Episode 45: Is the text of the New Testament reliable? Part 2

Dan and Phil finish their conversation about the work of textual critics and what that can tell us about the text of the New Testament that we read today.  They dive into some examples of accidental copying mistakes as well as more deliberate changes that a scribe might make when copying texts.  This is just a brief overview of a vast field of study and so Phil gives some really useful resources at the end that you can use if you want to explore further!

Show Notes

Following on from Part 1 of this conversation, Dan and Phil dive into examples of the different types of changes that can be traced in the manuscripts of the New Testament.

Accidental changes

They first talk about how easy it would be for scribes to make accidental changes to the text during the copying process. A well known example is when scribes miss out sections of the text that sit between similar words or phrases. When their eyes move back and forth from the original to the copy they are writing, it would be easy to accidentally turn attention to a repeated word in the manuscript but inadvertently miss out a sentence or more. (An example of this is Luke 18:38-39 where some manuscripts do not include verse 39).

Phil draws our attention to an amusing example, (from a manuscript known as minuscule 109), where a scribe had an extremely bad day when copying the genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3:23-38. It seems that the scribe failed to realise that the source document he was copying listed the genealogy of Jesus in columns, not rows, and ended up with a very confusing and erroneous family tree! This and all of these accidental changes are traceable, and they make up a large proportion of the variants that we know of. The fact we can be confident in how many of these accidental changes arose means that we can begin to appreciate that the text of the New Testament is reliable.

Deliberate changes

Dan and Phil continue the conversation by discussing deliberate changes that scribes sometimes introduced into the text of the New Testament. That some scribes did this is regularly offered as evidence that we cannot rely on the text of the New Testament, but is this a fair assessment? Can we observe where scribes deliberately altered the text and why they did it?

Phil points out that much of the motivation would not be underhanded, but scribes could easily be misguided whilst attempting to correct what they perceived to be errors. Take, for example, the four gospels. Many events are repeated across the gospels with similar phrases and even verbatim sentences. Scribes sometimes introduced words and phrases from one of the other gospels because they mistakenly believed it to be missing from the manuscript they were copying. Yes, these were deliberate changes, but they weren’t made with malicious intent.

Some changes were introduced into the text with more enigmatic reasons. Dan and Phil mention some of the more notorious examples; The Johannine Comma in 1 John 5:78; the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11; the account in John 5 of the angel stirring the water; and the ending of Mark’s gospel.

Skepticism or certainty about the text of the New Testament?

Phil quotes renowned Textual Critic, Dan Wallace, who says that we need to avoid “radical skepticism” on the one hand and “absolute certainty” on the other. Through the work of textual criticism, we clearly can be certain that a very large percentage of the text of the New Testament has reliably been preserved, it is also true that some parts of the text remain mysteries.

As an example, Dan recalls the passage in Mark 1:40-41 where Jesus addressed a leper who he healed with pity – at least most versions say that. However there is growing manuscript evidence for another variant that has Jesus moved with anger when he was confronted by the leper. This may be puzzling, and it certainly changes the dynamic of the event if that is the genuine description. Why Jesus might have been angry at the situation is something that would need reflection and investigation. But although we can’t actually be sure which is the genuine variant in this text, we are assured that neither version dramatically changes the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament.

Further resources

Phil and Dan share some helpful resources to close off the episode: