I've been doing some research on how reliable the reconstructed Greek NTs are (I would suppose the Nestle-Aland and UBS). One paper I see cited more than any other is Clay Jones' paper to the Christian Research Journal. This paper makes it seem very difficult to contest the reliability of the NT text. I mean that the Greek NTs that most English NTs are translated from accurately reflects the original text.

I'm a real amateur when it comes to these things, and I'm having a hard time finding the answers on my own. The only person of significance I could find that contests their accuracy is Bart Ehrman, and it seems like numerous people have found serious flaws with his opinions. Again, this is just from armchair browsing.

Stand to Reason has an article that claims the NT is 99.5% textually pure. Is this also a generally reliable number? If my understanding of what this means is flawed, then what exactly does it mean?

I guess the question I'm trying to ask is, is there anyone with a claim against the reliability of the NT text itself that is legitimate? I read that the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus are subject to universal assent, but does the reliability of the text come anywhere close to that?

It might help clarify my question if I say why I'm looking for this information. I'm writing a paper that deals with challenges to the authenticity of some pretty fundamental Christian doctrines: namely that Jesus is the Son of God and was crucified and risen from the dead.


To what extent do textual variations challenge accepted church doctrines?

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    Welcome to BH.SE! From your participation on other StackExchange sites, you'll know that questions need parameters in order to "work" in this Q&A format. I think this question is much too broad as it stands, though you've got one helpful reply already. I suggest you ask on Meta for some help with bibliography to orient you to this (mine)field. With that background, you'll be in a much better position to ask meaningful questions on "main". The interests in your last paragraph are perhaps better dealt with on Christianity.SE. Hope that helps! – Dɑvïd Jul 4 '15 at 16:36
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    Textual variations do not impact any doctrine, because doctrine is not based upon a single text, but the whole of scripture, this makes the question in present form unanswerable in my opinion, maybe a better question to ask would be "To what extent do textual variations challenge accepted validity of the NT text?" – Jonathan Chell Jul 6 '15 at 7:22
  • While this particular question is too broad, perhaps the underlying reasons for your questions would make for great questions? There are huge amounts of materials to read on the matter, however for a shorter, easier to read summary, these questions are addressed in some of the chapters of this book. amazon.com/The-King-James-Only-Controversy/dp/0764206052 If you prefer an academic treatment on the matter, then I could recommend some more advanced books. – Jay Jul 7 '15 at 4:48
  • Although the question was closed, someone already put significant work into answering it, and deleting the content of the question doesn’t make much sense to me. I rolled back the edit that did so, but please let me know if you have some specific concerns about this. – Susan Jul 7 '15 at 8:33

Counting the number of early manuscripts we have for the New Testament and comparing this with the number of manuscripts of other ancient texts achieves nothing, other than to distract attention from evidence that authors such as Clay Jones are less comfortable with. Is he trying to prove that, for example, even our most ancient manuscript of the Iliad is hopelessly corrupt? Or is he trying to prove that if our most ancient manuscript of the Iliad may be close to the original, then the greater number of NT manuscripts guarantees reliability for the New Testament? Neither argument is a sound approach to proving the relative accuracy of the New Testament. I do not know and would not challenge whether the New Testament is 99.5 per cent pure by word count, but this is less important than whether there are major contestants to the argument for reliability.

The second article cited in the question makes use of the same argument, although to a lesser extent. Citing New Testament specialist Daniel Wallace, it acknowledges that there are about 300,000 individual variations of the text, although it is true that most of these variations are inconsequential.

By looking at some of these variations, we can see whether some are really very important, even if they are small in number.

Theologically, the most important error in transmission is in Mark 16:9-20, known today as the 'Long Ending'. Mark's Gospel is believed to have originally ended at verse 16:8, with the young man telling the women that Jesus was risen and they fled in terror, telling no one. The verses that follow differ in style to the body of Mark and do not fit into a proposed parallel structure that otherwise includes the entire gospel. There was also, at one stage, a 'Short Ending' and also a variant of the 'Long Ending'. So, in the earliest New Testament gospel to be written, no one saw Jesus again after his crucifixion and burial.

While not an error in transmission, Uta Ranke-Heinemann says in Putting Away Childish Things , page 7, the nativity accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are, with respect to time, place, and circumstances, a collection of legends. This is a view that many respected scholars agree with.

