Series Introduction: Leigh Ann Thompson | Interview: Joy Singh and Peter J. Gurry
In November the book Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism—edited by Peter Gurry and Elijah Hixson— hit the shelves. Each chapter in the book considers a “myth” about manuscripts and the text of the New Testament and offers a response with helpful information for apologists and lay people who are interested in how data about manuscripts influences our understanding of the reliability of the text of the New Testament.
Some of the authors of Myths and Mistakes have kindly participated in interviews with the CSNTM interns about their contributions. Over the next few weeks we will post these written interviews here on CSNTM’s blog. We hope you enjoy learning from the book’s contributors, and we highly recommend purchasing the book for yourself!
Peter Gurry is the co-editor of Myths and Mistakes and he wrote a chapter on “Myths about Variants,” which investigates the number and nature of the differences between the texts in New Testament manuscripts. Peter is an Assistant Professor of the New Testament and Co-Director of the Text and Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary, Arizona. He graduated with a ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary and PhD from Cambridge University. Gurry regularly contributes to the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog.
What inspired or got you interested in the field of New Testament Textual Criticism?
I had been interested in how we get our English Bible since high school when I received my first Greek New Testament. In college, I took more Greek and that’s where I first learned about textual criticism. I was fascinated and challenged by the process by which scholars move from hundreds and hundreds of hand-copied manuscripts to a printed Greek New Testament and, finally, to my English Bible. I wanted to know as much as I could about this process. I’ve also had a long interest in visual communication, and so I was immediately drawn to manuscripts themselves because of their scripts, formatting, paragraphing, artwork, layout, etc. Eventually, my passion for all this took me to Dallas Seminary and CSNTM. It was on my first trip with the Center that I got to see my first (non-forged!) Greek New Testament manuscript. That settled it. I was hooked.
You talk about the discrepancy in citing the variants. How do you define a variant? And how does the existence of variants add or detract from the claim to the reliability of the text?
Well, the discrepancy I talk about is about estimating the number variants. What I found in the academic literature was a wide variety of claims about how many variants there might be. But nobody gave a real justification for their number. For the sake of my own estimate (which is about ½ million), I defined a “variant” as a non-spelling difference in wording in our Greek manuscripts. This means I exclude variants found only in translations like Latin or Coptic or only in patristic citations. As for how these variants affect the reliability of the NT text, it depends on the variant. Upwards of 50% of the variants that my estimate is based on are only found in a single manuscript. Still another percentage are nonsense readings (like writing “teh” for “the”). These are easily set aside when the question is what the original text is. Other variants in the remainder make sense and are found in more than one manuscript but still have no claim to being original because they are so obviously scribal mistakes. When it comes to sifting the real wheat from the textual chaff, the number of variants that present difficulties is quite tiny in comparison. Of course, for professional textual critics, the more data the better for studying the history of the text. Perhaps ironically, the many variants can actually provide greater confidence in our decisions even though it means there are more decisions to make.
Robert Price used words and phrases like “probabilistic arguments, ambiguous evidence which is impossible to verify,” to describe his faith shattering experience of the uncertainty of the text at hand. How would you as the author describe the text at hand today?
I would say the printed texts we have today provide more than what’s needed for a robust Christian confidence in the text of the New Testament. I do think there is a small group of difficult variants that affect theologically important texts (like Jesus’ remarkable prayer from the cross in Luke 23:34). But I know of no difficult variant that, by itself, determines Christian doctrine. When viewed holistically, the New Testament text is remarkably stable. On this I largely agree with a scholar like Marcus Borg who has written, “With only a few minor exceptions, we can be confident that the Gospels and the New Testament as a whole reliably report what was originally written” (Debating Christian Theism, p. 432).
What impact do you desire to see in the Christian world through this book?
I hope it has two. The first is that it helps Christians sharpen their defense of the Bible. Where we use bad information, we end up discrediting the Bible. So, I hope the book clears away garbled arguments and replaces them with good ones. More broadly, I hope the book encourages Christians to place a higher premium on integrity in our public witness and to do our homework. The truth of the Christian faith never ultimately rests on our ability to publicly defend it. Knowing that should relieve us of the pressure to grasp at the first argument that “works.” Instead, we should be more interested in being right than in being seen to be right. Doing that builds trust with our critics, honors Christ, and “adorns the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10).