Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog


For many years since the internet debates have been unfolding (and for centuries prior to the internet age), Muslims and Christians have been grappling with the all-important matter of the integrity (or lack thereof) of the Biblical text. In light of recent attacks on the integrity of the Biblical text, especially the New Testament, this essay seeks to examine the implications of the textual variations that exist in the New Testament manuscript tradition.

In response to Islamic accusations of Biblical corruption, Christians commonly tout the great quantity of New Testament manuscripts (MSS) that have been discovered (i.e. approximately 5,750 Greek MSS; perhaps as many as 24,000 total MSS when including translations into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, etc. – this number includes both partial and full manuscripts – a quantity virtually unparalleled by other ancient documents) and the relatively short amount of time that exists between the composition of the original documents and the earliest manuscripts (again, compared with other ancient documents). While there is a very large number of textual variations among the extant manuscripts, a very high percentage of the original text is recoverable from an analysis of the currently-available MSS, and in almost every case (save perhaps for a few), the original reading is believed by textual critics to be extant among the known textual variants. Most importantly, it remains the case that no major Christian doctrine is in doubt as a result of the textual variations.

New Challenges

Within the past few years, either the significance of the above assertions or the assertions themselves have been challenged. The general integrity of the text has especially been called into question since New Testament textual critic Bart Ehrman has popularized his scholarship regarding the New Testament manuscripts (especially in his widely-sold "Misquoting Jesus"). Additionally, Muslim polemicists have published several articles utilizing materials taken from Ehrman as well as other NT textual scholars in order to discredit the integrity of the New Testament text. Here are links to a few that are representative: [1], [2], [3], [4].

Before proceeding with our critique of the approaches taken by such polemics, we can concede some credit where it is due. Contrary to most polemics regarding issues relevant to Christianity we find from critics (whether it is from Muslims, atheists, anti-missionaries, etc.), Muslim polemicists have managed to piece together a substantial amount of scholarly, thought-provoking material in their articles on NT textual criticism. Accordingly, they utilize the relevant sources, i.e. legitimate New Testament scholars, particularly textual critics. Finally, I think it is even fair to state that their polemics demand Christian apologists do more homework on this crucial subject in order to counter the new challenges that have arisen. Merely pointing out the great wealth of NT manuscripts in existence and stating that no Christian doctrine is in doubt from the variations that exist is no longer adequate, by itself, to properly address the important issues that have been raised. Now, let us proceed with a discussion of some of the issues.

On the surface, certain statements found in works like Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus" as well as quotations from scholars found in the recent spate of writings from Muslim polemicists give the impression that the New Testament has been corrupted to the point of hopelessness. Consider the following, for instance:

"Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more! We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all. Perhaps, as I indicated earlier, it is best simply to leave the matter in comparative terms. There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament." (Ehrman 2007; 89-90)

While seemingly impressive at surface-level, another New Testament textual scholar tells why, in direct response to the above paragraph, this does not cause NT textual critics to hit the proverbial panic-button:

"That is true enough, but by itself is misleading. Anyone who teaches NT textual criticism knows that this fact is only part of the picture and that, if left dangling in front of the reader without explanation, is a distorted view. Once it is revealed that the great majority of these variants are inconsequential—involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, word order changes, and the like—and that only a very small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus. Indeed, only about 1% of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable. The impression Ehrman sometimes gives throughout the book—and repeats in interviews—is that of wholesale uncertainty about the original wording, a view that is far more radical than he actually embraces." (Daniel Wallace; [Source], accessed 11/30/08)

And so, while such sound bites regarding textual variations in the New Testament are technically true, it is what is NOT said in these works that assault the integrity of the NT text (such as the important qualifying-remarks by Daniel Wallace) that paints a very misleading portrait for the reader.

Of course, many textual variations in the manuscript record are important and do involve vital Christian doctrines. Such variations are utilized by Muslim polemicists in order to cast doubt on the overall integrity of the text. In what follows we seek to discuss a few of the most significant textual variations and the significance they play for the overall debate, not only for the question of Biblical corruption but also for that of the historical foundations underlying important doctrines. This article will not serve as an introduction to the science of textual criticism, but simply will seek to clarify three important issues: 1) what the evidence tells us of the overall state of the NT text; 2) how variants affecting certain important doctrines impact the theology of the New Testament text as a whole; and 3) how such variants affect the historical foundations upon which these doctrines are based.

What this article ultimately hopes to demonstrate is the following: 1) Despite the issues raised by both non-deliberate and deliberate corruptions of the New Testament text, we may speak of the NT text as generally well-preserved; 2) Crucial Christian doctrines that lead to much of the impasse between Christian and Islamic theology are not negated either textually or historically by textual variants; and 3) The results require Muslims to either a) assert a degree of corruption of the NT text that not only is out of sync with the evidence that does exist, but also to which not even the most radical of NT textual critics would concur, b) redefine what Muhammad meant when he referred to “the Gospel” (e.g. a non-canonical document?) and what theological and historical foundations exist to make such a redefinition intellectually feasible, or c) reinterpret Islamic theology (somehow) to accommodate the relevant Christian doctrines with which it is currently at odds.

The reader should note that there are certain facts alluded to in the internet articles we listed above with which we are not in fundamental disagreement, such as the fact that only a small minority of the existing thousands of manuscripts are used by textual critics to determine the original text, that translations of the Greek text and materials found in patristic writings are only useful as supplementary (rather than primary) resources in terms of determining the original text, and that, despite a few claims to the contrary, there is not good evidence for manuscripts to be dated to the 1st century. We do not take issue with their arguments/criticisms regarding these matters and so obviously will not be attempting to refute them.


Our earliest manuscript that contains the whole New Testament is dated to the 4th Century A.D., though there are a number of partial manuscripts which contain substantial portions of some NT books from the period of about 200 A.D. Daniel Wallace notes that the twelve earliest manuscripts, which date to no later than about the early 3rd century (i.e. within approximately 150 years of the time of original composition), contain about 43% of the New Testament (Wallace 2008; cf. discussion in time slice 22:00 – 23:00; see also here for a brief discussion by Wallace of the 2nd century manuscripts). Overall, however, the further back in time we go the fewer manuscripts we have. Moreover, textual criticism has demonstrated that many of the early manuscripts reveal that early scribes often did not copy the text in a word-for-word manner. Rather, the New Testament was found to be a "living text". Muslim polemicists capitalize upon these facts in order to cast doubt upon the reliability of the transmission of the text. MENJ has argued this latter point (see here), citing several textual authorities. One such quote is taken from the Alands:

"Until the beginning of the fourth century the text of the New Testament developed freely. It was a 'living text' in the Greek literary tradition, unlike the text of the Hebrew Old Testament, which was subject to strict controls because (in the oriental tradition) the consonantal text was holy. And the New Testament text continued to be a ‘living text’ as long as it remained a manuscript tradition, even when the Byzantine church molded it to the procrustean bed of the standard and officially prescribed text. Even for later scribes, for example, the parallel passages of the Gospels were so familiar that they would adapt the text of one Gospel to that of another. They also felt themselves free to make corrections in the text, improving it by their own standards of correctness, whether grammatically, stylistically, or more substantively. This was all the more true of the early period, when the text had not yet attained canonical status, especially in the earliest period when Christians considered themselves filled with the Spirit. As a consequence the text of the early period was many-faceted, and each manuscript had its own peculiar character." (K & B Aland 1989; 69)

Yet this doesn't end the story. The Alands go on to say immediately following the above text:

"This can be observed in such papyri as P45, P46, P66, and so forth. The fact that this was NOT the normative practice has been proved by P75, which represents a strict text just as P52 of the period around A.D. 125 represents a normal text. It preserves the text of the original exemplar in a relatively faithful form (and is not alone in doing so, cf. p. 59)." (ibid. 69; emphasis added)

Regarding the different text-types (or “pre-types”, as we’ll call them, for reasons to be elucidated just below) alluded to above, the authors write:

"Thus P45, P46, P66, and a whole group of other manuscripts offer a 'free' text, i.e. a text dealing with the original text in a relatively free manner with no suggestion of a program of standardization (or were these manuscripts also imported from elsewhere?). Some have gone so far as to interpret these 'free' texts as typical of the early period. But this cannot be correct, as a fresh collation of all the manuscripts of the early period10 by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research has shown. The 'free' text represents only one of the varieties of the period. Beside it there is a substantial number of manuscripts representing a 'normal' text, i.e. a relatively faithful tradition which departs from its exemplar only occasionally, AS DO NEW TESTAMENT MANUSCRIPTS OF EVERY CENTURY. There is an equally substantial number of manuscripts representing a 'strict' text, which transmit the text of an exemplar with meticulous care (e.g., P75) and depart from it only rarely. Finally, we also find a few manuscripts with a paraphrastic text, which belong in the neighborhood of the D text. Apparently it was not until the beginning of the fourth century even in Egypt that a standardization of the text occurred through the circulation of numerous copies of a 'model text' from a central authority...

"Until the third/fourth century, then, there were many different forms of the New Testament text, including some which anticipated or were more closely akin to the D text, but not until the fourth century, following the decades of peace prior to the Diocletianic persecutions, did the formation of text types begin." (ibid. 64, emphasis added)


"8. Variant readings in the New Testament text which are not due to simple scribal error (or to the confusion of similar sounds when transcribing from dictation in a scriptorium) may be explained by its character as a ‘living text.’ While it is true that from at least the third century the scribes tried to copy their exemplars faithfully to the letter, they also followed the meaning as they transcribed the text (which they knew practically by heart), and this gave rise to variants." (ibid. 69)

The Alands’ designation of the text into the aforementioned “pre-types” (as I have termed them) has been criticized by other textual critics such as Bart Ehrman on the grounds that the designations are based on circular logic. For instance, the “strict text” is said to be strict because it contains the highest proportion of original readings, but this judgment in turn is based upon the assumption that the 26th edition of the Nestle-Aland text in fact represents the original NT text (cf. Ehrman, Textual Circularity, 1989). More useful is the typical scholarly classification system of the texts as Alexandrian, Mixed, “Western”, etc. Eldon Jay Epp demonstrates why these different text types (or “textual groups” or “clusters”, as he prefers to call them) were established early in the process of transmission. He writes:

“Yet, what makes this sorting process so natural – and attractive – is that several early papyri draw to themselves other later MSS and form three reasonably separable constellations with similar textual characteristics. Most significant is that the papyri in each group can be identified textually with one or more major uncial MSS. Though this procedure may appear to come perilously close to classifying MSS on the basis of the great uncials, it avoids that classic fault by first differentiating various papyri from one another according to their differing textual character, and only then seeking partners for them farther down the stream of NT MSS – partners with similar textual complexions. Thus one can argue plausibly that three textual clusters or constellations emerge in our stream of transmission, each with roots in the earliest period. First, the clearest cluster can be identified (e.g., in the Gospels) in the P75-Codex B line (along with P66, Sinaiticus [except in John], and the later L and 33 – as well as P46 and 1739 for Paul, etc.), which might be called the B text group (traditionally known as Egyptian, Alexandrian, or “Neutral”). Second, three or four papyri and one uncial prior to the fourth century containing portions of Luke-Acts (P48, P38, P69, 0171, and perhaps P29) form a cluster that can be connected to Codex D, and later with 1739 (Acts only), 614, and 383. This has long been called – though incorrectly in the geographical sense – the ‘Western’ kind of text, which might better be designated the D text group. Third, a cluster (for the Gospels) exists in P45 and Codex Washingtonianus (with e.g., f13), which might be called the C text group because it stands midway between the B and D text groups (though no longer to be called Caesarean). In addition, though not among the early clusters and therefore with no early papyrus representatives, there is the later Majority or Byzantine text group, whose earliest major witness is Codex A (though only in the Gospels). Therefore, this might be called the A text group in recognition of Codex Alexandrinus. This cluster does have supporting witnesses among the papyri, but only from the sixth (P84), seventh (P68, perhaps P74), and seventh/eighth centuries (P42), and it is the only ‘text-type’ that the Alands recognize before the fourth century49.

Yet, once one understands the nature of text-types, it is plausible to argue that the three textual constellations (in addition to the A text) also constitute three distinguishable ‘text-types’ as early as the second century (with the C text group, however, ceasing with Codex W)…

“The case made here for early text-types may be summarized as follows: The dynamic intellectual commerce demonstrated by the many papyrus documents – to say nothing of other evidence – permits us to envision a rather free and speedy transmission of letters and documents in the Greco-Roman world, including the NT writings on papyrus. This, in turn, permits us to postulate that the NT MSS unearthed in Egypt – presuming the movement of their texts to and from and within Egypt – may be judged to be representative of the entire spectrum of NT texts in the Mediterranean area in the first centuries of Christianity. Allowing these representative papyri to sort themselves into groups with similar textual complexions reveals three primary concentrations on the earliest textual spectrum, whose chief members connect readily with major uncials of the fourth and fifth centuries and with other later MSS. Therefore, the existence, as early as the second century, of the B, C, and D text-types, followed by the later A text, seems beyond a reasonable doubt, and all of this finds its basis in the NT papyri.” (Epp, Papyrus Manuscripts, 1995; 17-18; emphasis added; note that in Epp’s later work, in [Epp, Issues, 2002; 41-43], the above statements are reiterated though with predominant reference to only two primary text-types, the Alexandrian and “Western”. The “mixed” or “C” type apparently has been deemed a questionable category in at least some text-critical circles per n.49 in ibid. 38)

Bruce Metzger illustrates how different text-types were likely to have developed as the NT texts were transmitted:

“During the early centuries of the expansion of the Christian church, what are called ‘local texts’ of the New Testament gradually developed. Newly established congregations in and near a large city, such as Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Carthage, or Rome, were provided with copies of the Scriptures in the form that was current in that area. As additional copies were made, the number of special readings and renderings would be both conserved and, to some extent, increased, so that eventually a type of text grew up that was more or less peculiar to that locality. Today it is possible to identify the type of text preserved in New Testament manuscripts by comparing their characteristic readings with the quotations of those passages in the writings of Church Fathers who lived in or near the chief ecclesiastical centers.

“At the same time the distinctiveness of a local text tended to become diluted and mixed with other types of text. A manuscript of the Gospel of Mark copied in Alexandria, for example, and taken later to Rome would doubtless influence to some extent copyists transcribing the form of the text of Mark heretofore current at Rome. On the whole, however, during the earliest centuries the tendencies to develop and preserve a particular type of text prevailed over the tendencies leading to a mixture of texts. Thus there grew up several distinctive kinds of New Testament text, the most important of which are the following…” (Metzger 1994; 4-5)

From this data a couple of observations are in order:

1) While there apparently were scribal traditions that “freely-adapted” and/or paraphrased the texts of exemplars for various reasons (these traditions apparently accounting for most of the significant variants we see today), other scribal traditions just as ancient by and large did not deviate from the original text. Note that regardless of whether or not we accept the paradigm of the existence of “strict”, “normal”, and “free” (pre-) text types by Kurt and Barbara Aland, our contention is unchanged. Regarding the apparent circularity used by the Alands in defining what are “strict” and “normal” texts vs. “free” texts, this charge could be fundamentally true yet the observation that certain MSS deviated more from the original text than others remains relevant when we consider that it is the Alexandrian text-type that is generally considered the most faithful per the consensus of NT textual critics. Daniel Wallace writes in regard to this:

“Although we do not have 100% of the NT attested in manuscripts from the second century, it is remarkable how minimally the manuscripts we do have differ from the great fourth century majuscules of the Alexandrian text, in which the entire NT can be found. The evidence from the earliest Greek manuscripts, therefore, is quite strong that the text of the NT was relatively stable in at least the Alexandrian stream of transmission, a stream that most scholars would regard as the best group of witnesses to the original text of the NT.8” (Source)

Obviously, the MSS that represent the (proto-) Alexandrian text are those that remain truest to the original text vs. the more paraphrastic “Western” text [cf. Metzger 1992; 215-219 for further discussion].

2) The fact that at least two text-types are traceable to as early of a period as the 2nd century has important implications for the study of the more significant textual variants. While the bifurcation into text-types will, of course, result in the formation of variant readings (those peculiar to various regions of the then-Christian world), this in turn reinforces the integrity of the text where both types are essentially the same. As we will see below, the degree of agreement outweighs by a significant margin the degree of disagreement.

Let us briefly illustrate this latter point with a hypothetical example. Let's say we have 4 manuscripts (A, B, C, & D) detailing an event that took place on a day in the life of a certain canine:

A: "The dog ran down the street and into the grocery store, frightening the customers".

B: "The dog skipped down the street and went into the grocery store".

C: "Down the street the dog ran into the grocery store, scaring the patrons".

D: "The dog ran along the avenue, going into the supermarket and frightening the customers".

The differences among the various editions are substantial. 1) A different verb is used in manuscript B for how the dog got down the street; 2) "Grocery store" is replaced by "supermarket" in manuscript D; 3) "frightening the customers" is replaced with "scaring the patrons" in manuscript C; 4) "avenue" replaces "street" in manuscript D; 5) The dog's action and his direction are inverted in manuscript C; 6) the "frightening of the customers" or paraphrase is missing from manuscript B.

In our hypothetical example, while there are differences in every reading, the only question stemming from them that really affects the meaning of the text is whether or not the customers were frightened, or if this was a later addition. All other things being equal, we could make a case that the original text did contain such a phrase based on the fact that this is conveyed by the majority of manuscripts (3 of 4). On the other hand, one maxim of textual criticism is that the probable original variant is the one that makes sense of the existence of the others. Perhaps, one could speculate, "frightening the customers" was added later to a text like manuscript B based on the historical memory that the dog did indeed frighten the customers (even if the original author did not write this). This would also make sense of why there is an "alternative ending", i.e. "scaring the patrons", that was added independently by a second scribe. Of course, other factors such as which manuscript(s) is/are of greatest antiquity would come into play as well in the decision-making process, as would which text-type is deemed by scholars to be the most reliable and which types characterize manuscripts A-D. In any event, despite the marked differences among the extant readings we can be virtually certain that the original text indicated that the dog ran (or skipped) down the street and went into a business that sells groceries since all convey this basic message. As we will see below, many (and probably most) of the potentially viable textual variants that characterize the Greek New Testament are of this rather trivial category.


