By Peter J. Williams
The idea of an inerrant or even an infallible original text of Scripture has been a matter of wide controversy. In part such controversy has merely reflected fundamental divisions over the nature of Scripture, its historical reliability, and the extent and essence of its authority. However, it is the contention here that the controversy has partly been complicated by the multivalence of key terms being used by advocates of inerrancy. This means that, while advocates of inerrancy are carefully presenting nuanced arguments that are exegetically well grounded and logically compelling, there are stumbling blocks to their message other than the sheer offensiveness of a doctrine of inerrancy. Advocates of inerrancy need to adopt clearer terminology to ensure that the doctrine is correctly understood at the popular level. In addition, this essay argues that the burden of proof should be on those who distrust the basic integrity of the New Testament text. The work of Bart D. Ehrman is used to illustrate the problems that can arise through terminological confusion and when the burden of proof is wrongly shifted onto those who maintain the basic integrity of the New Testament text.
Bart Ehrman and the Inerrancy of the Originals
The story of Bart Ehrman has become well known through his autobiographical Introduction to his best-selling book Misquoting Jesus.1 After a conversion experience in his teens, Ehrman studied at two well-known institutions committed to biblical inerrancy: Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. Through his studies, especially subsequently at Princeton Theological Seminary, Ehrman abandoned belief in biblical inerrancy and developed a prominent and successful career as a textual critic. As a leading textual critic and ex-inerrantist he has critiqued the idea of biblical inspiration on many occasions, not least on the ground that it is meaningless to attribute the property of having being inspired to a document (the original) that is now lost.2
From observing the reception of Ehrman's writing and speaking it is clear that in mounting this critique he is touching what for many people is a raw nerve. His message can be summarized as follows: many Christians hold to the absolute authority of the original text of the Bible, but this is lost and they are therefore left with no absolute authority. Or to put it more succinctly: Christians follow something they do not have. This message is clearly attractive to many skeptical of Christianity, and worrying to many adherents of the faith. It appears that not only does Ehrman think that he has correctly represented Christian belief, but also that many Christians believe he has done so too.
I will maintain that in several ways Ehrman's case gains force through the logical fallacy of equivocation, namely the confusing of two separate meanings of the same terms. The key problem seems to be that central terms used in discussing a doctrine of Scripture - terms such as "Bible," "text," and "original" - can have both physical and non-physical meanings.3 The focus of Ehrman's critique can often shift indiscriminately between valid but doctrinally irrelevant assertions that we do not have certain physical documents and doctrinally relevant but historically questionable assertions that we do not have the wording of the New Testament, which is of course non-physical. We consider key terms that may facilitate this confusion.
In addition, Ehrman's case gains force by unwarranted shifting of the burden of proof onto those who wish to maintain the integrity of an ancient text and by focusing on small areas of uncertainty while ignoring large and increasing areas of certainty.4
The Term "Bible"
"Bible" is a multivalent term and a relative newcomer among theological terminology, arguably existing for only about half of church history, and in one of its senses for just over a third. There have been considerable shifts over time in the terms Christians have used for their sacred writings. In English only a few centuries ago "holy writ" and "holy Scripture," or "the Scriptures,"5 were more common. However, the English term "Bible" (variously spelled) has also been used for the best part of a millennium and since at least the fourteenth century has carried two different meanings: the one referring to the collection of books that constitute holy Scripture, the other referring to a physical copy of these books. It is in this latter sense that the secondary plural developed, so that one may talk of a collection of Bibles. The Oxford English Dictionary (s.v.) thus gives the first definition as "The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament" and the second as "A copy of the Scriptures." The term is, of course, derived ultimately from Greek mediated via the Latin plural biblia, which changed into a singular in various Western European languages, facilitated by the fact that Latin biblia could be reanalyzed as a feminine singular and there was no corresponding singular *biblium to prevent this.6 It was only after it had been a singular for some time that a secondary plural developed.
The importance of this is that proponents of biblical inerrancy believe in the inerrancy of the Bible in only one of the two senses of the word "Bible," namely when it refers to the collection of books or Scriptures, not to a physical document containing those books.
Consider the following hypothetical exchange:
Enquirer: Do you believe the Bible is without error?
Enquirer (holds up a particular Bible translation): Is this the Bible?
Enquirer: So you believe that there are no errors in this Bible . . .
Inerrantist: Well, actually there may be errors because it is only a translation of the Bible.
