Book Review: Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry, eds. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism

Hixson, Elijah and Peter J. Gurry, eds. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2019. 372 pp. Pb. $40.   Link to IVP Academic

In his foreword to this volume of essays on textual criticism, Daniel Wallace comments on the chasm between scholars and apologists. Apologists, Wallace suggests, have a tendency to regurgitate other apologetic works. As a result, skewed and wrong data on manuscripts of the New Testament gets passed along to pastors and teachers who present this data as fact. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism attempts to correct these well-intentioned traditions among both popular apologists as well as other New Testament scholars. The essays in this volume are like much like D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies (Second Edition, Baker Academic, 1996). Most readers will recognize some of their own errors after reading Carson’s book; the same is true with Myths and Mistakes. After reading this book there are several places in my own lecture notes which need to be revised and corrected in the light of better, more accurate information.

Hixson and Gurry, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism

The authors of the essays want to avoid exaggerated claims for New Testament manuscripts as well as correct factual errors. In the introduction to the collection, As Peter J. Gurry and Elijah Hixson explain in their introduction, suggest “if we believe that God inspired the particular words of Holy Scripture, then it is incumbent on us to do our best to identify those words so that we can preach, teach, treasure, and obey them” (p. 25).  Hixson and Gurry offer examples of outdated information and abused statistics which are found in both academic and popular books on biblical manuscripts.

Timothy N. Mitchell discusses myths about the original autographs (ch. 2). It is unlikely any New Testament autographs still existed by the time of the earliest extant copies. Once a book circulated, the writing could not be significantly changed without those changes becoming known.

Jacob W. Peterson deals with how many New Testament manuscripts are extant (ch. 3). One problem with counting manuscripts is the total number of changes: new manuscripts are discovered and there are examples of double counting. Most manuscripts only contain portions of the New Testament, so the total number of early manuscripts of Mark (for example) is far less than the total number. Because of this, using round numbers for total manuscripts is important. Peterson argues more New Testament manuscripts as compared to other ancient literature is not necessarily better. Having 179 manuscripts from the tenth century is not necessarily as valuable as sixty-five manuscripts from the third century.

James B. Prothro discusses myths about Classical Literature (ch. 4). Apologists love to compare the New Testament manuscript evidence to other ancient literature. These statistical comparisons are often based on old data and only demonstrate the New Testament has better textual basis, but not a perfect one.

Elijah Hixson treats dating myths, specifically how scholars date New Testament manuscripts (ch. 5). There is a perception that the earliest manuscripts are more reliable. This motivates some apologists to date some papyri fragments as early as possible, sometimes making dramatic announcements before scholars have done their work. After surveying dating methods, Hixson uses the example of P52, a fragment of the Gospel of John often dated to about A.D. 125 (or earlier). Since the initial publication of the fragment, scholars have revisited the evidence and suggested dates as late as A.D. 200-225. Rather than give a specific date like A.D. 125, Hixson suggests a range of A.D. 100-200 as a “responsible date range” (p. 109).

Gregory R. Lanier deals with the myth that early manuscripts are always better manuscripts (ch. 6). This chapter deals with the Byzantine tradition, the later manuscripts which form the majority of ancient manuscripts available to scholarship. Early textual critics adopted a “later-is-worse” method and more or less considered the Byzantine tradition as secondary evidence for dating manuscripts. Lanier suggests later manuscripts may improve over time as later scribes correct earlier ones.  He uses the examples of the Pericope of the Adulterous Woman and the various endings for the Gospel of Mark as examples. In both cases, later scribes added comments expressing doubt for the authenticity of these additions.

Zachary J. Cole examines what we know about scribes in the Greco-Roman world to examine myths about the copyists of the earliest manuscripts (ch. 7). Overall, the earliest copyists were neither careless amateurs nor professionals. They demonstrate the same level of accuracy expected for any ancient text.

Peter Malik surveys the various ways scribes corrected mistakes (ch. 8). Beginning with P66, he offers several examples scribal corrections. Attention to these corrections can show how readers used the manuscript shedding light on intentional changes.

S. Matthew Solomon describes his collation of more that 570 manuscripts of Philemon copied before A.D. 700 in order to demonstrate the methods used by scholars (ch. 9). He concludes that even if we only had a copy of Philemon from more than nine hundred years after Paul wrote the letter, very little would change (p. 189). Although there are more variants than expected, most of the variants are insignificant.

Peter J. Gurry explains why most variants are insignificant and why other variants cannot be ignored (ch. 10). He begins with examples of large the number of variants in popular books on textual criticism, concluding that “around half a million” is a fair estimate, and most are “awfully boring for most Bible readers” (p. 209). Nearly half the number are meaningless and only a tiny fraction merits a footnote in major English translations. Nevertheless, there are a few dozen that are theologically important and need to be addressed by scholars using established textual critical practices.

What about these theologically significant variants? Critics like Bart Ehrman often claim scribes corrupted texts by changing the text to conform to orthodox theology. Robert D. Marcello deals with this so-called orthodox corruption (ch. 11). He observes Ehrman consistently considers the least orthodox reading to be the original, and the most orthodox to a corruption. Although it may be the case an orthodox change is in fact a corruption, presupposing the orthodox to be a corruption is methodologically suspicious. After examining a few examples of orthodox corruptions, Marcello concludes scribes did sometimes make theologically motivate changes, but some of these variants can be explained by other factors (p. 227).

Andrew Blaski addresses the issue from the perspective of patristics. What did the Church Fathers thought about textual variations (ch. 12). He begins with an oft-repeated claim that compiling the 32,289 quotations found in the church fathers, we could reconstruct the New Testament with the exception of eleven verses. Blaski traces the origin of this folk-tale and concludes it is a myth and should be dropped as an apologetic argument. The church fathers refer to the New Testament in a variety of way and rarely cite it verbatim. As anyone who examines the apparatus in the UBS5 knows, a given church father may be evidence for two or three different variants.

John D. Meade observes that while the codex was preferred by early Christians for canonical books, just because a book was included in a codex does not mean it was canonical (ch. 13). He surveys canonical lists and early Christian descriptions of their literature. This chapter includes several valuable charts collating the date and contents of codices.

The final two chapters of the volume concern translations. First, Jeremiah Coogan discusses the number of early New Testament translations and their value for textual criticism (ch. 14). He doubts there are ten thousand Latin manuscripts as is often claimed, the number may be fewer than one thousand. The chapter also surveys Syriac translations (with several photographs of manuscripts). Second, Edgar Battad Ebojo looks at how modern translations report variants of the New Testament (ch. 15). This is an important issue since footnotes are where most Bible readers will encounter textual variants. For example, when does a translation use brackets to indicate textual variants and when do they use footnotes? How does a modern Bible print John 7:53-8:11 or the long ending of Mark?

The book concludes with a thirty-one-page bibliography and several helpful indices, including an index of manuscripts.

Conclusion. This book is a positive step toward increased clarity on textual critical issues from experts in the field who are interested in helping Christians to avoid “believing what they want to be true” about the state of the New Testament manuscripts (p. 25). Although these essays may be unsettling for some readers, the goal of defending the Bible’s integrity calls for integrity on the part of apologists and critics alike.

Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry are contributes to the popular blog Evangelical Textual Criticism.

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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