Challenge Response: Diversity of Evidence Prevents Us from Knowing What Was Written

Here's my response to this week's challenge:


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Today's challenge: “The diversity of manuscript evidence for the New Testament creates problems for us in reconstructing the original text.” 

Let's make this objection a little more powerful. Let's get into the specifics. How many words do you have in the New Testament? You have over 138,000. I think it's 138,162 words in the New Testament. According to a skeptic like Bart Ehrman, in the New Testament manuscript tradition there are 300,000 to 400,000 estimated variations. So, for every one word of the New Testament, you have anywhere from two to three variations.

This this is a problem for Christians who want to reconstruct the New Testament. You have hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of variations amongst the manuscript tradition. Who in the world would have any confidence that we can reconstruct the original? The way to deal with this objection is to move towards it and say, “That's right. That is accurate when it comes to the amount of variation amongst our manuscript tradition.” There are some objections, like this, you want to move towards, because in doing so, you can defang the objection.

So we move towards this and we say, yeah that's right, those are the details, but when you understand the facts surrounding textual criticism – how the New Testament is reconstructed – you actually realize that this is not a problem for the New Testament. This is actually why we have so much confidence in the ability to reconstruct the New Testament.

Scholars and textual critics are going to look at two key criteria when reconstructing any ancient document, not just the New Testament. They're going to look at the time span between when this document was originally written and when we have our first manuscript, our first copies. A second thing they’re going to look at is the number of manuscripts. How many do we have? The more we have, the easier it's going to be to reconstruct the original. The more we have, the more we can compare and contrast these ancient manuscripts to reconstruct the original.

Think if we had zero variations amongst our manuscript tradition for, let's say, the book of Mark. Let's say we just had one single manuscript for the book of Mark. That would leave us with zero variations because there's nothing else to compare it to. But just because we have zero variations in the manuscript tradition, does that mean we have more confidence that we can reconstruct the original? Of course not because we just have one single copy. We have nothing to compare it to. Here's the question: Why do we have so many variations within the New Testament manuscript tradition? It’s because we have so many manuscripts. We have a wealth of manuscripts. In fact, Dan Wallace, New Testament scholar, says we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the manuscript tradition for the New Testament - 2-3 million pages of text.

So, this isn't a problem. This is a huge positive in our favor. It gives us the ability to take those manuscripts and, because we have such a wealth, to accurately reconstruct the original. Of course, as the challenge even mentions, the vast majority of the variations in the manuscript tradition are insignificant variants - things like misspelled words, punctuation, grammar, and word order that are misplaced. Even a skeptic like Bart Ehrman himself says that none of these mistakes have to do with theology or ideology. They're just simple slips of the pen, accidental omissions. Over 99% of the variations are of that nature, and so they don't affect the New Testament text. Because of this, we have so much confidence that what we have is what was originally written.

Brett Kunkle (@brettkunkle) is the founder and president of MAVEN, a movement to equip the next generation to know truth, pursue goodness, and create beauty. He has more than 25 years of experience working with youth and parents. Brett has a master’s degree in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology and co-authored the book A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World.

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Brett Kunkle