While the original copies of the NT documents have not survived, it is commonly and correctly asserted that the time between the original penning of the various NT works and the earliest MSS evidence is essentially negligible. The earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament is Codex Sinaiticus of the 4th century A.D. whereas there are a number of earlier fragments dating to the early 3rd (and perhaps late 2nd) centuries. To fully appreciate the significance of this comparatively small gap in time between autograph and earliest MSS (along with the total number of partial and full manuscripts of NT works that exist), consider the following table.

Livy 59 B.C. – A.D. 17 4th Century 27
Tacitus A.D. 56 – 120 9th Century 3
Suetonius A.D. 69 – 140 9th Century 200+
Thucydides 460 – 400 B.C.      1st Century A.D. 20
Herodotus 484 – 425 B.C. 1st Century A.D.       75
NEW TESTAMENT c. 100-150 c. 5,700 Greek;
10,000+ Latin, etc.

TABLE 1: Taken from Wallace in Komoszewski, Sawyer, & Wallace 2006; 71

Wallace writes in regard to the comparative wealth of NT manuscripts with other ancient literature:

“One often hears the line, ‘We really don’t know what the New Testament originally said, since we no longer possess the originals and since there could have been tremendous tampering with the text before our existing copies were produced.’ Is this an accurate assessment of the data? Is that kind of skepticism true to the facts? Not exactly.

“If this supposition is true, then we must deny that most facts of ancient history can be recovered, because whatever doubts we cast on the text of the New Testament must be cast a hundredfold on virtually any other ancient text. The New Testament manuscripts stand closer to the original and are more plentiful than virtually any other ancient literature. The New Testament is far and away the best-attested work of Greek or Latin literature in the ancient world.” (ibid. 70-71; emphasis original)


“As noted above, approximately fifty-seven hundred full or partial New Testament manuscripts are known to exist at this writing. The number of sources is growing. Every decade and virtually every year new manuscripts are discovered. Meanwhile, the average classical author’s writings are found in about twenty extant manuscripts10. The New Testament—in the Greek manuscripts alone—exceeds this by almost three hundred times. Besides the Greek manuscripts, there are Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Gothic, Georgian, Arabic, and many other versions of the New Testament. The Latin manuscripts number over ten thousand. All told, the New Testament is represented by approximately one thousand times as many manuscripts as the average classical author’s writings. Even the well-known authors—such as Homer or Herodotus—simply can’t compare to the quantity of copies that the New Testament enjoys. Homer, in fact, is a distant second in terms of manuscripts, yet there are fewer than twenty-five hundred copies of Homer extant today11.” (ibid. 71-72; emphasis original)

“11. Homer was the earliest and most popular author of the ancient Greek world. Even with a nine-hundred year head start, the Iliad and the Odyssey couldn’t catch up with the New Testament. Yet manuscripts of Homer are more plentiful than the average classical Greek author’s by a hundredfold.” (ibid. 276; end-note #11)

With this important background information in mind, let’s examine some of the assertions made by M.S.M. Saifullah and company (from this article) in response to the Christian claim regarding the large number of manuscripts and the relatively short period of time between the composition of the original writing and the earliest manuscript(s).

“A quick glance at the data shows that the Gospel of John has the earliest manuscript evidence (P52, c. 125-150 CE) whereas the books 1,2 Timothy and 3 John have very late manuscript witnesses (, 4th century CE). Most of the earliest manuscript witnesses of the books of the New Testament are quite fragmentary, at times containing no more than a couple of verses or even less. The majority of the manuscripts date between 200-300 CE. Given the data, it is hard to imagine how the dates of the ‘original’ composition and the earliest extant evidence are so small as to be negligible.”

In response, let’s consider this in comparative terms. Recall that the time between the initial composition and the earliest manuscript of the writings of the ancient historians that Wallace listed in “Table 1” (which we have reproduced above) is at best approximately 300 years (in the case of Livy) and in some cases as many as 700-800 years (in the cases of Tacitus and Suetonius). With the New Testament, however, Daniel Wallace states that there are at least 101 discovered manuscripts that date to no later than the 4th century of the Christian era (Wallace 2008; time slice 31:40 – 32:50). This would be within about 300 - 350 years of the time of the initial composition of all the NT documents (accepting the typical scholarly-dating of these documents to between about 50-100 A.D.). And so while we have no documents within the first 3 centuries for the writings of the aforementioned historians, we have dozens within that time range for that of the NT.

The claim that many of these are “quite fragmentary, at times containing no more than a couple of verses or less” is true but such a statement does not reflect the fact that substantial portions of the NT are in fact represented among these early manuscripts. We see this even upon examination of only the Chester Beatty and Bodmer papyri. Glenn Miller provides the following helpful summaries:

The Beatty papyri.
The major papyri in this collection are p45, p46, p47.

  • p45: 150-250ad; contains some (or all) of Mt 20, 21, 25, 26; Mr 4-9, 11-12; Lk 6-7, 9-14; Jn 10-11; Acts 4-17.
  • p46: 90-175ad; contains some (or all) of Rom 5-6, 8-16; all of I & II Cor, Gal, Eph., Philp., Col, I Thess 1,2,5; all of Hebrews.
  • p47: third century, contains Revelation 9:10-17:2

Depending on how one defines 'tiny', this set of mss ALONE comprise a 'non-tiny' fragment collection!

The Bodmer papyri.
The major papyri in this collection are p66, p72, p75.

  • p66: 150-200 AD, contains almost all of the Gospel of John!
  • p72: 200's, containing all of I & II Peter, Jude
  • p75: 175-200 AD, contains most of Luke 3-18, 22-24; John 1-15. (Source)

Recall also that, according to Wallace, the twelve earliest manuscripts (which would date to within about 150 years or so of the original composition of the documents in question) comprise collectively approximately 43% of the NT (Wallace 2008; DVD time slice 22:00 – 23:00). In response to the authors’ statement that “Given the data, it is hard to imagine how the dates of the ‘original’ composition and the earliest extant evidence are so small as to be negligible”, it can be said that such a claim is made in comparison with other ancient literature, the substantial preservation of which is generally not questioned. In other words, if the data we have for the NT is not sufficient to conclude that it has been essentially preserved, then it would be very difficult to be certain of anything recorded by ancient classical authors as well. Saifullah et al also write:

“Therefore, the fantastic claims found in the missionary and apologetical literature are dealt a heavy blow when we understand that slightly over 6% of the more than 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts hail from before the 9th century! With no shortage of claims ascribing 'ancientness' to the manuscripts, given that around 94% of the Greek manuscripts (Greek being the "original" language of the New Testament) can be dated in excess of 800 years or so after the birth of Jesus, shows the sheer desperation of the missionaries. It is well known amongst the textual critics that the great majority of the primary witnesses to the text of the New Testament, (i.e., Greek manuscripts) are overwhelmingly from the medieval and late medieval periods.”

Overall, I think the authors’ statement on this issue is fair, as are a couple of claims made earlier in the same article that only 10-18% of the manuscripts in existence are used by textual critics in determining the original text, and that 80-90% of the manuscripts in existence are of the least-reliable Byzantine text-type. Such qualifications are important and it would behoove Christians that argue for the integrity of the NT text to be aware of such data and resultantly fit the “overwhelming manuscript attestation” argument in proper context rather than simply using it as a sound bite. At the same time, the value of these later manuscripts should not be completely dismissed. It is a well-known fact among textual critics that later manuscripts sometimes contain earlier readings at certain points. The importance of this will become more apparent in the next section where the phenomenon of the tenacity of textual variants and conjectural emendation will be discussed.

Of course, having in excess of 300 Greek manuscripts (i.e. 6% of 5,000) within 800 years of the birth of Jesus still yields a substantially better situation than what we have for other ancient authors. According to the data gathered by the authors, the GNT-3 used just in excess of 900 manuscripts while the 26th edition of Nestle-Aland utilized 522. The reader should keep in mind that this is excluding any important supplementary information that the versions and patristic citations may have provided these committees when determining the original text (note: despite the many problems involved with utilizing the patristic literature in regard to NT text-critical matters as pointed out by Saifullah et al, the situation is far from hopeless and textual critics do indeed find the patristic literature to be a valuable source of data; see Fee, Greek Fathers, 1995 for an instructive essay on the matter). So, even if we pare down the numbers from thousands to hundreds, the data pool still exceeds (and in most cases still vastly exceeds) that of what textual critics of other ancient authors have to work with, the one exception being perhaps that of the works of Homer (though even here I’d imagine that the relevant textual critics would deem some of the manuscripts of more value than others, just as we see with those that study the NT).

Before moving on, perhaps a word of clarification is also necessary regarding the Byzantine text, which as noted correctly by Saifullah et al is the inferior manuscript tradition, not finding representation among the earliest manuscripts (though comprising the vast majority of manuscripts that are in existence). It is important to realize that the differences which characterize the Byzantine textual tradition are not so significant as to yield a completely different Jesus. To put it into proper perspective, the cautionary remarks of Kurt & Barbara Aland are worthy of quotation:

“On the whole it must be admitted that statements about the text of the New Testament, whether by amateurs or by specialists, have far too rarely reflected an overall perspective. All too frequently the focus has been on variants found in particular manuscripts or editions. This is true for even the most fundamental aspects of textual criticism; when identifying the text type of a manuscript it is all too easy to overlook the fact that the Byzantine Imperial text and the Alexandrian Egyptian text, to take two examples that in theory are diametrically opposed to each other, actually exhibit a remarkable degree of agreement, perhaps as much as 80 percent! Textual critics themselves, and New Testament specialists even more so, not to mention laypersons, tend to be fascinated by differences and to forget how many of them may be due to chance or to normal scribal tendencies, and how rarely significant variants occur – yielding to the common danger of failing to see the forest for the trees.” (K & B Aland 1989; 28; emphasis added)

Of the remaining 20 or so percent difference, one wonders how much of that is comprised of trivial variations that do not affect the meaning of the texts in question (regarding potentially viable, yet trivial variations in the manuscript tradition see the below “Playing the Percentages” section).

From here the authors go on to speak of the “Athanasian Codex” and the lateness of when direct manuscript-evidence for this appears, a subject that is informative though irrelevant to the question of the preservation of the NT books in general. They also speak of the “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture”, to utilize the title of the relevant book penned by Bart Ehrman, as well as the fact that the Early Church Fathers as well as the early skeptic Celsus spoke about the textual variants and corruption of the NT text that was being observed in their day. Consistent with this latter point they point out the great fluidity of the text that has been observed by textual critics to have existed within the first two or three centuries of the genesis of the church. How these latter issues affect NT preservation as a whole we addressed in the above section (and also touch upon this issue indirectly in the next two sections). Regarding Ehrman and the deliberate scribal corruptions that can be observed in the manuscript tradition, made for the purpose of advancing a certain theological point of view, see the following discussion from James Patrick Holding:

As a closing note, it should be reiterated that while our earliest full NT copies originate from the 4th century at the earliest, with fragmentary texts being dated to as early as the late 2nd and 3rd centuries, that at least two of the major text-types (three if the “mixed”, formerly called “Caesarean”, text-type is a viable concept) identifiable from the manuscript tradition can likely be traced to the early-to-mid 2nd century is significant. The differences from the original in particularly the “paraphrastic text-type” (i.e. proto-Western text) should not be overestimated. After all, a “paraphrase” by definition generally stays true to the original meaning of the text, and any significant variants that do exist can be found in the relevant critical editions of the NT text mentioned often in this article (see below). That at least two text-(proto-) types exist that, despite their characteristic differences, nevertheless for the most part convey essentially the same text (note: the situation is somewhat more pronounced in the “Western” text of Acts, which is about 7-10% lengthier than the Alexandrian text of Acts; cf. the discussion in Metzger 1994; 222-236) and are traceable per Epp to as early as the 2nd century suggests a date of no later than the early second century before the “split into text-types” occurred. For texts that are essentially the same in all types we can be certain that the text prior to this “split” was something like what we find represented by the readings found in the major text-types (see again the “canine example” above). At the end of the day, this data indicates that we can be confident of what the text essentially looked like to within no more than approximately half a century or so of the time of composition of most of the NT documents, a situation unparalleled by other ancient histories. But what does the data from textual critics tell us about the reconstruction of the original text itself? It is to this topic we now turn.


One question that remains important in light of the introduction of textual variations into the MSS tradition is to what degree we may question how many original readings have been lost, not being accounted for among the textual variants that exist in the current manuscript record. This is where the question of “conjectural emendation” arises. This term refers to the practice of making educated guesses as to the actual wording of the original text when the variant readings that survive in the manuscript record remain unsatisfactory for whatever reason.

Now, before delving into some of the specific data, it should be noted that, given the great wealth of surviving manuscripts and considering the widespread distribution of early copies, it seems on the surface that this process would be for the most part unnecessary. Consider, as an example, Paul’s writing of the epistle to the Galatians. After the letter arrived at its destination (i.e. Galatia), it was probably housed in one of the relevant churches and used for readings during services. Eventually, more and more copies of the letter would have been made and housed in other churches of the region (and eventually for churches in more remote regions of the Empire), and in a few cases copies would possibly have been made for some of the more wealthy, aristocratic church members. And so, here is an important consideration. If Galatians would have been copied in what I’ll refer to as a “vertical” manner from the beginning, i.e. the original document was copied once, this copy was subsequently copied, and that second copy was copied next, etc., then one can imagine how mistakes would have crept into the record that perhaps make some original readings irrecoverable. That is, if each copy from the original document onwards was used only once as an exemplar, this would be a conceivable result. This “vertical model” seems to be primarily what Bart Ehrman envisages (per his comments at the Greer-Heard Dialogue 2008 Pt 1; time slice 13:00 – 16:15). However, this seems a highly unlikely scenario, particularly given that ancient scribes would have been as aware of the problem of textual variants as we are today.

A more likely scenario is that the original document (as well as each succeeding generation of copies) would have been used as an exemplar many times. A Christian wishing to take a copy of Galatians to, say, Smyrna, would likely have desired to use the original document if still available, and if not one of the earliest copies. Eventually, copies of Galatians would have been produced and distributed to all of the different points of the Roman Empire where churches existed. It seems much more likely than not that the original document would have served as the exemplar for many copies that eventually made their way to various regions of the Empire. It is too much to suggest that the original document would have served as the exemplar for all such early copies, due to such factors as the limited amount of time that the original document survived and the inconvenience that using the original as an exemplar may have provided certain scribes (for whatever reasons). However, once copies of the original document made their way to various regions of the empire, the distinctive variations introduced into these various copies would have subsequently proliferated as subsequent copies of these copies were made. And, of course, with each new generation of copies more and more variants would have been produced. Thus, certain variations would have been peculiar to certain regions of the Christian world.

Yet, this is the most important consideration. As it is highly unlikely that the same variation would have been introduced into the same part of the text often by different scribes working independently on the same exemplar, this geographical spread of copies produced from the earliest exemplars would make the loss of the authentic reading at the worst a very rare phenomenon. Certainly the original reading would have survived in multiple locations across the Christian world (subsequently to be copied again and again), making its subtraction from the pool of variants an unlikely phenomenon. Daniel Wallace writes in regard to the early transmission of the NT text:

“But the copying of the New Testament manuscripts is hardly like this parlor game [i.e. the “telephone game”]. First of all, the message is passed on in writing, not orally… Second, rather than having one line of transmission there are multiple lines or streams of transmission. Third, textual critics don’t rely on just the last person in each line, but they can interrogate several folks who are closer to the original source. Fourth, patristic writers are commenting on the text as it is going through its transmissional history, and when there are chronological gaps among the manuscripts these writers often fill in those gaps by telling us what the text said in that place in their day. Fifth, in the telephone game, once the story is told by one person that individual has nothing else to do with the story. It’s out of his or her hands. But the original New Testament books were most likely copied more than once and many may have been consulted even after a few generations of copies had already been produced. Sixth, there was at least one very carefully produced stream of transmission of New Testament manuscripts, and there is sufficient evidence to show that even a particular 4th century manuscript in this line is usually more accurate than any 2nd century manuscript.” (Source: Greer-Heard Dialogue 2008 Pt II; time slice 21:17-22:38)

Upon examination of the actual MSS tradition, our contention seems to find confirmation. Kurt and Barbara Aland note that variants within the MSS tradition are characterized by tenacity, suggesting that conjectural emendation should in essence not be necessary at all. In regard to which they write the following:

"And yet balancing this, one of the characteristics of the New Testament textual tradition is tenacity, i.e., the stubborn resistance of readings and text types to change. The practice of concluding the gospel of Mark at 16:8, for example, continued to be observed in some Greek manuscripts as well as in versional manuscripts for centuries, although the 'longer ending' of Mark 16:9-20 was recognized as canonical and its contents must have made it extremely attractive. Other examples are quite numerous (the ending of Romans, the pericope of the Woman Taken in Adultery, etc.; cf. pp. 297ff.). In fact, the very plurality of New Testament text types can be explained only by the tenacity of the New Testament textual tradition. Some 10 to 20 percent of the Greek manuscripts have preserved faithfully the different text types of their various exemplars, even in the latest period when the dominance of the Byzantine Imperial text became so thoroughly pervasive. That is what makes it possible to retrace the original text of the New Testament through a broad range of witnesses." (K. & B. Aland 1989; 69-70, emphasis added)

The authors further write:

"The transmission of the New Testament textual tradition is characterized by an extremely impressive degree of tenacity. Once a reading occurs it will persist with obstinacy. It is precisely the overwhelming mass of the New Testament textual tradition, assuming the ὑγιαίνουσα διδασϰαλία of New Testament textual criticism (we trust the reader will not be offended by this application of 1 Tim. 1:10), which provides an assurance of certainty in establishing the original text. Even apart from the lectionaries (cf. p. 163), there is still the evidence of approximately 3,200 manuscripts of the New Testament text, not to mention the early versions and the patristic quotations -- we can be certain that among these there is still a group of witnesses which preserves the original form of the text, despite the pervasive authority of ecclesiastical tradition and the prestige of the later text." (ibid. 291-292, emphasis added)

In what follows is a discussion of how this tenacity plays out in the textual tradition regarding the Markan appendix. It is worth quoting the Alands at length here given that this illustrates the importance not only of the early manuscripts, but also the important supplementary role that the translations and the writings of the Church Fathers can play regarding important text-critical matters:

"It is true that the longer ending of Mark 16:9-20 is found in 99 percent of the Greek manuscripts as well as the rest of the tradition, enjoying over a period of centuries practically an officially ecclasiastical sanction as a genuine part of the gospel of Mark. But in Codex Vaticanus (B) as well as in Codex Sinaiticus (N) the gospel of Mark ends at Mark 16:8, as it did in numerous other manuscripts according to the statements of Eusebius of Caesarea and Jerome. The same is true for the Sinaitic Syriac Sys, the Old Latin manuscript k of the fourth/fifth century, and at least one Sahidic manuscript of the fifth century, the earliest Georgian, and a great number of Armenian manuscripts, while k (a manuscript representing a tradition which derives from a quite early period) has the shorter ending in place of the longer ending. The widespread practice in the early Church of concluding the gospel of Mark at 16:8 was suppressed by Church tradition, but it could not be eradicated. It persisted stubbornly. As late as the twelfth century in the minuscule 304 the gospel ends at 16:8. A considerable number of manuscripts add Mark 16:9-20 either with critical notations, or with a marginal comment questioning its originality, even as late as the sixteenth century! This is a striking example of what is called tenacity in the New Testament textual tradition (cf. p. 291). The text of Mark 16:9-20 contains not only a summary account of the appearances of the resurrected Jesus, but also the command to evangelize in a form more radical than that in Matthew, and also an account of the ascension of Jesus. Despite the great, not to say fundamental, importance of these statements in the theological and practical life of the Church, a significant number of Greek manuscripts, including among them the two most important uncials B and N, remained faithful to the transmitted text and preserved it through the centuries, at least calling attention to the doubts surrounding 16:9-20 -- a witness shared also among the versions and the Church Fathers.

