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Who Cares??? Do the Variants in the Manuscripts Matter for Anything?

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.

QUESTION:

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?

RESPONSE:

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.


Fundamentalists and the Variants in our Manuscripts
Hypothetical Problems with Copies of Philippians

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Comments

  1. JudithW.Coyle  June 19, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman,

    With each new entry to the blog, I find myself thinking, “This is good!” but then, they are all good.

    Thank you!

  2. stokerslodge  June 19, 2014

    The protestant reformers removed certain books from the Old Testament on the grounds that they were not in the Hebrew Canon – even though they were included in the Septuagint? Did the early Christians regard these books as scripture?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 20, 2014

      Some of them. But Protestants would typically protest that they did not “remove” books from the Bible; they were accepting as their “Old Testament” the books that Jews accepted as their “Hebrew Scriptures.”

  3. shakespeare66  June 19, 2014

    The fundamental doctrines are all that it takes to convince people of the “truth” about the Christian religion. It is all people have time for to explore. For how long have people been practicing Christians and really not know what and why they are practicing. Members of Congress will pound the Bible and indicate that God does not want this or that in social relationships, blah, blah, blah. BUT when it comes to practicing one thing that Christ indicated would get them through the pearly gates ( assist the poor), they cannot find it in their hearts to raise the minimum wage. Hypocrisy at its best? No, I say it is just pure ignorance of what Christ actually said people should be doing on earth. Christianity has become so fractionated that it is hard for them to know what they believe much less what the 200+ sects of Christianity are practicing. It has deteriorated into splinter groups that harp at each other from the pulpit. My question is this: Isn’t the Gospel of John enough of a variant from the synoptic gospels to wonder what was going on in the early days of the formulation of Christianity? I know what you mean by variants, but what about the “variant” of John versus the other Gospels?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 20, 2014

      Yes, you’re right — that’s a different *kind* of “variant.”

      • Rosekeister
        Rosekeister  June 21, 2014

        That kind of variant is what intrigues me most. “Variant” beliefs were included in the New Testament but by being included, the variant beliefs became embedded in the orthodox belief system and are now interpreted differently from what the author meant. Q, Hebrews and James are good examples.

        It has been argued that since we don’t have the complete Q, we can’t know what it said in its entirety but it would be strange if what is preserved speaks of Jesus as a human teacher of the apocalypse but the rest then spoke of Jesus as the very Son of God on earth

        or if what is preserved mentions one or two healing miracles but the rest speaks of many major miracles such as the raising of the dead

        or if what is preserved mentions “disciples” occasionally while the rest tells elaborate stories of Peter as the rock of the church

        or if what is preserved considers Jesus’ life and teachings as what is important while the rest considers his death and resurrection the major importance of the life of Jesus.

        Q doesn’t support most of Christianity’s fundamental doctrines and the position that it is just a hypothetical document seems oddly similar to the argument that evolution is just a theory. Will the planned book on the oral tradition (I still like “Lost in the Cloud” as a working title) discuss the differences and similarities of Q and Mark and their relation to the oral tradition? I’ve been thinking that when the oral becomes written, it freezes everchanging diverse streams of tradition into one accepted tradition which then includes all editorial traits, beliefs and placement into the story.

  4. Scott F  June 19, 2014

    What if the gospels of Matthew and Luke suddenly disappeared? Would the Virgin Birth go **poof**?

    I like your example of drinking poison and handling snakes from the doubtful ending of Mark. Not a fundamental doctrine of Christianity but almost certainly significant!!

  5. rrogers  June 19, 2014

    Wow! I’m a professor of comparative religions and face this question on textual criticism a lot, as do so many of my colleagues. Yours is about as fine a response as I’ve heard. I hope you don’t mind if I steal your list of “deletable biblical books” to make this point with my students. I usually bring up what I know you’re going to add in your next post. But this approach here is genius. Thanks!