This highlights the awkwardness with which at the popular level it may seem necessary to qualify an initial statement of the inerrancy of Scripture. The exchange has, however, only been possible because of a level of multivalence in the word "Bible." If the exchange were adapted with the word "Scriptures" substituted for "Bible" it is likely that less awkwardness would be felt because the term more obviously puts the focus of discussion on the books as writings rather than on any particular copy or translation, and the enquirer would have had to ask "Is this a copy of the Scriptures?" It would be obvious therefore that one could not dismiss the inerrancy of the Scriptures simply by reference to a physical copy of them. Some people may be put off by the term "inerrancy" through what they perceive as backtracking: the proponent of inerrancy initially makes a bold statement - "the Bible is inerrant" - and then proceeds to list numerous qualifications. This procedure may be necessary, but we should at least consider whether there are alternatives.
There seems to have been a shift over time toward use of the term "Bible," particularly in popular parlance, and this results in a mismatch between the terms used in doctrinal definition and those used in common Christian parlance. As an example of technical discourse we may take the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.7 This statement uses the term "Scripture" fifty-seven times and the term "Scriptures" fourteen times (four times each qualified as "holy"). By contrast it uses the term "Bible" a mere sixteen times, "biblical" seven times, and "biblically" once. However, in the culture at large the proportions are rather different, and when large corpora of English are searched we see that the term "Bible" clearly now predominates over "Scripture" or "Scriptures":8
Occurrences in large corpora
American English British English
sg. pl. sg. pl.
Bible 11009 572 1941 106
Scripture 2399 1005 390 290
To illustrate the growth of the term "Bible" through time we may note that articles of faith dealing with Scripture in historic Reformed confessions entirely lack the word "Bible."9 However, more recent evangelical statements of faith show a tendency to include this word. An example of this shift can be seen in the widely used doctrinal basis of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF; formerly Inter-Varsity Fellowship) in the UK. The article on Scripture had originally read:
The divine inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given, and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.10
But when the article was revised for the sake of modernization it was replaced with the following:
The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.11
"Scripture" was replaced by "Bible," which is obviously intended in the sense of the OED's first meaning - the "Scriptures of the Old and New Testament." The change of wording therefore involves no shift in primary referent, but it does at least facilitate a shift of focus, since the new term introduced, namely "Bible," is multivalent and allows a focus on the physical object rather than on the words of the books themselves.
Although this shift does not by itself cause Ehrman's arguments to work, it does allow them to gain rhetorical force. After all, his contention appears to be that Christians adhere to a holy book they do not have, and the proof that they do not have it is the lack of a physical copy of the book. If Christians more widely spoke of the "inerrancy of the Scriptures" or the "inerrancy of Scripture" I imagine that Ehrman might find the target at least a little harder to hit.
The Term "Original"
A further term that provides ammunition for Ehrman is the word "original."12 Of course, in the time of John Owen or Matthew Henry, "original" could mean simply "origin," especially in the phrase "divine original," but it is no longer used in this way. However, when the word "original" is used in an unqualified way adjectivally we must ask what noun is implied. Are we to understand it as original language (or tongue), original text, or original manuscript? Whatever noun we supply it is clear that earlier writers wrote about the original as something they possessed. For instance, commenting on 1 Corinthians 16:11 Matthew Henry says
Conduct him forth in peace, that he may come to me, for I look for him with the brethren (v. 11); or I with the brethren look for him (the original will bear either), ἐκδέχομαι γὰρ αὐτὸν μετὰ τῶν ἀδελφῶν.13
Clearly Henry knew that he did not have the original manuscript (autograph), so we can eliminate that as a possible meaning for what he said. It seems that for him, as for many earlier writers, "original" was defined by contrast with what was translated. "Original" was not an absolute term; it could be made absolute by speaking of the first original.14
By contrast with Henry who saw the original as something he possessed, we have Ehrman who takes it to be something lost. In writing of his own struggle with inerrancy he says:
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? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? 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.15
This is a fairly confused section. Ehrman claims that we do not have the words God inspired, but he has not demonstrated that to be the case. If John the Evangelist or his amanuensis wrote the letter sequence εναρχηηνολογος (John 1:1) then we have the words he wrote, whether we have the words in our minds or in a modern printed edition. One thing that Ehrman never seems to do is to attempt to show that we do not have (either in our minds or in manuscripts) all of the words that the authors wrote. In fact, the situation for the New Testament text is that there are no words that are known or even widely believed by textual critics to be missing from the New Testament text.16
Though Ehrman does show what is widely known, namely that there are variants in the manuscripts, this does not amount to a demonstration that we do not have the words God inspired. To do this he would have at least to demonstrate that some words that were alleged to be inspired have been lost, and at most to demonstrate that all words that were alleged to be inspired have been lost.