"This tenacity is even more strikingly demonstrated by the persistence of what is called the shorter ending in k and elsewhere. The shorter ending is preserved as the sole ending, as we have noted above, only in the Old Latin manuscript k. But there is a whole group of uncials (0112 from the sixth/seventh century, 099 from the seventh century, L from the eighth century, and ? from the eighth/ninth century) which preserve it along with 16:9-20, even placing it first, i.e. resulting in the order 16:1-8, shorter ending, 9-20. In addition there is l\1602, an uncial lectionary of the eighth century and the miniscule 579 from the thirteenth century which support this order. Outside the Greek tradition it is found also in the versions, in the Coptic and in the Syriac, as well as in the Ethiopic with its generally quite late manuscripts. This is almost inconceivable because these two endings are rival and mutually exclusive forms. And yet they have been preserved side by side in manuscripts and versions for centuries, simply because scribes found them in their exemplars (however independently in each instance). The situation can be explained only by assuming that the ending of the gospel at 16:8 was felt to be unsatisfactory as its use spread through all the provinces of the early Church in its early decades. In this form it tells of the empty tomb, but appearances to the disciples are only foretold and not recounted. Therefore the gospel was provided with an ending, certainly by the second century. The shorter ending was an ineffective solution, either because it was a very early stage of development or represented an outlying and relatively undeveloped community, while the longer ending was far more effective because it was formulated later and/or it represents a far more competent author. Both endings probably originated quite independently and in different provinces of the Church. There can be no doubt that the longer ending was superior to the shorter ending and would displace it in any competition. And yet the shorter ending did exist at one time, and it continued to be copied not only so long as the longer ending was unknown but even afterward, and it was generally placed before the longer ending. Furthermore, even the original tradition of ending the gospel at 16:8 could not be effaced completely by the longer ending, however inadequately it was felt to serve the needs of the Church: it also survived through the centuries." (ibid. 292-293; the authors go on to discuss several other variants (of a less important nature) in subsequent pages that further demonstrate this tenacity, cf. ibid 293ff.).

Similarly, citing the same important introduction to NT textual criticism by Kurt and Barbara Aland, Daniel Wallace states the following:

“The situation with New Testament textual criticism is entirely different: Virtually no conjectural emendation is required because of the great wealth, diversity, and age of the materials we have.5 Most New Testament scholars would say that there are absolutely no places where conjecture is necessary. Again, this is because the manuscripts are so plentiful and so early that in almost every instance the original New Testament can be reconstructed from the available evidence.

“For example, Kurt and Barbara Aland, the first two directors of the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Munster, Germany (Institut fur neutestamentliche Textforschung or INTF), wrote a standard textbook on New Testament textual criticism. At the INTF, over 90 percent of all Greek New Testament manuscripts are on microfilm. For the past forty-five years, the institute has been more influential than any individual, school, or group of scholars anywhere else in the world for determining the exact wording of the original New Testament. In short, they know their stuff. ‘Every reading ever occurring in the New Testament textual tradition is stubbornly preserved, even if the result is nonsense…any reading ever occurring in the New Testament textual tradition, from the original reading onward, has been preserved in the tradition and needs only to be identified.’6

“The Alands go so far as to say that if a reading is found in just one manuscript, it is almost surely not authentic: ‘The principle that the original reading may be found in any single manuscript or version when it stands alone or nearly alone is only a theoretical possibility.’7 Further, ‘textual difficulties should not be solved by conjecture, or by positing glosses or interpolations, etc., where the textual tradition itself shows no break; such attempts amount to capitulation before the difficulties and are themselves violations of the text.’8 Their opinion in these matters should be considered as that of expert witnesses. Most in the discipline share their views.9

This ‘non-need’ to guess about the wording of the original New Testament means that in virtually every instance the original reading is to be found somewhere in the manuscripts. That ‘somewhere’ can be narrowed down by the methods we discussed in the last chapter. Further, since the original reading need not be guessed at, we have an actual database—the pool of variants found in the manuscripts—that can be tested for theological deviations.” (Wallace 2006; 106-107; emphasis added)

J. K. Elliott, a textual critic of the school of “thoroughgoing eclecticism” (a school which tends to accord much more weight to internal evidence than external evidence in resolving text-critical issues, even in cases where the external evidence against a proposed reading appears overwhelming), states “Even the most rigorous thoroughgoing critic balks at conjectural emendation” (Elliott, Thoroughgoing Eclecticism, 1995; 331). More recently Elliott writes:

“But thoroughgoing eclecticism sees no need to resort to conjectural emendation, which often turns out to be a mere imaginative rewriting of the New Testament. Conjectural emendation of the New Testament was practiced in earlier periods, but few of these conjectures or guesses met with widespread scholarly acceptance. A decreasing number of some famous conjectures are still allowed to clutter unnecessarily the apparatus of the NA editions. Passages of great difficulty such as τὁ μὴ ὑπὲρ ἃ γἐγραπται at I Corinthians 4:6 may have to be accepted as primitive corruptions or obscure writing by the original author. (How often are our own written words always crystal clear?) Suggested emendations, some highly ingenious, are often improbable merely because of their ingenuity. At Mark 10:1 we were able to restore ὄχλος and thus have a text that conformed to Mark’s established usage elsewhere. There, of course, we had manuscript evidence available. We now ask the hypothetical question: What if every single manuscript known to us read ὄχλοι? Would we have emended 10:1 to read ὄχλος merely because our rule told us what to expect? I answer no. If that had indeed been the case we would have had to justify and explain Mark’s apparently maverick use of the plural here by saying, as, of course, commentaries on the critical text do, that here and here only does Mark want to show that different and separate crowds descended on Jesus. Then one would say that Matthew, if he were working on Mark, took over that Markan plural in his retelling of this passage. All of that makes sense. One would not need to emend the text to achieve an acceptable meaning. But Mark 10:1 does have a textual variant that needs discussion, and it is one that I hope I explained quite convincingly. Where a unique feature occurs firmly established in the manuscript tradition, one that does not conform to the author’s normal usage elsewhere, then I suggest we merely mark that passage as an exception or as a difficulty and accept it as such. We should not expunge exceptions by means of emendations. (Elliott, Thoroughgoing Eclectisism, 2002; 120-121)

J. K. Elliott and Ian Moir in another volume write the following:

“The overriding presumption and presupposition of NT textual criticism is that the original reading has survived somewhere in the tradition—obviously not in any one manuscript or in one group of manuscripts. But it is assumed that by a process of detection the original can be recovered from some of the manuscripts. In the classics and in OT textual criticism such assumptions are not possible. There is sometimes too little evidence, too few or too late manuscripts for us always to be able to reconstruct their text with confidence. With the NT the position could hardly be more different. Not only do we have many manuscripts and many manuscripts of an early date but recent scholarly attempts to edit the NT text are done with a confidence that the original text is there to be discovered in the manuscripts. Sometimes editors reach different conclusions, sometimes an editorial judgement is questionable, but behind the debate the assumption is that the manuscripts, supported or supplemented by the versions and by quotations in the writings of the Fathers, will yield the original text.” (Elliott & Moir 1995; 94, emphasis added)

Such “tenacity” finds further confirmation when considering the texts of Early Church Fathers where variant readings are discussed. Bruce Metzger has studied in detail variant readings alluded to by Origen (who, being a 3rd century figure, was obviously working with very ancient materials) as well as Jerome in the late 4th/early 5th centuries (who, though later than Origen, also would have probably had access to very early manuscripts). Metzger discusses 22 passages upon which Origen provides commentary in regard to variant readings, only 2 or 3 of which does Origen attest to a variant that is not found in currently-extant MSS (Col. 2.15; 2 Tim. 4:6; possibly Matt. 24:19) [cf. Metzger 1968; 91-100]. Of the 27 passages with variant readings that Jerome discusses (per Metzger’s examination), it appears that all of the variants alluded to by Jerome are attested in extant MSS [Metzger 1979; 180-186]. Notably, in the vast majority of cases the variants are found in multiple extant manuscripts. Saifullah et al point out the fact that Church Fathers (especially Origen) lamented the corruption of the NT text in their day. However, an examination of the specific variants discussed in their commentaries not only reveals, as a point of interest, some readings that in many cases are still potentially viable today (e.g. Mt. 8:28-32; 27:16-17; Lk. 23:45; Jn. 1:3-4, etc. in Origen (per Metzger 1968); Mt. 5:22; 11:19; 24:36; Mk. 16:9; Jn. 7:53-8:11; Acts 15:29, etc. in Jerome (per Metzger 1979); regarding which see the relevant discussions in Metzger’s textual commentary [Metzger 1994]), but also predictably do not yield any earth-shattering problems with regard to important Christian doctrines. The two or three variants discussed by Origen that do not find attestation among current MSS may well have been (and in my estimation probably were) non-original readings.

So, it is questionable as to whether or not the process of conjectural emendation is necessary at all. There are, however, some that remain convinced that conjectural emendation still has utility in New Testament textual criticism. Fortunately, such critics find that this process is only necessary on (at the worst) the fewest of occasions. For example, Michael W. Holmes believes it to be necessary in at least some cases:

“In practice and often in theory as well, the assumption is widespread that the original must have survived somewhere among the extant MS testimony. Some, such as K. Aland, assert this as a matter of principle58; others do so by default, by declining to take seriously, even if only theoretically, the possibility of the need to emend the text of the NT…

“This failure amounts to a squandering of our sources, a neglect of evidence entrusted to us by the accidents of history that could, if properly used, enable us to penetrate beyond the limits of the extant tradition. That there is considerably less need for emendation of the NT text than of comparable documents is indeed true59, but we must not confuse less need with no need. For example, a survey of the UBS Textual Commentary reveals more than a few places where the committee found itself unsure that any of the surviving readings represented the original60. Westcott and Hort marked in their edition some sixty-five places where they suspected the presence of some primitive corruption antecedent to all extant witnesses, and recognized in these cases the need for emendation61.” (Holmes, Reasoned Eclecticism, 1995; 348-349; emphasis original)

So what are some of the relevant passages and what issues are at stake? Daniel Wallace does mention a couple of places where conjectural emendation may still be necessary:

“There are two places in the New Testament where conjecture has perhaps been needed. In Acts 16:12 the standard critical Greek text gives a reading that is not found in any Greek manuscripts. But even here, some members of the UBS committee rejected the conjecture, arguing that certain manuscripts had the original reading. The difference between the two readings is only one letter. (See discussion in Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2d ed. [Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994], 393-95; NET Bible “tc” note on Acts 16:12.) Also, in Revelation 21:17 the standard Greek text follows a conjecture that Westcott and Hort originally put forth, though the textual problem is not listed in either the UBS text or the Nestle-Aland text. This conjecture is a mere spelling variant that changes no meaning in the text.” (ibid. note 5; 285)

While being generally skeptical of the alleged need for conjectural emendation (see the above quote), J. K. Elliott and Ian Moir discuss a few other places where textual critics have proposed emendations to the text. Regarding I Corinthians 4:6, they note:

“At 1 Corinthians 4:6 the sentence is difficult to understand. NIV has ‘…so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written’. The Greek here literally means ‘…so that you may learn from us to think not beyond what is written’ or ‘that you may learn in our case the meaning of ‘not above what is written’. As a result, more than one exegete has suggested that the passage is corrupt, and that what seems to have happened is that a marginal note was accidentally incorporated into the text causing a nonsense reading. But not only is the difficult text found in every single manuscript read to date but (as is usual in such matters) the conjectures never achieved universal acclaim.” (Elliott & Moir 1995; 94)

Other examples of passages thought by at least some commentators to require emendation discussed by the authors include the following:

1) John 19:29 – It is conjectured here that the original word for “hyssop” should have been hyssos, meaning “javelin” rather than hyssopos, which is a bushy plant. It would make more sense for the former to be used to lift a sponge dipped in vinegar to Jesus (who was on the cross) than the latter (ibid. 95).

2) Luke 24:32 – For whatever reason, the “burning” in the disciples’ hearts (those walking to Emmaus) who encountered the risen Jesus has been emended, both in ancient and modern times, to such adjectives as “heavy”, ‘blinded’, and ‘terrified” (as well as others) (ibid. 96)

3) Acts 2:9

“Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome” (Acts 2:8-10)

According to the authors, some commentators offer conjecture here because the use of “Judea” in the above list “seems wrong; it is grammatically and geographically out of place.” (ibid. 96) However, they also state “These have seldom met with universal approval, and it still behoves [sic] the reader to make sense of the text as transmitted in the manuscripts or at least to admit that the author was inaccurate.” (ibid. 96)

4) Acts 12:25 – several variants appear regarding the goings-forward of Paul and Barnabas. Was it “from Jerusalem”, “out of Jerusalem”, “to Jerusalem” (as the actual manuscript variants attest), or are none of these to be considered satisfactory? Apparently due to stylistic difficulties with all of the readings a primitive error was suspected as far back as the 19th century since Westcott and Hort (ibid. 96).

5) Acts 16:12 – regarding this text Elliott and Moir write that in the Nestle-Aland and UBS editions there is a conjecture that results in the translation “A city of the first district of Macedonia” rather than “The first city of the district of Macedonia” as the manuscripts indicate. Wallace notes that the difference in the above two translations is a single letter (see the relevant quote above). The reason for the conjecture in the critical editions is that the wording of the latter rendering would be technically inaccurate (ibid. 96).

6) 2 Peter 3:10 – the NIV translation regarding that everything in the earth will be “laid bare” also finds such possible alternatives as “vanish”, “be found”, “be burnt up’, “be found destroyed”. Metzger finds that “none of the available readings seems to be original” per his commentary (ibid. 96).

7) I Corinthians 14:34-35 – These verses appear to enjoin women to remain silent while in the church, a passage whose originality is questionable because 1) it seems contradictory to teachings earlier in the same epistle, e.g. 11:5, 13; and 2) there are indications in some manuscripts that bring the verses’ originality into question, such as the fact that the verses appear in some manuscripts at a different location, i.e. after vs. 40, as well as the fact that the verses are marked in some manuscripts (including the important Codex Vaticanus) by symbols suggestive that there is a textual issue at that point in the letter (cf. ibid. 95).

Of these examples, it would appear with one possible exception that the points in the text where conjectural emendation has been made render rather trivial results (at least for the considerations relevant to this article). The last example may be more interesting since it could affect the devotional practices of women during church services (on which see here and also here).

To be noted from this survey is that modern scholars only resort to the practice of conjectural emendation in the fewest of instances, probably substantially less than Westcott and Hort did in the 19th century. And, as mentioned by Elliott and Moir, most to all of the proposed emendations have not gained universal acclaim among scholars. Even if Westcott and Hort, writing more than 100 years ago, were correct in suspecting as many as 65 such passages, this would still affect less than 1% of the verses in the whole NT corpus. Also to be noted is that the passages that have been subjected to conjectural emendation do not typically yield profound changes in the text. This is not to say that the meaning is not affected. It is to say, however, that conjectures generally come down to a scholar suggesting minor changes within the text. To resort once again to a purely hypothetical example, perhaps one could argue that the original reading of a text detailing Paul’s journey to Jerusalem was that “Paul rushed to Jerusalem” instead of “Paul walked to Jerusalem” as our hypothetical extant MSS have it. Off the wall conjectures such that “Paul walked to Jerusalem” may have originally been “Nero ordered a pizza” are not made by textual critics. This is important in that it indicates that the theoretical need for conjectural emendation of the text of the NT does not warrant the suggestion that completely unheard-of passages and sayings may have originally been present in the text or that passages were introduced into the text that became so prolific as to leave no evidence of their initial absence from the text. I Cor. 14:34-35 may be the only place that would remotely support such speculation, though even here the case for an interpolation is based on actual findings from manuscript data and the argument rests on highly questionable grounds. Additionally, perhaps the primary (though not the only) reason it is considered by some to be an interpolation is that the content of the passage seems to be in blatant contradiction to verses found earlier in the same letter. However, this argument would be negated if in fact Paul was not here demanding that women be silent in the church, at least not in the general sense that some commentators have surmised (on this see the above links).

