by Doug Ward

OXFORD, OHIO-Christians believe that the words of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament are divinely inspired. They affirm that God has guided both the writing of those words and their transmission around the world through the centuries.


Still, believers can be disconcerted to learn about the "messiness" of the process by which God's Word has been passed down from generation to generation and from place to place. Skeptics like to point out that there are approximately 140,000 words in the Greek New Testament, while the total number of textual variations in our New Testament manuscripts is nearly 500,000. With an average of over three variations per word, they ask, how can we really know what the authors of the New Testament books originally wrote?


One of the people best equipped to answer this question is Dr. Daniel B. Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary. Wallace is an expert in New Testament Greek and author of a text in Greek grammar used by many seminary students. He is also a New Testament textual scholar, an expert on ancient manuscripts and what they can tell us about the original New Testament text.


Wallace's knowledge of the New Testament text includes an impressive amount of up-close-and-personal contact with the manuscripts. He heads the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM), an organization that travels around the world to libraries and monasteries, taking high-quality photographs of Greek New Testament manuscripts. Because of the work of the CSNTM, textual scholars are gaining online access to more and more manuscripts. Of the estimated 2.6 million manuscript pages in the world, the CSNTM as of early 2015 had photographed over 300,000.


In 2015 the CSNTM began working on a major project at the National Library of Greece in Athens. Wallace took time out from that project to visit Miami University on March 6-8, 2015. On March 7, he gave a campus lecture addressing the current state of our knowledge of the original New Testament text.


A Wealth of Information

Wallace explained early in his lecture that we no longer have the original papyrus scrolls of the twenty seven books of the New Testament. We do have lots of copies, but no two copies completely agree. In fact, even our two most closely related early copies of the New Testament have between six and ten differences per chapter. For these reasons, we do textual research to learn as much as possible about the original text.


Differences among manuscripts can include variations in word order, addition or omission of words, and spelling differences. As mentioned above, there are about 140,000 words in the Greek New Testament, and nearly 500,000 variations among the manuscripts. That is because we have so many manuscripts.


The issue of textual variations has been around for over three hundred years, Wallace noted. In 1707 John Mill published a list of over 30,000 variants, the product of thirty years of research. Protestants wondered what bearing these data might have on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. In 1713 scholar Richard Bentley pointed out that if we only had one Greek manuscript, there would be no variants. The fact that we know about so many variants is actually better, he said. It is a sign that we have a lot of information about the text, and the more information the better. We can compare manuscripts to deduce the original wording of a verse.


For example, in the King James Version, Rom 8:1 says, "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." However, we now know that earlier Greek manuscripts simply had, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Some scribes along the way apparently felt that the original sentence needed some clarification, and so they added the additional phrases. Modern translations like the ESV follow the earlier manuscripts and include the longer variation in a footnote.


Wallace stated that as of March 1, 2015, the number of officially catalogued Greek manuscripts stood at 5845. (That number had risen in early 2015 from 5839 due to the work of CSNTM in Athens.) The average length of these documents is over 450 pages. In addition, we have over ten thousand Latin manuscripts, along with at least five to ten thousand in other ancient languages like Coptic and Syriac. Moreover, even without all the manuscripts, we could reconstruct the entire New Testament from the writings of the Church Fathers, which contain over a million New Testament quotations.


For classical Greek authors, Wallace said, the average number of known copies of an author's work is under twenty, and all available manuscripts of a classical author's work might amount to a stack of documents four feet high. A stack of all our New Testament manuscripts, by comparison, would be 6600 feet high. The New Testament is far and away the best attested document from the Greco-Roman world.


Based on manuscript evidence, Wallace asserted, we have a thousand times more evidence that Jesus Christ existed than we have that Alexander the Great existed. The earliest manuscripts that mention Alexander the Great are from a thousand years after he lived. For Pliny the Elder, our earliest manuscripts are from 700 years after he wrote. Our earliest copies of Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews come from 800 years after the work was written. For Plutarch it is 800 years, Herodotus 1500 years, and Xenophon 1800 years.


In the case of the New Testament, the earliest known manuscript is P52, a fragment of John's Gospel with John 18:31-33 on one side and vv. 37-38 on the other side. It was found in 1934 by C.H. Roberts, working at the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester, England. Scholars have dated this fragment to the first half of the second century AD, no more than sixty years after this Gospel was believed to have been written. Moreover, we have forty per cent of the verses in the New Testament in manuscripts dating before 250 AD, and all the verses can be found in manuscripts from before 300 AD. The New Testament comes in way ahead of the classical Greek sources.


Wallace said that although many papyrus manuscripts of portions of the New Testament have been found over the last 150 years, these manuscripts contain no readings that were not previously known from other manuscripts. Scholars are confident that the original text of the New Testament is some subset of the union of the verses contained in the manuscripts we have today. In 1611, the translators of the King James Version had seven Greek manuscripts available, the earliest from the eleventh century. In 2015, we have over 5800 manuscripts, the earliest from the second century. Our knowledge of the original text has been increasingly greatly


Details of the Textual Variants

What about those thousands of textual variants? Wallace explained that very few make a difference in our understanding of the text. Seventy per cent are differences in spelling; for example, "John" may be spelled "Ioannes" or "Ioanes." One of the most common spelling variations is the "movable nu." In Greek the letter nu can appear at the end of a word when the next word starts with a vowel.


Many variations involve the use of the definite article, which occurs 20,000 times in the New Testament. The Greek New Testament may refer to "Mary" or "the Mary", for example.


There are also many differences in word order among manuscripts. Since Greek is a highly inflected language, the same phrase can be written with the words in various different orders.


Other variations involve synonyms. In places where some manuscripts use a pronoun, later ones may substitute the noun to which the pronoun refers.


Some variations occur when a scribe made a slight addition to harmonize wording among the Synoptic Gospels. For example, in Matt 9:11 Jesus' disciples are asked why Jesus "eats with tax collectors and sinners." Some manuscripts say "eats and drinks" rather than just "eats," apparently to harmonize Matt 9:11 with Luke 5:30.1


Wallace estimated that less than a quarter of one per cent of the variations have any bearing on the meaning of the text, and he discussed some examples of meaningful variants. In Mark 9:29, a verse about difficult exorcisms, the earliest manuscripts say that the demons can only be driven out through prayer, but most manuscripts say that fasting is also required. In Rev 13:18, most manuscripts say that the number of the Beast is 666; but our earliest manuscript of Rev 13, and one other important manuscript, give 616 instead.


Such variants are interesting but not important. In fact, Wallace asserted, no essential doctrines of Christianity are affected by any of the variants.2 All of our manuscripts of John 1, for example (the earliest being P66, from around 175 AD), affirm the deity of Jesus by saying that "the Word was God."


Wallace made a convincing case that the furor over New Testament textual variations amounts to much ado about nothing. With our wealth of manuscript evidence, we are closer than ever to knowing the original wording of the New Testament.


1Additional discussion and examples of textual variations can be found in the book Reinventing Jesus by J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Dan Wallace (Kregel, Grand Rapids, 2006).


2Wallace pointed out that skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman agrees with him on this point, and that Ehrman admitted this in the paperback edition of his book Misquoting Jesus.

Issue 31


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On 08 Jul 2018, 14:00.