White Horse Inn and the Reliability of Today’s Bible Manuscripts

I just finished listening to the latest White Horse Inn (WHI) podcast episode, Has Jesus Been Misquoted. Though I would recommend many episodes from WHI, this is probably not one of them.

Though all of the information in this episode is actually very useful and beneficial to the believer, and to apologetics in general, the manner in which this information is used is flawed.

Fatally.

I would recommend listening to the episode yourself but I’ll give a short summary. It is an interview with New Testament scholar Daniel B. Wallace about his debates with Bart Ehrman. Ehrman is probably the leading New Testament scholar according to the world’s standards – which means he is the leading liberal scholar who attacks the reliability and inerrancy of Scripture. Thus, the interview is in the main a rebuttal to some of Ehrman’s main arguments against the Scriptures as we have them today, namely, that the manuscripts we have are terribly corrupted over centuries of copying copies that are copies of copies that are copies….. of the original, which corruption is seen in the “huge” variation between the manuscripts that we do have (in the order 40,000 differences). Therefore (according to Ehrman) we have no idea what the original NT actually said.

Wallace’s reply, which is the reply of almost all modern conservative New Testament scholars and Christian apologetics, is a combination of facts:

  • We have multiple “lines of transmission” – which means that we have copies of copies that were all made in e.g. Italy, and other copies of copies that were all made in e.g. Greece, and we can compare these different “lines” of transmission. Comparing these different lines of transmission shows very little difference, which proves the high fidelity of the centuries of copying.
  • 99% or more of the variation between the existing manuscripts is insignificant, consisting of things like obvious spelling mistakes (e.g. “spelliing”).
  • The remaining less than 1% (around 0.25%, according to Wallace) of the variation, which is real and significant, nevertheless does not change any of the Bible’s core messages. The example Wallace deals with, which example Ehrman likes to use, is Mark 1:41, which in most translations contains “Jesus, being moved with compassion”, but which Ehrman argues (and Wallace agrees) should be “Jesus, being moved with anger“. Wallace points out that this doesn’t make any difference to the Bible’s teaching, because we know from many other places that Jesus was angry at times, and that anger is not sinful in itself.
  • If liberals like Ehrman applied the same standard of criticism to any other historical document, we would know practically nothing about history prior to the printing press.

The conclusion that Wallace draws from this fact is that we can reconstruct the original New Testament with over 99% accuracy.

Though the facts upon which this conclusion is based are sound, the conclusion is flawed. It is fatally flawed.

If the New Testament we have today is 99% the original New Testament, which 1% is the 1% that is not the original?

Nobody knows.

It could be the magi of the East visiting Jesus, which, after all, is recorded in only one place in Scripture. Perhaps this is an early insertion?

Or, more seriously, it could be all the references forbidding homosexuality in the New Testament. Maybe this was an early insertion by an over-zealous Christian?

In fact, most modern bible translations have decided to cast serious doubt on entire passages of the New Testament, such as John 7:53-8:11 and the ending of the Gospel of Mark, or even entirely omit some others, such as the famous 1 John 5:7 clear reference to the Trinity. I like to ask people to open their Bibles to one of these passages, read the footnotes, and then say, “can you tell me if these passages are God’s Word or not?” None of them know for sure. Which is one of the main reasons I and my denomination reject most modern Bible translations and use the King James Version instead.

I could keep going, but instead I’ll come straight to the point.

If the New Testament we have today is only 99% the original New Testament, then it is only 99% the Word of God.

And if it is only 99% the Word of God, then the New Testament as a whole is not the inerrant, infallible Word of God!

In fact, Wallace and other conservative scholars talk about “approaching” the original NT text as we discover more manuscripts – in other words, what we have currently is not the original 100%, and it will continue to change.

So at any moment, if a new manuscript is discovered, especially if it is a very old one, we could see another passage of Scripture disappearing – or perhaps even being added?

Such a defence would be perfectly sufficient is we were discussing some historical manuscript.

But such a defence is wholly insufficient if we are discussing the Word of God itself.

in this case, this defence is fatally flawed because it is purely based upon reason and evidence - it is not based upon faith in God’s promises.

The believer’s faith in the Word of God is not based upon a 99% probability that the NT we have today is the original NT.

In short, it is based upon promises of God like the following:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. (2 Tim. 3:16)

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. (Mat. 5:18)

Since every single word of Scripture (and not just the overall meaning) is inspired by God (literally, “God-breathed), God will certainly preserve all of Scripture, word for word, in the usage of the church, because “heaven and earth” will pass away before “one jot or one tittle” shall pass from the law.

Not only this, but every believer has the testimony of the Spirit in his or heart, that what they are reading is the Word of God.

Textual criticism is important and necessary. But it must be believing textual criticism – that is, textual analysis done with the conviction that God preserves His Word uncorrupted in the usage of the church.

For further reading, I would highly recommend the material on these pages:

10 Comments

  • julikenn says:

    Yes it’s 100% or nothing. God is not like any human who does something with anything less than 100% effort and accuracy.

  • Brian Crossett says:

    Good well written and convincing argument.

  • Hi Manuel,

    This is very good except that you don’t explain any specific reasons for what advantage older versions like the KJV/Geneva/Matthew’s, etc., have over most modern versions. Might be opening up to a mistaken criticism of the kind of mindless KJV1611-Onlyism that is commonly promoted.

    • Manuel Kuhs says:

      Thanks for that. I think I never mentioned the KJV in this post, which was on purpose as I did not intend to cover that specific issue here. The links I provide at the end, however, clarify that this is not a case of mindless KJV1622-Onlyism as you so nicely put it :)

      • From your blogpost above:
        “I like to ask people to open their Bibles to one of these passages, read the footnotes, and then say, “can you tell me if these passages are God’s Word or not?” None of them know for sure. Which is one of the main reasons I and my denomination reject most modern Bible translations and use the King James Version instead.

        I could keep going, but instead I’ll come straight to the point.”

        - don’t know why the quote disappeared from my comment below.

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    Yes, you did. Very strongly.

    • Manuel Kuhs says:

      OK I did say “Which is one of the main reasons I and my denomination reject most modern Bible translations and use the King James Version instead” but that’s the only mention I can find.

      Though this sentence does contain the word “most” which is not one a KJV-Onlyism person would ever use in this context.

      • Well, I think a lot of people are going to read it as if you’re trying to defend/promote KJV-Onlyism.

        Seems very arbitrary to say we use the KJV without giving a reason.

        What I mean is, your criticism is good and shows the flaws in their ideas, but you could have given at least a short sentence to constructively give at least the beginning of a defence for this.

        As it stands it sounds arbitrary, and the links sound like they just point to more info about why the views of Wallace, etc are wrong, rather than any positive explanation about what version to actually use and why.

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