The bottom line is that if any conjectural emendation is necessary it is only the case in a relatively few places, and in most of the places where it may be necessary the changes would not result in profound transformations of the text. The phenomenon of the “tenacity” of the variants assures us that virtually all of the original text can be found in existing manuscripts.

And so, any textual variation that merits serious consideration as the original reading has in virtually every case persisted for examination by textual scholars. Even if we are to speculate against the evidence that somehow certain (currently) non-disputed readings made their way into the text through interpolations or early corruptions, it is unimaginable that this could have been accomplished to the point that entirely new and vital doctrines were introduced into a given book of the NT with these changes subsequently gaining such widespread acceptance that scribes throughout the Roman Empire continued to copy these monumental interpolations or corruptions to such an extent that no evidence of their existence as interpolations or corruptions survives in the rich and varied manuscript evidence. Conjectures about readings of particular words or verses that would not change substantially the complexion of a given text, let alone affect a major doctrine, is one thing, but any such purported phenomena that introduces bold new doctrines is quite another. It is much easier to understand how meaningless secondary readings could have been perpetuated by copyists, even unwittingly, than how this could have been the case with secondary readings that blatantly corrupt crucial theological truths.


It is common in Christian-apologetic literature to find appeals to the alleged percentage of the New Testament text of which we can be certain. Depending on the source this number typically ranges from approximately 95-99%. M.S.M. Saifullah and company question this approach, asking the reasonable question as to how such percentages are derived (see here, particularly the “Ah! Those Fantastic Percentages” section, for examples of the Christian use of the “percentage-appeal” and for a critique). The main arguments of the authors against the use of the percentage argument are 1) these percentages are not derived from modern textual critics and 2) the numbers utilized are contradictory to the actual state of the text, which is not suggestive of 95-99% certainty.

I frankly find much of their critique to be instructive, serving as a useful caution against the careless use of such percentages by some Christian apologists in articles and/or debates. Anyone using this approach should at least be prepared to explain how one arrived at the numbers that one did, otherwise one leaves one’s self open to scrutiny.

Nevertheless, I do think a few comments are in order in way of response to some of what we do find from Saifullah et al in the relevant section of their article. First of all, the authors appeal to the Alands’ discussion regarding the percentage of agreement among seven major text-critical editions that have been published over the past century plus. They write:

“Comparing the above-named seven major critical editions, from Tischendorf to Nestle-Aland26, we can observe an agreement in wording of only 62.9% of the verses of the New Testament. The proportion ranges from 45.1% in Mark to 81.4% in 2 Timothy. Let us take a statistical examination of the four Gospels (Note: orthographic differences and differences of a single word not included in the assessment).

“The percentage agreement of the verses when all the four Gospels are considered is 54.5%. This is very close to the probability that a tail (or head) appears when a coin is tossed once (i.e., the probability that a tail or head appears when a coin is tossed is 50%!). It is still a mystery to us from where exactly the evangelicals pick-up such fantastic "agreements" between the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.” (Note: helpful tables of the aforementioned data can be found in the relevant section of the authors’ article (*); this data derived specifically from K & B Aland 1989; 29).

In response, it can be said that determining the percentage of agreement among these pertinent critical editions is simply not an adequate way of determining what percentage of the text is actually in doubt. The span of time between the initial publication of these critical editions covers a period of approximately 100 years, the earliest being that of Tischendorf around 1869, to Westcott-Hort in 1881, von Soden at about the 1st decade of the 20th century, Vogels whose 1st edition appeared in 1922, Merk, the first edition having been published in 1933, Bover whose 1st edition appeared in 1943, and finally the Nestle-Aland 25th edition which is most recent. As more and more data has come to light from newer manuscript discoveries it isn’t surprising that there will be a wider range of disagreement among the various critical editions. To illustrate the potential impact that new discoveries can yield, consider the following comments of Epp:

“‘Gradually,’ however, is the governing word here. Naturally, the earliest published papyri could have had little impact on critical editions such as Tischendorf’s in 1869 or Westcott-Hort’s in 1881. Yet von Soden’s edition (1913) cited only twelve papyri out of twenty then known; Legg’s edition of Mark (1935) cites only P45 (though that was, at the time, the only known papyrus containing Mark); his edition of Matthew (1940) uses six (when nine were known); and Nestle’s sixteenth edition (1936) cites fifteen papyri (when nearly fifty were known). Succeeding Nestle editions cited twenty-eight in 1952 (21st); thirty-seven in 1963 (25th, when seventy-five had been published); and finally in 1979 (26th) and following, all the papyri are cited. The first Greek NT to list all known papyri was also the first completely new critical edition to be produced after the Bodmer papyri appeared: the first edition of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (1966), signifying that the papyri now had fully and officially come into their own27.” (Epp, Papyrus Manuscripts, 1995; 11)

Thus it is scarcely shocking that the editions reveal a fairly large degree of divergence. In fact, given the range of time involved in the publication of the relevant editions as well as the new manuscript discoveries that have been made during that time (and the increasing utilization of these new materials by textual critics), I tend to agree with J.P. Holding when he regards the amount of agreement that does exist as impressive:

“The agreement here is quite astonishing, considering that this is the combined result of seven different teams and/or persons over an extended period of time. That all 7 editions completely agree on close to two-thirds of the NT is a striking indication of how much confidence we may have in our present text. (Though not given, the next statistics would show agreements on 6 out of 7, 5 out of 7, etc. - and if the trend above is followed, we might well reach that 99% agreement before going too far down the ladder!)”(Source)

To put some of this into further perspective, consider the following comments by the Alands:

“Only one further comment may be necessary to avoid a methodological misunderstanding. The number of instances where these various editions differ among themselves and from Nestle seems quite high. In reality their significance is minor. Consider that the text of Nestle-Aland25 comprises 657 pages. When von Soden and Vogels show 2047 and 1996 differences from it respectively, this amounts to no more than three differences a page. This changes the perspective completely. Admittedly averages can be misleading; e.g., in the Gospels the ratio is higher: for Nestle’s 296 pages von Soden shows 1180 differences and Vogels 1398, raising the ratios to 4 to 4.5 to a page, respectively. But then the ratio is correspondingly lower for other parts of the New Testament. The other editions show far fewer differences: Bover has less than 2 to a page, and Merk less than 1.2 to a page of Nestle.

“These statistics may suggest the objection that differences between the various editions have simply been counted, and not weighed. But this objection is purely theoretical. From practical experience we find that ‘important’ and ‘unimportant’ variants are about equally distributed in the various editions, so that a simple numerical account actually provides a fairly accurate picture. It is the only way an observer can gain an overall impression.” (K & B Aland 1983; 27-28; emphasis original)

More relevant when examining the integrity of the NT text is an examination of a more modern critical edition, such as that of the United Bible Societies. Not only are practically all of the available materials utilized (unlike what was the case with most of the critical editions alluded to above written as long as 130 plus years ago), but involved in the process is a committee comprised of many of the top New Testament textual scholars in the world (rather than, again, various textual critics working independently of each other and with incomplete use of the manuscript tradition). Saifullah et al do in fact appeal to the United Bible Societies’ publications to further their argument against the “appeal to percentages”.

Before proceeding to this, however, it may be helpful to quote the authors of GNT 4 regarding textual decisions and classifications of the texts with viable variants:

“On the basis of the generally accepted principles of textual analysis the Committee took into account the widest possible range of manuscript readings as well as all internal considerations concerning the origin and transmission of the text. But since in a number of instances the evidence from such sources points to the possibility of different solutions and thus involves different degrees of certainty with respect to the form of the original text, the letter A, B, C, or D has been employed within braces { } at the beginning of each apparatus item so as to mark one of four levels of certainty, as representing in large measure the difficulties encountered by the Committee in making textual decisions.

“The letter A indicates that the text is certain.

“The letter B indicates that the text is almost certain.

“The letter C, however, indicates that the Committee had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text.

“The letter D, which occurs only rarely, indicates that the Committee had great difficulty in arriving at a decision.” (GNT 4 1993; 3)

In regard to the UBS Saifullah et al write (*) the following:

“If we remove the text that is virtually certain, rated as {A}, and take the percentage of the New Testament text (total verses = 7947) that is in doubt, we see that the doubtful text is close to 16.5% in all the three editions of the United Bible Societies' The Greek New Testament. That brings textual ‘certainty’ to about 83.5% as suggested by the efforts of the committee of textual critics. Again, this is way off from ‘at least 95%’ agreement between the New Testament text in the manuscripts.

Of course, 83% is already a substantial improvement from 63%. However, the authors apparently feel some victory is to be gained in the fact that this is still far away from the 95-99% that is often stated by some Christian apologists. Yet I feel some further clarification is required regarding the verses that remain in doubt according to the UBS textual apparatus.

First, some verses contain multiple variations classified as B, C, and/or D readings. Taking this into account would resultantly decrease the number of “doubtful verses” as calculated by Saifullah et al (since they divided the total number of B, C, and D readings into the total number of verses, apparently not taking into account that some verses contain more than one of such readings). However, the number of verses with multiple and potentially viable variations is so comparatively small that the 83.5% number would likely not improve to more than about 84% at the most.

More substantial is the fact that many (and probably most) of the “doubtful verses” contain inconsequential variants, some of which clearly do not change the meaning of the text while still some others only questionably change the meaning of the text, while still some others that do clearly change the meaning of the text do not even relate to crucial Christian doctrines. We will discuss a few passages that are deemed {B}, {C}, or {D} by the textual committee (meaning that there is at least a degree of reasonable doubt as to which is the correct rendering) presently.

For the sake of convenience I chose some variants that occur early in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark that I think provide us with some instructive examples.

Example 1

“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:18)

This verse contains a couple of {B} readings, the first question being whether or not “Jesus Christ” is original vs. simply “Christ”. Per Metzger the textual committee prefers the former given its overwhelming manuscript support, but the possibility of the latter reading’s originality is not only that it does have some manuscript support but also that scribes tended to expand either “Jesus” or “Christ” with the missing word and that the definite article typically does not occur in front of the full name as it does here (Metzger 1994; 6-7). The other {B} reading is regarding the Greek word for “birth”, which is either gennesis or genesis. The former term can also mean “creation” or “generation” or “genealogy” vs. the latter which means “engendering” (ibid. 7). In this context it is clear that a simple birth is being described regardless of which word is used and so neither of the doubtful readings in this verse amount to anything significant.

Example 2

“Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:17-18)

Another {B} reading is found in vs. 18 regarding the “weeping and great mourning”, as substantial manuscript support exists for an expansion to “lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning” (so GNT 4, 1983; 5-6 and Metzger 1994; 8). Metzger writes that the longer reading is likely a “scribal assimilation to the Septuagint text of Jr 31.15 (LXX 38.15)” (ibid. 8) and so the shorter reading is likely to be original. In this passage Matthew associates Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” with the Scriptural passage of Jeremiah 31:15, both potentially viable variants of which essentially the same meaning is being conveyed.

Example 3

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.” (Matthew 3:16)

This text contains a couple of {C} readings, the first of which is questionably significant. Some texts add “to him” after “heaven was opened” (ibid. 9), making room for the possibility that only Jesus saw the Spirit “lighting on him”, suggesting that this occurred in the context of a vision rather than a public event. This understanding may be implied despite the absence of the “to him” variant in the fact that the verse goes on to say that “he saw” rather than “they saw”. Nevertheless, the variant with “to him” could be argued to more explicitly indicate that this was a vision of Jesus rather than a public event and so it could be argued perhaps that the meaning is changed (though again this is questionable). Regardless of which variant is original we don’t seem to be dealing with anything which affects even indirectly Christian doctrine.

The other {C} reading is the placement among some witnesses of the conjunction kai in front of “lighting” (ibid. 9-10), which does not affect the meaning of the passage in any way.

Example 4

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:3-5)

Some witnesses here, including the quintessential “Western” text (i.e. D, or “Codex Bezae”) reverse vss. 4 and 5 so that the beatitude regarding “heaven” (vs. 3) is juxtaposed to that regarding “earth” (vs. 5) [GNT 4, 1983; 11]. Metzger states that it is unlikely that a scribe would have thrust vs. 4 in between vss. 3 and 5 if the two latter beatitudes had originally stood together given the “rhetorical antithesis of heaven and earth” whereas it makes sense that later scribes may have reversed vss. 4 and 5 to produce this antithesis (Metzger 1994; 10). Regardless of which order we opt for this {B} reading contains no impact on meaning.

Example 5

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)

The closing reference of the above verse to Jesus as the “Son of God” is not found in some manuscripts, including the important Codex Sinaiticus, earning this passage a {C} classification (ibid. 62). Whether or not vs. 1 originally stated that Jesus is the “Son of God” is in one sense irrelevant since Mark’s viewpoint elsewhere clearly expresses the belief that Jesus is the Son of God (so e.g. Mark 1:11), though on the other hand we can say that this represents an important omission. The reader of the original text may have had to wait until 10 verses later to discover that Jesus is the Son of God (per Mark) if the title is not original to verse 1.

Example 6

“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)

The definite article “the” in front of “John the Baptist” is not to be found in some witnesses (so GNT 4, 1983; 117). Given the fact that John is referred to as the Baptist in other Markan texts (6:25; 8:28), along with seven texts in Matthew and three in Luke, it is considered more probable that the definite article was added in 1:4 by some later scribes than that it was originally present and subsequently deleted (Metzger 1994; 62). The question this variant brings with it is a possible change of “Baptist” from a noun to a verb, i.e. is John “the Baptist” or did John “come baptizing?” This passage was classified by the committee as a {C} passage, and whichever rendering we take does not affect the meaning or implications of the passage.

Example 7

”And a leper came to Jesus, beseeching Him and falling on his knees before Him, and saying, ‘If you are willing, You can make me clean.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.’” (Mark 1:40-41)

For our final example we’ll briefly discuss one ({B} reading) that clearly does affect meaning. A minority of witnesses, such as D (i.e. Codex Bezae) [GNT 4, 1983; 122], indicates that the statement “moved with compassion” may have originally read “being angry”. It could be said, as has e.g. Bart Ehrman [cf. Ehrman 2005; 133-139], that because the latter reading is more difficult given that later scribes would more likely portray Jesus as compassionate towards a man stricken with disease rather than angry at the man’s request to be healed, the change of the text was made in order to indicate a more positive attitude on the part of Jesus to the one requesting healing from leprosy. On the other hand, as Metzger points out, scribes did not feel the need to emend other passages which indicate that Jesus could become angry (3:5; 10:14) [Metzger 1994; 65]. That Jesus could get angry according to other texts also prevents us from making too much of this variant regardless of which one is original. Metzger suggests that the change may have been due to the influence of Jesus’ “stern warning” of verse 43 or “arose from confusion between similar words in Aramaic…” i.e. Syriac ethraham (“he had pity”) vs. ethra’em (“he was enraged”) [ibid. 65].

And so ends our brief sampling of verses. My purpose was to give several examples of “doubtful verses” in which the variants are inconsequential as well as a few that do affect, or might affect, the meaning of the text at least in some sense. In the case of the latter, we’ve seen that from at least these few examples the variants do not impact Christian doctrine, even of the particular book where these variants are found. There are, of course, other verses to which we could have made appeal (but did not) that could be more strongly argued to impact a given doctrine even to the point that one could question whether or not a given author even espouses the doctrine in question (e.g. Matthew 24:36; Luke 22:19b-20; on the former see here; on the latter see below). However, I think the brief sampling provided should illustrate an important fact: of the verses that are in doubt as to the precise wording of the original, many variants do not change the meaning of the passage at all while others can only be argued to change the meaning (such as e.g. example #3). Of those that definitely change the meaning of the text there are comparatively few that impact points of doctrine (on which see the next section).

In light of this information what more can be said in terms of the “percentage of certainty”? While it remains technically accurate to state that the text is only certain (per the UBS critical edition and the calculations of Saifullah et al) in approximately 83.5% of the verses of the NT, many of the remaining 16.5% can hardly be classified as “corrupted texts”. Can it be said without proper qualification that such texts where we are not certain merely if the original verse read “Christ” or “Jesus Christ” are doubtful? The same question could be posed for passages with essentially meaningless transpositions of verses (e.g. Mt. 5:4-5) as well as verses that may have simply originally lacked a definite article or a conjunction. It would seem to me almost equally gratuitous to regard such passages as Mt. 3:16 as “corrupt” (at least without qualification) simply because we don’t know if the heavens were simply “opened” or “opened to him” (i.e. Jesus), even if in such a case one could make an argument that the latter reading lends credence to interpreting this verse as a private revelation as opposed to a public event. The true import of the passage that Jesus was baptized, received the Holy Spirit at this time, and was declared “Son of God” by a voice from heaven is preserved.

