Sean McDowell | December 7, 2019

Myths and Mistakes in Defending the New Testament

Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry have provided the church with an indispensable resource with the release of their recent book Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. In my opinion, every pastor, Bible teacher, speaker, and apologist needs to read this book.

What makes it so valuable? In short, while they believe the Bible can be properly defended, they emphasize that we need to defend it with integrity. They critique inaccurate arguments from critics like Bart Ehrman as well as New Testament scholars as prominent as Craig Blomberg. They even interact with the updated version of Evidence that Demands a Verdict.[1]

While they offer a critique of a significant range of Christian and non-Christian thinkers and a broad range of issues (e.g., the nature of the autographs, myths about dating manuscripts, and myths about copying techniques), they are clearly motivated by love for the Christian Scriptures and a commitment to truth. The book reads like a gentle–and yet firm–admonishment for Christian thinkers. Quite admirably, in one footnote, Hixson even “confesses his own sins” of dating a particular NT manuscript without proper qualification (p. 108).

The book reminded me of my doctoral research on the martyrdom accounts of the apostles. While the willingness of the apostles to suffer and die for their beliefs helps defend the resurrection, I discovered a considerable number of misstatements and overstatements by eager apologists, pastors, and speakers (myself included!) that needed correction. The argument from the deaths of the apostles is valuable, but it needs nuancing and clarity–exactly what the contributors of Myths and Mistakes aim to do for textual criticism.

Example #1: Variants in New Testament Manuscripts

Bart Ehrman has claimed that there may be as many as 400,000 textual variants. When compared with the 138,000 words in the typical Greek New Testament, this amounts to nearly three variants per word. On its surface, this seems to potentially undermine the reliability of the text.[2]

Yet the authors of M and M make a few important qualifications. First, it makes little sense to compare the supposed number of variants in all the Greek manuscripts with words in one manuscript. Second, while having more manuscripts means having more variants, it also allows for greater textual stability in the long run.

Third, while the vast majority of variants do not affect the meaning of the text, there are some that “touch” on doctrinal issues. For instance, there is debate about whether Mark 1:1 should include “Son of God.” The debate is not about whether Mark teaches that Jesus is the Son of God, but whether that phrase should belong at the beginning of his Gospel. This issue is not insignificant, although the truth about the identity of Jesus is clearly not at stake.

Example #2: Dating the Earliest Fragment of John

While some manuscripts can be securely dated within a 50-year range, many can only be narrowed down to a much broader timeframe. Specifically, the earliest NT manuscript is a fragment of the Gospel of John (P52). Typically, it is dated around AD 125, but Hixson notes that a more responsible range is AD 100-200. This is the range I will use moving forward, and I appreciate their correction.

The authors make a number of other important qualifications about the accuracy of early scribes, the formation of the NT canon, and the use of NT quotes by early church fathers. Because of the nature of their audience, popular apologists may not be able to incorporate all of the qualifications Gurry and Hixson desire. But, we can all work to make sure our case is accurately tethered to the evidence. Rather than merely repeating outdated apologetics arguments, we must do our due diligence.

My thanks to Gurry and Hixson for the correction and challenge.

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[1] In the introduction, they commend us for including updated numbers for the manuscript count of classical works in our comparison with NT texts (p. 7). They also consider it “admirable” that we dated the (then) unknown Mark fragment at possibly between 85-125 AD until final conclusions could be drawn (p. 14). Yet, in a later chapter, they critique us for too quickly dismissing the significance of theologically motivated changes in early manuscripts (p. 220).

[2] Peter Gurry estimates that there are roughly 500,000 non-spelling variants in the various NT manuscripts. This is a very helpful clarification as I was under the impression that the variants included spelling differences (p. 194).

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: