What is the best way to defend the reliability of the Bible? What are common mistakes Christians often make when responding to critics who challenge the Bible? Sean and Scott interview Dr. Peter Gurry about his latest book, which aims to correct myths and mistakes often made in defense of the New Testament. The good news is that a solid case can be made for the trustworthiness of the New Testament, as Dr. Gurry describes, but we also need to be careful when presenting that case.

About our Guest

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017 and teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across Greek grammar, the history and formation of the Bible, and the history of New Testament scholarship. He has presented his work at the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the British New Testament Conference among others. He and his wife are members at Whitton Avenue Bible Church. He is known to enjoy cheap fast food, good typography, and Jack London stories.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

We're here today with Dr. Peter Gurry, who is an assistant professor of New Testament, and co-director of the Text & Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary, who is the co-editor of a fascinating, and I would say very, very important new book called Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. This book is a correction to a lot of the mistakes that have been made, well-intended by apologists in defending the scripture. So it's really a gift to the church that you've brought to us, Peter. So thanks for coming on and for joining us today.

Peter Gurry: My pleasure. Thanks, guys.

Sean McDowell: Let me just start off by asking you the question. What is textual criticism? What is it? And maybe even before you answer what is it, how did you get interested in doing this personally and professionally?

Peter Gurry: Yeah, that's a great question. So I got into it because I had the privilege of getting to take a Greek course in high school, so a New Testament Greek course. Actually I took four years of Greek in high school. I was really fascinated by the fact that there was something behind my English Bible in the Greek New Testament. So I was fascinated by the process of how we got from the Greek New Testament to my English Bible. And then when I got to Bible college, I learned more and I learned that behind my Greek New Testament, there were thousands of Greek hand copied manuscripts, and that there was a process to get from those manuscripts to my printed Greek New Testament, and then from there to my English Bible

So it was kind of a gradual process of me going one step back in the process each time. So it's really just this fascination with this question of how did I get my English Bible. Where does it come from? So textual criticism is a discipline that works with those handwritten manuscripts and tries to determine where they disagree, what the most likely original reading is, and then use that to produce printed Greek New Testaments.

Sean McDowell: So that makes sense. Let me ask you this. What motivated you to write this book? Because essentially what you're doing, and I told you this when I interviewed you earlier, I read it with fear and trembling because you're trying to critique the way apologetics and defending the scriptures, a lot of mistakes that have been made. So I picked it up and it was like, "Oh my goodness, this is so helpful," that Christians and non-Christians make. So maybe tell us a little bit of the story behind this book before we jump into some of the ways we can better defend the scriptures today.

Peter Gurry: Sure. Well, first thing to say, Sean, is that after you've read it, I'm glad we could still be friends. That's encouraging to me. It means we did our job in the book that we were not nasty in our criticism, but constructive. So really the story behind it is I was in a PhD program and I was working on textual criticism and I had a friend who was doing the same thing at the same time. He was also working in text criticism and we're both evangelicals, so we love the Bible and want to help people understand it and appreciate it and live it out. But we started to see a pattern and that was that well-meaning Christian apologists were often out of their depth when it came to textual criticism. So as you know, most apologists have to be experts in a whole bunch of things, or at least try to be experts. And that's really hard to do.

So what we realized was we were seeing a gap between what we were learning and studying at the PhD level about text criticism and where the discipline was at, and then where apologists were at in their understanding of it. It really at first was born out of frustration at seeing apologists make these kind of mistakes over and over and over again. And we just thought, "You know what? They're not experts. So if we don't help them, they're never going to get it right. They're never going to know what they're getting wrong." Right? So we really put the book together to be a resource. Exactly to describe it, Sean, is something for the apologist who is not a full time expert, doesn't have a PhD in text criticism, to be able to pick this up and say, "Okay, what's the state of the discipline and what are the things I should not say in my apologetics," because they're outdated or misinformed or taken out of context or whatnot.