If we were to remove such passages as “doubtful”, then that 83.5% certainty would be improved even more substantially. If say only half of the {B}, {C}, and {D} passages fall within such a “hardly doubtful” category, then the percent certainty would exceed 91%. If 75% of the questionable passages fall within this category, then the percent certainty would be nearly 96% (which would fall within the 95-99% range for which Saifullah et al chided apologists for arguing). I suppose the only way to actually know what percent of the {B}, {C}, and {D} readings fall within what I’ve termed this “hardly doubtful” category is to analyze all such readings (or at least perform a scientific, random sampling of hundreds of them in order to make an estimation) in the way we have above for 7 of the verses containing variant readings and render a conclusion. Unfortunately, such a task would be extremely tedious and I think in the end unedifying for the reason I will espouse shortly. For what little it may be worth, I’d make an educated guess that a solid majority of the potentially viable variants fall within this “hardly doubtful” category.

Now, our analysis to this point has been centered on the percentage of verses within the manuscript record that is untouched by potentially viable variants. What can we say regarding the percentage of words that are not affected? It is in this category that Daniel Wallace provides what (as pointed out by Saifullah et al) until recently modern apologists that use the “appeal to percentages” seem to have lacked, i.e. a supporting claim from a modern, bona fide textual critic regarding the percentage of certainty of the original text:

“Finally, as we noted earlier, when one looks at the actual details of the textual problems, the vast majority are so trivial as to not even be translatable, while the meaningful and viable variants constitute only about 1 percent of the text. And even for this category, most scholars would say that 1 percent uncertainty is an overstatement. (The majority of New Testament scholars would say that the meaningful and viable variants constitute a small fraction of 1 percent of the text.) As we have said many times throughout this section, the dogma of absolute skepticism is unjustified in the field of textual criticism (just as the dogma of absolute certainty is).” (Wallace in Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace 2006; text from note 1; 285; emphasis added)

Further, Wallace writes:

“The original documents of the New Testament have been lost, but their contents have been faithfully preserved in thousands of copies. Today we are certain of about 99 percent of the original wording. In no place is the deity of Christ or his bodily resurrection called into question by textual variants. Although much of the wording of the text has undergone change over the centuries, the core truth-claims of Christianity have remained intact.” (ibid. 259; emphasis added)

In light of the number of verses that contain potentially viable variants I was curious as to how Wallace arrived at the 99% certainty. So, on Tuesday, 1/06/09 @ 5:39 PM I sent the following query via e-mail to Daniel Wallace:

“Given your contention that we can be certain of 99%, I'm wondering if that is an educated guess on your part or if this is actually something that has been derived from scrutinizing all of the variants. One set of authors critical of the integrity of the text appeal to the number of verses affected by viable variants per the United Bible Societies classification system. Excluding the "A" readings, they calculate that approximately 16.5% of the NT text is affected by viable variants (they arrived at this by dividing the total number of "B", "C", and "D" readings, i.e. 1300+ into the total number of verses in the NT, i.e. 7900+, and concluded that about 16.5% of the verses are affected by significant variant readings). Now, I've looked at this a little beyond the surface and have found that some of these viable readings are nothing more than questions of whether or not certain definite articles and/or conjunctions were present in given verses, transpositions of verses (e.g. Mt. 5:4-5), and other such readings that don't even affect the meaning of the text. I figured that if we exclude all of the verses that contain potentially viable, yet essentially meaningless variants, that that 16.5% could perhaps be cut in half or maybe even more than that. But, I don't know what the exact percentage would be unless someone were to actually analyze every passage with potentially viable variants and exclude those verses that have potentially viable, yet meaningless variants. My educated guess would not have been as optimistic as 99%, hence why I'm asking someone whose educated guess would be much more informed than my own, a credentialed NT textual critic.”

On the same day, Tuesday, 1/06/09 @ 6:00 PM, Wallace responded with the following comments:

“16.5% of verses doesn't mean that we can be confident of only 83.5% of the text. There are just under 8000 verses in the NT, but there are 138,162 words. Most variants involve a single word or two words. Two variants involve a dozen verses; twenty or so involve one to two verses. But I believe that none of these larger variants are really disputed by the majority of scholars. And you also noted that of the UBS variants a lot of them are truly meaningless, not even affecting translation. Now, if 16.5% of the verses involve a textual problem that is given less than an A rating in UBS, that means that 1320 variants at most are significant. And if these average one word, once you eliminate the variants that don't really affect much, then you have less than 1% of the total 138,162 words.

“That is roughly how I figured it out. BTW, my numbers have not been disputed even by Bart Ehrman.”

Thus a claim of approximately 99% certainty appears to be accurate regarding the words of the New Testament. However, the percentage of verses that are virtually certain would be somewhat less (which makes sense given that each verse is comprised of many words), probably between about 91-96% once all of the verses containing only meaningless variants are excluded from consideration (on which see the relevant discussion above).

At the end of the day, the Christian apologists (perhaps unwittingly in most cases) may not have missed the mark by too much. However, the “appeal to percentages”, while thought-provoking when based on sound scholarship, remains only of secondary importance. The important question to answer is how the variants that do exist (some of which are not only viable and significant, but also occur in passages espousing major Christian doctrines) impact the core Christian beliefs. And it is to this important topic that we now turn.


Finally we reach the key aspect of this important debate. In response to the Christian claim that the textual variations do not impact crucial points of Christian doctrine, polemicists will point to certain passages that ARE in doubt that espouse important Christian doctrines. In this section we will discuss a few passages often pointed to by critics that do impact points of doctrine and discuss the relevance this has for the overarching issues – 1) whether or not this results in doubt over the textual foundation of a given doctrine (i.e. Is the doctrine espoused in the original texts?); and 2) how this impacts the historical foundation of a given Christian doctrine. For the Christian, it is essentially question #2 that is most important. Even if we have ample documentary support in the original text, it matters little if there remains insufficient historical foundation for the doctrines in which we believe. On the other hand, the answer to question #1 (independent of that of question #2) would seem to remain of vital importance for Muslims. Regardless of the historical foundation of a given Christian doctrine, the Islamic claim that the Bible was initially inspired, yet later corrupted, presents problems for Muslim polemicists if we have good reason to believe that the doctrines espoused therein which seem to contradict Islam were present in the autographs. It is to the answer of these two questions to which the rest of this article is devoted.

There are, of course, dozens of Christian doctrines (some more foundational than others). While such doctrines as Christ’s virgin birth, his Messiahship, his miraculous ministry, and the future general resurrection are important Christian doctrines, they do not represent fundamental points of disagreement between Christianity and Islam. In this article we will restrict our discussion to variants involving Christian doctrines that are fundamentally in contradiction to Islamic beliefs since this quite simply is the proverbial meat of the debate. It seems that the main points of disagreement include the following:

1) The crucifixion of Jesus
2) The atoning significance of Jesus' death
3) The divinity of Jesus
4) Trinitarian beliefs
5) The resurrection of Jesus

And so we begin our survey (once again all Biblical quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise specified):

Mark 16:9-20

“When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it. Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either. Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.’ After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.”

Given that we've encountered this variant already in our discussion it seems like a natural place to start. The "Markan appendix" is one of the two most significant variants (the other being the so-called Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11)) in terms of the largest number of verses involved. Although the overwhelming majority of manuscripts contain the Markan appendix, the scholarly consensus rejects its authenticity. The major reasons include the following:

1) Certain early and important manuscripts do not contain the verses (e.g. Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus) and evidence from the Church Fathers attests to its early absence from the manuscript tradition – on which see the relevant quotation of the Alands above in the “Conjectural Emendation” section).

2) According to Metzger, the style and vocabulary of the appendix is non-Markan, including a number of words not found elsewhere in Mark, and “The connection between ver. 8 and verses 9-20 is so awkward that it is difficult to believe that the evangelist intended the section to be a continuation of the Gospel.” (Metzger 1994; 104-105)

3) The first few verses appear to simply summarize the post-resurrection appearances found at the end of the other Gospels, which if true would suggest that the appendix is much later than Matthew, Luke, and John (this despite the fact that Mark is considered to be the earliest Gospel by the scholarly consensus).

4) Most compellingly, when considering that the most probable authentic reading is the one that accounts for the existence of all of the variant readings, we are forced to conclude that the Gospel originally ended at vs. 8.

While reasons 1-3 are important considerations, it is the 4th reason listed that would seem to tip the scales heavily in favor of concluding that vss. 9-20 are not original to the Gospel of Mark. If these verses were original, one wonders how the variant that does not contain the appendix is to be found not only in very important Greek witnesses, but also is attested by Eusebius and Jerome, and is also found in numerous translations (see in the prior section the extended quotation of Kurt and Barbara Aland). Then there is the 3rd variant, i.e. the shorter ending, which reads:

“But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after these things Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” (quote taken from Metzger 1994; 103)

Why would a scribe create an ending inferior to the more complete one found in vss. 9-20? On the other hand, if the Gospel originally ended at vs. 8, then it makes sense that scribes would have sought to "improve" this by adding post-resurrection appearances. Apparently the shorter, more inferior ending, was added to the text independently of the scribal addition that resulted in the Markan appendix (cf. the entire discussion in Metzger 1994; 102-106).

Whether or not Mark truly intended to end his Gospel at vs. 8 (or if he did not end it here and the ending was somehow destroyed prior to copying) is a source of scholarly debate (see here for an argument endorsing the view that Mark did NOT end his Gospel at verse 8). In any event, we are safe in concluding that the most authentic ending is the one that ends at vs. 8.

With Mark widely considered to be our earliest Gospel, how significant is this in the proverbial grand scheme? Although Mark may not have provided us with post-resurrection appearances, his Gospel still betrays the belief in their occurrence:

“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” (Mark 14:27-28)

“But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. ‘Don't be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, "He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you."’ Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:6-8)

Moreover, there are several passages within the Gospel that indicate that Jesus foresaw his impending death and vindication:

“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’” (Mark 8:31-33, cf. also 9:9, 30-32, 10:32-34)

And so, the inclusion of Jesus’ passion predictions, the narrative of the empty tomb, and Jesus’ and the angel’s indication that the disciples would see him in Galilee in Mark’s Gospel betray the author’s belief in the resurrection of Jesus and the post-resurrection appearances.

It is also prudent to point out, of course, that there are sources which pre-date the Gospel of Mark that inform us of the belief in Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the disciples. Scholars (including highly-skeptical ones) are unanimous in concluding that I Cor. 15:3-7 is based on creedal material that is to be dated to within only a few years of the crucifixion. It is also probable that the speeches of Acts contain pre-Lukan material, quite possibly dating to the earliest days of the church (Stanton 1985; 67-85 is instructive in this regard). Within these speeches we find implications of post-resurrection appearances. In Acts 2:32 and 3:15 Peter speaks of the disciples being “witnesses” to Jesus’ resurrection. In Peter’s speech to Cornelius this is more explicit:

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” (Acts 10:39-41)

And so, we can certainly be confident that the early church spoke widely of the post-resurrection appearances (the consensus of NT scholars, both conservative and liberal, agree – though how the appearances are explained is scholar-dependent), and despite their absence (in narrative form at least) from Mark’s Gospel we can be certain that the original New Testament text spoke at great length about Jesus’ death and resurrection from the dead.

The most skeptical claim that some scholars make regarding the fact that our earliest sources (e.g. I Cor. 15:3-8; Gospel of Mark; Acts’ speeches) do not contain narratives of post-resurrection appearances is that such narratives as we find in the later Gospels were not used by the early church in order to preach Jesus’ resurrection. While such an idea may seem attractive on the surface, it surely fails when considering such practical matters as what kind of responses and questions that potential converts would have had when first hearing the church’s remarkable proclamation that Jesus had been raised from the dead. It is clear that the resurrection was the lynch-pin of the early church’s beliefs about Jesus. This is clear not only by the ubiquity of the claims across the New Testament but also the fact that it is found in sources embedded within the NT that can be dated back to the earliest Jerusalem church and the original apostles of Jesus. It follows from this data that allusions to the post-resurrection appearances were likely the key piece of evidence utilized by the early church in establishing the case for the event’s historicity. Certainly such claims would have evoked such curiosities as to what these experiences were like, what did Jesus do and say during these appearances, and likely scores of other questions. The apostles would have been forced to convey narratives early and often when preaching the message of the resurrection even if for some reason they didn’t care to do so (which would be another very dubious assumption). We can therefore agree with the highly distinguished N.T. scholar Dale Allison when he writes:

“How likely is it that any Christian group was ever long content with sparse theological assertions unattached to stories and so unillustrated? 1 Cor 15:3-8 must be a summary of traditional narratives that were told in fuller form elsewhere.

“Surely no one would ever have been satisfied with the short assertion, ‘Jesus appeared to Cephas’ and ‘Jesus appeared to five hundred people at once.’140 This is no more plausible than urging that Christians at first said things such as ‘Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil’ (Acts 10:38) and only much later enjoyed telling miracle stories about him141; or that while Paul and others preached Christ crucified, no supposed particulars about Jesus’ martyrdom emerged until decades after the fact, when interest unaccountably set in142; or that ‘he appeared to Cephas’ was ever proclaimed without explaining who Cephas was if the audience knew nothing about him. (Later Christian creeds omit the appearances altogether, probably in part because the witnesses were no longer alive.)

“Surely Martin Hengel is right regarding 1 Cor 15:3-8; ‘A Jew or Gentile God-fearer, hearing this formal, extremely abbreviated report for the first time, would have difficulty understanding it; at the least a number of questions would certainly occur to him, which Paul could only answer through the narration and explanation of events. Without clarifying delineation, the whole thing would surely sound enigmatic to ancient ears, even absurd.’143 In harmony with this common sense, which rightly assumes simple human curiosity and a desire on the part of Christians to communicate rather than obfuscate, is the high probability that, although Paul says next to nothing about his own encounter with the risen Jesus in 1 Cor 15, he surely was not, in the right circumstance, averse to offering some details. The apostle does this three times in Acts, and we shall see below that there is every reason to suppose that Luke got this particular right.” (Allison 2005; 235-236)

Luke 22:17-20

“After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”

A variant that appears in some manuscripts of the above passage removes vss. 19b and 20, resulting in the excision of the words of institution (“Do this in remembrance of me”) and the subsequent words that spell out the atoning significance of the passage. It is thus argued that the Gospel of Luke does not attest to the doctrine of Christ’s vicarious atonement. It is further argued that Luke betrays no explicit affirmation of this doctrine in either of his writings since the book of Acts likewise does not refer to it.

Before pointing out a few observations in response, it should be noted that even if the variant that does not contain vss. 19b and 20 is original, the atoning significance of the Last Supper is well-attested elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul quotes this tradition in I Corinthians 11:23-26. It is also found in Mark 14:22-24 and Matthew 26:26-29. Since a similar passage occurs in Biblical documents (including 2 Gospels) in which the text is not disputed, Muslim polemicists cannot conclude upon text-critical grounds that the doctrine of Christ’s vicarious atoning death is not found in the original New Testament. The only possible recourse I could see for the Muslim with this being the case would be to argue that the “original Gospel” to which the Qur’an alludes and endorses is solely the Gospel of Luke. Of course, even if this could be accomplished and they were somehow to come away with a small victory in this regard, Muslims would still have lost the proverbial war since they would still have to contend with the fact that Luke speaks at great length about Jesus’ predictions of eventual death and subsequent vindication, his passion and crucifixion, subsequent burial by Joseph of Arimathea, the empty tomb, and post-resurrection appearances (and I would argue divinity as well).

And yet, while we cannot be certain about the originality of vss. 19b and 20, probability falls on the side of authenticity:

“There exists, however, a textual issue over the Lukan version, as some have argued that Luke 22:19b-20 is a later interpolation and not part of what the evangelist originally had recorded. The fact that the disputed text contains the crucial atonement theology associated with the Last Supper makes the question of whether or not Luke 22:19b-20 is original important. In favor of the shorter text Metzger lists the following factors: 1) A general tenet of textual criticism is that the shorter reading is to be preferred; 2) The words in the disputed text are very similar to Paul's words in I Cor. 11.24b-25, which suggests that I Corinthians may have served as the source for a later interpolation into the Lukan text; and 3) The disputed text is characterized by several "non-Lukan" linguistic features (Metzger 1994; 150).

“The evidence in favor of the longer text, however, appears to be very strong. First, the external evidence vastly favors it. Metzger writes, ‘the longer, or traditional, text of cup-bread-cup is read by all Greek manuscripts except D and by most of the ancient versions and Fathers;’ and ‘The external evidence supporting the shorter reading represents only part of the Western type of text, whereas the other representatives of the Western text join with witnesses belonging to all the other ancient text-types in support of the longer reading.’ (ibid. 148) Second, Metzger points out that it is more likely that a Bezan editor would eliminate the repetition characterizing Luke's version of "cup-bread-cup", despite the inverted order of "bread-cup" that would remain, than that a later editor would try to correct an inverted order by bringing in from Paul the second mention of the cup while keeping the first mention in the text (thus introducing the repetition in the first place). Finally, Metzger notes that the shorter version ‘can be accounted for in terms of the theory of disciplina arcana, i.e. in order to protect the Eucharist from profanation, one or more copies of the Gospel according to Luke, prepared for circulation among non-Christian readers, omitted the sacramental formula after the beginning words.’ (ibid. 149-150).

Metzger concludes on the matter regarding the opinions of the textual committee:

A minority preferred the short text as a Western non-interpolation…The majority, on the other hand, impressed by the overwhelming preponderance of external evidence supporting the longer form, explained the origin of the shorter form as due to some scribal accident or misunderstanding. The similarity between verses 19b-20 and I Cor 11.24b-25 arises from the familiarity of the evangelist with the liturgical practice among Pauline churches, a circumstance that accounts also for the presence of non-Lukan expressions in verses 19b-20. (ibid. 150)

Prominent textual critics Kurt and Barbara Aland concur:

Most (though not yet all) of the exegetes under the influence of nineteenth-century theories have yielded to the overwhelming evidence attesting the originality of Luke 22:19b-20 in the Gospel text, recognizing that for the presentation and perspective of the gospel of Luke it is not the "shorter," but the "longer" account of the Last Supper that is authentic. (K. and B. Aland 1995; 311; emphasis the original) [15] (Source)

Even if vss. 19b-20 are not authentic, however, it is still likely that Luke accepted the doctrine of Christ’s vicarious atonement. For one, Luke was probably a traveling companion of Paul [see the discussion of the “’we’ passages in Acts” in Hemer 1990; 312-334]. As such, Luke was certainly familiar with the widespread interpretation of the Eucharist as indicating Jesus’ death as a means of atonement for sinners. If he took issue with the doctrine of the atonement, it would have been better to not even narrate the Eucharist in the first place.

