Was the text of the NT ‘unstable’ and ‘evolving’?

The BBC started their new series ‘The Beauty of Books’ looking at two epoch-making books, the Winchester Bible (from around 1100) and Codex Sinaiticus, from around 350. Sinaiticus is hugely significant, since it is the earliest complete Bible, and was the fruit of the stability for the Christian faith in the Roman Empire resulting from the Constantinian settlement. (Janet Soskice’s Sisters of Sinai about its discovery is supposed to be a ripping read.) You can view the manuscript for yourself in amazing detail at its website.

The programme highlighted what an extraordinary technical achievement its production was, and along the way noted that the move from scrolls to the ‘codex’ (book) form for literary works was essentially shaped by Christian interests in reading The Book. (For more on this, see Larry Hurtado’s The Earliest Christian Artifacts).

But along the way, the programme also suggested that the discovery of Sinaiticus showed that the text of the New Testament was ‘evolving’ and marked by ‘instability.’ This is part of a wider discussion in the discipline called textual criticism, which is concerned with sifting through the thousands of manuscripts and manuscript fragments we have from the early centuries (which inevitably have minor variations from one another), and from these deciding what the original manuscript (which we do not have) would most likely have said. This is not news to anyone studying the Bible academically, but recently there has been well-publicised debate about what the variants mean, how significant they are, and how we determine what was original.

Chief protagonists in this have been David Parker (who featured on the programme) and Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus, Whose Word Is It? and most recently Jesus Interrupted. Ehrman, as many testify, is witty, engaging and very entertaining (I met him at the SBL conference in November). But he has a clear agenda in demonstrating that the variations in the manuscripts are signs of heated debate about doctrine in the early church, and that the ‘original’ faith was suppressed by the ‘orthodox’—meaning those who won!

From the programme I had these immediate reflections.

  • There is little evidence that the variations in manuscripts were the fruit of doctrinal debate in the way Ehrman and others suggest. There is, however, considerable evidence of early concern to copy texts accurately and faithfully.
  • Everyone agrees that there were many manuscripts in circulation, and this wasn’t really seen as much of a problem, in contrast (for example) to approaches to the history of the Qur’an.
  • This has always been seen as part of the human process of the transmission of Scripture; Christians have always understood Scripture as God’s word in human words, not as a transcription of God’s dictation.

There are some good resources to get into the debate.

The classic introduction to textual criticism academically has for years been Bruce Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament. But an accessible way into the issues is offered by Peter Head’s Grove Booklet How the New Testament Came Together (note the snappy title!).

A couple of years ago I reviewed a response to Ehrman by Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth. It has a light touch, brief but is wide-ranging, and has good footnotes to more detailed works. Don’t believe the Amazon UK reviews! Another good response to Ehrman appears to be Nicholas Perrin’s Lost in Transmission? which I am hoping to read soon. A wider defence of the reliability of the NT is Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus.

http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/ is a website partly supported by Tyndale House in Cambridge. Although it is a technical site for NT specialists, it includes a really helpful review of Misquoting Jesus by the Warden, Peter Williams, a debate between Craig Evans and Bart Erhman in the States, and a debate from Premier Radio (or perhaps, an exchange of views) between Peter Williams and Bart Ehrman.

http://ehrmanproject.com/ is a dedicated website, from other scholars at the same university as Erhman but disagreeing with him (golly!), which seems to include accessible resources engaging with the issues.

For those with stamina, there are detailed technical papers here and here.

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5 thoughts on “Was the text of the NT ‘unstable’ and ‘evolving’?”

  1. Ian
    Since you reference my ‘neighborhood’ here in NC, I thought I would chime in from Duke Divinity School down the road from Ehrman at UNC – where, I can confirm, there are plenty of people who would beg to differ. Of course his expressed interest (and department) is religious studies – not biblical studies.
    I happened to glimpse just now publication of another volume you/your readers might find helpful: Ehrman in dialogue with Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary (‘The Reliability of the NT’ from Fortress press). Blessings from across the pond – Jo

  2. Thanks Jo and Mike for comments from across the Pond! Jo, hope you are all keeping well! And thanks for the reference. I wasn’t sure how eirenic this would be given the protagonists…


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