Ever since I wrote Misquoting Jesus readers have asked – these are usually conservative Christians with a high view of Scripture, but not always – whether any of the differences in the manuscripts of the New Testament actually *matter* for anything.
I have often pointed out that there are hundreds of thousands of differences among our surviving manuscripts. We don’t know exactly how many because no one has been able to count them all. Are there 200,000? 300,000? 400,000? We don’t know. But what we do know, as I’ve repeatedly said (as was first pointed out to me by no less an authority than my mentor, Bruce Metzger), there are more variant readings in the manuscripts of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament.
But do any of the variants actually *matter*? This has become an issue with some of the readers of the blog over the past week or so as I have been devoting a thread to the question of whether it makes sense to talk about the “original” of any of Paul’s letters (I’ve used Philippians as an example), and if so, what we might imagine that original to be. Here, for example, is one question from one reader, a few days ago.
How significant are these variants? I know they vary but is there anything fundamental to Christendom that would be fundamentally flawed like the virgin birth or the resurrection that does not take place in these variants that are of material value?
It’s a really good question. I don’t know if this reader is a conservative Christian or has read what my conservative evangelical critics have said about this – as they make it one of their main points. But let me respond at some length — to them, rather than to him.
The first thing to say is the first thing that I almost always say, even though my conservative evangelical critics among the scholars refuse to notice that I have said it (repeatedly!) and pretend that I never have said it, which is this: the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of differences are immaterial, insignificant, and trivial. Many of them cannot even be represented by different translations of the (different) Greek texts into English. Probably the majority matter only in showing that Christian scribes centuries ago could spell no better than my students can today. And *they* didn’t have dictionaries! Let alone spell check.
So, it is true that the huge majority of variations don’t matter. But do *any* of them matter? Well, the answer to that question depends entirely on what it is that you think matters. For a lot of people – including, I’m assuming (but cannot be certain), the reader who asked the question – if none of the variants would require a radical change of any fundamental Christian doctrine, then, well, none of them ultimately matters. So unless there are variations that indicate that Jesus’ mother was *not* a virgin, or that say that he was *not* the Son of God, or that claim that he never *was* raised from the dead – well, unless there are variants like *that*, then the variants don’t matter.
That’s not at all my own view of the matter, as I’ll explain, but just to be clear and to answer the question directly: none of the variants that we have ultimately would make any Christian in the history of the universe come to think something opposite of what they already think about whatever doctrines are usually considered “major.” (Some of the variants may indeed support a theological view that Christians largely reject, but that would not affect anyone’s doctrines because doctrines are almost NEVER based on a single verse, but on lots of passages interpreted in particular ways that usually are not affected that much by the specific wording of one passage or another).
But here is the main point of this post: to question whether variants would alter any fundamental doctrine is, in my view, is a rather odd way of deciding whether the variants matter or not. Let me give you an analogous situation. Suppose tomorrow morning we were all to wake up only to find that the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Mark, Philemon, 2 Peter, and 3 John were no longer in the Bible. Overnight, they had simply disappeared, leaving no trace. Would that *matter*? Would that be *important*?
OF COURSE it would be important. It would be HUGE.
But would it affect and “fundamental doctrine” of the Christian religion? Not in the least. Not a bit. Not at all. It would have zero effect.
So does something matter *only* if it affects a fundamental doctrine of Christianity? Not in my books.
Why then do some of my conservative evangelical critics (I could name names, but, well, simply name for yourself any conservative evangelical critic that you’ve heard of who attacks Misquoting Jesus, if you’ve heard of any; if you haven’t heard of any, trust me, they are out there) constantly harp on the fact that none of the variants in the manuscripts of the New Testament have any effect on any fundamental Christian doctrine? My guess is that it is because for them, what really, ultimately, and in some sense only matters is Christian doctrine. They think that true religion is believing the right things, and at the end of the day, so long as you know the right things to believe, nothing else really matters for much.
That seems to me to be a highly impoverished understanding of Christianity. Christianity is far more than a handful of fundamental doctrines, such as the existence of one God, the creator; Christ, his son, who is both human and divine, who was born of a virgin, who died for sins, and who was raised from the dead, bringing about the possibility for a person to have eternal life. Of *course* these fundamental doctrines are highly important for Christianity. But are they the *only* things that are important? Really?
Aren’t the stories told by Christians important? Stories found in the Gospels, for example, that have no bearing on “fundamental doctrines”? Isn’t the life of Jesus important – what he really said, did, and experienced? Aren’t Christian practices and rituals and liturgy important? Isn’t Christian worship important?
And aren’t the books of the Bible themselves important? Doesn’t what each author has to say – even if it is not about a “fundamental doctrine” — important? Isn’t it important to know what each of the Gospels has to say about Jesus’ life, character, teachings, deeds, conflicts, and so on? Isn’t it important to know whether the authors of the New Testament agreed on everything or were at odds – for example, in their understandings of who Jesus really was, the reason for his death, the relationship of faith in Christ to the Jewish religion and people, the understanding of how a person is put into a right relationship with God, the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus, the precise importance of his resurrection, and and and and????
There is a lot more to Christianity than its fundamental doctrines, a lot more that really matters. In my next post I’ll say a couple of things about how some textual variants really do matter, even if they do not affect the fundamental doctrines that Christians have traditionally believed.