Then when he glosses the word "autographs" with the explanation "originals" it is clear that he is using the word "original" in a different sense from Henry. Clearly he means a physical entity - an actual manuscript. The problem here is that it is to misrepresent Christian belief to suggest that a physical manuscript was somehow inspired by God. Rather it was the words on the manuscript that, according to Christian belief, were inspired. Most importantly, when the sequence of words found on the autograph is copied onto another manuscript it does not become less inspired through being copied or written out a second time (Exod. 34:1; Jer. 36:28) and Scripture even allows for Scripture to be lost for a time (2 Kgs. 22:8). In other words, Ehrman has simply mistaken what a Christian doctrine implies.17
A further difference between Henry and Ehrman is probably one of the burden of proof. Given that Ehrman does not distinguish clearly between the first manuscript and the wording on the first manuscript, we have to reconstruct his view. However, he frequently states that we have only "copies of the copies of the copies of the originals."18 This implies a contrast between "original" and "copy," which probably would not make sense of what Henry says. Moreover, it seems that whereas Henry assumes that the words transmitted to him are those of the autograph unless shown otherwise, Ehrman takes the view that the words of a copy cannot be supposed to be those of the autograph under any circumstance. We will return to this below.
The Term "Text"
Aside from its recently acquired meaning of "text message," the word "text" is used in popular parlance both of a physical entity, an artifact with writing on it, and of the non-physical entity of writing abstracted from its physical context. In strict technical parlance it normally means the non-physical entity alone.19
Ehrman uses Galatians as a prime example of the problem of the idea of an original text. He says:
Even at the point of the original penning of the letter, we have numerous difficulties to consider, which may well make us sympathetic with those who want to give up on the notion of knowing what the "original" text was. Galatia was not a single town with a single church; it was a region in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in which Paul had established churches. When he writes to the Galatians, is he writing to one of the churches or to all of them? Presumably, since he doesn't single out any particular town, he means for the letter to go to all of them. Does that mean that he made multiple copies of the same letter, or that he wanted the letter to circulate to all the churches of the region? We don't know.20
Ehrman's example may not be well chosen, since Paul's call to recognize his extra-large handwriting (Gal. 6:11) most likely points to a single physical document being taken round the churches. But Ehrman's point is this: for some works it is likely that there was more than one "original text" and that in any case we cannot now have the original text or know what it was. Since Ehrman connects any conception of inerrancy with the idea of an original text (as he understands it) the non-existence of the original text makes inerrancy untenable.
From a rather different angle A. T. B. McGowan complains about the emphasis on the autographa, which we do not possess, in Warfield's doctrine of Scripture. He says,
The second argument against inerrancy concerns the emphasis placed on the autographa by those in the Warfield tradition. If textual inerrancy is so vital to the doctrine of Scripture, why did God not preserve the autographa or precise copies of the same? Indeed, if inerrancy only applies to the autographa (which we do not possess), then surely it is a somewhat pointless affirmation? Everyone accepts that there are errors in the extant manuscripts and translations. What is the point of insisting that there once existed (very briefly) perfect versions of these texts, if we no longer possess them? Those who emphasize the inerrancy of the autographa are thus faced with a difficult question: "What was the point of God acting supernaturally to provide an inerrant text providentially if it ceased to be inerrant as soon as the first or second copy was made?"21
Though Ehrman and McGowan have very different perspectives on the scriptures they have in common a perception that supporters of inerrancy attribute inerrancy to something we do not have, namely the original text or autograph. Since Ehrman never engages with formal statements of evangelical doctrine, we may surmise that he is responding to evangelical doctrine as he perceived it during his youthful days as an evangelical. In the case of McGowan he is specifically responding to "those in the Warfield tradition." In this latter case it might at least be worth raising an initial query as to whether the question of the autographs is really so prominent within the Warfield tradition. At least in the case of Warfield himself the core ideas to which he returns are revelation and inspiration, not the original text, and it would be quite wrong to say that he holds, in McGowan's words, that "inerrancy only applies to the autographa."
