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Fundamentalists and the Variants in our Manuscripts

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.

Why Textual Variants Matter for the Rest of Us
Who Cares??? Do the Variants in the Manuscripts Matter for Anything?



  1. Avatar
    hwl  June 20, 2014

    “Why Are There All These Variants?…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.”

    You must have debated this issue with many Christian apologists over the years? Have you ever got clear-cut answers from them?
    My understanding is that the central importance of inerrancy is because of what its connection with doctrine of God rather than doctrine of scripture per se. Evangelicals and fundamentalists insist God does not lie and is without error, therefore whatever he communicates to mankind is without falsehood or errors. To the extent that we can be certain of, say, 95%, of the original words, we can be certain of the inerrancy of the Bible.

    It is interesting to compare Christian views of Bible with Islamic views on the Quran. The inerrancy of the Quran is held universally akin to the near-universal view of Jesus’ divinity and the doctrine of the Trinity, whereas there is a diversity of views of the Bible among different Christian traditions. For almost all devout Muslims, not only is the Quran wholly dictated by God via his angels or directly into Muhammad’s head, God has ensured total preservation of the original Quran – hence the claim that the Quran we now have is identical to the 7th century copy – it has never been changed, and this is often cited by Muslim apologists.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2014

      Yes, I’ve broached this issue in some of my debates with conservative evangelicals. The typical response is that God did not interfere with human practices of copying. But why not, I wonder?

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    shakespeare66  June 20, 2014

    I suppose as a Biblical scholar you would be as excited to have an original copy of the gospels as I would of any of the plays of Shakespeare. Of course, not as much time passed between the writing of Shakespeare’s plays and the publication of them as the “distance” between the original gospels and the copies that were handed down. So how old are the copies of the gospels in Greek? And how many times do you think they were copied before they arrived at the copies you studied?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2014

      Our oldest fragment is from about 30-40 years after the Gospel of John was written (it’s the size of a credit card); the first larger fragments are from about 110 years after it was written. Our first complete manuscripts are from the fourth century. I have no idea how many “generations” of copying that represents….

      • Avatar
        BrianUlrich  June 22, 2014

        That puts the first longer copies in the 200’s. It seems like lots of sorts of evidence of ancient Christianity becomes far more common then, such as the material evidence as discussed in the chapter of the Cambridge History of Christianity on the development of a Christian material culture. That author, whose name I forget, suggested it was because Christian artifacts of the 2nd century were probably indistinguishable from non-Christian ones, but that obviously wouldn’t be true of texts. What do you think accounts for the sudden development of lots of extent texts, like the Infancy Gospel of James and the canonical stuff in that period? If they are from funerary contexts, could it be a shift in relationship with texts, as in there used to be only communal copies, but now there were privately owned ones which people could be buried with? Or is there a parallel with non-Christian ancient texts, in that we just have more stuff in general from the 200’s?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 22, 2014

          My guess is that hte evidence starts showing up about then both because the older stuff was more likely to wear out and because that’s when there begins to be more evidence. Probably weren’t too many Christians around in, say, the year 60.

  3. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  June 20, 2014

    Did any early church fathers mention inerrancy of the texts/gospels ( I assume they didn’t have a formalized Bible yet)? I know they mentioned variations of the texts. Or was the inerrancy a fairly modern idea, say the last few hundred years? Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2014

      The modern view of inerrancy is usually traced back to the so-called “Niagara Conferences” of the late 19th centuries, and developments after them.

  4. Avatar
    LP in PA  June 20, 2014

    As I’ve mentioned before, Bart and I have shared very similar life journeys (even down to dates and ages). As a former fundamentalist, I think this post ironically shows that the textual variants DO impact “Christian doctrine”–at least as fundamentalists see it. When I was a grad student at Grace Theological Seminary (’78-84), I considered inerrancy one of the 3 key “doctrines” that set us apart from other so-called Christians (recent creationism and pre-trib–pre-millennialism being the others). As you have demonstrated in this post, God’s failure to preserve the original (whatever THAT means! cf. Philippians posts!) texts does challenge the concept of inerrancy–a doctrine that fundamentalists consider essential.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  June 20, 2014

    I have some fundamentalist friends who tell me that when they see something that looks like a problem in the Bible, like an apparent contradiction, they know that the problem is with their understanding, not with the Bible. Of course I’ve had Mormons say the same thing about their book, and I’m sure many Muslims say the same thing about the Koran. That kind of irrational thinking is one of the things that drove me away from fundamentalism (thankfully!). It’s hard to reason with people who reject reason as a tool for understanding.

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 20, 2014

    A question not related to this topic…something I can’t help wondering about.

    I remember that in one of Steven Saylor’s presumably well-researched novels about ancient Rome, he described an annual festival dear to the “lower classes.” It was inspired by a legend of a (minor) goddess, in the guise of an old woman, having miraculously multiplied food and fed a multitude.

    It makes me wonder…even though this tale involved a goddess, would Romans have been more likely than Jews to expect “miracles” from a “holy man”? If so, Jesus might initially have been known only as a preacher, with the “miracle” stories being fabricated to meet the expectations of Gentiles.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2014

      My sense is that both Jews and Gentiles in the empire had a robust sense of the possibility of miracles; there were other miracle workers from the time of Jesus among the Jews as well.

  7. Avatar
    Matt7  June 20, 2014

    I think Moses and Joseph Smith had the right idea. Stone tablets or golden plates written by God (or an angel) would have made a lot more sense.

  8. Avatar
    lbehrendt  June 20, 2014

    Bart, you wrote that Jews in the Middle Ages had a technology for making perfectly accurate copies by hand. But surely, in your younger life as a Christian fundamentalist, you did not believe that God determined the Jewish copying techniques! You write that God “wasn’t that interested” in preserving the original New Testament texts, which may or may not be true (I wouldn’t know), but aren’t you really saying that the early Christians themselves weren’t that interested in this preservation (at least, not as interested as were Jews in the Middle Ages)? Does this tell us something about the early Christian relationship to these texts?

    A related question: the New Testament texts were not the only texts early Christians copied. Did early Christians make the same mistakes when they copied other holy texts — for example, the Septuagint? With the same frequency? Can we see distinctions in Christian devotion to various texts by the care taken in copying them?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2014

      No, I didn’t ever think that! My point was that if God wanted his text (of the NT) preserved, it would not have taken that big of a miracle. The Jews pulled it off in the Middle Ages, without any miracle at all!

      And yes, all copies of ancient books have the same problems.

  9. Avatar
    Hana1080  June 20, 2014

    Where these arguments are leading me is wondering How Christians view God. From what I’ve started reading, Jews expected their Messiah to be All Powerful and it seems the Prototype for this expectation is God. (but I’ve just started reading in depth and may be I’m missing something?)

  10. Avatar
    doug  June 20, 2014

    There was a time as a teenager when I felt a need to believe the Bible was all true. That belief gave me some security and allowed me to think I was a good person! I wouldn’t listen to anything that suggested the Bible was not God’s perfect word. But having seen non-Fundamentalists who are good people (and having a questioning mind), I learned long ago that I don’t need to believe the Bible is the word of God in order to be a good person. If there were a God who disagrees with me, he would be quite able to make that clear to me.

  11. Avatar
    laz  June 21, 2014

    I guess it’s to much for God to spell correctly in his one of kind only way to savation book.

  12. Avatar
    Lee  June 21, 2014

    Dr Bart, if you still believe that the Bible is the Word of God, that means you still believe there is a God?
    So when you say you are agnostic, that means you can’t capture and define God coz you cannot make out what he is all about, it doesn’t mean you think there is no God, right?
    I hear you say you don’t believe God would allow people to suffer so much, hence you don’t believe in God, but describing God to be the all powerful and all loving is just what people wrote him up to be, he might be just God who made everything and let things take their courses (pretty much like the nature which can definitely overwhelm us in their various manifestations such as disasters and illnesses), so you are not saying there is no God, nothing to believe in and that Jesus was just projecting his subjective wishes onto a God figure and made him up, right?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2014

      No, I know longer believe the Bible is the Word of God (since I don’t believe in God); I was describing my view *after* leaving fundamentalism but before leaving Christianity.

      • Avatar
        cobbr66  June 24, 2014

        Bart, make sure that you edit and spell check your blog posts before submitting them. (i.e. “I know longer…”) Your credentials are sound, but you don’t want others who may be reading your comments for the first time to get the wrong impression of your scholarship.

  13. Avatar
    ktn3654  June 21, 2014

    Speaking as an agnostic myself, I don’t find the above argument convincing. If you start out prepared to countenance miracles, you can “explain” literally anything. Maybe some of the copyists’ changes were themselves divinely inspired–God putting Scripture in a slightly different form that would make better sense to a new generation. (Since God has permitted most people to know the Bible through the vehicle of translation, obviously it’s not such a high priority for everyone to know the original words themselves.) Maybe God saw to it that out-and-out mistakes eventually died out, and never found their way into the Bibles most people use. You can tell all sorts of stories along those lines.

    So I think the real question is whether to believe in that sort of divine intervention in the first place.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 21, 2014

      Yes, if fundamentalists were more flexible in their views of how God works through the Bible, they could take either of your other scenarios and run with it (as others in the history of Christianity have done!)

      • Avatar
        ExMech  July 1, 2014

        Professor, considering the vast majority of biblical scholars are apologists of one form or another, how can we, as the public, trust their scholarship since all interpretation of the evidence are made with he presupposition that Jesus MUST have existed, and was “god”?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 2, 2014

          I think their historical scholarship has to be judged on its own merit, not rejected because one does not agree with their theological views.

  14. Avatar
    Didaktikos  June 21, 2014

    Bart, I cannot express loudly and strongly enough how much your thoughts sharing means to me. I am searching for answers to my multifaceted religious journey over these 49 years since making a confession at eleven years old. Keep sharing. It’s like cool water to a thirsty man.

  15. Avatar
    maxhirez  June 21, 2014

    The first inerrancy fundamentalist who ever explained the. POV to me said the second miracle took place when they translated the KJV into English (or at least the version if the KJV he favored.) just goes to show you how much of the reason for believing anything can be summed up with the words “because I want to.”

