(editor’s note: This is a follow-up to a previous question which explains his asking about my “methodology used to acquire the [claim of] 99% [accuracy for the Greek NT])
Thanks Dr. Oakes for taking the time to look at my contact form. he openly admits that we should avoid like the plague knowing with absolute certainty the original wording of the Bible. However, I did look at your site and there are specific questions I hope you can address that your site did not. In the debate I sent you there are a few questions that Daniel Wallace failed to answer and I hope you can:
How does the [A] variant reading in the UBS Greek New Testament relate to the original autograph reading?Why can’t New Testament textual critics come to a conclusion on how the original autographs looked like.
a) What is the original format of the Book of Acts – Is it the Western Text Type or Alexandrian Text there is 10% difference in content between them? Or neither?
b) Did the gospel of john contain the prologue and epilogue? The stylistic differences show they were not part of the original but the manuscript evidence all have them?
If we all ready have original wording of the New Testament or Old Testament then why are there textual critical scholars working to recover the original wording? I mean what’s the point of searching for earlier manuscripts – Why wasn’t the TR good enough? How many of the King James readers though 1 John 5:7, John 7:53-8:11, Mark 16-9:20 were authentic and not forgeries/corruptions. Why did Holy Spirit not just preserve the wording of the original autographs and come up with a unanimous definition of how the new testament canon should look like for all Christians(Ethiopian new testament canon differs in number of books compared to one another).
I did not use a methodology on the 99%. I have read several estimates and looked carefully at how they do their estimates. I have concluded that it is impossible to calculate the exact amount of material in the Greek New Testament which is in doubt. I can tell from your comments that you have already thought about this for yourself. How would we define “in doubt”? For example, all agree that part of 1 John 5:7-8 in the King James Version represents an interpolation. There is no significant doubt that this addition was NOT in the original, so, by definition, there is no doubt about that passage. Yet, some might list that as a passage about which there is some doubt. I believe that it is impossible to calculate the exact quantity of text which is in doubt, so I am in the habit of giving a rough approximation (and you will notice that in my response I implied that the number is not exact, as I said something like 98-99%. In fact, I believe that a more conservative 99.5% of material being not in doubt is easily justifiable, but I like to give a higher number so as to not be in danger of overstating the evidence. Anyway, you are right that we do not have the autographs, so all such estimates are approximations.
Bottom line, if you want to know the exact number of variants, you will not be able to get that number, so you will have to settle for having inexact knowledge. That is the nature of the subject. In any case, the exact number really is not important at all. What is important is the qualitative evaluation of how reliable our Greek New Testament text is. I already stated my conclusion from a long hard look at the data. I conclude from my studies that there is not a single important Christian doctrine at stake in the very minor textual issues. This is really all that matters. Among all ancient texts in the world, the Greek New Testament is the one about which we have by far the most evidence and it is the most reliable text from the ancient world we have, by far, with no close second place. Our knowledge of the Greek text is based on more than 8000 manuscripts. There is an embarrassment of riches of material on the New Testament. It is the incredible amount of data we have which is the reason for the supposed 400,000 variations. We ought to see the forest despite the trees which is that we have a vast amount of data which allows us to reconstruct a Greek text with a fantastic level of reliability. We cannot say this about the Iliad or the Odyssey or the writings of Caesar, Livy, Tacitus or Cicero.
How does a variant reading in the UBS Greek New Testament relate to the autograph? This is a question for scholars to determine. Many examples can be explored, but in almost (but not all) cases, a study of the various manuscripts, combined with some basic common-sense rules, allows us to determine what the original was with great confidence most of the time. Which is it? “Wisdom is proved right by her deeds” or “Wisdom is proved right by her children” (Luke 7:35). The answer is that some common-sense rules say that 90+% the original was children. Two points, however. First of all we are highly confident but not absolutely certain which was the original. Second, the meaning of the text is not changed significantly by the distinction. Here is what matters: do modern-day readers have sufficiently accurate access to the original that we can read the New Testament with confidence that we have the original inspired message available to us today? My answer is a resounding and very confident YES! Again, we should not get so caught up in the trees that we fail to see the forest, which is that our knowledge of the autographs is extremely good.
Let me apply this to the Alexandrian versus the Western text of Acts. To be honest, I would need you to be specific about which passage in Acts you would like me to discuss. Each example should be taken on its own merits. If you gave me chapter and verse I would be happy to discuss the manuscript evidence and to suggest which is the likely original. The bottom line is that the supposed Western text and Alexandrian text agree on almost the entire book of Acts. There is a great deal of discussion amongst scholars as to which is generally more reliable. To be honest, I tend to favor the Alexandrian text the majority of the time because it is found more often in the most ancient manuscripts. However, scribal slips and even interpolations happened in both textual types, so there is no simple answer. For some textual questions, the “Western” text may be the more accurate one. However, let me bring you back to the main point again, which is that, as a rule, the differences in the big picture are truly minimal in terms of the meaning of the text of Acts. No significant Christian teaching is thrown into doubt by textual questions in Acts, which is really the only important question in the big picture.
I have studied John in great depth. (see my notes and power point in the power point section of the web site) My conclusion is that the prologue is definitely part of the original. It is a perfect introduction to the content of the book. Almost no scholars doubt that John wrote the prologue and the few who do strike me as rather biased. The writing style of the prologue is somewhat different from the rest of the book, but that is because it is a prologue! The case with the epilogue is different. Here the style is more different. Unlike the prologue, it does not fit beautifully with the rest of the book. Here is my opinion. John wrote the epilogue to address a specific question and added it to the book that he had already written. I believe it is by the same author but that it was added as an afterthought to address the question of the restoration of Peter, which explains its significantly different style.
The reason that scholars are “trying to discover the original wording” of the New and Old Testament is that we all want to have the most accurate Old and New Testament possible. The Bible claims to be the inspired Word of God, so, naturally, people take the Bible more seriously than other books. It is literally the most studied book in human history. We have a very accurate Hebrew OT and Greek NT, but scholars pore diligently over all new manuscript finds (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls) to make our knowledge of the text, which is already fantastic, even better. The fact that scholars do their best to create as accurate as possible a Greek text does not at all take away from the fact that what we already have is very reliable. In fact, if you think about it, in makes us more, not less confident.
Such is not the case with studies of the Koran. Muslims are very defensive about the text of the Koran. They do not at all encourage study of variant texts. Generally, they do not even admit that there ARE variant texts, despite the vast array of examples of variant readings. This lack of interest by Muslims in studying the text of the Koran should make us less, not more confident in the reliability of the Koran. Yet, ironically, few question the Koran. This might be partly because it is a dangerous undertaking. With Islam it is only the outsiders who study the text. With Christianity it is the believers who do most of the study. This should make us more not less confident.
About the King James. This translation was made in 1608. It was based on only a very few Greek manuscripts, and those were only of later manuscripts. Bottom line, the Greek manuscripts used to make the King James translation were not as good as the more ancient ones. Despite this, the King James is still a fairly good one. Yes, it is true that it contains a couple of unreliable interpolation, such as Acts 8:37 and 1 John 5:7. Here is my response to these. Neither of these have a major effect on the meaning of the New Testament. Both are interpolations—essentially a scribe wrote a comment in the margin which explained the text, and later the comment was included in the manuscript. The King James translation is a fairly good and accurate one, but if we have new information, why not include the new information and make an even better translation? More knowledge makes for an even more accurate translation. Why would this bother anyone? I do not believe than any Christian believers lost their salvation because of the errors included in the KJV, but we are fortunate to have an even more accurate New Testament.
Why did the Holy Spirit not deliver to us an absolutely perfect Greek New Testament? The answer is that God chose to use human beings. Humans are not perfect. Humans make mistakes. God has always used humans. He uses humans to deliver the message of Jesus. He could drop messages out of the sky or he could force people to believe, but that is not how the God of the Bible works. He gives us free will. Now, my analysis of the data says that God’s use of human beings has only introduced errors which are very minor and which have no significant impact on the overall New Testament. Did God intervene to prevent such gross changes in the New Testament? Maybe he did, but I cannot say. All I can say for sure is that the final product—our Greek and therefore our translated English Bibles are fantastically reliable but not perfect. This is good enough for me and I hope it will be good enough for you.
I hope this helps.
PS, the Ethiopian New Testament is NOT different from the New Testament of other groups. It has a slightly different list of books for the Old Testament, not for the New Testament. This brings us to the question of biblical canon, but I will leave that for another day and another question from you.