When Warfield did come to define a text in his Textual Criticism of the New Testament it is clear that he held to the immaterial definition of text. In fact he chose to open his book, remarkable for its lack of explicit theology, with a definition of "text" that runs for more or less four pages. The book begins:
The word "text" properly denotes a literary work, conceived of as a mere thing, as a texture woven of words instead of threads. It designates neither, on the one side, the book which contains the text, nor, on the other side, the sense which the text conveys. It is not the matter of the discourse, nor the manner of it, whether logical, rhetorical, or grammatical. It is simply the web of words itself. It is with this understanding that the text of any work is concisely defined as the ipsissima verba of that work.22
After explaining the origins of the word "text" Warfield goes on to say:
There is an important distinction, however, which we should grasp at the outset, between the text of a document and the text of a work.23
The text of a document is the words on that document; the text of a work is "what ought to be the ipsissima verba of all the documents or copies that profess to represent it, - it is the original, or, better still, the intended ipsissima verba of the author. It may not lie in the document before us, or in any document. All existing documents, taken collectively, may fail to contain it. It may never have lain, perfect and pure, in any document. But if an element of ideality thus attaches to it, it is none the less a very real thing and a very legitimate object of search.24
Shortly later he says:
Such are the limitations of human powers in reproducing writings, that apparently no lengthy writing can be duplicated without error. Nay, such are the limitations of human powers of attention, that probably few manuscripts of any extent are written exactly correctly at first hand. The author himself fails to put correctly on paper the words that lie in his mind.25
What is striking here is that Warfield shows full awareness of all of the arguments that over a century later Ehrman would use as objections to inerrancy. However, it is important not to mistake what Warfield believes. In the penultimate quotation he uses the word "original" and then states his preference for the synonymous phrase "the intended ipsissima verba of the author." Warfield makes it clear that this phrase was "better still" than "original." Thus it would hardly go against the flow of Warfield's thought to dispense with the word "original" entirely. Moreover, since Warfield states so clearly that these intended ipsissima verba of a work may never have existed in a physical copy, this opens the question as to whether a follower of Warfield would need to believe that the intended words of divine Scripture ever needed to have existed in their perfect and exact form in an actual document at the time of the human author in order for the necessary conditions of the making of Scripture to have been fulfilled.
If so, then McGowan's suggestion that followers of Warfield put emphasis on the autographa is not relevant for Warfield himself. An autograph is a physical entity. The text of an autograph is not only immaterial, but is also the text of a document. By Warfield's definition, the text of a document should not necessarily be equated with the text of a work of literature.
Here Warfield, though not mentioning the doctrine of Scripture, or even the text of the New Testament, shows full awareness of the view that to speak thus of the text of an author may seem idealistic. Yet his emphasis on the text as an immaterial entity that need not have a physical manifestation is hardly just an example of Platonism in theology (not that having echoes of Plato necessarily means that a view is wrong!). There are a number of biblical texts suggesting the primacy of the immaterial word over its physical copy. The Ten Words (Ten Commandments) were given orally first, and then in written form. When the only physical copy of the Ten Words was destroyed by Moses (Exod. 32:19), this did not make the words cease to exist or become uninspired; they were simply given again (Exod. 34:27-28). When Joshua spoke (to others or himself) the text of the book of the law, then the book was said to be in his mouth (Josh. 1:8). The book was wherever it was spoken, even though a physical copy might be absent. Similarly God's words to Jeremiah were clearly inspired before being written down (Jer. 36:18), and could not be destroyed even if one eliminated all physical copies of them (Jer. 36:28). In a rather different way John 1:1 and 1:14 stress the existence of word prior to physical form. In other words, Ehrman's insistence that inspiration is not a meaningful belief unless one can produce to him a perfect physical copy of a text not only fails to recognize that Christian doctrines are not focused on physical copies, but also makes a rather arbitrary insistence on the necessity of a physical copy of God's words in Ehrman's own vicinity.
The focus on the immaterial nature of God's words also accords with modern studies of orality in the ancient world including the Old Testament. Ancient reading was generally out loud,26 and our tendency to see the written in opposition to the oral is not therefore appropriate. Oral communication may exist without writing, but written communication did not generally exist without oral communication. So while writing is important to spread and transmit God's words, there is no sense in which God's words become more inspired by virtue of being written down.
All this means that Warfield with his stress on the significance of the intended wording of the author is a very long way from stressing the significance of a physical lost document as he has sometimes been understood to have emphasized.
We have seen so far that three of the key terms used in discussion of the inerrancy of Scripture, namely "Bible," "original," and "text," suffer from multivalence, and that there is a danger in each case that friend or foe of inerrancy alike may understand inerrancy to apply to one of these terms in a meaning that is not appropriate. One of the results of this discussion is that we can see that any emphasis that attributes inerrancy to a document (physical entity), rather than to the text of a document, is misguided. However, even the text on a document needs to be distinguished from the text of a work. It is to the text of the work, not of the document, that inerrancy applies. Therefore it is wrong to see inerrancy as having an emphasis on a physical entity that we no longer have.
The Burden of Proof: Do We Have the Wording or Not?
Having established that it is the wording, not the physical autographa, that matters, we need to consider whether or not we can have confidence that we have the wording of Scripture. This is partly a question of epistemology and of the burden of proof. Between the time of Matthew Henry and Bart Ehrman there clearly has been a significant shift from emphasizing what we have to what we do not have. For Ehrman it appears that one does not have the authorial wording until a proof is produced that one does have it. One also wonders whether there could ever be a proof that would demonstrate to Ehrman's satisfaction that we had the authorial wording. On the other hand, Henry seems to hold to the position that what is brought to him by the testimony of manuscript witnesses is the authoritative wording. To dissuade Henry of this position we may imagine it would be necessary to adduce actual manuscript testimony.
