NT Manuscripts and Their Variants: Good or Bad?

One thing NT critic Bart Ehrman notes in his attempt to repudiate the NT is the fact that there are so many variants in the manuscripts we have. One book, Truth Matters, describes it this way:

“Bart Ehrman puts the number of active, questionable variants in the New Testament at somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 – which, again, makes for some spicy ad copy. ‘Just look at all the unknowns and unknowables in your Bible!'”

“But what drains all the color from these in-your-face statistics is the simple math of what happens when fifty-eight hundred manuscripts are available to be laid down for comparison, as opposed to just two or three. It’s the same reason Cy Young – who will forever hold the all-time record for career wins as a Major League baseball pitcher (511) – also holds the all-time record for something else: career losses. You know why? Because of another baseball record he holds: he pitched a thousand innings more than any other player in baseball history.”

“The more manuscripts, the more variants. …Possessing more manuscripts of ancient literature should be nothing but a positive. Never a negative. Any fair-minded historian would agree with that. Only an excessive skepticism turns a benefit into a problem. That move is neither necessary nor reasonable. Besides, the overwhelming number of variants – and we mean all but a very, very, very small amount – are as minor as minor can be and for the most part are exceedingly easy to spot and discount. They consist of things like simple spelling errors, flip-flops in word order, nonsense readings that are obviously the result of tired eyes and a lack of concentration (p. 125-126).”

This is an excellent point: yes, there are many variants in the NT manuscripts. But this isn’t a bad thing, because we have so very many manuscripts! This fact shouldn’t make us distrust the authenticity of the NT, but trust it more. Ehrman’s logic here, as in other places is quite lacking. For more on this, you’ll have to get Kostenberger, Bock, and Chatraw’s excellent little book, Truth Matters.  It’s one of my favorites when it comes to answering the tough questions that skeptics and doubters ask.  In fact, it helped give me more confidence in the Christian faith.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI