I recently saw a copy of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus in a garbage can that I frequently find myself travelling past. Often I see books of various sorts in this particular garbage can – usually they are books I don’t recognize. However, this time I saw a book I had heard of before and I decided to look a little bit into it. I figured that having the author summarize, explain, and defend his own book would be quicker than reading a copy, so I listened to the James White vs. Bart Ehrman debate titled, “Did the Bible Misquote Jesus?” I also read a summary online, just to broaden my scope a little. Having heard the author defend his own work and reveal his foundational assumptions that undergird it, I noticed a rather glaring problem in his work.
To sum up the issue, Bart’s thesis that later scribes were intentionally changing things and adding their own theology to the text is irrelevant if we have earlier texts that show us what changes have taken place. The real issue of concern is in the realm of the earliest manuscripts. Bart wants to give us the idea that a telephone game happened during the first hundred years or so. He paints the picture somewhat like this:
Paul wrote a letter to the Philippians and they made copy which had errors in it. The next copy built upon the errors of that copy and added its own errors, meaning that there were increasing errors in the text and we can never know what the text said before the errors came into it.
On the one hand, the fact that we have so many obvious scribal errors in the texts proves that Bart’s view of the situation is based on a real problem in the ancient world. On the other hand, a silent assumption is being made. Did you catch it? What happened to the original letter? Why does it disappear from Bart’s understanding of the situation? I can quote Bart in the debate saying “you got yourself published in the ancient world by circulating your letter – you gave it to a friend who made a copy for himself and then he passed on the original for someone else to make a copy.” Meaning, its not the copy containing errors that is passed on, but the original. Let’s assume that the original letter Paul wrote is destroyed within 5 years of being written, for whatever reason. For 5 years it circulated and copies where made off of it. Errors were not compounding, but each copy had unique errors in different places. So if 4 copies agreed and 1 disagreed on a word, I think it’s rather easy for us to see that the 4 are right and the 1 is wrong. Each of the original copies would have begun what we can label a “tradition” or “line” of copying where the copies made off of that copy would contain the errors of the original copy plus the errors the next scribes would make. However, despite how annoying the errors may be, as long as there are other traditions we can do comparisons with, we can get back to the original text. A singular telephone game was not happening, a series of telephone games with transcripts of many of the conversations were happening. That’s a rather large difference in scenario. Consider this:
Go and give the book of Phillipians to 20 people and ask them to make a hand written copy, then have other people make copies of those copies. Do this for 5 generations, then gather the all of the copies together. Put aside the first two generations. Look at all of the copies from the 4th and 5th generations and maybe 4-5 copies of the 3rd generation. See if you can get back to the original text based on comparing the manuscripts to each other – I bet you, with no training, will be able to reconstruct an almost identical version of Philippians from this experiment.
In summary, when Bart removes the original text from the equation as soon as a copy is made, he accomplishes two things: (A) he contradicts his own understanding of how books were put into circulation; (B) he creates a false worldview where one of the most important foundational assumptions is simply wrong and thus the whole system of thought that builds on this assumption is mistaken. Bart, at his foundation, is contradicting himself. Until he fixes his foundational assumptions, his conclusions can be ignored as being divergent from reality.