Although the position of believing that what you have received is the intended wording of the author may appear more credulous than not believing it to be so, we may at least notice one difference between these approaches. Those who actively refuse to believe the wording to be that of the author and prefer to remain agnostic, are in an epistemically invulnerable position. This may seem to be its strength, but it is also a weakness since it means that no amount of textual evidence could ever move one from agnosticism to active belief. Their approach thus allows little room for falsification.
A further disadvantage with the skeptical position is that it has no (or little) forfeit if it is wrong. In most areas of life, such as investments or medicine, there are consequences both to right and wrong beliefs. However, in the discipline of history as now conceived skepticism is not penalized, but actively encouraged. Thus whereas there is a potential benefit or loss for an investor involved with adopting both the belief that the market will go up and the belief that it will go down,27 for the historian there is a quite disproportionate loss of reputation for affirming something to be true when some doubt remains and no loss of reputation for disbelieving something when there is some limited evidence for its truth.
In addition we may note that Ehrman is unreasonably demanding proof concerning a negative if he asks others to demonstrate that the text has not changed, and in this case the negative is not possible to prove. When we work from the manuscript evidence we actually have, we observe the point made by both Warfield and Ehrman (among many others) that when a document of any significant length is made by copying, it is likely that errors are introduced. However, when we take the history of transmission we also see that the rate of introduction of errors, even in the earliest centuries, is not such that it creates a situation in which any part of the wording of the work is more likely to have been changed through transmission than preserved. Whether we work from late-fifteenth-century manuscripts of the New Testament and measure the rate of change from earlier documents, or consider the range of difference among the very earliest papyri and versions, we see that change in the wording through transmission is generally rarer than stasis.
In general, then, the presumption that we have the authorial wording until evidence arises to the contrary seems a more reasonable position than to refuse to believe that we have the authorial wording until an impossibly high level of proof be obtained that we do. The rational status of belief in the correctness of the text is that of a disprovable presumption.
However, one can put the case for textual reliability much more strongly than this. Here we simply outline a number of different lines of argumentation that can be used to establish a high degree of confidence in our knowledge of the authorial wording of the New Testament.
It is possible to use many forms of a fortiori argumentation based on high levels of scholarly confidence of the wording of other ancient or classical works. In an overwhelming number of cases witnesses for the books of the New Testament outstrip other ancient works in number, geographical diversity, and age. The New Testament text also shows up in a great variety of material forms: papyrus, parchment, paper, stone, pottery; codex and scroll; majuscule and minuscule; continuous text, lectionary, and extract.
The New Testament writings are also almost invariably attested in a greater variety of languages than other ancient writings. For instance, John's Gospel existed in eight different dialectal versions of Coptic,28 and in two pre-Jerome Latin versions,29 the Vulgate, and in the Old Syriac and Peshitta versions, to mention early versions in just three languages. In the case of other ancient writings any one of these versions would, on its own, be taken to give scholars a reasonable level of confidence as to the content of a work.
In addition to manuscripts and translations (versions) we have extensive quotation of the New Testament by church fathers.
Any one of the three main categories of witness (Greek manuscript, versions, church fathers) on its own would be sufficient to be able to have detailed discussions of matters such as the grammatical style of the authors. Taken together these provide a mass of data allowing us to reach rational conclusions about how texts were transmitted. When we consider how we know texts were transmitted based on actual evidence, and extrapolate the same processes back into the short period before our earliest witnesses, we do not reach radical uncertainty about the wording of the books of the New Testament.
We are able to make a number of genealogical observations about the interrelationship of witnesses and thereby trace the occurrence of errors in manuscripts and discount them from the editions that we make.
The existence of manuscripts such as P52 and P90, containing parts of John 18 dating from the second century and coming from Egypt, suggests that large numbers of copies of parts of the New Testament were made in a short time. It would be logistically almost impossible for anyone to enter systematic changes into the text of any book once a significant multiplicity of copies was spread over a wide area.
For those who express confidence in their ability to reconstruct sources of the Old or New Testaments (e.g., Q as a Gospel source), an a fortiori case can be made for confidence in our knowledge of the text of the New Testament.
The history of the study of the wording of the New Testament gives us a high degree of confidence in that wording. The printed wording of the first Greek New Testament of Erasmus, based on seven manuscripts from the twelfth century or later, and on no more than four in any one instance, is relatively speaking reasonably close to the wording of modern critical editions. This means that the text that would be produced if we disposed of nearly five centuries of discovery would still be relatively similar to the modern text. In broad terms, if one were to dispose of our earliest 5,000 or so witnesses and then to make a critical text based on what remains, the difference between the text thus produced and critical editions such as the Nestle-Aland 28th edition would probably be less than the difference between the Textus Receptus of Erasmus and the Nestle-Aland edition.
The text of the New Testament does not depend on any single witness. We could ignore a favorite witness such as Codex Sinaiticus from the fourth century. How much would this change our text? The answer can be found by considering the edition that Tregelles made of Matthew and Mark, which differs relatively little from the Nestle-Aland edition. In fact, the editions of Tregelles, Tischendorf, and Eberhard Nestle were made without knowledge of the papyri that are now important for the text of the New Testament. Nevertheless, their editions do not differ greatly from those in the later twentieth century (Nestle-Aland 26th edition), which are made using knowledge of such papyri. Thus we can say that even the discovery of quite important witnesses makes only a small impact on the shape of the New Testament text in contemporary editions.
If one had grounds for rational confidence in the text in the sixteenth century, when the gap between the earliest available manuscripts and the time of composition of the New Testament was over one millennium, a fortiori one may have confidence now that the gap is a mere 250 years at most for any part of the New Testament and usually much less.
The history of textual criticism also gives us confidence because the discovery of significantly earlier evidence has not added new large points of uncertainty in the New Testament text. This being the case, the assumption that yet further evidence would not reveal new uncertainties about the New Testament is justified. Doubts about Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53–8:11 have been known in parts of the church since patristic times. The same applies to many smaller disputed passages. The vast increase in number and age of manuscripts over the last four centuries has not added more passages of uncertainty.30 This leads naturally to the prediction that, based on the evidence we have already collected, we do not anticipate that new discoveries are likely to throw up previously unknown uncertainties about passages of significant length.
Ehrman's own text-critical and exegetical work often depends on his being able to establish one form of the text as prior to the others. In fact the text that Ehrman affirms differs relatively little from that found in modern editions of the Greek New Testament.
Although Ehrman's soundbite the "Orthodox Corruption of Scripture" has been widely received, he has in fact demonstrated how little deliberate corruption went on. The number of examples of deliberate corruption that he alleges is rather limited, and we must remember that Ehrman brings these examples together from all manuscripts. Without even allowing for the fact that many of his examples may in fact be wrong,31 it is amazing to find so few cases even of possible deliberate corruption when searching across so many manuscripts. Thus Ehrman's own research shows how overwhelmingly scribes did not seek deliberately to change the text.
When we are dealing with our uncertainties as to the identity of the original text, we are dealing with known unknowns.
The Possibility of Translation
It is often suggested that the need for translation is a significant objection to any doctrine of the inspiration of the original wording. As Ehrman says,
If he [God] wanted his people to have his words, surely he would have given them to them (and possibly even given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew).32
Behind this seems to be the suggestion that something significant is lost in translation, but even Christians may wonder what is the use of believing in an inerrant autographic wording if most believers are not able to read that wording. Are advocates of inerrancy putting undue emphasis on a purely theoretical entity that has no bearing on most believers?
The strange thing behind Ehrman's suggestion above is that Christians believe that God has given people words in languages they can understand because God has allowed his word to be translated. God's word (singular) does not cease to be his word in translation, though one cannot speak of his words (plural) in translation in the same way. As for the suggestion that God might give words in multiple modern languages so that people would understand them, this would run foul of Ehrman's objection that a doctrine of inspiration is meaningless unless there's a single fixed wording. Thus Ehrman's objections do not appear to be internally consistent.
In response to this contemporary Angst about the possibility of translating the scriptures we may say the following:
Since at least the third century b.c.e., there has been belief in the value of translating Old Testament scripture. New Testament authors quote in Greek Old Testament scriptures originally written in Hebrew as having direct application to their Greek-speaking hearers (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:9-10).
Many translations such as the kaige revision of parts of the Old Testament, Aquila, the Targumim, the Harclean Syriac have involved both the conviction of the value of translation and simultaneously a strong affirmation of the value of the wording of the original language. Thus affirming translation does not involve denying the authority of the original.
There seems to be no comparable contemporary Angst about the value of translating other texts, as if books and films lose their purpose or effect in translation.
Uncertainty in one area of translation does not spill over into all areas of translation. We regularly appreciate films or literature or follow instructions even though, for whatever reason, we have missed part of the information given. We recognize that the significance of what we have missed is limited.
When we are dealing with unresolved questions of translation we are dealing with known unknowns.
The sorts of criticisms that Ehrman has made of inspiration are significant and require response. However, the fact that the critique has resulted in part from misunderstanding should also goad inerrantists to check that their own formulations have been as clear as they can be. The contention here is that they have not, and that we need to engage in debate as to what terms might serve well at both the popular and the scholarly level in the future. These are my initial proposals:
Where possible we should seek to make the older terms "Scripture" and "Scriptures" more current rather than the term "Bible" when speaking of the doctrines of inspiration and revelation since Scripture and Scriptures have a narrower focus and avoid physical associations.
