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Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then?

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The following is an excerpt from Reinventing Jesus: What The Da Vinci Code and Other Novel Speculations Don’t Tell You (Kregel), co-authored by J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace. Published in May, 2006, the book is widely available. You can find out more about this book at

When Constantine commissioned new versions of these documents, it enabled the custodians of orthodoxy to revise, edit, and rewrite their material as they saw fit, in accordance with their tenets. It was at this point that most of the crucial alterations in the New Testament were probably made and Jesus assumed the unique status he has enjoyed ever since. The importance of Constantine’s commission must not be underestimated. Of the five thousand extant early manuscript versions of the New Testament, not one predates the fourth century. The New Testament as it exists today is essentially a product of fourth-century editors and writers—custodians of orthodoxy, “adherents of the message,” with vested interests to protect.
                                                                                          Holy Blood, Holy Grail, 368-69


Pop culture has a way of promoting strange and bizarre myths about the Bible. The urban legends are then fueled by self-proclaimed authorities on the Internet or novels that make it onto New York’s Bestseller list. Meanwhile, biblical scholars tend to ignore these childish antics, since they know that there is no substance to them. Unfortunately, this leaves the layperson without a clue as to what’s really going on.

As an illustration of the sort of unfounded myth we’re talking about, Sir Leigh Teabing’s comments in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code readily come to mind. He pontificates, “The Bible is a product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.”1 There is of course a grain of truth in all this. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. And the Bible had human authors. But to say that it has evolved through translations, additions, and revisions, with the implication that the original is no longer detectable is just plain silly. We discussed these issues in our first chapter on textual criticism, noting that this kind of myth involves unwarranted assumptions that are easily disproved by the manuscripts themselves. It plays on the experiences of everyone who has passed on information without recourse to the earlier sources (such as in the telephone game). But in the case of the NT, this is not valid: as time goes on, we are getting closer and closer to the wording of the original text because of the vast amounts of manuscripts—many of which are quite early—scholars continue to uncover.

But what about Teabing’s claim that Jesus’ divinity was not to be found in the NT manuscripts—that Constantine essentially invented this doctrine? We will address that specific issue toward the end of this chapter with concrete evidence that again shows how this kind of language is patently false and misleading.

What is really at stake when it comes to the text of the NT—when it comes to how accurately the copies were made? We have already noted four kinds of textual problems related to this issue, but it would be helpful to briefly list them again here.

  1. The largest amount of textual variants (well over half) involve spelling differences and nonsense readings that are easily detectable. These affect nothing of meaning in the text.
  2. The next largest group are those that do not affect translation or, if they do, involve synonyms. Variants such as “Christ Jesus” vs. “Jesus Christ” may entail a slightly different emphasis, but nothing of great consequence is involved.
  3. Then there are the meaningful variants that are not viable. That is, they simply have no plausibility of reflecting the wording of the original because the manuscripts in which they are found have a poor pedigree. This issue involves careful historical investigation and requires the scholar to take the transmission of the text seriously. We saw that Robert Price’s attempt to excise Luke 1:34 from the Bible belonged to the category of “meaningful but not viable.” In his case, there was absolutely no manuscript evidence on his side, only wishful thinking.
  4. Finally, the smallest category, comprising about 1% of all textual problems, involves those variants that are both meaningful and viable. Most NT scholars would say that these textual problems constitute much less than 1% of the total. But even assuming the more generous amount (by expanding on the scope of both “meaningful” and “viable”), even then not much theologically is affected.

Our objective in this chapter is to discuss this fourth kind of variant in more detail, to see whether the deity of Christ (as well as other cardinal beliefs) is impacted by these variants. We will first look at the possibility of “conjectural emendation”—variants that have no manuscripts in support of them. How many are there and how do scholars deal with them? Then, we will discuss which doctrines are affected by the variants. Finally, we will examine some of the early manuscripts to see what they have to say about the deity of Jesus Christ.

Conjectural Emendation

We have noted several times throughout this section that NT textual criticism suffers from an embarrassment of riches unparalleled by another other piece of ancient literature. The manuscript copies are far, far more plentiful and earlier than any other Greek or Latin texts. In terms of manuscript data, any skepticism about the Jesus of the Gospels should be multiplied many times over for any other historical figure. Or, to put this positively, we have more and earlier manuscript evidence about the person of Jesus Christ than we do anyone in the ancient world—Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, anyone. But let’s quantify that more specifically. How many places are there in the NT where there are gaps that need to be filled in, places where the manuscripts don’t exist and scholars simply have to guess at what was originally written?

Before we look at the NT, it might be good to get a frame of reference. Is there a need for conjectural emendation for other ancient literature and, if so, how great is this need? For many important authors we only have partial works. Thus, of the ancient historian Livy’s 142-volume work on the history of Rome, only copies of 35 volumes survive today. Of Tacitus’ Histories, fewer than five of the original fourteen books can be found in any copies.2 Hundreds of books from antiquity are known to us only by name; no manuscripts remain. And even of some of the better-preserved writings, there are gaps galore. For example, in his Patristic Textual Criticism, Miroslav Marcovich complains that the surviving copies of some of the early patristic writers are “lacunose [filled with gaps], corrupt, dislocated and interpolated…”3 He then proceeds to lay out principles of conjectural emendation that he must follow in order to reconstruct the original wording.4

The situation with NT textual criticism is entirely different: there is no place for conjectural emendation for the NT because of the great wealth, diversity, and age of the materials that we have to work with. The vast majority of NT scholars would say that there are absolutely no places where conjecture is necessary. Again, this is because the manuscripts are so plentiful and so early that in every instance the original NT can be reconstructed from the available evidence.

For example, Kurt and Barbara Aland, the first two directors of the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany (Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung or INTF) co-authored one of the standard textbooks on NT textual criticism. At the INTF, over 90% of all Greek NT manuscripts are on microfilm. For the past forty-five years, the Institute has been more influential than any individual, school, or group of scholars anywhere else in the world for determining the exact wording of the original NT. In short, they know their stuff. Hear the Alands: “…every reading ever occurring in the New Testament textual tradition is stubbornly preserved, even if the result is nonsense… any reading ever occurring in the New Testament textual tradition, from the original reading onward, has been preserved in the tradition and needs only to be identified.” 5

The Alands go so far as to say that if a reading is found in one manuscript it is almost surely not authentic: “The principle that the original reading may be found in any single manuscript or version when it stands alone or nearly alone is only a theoretical possibility.”6 Further, “Textual difficulties should not be solved by conjecture, or by positing glosses or interpolations, etc., where the textual tradition itself shows no break; such attempts amount to capitulation before the difficulties and are themselves violations of the text.”7 Their opinions in these matters should be considered as that of expert witnesses. Further, it is shared by most others in the discipline.8

What are the implications of the non-need to guess about the wording of the original? Only that in virtually every instance the original reading is to be found somewhere in the manuscripts. That ‘somewhere’ can be narrowed down by the methods we discussed in the last chapter. Further, since the original reading is not something to be merely guessed at, we have an actual database—the pool of variants found in the manuscripts—that can be tested for any theological deviations.

An illustration is in order here. Suppose conjectural emendation were needed for the Gettysburg Address. In the opening sentence, a comparison of the manuscripts might show something like this9:

Manuscript A: Four score and seven ______ ago our _________ brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in _____dom, and dedicated to the proposition that “all ______ are created equal.”

Manuscript B: Four score and _____ ______ ago our ________s brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, ________ in lib________, and dedicated to the proposition that “all ______ are created _____.”