  16. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 21, 2014

    After reading all these comments, I’ve realized that what Catholics were taught – at least when I was young – was not that the Bible was inerrant, but that *the Church’s interpretation of the Bible* was inerrant. We were encouraged to read it (you’d get “indulgences”!), but told never to presume to “interpret” *anything* for ourselves.

    As I recall, that’s also what that Prof. Swinburne was saying, about the Church of England. That Church teaching took precedence over the Bible, not the other way around.

  17. Avatar
    Rosekeister  June 21, 2014

    “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?”
    It’s funny how common sense often becomes the most obvious answer to questions about religion. There was never any need for inspired writers, councils and transmission of texts. If Jesus was God then he had at least 10 years (say years 20-30) to write an actual Bible by God himself. In other words I know the Bible isn’t by God because God could do a better job of it.

    Once reason breaks through “with full force” then inevitably the rest will follow. Why is there this need for the convoluted plan of salvation? God is being opposed by Satan. He must make plans, send his Son to earth, kill him on the cross and then raise him from the dead to allow humans to have faith in him and be saved. As God Why couldn’t he just forgive humans to begin with much like a parent would forgive a child?

    And this leads to God himself. Why does he need humans to sing to him and worship him? Even humans don’t expect this from their children. The monotheistic God seems no different than the polytheistic Gods except in number and if the polytheistic Gods have died perhaps the monotheistic God should too.
    The question “Why” and common sense lead in unexpected directions and this is why I disagree with you that Christians can be expert Christian scholars. The presuppositions behind the thought process that allows one to consider him/herself a Christian are not those supported in the end by common sense which in turn allows the Christian scholar to look at any field of NT scholarship, the evidence found in that field and discover that the evidence supports traditional conservative Christianity. Another of your readers brought up the point that many Christians firmly believe that if the evidence does not support their beliefs then they do not understand the evidence correctly.

    A good example is in the field of oral tradition where some Christian scholars write of Jesus as a rabbi with a school of followers who memorized his words. Others speak of informal controlled transmission of his words in which there is rigorous accuracy of the essential elements in the stories. There are articles and books discussing all these ideas and confirming that the NT goes directly back to Jesus even though a little thought shows that these theories of transmission simply aren’t relevant to Galilean fishermen.

    Do you think critical scholarship began with common sense applied to the miracle stories and once common sense was out of the bottle all the conservative scholarship in the world couldn’t stuff it back in?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 22, 2014

      No, there continue to be massive disagreements among scholars about issues such as the miracle stories — and it’s not simply that some scholars have sense and others don’t! I’d say it has more to do with assumptions and worldviews.

  18. Avatar
    Scott F  June 23, 2014

    I have some sympathy for Fundamentalist screeching about slippery slopes starting denial of inerrancy. It may not be logically necessary but it happens frequently. While my slope was more of a cliff, your own journey may have followed a gentle and extended slope but it seems like a slide all the same 🙂

  19. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  June 23, 2014

    Did Christians always consider the Gospels as *inspired*? Even if early Christians regarded the Gospels as apostolic and authoritative texts, would that necessarily imply divine inspiration? Now, a related silly question (not that I think the previous were great questions…): for a text to be called sacred, does it have to be inspired?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 23, 2014

      I don’t think “apostolic and authoritative” *necessarily* meant inspired — although, later, to be inspired it was *required* that a text be apostolic and inspired. And some people hold certain books to be authoritative and, in some sense, sacred, without them necessarily being inspired by God.

  20. Avatar
    jebib  June 24, 2014

    Bart, I hope you don’t find this question argumentative but here goes. Your narrative is thought provoking I certainly agree. However, It’s also certainly true that we do have “an oldest version” at our disposal. To keep it simple (for me) Lets just stick to the first three gospels, all independent and while written by someone we aren’t quite sure who. But they are there and they are the oldest. So why can’t an argument be made that one of them were inspired as represented? Isn’t there an argument to be made that the error isn’t that something wasn’t divinely inspired just that everything so represented was?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 24, 2014

      Yes, the Synoptic Gospels are our oldest accounts of the life of Jesus. But my point is that we don’t have the original copies of any of these Gospels, only copies made much later, all of which have mistakes in them. So which copy gives the divinely inspired words?

      • Avatar
        jebib  June 24, 2014

        I was thinking more in terms of the religious community hitting a re-set button. And for that matter, I guess I’d pick John as my go to. Anybody who wrote something almost 85 years after the death of Jesus would have to be divinely inspired. So the community just assumes he is. However that means the other three are reduced in status to just a status that’s pretty close to what you assign them anyway. By the way I admit this pick and choose is probably unfeasible but if I wanted to make a defense where I would rely on the document with the caveat that it is divinely inspired wouldn’t you agree that John would be the best choice? I’m a cradle Catholic, and with all the insight you have provided me in my “search” it seems their major mistake was a too liberal use of “divinely inspired”. Please don’t take this as my attempting to refute or propose a viable alternative, it’s more like coffee klatch conversation with you. And by the way how flattered I am to communicate with you, Sir.

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