Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Accuracy of the New Testament, Part One

When I began my research into the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I realized that I was making a number of assumptions in my argument for the historicity of this event. I realized that my work on the resurrection would be for not if I did not review three areas and lay a foundation on which I will attempt to build the superstructure (the resurrection of Jesus). There are three areas that I wish to discuss before I go into the resurrection of Jesus. They are as follows:

1. Is the NT we have today, and the ancient Greek manuscripts they are based on an accurate representation of the original autographs (which we do not have)?
2. Is there any non-biblical evidence for a historical Jesus?
3. Are the New Testament gospels early enough to be eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus?
These questions have to be sufficiently answered in order to move into the evidence for Jesus resurrection.

I wish to take a moment and point out that while evidential apologetics is very powerful, it does not address underlying presuppositions (ideas that the person you are talking to has). One likely presupposition that you may run into with atheists, agnostics and skeptics is a denial of anything supernatural. This is an area that I will address in later posts.

The topic of this post is the accuracy of the New Testament. This led me to the question, “Who is the current voice against the accuracy of the New Testament?” The answer in my mind is Bart D. Ehrman. Dr. Ehrman is the current living expert on New Testament textual criticism. He learned under Bruce Metzger, who until recently was the greatest expert in that field. I am not questioning Dr. Ehrman’s credentials as they are extensive, and he has written a number of best sellers that have shaken the faith of many, including professed Christians, in the Bible. One of these books is Misquoting Jesus. As I read it, I was struck by the way in which Dr. Ehrman brings textual criticism down from the halls of academia and makes it accessible to the masses. This is truly the sign of great teacher. That being said, where I and other conservative scholars disagree with Dr. Ehrman is in his conclusions. Ehrman’s main conclusion is that the New Testament is hopelessly corrupted and can never be reconstructed with any degree of accuracy.

While I am not going to refute Dr. Ehrman’s conclusions point by point I want to look at what he called, “The Top Ten Verses Not Originally Found in the New Testament.” This list can be found in the paperback “Plus” edition of Misquoting Jesus. This was the first copy of the book I cam across, and is what I will reference it in this post.

First, one of Dr. Ehrman’s rhetorically powerful quotations is that there are over 400,000 variations in the New Testament; more variations than words. Conservative textual scholar Daniel Wallace also agrees with Dr. Ehrman’s estimation of the number of variants in the New Testament. When Dr. Ehrman makes this statement he has one purpose in mind, and that is to dismiss any ideas people may have that the New Testament is accurate. However, as Paul Harvey used to say, “You know what the news is, in a minute; you're going to hear ... the rest of the story” what is the rest of the story regarding these variants?

What is the rest of the story regarding New Testament variants? These variants are differences between the existing ancient New Testament manuscripts. There is a book that Greek scholars use called the Novem Testamentum Graece, also called the Nestle-Aland, 27th edition (abbreviated as NA27). This book lists every verse in the New Testament along with all variations found in the existing manuscripts. When scholars look at these variants they divide them into one of two categories, insignificant and significant. Insignificant variants are transposed letters, misspellings, phonetic spelling, abbreviations and style changes. Significant variations are variants that intentional changes that add to or subtract from the meaning of the text.

When the 400,000 variants are placed into one of the two categories the results are astounding. Rather than causing doubt in the mind of Christians the results should strengthen the Christian’s trust in the accuracy of not only the ancient manuscripts, but also of the translation they use every day. You see, of the 400,000 variants, 396,000 of them fall into the insignificant category. Further, 200,000 of those 396,000 are simple spelling errors. The remaining 196,000 fall into the classifications I mentioned above.

This leaves 4,000 variants or 1% of the 400,000 in the significant category. Of these 4,000 none affect what is considered a core Christian doctrine. This is a fact that even Dr. Ehrman concedes, “In fact, most of the changes found in early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes pure and simple slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort of another" (Misquoting Jesus, 55).

These significant variations are resolved by scholars by utilizing the established rules of textual criticism (Canons of Criticism). By using these Canons, scholars have been able to resolve these variants and produce a New Testament with a high degree of accuracy. How high a degree of accuracy? According to Dr. Norman Geisler, Bruce Metzger, Ehrman’s own teacher, stated that the New Testament is 99.5% accurate. Westcott & Hort stated that they believed the New Testament they had in 19th century was 98.33% accurate. Scholar Ezra Abbott stated that the New Testament was 99.75% accurate. Lastly, the great New Testament scholar, A.T. Robertson stated that he believed the New Testament he had access to was 99.9% accurate.

In my next post, I will go through Bart Ehrman’s “The Top Ten Verses Not Originally Found in the New Testament,” and see whether or not this list should shake the trust that Christians and people in general have in the accuracy of the existing manuscripts.


  1. I recently heard Ehrman asked about the
    "99% accuracy" claim. He said that he did not recall Metzger saying that kind of thing. Do you know what does Geisler cites as his source?

    In any case, Ehrman said that he did not think that speaking in terms of percentages is particularly useful. A passage could have 99 out of 100 words correct, but if the one incorrect word is "no," its omission or inclusion completely reverses the meaning.

  2. Hello Vinny,

    First, I want to thank you for reading and responding to my blog post. I hope that you will continue to come back, and that you will tell others about this blog.

    Second, please excuse the delay in responding. I have had some urgent matters to attend to, and I was not able to check on the blog regularly.

    In regards to your question, Geisler quotes Metzger's 99.5% accuracy in the following:

    N. L. Geisler & A. Saleeb, Answering Islam: The Crescent In The Light Of The Cross, 1993, Baker Books: Grand Rapids (MI), pp. 234-235.

    "New Testament Manuscripts", in N. L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia Of Christian Apologetics, 2002, Baker Books: Grand Rapids (MI), pp. 532-533

    Christian Apologetics, 2002 (15th Printing), Baker Book House: Grand Rapids (MI), p. 308

    N. L. Geisler & R. M. Brooks, When Skeptics Ask, 2001, Baker Books: Grand Rapids (MI), p. 160

    N. L. Geisler & W. E. Nix, A General Introduction To The Bible, 1986, Revised and Expanded, Moody Press: Chicago, p. 408 and pp. 474-475

    The original Quote from Metzger can be found here:

    B. M. Metzger, "Recent Trends In The Textual Criticism Of The Iliad And The Mahabharata", Chapters In The History Of New Testament Textual Criticism, 1963, E. J. Brill: Leiden, pp. 142-154

    In regards to your last comment, I would like to see Dr. Ehrman provide proof of said omission or inclusion rather than just toss out assertions. Based on the debates I have seen/heard him participate in and his writings I have yet to see a clear case of such an omission or inclusion.

    Thank you again for taking time from your day to read my blog.