Yeah. So I think one of the most common ones that usually comes up in any apologetic for the Bible relates to the number of manuscripts that we have for the New Testament. And often the number of manuscripts of the New Testament is compared to the number of manuscripts we have for other classical authors like Homer or Herodotus, the ancient historian. Usually the apologetic argument is we have so many more manuscripts for the New Testament than we have for classical literature that therefore we can be that much more confident in the text of the New Testament, that we haven't lost the original text.

The main problem that's happened as a result of this apologetic is that Christian apologists have tried to find the most up-to-date number and sometimes the biggest number they can find on the New Testament side of that comparison. But then they haven't done the same due diligence on the classical side. So it's very common for them to go back to someone like FF Bruce in a really, really good book that he wrote, but he wrote it back in the 1940s and didn't update it much after that. So they pick up his numbers for classical authors, which are now 60 plus years out of date, but then they give the most up-to-date number for the New Testament.

The result is you end up with an unfair comparison, right? So Homer's a good example where it's popular to say we have 416 or so copies of Homer. But in reality, now we know about well over 1000 copies of Homer. So if you're still using that old number of 416, you're way out of date and you got to get up to speed on that.

That's right. And that's another common misconception.

Yeah. Yeah. So imagine that we're digging in the sands of Egypt and we come across a trash dump, an ancient trash dump, and we find a stash of thrown away manuscripts. And among that trash heap, there are lots and lots of fragments, and some of them are New Testament manuscripts. They can be as small as a credit card and they still count. That still counts as one manuscript. So in total, you can have a manuscript that has less than a verse on it, okay, and that still counts as one manuscript. When we say things like there are over 5,000 manuscripts, keep in mind that most of those, in fact, the vast majority are not complete New Testaments. Part of the reason for that is that manuscripts were very expensive to create in the ancient world, and then also they could be cumbersome.

So to put it in perspective, in total, we know of about 60 complete New Testament manuscripts that have all of our 27 New Testament books in them, right? So the rest of those 5,000 plus manuscripts are maybe the gospels, or they're a collection of Paul's letters, or they're just revelation. So that's something to definitely keep in mind is that some of these manuscripts are really fragmentary. And then even the ones that are very complete, they're almost never a complete New Testament manuscript because that's just not the way they copied them. That's just not the way they produced them.

Sean McDowell: So in the book, you pushed back on apologists, but also on critics, like say Bart Ehrman. And one of the famous lines that he said in his book, Misquoting Jesus, is that there's between 300,000 and 400,000 variants or differences across the manuscripts that we have, which is equivalent to two or three words for every word in the New Testament. On the surface, that's very unsettling for Christians. Can you put that into context and maybe give a response to why that's not really as accurate as it could be?

Peter Gurry: Yeah. So there's two problems with it. One is Ehrman's estimate is probably actually too low. So I always tell my students, it's the one place where I'm probably less conservative than Bart Ehrman. My estimate is that there are probably about 500,000 variants. Now that's variants just in our Greek manuscripts and that's not counting spelling differences. Scribes didn't have dictionaries and there wasn't really standardized spelling like we think of today. So scribes could spell the name John, let's say, two different ways within the same manuscript, sometimes on the same exact page.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Peter Gurry: Okay. And that doesn't seem to really bother them because the meaning was clear and they just weren't that concerned with spelling. Same way my students aren't [crosstalk 00:09:36] actually, if we're honest. But the more important thing about that number is you've got to put in proper context. So Ehrman likes to say there's 400,000 variants and there's only 140,000 or so words in the New Testament. That sounds really shocking because then you end up with way more variance than you even have words. And the implication that people can get from that is that, "Well that means I don't even know what any of the original words are," but that's just not the way it works. Because you have to remember that every time a scribe creates a new variant, a scribe does that in the process of creating more total words.

So the better comparison is to say, "How many variants do we have per words copied by our scribes?" And when you put it in that perspective, you find that actually the number of variants is pretty small relative to the total number of words copied because we just have tons and tons of copies of the New Testament, right? So it's not actually surprising that we have so many variants because frankly we just have so many copies of them.

So I like to do a comparison to John chapter 18, where we have almost 1700 manuscripts of John chapter 18. And John chapter 18 has about 800 words in Greek in it. There's about 3000 variants in our 1600 plus manuscripts. Well, if you multiply 1600 manuscripts by 800 words, you end up with 1.3 million words copied. Right? So that's 1.3 million words that scribes had to copy by hand to give us all of our copies of John 18 that we have, right. We'll put 3000 variants in comparison to 1.3 million and that's actually a pretty slim number, right?

That's actually pretty small, and that's just one chapter. Now granted other chapters will be different. The ratio will be different and John is unique in that it's a gospel and we have far more copies of the gospels than we have of other portions of the New Testament because Christians love the gospels historically. So they copied them more than anything else, but still it just puts that number in perspective and helps you realize, "Oh, there are a lot of variants," but there's a lot of variants because there are so many manuscripts.

Sean McDowell: Okay, so I want to make sure I'm tracking with this. So a particular section or chapter, all the words that have been copied across all the manuscripts that we have take all the variants in that section compared to all of those words, then it puts it into perspective and given that we have so many different manuscripts, we'd expect more variants, but when you look at it that fashion, it's actually pretty small in comparison. Is that fair?

Peter Gurry: Yep. Yep. So put that number in another way, Sean, is in John 18, we have about one new variant for every 400 or so words that scribes had to copy. 400 words is about half the chapter. So that's really not that bad. If listeners do think that's bad, the simple way to judge this really is just sit down and try to copy John 18 yourself and see how well you do. I bet there's a good chance you're going to make at least one mistake, if not two or three, and then you have a little bit more compassion for the scribes that preserved the scriptures for us.

Sean McDowell: [inaudible 00:13:21]. (silence)

Peter Gurry: That's right. For one printed edition, which is, yeah. I would say, Scott, it's a bit like comparing the number of car accidents in 1940 to the number of car accidents today, and then being so shocked at how much bigger the number is. Well, yeah, it is way bigger, but you also have to factor in the number of cars that are on the road each time period. So what Ehrman's comparison does is it leaves out a key factor. It's just not a fair comparison in my mind. It doesn't really tell us anything accurate about how well scribes copied the New Testament. So it gives a bit of a false impression. (silence)

Yeah. Yeah. So when we think about copying, we can say that that over time, generally speaking scribes get better. So they become more professional, let's say, or they copy the New Testament in a more controlled environment like a monastery. So there's a bit more control. One of the unique features we see in the New Testament is that over time the text becomes very standardized into what we call the Byzantine text, which is what ultimately, or something very close to it, is what gets translated by the King James translators, okay. So that's what's behind your King James version.

But I think it's really helpful to remember that saying that later scribes are better than earlier scribes does not mean the earlier scribes are necessarily bad. Okay. This is an impression sometimes that I've gotten from reading Bart Ehrman, or other New Testament scholars, is that they make the point that later scribes are better. And from that, they seem to deduce that early scribes are necessarily bad. I always like to tell people, "Well, it's a bit like comparing Michael Jordan and LeBron James."

Any of us of a certain age know that Michael Jordan is the better basketball player than LeBron James. It's indisputable that Michael Jordan is the better basketball player. Okay. If you don't believe me, watch The Last Dance. It's just clear. But nobody would be crazy enough to say that because Michael Jordan is better, therefore, LeBron James is bad. You see? And so it's more helpful actually to think that to be able to say, "Yes, scribes do seem to have gotten better over time so that medieval scribes are generally quite careful, but early scribes still were not terrible." Okay. And they were not just changing the text however they wanted. Yes, we know of some bad early scribes. We can tell from the manuscripts they produced.

