Are the Biblical Documents Hopelessly Corrupt?

Blomberg Can We Still BelieveIn preparation for our Every Thought Captive event coming up in April, I have been reading through Craig Blomberg’s book, Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions. His approach caught my attention quickly. He sees six areas in which biblical scholarship has seen the largest amount of development or attention in the last few years. In each area his contention is that even though the popular opinion tends to be that new scholarship reduces the trustworthiness of the Bible, it in fact does the opposite. In this way his book follows some of the strongest intellectual traditions in the Christian faith. We have always, when we are at our best, opened our faith and our Scriptures to scrutiny and taken the best results as they come. The Christian can do this because of a fundamental belief, that all truth is God’s truth, can be found by us, and when we find the truth about contested matters we find God’s fingerprint.

 

So Blomberg tackles head-on the most talked about and the most serious criticisms of biblical reliability and comes to the settled opinion that the more scholarship has advanced in these areas, the more our confidence in the reliability of Scripture is strengthened. Thus, the title of the book. As it turns out, those who tend to be the most vocal in their criticism of biblical reliability are the least informed of recent scholarship, basic details of language and culture, and the implications of advances in the field.

In the first chapter, “Aren’t the Copies of the Bible Hopelessly Corrupt?” Blomberg tackles the matter of the variants and dates of both Old Testament and New Testament documents. The primary advocate for the skeptic’s position, at least in the public square, is Bart Ehrman, so Blomberg takes his assertions as his launching pad into the details that matters. Ehrman claims that there are more than 400,000 variants in the NT documents, making the astonishing claim that there are more differences between early copies than there are words in the NT. This would clearly lead one to believe, and this is Ehrman’s tactic, that there is no single phrase (or word!) in the NT that is not doubtful. The sane thing to do, then, is to throw the whole thing out.

 

Blomberg does the work of teasing out the various early manuscripts, doing the math, and dealing with the most significant variants. It turns out that many of those variants are single differences multiplied several times over the 25,000 early manuscripts we have of the NT. The vast majority of the remainders fall into categories like syntax, grammar, and spelling variances. Several others are obvious scribal additions to try and clarify the meaning  of a passage. Two that merit significant note are passages familiar to anyone who reads their English translations: Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11. The attentive Bible reader knows these variants because their translation tells them they are most likely not in the most reliable manuscripts. Now, that is intellectual honesty.

 

Blomberg concludes, “By now the point should be clear. The vast majority of textual variants are wholly uninteresting except to specialists. When one hears numbers like 400,000 variants…one must remember that they are spread across 25,000 manuscripts….Less than 3 percent of them are significant enough to be presented in one of the two standard critical editions of the Greek New Testament. Only about a tenth of 1 percent are interesting enough to make their way into footnotes in most English translations. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that no orthodox doctrine or ethical practice of Christianity depends solely on any disputed wording” (pg. 27, emphasis his).

 

Ironically, Ehrman admits as much in the appendix of his book, Misquoting Jesus. But how many readers get all the way through the appendices, and what conclusions have they been led to by then, anyway? If someone wants to flat-out affirm the hopeless corruption of the biblical documents chances are they simply haven’t done the work necessary to understand the issue.

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About Phil Steiger