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Textual Criticism and the False ‘Telephone’ Analogy

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The publication of Dr. Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, has caused quite a bit of controversy, and I have responded to it, generally, in a previous post titled Scriptural Transmission, Inspiration, and Inerrancy. However, I began to develop in my response an argument against the often-heard comparison of scriptural textual transmission to the children’s game of Telephone which I think needs a bit more detail.

Actually, I came to the determination that I should elaborate on this subject when a student recently asked, “Doesn’t it seem that the way we got our Bible is a lot like the game of Telephone? How do we know that the message we have now is at all like how it started?” Ironically, this student was not at all familiar with Ehrman’s book, or the field of textual criticism, so it can be rightly concluded that it doesn’t take an eminent scholar to come up with such a theory. Rather, I would argue that the arguments used by scholars, like Ehrman, to conclude the unreliability of the Bible ultimately work against them.

Instead of retracing my previous article on this topic, let me summarize the issue in this way: Ehrman, who is rightly regarded as an expert in the field of Biblical textual criticism, argues in his latest book that due to errors and even intentional changes in the text from one copy to another, the present form of the Bible should not be trusted in its details nor considered a reliable source of theological doctrine. Like the game of telephone, what goes in does not come out without being distorted, if not changed completely. In fact, half the fun of the game tends to be the result of intentional changes rather than incidental ones; apparently such is also the case of the scribes responsible for duplicating Biblical manuscripts.

The particularly ‘bombshell-like’ examples of errors in the Biblical texts that Ehrman documents have already been discussed at length (again, in my previous post on this topic). As I, and many others, have shown, not only are these errors not new to anyone familiar with Biblical scholarship, they are never damaging to the Orthodox theological understanding of Christianity. While I admit that Ehrman delivers a sobering call to Christian scholarship and perhaps even the merited removal of some portions of text from the Bible, his conclusions are generally unfair and likely the result of a desire to come to them, rather than a true mandate.

The process of textual criticism, however, is certainly not like the game of telephone. In the game of telephone, there is no aspect which objectively preserves the initial message, except for the word of the first speaker. Thus, in a hypothetical circle of fifteen, player seven has no way of knowing whether the message whispered into his or her ear is at all like the original. In fact, player seven really has no way of knowing whether that message even resembles what player six received. However, such is not the case with the scriptural manuscripts. Like our modern Bibles, which footnote passages which vary from one manuscript family to another, even some of the early manuscripts contained such warnings! This would be like player seven passing on a message like, “Player six whispered the words ‘banana cheese steak’ into my ears, but I doubt their accuracy and suggest that they really meant banana cheesecake.” In other words, the scribes involved were not copying automatons, but were deeply involved in the process in a critical way. Of course, this does open the door for intentional theological alterations, which Ehrman certainly mentions, but as I will argue, these still do not lead to the conclusion that the resulting transmission of the scriptures cannot be trusted.

Our ability to discern errors in the transmission of the scriptures relies upon the availability of thousands of copies. (In fact, when confronted with daunting numbers of errors, keep in mind that one error in a manuscript duplicated possibly 100 times after results in a total of 100 errors. Really, in such cases only one error exists.) In fact, because certain early manuscripts were copied and lead to traceable ‘families’ of subsequent copies (think of a family tree of documents rather than people), we have a remarkably large amount of information with which to work to discern the probable original wording in the case where an error is found. In other words, the same process by which Ehrman has perceived individual errors and concluded unreliability in general should actually lead to the conclusion that the current version is likely to quite closely resemble the original.

When I answered the original question above, put forth by a student, I pointed out that the game of telephone is intentionally set up to produce distorted and entertaining results. In contrast, the process of textual transmission was one intentionally constructed out of pious stewardship and the awareness that without certain measures, the message of the Bible could be unintentionally (or even intentionally) changed. This responsibility was a tradition inherited from Jewish scribes, who, leaving no spaces between characters in their manuscripts, would produce a word count when finished and compare it to other results. If the count was off, the entire document would have to be checked and corrected. Unlike telephone, community measures were in place to prevent and catch errors. Similarly, Christian scribes would separate verified copies and establish new ‘family’ lines and even make marginal notes or comments in regard to questionable content. What has resulted is an ever-growing supply of copies that enable scholars to reconstruct what were likely the original versions of the scriptural documents. In many ways, comparing the many manuscript copies is like having them in transparency form and overlaying the various versions to see where variances are. Consequently, I would argue that as time passes and the process of discovering more copies and refining translations continues, the reliability of the Bible will only increase.

