Misquoting Jesus

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Misquoting Jesus -- New Testament Textual Criticism
When it comes to New Testament textual criticism, the first few chapters of Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman are generally excellent. They present the academic discipline of “textual criticism” in a simple, easy-to-read format for the lay person. In fact, in my personal journey, I studied much of this same manuscript evidence as a skeptic and found “textual criticism” to be a compelling tool that actually established the credibility of the New Testament.

Of course, Ehrman uses these chapters to lay the foundation for the exact opposite conclusion. Thus, his proposition at the book’s center:

    “With the abundance of evidence, what can we say about the total number of variants known today? Scholars differ significantly in their estimates -- some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more! We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all. Perhaps, as I indicated earlier, it is best simply to leave the matter in comparative terms. There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”1
Ehrman’s chapter-ending statement is absolutely true...and absolutely misleading in the context delivered.

Indeed, there are approximately 138,000 words in the Greek New Testament (NT) and, as stated by Ehrman, there are up to three times as many variants. Initially, this seems shocking, but when we actually examine the textual possibilities, Ehrman’s open-ended statement is quite misleading. Actually, a basic review of mainstream NT textual criticism reveals that most of these variants are totally insignificant, such as word order differences, proper name spellings, and the addition of simple articles and conjunctions.

For example, here are some of the Greek variants for the simple line, “Jesus loves Paul.”2
  1. ‘Ιησούς αγάπα Παυλον -- [Jesus—ee-ay-sus / loves—agapa / Paul—paulan]
  2. ‘Ιησούς αγάπα τον Παυλον -- [Jesus loves the Paul]
  3. ό ‘Ιησούς αγάπα Παυλον -- [The Jesus loves Paul]
  4. ό ‘Ιησούς αγάπα τον Παυλον -- [The Jesus loves the Paul]
  5. Παυλον ‘Ιησούς αγάπα -- [Paul Jesus loves]
  6. τον Παυλον ‘Ιησούς αγάπα -- [The Paul Jesus loves]
  7. Παυλον ό ‘Ιησούς αγάπα -- [Paul the Jesus loves]
  8. τον Παυλον ό ‘Ιησούς αγάπα -- [The Paul the Jesus loves]
  9. αγάπα ‘Ιησούς Παυλον -- [Loves Jesus Paul]
  10. αγάπα ‘Ιησούς τον Παυλον -- [Loves Jesus the Paul]
  11. αγάπα ό ‘Ιησούς Παυλον -- [Loves the Jesus Paul]
Remarkably, these variations only represent a small number of the actual possibilities in Greek. For example, if the sentence used different words for “love” (i.e., φιλεί instead of αγάπα) or if the sentence included a superfluous conjunction such as καιν [also] or μέν [indeed], the potential variations grow significantly. Work in synonyms such as κύριος [Lord] for ‘Ιησούς [Jesus], or extra words such as Χριστός [Christ] or άγιός [holy]), and the list of possible variations that do not impact meaning jumps ten-fold.
    “If such a simple sentence as ‘Jesus loves Paul’ could have so many insignificant variations, a mere 400,000 variants among the NT manuscripts seems like an almost negligible amount.”3
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Footnotes:
1 MISQUOTING JESUS: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Bart Ehrman (HarperSanFrancisco: 2005), 89-90.
2 Please note that word order isn’t important when identifying the subject and object in Greek.
3 Daniel B. Wallace, “The Gospel According to Bart,” retrieved from Bible.org on March 22, 2007: http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=4000. The “Jesus loves Paul” illustration is taken from Daniel B. Wallace, “Laying a Foundation: New Testament Textual Criticism,” in Interpreting the New Testament Text: Introduction to the Art and Science of Exegesis (a Festschrift for Harold W. Hoehner), ed. Darrell L. Bock and Buist M. Fanning (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006).


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