The former Australian Anglican Primate, Archbishop Peter Carnley wrote of the differing stories of the empty tomb:

The presence of discrepancies might be a sign of historicity if we had four clearly independent but slightly different versions of the story, if only for the reason that four witnesses are better than one. But, of course, it is now impossible to argue that what we have in the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb are four contemporaneous but independent accounts of the one event. Modern redactional studies of the traditions account for the discrepancies as literary developments at the hand of later redactors of what was originally one report of the empty tomb...

There is no suggestion that the tomb was discovered by different witnesses on four different occasions, so it is in fact impossible to argue that the discrepancies were introduced by different witnesses of the one event; rather, they can be explained as four different redactions for apologetic and kerygmatic reasons of a single story originating from one source."

Another theologically important error in transmission is known as the Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7), as it has been relied on as biblical evidence for the Holy Trinity. The text including the comma reads (KJV):

1 John 5:7: For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 1 John 5:8: And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one

If the comma is removed, it would read:

For there are three that bear record, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one

The editors of the 1808 New Testament in an improved version found the following reasons for rejecting the comma:

  1. This text concerning the heavenly witnesses is not contained in any Greek manuscript which was written earlier than the fifteenth century.
  2. Nor in any Latin manuscript earlier than the ninth century.
  3. It is not found in any of the ancient versions.
  4. It is not cited by any of the Greek ecclesiastical writers, though to prove the doctrine of the Trinity they have cited the words both before and after this text
  5. It is not cited by any of the early Latin fathers, even when the subjects upon which they treat would naturally have led them to appeal to its authority.
  6. It is first cited by Virgilius Tapsensis, a Latin writer of no credit, in the latter end of the fifth century, and by him it is suspected to have been forged.
  7. It has been omitted as spurious in many editions of the New Testament since the Reformation:—in the two first of Erasmus, in those of Aldus, Colinaus, Zwinglius, and lately of Griesbach.
  8. It was omitted by Luther in his German version.

An alteration of historical relevance, rather than theological, is the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. The Epistle is undoubtedly authentic, but appears not to be a single epistle as written by Paul. A study of the book shows references to two further Pauline epistles, and evidence that those two epistles are actually incorporated in 2 Corinthians. It appears that at one stage quite early in Christian history, there were incomplete copies only, of the three epistles. The best that could be done was to consolidate them into a single epistle and circulate it in this form.

There are many other interpolations and variations, most of them trivial, but also some of significance. It would be impossible to canvass even a small proportion of them, but I have shown there are major contestants to the argument for reliability.

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    (1) relative inerrancy of the New Testament in the first paragraph is using the term inerrancy in a non-standard way. (2) Of course you’re aware that most trinitarians don’t think that the doctrine rises or falls on the Johannine Comma. (You didn’t say that. I’m just pointing this out in case anyone thought that was implied.) (3) Tangentially relevant: Is the ending of the gospel of Mark original? and What is the argument against the authenticity of 1 John 5:7-8 in the KJV? – Susan Jul 4 '15 at 10:09
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    @Susan Thank you as always for your comments. I notice David fixed my inerrancy to the better 'accuracy'. 'trinitarians' - yes I am well aware of that, but I was merely providing an example of an alteration to an original text, not trying to establish whether to believe in the Trinity. Its seems to me that OP is writing his first theology paper, perhaps as a commencing undergraduate and I was trying to be as helpful as possible. Had I envisaged it as too broad, I would not have answered this question. – Dick Harfield Jul 4 '15 at 21:58
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    In regards to scholarship when it comes to textual criticism one needs to understand the presuppositions of the scholars, men like Ehrman are looking for reason to doubt the transmission whereas men like Clay are looking for reasons to support the transmission - both write with a basis. – Jonathan Chell Jul 6 '15 at 7:26
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    @DickHarfield how is Mark 16:9-20 'theologically significant'? In 20 years of preaching and teaching I don't think I have had to refer to it to support or establish a single doctrine of scripture once. – Jonathan Chell Jul 6 '15 at 7:29
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    @DickHarfield that would be significant (though not theologically) if it were true. Happily it is not true. Mark 16:1-8 contains the account of the empty tomb being discovered and the angel's explanation that, 'he is risen' (Mark 16:6) – Jonathan Chell Jul 7 '15 at 7:18

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