Book Reviews New Testament

Book Review: Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (eds. Hixson & Gurry)

When people think about studying the Bible, most don’t think, “I really need to make a text critical analysis of this passage. Let me search for some manuscripts (sometimes abbreviated as mss) so I can best understand what Paul is trying to say.” So, understandably, there is a vast majority of people who are going to walk past this book. In fact, for me personally, I’m not training to be a textual critic. I won’t be the next Bruce Metzger, Peter Gentry, Dan Wallce (or any of those who wrote chapters in this book). So why did I ask to review it?

I asked IVP Academic for this book because I know next to nothing about text criticism, and because the contributors want to inform Christians about current scholarship and what we know about manuscripts, translations, dates, and their copyists. Accurate knowledge helps us to continue affirming the Bible’s trustworthiness. Many who want to uphold the Bible’s trustworthiness tend to make overstated or misinformed arguments when they talk about the number of manuscripts we have (ch 3), how many manuscripts we have in comparison to classic works (ch 4), how well the copyists copied (ch 7-8), how many variants there are and how few actually matter (ch 10), how often the early church fathers actually “quoted” the NT (ch 12), and more.

Why does this matter? Because when someone misrepresents information about the Bible, even unintentionally, others will look it up, show that that person was wrong, which will make them appear less credible. For instance, it has been often said that if every NT Greek manuscript were destroyed, we have enough quotes from the early church fathers to put the NT back together again, minus about eleven verses (see ch 12). As Andrew Blaski shows, that simply isn’t true. And that idea is actually a conflation of two separate stories, yet it’s referred to by many apologists and in various books. Blaski writes about how an Islamic apologetic organization called Islamic Awareness went through the effort of testing one of the stories behind this theory and found that it wasn’t true. Blaski has more to say about the patristic theory, but this is one example that shows us its good to have accurate information when we try to defend the Bible.

In Math Myths (Ch 3), Jacob Peterson writes that there are about 5,300 “Greek New Testament manuscripts in existence,” but 5,100 “might be a safer estimate” (69). Some say there are way more manuscripts than that (sometimes they include mss from other languages such as Latin and Syriac). Others make it sound as if all the manuscripts we have are full NT manuscripts, when most are only part of the NT. It’s also quite difficult (and somewhat pointless) to try to get an exact count of all the mss.

My favorite chapter was Myths About Copyists (Ch 7) by Zachary Cole. In Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman popularized the idea that those who first copied the NT were unprofessionals not trained for the job. Therefore, we can’t trust the manuscripts that we have today because they were more likely to make mistakes. What Cole shows instead was how likely it is that the copyists can be trusted. Simply because many were probably unprofessionals doesn’t mean they were untrained.

First off, to be a “professional” copyist meant you were “by trade a scribe or held a scribal title… Importantly, the term is not synonymous with ‘competent’ (in fact, we have evidence of professional yet clearly incompetent scribes!)” (138). So work was often done “in-house.” If you were looking for a NT manuscript to be copied, and you knew you had a trained copyist in your church, you would ask them for help. Cole presents a few different studies showing that, “It seems clear that the vast majority of the Christian papyri were copied by trained scribes” (139).

As well, NT mss were very long. Cole writes, “The average ancient letter was less than one page in length” (143). As many know (at least those who remember taking handwritten notes in school), the longer you write the sloppier your handwriting tends to get. One manuscript called P45 has 60 pages remaining of what was probably an original 440 page-long manuscript of the four Gospels and Acts. Certainly someone didn’t write all 440 pages at once, but this is obviously longer than the average ancient letter. Yet the handwriting in that manuscript is “on the whole amazingly even, and his practice with regard to orthography, punctuation and the use of nomina sacra astonishingly consistent” (140).

Cole equally admits that we have no manuscripts from the first century, and what we have from the second century is fragmentary. So we can’t make “firm judgments about the training of scribes whose work no longer remains” (144). However, if we possess high-quality work in the late-second and third centuries, it’s very likely the quality of work earlier would have been just as high. Cole shows that Ehrman is quite wrong, and that the early copyists can be trusted.

Though the various authors disagree on different matters in the book, they all agree that “even the most textually corrupted of our manuscripts and editions still convey the central truths of the Christian faith with clarity and power. In every age, God has given his people a text that is more than reliable enough to know the saving work he has accomplished through Jesus Christ” (20, xix, and see p. 5).

Recommended?

For those interested in textual criticism and its current state of affairs, or in defending the authority of the Bible, this book is for you. Some chapters were more difficult for me to understand than others (both chapters 5 and 6 on dating manuscripts were quite technical), but you will learn a lot in this book, and it will be another beam supporting the Bible’s authority for you.

Lagniappe

  • Editors: Elijah Hixson & Peter Gurry
    • The contributors are all NT textual critics. They are either PhD candidates or students, professors, translation advisors, junior, research associates, or assistant executive directors, all who have a good grasp on the field of textual criticism and who all proclaim faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Blog: Evangelical Textual Criticism)
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (November 5, 2019)

Buy it from Amazon or IVP Academic!

Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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