Bart Ehrman and the Textual Variants in the New Testament Manuscripts

Samuel Clemens famously quipped, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” These days when I think of Clemens’ quip, Bart Ehrman immediately comes to mind.

Ehrman is fond of pointing out that there are so many variant reading in the New Testament that there are more variants than there are words in the Greek text of the New Testament; a best guess on the quantity of these variants (as I’ve posted already), is between 300,000 and 400,000. That number means that there are at least 3-4 variants for every word.

If that were the end of the story, then that piece of data alone should be enough to make textual critics, who are focused on recovering the original reading of the text, throw up their hands and walk away from their task.

But there is much more to the story…

There are two points that are worth consideration:

The first is seriously simple: we have so many variants because we have so many manuscripts. This is easy to see by comparing the number of textual variants in the NT with the variants for any classical Greek or Latin text. The simple reality is that there aren’t anywhere near as many manuscripts for the classical texts, hence the number of variants is much lower as well. In fact, with practically every new manuscript find, there are new variants to contend with as well. Several ancient authors have only one copy of their work in existence, so therefore there are no variants to contend with. In fact that single copy often has no predecessors between it and the original for almost a millennium! A long manuscript that is 1,000 years distant from its exemplar doesn’t exactly create confidence that the wording of the original has been reproduced perfectly. This is the reason that when Ehrman talks about the number of variants without speaking of the number of manuscripts, it is really just an appeal to sensationalism.

The second is tied to the quip from Clemens above. Probing these numerous variants helps provide us with more context for them than Ehrman seems willing to give.

Just in Greek, there are well over 5,600 manuscripts. Admittedly, many are fragmentary, especially the aged ones, but the average Greek manuscript of the New Testament is about 450 pages long. This means that you have more than 2.6 million pages of text, which leaves hundreds of witnesses for every book in the New Testament.

But there is more than even the Greek manuscripts to this story, there is also the early translations of the Greek text into Latin, Coptic, Georgian, Armenian, Ethopic, Gothic, and Syriac. There are over 10,000 copies in just the Latin translations. The best estimate for the other translations is about 5,000 copies. So that means that there are roughly 20,000 early copies of the Greek New Testament.

But again, that’s not the whole story, either. In addition to the Greek manuscripts and the early translations, we also have the commentaries written by the Early Church Fathers on the New Testament. This is perhaps the most important, and most overlooked, aspect of textual criticism: the patristic evidence. If by some accident all 20,000 of the early Greek and translated manuscripts were destroyed, just based on the patristic citations of the New Testament, we could reconstruct almost all of the New Testament from their quotes, with the exception of about six verses. I’m going to come back to this evidence is just a second…

Taken by itself, those numbers are simply stunning. But taken alone, were still dealing with “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. What’s even more important than tonnage is age. How many manuscripts do we have from the first century after the New Testament was written – or in the second and third century? The numbers are lower, but they are still impressive, nonetheless. Right now, we have one fragment of the Gospel of Mark that is likely from the first century, twelve manuscripts from the second century, 64 from the third century, and 48 manuscripts from the fourth century. So altogether there are 125 manuscripts from within 300 years of the composition of the New Testament. While most of these manuscripts are fragmentary, the whole New Testament text can be found in this collection of manuscripts multiple times.

It is here that the patristic evidence becomes even more important. For the era of textual transmission where the manuscripts are often fragmentary, we have quotations of the text by the Church Fathers. This means that their citations (1) help us fill in the gaps that we’re missing, and (2) provide us with a glimpse into the state of the transmission in their location during their era. This is the reason that lectionary readings and quotations by the Early Church Fathers are so important to textual criticism: they help us fill in the gaps (literally) in the manuscript tradition.

And yet, I have yet to hear Dr. Ehrman mention the patristic evidence at all – not in his debates with James White, Mike Licona, or Dan Wallace.

Why do you think that is?


"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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