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?
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.