We should avoid the term "text." This can be replaced by "wording" since, again, "wording" avoids the physical focus. It is easier for someone to deny that we have the original text (which might mean original document) than it is for them to deny that we have the original wording.
However, even the word "original" has its ambiguities, having earlier been used in opposition to a translation. In some instances it may be possible to replace this by the word "authorial," so that we might speak of "authorial wording" rather than "original text."
We should not speak of text of the autographa, but of wording on the autographa, or use other similar formulations that distinguish clearly between the message and the physical carrier of the message.
The purpose of all of these proposals is not merely to use precise language for doctrinal formulation among theologians, but also to introduce a shift of emphasis in common Christian parlance away from formulae that suggest or emphasize that we believe in the inerrancy of something nonexistent. The Word of God does not die or age when it is copied, nor is it less powerful when it is spoken without reference to a physical copy. It is not made less certain by our uncertainty as to its identity, nor is there a compelling reason why our own uncertainty as to the identity of one part of it should make us uncertain as to the identity of another part.
1 Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 1-15; UK edition: Whose Word Is It? The Story Behind Who Changed the New Testament and Why (London: Continuum, 2006). Ehrman also puts a personal testimony of his deconversion at the beginning of his other popular titles: God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question - Why We Suffer (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 1-15; Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know about Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), ix-xi, 15-18; and Forged: Writing in the Name of God - Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 1-5. There is at least as much tension between these different narratives as there is between the different synoptic portrayals of Jesus.
2 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 211.
3 The seeds of some of these thoughts are expressed in an online review of Misquoting Jesus located at http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2005/12/review-of-bart-ehrman-misquoting-jesus_31.htm and in various postings on http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com.
4 Evidently during Ehrman's evangelical days he believed that "objective proofs" for the faith must exist, and he seems to have understood the term "proof" in a hard sense (Ehrman, Forged, 4). Thus Ehrman has probably ascribed an unwarranted burden of proof to Christianity since before his deconversion. There is no evidence in Ehrman's writings that while being an adherent he ever properly understood either (a) evangelical doctrines of Scripture, or (b) classic evangelical epistemologies.
5 Capitalization, though there have been some significant shifts in usage over the centuries, is ignored here.
6 Max Pfister, Lessico Etimologico Italiano (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 1984-), 5:1467-68, knows of just one occurrence of the singular biblium.
7 The problem with the name of this statement and of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy is not one of content, but of branding. If "Bible" has two meanings then "biblical" is capable of relating to both of these meanings and as said earlier it is only in one of these two meanings that "Bible" may properly be said to be inerrant. A related issue is the definite article: "the Bible" is more generally used synonymously with "the Scriptures" whereas "a Bible" almost always designates a copy of the scriptures, which may contain some errors. Of course, we may defend the use of the term "biblical" by claiming that it generally relates to the Bible as a work, not to a Bible as a document.
8 Based on searches on 7 May 2010 of the British National Corpus, www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk, containing about 100 million words, and the Corpus of Contemporary American English, www.americancorpus.org, containing over 400 million words. I discuss the term "Bible" further in "The Bible, the Septuagint, and the Apocrypha: A Consideration of Their Singularity," in Studies on the Text and Versions of the Hebrew Bible, ed. G. A. Khan and Diana Lipton (Leiden: Brill, 2012).
9 Joel R. Beeke and Sinclair B. Ferguson, eds., Reformed Confessions Harmonized: With an Annotated Bibliography of Reformed Doctrinal Works (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 10-19.
10 http://www.ciccu.org.uk/docbasis.php, accessed 15 June 2010. The Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union preserves the earlier form and calls it the doctrinal basis of the UCCF, without showing awareness that UCCF has officially adopted revised wording.
11 http://www.uccf.org.uk/about-us/doctrinal-basis.htm, accessed 15 June 2010.
12 The field of textual criticism has been widely influenced by Eldon J. Epp's article "The Multivalence of the Term ‘Original Text' in New Testament Textual Criticism," HTR 92 (1999): 245-81, so that the term "original text" is now generally avoided. Many of Epp's objections to the term, based on the works of Helmut Koester, Bart D. Ehrman, and William L. Petersen, are unconvincing if one is not already convinced of the models of early Christianity proposed by those scholars. For instance, part of the evidence cited from Koester (Epp, "Multivalence," 256) is that his comparisons of the Secret Gospel of Mark and canonical Mark help him to discern an earlier form of Mark behind canonical Mark. But if the Secret Gospel of Mark is in some way inauthentic then this is hardly a firm foundation on which to question the notion that there was an original text. My objection to the term "original text" is not the conviction that there was no original text, but that the expression itself is unclear.
