A Help for Apologists and the Rest of Us: Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism

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InterVarsity Press has just released a remarkably careful and learned book that will step on some toes but serve the church and the cause of truth: Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, edited by Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry.

Daniel Wallace writes in the foreword:

The authors in this book offer a necessary corrective to decades of overly exuberant apologetic arguments―arguments that have actually hurt the Christian faith. The writers are refreshingly honest, and they do not pull their punches. They observe poignantly that apologetic works on the reliability of the New Testament text have been drifting away from a proper, well-researched, accurately documented scholarship that is anchored to actual data. Apologists have had a tendency to regurgitate other apologetic works, which in turn are based on other apologetic works. Meanwhile, the scholarship that is supposedly behind the popular declarations in many an evangelical trade book is out-of-date, misunderstood, or simply ignored.

These young scholars have something to say―not only to Christian speakers and writers but to non-Christian speakers and writers and even to New Testament scholars of all stripes. I was happily stunned to see the depth of discussion, the candid examination, and the up-to-date bibliography in each chapter. Although Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism is written in clear, user-friendly prose, the contents are well-grounded and perspicacious.

Timothy Paul Jones writes about the book:

Early in my work as an apologist, I made an embarrassing number of mistakes when it came to comments about textual criticism. In almost every instance, a book like this one would have provided the broader perspective that I needed to speak the truth with greater precision. What Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry have provided in this handbook is a tool that every would-be defender of the Christian faith should purchase and regularly consult.


What follows are some selective takeaways from several of the chapters.

1. Introduction (Peter J. Gurry and Elijah Hixson

  • Information about the reliability of the New Testament in apologetic handbooks is often outdated.
  • Christians need to avoid the tendency to “believe what we want to be true” about the early manuscripts of the New Testament.
  • We should be careful not to appeal to exaggerated or sensationalistic claims.

3. Math Myths: How Many Manuscripts We Have and Why More Isn’t Always Better (Jacob W. Peterson)

  • New manuscripts continue to be discovered, usually in existing libraries or collections. These, however, are by no means equal in size or significance.
  • Most manuscripts of the New Testament are only manuscripts of part of the New Testament, and providing an exact count of them is a fool’s errand.
  • It is best to say that there are about 5,300 Greek New Testament manuscripts in existence, although 5,100 might be the safer estimate.

4. Myths about Classical Literature: Responsibly Comparing the New Testament to Ancient Works (James B. Prothro)

  • Scholars and apologists often count all the manuscripts for the New Testament that exist (an inclusive count), whereas classicists generally only count the ones they need to use (a functional count). This needs to be considered when comparing numbers.
  • Apologists’ numbers too often reflect this inclusive count for the New Testament but a functional count for manuscripts of classical works and end up comparing apples and oranges. Whichever count is used, one should be consistent on both sides.
  • When counting manuscripts and giving dates for comparison, scholars and apologists also often give numbers that reflect or exaggerate the most recent discoveries for New Testament manuscripts, but do not check for updated numbers or dates for classical manuscripts. Consistency in comparison should be clear here too.
  • The comparative argument is valuable but limited; it can demonstrate only that the New Testament has a better textual basis than classical works, not that it has a perfect one. Text-critical methods are what give reliability to our use of the manuscripts, not the numbers alone. The more specific your number is, the more vulnerable it is to a skeptic who wants to weaken your credibility.

5. Dating Myths, Part One: How We Determine the Ages of Manuscripts (Elijah Hixson)

  • Often a manuscript can be dated only by paleography, which is a difficult and imprecise way of assigning the date by means of an assessment of the handwriting.
  • It is almost always unwise to assign a date range of fewer than 50 years on the basis of paleography; a range of 75 to 100 years is typically more preferable.
  • Always try to give the full range; do not assume the earliest date is the right date.
  • The responsible date range of P52, probably our earliest New Testament manuscript, is AD 100–200, and a few scholars even extend this range into the 200s.

7. Myths About Copyists: The Scribes Who Copied Our Earliest Manuscripts (Zachary J. Cole)

  • The earliest copyists of New Testament manuscripts were neither careless amateurs nor professionals with Xerox-machine accuracy. From the quality of the handwriting, we find a wide range of scribal skills and abilities among the early manuscripts, but a majority appear to be competent transcribers.
  • As a group, early New Testament manuscripts show the same levels of care, experience, and accuracy that one could reasonably expect of any ancient text. When compared with carefully copied later manuscripts, the earliest scribes do not appear overly careless, as they are often described.
  • The macrostructure of the New Testament is remarkably stable, especially in comparison to other ancient works. Though textual variation exists, it is usually at the micro rather than macro level.

10. Myths About Variants: Why Most Variants Are Insignificant and Why Some Can’t Be Ignored (Peter J. Gurry)

  • The estimated number of variants in just our Greek manuscripts is around half a million, not including spelling differences. Nearly half of these are meaningless mistakes.
  • It is true that most variants do not affect the meaning of the text or the Christian faith in general. A few dozen do, however, and some of these are theologically important, as in Mark 1:1; Luke 23:34; and John 1:18.
  • We should not give the impression that New Testament variants do not matter at all for Christian theology or practice; we can and should, however, recognize that no doctrine is in jeopardy because of a serious variant.

11. Myths About Orthodox Corruption: Were Scribes Influenced by Theology, and How Can We Tell? (Robert D. Marcello)

  • Scribes did sometimes change the text for theologically motivated reasons; however, not a few textual variants that might appear to be theologically motivated are better explained by other factors.
  • Determining the intention behind textual variants is much more difficult than some surmise. This means we should be appropriately skeptical about bold claims of theologically motivated variation or “orthodox corruption.”

12. Myths About Patristics: What the Church Fathers Thought About Textual Variation (Andrew Blaski)

  • The argument that we can reconstruct all but 11 verses of the New Testament from 36,289 quotations by the church fathers is not only false but it is a conflation of two different arguments that are both riddled with problems. It should not be used.

14. Myths About Early Translations: Their Number, Importance, and Limitations (Jeremiah Coogan)

  • There are probably not 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and claiming 25,000 New Testament manuscripts beyond the Greek is an exaggeration too big to keep using. It is better to say there are a few thousand versional manuscripts and leave it at that.

We all have a lot to learn from these rising stars of textual criticism who care about the truth and the witness of our apologetics.

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