Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.
40 Questions About The Text and Canon of the New Testament by Charles L. Quarles and L. Scott Kellum, 250pp. Kregel Publications, 2023.
I have more than enough books on my shelves on the topic of canon. But until the reading of this book, I hadn’t seen a book that combines the latest scholarship on both canon and the text and translation of the New Testament. That’s what makes 40 Questions About The Text and Canon of the New Testament a unique book. Once again, in line with the 40 Questions Series, each chapter is short but quite detailed. If the reader wants to go further, there are always reading suggestions at the end of each chapter.
Some of the chapters in this book are more technical than others. Obviously, I can’t review every one of the 40 questions that are discussed here. But I will provide a review of the chapters that I thought were the most pertinent. This doesn’t mean the other chapters aren’t important and I know some may find other chapters more pertinent than I do.
There has been plenty of debate over textual integrity—the reliability with which an ancient manuscript has been transmitted, copied, and passed down to us through the ages. Thus, I will focus on some of the questions that addresses these issues. I won’t deal with the questions about the canon on the New Testament.
Question #1: Has the New Testament Been Preserved?
Response: It is true that original manuscripts of the New Testament no longer exist. However, the original text contained in those manuscripts has been remarkably preserved. The claim of preservation does not mean that any single manuscript perfectly preserved the original or that any two manuscripts have identical texts. What it means is that the original text may be reconstructed from the readings present in the thousands of manuscripts known today. No serious question remains about the original text of the vast majority of words of the New Testament. – pg 30.
An apologetics issue that needs to be mentioned which isn’t mentioned by the authors: One thing that critics have rightly pointed out is that an abundance of early manuscripts that show accurate transmission doesn’t mean the authors have recorded an accurate event. For example, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, claimed to have received personal revelation from God based on two visions (the first allegedly given to him in 1820, and the second one in 1823). Conceivably, we could have 50,000 early manuscripts recording this event, but that would by no means make Mormonism true. Therefore, other tests for historicity must be considered to establish the authenticity of the event.
Question #2: What Happened to the Original Manuscripts of the New Testament?
Well known textual critic Bart Ehrman says the following:
“What good does it do to say that the words [of the New Testament] are inspired by God if most people have absolutely no access to these words, but only to more or less clumsy renderings of these words? … I kept reverting to my basic question: how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes—sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? … We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.”- (See Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 7.
Response: The New Testament was written in Greek, the common language throughout the first-century Roman Empire. Our English New Testaments are translations of Greek originals and other ancient translations from the Greek. However, originals is a misleading word. We do not have the original New Testament. Rather, we have copies of the originals. The originals are known as the autographs (αυτογραφοι). So we have copies of the original autographs.
Thus, it is true that the autographs on the New Testament no longer exist. They were apparently destroyed one by one during the first few centuries of church history by various means as aging and anti-Christian persecution. Although God did not choose to preserve the autographs miraculously, we can confidently assume that he regards the preservation accomplished through the copying by faithful scribes and the restoration of the text of the New Testament by scholarly activity to be sufficient—pg. 39. Also, the authors note the following statement by David Alan Black, “No one can say why this is so—except that a sovereign God designed it that way.” When we ask, “Why didn’t God preserve the autographs,” we may as well ask, “Why didn’t God write the New Testament in an eternal and universal language so that no translation is necessary?” —pg 39.
Question #3: How Did Errors Enter into the Manuscripts?
Response: We should not find it surprising that scribes made mistakes as they copied the New Testament. They were fallible human beings working with primitive tools and often in difficult conditions. They sometimes accidentally changed the spelling of a word in their exemplars to a spelling with which they were more familiar. They sometimes change spellings intentionally, thinking that they were correcting mistakes in the exemplar. They also made mistakes due to the similar appearance of letters and sounds of vowels or diphthongs. Usually, these errors are spotted, and the original reading can be confidently determined. Often these kinds of errors do not impact the meaning of the text— pg. 47.
A side note: From an apologetics perspective, this can be a problem for those that espouse a dictation theory of inspiration. In this view, one sees God as the author of Scripture and the individual human agents as secretaries or amanuenses taking dictation. Thus, God spoke, and man wrote it down. This view has some merit, since we know there are portions of Scripture in which God essentially says, “Write this down” (e.g., Jer. 30:2), but not all Scripture was created that way. Dictation theory only explains certain portions of Scripture, but not all of it or even most of it. In contrast, in a plenary, verbal, inspiration view, though the human authors were writing it to paper, the Holy Spirit “carried them along” so that what they wrote were the “breathed-out” words of God. So, while the writings retain the personality of the individual authors (Paul’s style is quite different from that of James or John or Peter), the words themselves are exactly what God wanted written. I mention this because I think some Christians view inspiration as similar to what Muslims believe about the Quran. Muslims believe that Gabriel literally dictated the word of God to Muhammad.
I should also note that skeptics such as Ehrman insist that if the New Testament Gospels were truly inspired by God, if they were inerrant in the original manuscripts, then God would have preserved them perfectly through time—even avoiding the insignificant mistakes. (see Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, pgs, 10-11). That is, God would have ensured that his inerrant Word would have been perfectly copied by scribes, such that no errors would occur. For Ehrman, copyists would have been faithful, never inserting their own thoughts or “correcting” what they understood to be mistakes in the original they were copying from. Scribes would never have made slight mistakes, missing a line or a word here and there, misspelling words elsewhere.
In all honestly, it sounds like Ehrman wishes the Bible was transmitted the same way Muslims think the Quran was transmitted to them. It is more of a dictation view. God would end up overruling the free will of countless individuals and turn scribes into robots.
Question #4: How Many Variants Are in the New Testament?
Response: When manuscripts are compared and it is discovered that one manuscript says one thing and another manuscript something different, these differences in the manuscripts are called “textual variants.” The places in the text where variants appear are called “variant units.” For example, important early witnesses end Mark 1:1 after the word “Christ.” Many other manuscripts have the words “son of God” after Christ. The two different readings are textual variants. The ending of Mark 1: 1 (which we might call 1:1c) is the variant unit, the place in the text where the text at which two options appear— pg 68.
There are probably close to 500,000 variants in all the manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. The large number of variants is a direct result of the frequency with which the New Testament was copied and the large number of New Testament manuscripts that have survived today. Many of these variants appear in late manuscripts that do not contribute much to the endeavor of restoring the original Greek New Testament. In the sixteen most important manuscripts available to us less than 100,000 variants appear. About two-thirds of these variants are readings that only appear in a single manuscript or that makes no sense at all and are not worthy of serious consideration in the search for the original text. Many of the remaining variants do not significantly change the meaning of the text—pg. 73.
Question #5: Do the Differences Between the Manuscripts Really Matter?
Response: Textual variants do matter. They sometimes affect the meaning of the text at the level of clauses, sentences, and in rare cases, even paragraphs. Scholarly study of the Bible certainly requires some knowledge of the different readings in the ancient manuscripts and of the reasons for selecting one variant as the probable original readings. Anyone studying the Bible in detail, especially those who preach and teach it, should pay attention to variant readings, how they affect the meaning of a particular passage, and why a particular translation chose a specific variant. However, one must not exaggerate their importance. No essential doctrine of the Christian faith depends on a textual variant that remains in question— pg. 79.
Obviously, the authors discuss these issues and many more in greater length in each chapter. I highly recommend this book!
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback or any specific type of review.