As I understand the question in this Readers’ Mailbag, it is about why my claims about scribes who changed the texts they were copying are so controversial, with some (conservative evangelical) scholars claiming that I overemphasize the differences in our New Testament manuscripts. Here is the question:
I was wondering how textual critics can even know how the text of the New Testament probably wasn’t corrupted a lot as you would say. What would make it probable?
One of the most interesting things in the rather loud and vociferous denunciations of my book Misquoting Jesus by conservative Christian scholars is that rarely (I can’t remember a single instance, in fact – maybe someone else knows of some) did they dispute any of the facts I marshal in the book. So far as I know, the facts are not in dispute.
There were three books written in response to my book, one called Misquoting Truth; another called Misquotes in Misquoting Jesus; and another called Lost in Transmission. I think there was another as well, but I can’t recall the title. These books were all written to assure people (mainly believers) that the changes of the New Testament in the surviving copies are not overly significant.
Before getting to the point of significance, let me say something about the facts that I marshal:
- We have something like 5500 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, some of them tiny fragments; some of them entire, complete copies.
- The earliest of these manuscripts date, probably, from the first part of the second century (some decades after the originals). These, however, are only fragmentary scraps. We do not get anything like full pages of this that or the other NT writing until the early 3rd century, and we do not get full and complete manuscripts until the middle of the fourth century.
- Of all our manuscripts, 94% date from the ninth century or later – that is, from 800 -1400 years after the originals were put in circulation.
- We don’t have any originals, or copies of the originals, or almost certainly copies of copies of the originals. Our copiers are later generation copies.
- We don’t know how many differences (scribal alterations) there are in these thousands of manuscripts, but there are lots Some scholars say 300,000, some say 400,000. Since I wrote the book a new scholarly article has appeared claiming that there are more likely about 500,000.
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