Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism

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Editor(s): 
Peter J. Gurry , Elijah Hixson
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , November
     2019.
     400 pages.
     $40.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830852574.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Over the last twenty years, perhaps no New Testament textual critic has received more attention from Christian apologists than Bart Ehrman, in large part because of his bestselling work, Misquoting Jesus (HarperCollins, 2005). In response to Ehrman, among others, some apologists have sought to defend the veracity of the Bible by advancing arguments that have had the opposite effect, causing others to doubt the Bible’s credibility because of outdated or erroneous information.

In Myths and Mistakes, Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry have assembled a team of “(relatively) early career academics” to provide updated and accurate information and to correct these flawed arguments (22). The contributors to this volume are identified as being “convinced that the Bible should be loved and that its text can be trusted” and that it “is crucial to the faith and practice of Christians” (4). While Hixson and Gurry set out to “offer reliable arguments” for those who defend the Bible, namely “Christian speakers and writers,” many from all backgrounds will benefit from this volume (20–21). The contributors critique arguments which weaken our understanding of the New Testament whether they come from those critical of the New Testament or those attempting to defend it. While Ehrman frequently comes under criticism (and occasionally praise), the majority of the arguments are aimed at correcting the defective claims of those who defend the trustworthiness of New Testament. Hixson and Gurry provide a gentle correction (in some instances piercing) of widespread misleading or mistaken claims about the text of the New Testament.

This volume is broadly arranged into three categories: arguments related to manuscripts, arguments pertaining to copying, and arguments concerning citation, canonization, and translation (22). While not comprehensive, the selection of topics provides an effective introduction to the major issues involved in textual criticism. Since an investigation of each chapter is not possible here, a survey of a chapter from each section might suffice.

In chapter 3, Jacob W. Peterson responds to claim that there are over 24,000 manuscripts of the New Testament to demonstrate that the Bible is reliable (49). Peterson shows why the number of manuscripts is not enough to prove the Bible’s trustworthiness. The first issue advanced by Peterson concerns the problems of counting manuscripts: double counting, manuscript loss, and material bias. Second, Peterson explains that manuscripts must be weighed rather than counted as all manuscripts are not all equally reliable or significant (62–67). Peterson concludes by offering advice on how to approach the number of manuscripts. First, since not all manuscripts are as helpful as others for reconstructing the text, having more is not always better. Second, while Peterson shows how to find the most up-to-date numbers using the official registry housed by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research, he suggests using “round numbers” and offers fifty-three hundred for the number of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Third, Peterson cautions his readers to be clear about the limited apologetic value of manuscripts. The manuscripts cannot prove Christianity to be true because a reliable text still would not prove that the content of the text is reliable (68).

One of the strengths of the volume is the balance it seeks to provide. In chapter 10, Gurry navigates the divide between Ehrman’s statement “even if God had inspired the original words, we don’t have the original words” (Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 11)) and Wayne Grudem’s statement that our critical editions of the Old and New Testaments are essentially “the same as the original manuscripts” (Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan, 1994], italics original], 96), and he shows that both claims are overstated (192). Gurry estimates that there are around half a million variants, not including spelling differences, and that nearly half are meaningless mistakes (210). Sometimes apologists give the impression that these variants do not matter or affect theological doctrines. Following Daniel Wallace, Gurry concludes, “‘noncentral’ beliefs or practices seem to be affected by viable variants but that ‘no viable variant affects any cardinal truth of the New testament’” (207, italics original).

In chapter 14, Jeremiah Coogan provides a current state of scholarship and corrects unguarded overstatements found in both apologetic and popular literature about the number of manuscript evidence for early versions, translations of the Greek New Testament (278). The starting point for Coogan is the myth that there are approximately 25,000 early manuscripts of the New Testament. Coogan focuses his study on the earliest translations of the Greek New Testament— namely, those translations into Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. This chapter provides an erudite introduction to understanding the versions that would benefit anyone first approaching the translations of the Greek New Testament. Readers may be disappointed that rather than receiving a precise number to replace the often repeated claims that there are 25,000 non-Greek manuscripts and 10,000 of them are Latin, Coogan suggests, “it is better to say that there are a few thousand versional manuscripts and leave it at that” (303). This is consistent with the point made by Peterson, to use round numbers, and a major theme running throughout the volume: one must be clear about the evidence we have and what it can and cannot do.

While Hixson and Gurry state they do not primarily write for textual critics, since they “will know most of what is presented here,” many of the arguments in the chapters critique arguments made by scholars (19). It would be wrong to assume that this volume would only benefit apologists and Christians interested in the text of the New Testament; however, it should be required reading for them. Hixson and Gurry have delivered an engaging and up-to-date resource providing caution, clarity, and precision as to what the current state of New Testament textual criticism can and cannot offer for our understanding of the text. Myths and Mistakes has raised the level of discourse concerning the text of the New Testament. Anyone seeking to gain a greater understanding of the text of it will benefit from this volume for years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Z. Blackwell is a PhD candidate in New Testament and Christian origins at the University of Edinburgh.

Date of Review: 
May 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elijah Hixson is junior research associate in New Testament Text and Language at Tyndale House, Cambridge, and author of Scribal Habits in Sixth-Century Greek Purple Codices

 

Peter J. Gurry is assistant professor of New Testament and codirector of the Text & Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary. 

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