Book Review: Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism

Posted by Clark Bates
November 30, 2019

Disclaimer

For the sake of full disclosure, I must state that many of the contributors to this book are acquaintances and/or friends. Two of whom I work directly for. While this might lead readers to believe I cannot review this work objectively, I hope that they will not still believe this at the end. For those who have read the articles here regularly, it should also be understood that much of the material in this text corresponds to the same ideals expressed here.

Review

Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

I was speaking to a church group, expected to be an expert in all things apologetics, feeling the pressure to be both a low-budget Bible Answer Man, and encourage the congregation that they have good reasons to be Christians and to trust their Bible. When the time came for me to martial the evidence for the reliability of Scripture, I told them confidently, “Even if we didn’t have the New Testament, the quotations from the Church Fathers are so plenteous that we could recreate the entire New Testament and even close to the whole Bible, just from those!” I went on to say that even though many skeptics like to make a big deal out of “errors” or “variants” in the manuscripts, if you compiled them all, “The New Testament is still 99% accurate in every detail”, and “none of these variants, even make a difference to the Christian faith.”.

That was many years ago, and today I’ve come to learn that even though my intentions were good, my information was not. I still see these factual errors made in print and in conversation from fellow apologists, which tells me that bad information, because it is often sensational, circulates widely. It’s for this reason that Peter Gurry and Elijah Hixson’s book is so well timed. Both editors being junior academics themselves, have compiled some of the brightest young minds in textual studies today, to help inform the church and apologists about the actual data and its ramifications for the text of the Bible. This is not done in a condescending manner but with a genuine desire to see these ministries flourish through the use of accurate weights and measures. The authors introduce their work by citing several common errors made in defense of the faith and do not shy away from naming some of the more prominent figures who have done so. The chapters are then divided into 15 “Myths” that have been believed by Christians for many years.

Timothy Mitchell, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham, addresses the myth of “autographs”, taking to task claims of extended longevity made by a recent popularly acclaimed film, as well as the challenge of defining early publication in the 1st century. Jacob Peterson, PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, tackles the ever inflating “math myths” regarding how many New Testament manuscripts actually exist. Addressing the difficulty of actually cataloguing these texts and identifying those manuscripts that exist in multiple fragments, each with their own shelf number though being one actual manuscript, Peterson provides a more accurate count and a more balanced understanding of what this data actually means for the Christian. In one of the most enlightening chapters, James Prothro, graduate of the University of Cambridge, explains the different methodology used by scholars of classical literature when recognizing manuscript evidence and that used by apologists. In doing so, he provides a rarely afforded glimpse into this academic community with an appeal for Christians to avoid the extreme counts on either side of the argument and focus on more realistic numbers. The mid way point of the book is reached by addressing the “myth of dating” in 2 chapters. The first, written by University of Edinburgh graduate Elijah Hixson, tackles the overlooked difficulties of paleographic dating methods. By citing examples from both the extremely conservative dates often preferred in Christian apologetics and the preference for late-dating by those like Brent Nongbri, the chapter serves both as a crash course in paleography and manuscript awareness. For most Christians, an early date is to be preferred while a late date to be rejected. Others, opt for the middle of the road, selecting a date between the two extremes. The power of this chapter is in the author’s explanation that none of the three options is an accurate use of the data. The second chapter, authored by University of Cambridge graduate Gregory Lanier, tackles the adage of “earlier manuscripts are always better”, by guiding readers through a primer on the later Greek manuscripts of the Bible. In so doing, the author provides evidence for the consistency of these texts and their potential for containing earlier readings. In tandem with the preceding chapter, Lanier’s work serves as an exceptionally measured response to the doubts of scribal accuracy.

The latter half of the text begins with University of Edinburgh graduate, Zachary Cole and a discussion on the actual habits of scribes and copyists who handled the New Testament texts. This chapter follows effectively after the last and serves as a more academic response to the skeptical claims made in popular work such as Misquoting Jesus. By analyzing various, observable tendencies in Manuscripts, Cole builds a macrostructure of behaviors that reveal a tendency for accuracy over error. Having discussed the actual copyists of manuscripts, University of Cambridge graduate, Peter Malik, uses his chapter to address the actual mistakes and corrections they made. As he states that, “the scribe’s main goal was not to innovate, and when they did, it was often accidental.” Additionally, helpful here is the author’s discussion on how to weigh a “correction”, especially if it is corrected by the original scribe. Moving into the “myth of transmission”, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary graduate S. Matthew Solomon distills his PhD dissertation on the manuscripts of Philemon into a digestible discussion on the accuracy of the transmission of the text. This chapter addresses the type of variation most often seen and its lack of impact in Christian doctrine, and lays the foundation for the following chapter by University of Cambridge graduate Peter Gurry. In this chapter, Gurry accesses the claim that no variants are significant for the Christian faith and points out several that do. In so doing, he seeks to adjust the argument away from oversimplification and require readers to face difficult variants head-on.

