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Agnostic New Testament textual and early Christianity scholar Dr. Bart D. Ehrman states, “For the only reason (I came to think) for God to inspire the Bible would be so that his people would have his actual words; but if he really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he had miraculously inspired them in the first place. Given the circumstance that he didn’t preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn’t gone to the trouble of inspiring them.” Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 211.
New Testament textual scholar Dr. Dirk Jongkind offers a brief response, “God chose not to give us exhaustive knowledge of every detail of the text, though he could have done so. Still, he has given us abundant access to his words. In other words, to say that God inspired the words of the New Testament does not mean that God is therefore under an obligation to preserve for us each and every detail.” – An Introduction to the Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge, Crossway.
Why didn’t God inspire the copyists? Some have clicked on the link here because this question has plagued them, or some Bible critic has challenged them. Therefore, you are looking for the silver bullet to quench your personal concern, or you want to have a ready, quick response for the Bible critic. Draw comfort in that there are hundreds, if not thousands of great responses to attacks from Bible critics that will cause them to move onto another. However, there are good reasons, and rational responses to some questions that will not be fully answered until the second coming. What lies below is the latter. If you want to skip this introductory material, scroll to where the article question is boldened below. However, we recommend that you get the full picture and read the intro.
Some people have unreceptive hearts and minds, they are Pharisaical, and the Word of God, reason, and logic will not get through their callused hearts. If I teach one thing in my 32 years, it is this, identify these people fast, or you will waste much of your life giving reasonable, rational responses to then have the person reject it out of hand and move onto something else as though he never brought it up. Mind you, an angry person, a person with doubts, is not necessarily a Pharisaical person. There are reasons for some to doubt, and there are reasons for some to be angry. If the person is treating you with disdain, mocking, or talking down to you, these and other things are indications of a Pharisaical attitude. The answer is below within the full context of the issue.
Christian Bible students need to be familiar with Old and New Testament textual criticism as two of the most essential foundational studies. Why? If we fail to establish what was originally authored with reasonable certainty, how are we to do a translation or even interpret what we think is the actual Word of God? We are fortunate in that there are far more existing New Testament manuscripts today than any other book from ancient history. This gives New Testament textual scholars vastly more to work within establishing the original words of the text. Some ancient Greek and Latin classics are based on one existing manuscript, while with others, there are just a handful and a few exceptions that have a few hundred available. However, for the New Testament, over 5,898 Greek New Testament manuscripts have been cataloged, 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and an additional 9,300 other manuscripts in such languages as Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic, and Armenian.
While at present here in 2020, there are 5,898 manuscripts. There are 140 listed Papyrus manuscripts, 323 Majuscule manuscripts, 2,951 Minuscule manuscripts, and 2,484 Lectionary manuscripts, bringing the total cataloged manuscripts to 5,898 manuscripts. However, you cannot simply total the number of cataloged manuscripts because, for example, P11/14 are the same manuscript but with different catalog numbers. The same is true of P33/5, P4/64/67, P49/65 and P77/103. Now this alone would bring our 140 listed papyrus manuscripts down to 134. ‘Then, we turn to one example from our majuscule manuscripts where clear 0110, 0124, 0178, 0179, 0180, 0190, 0191, 0193, 0194, and 0202 are said to be part of 070. A minuscule manuscript was listed with five separate catalog numbers for 2306, which then have the letters a through e. Thus, we have the following GA numbers: 2306 for 2306a, and 2831- 2834 for 2306b-2306e.’ – (Hixon 2019, 53-4) The problem is much worse when we consider that there are 323 Majuscule manuscripts and then far worse still with a listed 2,951 Minuscule and 2,484 Lectionaries. Nevertheless, those who estimate a total of 5,300 (Jacob W. Peterson, Myths and Mistakes, p. 63) 5,500 manuscripts (Dr. Ed Gravely / ehrmanproject.com/), 5,800 manuscripts (Porter 2013, 23), it is still a truckload of evidence far and above the dismal number of ancient secular author books.
The other difference between the New Testament manuscripts and those of the classics is that the existing copies of the New Testament date much closer to the originals. In the case of the Greek classics, some of the manuscripts are dated about a thousand years after the author had penned the book. Some Latin classics are dated from three to seven hundred years after the author wrote the book. When we look at the Greek copies of the New Testament books, some portions are within decades of the original author’s book. Sixty-two Greek papyri, along with five majuscules, date from 110 C.E. to 300 C.E.
Distribution of Greek New Testament Manuscripts
- The Papyrus is a copy of a portion of the New Testament made on papyrus. At present, we have 140 cataloged New Testament papyri, many dating between 110-350 C.E., but some as late as the 6th century C.E.
- The Majuscule or Uncial is a script of large letters commonly used in Greek and Latin manuscripts written between the 3rd and 9th centuries C.E. that resembles a modern capital letter but is more rounded. At present, we have 323 cataloged New Testament Majuscule manuscripts.
- The Minuscule is a small cursive style of writing used in manuscripts from the 9th to the 16th centuries, now having 2,951 Minuscule manuscripts cataloged.
- The Lectionary is a schedule of readings from the Bible for Christian church services during the year, in both majuscules and minuscules, dating from the 4th to the 16th centuries C.E., now having 2,484 Lectionary manuscripts cataloged.
We should clarify that of the approximate 24,000 total manuscripts of the New Testament, not all are complete books. There are fragmented manuscripts with just a few verses, but there are manuscripts with an entire book, others with numerous books, and some with the whole New Testament or nearly so. This is to be expected since our oldest manuscripts were copied in an era when copying the whole New Testament was not the norm, but rather a single book or a group of books (i.e., the Gospels or Paul’s letters). This still does not negate the vast riches of manuscripts that we possess.
What can we conclude from this short introduction to textual criticism? There is some irony here, in that secular scholars have no problem accepting the wording of classic authors with their minuscule amount of evidence. However, they discount the treasure trove of evidence that is available to the New Testament textual scholar. Still, this should not surprise us as the New Testament has always been under-appreciated and attacked in some way, shape, or form over the past 2,000 years.
On the contrary, in comparison to classical works, we are overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of existing New Testament manuscripts. We should also keep in mind that seventy-five percent of the New Testament does not even require the help of textual criticism because that much of the text is unanimous, and thus, we know what it says. Of the other twenty-five percent, about twenty percent make up trivial scribal mistakes that are easily corrected. Therefore, textual criticism focuses mainly on a small portion of the New Testament text. The facts are clear: the Christian, who reads the New Testament, is fortunate to have so many manuscripts, with so many dating so close to the originals, with 500 hundred years of hundreds of textual scholars who have established the text with a level of certainty unimaginable for ancient secular works.
After discussing the amount of New Testament manuscripts available, Atheist commentator Bob Seidensticker, writes, “The first problem is that more manuscripts at best increase our confidence that we have the original version. That does not mean the original copy was history ….” That is, Seidensticker is forced to acknowledge the reliability of the New Testament text as we have it today and can only try to deny what it says. He also tells us of the New Testament, “Compare that with 2000 copies of the Iliad, the second-best represented manuscript.” Of those 2,000 copies of the Iliad, how far removed are they from the alleged originals? The Iliad is dated to about 1260–1180 B.C.E. The most notable Iliad manuscripts are from the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries C.E. That would make these manuscripts over 2,000 years removed from their original.
The Range of Textual Criticism
The Importance and scope of New Testament textual criticism could be summed up in the few words used by J. Harold Greenlee; it is “the basic biblical study, a prerequisite to all other biblical and theological work. Interpretation, systemization, and application of the teachings of the NT cannot be done until textual criticism has done at least some of its work. It is, therefore, deserving of the acquaintance and attention of every serious student of the Bible.”
It is only reasonable to assume that the original 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books written first-hand by the New Testament authors have not survived. Instead, we only have what we must consider being imperfect copies. Why the Holy Spirit would miraculously inspire 66 fully inerrant texts, and then allow human imperfection into the copies, is not explained for us in Scripture. We do know that imperfect humans have tended to worship relics that traditions hold to have been touched by the miraculous powers of God or to have been in direct contact with one of his special servants of old. Ultimately, though, all we know is that God had his reasons for allowing the Old and New Testament autographs to be worn out by repeated use. From time to time, we hear of the discovery of a fragment possibly dated to the first century, but even if such a fragment is eventually verified, the dating alone can never serve as proof of an autograph; it will still be a copy in all likelihood.
Pondering. If we ask why didn’t God inspire copyists, then it will have to follow, why didn’t God inspire translators, why didn’t God inspire Bible scholars who author commentaries on the Bible, and so on? If God’s initial purpose was to give us a fully inerrant, authoritative, authentic, and accurate Word, why not adequately protect the Scriptures in all facets of transmission from error: copy, translate, and interpret? If God did this, and people were moved along by the Holy Spirit, it would soon become noticeable that when people copy the texts, they would be unable to make an error or mistake or even willfully change something.