  6. Hana1080  June 19, 2014

    Yes of course it’s important and it is also important to differentiate between the myth of Jesus, the myth that grew after his death and historical fact. I prefer a personal understanding and experience based on fact rather than one founded on folklore and myth. I want to know the truth.

  7. Wbmfishman  June 19, 2014

    Bart,

    The variants are a very important issue. I’ve read and watched you-tube videos of the critical conservative evangelical scholars. All seem to engage in a scholarly dance with large words that the average person has to look up, especially Craig Evans. Correct me please if I and wrong. Is the fact that ancient extant copies of biblical writings are some 100 to 150 years removed from the autographs an even bigger concern? What about some who point out, that possibly, these extant copies may have been relegated to back room storage somewhere because the scribes knew they contained errors.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 20, 2014

      Yes, it is a concern — and these copies are highly fragmentary. We don’t start getting complete copies until 300 years later. There’s no evidence to suggest that the oldest surviving copies were discounted by Christians at the time because they had so many mistakes.

  8. RonaldTaska  June 19, 2014

    I think this area of textual criticism is Dr. Ehrman at his best. As he has described in “Misquoting Jesus,” the ending of Mark, the woman who committed adultery in the Gospel of John, and the statement in First John about the Trinity are all affected by the differences among ancient texts. For me, however, this is really important because it raises questions about quoting individual scriptures to prove stuff, like the role of women in churches and the issue of gay marriage. Indeed, it raises into question the whole rationale for quoting scripture to argue for this or that. .Since conservatives quote scriptures constantly, it is helpful to understand these textual differences mean that there is no “the” Bible to quote.

    • prestonp  October 29, 2014

      Significant doctrinal positions are established through more than one verse. The First John verse on the trinity was added later which is and was well known. The concept of the trinity flows throughout the new testament.

  9. cheito
    cheito  June 19, 2014

    DR EHRMAN:

    YOUR COMMENT:

    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*?

    MY COMMENT:

    I enjoy reading these books mentioned above. Out of the nine I only consider two of them to be written by an eyewitness and therefore inspired by God. Joshua is an interesting historical account of what God did after moses died. I read it as history but I’m not certain if everything mentioned in this book is what God actually said and did. Judges and Ruth are also interesting and perhaps what is recorded here could be true but I don’t apply it to my daily living. Proverbs is the wisdom of Solomon. Solomon learned from His father David and from God’s spirit. Many of the proverbs are true but not all of them. I don’t consider proverbs the inspired word of God although some truth in proverbs are from God. Song of Songs is just poetry, not the inspired word of God. Mark to me is like an apocryphal Gospel. I don’t rely on it. There are sayings attributed to Jesus in that book that I’m don’t believe Jesus said. Philemon is a book that has a lesson to teach and since it written by Paul I read it with great respect knowing by faith Paul’s authority given to him By Christ Himself. 2 Peter sounds and reads like the real thing to me. there’re many deep spiritual lessons to learn from this book. I believe it is authentic and therefore the words of Christ through Peter. I have questions about 3 john.

    NOTE: THERE SHOULD BE ANOTHER COUNCIL TO CREATE A NEW CANON. I WOULD GET RID OF REVELATION, MATTHEW, MARK, SOME CHAPTERS IN LUKE. SONG OF SONGS, AND A FEW OTHERS. I CONSIDER ECCLESIASTES SOLOMON’S WORLD VIEW AND NOT THE WORD OF GOD. etc.

    What matters is faith working through Love!

    My example of God’s inspired word: The commandments spoken by God on Mt Sinai.

  10. Matt7  June 19, 2014

    Two findings that I think should concern any conservative Christian:

    1) The older the manuscripts the more differences there are between them; and
    2) Scribes seem to have made intentional changes to make the scriptures conform to developing orthodoxy.

    I don’t understand how anyone maintains a belief in biblical inerrancy given these facts.

    Does it matter that the phrase “your father and I” was changed to “Joseph and I” in an apparent attempt to preserve the doctrine of the Trinity? It matters to me.