Comparing these two manuscripts, we notice that there are gaps. Perhaps there is a worm hole in one manuscript, water damage in the other. Fortunately, some of the gaps are filled in by the other manuscript, but not all. Putting the data together from both manuscripts, we can get the following:

Four score and seven ______ ago our ________s brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in {lib______/_____dom?}, and dedicated to the proposition that “all ______ are created equal.”

In such an instance, would Lincoln scholars have the right to put anything in the gaps? Of course not. There is a finite number of options. For example, since we know the date of the Gettysburg Address, the “four score and seven” cannot refer to days or months. It must refer to years. Also, since one variant has “lib____” while the other has “____dom,” scholars may guess that something like either “liberty” or “freedom” belonged here. Perhaps they could not decide between these two, but they would not have the right to think that “libations” or “Christendom” was the appropriate word! Common sense has to prevail when doing conjectural emendation. As to who brought forth the new nation, scholars might suppose that something like “fathers,” “forefathers,” or “leaders” would be appropriate. Nothing of substance is at stake here, of course, except for the exact wording. But again, only a finite number of options are really possible. Finally, the last statement—that “all _____ are created equal”—might require something like “people” or “men.” But “people” would hardly do in 1863, since “men” was the generic term used at that time when all people were in view.

Finally, to make their argument, Lincoln scholars would have to find other speeches by the president as well as his writings to get a sense as to what he would have said. Manners and customs of the day would be examined. And the conjectures would have to make sense. All in all, even in a text such as this, there would be a finite number of options. And no reasonable person would consider all conceivable options as equally possible.

The situation for the NT is hardly as bleak as this! Of the one hundred thirty-eight thousand words of the original text, only one or two might have no manuscript support. There is virtually no need for conjecture, as we already have pointed out. And even if there were, this would not mean that we would have no idea what the original text said. Instead, precisely because almost all the possible variants are already to be found in the manuscripts, there is a rather limited number of options that scholars have to contend with. Now, suppose that textual critics simply pick readings at random, without any genuine scholarly method. Indeed, imagine that determining the wording of the NT was as randomly accomplished as a chimp taking a multiple-choice exam. But in this case, virtually all of the answers make sense, and most of them are very close to the wording of the others. Further, never is there the option, “None of the above.” Of course, as we saw in the previous chapter, NT textual criticism is a very exacting discipline, with several checks and balances. It is not a bunch of chimps randomly pecking at a list of options! Frankly, when skeptics try to make the claim that we simply have no clue what the original NT text said, one has to wonder what drives their dogmatic skepticism, because it certainly isn’t the evidence.10

1 Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code: A Novel (New York: Doubleday, 2003) 231. Other equally irresponsible statements can be easily found. For example, Frank Zindler wrote in the American Atheists magazine in 1986 the following: “Concerning the preferred text of the Greek Bible, readers may wonder just who decides—and how—what the preferred readings should be? Space does not permit a discussion of the scientific (and sometimes very un-scientific) principles involved. We can only observe that it is both laughable and sad to see the more intelligent fundamentalists diligently learning Greek in order to ‘read God’s word in the original tongue.’ Little do they suspect, while staring at the nearly footnote-free pages of their Westcott-Hort Greek testaments, the thousands of scientific and not-so-scientific decisions underlying what they see—or don’t see—on each page” (“The Real Bible: Who’s Got It?”, accessed on-line at in October 2005).