Second, Luke’s summary of one of Paul’s sermons in Acts 20:28 may indicate that Christ’s death served as atonement for sin:

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (emphasis added)

While this passage does not explicitly spell out atonement theology, it does indicate that Christ’s death was necessary for the genesis of the church. It is probable, though not certain, that here we have an allusion from Luke to the doctrine of Christ’s vicarious atonement.

Third, Luke refers to Isaiah 53 in relation to Jesus. Before proceeding with this thought a few words of caution are in order. A straightforward reading of Isaiah 53 would seem to lead inexorably to the conclusion that the text speaks of the vicarious atonement brought about by the servant’s death, resulting (at some point) in his exaltation. This is the view typically held by both modern proponents of an “individual” interpretation and the modern proponents of a “corporate” interpretation. The ancient evidence, however, suggests that interpreters of Isaiah 53 increasingly emphasized the servant’s exaltation while the aspect of the servant’s suffering became a decreasing point of emphasis. This becomes increasingly evident as we approach the 1st century. At the same time, however, there does exist evidence (scant though it may be) of the belief in a suffering (Messianic?) figure in pre-Christian Judaism, particularly in light of the Isaiah 53 passage. For an exposition of these issues, see Hengel, Effective History, 2004; 75-147. A brief discussion of some of Hengel’s findings can be found here. And so while the “suffering” motif of the passage may have been increasingly de-emphasized, it was not completely suppressed. With these thoughts in mind let’s consider some of the relevant Lukan references. Explicit references are found in Luke 22:37 & Acts 8:30-35. Further, in the early speeches of Acts, Luke refers to Jesus several times as “servant of God” (cf. Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27-30), representing probable allusions to the Servant Songs of Isaiah.

Regarding the “servant motif” in the speeches, specifically in Peter’s speech in Acts 3, I. Howard Marshall writes:

“Peter goes on to affirm that this God ‘has glorified his servant Jesus’ (edoxasen ton paiden autou Iesoun). The wording reflects Isa. 52:13, ho pais mou… doxasthesetai sphodra, where the speaker is God. The use of the term pais for a servant of God is found with reference to a wide variety of people, including prophets, Abraham, Moses, and kings, especially David (cf. 4:25), and also it is a self-designation of the righteous sufferer in Wis. 2:13. It is used for Jesus also in 3.26; 4:30. The mention of David as God’s servant in the same context (4:25) has raised the question of whether all that we have here is an application of David’s title to Jesus. However, the combination with doxazo is found only in Isa. 52:13, and this must be regarded as decisive (the term ‘handed over’ [paredokate] is also used in Isa. 53:6,12, but here it applies to Yahweh’s action). The point is confirmed by the use of ‘servant’ language elsewhere of Jesus (cf. the combination of suffering and glorification in Luke 24:26; see Wolff 1984: 88) and by the possible echo of Isa. 52:14 in 3:10 (Witherington 1998: 179-180; cf. Hooker 1959: 110; Bock 1987: 188).

“The original context of the citation is, of course, the passage in Isa. 52:13-53:12, in which a person described as the Lord’s servant is the object of great suffering and abuse, although in some way he is bearing the sins of others and suffering because of them; his role is upheld by God, and ultimately he will be glorified. The original significance is much discussed and disputed. It is perhaps impossible to discover what the prophet’s hearers and readers would have made of the passage or what the prophet himself had in mind.

“In the present context the language is used to establish who Jesus is and the fact of his glorification. This glorification may be seen in what has taken place—the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus (cf. Luke 24:26; see Rese 1969: 112-113)—or in Jesus acting powerfully in healing the lame man, or in a combination of these (Bock 1987: 189-190); Peter appears to be saying that it was because God had exalted Jesus that he now was able to do such a mighty work, so that the healing is evidence for the glorification. But the statement also serves to set the scene for the later use of a citation from Isa. 53 in 8:32-33. As it stands, the passage comes from a speech by Peter very early in the development of the church, and thus it would reflect a fairly rapid recognition that Jesus was the Servant of Yahweh. There are scholars who think that this aspect at least of the Christology in Acts is from a later date, reflecting perhaps the developments seen especially in 1 Peter, and chiming in with the use of similar motifs in the apostolic fathers (Did. 9:2-3; 10:2-3; 1 Clem. 59:2-4; Mart. Pol. 14:1; 20:2; Barn. 6:1; 9:2 [so Barrett 1994-1998: 194]). However, the passages from the apostolic fathers show no links to Isaiah. In the Didache there is a David/Jesus typology; there is nothing Isaianic in 1 Clement and the Martyrdom of Polycarp; only in Barn. 6:1 is there a citation of Isa. 50:8-9; the source of Barn. 9:2 is not identifiable. It is preferable to see here an earlier use of Isaiah through which perhaps the term ‘servant’ found its way into Christology” (Marshall Acts; 545 in Beale & Carson 2007; emphasis added).

Regarding the quotation of a portion of Isaiah 53 in the pericope of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:30-35, Marshall writes:

“The section of the prophecy that is quoted is concerned with the injustice perpetrated on the Servant and with his patient acceptance of it without complaint. There is no explicit reference in this part of the text to the effects of the Servant’s suffering. This omission is of a piece with the general tendency in Acts to ignore the significance of the death of Jesus as a vicarious sacrifice that opens up the possibility of forgiveness and salvation for repentant sinners (see, however, 20:28). However, the use made of the Scripture here is of a piece with the emphasis both in the Gospels and in the evangelistic and apologetic speeches in Acts of identifying Jesus as God’s agent and accounting for the fact of his sufferings in terms of the divine necessity expressed in Scripture. It was important to establish that Jesus is the Messiah and that his suffering is not at odds with this but is rather an essential part of his vocation before going on to the question of the significance of his sufferings. Parsons (1998) suggests that the humiliation and rejection of Jesus are centered, since the point is that the eunuch can identify with Jesus. He builds on a hint by Johnson (1992: 156) and further suggests that the quotation stops where it does because ‘his life was taken from the earth’ could be ambiguous and refer both to his death and to his exaltation (cf. the metaphor of ‘lifting up’ in John’s Gospel). A deliberate avoidance of the concept of atonement by Luke (so Rese 1969: 98-100) seems unlikely; more probably he is relating how the church at this early stage dealt with the offense of the crucifixion by emphasizing that it was willed by God. One might as well argue from the fact that the Servant’s vindication is not mentioned here that Luke was not interested in it either!” (ibid. 574-575)

Peter Stuhlmacher writes in regard to Luke’s use of the servant motif in relation to Jesus:

“The old-fashioned language in Acts about Jesus as God’s anointed Servant or [pais theos] (Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27, 30), humiliated and put to death by his enemies according to God’s will but exalted by God and invested with Divine authority, refers back to Isaiah 61:1 and 52:13; 53:11. Parallel to this, Jesus is called [o dikaios], the Righteous One, in Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14 (cf. Isa. 53:11 and I Enoch 38:2; 53:6). Whether such expressions merely take up individual motifs from the Servant tradition or rather represent a more comprehensive picture of Jesus’ ministry, suffering, and exaltation as God’s Servant is a question that can be answered by two considerations. First, the two titles predicated of Jesus are certainly pre-Lukan and must therefore be considered not apart from but together with the Jerusalem formulaic texts Romans 4:25 and I Corinthians 15:3b-5 (see above). Moreover, Luke has used them not independently of his passion story but only in conscious connection with it (cf. Acts 3:13-16; 4:27-28; 7:32). Both considerations suggest that in the figure of Jesus a holistic concept of God’s Servant has been realized. Without such a larger concept it would be impossible to understand the language of the forgiveness of sins that came through Jesus’ mission as the [pais theos], which Luke repeats almost stereotypically (cf. Acts 3:13, 19 with 2:38; 5:31; 10:43, etc.). But the intercessions in Luke 22:32 and 23:34 together with Isaiah 53:12 explain this language quite well. The exalted Christ will continue the “intercession for transgressors” which he began on earth, and even in the final judgment he will bring them forgiveness of sins through his vicarious death for sinners.29” (Stuhlmacher, Isaiah 53 in the Gospels and Acts, 2004; 156-157)

And so, even if Luke 22:19b-20 is not authentic, we find several indications within Luke/Acts (even if only implicit) that supports the assertion that Luke knew and endorsed Jesus’ atoning death. Such implications are important for the historical foundations of the doctrine even if they provide, at best, only marginal help for establishing a textual basis for the doctrine in Luke’s work.

Regarding the historical foundations that underlie the doctrine of Jesus’ vicarious atonement, beyond the Lukan references/allusions, we find further evidence in the New Testament epistles that the early church applied the suffering servant motif of Isaiah 53 to Jesus. For example, Stuhlmacher argues that the Hebrew text of Isaiah 53:5, 11 (rather than the Septuagint) served as the template for the traditional formula quoted by Paul in Romans 4:25, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”, given the linguistic similarities to the former over the latter. This would indicate a probable provenance in the early Jewish-Christian community. We would expect material that originated from a later date or remote provenance to utilize the LXX (i.e. Septuagint) since Greek became the predominant language utilized by the church as it spread forth from its Palestinian origins (as evidenced by e.g. the fact that the New Testament was written originally in Greek). Similarly, it is argued that Isaiah 53:5, 9-12 stands behind the very early creedal confession of I Corinthians 15:3b-5 (ibid. 154-155; cf. also the more thorough discussion by Hofius, The Fourth Servant Song in the New Testament Letters, 2004; 177-182). That portions of Isaiah 53 may stand behind these verses is very significant given that scholars universally acknowledge that this creed originated within a few years of the genesis of the church, and represents the missionary teaching of the earliest disciples. In fact, Paul tells us as much in I Cor. 15.11 (on the scholarly consensus see e.g. Habermas 2003; 17-18). Vermes seems to imply that because I Cor. 15:3 (along with numerous other NT texts) states that Jesus’ suffering and death took place in accordance with the Scriptures, yet does not allude to any specific OT passages, the early church found it difficult to support their belief from actual Scriptural passages (Vermes 2003; 387-388). This argument, however, is difficult to accept. Along with other components of the Gospel kerygma, the claim of the apostles that Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred in accordance with the Scriptures would beg the question to potential proselytes as to which specific Scriptures were in mind. It is impossible to envision the early church preaching this message and yet either not encountering potential converts either inquiring what they had in mind or the disciples not being able to produce a specific answer.

And, there are other references which likely have Isaiah 53 in mind, such as Hebrews 9:28 and I Peter 2:21-25.

By way of summary, we have evidence from multiple strands of tradition as to the use of Isaiah 53 by the early church (e.g. Pauline, Petrine, Lukan, the author of Hebrews). More importantly, dependence on Isaiah 53 can be found in early creedal material, possibly including the very important formula of I Cor. 15:3b-5 (note: even if this is not the case, that Christ died for our sins demonstrates the earliness of the church’s belief in the atonement doctrine). The “servant of God” references we find in the speeches in Acts confirm this. In fact, the servant motif characterizes part of the so-called archaic Christological material that leads many scholars to conclude that Luke is relying on early church tradition in comprising the speeches (So Hengel 1979; 103-106).

Regarding the importance of Jesus’ death serving as atonement for sins we could go even further. Rudolph Pesch has argued that Mark 14:12-26, which contains the Markan account of the Eucharist, represents the oldest tradition of the early church (Pesch, The Gospel in Jerusalem, 1991). Furthermore, it remains the fact that the testimony of the early church is unanimous in declaring that the Gospel of Mark was based on Peter’s preaching and testimony, and that the tradition asserting this is likely very ancient, being traceable to the 1st decade of the 2nd century at latest, and possibly all the way back to the apostle John in the late 1st century (on this see especially the discussion in Gundry 1993; 1026-1045; also Hengel, Problems, 232-238 and the extensive treatment in Bauckham 2006; 202-239). Additionally, Martin Hengel has demonstrated numerous markers internal to the Gospel of Mark which confirms the unanimous external evidence (Hengel, Problems, 1991; 238-243; again Hengel, Four Gospels; 82-85; cf. also Bauckham 2006; 155-182). If this is the case, we have another line of evidence traceable to Peter’s belief in Jesus’ vicarious atonement (given Mark’s narration not only of the Eucharist but also the passage in Mark 10:45). Then, of course, there are the allusions to the doctrine of Jesus’ atoning death in I Peter to which we’ve already alluded. Hengel writes:

“For example, it is striking that two writings which according to the tradition of the early church – in my view completely reliable – must be assigned to the Petrine sphere of tradition, Mark and I Peter, stress the soteriological interpretation of the death of Jesus as an atoning death in a marked way, I Peter by an explicit citation of Isa. 53 (2.17ff.; 3.18f.; cf. 1.18), and Mark in two places in an archaic Semitic linguistic form.” (Hengel 1981; 54)

The general scholarly consensus maintains that many documents in the New Testament are pseudonymous, with I Peter being a letter widely thought to be included within this particular category. However, even if this is the case, it is probable that the material in this letter accurately reflects Petrine theology, otherwise it is difficult to account for the fact that it, unlike II Peter, achieved such widespread acceptance by the early church. Moreover, despite the current consensus on the issue, I think there are good reasons for questioning whether or not any of the NT epistles are pseudonymous (cf. Carson & Moo 2005; 337-350; Witherington III; 23-38; Komoszewski, Sawyer, & Wallace 2006; 135-149; on Petrine authorship of I Peter in particular cf. Carson & Moo 2005; 641-646; Guthrie 1990; 763-781). See also the following by Glenn Miller and James Patrick Holding on these same issues:

In conclusion, we can confidently trace the belief in Jesus’ atoning death back to the earliest apostles by multiple strands of evidence. Now, given the importance of the belief in the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the ministry of the early church, establishing the historicity of the early church’s belief in Jesus’ atoning death is sufficient for Christian belief. But can we go even further than this? Prior to the crucifixion, did Jesus himself give any indication of his impending death, or if his death would serve as a vicarious atonement? We think for several reasons this can be answered in the affirmative.

First, regarding Jesus’ belief that he was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, Stuhlmacher notes the following:

“The proposition to be refuted here is a different one: the communis opinio of recent New Testament scholarship that ‘the application of the Servant conception to Jesus was the work of the early church with very limited influence.’4 Rather, as scholars including J. Jeremias,5 H. W. Wolff,6 O. Betz,7 L. Goppelt,8 and others have long since realized, it is the other way around: the Christological interpretation of Isaiah 53 that comes to the fore in Romans 4:25; I Corinthians 15:3b-5; I Peter 2:22-25; Hebrews 9:28, and so forth was not first and foremost the fruit of post-Easter faith; its roots lie rather in Jesus’ own understanding of his mission and death. He himself adopted the general messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 current in early Judaism,9 but he understood his sufferings quite independently of the prevailing tradition in the light of the word of God given to him from Isaiah 43:3-4 and 53:11-12. After the completion of Jesus’ mission in the cross and resurrection, the song of the Suffering Servant was applied in early Christianity consistently for the first time to a historical individual whose fate made the whole text transparent.” (Stuhlmacher, Isaiah 53 in the Gospels and Acts, 2004; 148-149)

I have argued elsewhere at some length for the authenticity of Jesus’ own belief in fulfilling the role of the “Suffering Servant”, the historicity of the Eucharist and the Gethsemane narrative, and even his explicit passion predictions; see here.

To round off the discussion, one last observation by Peter Stuhlmacher regarding the undeniably-historical cleansing of the temple by Jesus is I think worthy of attention:

“As I have learned from my former student J. Adna and from the materials he has worked with, the ransom saying of Mark 10:45 and its parallels coheres surprisingly closely with Jesus’ so-called temple cleansing (Mark 11:15-17 par.).17 This symbolic messianic act presented the temple priesthood with an alternative—either to continue to carry out the sacrificial cult without reference to Jesus and his message and thereby to become separated from God once and for all, or to face up to this message and together with Jesus to approach ‘the temple established by God’s own hands’ in the [basileia] (cf. Mark 14:58 par. with Exod. 15:17-18).18 With this incredibly provocative act Jesus knowingly risked his life, and this was ‘in fact the occasion for the definitive official action against him.’19 Jesus’ action against the sellers of sacrificial animals and the money changers in Solomon’s Portico was equivalent to an attempt to undermine the entire buying and selling of sacrificial animals as well as the payment of obligatory contributions in the Tyrian temple currency. These contributions paid among other things for the twice-daily tamid sacrifice (…; cf. Exod. 29:38-46; Num. 28:3-8) by which Israel could be redeemed from its guilt morning and evening (cf. Jub. 6:14; 50:11; Pesiqta of Rab Kahana 55b; cf. Str-B 2:247 n.1). If one assumes that Jesus anticipated the priesthood’s negative reaction to his deed, then from Mark 10:45 and its parallels it can be concluded that he himself was ready to take the place of the sacrifices offered in vain by the priests for Israel and to redeem the people of God from its guilt before God once for all with his life. The close connection between Mark 10:45 par. and the temple cleansing provides documentary proof that Jesus entered the final disputes in Jerusalem decisively and ready to suffer…

“If one contemplates the sequence of Jesus sayings in Mark 9:31 par.; 10:45 par.; and 14:22, 24, all of which have been formulated with a view to Isaiah 53 (and Isa. 43:3-4), then the figurative saying about the two swords in the Lukan special tradition, Luke 22:35-38, can be counted among the genuine sayings of Jesus based on the criterion of coherence. In Luke 22:37, Isaiah 53:12 is cited not according to the Septuagint but according to the Hebrew text: “He was numbered with the transgressors”… The formulation of the saying is only partly Lukan,22 and in it Jesus submits to the will of God revealed to him in Isaiah 53 no less obediently than he does in the other sayings just mentioned. He was ready to let himself (and his faithful followers) be ‘numbered with the transgressors’ and to end his life as God, through his word in Scripture, had determined for him.23

“From the Jesus sayings examined up to this point it is safe to draw the following conclusion: The earthly Jesus himself understood his witness and his approaching death in the light of the tradition already given to him in Isaiah about the (vicariously suffering) Servant of God. He understood the suffering laid upon him as an event in which God’s will was fulfilled. (Stuhlmacher, Isaiah 53 in the Gospels and Acts, 2004; 151-153; emphasis original)

John 1:18

“No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” (NASB)

The phrase “the only begotten God” (or “unique God”) is rendered in most manuscripts “the only begotten Son” (or “unique Son”). Bart Ehrman states that the latter phrase is most likely to be original, and the change from “unique Son” to “unique God” represents the antiadoptionistic tendencies of an Alexandrian scribe (Ehrman 2007; 162). His reasons for arguing that “unique/begotten Son” is original include 1) the “unique God” variant is found only rarely outside the Alexandrian textual family; 2) while the Gospel of John elsewhere refers to Jesus as “the unique Son” (3:16, 18), it does not refer to him as “unique God”; 3) the “unique God” reading is less intelligible. On the latter point, Ehrman writes:

“Moreover, what would it even mean to call Christ that? The term unique in Greek means ‘one of a kind.’ There can be only one who is one of a kind. The term unique God must refer to God the Father himself—otherwise he is not unique. But if the term refers to the Father, how can it be used of the Son? Given the fact that the more common (and understandable) phrase in the Gospel of John is ‘the unique Son,’ it appears that that text was the text originally written in John 1:18. This itself is still a highly exalted view of Christ—he is the ‘unique Son who is in the bosom of the Father.’ And he is the one who explains God to everyone else.

