Textual Variants Aren’t a Problem

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 01/10/2015

For the past two days, I’ve posted bits of responses to the poorly-researched Newsweek article “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin” by Kurt Eichenwald. Today I want to point you to one more response by Michael Kruger (author of two books related to this subject matter, Canon Revisited and The Heresy of Orthodoxy). Here he responds to Eichenwald’s discussion of textual variants:

In an effort to shock the reader, Eichenwald appeals to two significant textual variations in the NT, namely the long ending of Mark (16:9–20) and the pericope of the adulterous woman (John 7:53–8:11). These are the same ones that Ehrman highlights in his book Misquoting Jesus—which is evidently a big influence on Eichenwald.

But, Eichenwald only tells part of the story. First, he doesn’t tell the reader that these are the only two significant variations in the entire New Testament. He presents them like they are typical when they are not. Second, he doesn’t explain how text-critical methodologies allow scholars to identify these changes as later additions. And if they can be identified as later additions, then they do not threaten our ability to know the original text [emphasis added].

Even more, Eichenwald continues to make factual errors about these changes. He states:

Unfortunately, John didn’t write it. Scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages. It does not appear in any of the three other Gospels or in any of the early Greek versions of John. Even if the Gospel of John is an infallible telling of the history of Jesus’s ministry, the event simply never happened.

This statement is riddled with errors. For one, scribes probably didn’t make the story of the adulterous woman up—it probably circulated as oral tradition. Second, it was not added in the “Middle Ages” as he claims, but probably sometime between the second and fourth century. Third, we don’t know that “the event simply never happened.” On the contrary, scholars have argued it may be an authentic event that circulated in the early church for generations.

Kruger’s two-part response to the Newsweek article (Part 1, Part 2) is worth reading in full. I appreciate his conclusion:

By way of conclusion, it is hard to know what to say about an article like Eichenwald’s. In many ways, it embodies all the misrepresentations, caricatures, and misunderstandings of the average non-Christian in the world today. It is short on the facts, it has little understanding of interpretive principles, it assumes that it knows more about theology than it really does, and it pours out scorn and contempt on the average believer.

Nevertheless, in a paradoxical fashion, I am thankful for it. I am thankful because articles like this provide evangelicals with an opportunity to explain what Christians really believe, and what historical credentials the Bible really has. Eichenwald’s article is evidence that most people in the world understand neither of these things. With all the evangelical responses to this article, hopefully that is changing.

You can learn more about how textual criticism works in this brief interview with Dan Wallace or by watching his more detailed iTunes U course.