Welcome to part 2 of our discussion on the reliability of the NT (if you missed last week’s blog, check it out). To begin with, you need to know that none of the original manuscripts of either the Old or New Testaments exist—all that remain are imperfect copies. But this is no different than any other ancient document or classical writer (e.g., Greek or Latin literature). We use reliable copies in our daily lives all of the time (e.g., clocks and yard sticks). In fact, after last week’s blog, we learned that we have far more than any other ancient document to work with.
Now the million dollar question: do we have absolute, 100%, “bomb-proof,” mathematical certainty what the correct reading of the original text of the NT is? The answer to this question is no, we do not. Does that mean we are thrown into utter skepticism regarding the reading of the original New Testament text? Not at all. Here is why. Ehrman in his book Misquoting Jesus claims that there are 400,000 textual errors / textual variants in the NT (i.e., differences between the texts). This claim sounds daunting and scary considering there are only about 140,000 words in the Greek NT. What should we say to this? When textual critic Dan Wallace teaches on this in topic in popular settings, he makes the initial statement that “99% of the textual variants make no difference at all” (Spelling and non-sense errors comprise the vast majority of these; BTW, when I was in graduate school we did some textual criticism exercises, and it was remarkable how easy it was—even for novices—to pick out most of these issues). This means that less than 4000 places (out of the original 400,000 variants) have any legitimate bearing on the translation of the text. So what kind of errors are these? Wallace categorizes them into 4 kinds; I will mention these and leave you to some homework to flesh out the particulars.
Watch Dr. Wallace discuss these issues: http://jesusfactorfiction.com/answer.php?new_testament
1. Spelling differences (the great majority of these variants are spelling 70-80%)
2. Minor differences that involve synonyms or do not affect translation (Greek is an inflected language, so you can say the same thing with several different constructions)
3. Meaningful but not viable differences (e.g., 1 Thess. 2:9 – a late medieval manuscript says “gospel of Christ” instead of “gospel of God,” meaningful difference but not viable because there is little chance one scribe got it right much later and all other scribes got it wrong).
4. Meaningful and viable differences (Less than 1% of variants) Meaningful here is not “earth-shattering” like Jesus was a liar or something…almost all are minor variations (cf. Rom. 5:1 “let us have peace with God” or “We have peace with God” and Mark 9:29 “Casting out demons by “prayer and fasting” or just “prayer”?)
It is important to remember that the reason we have so many variants is because we have so many manuscripts (again a good problem to have!). So when all is said and done, Scholars have achieved a 99.5% copying accuracy of the New Testament (and the remaining issues all have finite options and none of these affect any central doctrine or issue). You can have confidence that what was written then is what we have now—whether you accept the message contained therein is up to.