Precisely because we can compare them to other manuscripts, that's how we know that they're bad in the first place. Do you see? So you have to have a good manuscript before you can identify a bad manuscript. And the reality is we have so many good manuscripts because there were lots of overall good scribes. Okay. Now, again, we're not talking about perfection or anything close to that, because you're still copying by hand. But overall, I think it's a bit of a myth to think that the early scribes were bad. And certainly it's a myth to think that they were bad simply because they were not as careful as later scribes. Does that make sense? (silence)

Yeah. So the simple ways you can ... well, I say simple, but for a text critic, the way we do it is you can compare a manuscript that we know is very good, like Codex Vaticanus is from the fourth century, which is very good copy, very carefully copied. Just even one look at it shows you how well this manuscript was copied. It was a very expensive undertaking, so a lot of care went into it. And then you can compare that with something earlier, like P75, Papyrus 75, which is a copy of Luke's gospel from probably at least a century earlier than Codex Vaticanus, and their texts in Luke, where we can compare them, agrees remarkably closely.

So we know that between that century, we have whatever comes between those two manuscripts and no doubt something does come between them, scribes are able to copy carefully at all the steps along the way so that Vaticanus, the text of that manuscript ends up being very close to the text of P75.

Another example I could give is a group of manuscripts I worked on in my dissertation, which is they're all late medieval manuscripts from the ninth century to the 15th century, but through a series of careful comparisons and important translations in Syriac, we actually know the text of those Greek manuscripts is already found in the early seventh century in Egypt. We know this because the texts are so remarkably close. So to put it simply, we have a 15th century Greek manuscript that we know goes back to the early seventh century. And the text changed almost none between that time span. We're talking about 600-700 years there that scribes were able to preserve that distinctive form of the text without a lot of variation between them.

Sean McDowell: You mentioned earlier how one of the mistakes that eager apologists can make is picking the biggest number for New Testament manuscripts and the smallest for classical manuscripts. What actually emerges when we compare and contrast your biblical writers as a whole, say even like the gospels with ancient writers at the time?

Peter Gurry: Yeah. Well, one of the unique things to think about is how New Testament text critics do their work differently than classical text critics, because anything written in the ancient world, any literature from the ancient world, would have to do textual criticism on. And one of the realities is that it's often the case when you're working with ancient literature, that you may only have a handful of copies of that. Okay. So Homer's definitely the exception. Homer we have lots and lots of manuscripts for, but there's other things where we may only have one or two copies of an ancient work, and classical scholars often are not interested in having a lot of manuscripts.

They're actually often interested in reducing the number of manuscripts they use for their work to the best ones. So that's something where there's a little bit of a disconnect between apologists and the way scholars actually work. Scholars aren't necessarily interested in having the most manuscripts they can have. At one level, the more the merrier. We're always happy to find new manuscripts, right? I do not want to complain here, okay? I don't want to be ungrateful for what we have, but I always remind my students, how many good manuscripts do you have to have to have a good, reliable text of an ancient work? And the answer is you really only need one, right? It only takes one good copy to have a good text.

The reality with the New Testament is we have lots of good copies. We have some bad ones too, of course. And we certainly have some that are better than others, but overall we're really blessed to have a lot of good copies of the New Testament and some very early good copies as well. So I guess the simple way to say it, Sean, is the apologetic's desire to have more is not actually something that scholars feel. We don't actually necessarily need more. We just want good ones. So quality is much better than quantity.

Sean McDowell: So how do you determine quality without quantity?

Peter Gurry: Right. That's a good question. Quantity can help, again, don't want to disparage quantity completely. I'm happy to have more, but quality is determined by really working closely to manuscripts. And over time, you begin to see the kind of mistakes that scribes make. So, even someone with a little bit of Greek who can start to read a manuscript is going to come across mistakes where the scribe has created nonsense. Just like we do in typing an email, let's say. We type things that are not even English words. Like I always misspelled the word the. Instead of T-H-E, I switched the H and the E in my email and the person reading the email knows exactly what I meant to type. But the reality is I've typed a word that's not actually a word in English, and scribes did the same thing. So really the short answer is by studying a lot of manuscripts, we get better and better at recognizing the kinds of mistakes they made. And then that helps us resolve those very mistakes (silence)

Yeah. Yeah. They certainly did. And then we should probably clarify, this is often a helpful clarification for Christians, especially when we as text critics talk about mistakes or errors, we're not necessarily talking about theological mistakes or errors, right? Most of the mistakes that scribes made, they're not problematic theologically at all. And one of the most common types is something that clarifies something in the text that makes the implicit explicit. So an example might be in the gospels there's whole portions of Mark's gospel, whole chapters where Jesus is never named explicitly. It's just pronouns. He did this, he went there, he said this, right.

Well, if you're a scribe, and especially if you're a scribe who's producing a manuscript for church reading and you know people are going to just read excerpts of what you're copying, you need to supply who the he is, so people know who we're talking about. So you might supply the name Jesus to make it clear who's the character that we're talking about, right? That's the kind of change that actually could be quite intentional on a scribe's part, but it's not done with the intention of changing the meaning of the text at all. In fact, it's done with the intention of clarifying the meaning. Does that make sense?

Sean McDowell: Yeah.

Peter Gurry: So a lot of the changes I think could fall into that category, or even the ones that are intentional changes, which determining the intention of a scribe that we don't know is a tricky business, which should be honest. But sometimes there are clear changes where you say okay, the only thing that really explains this difference in the wording is that the scribe changed this intentionally, right? They're more the exception than the rule, but they definitely did do it. (silence)

Yep. So the first thing to say is it can be quite shocking if you're not aware of them. Right? We need to be patient with people as we explain these textual problems, because it can feel like, especially the woman caught in adultery, that's a favorite story of many people.

Sean McDowell: Yeah, it is.

Peter Gurry: And to tell people that, "Hey, that doesn't belong in your Bible," was quite shocking, especially if there are any pastors listening. My advice is be careful, be wise in how you help people think through this, right? For somebody like me, who's lived with this idea now for over a decade as a student of the New Testament, if you tell me the woman caught in adultery is not in the Bible, IE shrug and say, "Well, yeah, I already know, because this is old hat to me," but to somebody learning it for the first time, we really have to be careful and walk them through why that is. The issue with both the longer ending of Mark, so the last 12 verses of Mark, and then the story of the woman caught in adultery in John, is that they are both absent from some very important and early manuscripts.

In the case of the longer ending of Mark, it's not found in our two earliest and most important manuscripts known as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, which are both fourth century copies of the New Testament. They are, yeah. In the case of Vaticanus, it's not anymore, but it probably originally was. It's not missing some things at the end. It's lost some. In the case of the woman caught in adultery, there's actually several hundred manuscripts. I want to say in the neighborhood of 500, 600 manuscripts, that that story is not found in. So the woman caught in adultery actually is less well attested in our manuscripts than the ending of Mark.

The ending of Mark is in really all but two of our Greek New Testament manuscripts. The simple question that we have to ask with both is how do we explain the difference? How do we explain the difference came about in the first place? Then here, the fundamental question that text critics ask is which variant best explains how the other one came about? So take the longer ending of Mark. Is it more likely that scribes came to Mark's gospel and it ends with the women leaving the tomb and saying nothing to anyone because they're afraid and they felt the need to add to that, or is it more likely that scribes had the longer ending and decided to remove it for some reason?

So that's the fundamental question we have to wrestle with, with this is, the manuscripts show us that there are two different endings, at least two for Mark, two different endings and we have to ask the question, which one best explains how the other one came about? Certainly in the case of Mark's gospel, I think it's more likely that scribes had copies of Mark's gospel that ended at Mark 16, verse eight, with the women, leaving the tomb in fear and saying nothing and felt, "Hey, that's not the proper ending." They had read Matthew. They had read Luke, they had read John and they knew there was more to the story.

And so either they had another ending that they added to Mark at some point or some scribe or some reader somewhere put one together using the material from the other gospels. And in this case, probably from Acts as well, and then added that on as an appendix to finish the story.

I think that's the more likely explanation for the differences in our manuscripts. And then thinking about that theologically just quickly, the question we have to ask is what do we lose if that's the case? And sometimes people will, I think, overstate the case and say, "Well, if the longer ending of Mark is not original to Mark's gospel, then we lose the resurrection." That's quite a serious claim to have a gospel in our Bibles that doesn't have a resurrection would be pretty surprising. But actually if you read Mark's gospel carefully, even without that longer ending, you still clearly have the resurrection, right?

Sean McDowell: That's right.

Peter Gurry: You still have the empty tomb. You still have the angels telling the women that the tomb is empty and that they're to go tell the disciples that Jesus is risen. So I sometimes like to say, we probably haven't lost the ending of Mark's gospel, we've probably lost the tip of the ending of Mark's gospel. We haven't really lost the resurrection in Mark's gospel. It's still clearly there. Does that make sense?

Sean McDowell: Yeah.

Peter Gurry: We could say so much more about that.

Sean McDowell: It does. And it's fascinating how theological concerns weigh into textually examining what was in a gospel or not. That's real interesting overlap. Let me ask you a final question. I'm sure you get this. Sometimes I'll teach for a while on the reliability of the Bible and someone will raise their hand during question and answer and say, "Okay, this is a lot of helpful information, but my friend who says, 'I don't know if I should trust the Bible,'" what would you say in like a minute to two minute response? I get that question all the time, but I'm curious how you answer that just with a person on the street. We give the elevator pitch that says, "Here's why I think," and let's even just say the gospel is the New Testament, why you think you could trust it?

Peter Gurry: Yeah. So Sean, my answer might be different from yours. That doesn't mean mine is right and yours is wrong. Okay. You could give different answers to this. But to be honest, when I'm asked in a setting like that, where I have to give a quick answer, I don't mention anything about text criticism. And honestly, I don't usually even go to historical reliability. I say I trust the Bible because I've met the author. I know the person who has inspired this book and it absolutely rings true to me. So there's obviously more I could say, because that's a bit of a subjective answer, but I do think that's a helpful place to start because at the end of the day, a person could be completely convinced that the Bible is historically accurate and still feel logically untrue. The New Testament says that Jesus died, but then it says that he died for our sins.

And there are lots of New Testament scholars who are not believers, or at least not evangelicals for sure, and they think that Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross, but they don't necessarily think that He died for their sins, or they don't think that He rose from the dead. And to me, it's those two other things that make all the difference for me. There were hundreds and hundreds of Jewish people who died on crosses in the first century. And none of them make a difference to my life the way I live it and my hope for eternity.

So my hope ultimately rests in the fact that I think the scriptures tell me the deepest truths about myself. They tell me about my sin. They expose my true character. And more importantly, they give me the real solution to it. So that's my elevator pitch is that, "Hey, when I read this book, this book reads me. It exposes who I am in my deepest, darkest places. And it gives me hope. It gives me hope."

Sean McDowell: That's a great answer. I love that because it's taking it from this academic truth personally into somebody's life. And that's really the spirit that came through in your book, Myths and Mistakes and New Testament Textual Criticism, is again, you're just helping the church, pastors, lay people, really anybody who says, "I want to know how to make the case for the New Testament, but I want to do it accurately and fairly in light of where scholarship is at." So this is not an introductory book, there's some meat to it, so to speak, but it's very understandable by anybody who says, "I want to put in a little bit of work and understand what's going on in this world of New Testament textual criticism." I thoroughly enjoy it again. I consider it a gift to the church. I want to thank you, Elijah, who you co-edit it with and all those who contributed, because it's just a wonderful, wonderful book. So thanks for writing it, Dr. Peter Gurry, and thanks for coming on.

Peter Gurry: Hey, thanks so much for having me, guys. I really appreciate it.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Peter Gurry, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/ThinkBiblically. That's biola.edu/ThinkBiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening. And remember, think biblically about everything.