Tim has given you plenty to think about with respect to the Assembly’s understanding of Scripture. Perhaps your respect for its nature and authority has been heightened. Perhaps you will pick up your text with a deeper reverence as you consider what you hold in your hand is more than just the recorded words of ancient people in farflung places.
But perhaps also there remains a dissonance in your head about whether you can give these particular words singular authority.
It’s likely you’ve heard a name like Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina, who has written prolifically on the New Testament and takes issue with its credibility on the basis of what are called “textual variants.” To understand that you have to grasp what you’re looking at when you pick up a copy of the New Testament.
Our New Testament is really a composite document of what scholarship has determined to be the most reliable form of the original manuscripts. As you may know there are thousands upon thousands of copies of the books and letters of the New Testaments, some of which are in whole form and others in fragments. When you compare the copies, you inevitably find discrepancies between them in, for instance, choice of word, word order, and the like. The job of the New Testament scholar is to cull through the myriad copies of, say, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, and determine which of the copies are most likely to be the earliest and most pristine since the original manuscripts have not been preserved. The scholar makes his determination on the basis of the age of the document, how widely that copy had been distributed in the ancient world (the more widely distributed, the more authority it seemed to have among the early Christian community), and what seems to be the “hardest” reading–that is, a reading that a later copyist would’ve tried to clarify or elaborate upon in order to make its meaning easier to ascertain; a harder reading in this sense would seem to be closer to the original.
So, again, your ESV New Testament is composed of what are thought to be the earliest copies of the original manuscripts. Where there is less certainty about earliest reading, our ESV for instance, will insert a footnote with a phrase like “some manuscripts omit/add _____.”
Some might be hearing of textual variants for the very first time and thinking, “wait a minute? the New Testament we have is just a montage of thousands ofmanuscript fragments, and there are discrepancies among the fragments?” The short answer is, “yes.” But before you panic, please make note: the kinds of variations among the manuscripts are so minor in their differences as to make the difference in meaning negligible. No theological tenet is in any way undermined by the existence of textual variants. Ehrman and others like him like to use the very existence of variants as warrant for discarding the New Testament to the heap of discredited hagiography (holy writings). In fact, he’s made it a cottage industry to write about what implications we should draw from the number of textual variants of the New Testament documents. It is his considered opinion that the sheer quantity and diversity of textual variants demands we look at the NT as something far less than the inspired Word of God. If we can’t be completely certain as to what the original said, and if there’s, in his opinion, such disparity among the textual variants, how can we consider the NT to be an authoritative witness to Christian life and practice?
But Ehrman is not without his critics. Dan Wallace, a professor at DTS, is one of many to hold a debate with Ehrman as to the nature of the textual variants and what their existence bodes for the overall credibility of the New Testament. However, I’ve read recently a free resource answering Ehrman from Dr Ben Witherington, a professor of New Testament, at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is just as scrupulous in his analysis of the textual variants and their implications. But he does a better job of helping us to see how, for instance, the gospel writers understood their versions of the gospel. Rather than applying a 21st century set of expectations for how an account should be written, Witherington helps us see that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were composing “theological portraits,” rather than “historical snapshots” of the life of Jesus. It doesn’t mean they had no interest in recording historical data–Luke makes explicit in the prologue of his gospel that he, like all the gospel writers, sought to preserve what they had come to know of Jesus. It just means that each brought their own interests in what details they preserved and highlighted.
Anyway, I will let Witherington make his own case here. Have a look. And be encouraged that what you hold in your hand and give you attention to is nothing less than holy writ.