very fact of a majority ought not be enough to persuade someone to believe X.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 2, 2014

          I don’t have percentages, but I can so

          1) NT scholars: the vast majority are Xn, not sure how it divides out
          2) NT translators/ textual critics: vast majority, far more evangelical than not.
          3) Jesus scholars: majority Xn, with key exceptions (A. J. Levine; Paula Fredriksen; e.g. are Jews)

  5. RonaldTaska  December 1, 2014

    And, of course, if one has died handling snakes because of a disputed text, it matters a lot to you and your family.

  6. dragonfly  December 3, 2014

    All doctrines come from church traditions. The bible is used to back them up where it agrees, and where it doesn’t it is either ignored or reinterpreted. Therefore textual variants can’t threaten doctrines because the the doctrines are not based on the text. However, supporting Christian doctrines is not the main use for the bible. People look to the bible for answers and guidance to help them in their own lives and situations. And in that case I would say it does matter what the authors wanted to say. It does matter if Luke has a different view of Jesus’s death to Mark. It does matter if Jesus was compassionate or angry. Of course not everyone will agree with me.

  7. Jen  December 3, 2014

    For me, the question would be *why* text critical issues would *not* threaten the Christian doctrine (?); I believe that they do.

  8. Malik  January 8, 2018

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    There has been some confusion on the internet (well at least for me), as per your statement. :
     
    “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”
    (https://tutamen.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/the-bart-ehrman-quote/)
     
    But then in ‘Jesus Interrupted’ you mentioned the following:
     
    In response to the assertion, made by conservative evangelicals, that not a single important Christian doctrine is affected by any textual variant, I point out:
     
    a. It simply isn’t true that important doctrines are not involved. As a key example: the only place in the entire New Testament where the doctrine of the Trinity is explicitly taught is in a passage that made it into the King James translation (1 John 5:7–8) but is not found in the vast majority of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. I would suggest that the Trinity is a rather important Christian doctrine. A typical response to this rebuttal is that the doctrine of the Trinity can be found in Scripture without appealing to 1 John 5:7–8. My reply is that this is true of every single Christian doctrine. In my experience, theologians do not hold to a doctrine because it is found in just one verse; you can take away just about any verse and still find just about any Christian doctrine somewhere else if you look hard enough.
     
    And then now you in this post your saying:
     
    “But does the fact that the only verse explicitly to teach the Trinity was not in the NT “threaten” the doctrine of the Trinity?  Of course not.”
     
    I understand your saying that the very nature of theology/doctrine means it can’t be affected by any variant. I just think that this matter needs to be fully clarified, as each opposing camp is misinterpreting your words
     
     

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2018

      I’m not sure what you would like clarified. The theology of a particular passage, or even an entire book, can hinge (in a significant, even radical way) on which textual variant is chosen; but to my knowledge that would never change any of the established Christian doctrines, because these are never based simply on one passage or another. What is unclear about that?(

  9. prestonp  June 8, 2018

    I’m not sure what you would like clarified. The theology of a particular passage, or even an entire book, can hinge (in a significant, even radical way) on which textual variant is chosen; but to my knowledge that would never change any of the established Christian doctrines, because these are never based simply on one passage or another. What is unclear about that? Bart

    I have an idea for a title to Bart’s next book, “Hang Loose! Essential Christian Beliefs Intact” with the subtitle, ” Traditional Christian Tenets Remain Unaffected By Textual Variations In The New Testament”

  10. prestonp  June 9, 2018

    It can be seen in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke which portray the birth of Jesus as a fulfillment of the predictions of Scripture, using imagery and language heavily dependent on Old Testament narratives to give their opening stories a “biblical” feel. Bart

    Were the imagery and language from O.T. narratives chosen consciously to give the opening stories a “biblical” feel to mislead future readers?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2018

      Not to mislead, I’d say, but to help them see the importance of the story about to be narrated. I doubt if the authors really thought they were distorting the truth.

  11. prestonp  June 9, 2018

    “One could claim and many in fact did that the leaders of the churches who were appointed by the apostles could pass along their teachings, so that these leaders had authority equal to God himself. God sent Jesus, who chose his apostles, who instructed their successors, who passed along the sacred teachings to ordinary Christians.” Bart

    Many can and do claim all kinds of things.

    These kinds of issues were addressed before the church got off the ground and during the very early days of the church: “I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. 13 However, when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak what He hears, and He will declare to you what is to come. 14 He will glorify Me by taking from what is Mine and disclosing it to you.…”

    1 Cor. Ch 1 vs 12, “What I mean is this: Individuals among you are saying, “I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos,” “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius,…”

    What He taught the apostles was that His Representative would come and guide them as life unfolded. He would not leave them alone. Paul reminds the church that their salvation had nothing to do with what mortal men do.

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