There is so much wrong-headedness in this statement that one barely knows where to begin. For one thing, it is by no means only fundamentalists who are studying the Greek New Testament. The Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung in Münster, Germany is anything but a fundamentalist institute! Yet it is the epicenter of NT textual criticism, and is responsible for the highly-touted Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (a Greek NT which has well over a century of scholarship behind it; it is now in its 27th edition). Of the four doctoral courses on NT textual criticism taught in the United States, not one of them is taught at a fundamentalist school. Now it is true that textual criticism is both a science and an art. There are times when scholars need to make decisions by creative thinking regarding what the internal evidence suggests. This is not in any sense, however, devoid of good historical research principles. But the appellation science is sometimes applied to historical studies only with disdain (especially by those who think of science as what takes place only in a pristine lab). Historians cannot verify their views in a test tube, with the same results coming out each time. With history, we are dealing with partial data and human activity. The determinations of good historical research may not be as certain as those of some of the hard sciences, but this does not mean that everything is up for grabs. Further, to suggest that the “footnote-free” Westcott-Hort text is still being used today is misleading. That text was printed in 1881 and has been out of print for decades. It is occasionally reprinted, but hard to find. We know of no school that uses the Westcott-Hort “footnote-free” text today. Rather, most seminaries use one of two Greek NTs, both of which contain thousands of textual problems in the apparatus. Whatever Zindler is critiquing, it is not part of the real world as we know it today. Finally, as we saw earlier, this kind of wholesale skepticism is a part of the postmodern mindset. But when one looks at the actual details of the textual problems, the vast majority are so trivial as to not even be translatable, while the meaningful and viable variants constitute only about 1% of the text. And even for this category, most scholars would say that 1% is being awfully generous as to our uncertainties! (The majority of NT scholars would say that what is uncertain is a small fraction of 1% of the text.) As we have said many times throughout this section, the dogma of absolute skepticism is unjustified in the field of textual criticism (just as the dogma of absolute certainty is), even though it is an oft-repeated mantra of postmodern skeptics.

2 F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, 6th ed (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1981) 11.

3 Miroslav Marcovich, Patristic Textual Criticism, Part 1 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1994) ix.

4 Ibid.

5 Kurt and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 296 (italics added).

6 Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 281.

7 Ibid., 280.

8 See G. D. Kilpatrick, “Conjectural Emendation in the New Testament,” New Testament Textual Criticism, edited by E. J. Epp and G. D. Fee (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981) 349-60. For a specific treatment on conjecture, in which the author rejects it outright, see D. A. Black, “Conjectural Emendations in the Gospel of Matthew,” NovT 31 (1989) 1-15. On the other hand, on rare occasions a NT scholar will put forth a conjecture. But such are not only few and far between, they are also a self-consciously uphill battle. See, for example, J. Strugnell, “A Plea for Conjectural Emendation in the New Testament,” CBQ 36 (1974) 543-558.

9 There are five known early copies of the Gettysburg Address. The two main copies were from Lincoln’s private secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. They do not agree completely with each other. But there is no need for conjecture. This example is used for illustration purposes only.

10 See Earl Doherty, Challenging the Verdict (Ottawa: Age of Reason, 2001) 39. He argues:

During formative periods, changes in theology as well as traditions about events which lay at the inception of the movement may be very significant. We have nothing in the Gospels which casts a clear light on that early evolution or provides us with a guarantee that the surviving texts are a reliable picture of the beginnings of the faith.

In fact, the one indicator we do have points precisely in the opposite direction. The later Gospels dependent on the earlier Mark show many instances of change, alteration and evolution of ideas.

There are at least two fallacies with this reasoning: First, neither Matthew nor Luke intended to duplicate Mark exactly, so why should we expect them to be a model for what the scribes did? They felt free to shape the material as they saw fit. (This is not the same thing as saying that they invented stories about Jesus, but that they edited their sources for their own audiences. And yet, if anything, they would be charged with plagiarism (something that was not an ethical issue in the ancient world, since everyone did it) more than with significantly changing the text. Second, let’s assume for sake of argument that Luke and Matthew intended to radically depart from Mark. Again, this is not the assumption that anyone makes about the scribal habits. If so, then to argue that we can know nothing about what any of these Gospel writers originally wrote is also fallacious. Why? Because if the scribal tendency was to harmonize the Gospel accounts (which it was, as we can see especially from the later manuscripts), then why should there be so many differences between the Synoptic Gospels in the earliest manuscripts? In the least, this reflects that they copied them with relative accuracy.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Textual Criticism

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