Isn't the Bible Full of Errors? – A Look at Textual Variants (Part 1)

Have you ever heard people say that the Bible is full of errors?  What do you think about this claim?  Are they right?

Famous North Carolina Professor Bart Erhman is widely known for his popular books that spew doubt including Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why and Orthodox Corruption of the Scripture.   Erhman is a textual scholar trained at the feet of the late Bruce Metzger, one of the leading textual scholars of the New Testament.  Erhman’s works are wildly popular and cast all sort of doubt on the text of the Bible.  While many skeptics are philosophers or scientists, Bart Erhman is actually a New Testament Greek scholar.  His arguments do not go unanswered.   Daniel Wallace, also a Greek scholar, has answered Erhman in a book Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament

Wallace states “Erhman is fond of saying, that that there are more variants in the MSS [manuscripts] that there are words in the NT [New Testament]” (20).  Wallace estimates that there are between 300,000 and 400,000 variants in the New Testament.  Earlier accounting estimate 200,000 variants.[1]  Variants are differences in the text from one copy to the next.  These can be differences of spelling or phrases.  These differences can be intentional or unintentional.  The broad number of variants is essentially an estimate offered by proofers of the original text.  If there is a spelling difference that occurs in 3,000 manuscripts or copies, they would count 3,000 variants.   The more manuscripts that are discovered over time the higher this number will go.  In the absence of the printing press, spell checkers and computers, it seems reasonable to expect people that hand copied the text to make spelling or wording mishaps.  But, should these variants be considered errors? 

Let’s put variants in perspective.  Consider one of the world’s bestselling books J.R. Tolkein’sThe Lord of the Rings.  Estimates run that there are 150 million copies in print.[2]  Let’s say for discussion that in 100 years from now someone collected 20 million copies and started comparing them.  In each successive printing historians or textual critics could probe the writing with questions. What was the precise date of this particular copy? Did the publisher redact (remove) or insert words?  Did the publisher correct spelling errors?  Were sentences changed or refined?  Are their insertions or deletion in the text?  How different are successive editions to the first printed edition?  A textual critic will attempt to answer these questions.

If, for example, the first printing had 10 spelling errors and they recovered 4 million first printings, this would count as 40 million variants.   With a number as large as 40 million we might think the work is corrupt, dismantled and unintelligible. This number on the surface seems inordinately large given that no humans were involved in the actual transcribing of each copy.  But, that’s not the case at all.  The number must be put in context.  We are talking about 10 spelling errors with multiple copies of that error.  There would be no reason to doubt that you had an original writing with this number of copies.  The point is that the message and wording are intact even if the spelling is not 100% accurate.

Let’s consider another example.  Consider if you discovered eight copies of Homer’s ancient writing knows as the Iliad (c. 800 B.C.).  What if copy one said “Let us ask some driest or prophet, or some reader of dreams . . . .”  Copy two read “Let us ask some priesl or prophet, or some reader of dreams . . . .” What if copies three through five read “Let us ask some priest or prophet, or some reader of dreams . . . .”  Would we have any looming doubt on what the actual rendering should be?  This is merely considering five copies.

We have to be careful that we don’t look at every textual variant as "errors" in the sense of being an obstacle to understanding.  The word “error” can mean false or misleading.  Also the word “error” sometimes casts doubt on the trustworthiness of the message or the message bearer.  Generally in modern language and communication we impart understanding with less than pin point precise English perfection.  We typically don’t become highly suspicious of one who writes “there” when meaning “they’re.”   We typically don’t dismiss people as liars, charlatans, or devils of the worst kind when they use “where” when meaning “wear.”   If we lend this courtesy in modern times, should the same courtesy be lent to ancient Biblical copyists who were copying by hand on parchments or animal skins? 

[1] See pg. 160 of Geisler, Norman and Ron Brooks.  When Skeptics Ask.  Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1990.  Print.   See pg. 96 of Lightfoot, Neil.  How We Got the Bible.  Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2003.

[2], accessed 6-22-16.