Scriptural Transmission, Inspiration, and Inerrancy

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Imagine playing a typical game of ‘telephone,’ in which a phrase or sentence is whispered from one player to another until it reaches the original person who composed it. Often, the words have changed and the result is a hilarious illustration of how easily information can get lost in transmission. According to Bart Ehrman’s recent book, ‘Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,’ the transmission of the Bible by scribes was comparable to a game of ‘telephone,’ (my analogy, not his) as the existence of scores of textual variants among the thousands of existing manuscripts leads Ehrman to the conclusion that the original meaning of the scriptures must be lost. Needless to say, such an allegation is likely to (and has) created controversy of ‘Dan Brownian’ proportions.

It should be initially pointed out that Dr. Ehrman’s reputation as a Biblical scholar and textual critic is exemplary, and his contributions to the study of the transmission of the scriptures are many. However, though he wields considerable authority in this area, his conclusion that the existence of variations in wording among manuscripts calls established Christian doctrines into question is quite overreaching. So, I do not want to suggest that my short article can simply dismiss Ehrman’s work as incorrect. Rather, I would like to examine several of the passages of scripture which he cites and then provide my own response as well as a brief note on the principles of inspiration and inerrancy.

Mark 16:9-20
It has been noted by New Testament scholars for the last century that the ending passage of the Gospel of Mark is absent from the earliest Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian manuscripts. Even subsequent copies reveal that the passage had been marked as questionable in its relationship to the original autograph. The writings of Clement of Alexandria and Origen seem to suggest that they were not aware of this passage, as it is not explicitly mentioned by either. However, later writings by Eusebius and Jerome indicate that they were aware of this passage’s absence from the earlier Greek manuscripts and subsequent addition. So, barring the discovery of an earlier manuscript, the current evidence seems to be in favor of a Gospel of Mark which ends prior to 16:9. Some, however, have argued that the final passage is authentic on the basis of a quote in Ireneaus’ Against Heresies of AD 180, which reads:

“Also, towards the conclusion of his gospel, Mark says, 'So then, after the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was received up into heaven and sits on the right hand of God.’”

Regardless of whether the passage is or is not ultimately authentic, the fact remains that some manuscripts contain it while others do not. Dr. Ehrman concludes that a variation of this nature calls the Christian traditions of inspiration and inerrancy into serious question. His expectation is that God would prevent such variations as the scriptures are reproduced. Since variations do, in fact, occur, we must be mistaken about the meaning of the scriptures and ultimately the very character of God. While Ehrman’s conclusions are based upon a presupposition regarding inspiration and innerancy which I will examine at the conclusion of this post, I would initially comment that to suggest that this is some sort of expose on the reliability of the scriptures is incorrect. Many Biblical scholars (his mentor Bruce Metzger included) examine the same data that Ehrman has and reach far different conclusions regarding the inspiration and Inerrancy of the Bible.

John 7:53-8:11
Like the above mentioned passage from the Gospel of Mark, the Pericope De Adultera is not found in the earliest manuscript copies of the Gospel of John. St. Augustine wrote of the omission of this passage, suggesting that scribes made an editorial decision based upon the fear that the story was too lenient upon adultery. Again like the Markan verses, absence of commentary on this passage from writers such as Tertullian and Cyprian seems to indicate that they did not know of it. In fact, many scholars point out that Origen’s commentary on this portion of the Gospel of John mentions every verse except those from the passage between 7:53 and 8:11, leading to the conclusion that he, too, had not been aware of it. Though we may be safe in concluding that the passage should not be considered a part of the autograph, some still suggest that the narrative is a true representation of Jesus. Bruce Metzger elaborates on this, affirming that the periscope can be non-canonical and still true:

“When one adds to this impressive and diversified list of external evidence the consideration that the style and vocabulary of the pericope differ noticeably from the rest of the Fourth Gospel (see any critical commentary), and that it interrupts the sequence of 7.52 and 8.12 ff., the case against its being of Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive. At the same time the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity. It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places. Most copyists apparently thought that it would interrupt John's narrative least if it were inserted after 7.52 (D E F G H K M U G P 28 700 892 al). Others placed it after 7.36 (ms. 225) or after 7.44 (several Georgian mss.) or after 21.25 (1 565 1076 1570 1582 armmss) or after Luke 21.38 (f13). Significantly enough, in many of the witnesses which contain the passage it is marked with asterisks or obeli, indicating that, though the scribes included the account, they were aware that it lacked satisfactory credentials (Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament).”

It seems quite clear that these two passages, especially the Pericope de Adultera, do not belong in the Bible, though they affirm true things about the character of Jesus and even things He was likely to have done. Biblical scholarship has traditionally affirmed that canonicity is not measured by the veracity of the content of certain books, but by the affirmation of the Holy Spirit. For example, Jude 14-15 quotes from the Book of Enoch, though this book has not been considered part of the canon. The passage, which reads, “Behold, the Lord came with his holy myriads, to execute judgment on all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners spoke against him,” certainly does not affirm anything necessarily contrary to scripture, yet its veracity does not necessarily qualify it as scripture itself. Additionally, Old Testament apocryphal books like 1 and 2 Maccabees which likely contain accurate historical accounts of the inter-testamental period also contain heretical teachings. Specifically, 2 Macabbees contains passages which affirm suicide, prayers for the dead, Purgatorial suffering as well as the possibility of being granted salvation after death.

Dr. Ehrman is correct in asserting that passages which are unauthentic or spurious should not be considered scripture regardless of our fondness for them or their veracity. However, the fact that some of these passages do remain does not lead to the conclusion that, like a domino effect, the rest of Scripture is dubious as well.

The inspiration of scripture is not at risk due to these variations. Inspiration should be understood as the intentional use of human authors by the Holy Spirit of God in the writing of scripture, such that it contained the exact message He desires. The inspiration was in the production of the autographs, not in the production of copies of the autographs. To suggest that flawed copies indicates a flawed source is without logical basis. In fact, the entire process of reconstructing the autographs by the outstandingly large amount of manuscript attestation we do have has produced a Bible of overwhelming accuracy, and in so doing affirms the emphasis on the inspiration of the autograph, rather than the copies. Even Ehrman agrees here.

Inerrancy, on the other hand, is the conclusion that scripture inspired by God is essentially true. Inerrancy does not mean that copies of the inspired autographs of scripture will be grammatically perfect or even consistent. Yet, it does suggest that the message of God will be both preserved and uncorrupted such that it is accessible to all. This is a crucial point which has major ramifications on the process of reproduction. If inerrancy meant the perfection of the words themselves, rather than the message, then the Word of God would be untranslatable. Such is the dilemma of Islam, where the Koran itself is seen as the ultimate miracle of God, perfect in essence and language. To even interact with the one miracle, the Muslim must understand Arabic, while those that read translations are prohibited from commentary as the act of translation itself is seen as a corrupting agent to the miracle. Yet, this is not the case for the Christian claim of inerrancy of scripture. In fact, the commission of Christ relies upon the ability of His Word to be translated into other languages and even paraphrased by teachers. Thus, the inerrancy of scripture is in the message, rather than the words, or even the sentences, chapters or books.

We should certainly be motivated to have a Bible that is as close to a perfect reproduction of the autographs as possible. To do so means that passages such as the two mentioned here should probably be removed (though it is only fair to mention that virtually every existing modern translation indicates clearly the verses which are varied among the source manuscripts, either by separating the text, footnotes, or other visual cues). However, and this is a big however, the existence of non-authentic passages, even within our latest versions of the Bible, do nothing more to discredit the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture as entire books that were determined as non-canonical, such as the Old and New Testament Apocrypha.

But the more important point is that while inspiration and inerrancy are integral to the Christian faith, they are not principles which override the philosophical grounding of Christian theism, nor the historical grounding of the life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. As Dr. Ehrman himself agrees, along with the majority of New Testament scholars, our modern Bible is overwhelmingly reliable as a witness to the original autographs and as a historical account of the time of Christ and the early church. I can only postulate that his incorrect conception of inspiration and inerrancy have led him to prioritize such ideas over the testimony of historical record.