Soon after falling into sin, Adam was confronted by the God whom he had offended: ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ (Gen.3:11) All good teachers ask questions when they already know the answer, and certainly God did, but He flushed out Adam’s reply: ‘The woman whom You gave to me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate’ (Gen.3:12). It constitutes the beginning of all the disingenuous replies that have littered the history of humanity. Everything that Adam says is true, but his overall intention is to deceive.
Recently I was reminded of Bart Ehrman’s claims concerning the transmission of New Testament:
We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later – much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places … [Also] these copies differ from one another in so many places that don’t even know how many differences there are. Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts that there are words in the New Testament.
It is one of those sweeping and startling statements that are true in a sense, but dangerously misleading. One might reply in four ways:
1. The fact that there are thousands of copies undermines Ehrman’s point. This is not a case of ‘Chinese whispers’ or ‘the telephone game’. Ehrman himself acknowledges that there are something like 5,400 Greek manuscripts to work with. In addition there are early translations of the New Testament into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and other languages, as well as quotations of the New Testament from the Early Church Fathers. The original copy of the Qur’an is supposed to be preserved in Mecca – but nobody believes that, or nobody should believe that – but the original copies of the New Testament books (called the autographs) are not extant. Ehrman gives the impression that this is a disastrous situation, and we would be ‘lucky’ if we could find the autographs. In fact, the opposite is true. The multitude of copies, from all over the Roman Empire, means that there is a corrective mechanism at work. Every copyist will make errors, but thousands of copyists will not make the same errors. For the most part, the errors will be easy to detect.
2. The fact that the copies are late does not mean what Ehrman implies it means. The Didache is an early Church document which is generally said to have come from the late first or early second century. It refers to verses in the Gospel of Matthew so often that it is obvious that he possessed a copy. As copies of the New Testament books, which were often copied as individual books on scrolls, wore out, they were naturally discarded and new copies made. The fact that our copies of the New Testament are late is a sure indicator that the 27 books were much-read. Caesar’s Gallic War only has eight or nine usable manuscripts, which probably only indicates that it was not read as often. Compared to every other piece of ancient literature, the New Testament books are remarkably early. For example, the earliest copy of the Gallic War comes from about 900 years after Caesar. And that is typical, even universal, for ancient literature – except for the New Testament.
3. The fact that there are a great many differences in the manuscripts is precisely what one would expect. If 5,400 copyists are at work, nobody would expect them to come up with identical copies of the original manuscript. There would be differences in thousands of places, but that should bother no-one. What Ehrman thinks is a weakness is a strength. Ehrman would have us panic: ‘There are a lot of words in the New Testament, and if there are more differences than words, this is quite overwhelming.’ No, it is not. It is like having 5,400 correctors, and the result can be relied upon.
4. The fact that no doctrine is at stake sinks Ehrman’s thesis. The most important omissions are found in the ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20), the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) and the three heavenly witnesses (see 1 John 5:6-8). I have just finished writing a biography of Athanasius of Alexandria from the fourth century. It was mainly about Athanasius’ testimony to the full deity of Christ. In all the literature I found no reference to the heavenly witnesses of 1 John 5, and the only reasonable explanation is that the passage is not an omission, but an insertion. But if we remove it, the whole New Testament still proclaims the deity of Christ. On the odd occasions that Ehrman was not conducting his anti-Christian crusade, he actually conceded this.
This leads us to the conclusion that Ehrman’s unbelief is not due to manuscript problems, but to sin. Which is true of all of us, and which is why we must repent of sin and believe in Christ for salvation.