Where would it stop? Would this being moved along by the Holy Spirit apply to anyone who decided to make themselves a copy, testing to see if they, too, would be inspired? In time, this would prove to be actual evidence for God. This would negate the reasons for why God has allowed sin, and human imperfection to enter into humanity in the first place, to teach them an object lesson, man cannot walk on his own without his Creator. God created perfect humans, giving them a perfect start, and they rejected his sovereignty by abusing free will. He did not just keep creating perfect humans again and again, as though he got something wrong. God gave us his perfect Word and has again chosen to allow us to continue in our human imperfection, learning our object lesson. God has stepped into humanity many hundreds of times in the Bible record, maybe tens of thousands of times unbeknownst to us over the past 6,000+ years in order to tweak things to get the desired outcome of his will and purposes. However, there is no aspect of life where his stepping in on any particular point was to be continuous until the return of the Son. Maybe God gave us a perfect copy of sixty-six books and then like everything else, he placed the responsibility of copying, translating, and interpreting on us, just as he gave us the Great Commission of proclaiming that Word, explaining that Word, so as to make disciples. – Matthew 24:14;28-19-20; Acts 1:8.
Reflecting. Some Bible critics seem, to begin with, the belief that if the originals were inspired by God and fully inerrant, the subsequent copies must continue to be inerrant in order for the inerrancy of the originals to have value. They seem to be asking, “If only the originals were inspired, and the copies were not inspired, and we do not have the originals, how are we to be certain of any passage in Scripture?” In other words, God would never allow the inspired, inerrant Word to suffer copying errors. Why would he perform the miracle of inspiring the message to be fully inerrant and not continue with the miracle of inspiring the copyists throughout the centuries to keep it inerrant? First, we must acknowledge that God has not given us the specifics of every decision he has made in reference to humans. If we begin asking, “Why did God not do this or do that,” where would it end? For example, why didn’t God just produce the books himself, and miraculously deliver them to people as he gave the commandments to Moses? Instead of using humans, why did he not use angelic messengers to pen the message, or produce the message miraculously? God has chosen not to tell us why he did not move the copyists along with the Holy Spirit so as to have perfect copies, and it remains an unknown. However, it should be noted that if we can restore the text to its original wording through the art and science of textual criticism, i.e. to an exact representation thereof, we have, in essence, the originals.
As for errors in all the copies we have, however, we can say is that the vast majority of the Greek text is not affected by errors at all. The errors occur in the form of variant readings, i.e., portions of the text where different manuscripts disagree. Of the small amount of the text that is affected by variant readings, the vast majority of these are minor slips of the pen, misspelled words, etc., or intentional but quickly analyzed changes, and we are certain what the original reading is in these places. A far smaller number of changes present challenges to establishing the original reading. It has always been said and remains true that no major doctrine is affected by a textual problem. Only rarely does a textual issue change the meaning of a verse. Still, establishing the original text wherever there are variant readings is vitally important. Every word matters!
It is true that the Jewish copyists and the later Christian copyists were not led along by the Holy Spirit, and therefore their manuscripts were not inerrant or infallible. Errors (textual variants) crept into the manuscripts unintentionally and intentionally. However, the vast majority of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament have not been infected with textual errors. For the portions impacted with textual errors, it is the many tens of thousands of copies that we have to help us to weed out the errors. How? Well, not every copyist made the same textual errors. Hence, by comparing the work of different copyists and different manuscripts, textual scholars, we can identify the textual variants (errors), and remove those, which leaves us with the original content.
Yes, it would be the greatest discovery of all time if we found the original five books penned by Moses himself, Genesis through Deuteronomy, or the original Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However, first, there would be no way of establishing that they were the originals. Second, truth be told, we do not need the originals. We do not need those original documents. What is so important about the documents? Nothing, it is the content on the original documents that we are after. And truly miraculously, we have more copies than needed to do just that. We do not need miraculous preservation because we have miraculous restoration. We now know beyond a reasonable doubt that the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament critical texts are a 99.99% reflection of the content that was in those ancient original manuscripts.
See also: WHY DO WE NOT NEED THE ORIGINAL BIBLE MANUSCRIPTS?
Also, WHAT ARE TEXTUAL VARIANTS [ERRORS], AND HOW MANY ARE THERE?
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 As of January 2016
 Large lettering, often called “capital” or uncial, in which all the letters are usually the same height.
 The numbers in this paragraph are rounded for simplicity purposes.
 25,000 New Testament Manuscripts? Big Deal. – Patheos,
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2013/11/25000-new-testament-manuscrip (accessed November 28, 2015).
 J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1995), 8-9.
 Leading textual scholar Daniel Wallace tells us, after looking at all of the evidence, that the percentage of instances where the reading is uncertain and a well-attested alternative reading could change the meaning of the verse is a quarter of one percent, i.e., 0.0025%
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