“It appears, though, that some scribes—probably located in Alexandria—were not content even with this exalted view of Christ, and so they made it even more exalted, by transforming the text. Now Christ is not merely God’s unique Son, he is the unique God himself! This too, then, appears to be an antiadoptionistic change of the text made by proto-orthodox scribes of the second century.” (Ehrman 2007; 163)

If Ehrman is correct in that the “unique God” reading is unintelligible, this argument could be utilized in order to support the originality of the “unique God” reading since it would represent the more difficult reading. It could be argued that this was recognized by later scribes and the phrase was changed to “unique Son” in order to conform to John’s more prevalent vocabulary and theology elsewhere in the Gospel. But, it is questionable whether or not Ehrman’s interpretation is correct, or if it is truly unintelligible (see Daniel Wallace’s comments on this verse in his review of “Misquoting Jesus”).

“First John 1:18.  Do we read ‘the only-begotten God’, or ‘the only-begotten Son’?  Many of the modern versions prefer ‘God’, although other translations are less than clear here.  Does the Prologue refer to Jesus as ‘God’ or ‘Son’?  ‘God’ is clearly the more difficult reading stylistically (because ‘God’ appears earlier in the sentence) and theologically, because of the abhorrence that would have been felt in some quarters at describing Jesus as the only-begotten God.  Although some scholars see ‘God’ as a scribal alteration intended to enhance the Christological standing of Jesus, it is more likely that offence felt by others would have encouraged a change away from an original ‘God’ to the less offensive Christology implied by the substitution of the word ‘Son’.” (Elliott & Moir 1995; 60)

The fact that the “unique God” variant is found in the Alexandrian textual tradition also supports this reading’s veracity since this is generally the most reliable text-type.  However, at the end of the day, it is probably wise to conclude that either variant might be original. Within the whole context of the Johannine Prologue, it seems that either reading would support a divine Christ. In any event, whichever variant is original and how it affects interpretation is irrelevant to the greater issue at hand. Similar as was the case with the doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection and atoning death, the divinity of Jesus is well-attested in non-disputed passages. Daniel Wallace notes four in particular that are found among the earliest manuscripts where Jesus’ divinity is explicitly attested: John 1:1; 20:28; Romans 9:5; and Hebrews 1:8 (Wallace in Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace 2006; 116-117). He writes:

“Let’s look at some of the verses in pre-fourth-century manuscripts that speak explicitly of Christ’s deity. We are restricting our discussion to those verses in which Jesus is called ‘God.’ Beyond these, there are dozens of other passages that affirm his deity implicitly (some of which we will discuss in the section ‘The Divinity of Jesus’). But here we want to show that it is quite impossible for Constantine to have invented the deity of Christ when that doctrine is already found in manuscripts that predate him by a century or more.

“It is important to note that these three papyri are among our most important manuscripts of the New Testament. P46 includes eight of Paul’s letters and the letter to the Hebrews. P66 covers most of John’s Gospel. P75 includes most of Luke and part of John. The later manuscripts from the fourth century—the manuscripts that Constantine allegedly corrupted—are very much in agreement with these manuscripts. Indeed, the manuscript that modern translations rely on as much as any other is Vaticanus, a fourth-century codex that has about three-fourths of the New Testament. The agreement between Codex Vaticanus and P75 is as great as any two ancient manuscripts.38 Not only this, but in all the passages listed above, there are no significant variants from any manuscripts of any age.39 They all tell the same story: Jesus is true deity”. (ibid. 116-117; emphasis original)

Thus, even if we eliminate the disputed texts like John 1:18 from consideration, the original New Testament still clearly attests to a divine Jesus.

This is enough in and of itself to cause major problems for Islamic polemicists regarding the issue of textual foundation, but what can be said regarding the historical foundation for the church’s belief in Christ’s divinity? On this question, Larry Hurtado, in his outstanding “Lord Jesus Christ” has persuasively demonstrated high Christological beliefs in all strands of early Christianity, from the earliest Jewish-Christian church in Palestine, to the Q document, to the Pauline churches, the canonical Gospel communities, and beyond, and that this is reflected in virtually all of the relevant documents (both from proto-orthodox and unorthodox circles) from the first century and a half or so after the genesis of the church. For those interested in a shorter read, Hurtado’s “One God, One Lord” and “How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God” is helpful (if not as comprehensive). Richard Bauckham’s recent “Jesus and the God of Israel” also proves helpful (see also the links listed at the end of this section).

Logically, if it can be established that Jesus was considered divine by his earliest followers, it seems much more likely than not that such considerations are based upon actual claims made by the historical Jesus. So, before we even look at the evidence of the historical Jesus’ claims/sayings, it seems a priori likely that Jesus did claim to be divine, as shocking as such claims may have been. When we examine the evidence itself, it isn’t surprising to find many indications of this being the case. Here I will resist the temptation to reinvent the proverbial wheel, particularly since Sam Shamoun and others have published scores of articles detailing the rich and varied evidence of Christ’s belief in his divinity. In Appendix 2 I do discuss three categories of implicit evidence which indicate Jesus’ belief in his own high Christological status.

For some more relevant material on the Christology of the early church, see the following:

I John 5:7-8

“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” (KJV)

The so-called Johannine comma would be, if authentic, the most explicit affirmation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in the Scriptures. However, the reasons for rejecting its authenticity are even weightier than that of the Markan appendix. In fact, most modern translations omit “the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.” from the text. Below is the translation provided by the NIV, for example:

“For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.”

In his review of Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus”, Daniel Wallace discusses why the comma cannot be authentic and briefly why this is not problematic for maintaining belief in Trinitarian doctrine:

“Finally, regarding 1 John 5.7–8, virtually no modern translation of the Bible includes the ‘Trinitarian formula,’ since scholars for centuries have recognized it as added later. Only a few very late manuscripts have the verses. One wonders why this passage is even discussed in Ehrman’s book. The only reason seems to be to fuel doubts. The passage made its way into our Bibles through political pressure, appearing for the first time in 1522, even though scholars then and now knew that it was not authentic. The early church did not know of this text, yet the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 explicitly affirmed the Trinity! How could they do this without the benefit of a text that didn’t get into the Greek NT for another millennium? Constantinople’s statement was not written in a vacuum: the early church put into a theological formulation what they got out of the NT.

“A distinction needs to be made here: just because a particular verse does not affirm a cherished doctrine does not mean that that doctrine cannot be found in the NT. In this case, anyone with an understanding of the healthy patristic debates over the Godhead knows that the early church arrived at their understanding from an examination of the data in the NT. The Trinitarian formula found in late manuscripts of 1 John 5.7 only summarized what they found; it did not inform their declarations.” (Source; emphasis original)

Similar to other issues we’ve discussed, that this verse is spurious does not negate the fact that Scripture teaches Trinitarian doctrine. For what it’s worth, there are a few single verses that mention the three Members of the Trinity:

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Cor. 13:13)

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.” (I Peter 1:1-2)

However, the doctrine is best established through a wide-range of Scriptural verses and themes found throughout the Bible. Consider the material in the following links:


And so we reach the end of our survey. There are, of course, many other significant textual variants that we did not discuss. However, we did encounter a few of the more theologically-relevant variants regarding Christian doctrines that are contradictory to Islamic beliefs. The point of this discussion was simply to examine the significance of these variants in regard to how it should impact our beliefs from both a textual and a historical perspective. Moreover, while Muslim polemicists have quote-mined relevant textual scholars in constructing their arguments against the integrity of the New Testament text, it is important to point out that these same scholars would not endorse anywhere near the degree of textual corruption necessary to support any claim that the original NT was once compatible with Islamic beliefs about Jesus and/or the early church. We have already seen that Kurt and Barbara Aland are very confident that the NT text can be reconstructed from our wide variety of manuscripts based on the phenomenon of the “tenacity of the textual variants” (see above). Along similar lines, textual critics believe that (with a few possible exceptions) the original text can be reconstructed from the pool of existing variants. Michael Holmes, for instance, endorses the need for “conjectural emendation” in a few places while other scholars like J. K. Elliott and Daniel Wallace believe it to be necessary in possibly only the rarest of occasions, or possibly not even at all. Furthermore, the Scriptural passages where it may be necessary do not affect any significant article of faith or devotion with the possible exception of I Cor. 14:34-35 (which raises the question as to whether or not women should be silent in the church). We’ve seen that the common Christian claim of 95-99% certainty regarding the NT text finds confirmation from textual critic Daniel Wallace (who argues in fact that 99% of the words of the NT can be reconstructed with certainty). In regard to the number of verses that remain completely intact (eliminating those that contain viable yet trivial variants), we can make a reasonable estimate that the percentage of certainty falls to within about 91-96%.

In an interview with Lee Strobel, the late Bruce Metzger, arguably the top textual critic of this generation, was asked how his scholarly studies have affected his beliefs. To this he replied:

“…it has increased the basis of my personal faith to see the firmness with which these materials have come down to us, with a multiplicity of copies, some of which are very, very ancient.” (Strobel 1998; 93)

In response to Strobel’s question about whether or not scholarship has diluted his faith, Metzger responds:

“On the contrary, … it has built it. I’ve asked questions all my life, I’ve dug into the text, I’ve studied this thoroughly, and today I know with confidence that my trust in Jesus has been well placed…Very well placed.” (ibid. 93; emphasis original)

Textual critic Daniel Wallace notes:

“We have noted throughout this section that the New Testament suffers from an ‘embarassment of riches’ unparalleled by any other piece of ancient literature. The manuscript copies of the New Testament are far more plentiful and earlier than any other Greek or Latin texts. In terms of manuscript data, any skepticism about the Jesus of the Gospels should be multiplied many times for any other historical figure. We have more and earlier manuscript evidence about the person of Jesus Christ than we do anyone else in the ancient world—including Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great.” (Wallace in Komoszewski, Sawyer, & Wallace 2006; 105-106)


“There is simply no room for uncertainty about what the New Testament originally taught. Whether one chooses to believe it is a different matter, and that is taken up in other chapters. Our concern here is simply to show that the fundamental teachings of the New Testament are undisturbed by viable textual variants.” (ibid. 117)

Martin Hengel, while not a specialist in textual criticism, but quite arguably the world’s most respected New Testament scholar, notes:

“The text of the Gospels is the best transmitted in the whole of antiquity: about six Gospel papyri go back to the period around 200 or to the second century AD122, and a further nineteen to the third century; of course most of them are only small fragments, but some contain larger parts of the text123. Together with the great uncials since the fourth century, the numerous later manuscripts, and the early translations, the attestation of the original text is so strong that practically all the secondary alterations to the text and interpolations can be picked up in the unbelievably multiple textual tradition124. It is therefore extremely rare for conjectures or the removal of hypothetical glosses to be necessary.” (Hengel 2000; 28-29; note: the numbers Hengel uses above are based on (currently) outdated information; per Wallace there are up to a dozen manuscripts to be dated to the 2nd century, another 39-59 to be dated to the 3rd century, and another 50 or so to be dated to the 4th century (for a total of 101-121) – from Wallace 2008; time slice 31:59 – 32:29; this is somewhat different from another source where Wallace states that there are “as many as a dozen manuscripts from the 2nd century, 64 from the 3rd, and 48 from the 4th…”, for a total of 124 manuscripts [Source: Ehrman & Wallace 2008, Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum Pt II; time slice 17:35 - 17:57]).

Almost surprisingly, even the liberal NT textual critic Bart Ehrman (whose writings have, inadvertently or not, fueled much of the craze regarding the alleged uncertainty of the NT text) does not dispute the general preservation of the text. In response to a question posed regarding his allegedly different position on the matter from his mentor, the aforementioned Bruce Metzger, Ehrman stated:

The position I argue for in Misquoting Jesus does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. What he means by that (I think) is that even if one or two passages that are used to argue for a belief have a different textual reading, there are still other passages that could be used to argue for the same belief. For the most part, I think that’s true.

“But I was looking at the question from a different angle. My question is not about traditional Christian beliefs, but about how to interpret passages of the Bible. And my point is that if you change what the words say, then you change what the passage means. Most textual variants (Prof. Metzger and I agree on this) have no bearing at all on what a passage means. But there are other textual variants (we agree on this as well) that are crucial to the meaning of a passage. And the theology of entire books of the New Testament are sometimes affected by the meaning of individual passages.

“From my point of view, the stakes are rather high: Does Luke’s Gospel teach a doctrine of atonement (that Christ’s death atones for sins)? Does John’s Gospel teach that Christ is the ‘unique God’ himself? Is the doctrine of the Trinity ever explicitly stated in the New Testament? These and other key theological issues are at stake, depending on which textual variants you think are original and which you think are creations of early scribes who were modifying the text.” (Q & A with Bart Ehrman in Ehrman 2005; 252-253; emphasis added)

In response to an e-mail query about the corruption of the New Testament text, Ehrman had this to say:

“I do not think that the ‘corruption’ of Scripture means that scribes changed everything in the text, or even most things. The original texts certainly spoke at great length about Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. The issues involved in the corruption of the text usually entail nuances of interpretation. These are important nuances; but most of the New Testament can be reconstructed by scholars with reasonable certainty -- as much certainty as we can reconstruct *any* book of the ancient world.” (Source; emphasis added)

While we do not have the original documents, we have a wealth of data in existence from the thousands of extant Greek manuscripts (along with thousands of extant Latin (and other translational) witnesses and countless quotations and allusions of the NT text by the Early Church Fathers). Based upon the small amount of time between the original composition and the earliest MSS (particularly in comparison with other ancient literature) as well as the established existence of various text-types traceable to the 2nd century, we know that the text was not substantially different prior to the split into text-types. In fact, textual critics are confident in their ability to reconstruct most of the original text, the verses that remain in doubt in virtually all cases still having the original reading present among the existing variants.

The fact that the oral traditions and apostolic testimony remained important to the early church, even after the Gospels were composed (again cf. Bauckham 2006), negates the reasonableness of any idea that the early church would have so widely accepted the canonical Gospels in the mid-to-late 2nd century if the traditions contained therein did not jibe with the oral traditions upon which the former were based. This is all the more true when we think in terms of the foundational doctrines and beliefs of early Christianity. Even if we were to imagine that certain “theologically-charged” verses were interpolations into the original text (despite not leaving any evidence in the enormous manuscript-record of this occurring), it is frankly impossible to imagine that new, theologically-foundational doctrines could have somehow been wrenched into the text at some early period and this new perspective resultantly being accepted throughout the churches of the Roman Empire so widely and uncritically that, despite the thousands of texts that have survived, we see no evidence in the manuscript record that such was ever the case.

To make matters worse, it is worth pointing out that it is a highly-questionable claim made widely by Muslims that Muhammad rejected the veracity of the Bible that existed in his own day (i.e. 7th century A.D.). If the contrary is true, then the case for the whole-sale corruption of the Bible becomes that much more hopeless from within the point-of-view of even Islam’s own sacred texts. While I think it highly untenable to maintain substantial corruption of the original NT texts by the 2nd or 3rd centuries A.D., it is all the more impossible to maintain that the Bible was intact until at least the 7th century, and only after this did it become hopelessly corrupted. We won’t even start to discuss such a complex issue here, but I think Sam Shamoun and company have put together a very impressive and diverse collection of evidence from the Qur’an, Hadith, early commentators, biographers of Muhammad, and scholars of Islam that demonstrates that Muhammad did indeed accept the veracity of the Bible in his own day. On this see the materials at the following link:

It seems that Muslim polemicists are left with a few options in light of the data. They are of course still free to assert that the New Testament has been corrupted beyond recognition and that such doctrines as Jesus’ atoning death, resurrection, and divinity were somehow introduced into the New Testament texts without leaving any historical or textual footprints. As we have seen, however, such an assertion not only would go against the overwhelming evidence to the contrary that exists, but also would not find support from even the most radical of New Testament scholars (including the liberal textual scholar Bart Ehrman). Frankly it would be an assertion of blind faith that flies in the face of substantial data to the contrary.