  11. toejam  June 20, 2014

    Off topic, but an inevitable question: So it seems Richard Carrier’s book is finally out… http://www.amazon.com/On-Historicity-Jesus-Might-Reason/dp/1909697494

    Any plans to review it?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 20, 2014

      Nope! But I’ll be interested to see if any serious scholars bother to take it on or not.

  12. gabilaranjeira  June 23, 2014

    I care!
    Another great post after great post after great post…
    Thanks!

  13. willow  June 23, 2014

    If we are to walk in truth; if we are to be true to not only ourselves, to one another and to our God, it MATTERS.

    Word: Daqar. Verb.
    Hebrew: דָּקַר
    Word number: 1856.
    Definition: to pierce, pierce through.

    In question Psalm 22:16 (KJV) Psalm 22:17 Hebrew Bible
    “Dogs have compassed me; the assembly of the wicked has enclosed me; they pierced my hands and my feet.”
    The word for “Pierced” used here is the Hebrew word “kaari”/כָּאֲרִי MEANING “like a lion”.
    See below:

    Word: Aryeh. Noun.
    Hebrew: Original Word: אריה
    Word number: 744.
    Definition: Lion. Lions. Lions’.
    Psalm 22, therefore, is NOT about Jesus and the Crucifixion but David in being surrounded by his enemies who are “like lions” at his hands and his feet. Note also that the exact same word, כָּאֲרִי, is otherwise translated “like a lion” throughout the Christian Scriptures. Only in Psalm 22:17 is it changed to mean “pierced”, whereas the word for pierced is DAQAR. See Isaiah 38:13.

    Word: Alma(h). Noun Feminine
    Word number: 5959
    Hebrew: עַלְמָה
    Definition: young woman, maiden (of marriageable age/virginity not determined/nor implied)

    Word: Bethulah. Noun Feminine
    Hebrew: בְּתוּלָה
    Word number: 1331
    Definition (always): Virgin.
    Greek: ( Παρθένου)Parthenos.
    The word DOES NOT ALWAYS mean virgin. IE: Genesis 34:2-4. Dinah was no longer a “parthenos”/”virgin” AFTER she had been raped. The correct translations is “damsel”/maiden/young woman, not necessarily a virgin.

    It might also be noted that the 72 Rabbis who translated the Hebrew into the Greek DID NOT translate the Book of Isaiah into Greek, (Letter of Aristeas/Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, Xll; ii, 1-4), and therefore did not translate the word “alma(h)” as it appears in Isaiah 7:14, but merely the first five books (Pentateuch)of the Bible alone. The “Septuiguint” as a whole, as we have it today, is a work of the church that dates to the 3rd-4th Century C.E. (Lucian/Origin).

    Such mistranslations that have served the church well, go on and on, and it very much MATTERS.

  14. willow  June 23, 2014

    I have a question, Bart, though I believe I know what your answer will be.

    Did God create man in His image, or has man created God, in his own image?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 23, 2014

      Well, it depends whom you ask! I don’t believe in God, and so naturally I think all religions are the products of human mental, social, and cultural activities.

  15. willow  June 23, 2014

    Afterthought: As I see it, if the birth narratives in the Bible were to go “poof”, what we’d be left with is that which Jesus, and his followers, believed him to be. The “Messiah”, nonetheless. That is, one anointed for a particular purpose.

  16. prestonp  October 29, 2014

    “It would be wrong… to say—as people sometimes do—that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them. We have seen, in fact, that just the opposite is the case.” Dr B

    “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.” Dr B

    Therefore, His divinity, virgin birth, dying for our sins, rising from the dead, all are untouched, none is corrupted, by a single variant

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2014

      Right. As I’ve always said.

      • prestonp  November 4, 2014

        “…if none of the variants would require a radical change of any fundamental Christian doctrine, then, well, none of them ultimately matters.” Dr B

        Therefore, His divinity, virgin birth, dying for our sins, rising from the dead, all are untouched, none is corrupted, by a single variant

        “Right. As I’ve always said.” Dr Bart

        But practically not one word attributed to Christ in John is his?

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