In perhaps the most direct chapter addressing a specific skeptical challenge, Robert Marcello, PhD student at Dallas Theological Seminary, speaks to the “myth of orthodox corruption”. Refining the subject of the previous chapter to focus on “why” scribes might change the text, Marcello explains the difficulty of identifying a theological motivation in most cases, and addresses those instances where it is clearly the case. Addressing one of my own errors stated above, University of Edinburgh graduate Andrew Blaski takes on the myth of patristics and the claim that we can recreate the NT text from quotations. This chapter excellently establishes the difficulty with even identifying a direct quotation in the writings of the early church and reveals to readers the source of this oft made fallacious claim. John Meade, graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, draws from his expertise as a Canon scholar to address the “Myths of Canon”. This chapter reviews various approaches to defending the NT canon, and the areas where they fall short, concluding with an assessment of canonical lists of the early church and their value for apologetic methodology. PhD student at the University of Notre Dame, Jeremiah Coogan, uses his chapter to expose readers to the world of manuscript versions (i.e. non-Greek translations of the New Testament) and their role in textual studies. Citing both their value and limitations, Coogan deflates the notion that an “earlier” text might somehow be recreated from a version and reminds readers of their value in revealing how the New Testament was received in other cultures. The book ends with a first-of-its-kind chapter, wherein Bible translator and graduate of the University of Birmingham, Edgar Obojo discusses how textual criticism effects the translation of the New Testament and how both enterprises share some concerns, but differ in others.

There is much to be commended in this book. The effort on the part of each author reveals both a strong academic affinity as well as a commitment to the faith and life of the church. At times the discussions may delve into such technical depths that the lay reader becomes lost, therefore, having a basic understanding of the terminology employed by textual critics can be very helpful before reading. That being said, every reader that becomes lost will be saved through the immensely helpful “Key Takeaways” section at the close of each chapter. These sections provide easily memorable bullet points of the overall discussion that readers can return to at will. As an apologist, I must admit that there were moments in which my ego was slightly bruised when reading, and others where my initial thought was the criticism was little more than tilting at windmills, given the specificity which the authors were trying to attain. But, I digress, that egos can and should recover, and what might appear to be unnecessary criticism to some is actually warranted if the integrity of our defense is at the forefront of our minds.

It is rightly said that there are more manuscripts of the New Testament than any other ancient classical text, but if we apply numbers to this claim, we must ensure that those numbers are true. Likewise, it is rightly stated that the doctrines of the church are not affected by any single variant in scripture, but this is not because those variants don’t matter; it is because no doctrine of the church rest exclusively on one verse. It is true that the church fathers reference scripture throughout their writings, but they do not do so in such a way as to accurately apply chapter and verse, nor could we know that they are citing Scripture, if we did not have the New Testament to compare them to. And perhaps the hardest truth for some to hold to is that we do not need a first century copy of Mark, or any other New Testament text, to defend the reliability of the message of Scripture. Therefore, always choosing the earliest date for the manuscripts in our possession is neither necessary nor recommended when engaging with lay people in the body of Christ.

This book accomplishes its goal in speaking the truth with love, and prods the apologetics community to walk with greater integrity than we have done in the past. It is also helpful for any person interested in the world of textual criticism and serves as an excellent primer into the various facets of this academic field. It is helpful for the minister seeking to educate their congregation, the apologist looking to mature in their knowledge and the student considering where they would like to take their studies in the future. It’s initial success in sales is testament to the felt need in the broader community and I hope that the desire for it continues to grow, as it is my core conviction that apologists, as soldiers on the frontline of the spiritual battle, must, above all others, walk in truth and integrity. I have made the mistakes listed in this book.  I have believed many of the myths. I am certain that you have too. I choose to learn from those mistakes and not repeat them. I pray you will choose the same, and make this book the turning point for you future engagements.

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