In my previous post I began a discussion of why textual variants (that is, different wordings of the verses of the NT) found in the manuscripts might matter to someone other than a specialist who spends his or her life studying such things. Most of the hundreds of thousands of variations are of very little importance for anything, as most people – even specialists – would admit. Only a minority really matter. And none of these seriously threatens any significant, traditional, Christian doctrine. But I’ve argued that this should not be the criterion used to establish their importance. Lots of things in life are important that have nothing to do with traditional Christian doctrines!
I would say that the variations in the manuscripts of the New Testament should seem important to three groups of people. If you’re not in one of these groups, then they probably are not all that important to you! (1) Fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians who believe that the Bible is an inerrant or infallible revelation from God, with no mistakes in what it says; (2) Scholars, students, and general readers who are interested in knowing what the various authors of the New Testament wrote and thought and proclaimed; and (3) Scholars, students, and general readers who are interested in the historical, cultural, and social history of Christianity through the ages who would like to see how various social or theological forces affected the anonymous scribes who were committed to making copies of the New Testament.
I will take each of these groups in turn, devoting a separate post to each one.
First, our friends among the fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. As I explained in my book Misquoting Jesus, I myself was a fundamentalist when I first learned about the manuscripts of the New Testament and the fact that we do not have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament and that the copies that we do have, almost all of which are many centuries after the originals, are full of changes and mistakes.
At the time, as a good, devout, conservative Christian, this historical reality did not much disturb me. I believed that God had inspired the originals of the New Testament by directing the authors of Scripture to write what they did. But after the originals were produced by divinely inspired authors, they were copied by regular ole people; and regular ole people are not inspired and they, unlike the authors themselves, make mistakes.
So why wouldn’t there be lots and lots and lots of mistakes? The NT was copied by human scribes. That wasn’t a problem for me, theologically. In fact, I found it interesting. Really interesting. Fantastically interesting. And for this reason: if we don’t have the actual originals in hand, but only later copies that have lots of mistakes, that means that in order to figure out what God revealed to us through the authors of Scripture, we have to engage in textual criticism to get *back* to the originals. In other words, studying the surviving manuscripts of the NT was actually a sacred duty, and of utmost importance.
I realized this already as an 18-year-old. And it is what drove me, initially, to become a biblical scholar. God had inspired the originals, and so we jolly-well better figure out what the originals said so we could know what the inspired words were. This was an exciting venture for me and drove me to delve into manuscript studies – even before I knew Greek!
I started studying Greek, at Wheaton College as a 20-year-old, because I knew I wanted to study the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. And working on Greek manuscripts and related topics continued to occupy my scholarly passions for over twenty-five years.
But during that time, I had a change of mind, one that I would encourage all fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals to consider as well. It suddenly occurred to me one day that my view of Scripture was problematic precisely for the reason that was driving me to study the manuscripts. It involved a very, very simple question, that for some reason had never struck me with full force before: Why Are There All These Variants?
Of course I had always assumed that it was simply because humans had copied the texts. But wait a second. I firmly believed that God had done a miracle in order to inspire the authors of the texts to write his words. Surely this means that God wanted his people (the Christians) to have his words. Why else would he inspire the authors? But if he wanted Christians to have his very words, then why did he allow the originals to get lost? And why didn’t he ensure that the copyists didn’t make mistakes when they copied their texts? The fact that he did not ensure this showed that actually he must not have been all that interested in giving Christians his words.
That is to say, it would have been no greater miracle to preserve the God-given text than it would have been to inspire it in the first place. More people would be involved, to be sure (the copyists): but really it would not take THAT big of a miracle to make sure they didn’t make mistakes. It IS possible to copy a manuscript without making mistakes. With advanced technology we do it billions of times today; but it is also possible to devise mechanisms for hand-copying texts completely accurately. Jews in the Middle Ages did it. God never made sure the Christians ever did. But why not? Why didn’t God make sure it happened? Even occasionally?
This was a troubling thought to me and it made me reconsider things. I knew for a fact that God had not given us, today, his words, since all we had were later manuscripts filled with mistakes. If God had not given us his words, why should I think that he *ever* gave us his words? Why think that the Bible was inspired by God if it was not preserved by God?
This is one of the things that led me away from fundamentalism. It did not make me an agnostic, an unbeliever, an apostate, or anything else that I may have become. It simply made me someone who was more thoughtful and sophisticated in his view of Scripture. (I became agnostic for completely other reasons, unrelated to the problem of the manuscripts.) I continued to understand the Bible to be the Word of God, but not in a literal mechanistic way. I did not think God actually determined which specific words the authors would convey. If he was interested in giving his people his words, he would have made sure they had his words. He didn’t make sure. And so obviously he wasn’t that interested.