Statistics Don’t Lie, but Statisticians Can Mislead (1 John 1:7) – Mondays with Mounce 267
Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus has nothing to do with misquoting Jesus but is a popular presentation on the challenges of textual criticism, and who buys a book titled Textual Criticism other than serious students?
One of Ehrman’s more popular statements is that there are more errors in the manuscript tradition than there are words in the Greek Testament. He says there are 400,000 variants and there are 138,213 words in NA28, which could imply that every word is in question. Since he focuses on the only two paragraph length passages that raise the issue of textual criticism, John 7:53–8:11 and Mark 8:9–20, it suggests that other large sections of the Greek Testament are likewise questionable.
Statistics don’t lie, but the use of them do mislead. Two interesting facts. The first is to how variants are counted. If you had 5,000 manuscripts that had one reading, and only one manuscript had another reading, that still counts as one variant reading. Is that one reading significant? Obviously not, other than perhaps in the most unusual circumstances. (Wallace shows how an interesting manuscript of Revelation has the number of the beast as 616.) The point is that since we have about 25,000 manuscripts and early translations, the 400,000 may not be as significant as it once sounded.
If you compare our two oldest and best manuscripts, there are only 6–10 variants per chapter (totaling about 2,000). The UBS Greek text lists about 1,400 variants that have any significance at all. A far cry from 400,000. The more manuscripts we have, the more variants we have, but the more convinced we are as to the correct reading in the vast majority of places.
But the other point I wanted to mention came up the other week when I was speaking to a YWAM group in Orange County, a delightful experience. The vast majority of those 400,000 variants are irrelevant in terms of meaning. The presence or absence of the moveable nu. Whether there is an article or not before a proper name. The order of names, “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus.” Even Ehrman agrees that no major Christian doctrine is brought into question by textual issues.
1 John 1:7 was the verse in question at YWAM. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus (Ἰησοῦ), his Son, purifies us from all sin” (NIV). Someone was reading the KJV, which has the blood of Jesus Christ.” The TR has Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. No significant difference in meaning.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics on the ZA Blog. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. The Mounce Reverse-Interlinear™ New Testament is available to freely read on Bible Gateway.
Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.