13 Matthew Henry, An Exposition of the New Testament, vol. 8 (London: William MacKenzie, n.d.), 156. Cf. also the statement in the KJV preface: "The translation of the Seuentie dissenteth from the Originall in many places."
14 For instance, Matthew Poole, Annotations on the Holy Bible (1685; repr. as Commentary on the Holy Bible [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1962]), commenting on Genesis 6:15 and arguing that all the creatures would have been able to fit on Noah's ark, says "That the differing kinds of beasts and birds, which unlearned men fancy to be innumerable, are observed by the learned, who have particularly searched into them, and written of them, to be little above three hundred, whereof the far greatest part are but small; and many of these which now are thought to differ in kind, in their first original were but of one sort, though now they be so greatly altered in their shape and qualities, which might easily arise from the diversity of their climate and food, and other circumstances, and from the promiscuous conjunctions of those lawless creatures" (emphasis added).
15 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 7.
16 The situation for the New Testament is somewhat different than for the Old, where it is widely held that wording is missing from a text such as 1 Samuel 13:1. For those who want to argue that some wording has been lost from the New Testament, the suggestion that an earlier ending of Mark's Gospel was once located after 16:8 surely provides a showcase. However, even in this case many scholars are convinced that the Gospel ended at 16:8 and there are no patristic sources that are clearly quoting lost wording. So while one cannot prove that nothing has been lost, equally one cannot prove that something has been.
17 In addition to the problems noted here the word "original" has seemed to some less appropriate for the Old Testament, where it has not appeared adequately to allow for even minor editorial activity after composition (see Michael A. Grisanti, "Inspiration, Inerrancy, and the OT Canon: The Place of Textual Updating in an Inerrant View of Scripture," JETS 44 : 577-98). The problem can in part be reduced by remembering that original earlier was used in opposition to a translation and by recognizing that both final and original can refer to the same stage of a text.
18 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 10.
19 Dictionaries, e.g. OED, Collins Dictionary of the English Language (2nd edition) appear understandably reluctant to admit this physical meaning. However, one can find numerous examples on the Internet where text is used to denote a physical object, e.g., "he held a text in his hand" (Catherine McGregor, "Bring It to Life: Youth Performing Socio-Politically in a Northern Urban Environment" [Ph.D. dissertation, Simon Fraser University, 2007], 358 [http://ir.lib.sfu.ca/bitstream/1892/4202/1/etd2800.pdf, accessed 18 June 2010]), or "the text weighed over ten pounds" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hendrik_Christian_Andersen; accessed 18 June 2010).
20 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 58.
21 A. T. B. McGowan, The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging Evangelical Perspectives (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007), 109.
22 B. B. Warfield, Textual Criticism of the New Testament (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1889), 1.
23 Warfield, Textual Criticism, 2.
24 Warfield, Textual Criticism, 3-4. Similarly, John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 243, says "what is at issue is not primarily the autographic document, but the autographic text. The text is a linguistic object that can be found in any number of physical media."
25 Warfield, Textual Criticism, 7.
26 For classical references see Annette Weissenrieder and Robert B. Coote, The Interface of Orality and Writing: Speaking, Seeing, Writing in the Shaping of New Genres, WUNT 260 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), x.
27 I am aware that for hedge fund managers the forfeits do not depend on the rises or falls in the market, but the point still holds that there are consequences, including forfeits, for unwise choices.
28 C. H. Askeland, John's Gospel: The Coptic Translations of Its Greek Text (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012).
29 Philip Burton, The Old Latin Gospels: A Study of Their Texts and Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 74.
30 Gesa Schenke, "Das Erscheinen Jesu vor den Jüngern und der Ungläubige Thomas: Johannes 20,19-31," in Coptica - Gnostica - Manichaica: Mélanges offerts à Wolf-Peter Funk, ed. Louis Painchaud and Paul-Hubert Poirier (Louvain: Peeters, 2006), esp. 902, argues that a Coptic manuscript (Ms Copt e150p from the Bodleian Library in Oxford) might possibly be a witness to a Greek text of John's Gospel without John chapter 21. However, an unpublished critical analysis of the manuscript has suggested that this is most unlikely: Christian Askeland, "Was There a Coptic Translation of John's Gospel without Chapter 21?," paper presented at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, Christianity in Egypt: Scripture, Tradition, and Reception section (21 November 2009).
31 For instance, I argue that his claim that orgistheis was deliberately corrupted into splanchnistheis in Mark 1:41 is unwarranted in "An Examination of Ehrman's Case for orgistheis in Mark 1:41," NovT 54 (2012): 1-12.
32 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 11.