A second option perhaps could entail redefining and/or refocusing the Qur’anic allusions to “the Gospel”. In other words, is it possible to establish that Muhammad could have been referring to a non-canonical Gospel, perhaps even one that no longer exists to this day? This would likewise probably prove to be an arduous task, for from a textual standpoint such a task would require providing evidence that such a Gospel existed and demonstrations as to how it conforms (or conformed) to Islamic assertions. If that could be accomplished, then there would remain the historical problem, i.e. why should this Gospel be taken seriously over and against the canonical Gospels in regard to providing us with reliable historical information about Jesus? Given that the canonical Gospels (along with Acts, the epistles of Paul, and typically I Peter and I John) were widely accepted by the churches across the Roman Empire from at least the second century and onwards (with no non-canonical Gospel coming close to achieving such a status) [for a thorough discussion of the NT canon see Metzger 1987; for a lighter discussion cf. Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace 2006; 121-166], I wouldn’t envy the one trying to argue for this option either.

Then, of course, a third option would be to reinterpret the Qur’an and Islamic theology in general in order to accommodate traditional Christian doctrines. Now, Muslim polemicists will commonly argue that the canonical Gospels do not portray Jesus as divine. I would argue in response that such a line of argument not only contradicts the unanimous testimony of the early church, including apostolic testimony (per once again cf. esp. Hurtado 2003), but also clear indications within the Gospels themselves (much of which is accepted as authentic by the general scholarly consensus) that Jesus did in fact in many ways (even if mostly implicitly) claim to be divine (see the above section on “John 1:18”, the links provided there, and Appendix 2 as well). On the other hand, the numerous references to Jesus’ death, the atonement, and of course the resurrection are simply not open to debate. If option #2 is not taken up successfully and Muslim polemicists wish to make an argument that is intellectually-sound, it seems that they would be forced to reinvent their theology at least on these latter points, while at the same time trying to account for the rich and varied evidence that indicates that Jesus and the early church claimed that Jesus is divine (once again an unenviable task).

Finally, at the risk of being accused of introducing a red herring, I feel it important to merely mention that the Qur’an’s textual history is not free from problems in some areas as well. See e.g. the following links:

Muslim responses to some of the material above can be found at the following links:

Now, I don’t bring up this issue to argue for substantial Qur’anic corruption. In fact, I see no reason to believe that the Qur’an has not been essentially preserved (like the New Testament). I allude to such data merely to point out that the Qur’an, like the NT, suffers from its own textual problems, and I think it would be difficult for Muslims to be consistent in merely pushing aside the problems in the former while attempting to greatly amplify the problems associated with the latter.

Has the New Testament been corrupted? Well, it depends on one’s angle. We agree with MENJ in that the answer is “yes” in so much as there clearly have been a great, great many textual variants discovered among the wealth of NT manuscripts, some of which were apparently introduced deliberately for theological reasons (though these are in a very small minority), and some of which are viable variants that affect passages that espouse crucial Christian doctrines.

However, when Christians who know something about the issues of textual criticism answer the “Has the Bible been corrupted?” question with a “no”, it is likely that they understand the questioner to be defining “corruption” as something like “altered to the point of hopelessness”, almost giving the impression that the New Testament may have originally been a recipe book for ancient Mediterranean baked goods. As such, to the extent that the variants that do exist do not impact the overall textual foundation for the major doctrines discussed in this article, and that the New Testament we have today is a reasonable facsimile of the original, we can answer that it has indeed been preserved.

A "sequel" to this article: Miscellaneous Issues in NT Textual Criticism


“Reinventing Jesus: What The Da Vinci Code and Other Novel Speculations Don’t Tell you” by J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace (esp. pp. 53-117)

“The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism” by Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland

“The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration” by Bruce M. Metzger, 3rd ed. (and/or the later edition also co-authored by Bart Ehrman)

“The Gospel According to Bart: A review of Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why” (Source)

“Textual Trysts: The Textual Reliability of the New Testament” (Source)

James Arlandson's series:

Appendix 1: The Preservation of the Jesus Sayings and Early Christian Prophecy

Although our main focus in this article (and the key question relevant to the debate) is what the original New Testament texts had to say, from a historical standpoint it is important to know to what extent we can trust the oral transmission of the Christian traditions before they were put into writing. In the ancient world where literacy was characteristic of the minority, it was common for traditions (religious or otherwise) to be transmitted orally, often for centuries. In the case of the New Testament, especially the material in the Gospels, oral tradition was possibly the only medium through which the traditions were transmitted before the composition of the Gospels about 40-70 years after the crucifixion. This is an issue that deserves a lengthy article of its own, but as the topic of oral tradition in the New Testament is tangential to our main point of discussion, we will merely provide a brief overview of some reasons to trust in the accurate preservation of the oral traditions prior to their incorporation into the Gospels.

First of all, do we have good reason to believe that the early church would have had the desire to carefully preserve traditions about Jesus’ teachings and deeds? Drawing on the work of Rainer Riesner, Synoptic specialist Craig Blomberg summarizes six reasons to answer this question in the affirmative:

“(1) Jesus followed the practice of Old Testament prophets by proclaiming the Word of the Lord with the kind of authority that would have commanded respect and concern to safeguard that which was perceived as revelation from God. Just as many parts of Old Testament prophecy are considered by even fairly skeptical scholars to have been quite well preserved, so Jesus’ words should be considered in the same light. (2) The fact that Jesus presented himself as Messiah, even if in a sometimes veiled way, would reinforce his followers’ concern to preserve his words, since one fairly consistent feature in an otherwise diverse body of first-century expectations was that the Messiah would be a teacher of wisdom. (3) The gospels depict Jesus as just such a teacher of wisdom and phrase over 90% of his sayings in forms which would have been easy to remember, using figures and styles of speech much like those found in Hebrew poetry3. (4) There is widespread evidence in the gospels of Jesus commanding the twelve to ‘learn’ specific lessons and to transmit what they learn to others, even before the end of his earthly ministry. In addition to the obvious missions of Mark 6:7-13 and parallels (in this book abbreviated ‘pars.’) and Luke 10:1-17, subtler hints appear in Mark 13:28; Luke 11:1; Mark 9:10 and Acts 2:424. (5) Elementary education for boys until at least the age of twelve was widely practiced in Israel in Jesus’ day, so texts like Acts 4:13 cannot mean that the disciples had no competence in reading, writing, and memorization. (6) Almost all teachers in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman worlds gathered disciples around them in order to perpetuate their teachings and lifestyle, so however different Jesus was from the rabbis in other ways, he probably resembled them in this respect. If he envisaged his disciples as in some sense continuing his ministry for any length of time (see pp. 33-35), then he certainly would have been concerned that they preserve his message and mission intact.” (Blomberg 1987; 27-28)

Regarding point #3 made above, the outstanding Jewish scholar Joachim Jeremias discusses these stylistic and linguistic phenomena of the sayings of Jesus in some detail, from the use of the so-called divine passive to “antithetic parallelism”, rhythms (i.e. “two-beat” rhythms, “three-beat” rhythms, etc.), alliteration, paronomasia, etc. (see Jeremias 1971; 8-37 for discussion). From this a couple of things stand out reflecting the importance of the preservation of the New Testament, particularly the Gospels: 1) these styles emerge when the sayings are set forth against their Aramaic background (ibid. 8), which places the probable provenance of at least most of these sayings in the earliest Palestinian church; 2) that Jesus spoke in such a manner is an indicator that he wanted his teachings preserved, requiring the disciples from the get-go to make sure that it happened. Jeremias writes at the end of his survey:

“Not every occurrence of the characteristic expressions mentioned in [sections] 2 and 3 is in itself a proof of authenticity. We must distinguish between ipsissima vox and ipsissima verba. The presence of a way of speaking preferred by Jesus (ipsissima vox Jesu) does not relieve us of the necessity of examining each individual instance to see whether we have a genuine logion (ipsissimum verbum). For example, to claim that the use of [amen] to introduce his own words is the ipsissima vox Jesu does not of itself imply that all twenty-five instances in John (see p. 35, n. 8 above) are ipsissima verba. The question of authenticity cannot, therefore, be settled in a purely schematic way on the basis of the linguistic and stylistic evidence. We must also consider the content of the sayings. Nevertheless, we can say in conclusion that the linguistic and stylistic evidence presented in [sections] 2-3 shows so much faithfulness and such respect towards the tradition of the sayings of Jesus that we are justified in drawing up the following principle of method: In the synoptic tradition it is the inauthenticity, and not the authenticity, of the sayings of Jesus that must be demonstrated.1” (ibid. 36-37; emphasis added)

Other evidence exists to suggest that the early Christians were at pains not only to preserve the teachings of Jesus but also utilize them. James Dunn looks at a number of pertinent factors, such as the prominence of early Christian teachers:

“Teachers, indeed, seem to have been the first regularly paid ministry within the earliest Christian movement (Gal. 6.6; Did. 13.2). Why teachers? Why else than to serve as the congregation’s repository of oral tradition? What else would Christian teachers teach? A Christian interpretation of the Scriptures, no doubt. But also, we can surely safely assume, the traditions which distinguished house churches from local house synagogues or other religious, trade, or burial societies20

“Nor should it be forgotten that, at least according to the tradition, Jesus himself was regarded as a ‘teacher (didaskalos)22, and was so regarded by his disciples23. Jesus may even have regarded himself as such (Matt. 10:24-25/Luke 6:40). That the disciples of Jesus are consistently called ‘disciples’, that is ‘those taught, learners’ (Hebrew talmidim; Greek mathetai) – should also be included24. The relation between Jesus and his disciples was remembered as one between teacher and taught, with the implication that, as such, the disciples understood themselves to be committed to remember their teacher’s teaching25.” (Dunn 2003; 176-177; among the references Dunn lists to support that the disciples considered Jesus as a teacher include Mark 8:35; 9:17; 10:17; 12:14, 19, etc. etc.)

Dunn also discusses the “bearing witness” and “remembering” motifs found in the NT. On the former he writes:

“The motif is particularly prominent in Acts and John. In Acts it is stressed that the role of the first disciples (or apostles in particular) was to be ‘witnesses’ (martyres) of Jesus (1.8). Particularly in mind were the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (2.32; 3.15; 5.32; 10.41; 13.31)26. But it is clear from 1.22 and 10.37-39 that Luke understood the witnessing to include Jesus’ ministry ‘beginning from the baptism of John’.” (ibid. 177)

In regard to John and Luke, Dunn writes:

“The immediate disciples have a special responsibility to bear witness (martyreo) to Jesus, assisted by the Spirit (15.26-27), a responsibility which the Evangelist was deemed to be carrying out by means of his Gospel (19.35; 21.24)27

“…; in John 15.26-27 it is made clear that ‘from the beginning’ embraces the whole of the original disciples’ time with Jesus (as with Acts 1.22)” (ibid. 178)

“Luke had the same concern when he promised to narrate what had been ‘delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses28 and ministers of the word’ (Luke 1.1-2; cf. Mark 1.1)29.” (ibid. 178)

On the “remembering” motif, Dunn writes:

“More striking still is the motif of ‘remembering’, also important for identity information32. Already Paul stresses the importance of his converts remembering him and the ‘traditions’ which he taught them (1 Cor. 11.2; 2 Thess. 2.5). And close to the heart of the Lord’s Supper tradition which Paul passed on was the exhortation to remember Christ – ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (eis ten emen anamnesin) (1 Cor. 11.24-25; Luke 22.19) – by no means a merely cognitive act of recollection33. 2 Timothy retains the motif with reference to well-established traditions (2.8, 14), the first (2.8) echoing the (presumably well-known) formula with which Paul reassured the Roman believers regarding his own gospel (Rom. 1.3-4)34. The importance of post-Easter believers remembering Jesus’ words is a repeated theme in Luke-Acts and John35; the equivalence of John 14.26 and 15.27 indicates that ‘remembering all I have said to you’, and ‘witnesses with me from the beginning’, are two sides of the same coin. 2 Peter confirms that remembering the teaching first given was a central concern in early Christianity (1.15; 3.2); similarly Rev. 3.3. 1 Clement uses the phrase ‘remember(ing) the words of the Lord Jesus’ to introduce a brief catena of Jesus’ sayings on two occasions (13.1-2; 46.7-8), as does Polycarp with a similar introductory formula, ‘remembering what the Lord taught when he said’ (Phil. 2.3). Here we should also simply note the famous Papias tradition, which repeatedly emphasizes the importance of ‘remembering’ in the transmission of the earliest traditions stemming from the first disciples (Eusebius, HE 3.39.3-4, 15; 6.14.6), and Justin’s concern to ‘bring to remembrance’ teachings of Jesus (Dial. 18.1; 1 Apol. 14.4)36

“In short, the witnessing and remembering motifs strengthen the impression that more or less from the first those who established new churches would have taken care to provide and build a foundation of Jesus tradition. Particularly important for Gentiles taking on a wholly new life-style and social identity would be guidelines and models for the different character of conduct now expected from them. Such guidelines and models were evidently provided by a solid basis of Jesus tradition which they were expected to remember, to take in and live out.” (ibid. 179-180)

Most important of all are the apostolic guarantors of the traditions in question. The original apostles would most certainly have served as a repository of the relevant traditions and also could provide checks against deviations from these traditions when necessary. Again, consider the remarks of Dunn:

“More striking is the fact that a clear emphasis of the early chapters of Acts is the role of the apostles as ensuring continuity between what Jesus had taught and the expanding mission of the movement reinvigorated afresh at Pentecost. The implication of the opening words is that Acts is a continuation of ‘all that Jesus began to do and teach’ as recorded in ‘the first part of his work’, the Gospel of Luke (Acts 1.1). The instruction given to the apostles (1.2), the implication continues, had just the same continuity in view41. Hence, when the traitor Judas is replaced by a new twelfth apostle, the criterion for his election is that he should have been one of their number throughout the ministry of Jesus, ‘beginning from the baptism of John’ (1.21-22). Hence also the emphasis in 2.42, where the first mark of the new post-Pentecost community is its continuation in and firm attachment to (proskartereo), ‘the teaching of the apostles’.” (ibid. 180)

Dunn further remarks that the prominence of Peter, John, and James as key leaders of the early church (see. e.g. Gal. 2.9; though here “James” refers to Jesus’ brother rather than John’s brother, as the latter had likely been executed by this time, per Acts 12:1-2) “correlates well with the remembrance of the Jesus tradition that Peter and the brother Zebedee had been closest to Jesus43 and thus were accounted principal witnesses to and custodians of Jesus’ heritage.” (ibid. 180-181; on Peter, James, and John’s closeness to Jesus cf. Mark 5.37; 9.2; 13.3, 14.33)

The importance of the original disciples in serving as guarantors of the tradition, even after the Gospels were composed, cannot be underestimated. On this, the cumulative argument of Richard Bauckham in “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” is persuasive.

Regarding the oral tradition underlying the Gospels, a couple of important questions arise. First of all, whichever model of oral tradition one proposes one must be able to reckon with the variations that exist among the Gospels that narrate the same event (this is especially relevant among Synoptic Gospel narratives). Recent studies on oral tradition, including its application to NT studies, indicate that it is typical (at least in some models) for every performance of a given tradition to include variants (not necessarily accidentally). Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd’s comments in this regard are instructive:

“Among other things, we now know that variations in oral tradition do not follow linear, unidirectional ‘laws’ (as the literary paradigm assumes), but rather follow far more complex, multidirectional paths. Oral variations ‘depend on the performance situation itself—and every performance is, to one degree or another, different from the next.’92 The same trident performing the same oral text may offer a longer, more elaborate version today, and a shorter, more stylized version tomorrow, depending upon the particular audience, time constraints, and countless other factors that attach to each individual performance. These are the sorts of variables not captured by ‘the literary paradigm’ and thus never considered by the Bultmannian form-critical enterprise.” (Eddy & Boyd 2007; 293-294)

I think the concept of variations in the performance of oral tradition also contains important application upon consideration of the fact that some of the scribal traditions of the NT text also betray a less-than-rigid copying-practice (see above, “The Living Text” section of this article). If such variation was an accepted cultural phenomenon in terms of oral performances, then it seems that such variations by way of paraphrasing would similarly be acceptable in written documents. This may help to account for why, according to at least some early scribal traditions, we find that the NT text was a “living text”.

It seems reasonable to suggest that Muslims should be well aware of the concept of performance variation in regard to oral traditions given the testimony of the Islamic traditions to the seven Qira’at (i.e. readings) of the Qur’an. This unpacks a similar situation. Now, some Muslims may argue that the variation associated with the NT is still problematic since, in the case of the Qur’an, all seven Qira’at represent authentic divine revelation. However, a couple of issues should be kept in mind. The composition of the Gospels was not thought to be accomplished through direct dictation (as we find to be the case for the Qur’an), but rather through the use of at least several strata of (probably mostly Aramaic) oral traditions and probably some written traditions (in any case the scholarly consensus accepts that Matthew and Luke probably used Mark and Q). This would lead one to expect the evangelists to apply more flexibility in shaping the relevant traditions at hand (as long, of course, as historical accuracy was not compromised in the process) than what one might expect if the documents were thought to be composed by direct dictation. If in the oral culture of 1st century Palestine (and the greater Graeco-Roman world, for that matter), the norm was to recite traditions in different ways, while preserving the core-importance of the various teachings as well as the historical core of certain narratives that were being conveyed, then there should be no philological difficulties in accepting the possibility that texts reflecting such a practice are divinely-inspired, particularly if historical accuracy is generally preserved in each performance.

Interestingly, such performance variation on the part of the evangelists probably reflects the very practice of Jesus during his ministry. Leading English NT scholar N.T. Wright writes:

“First, unless we are to operate with a highly unlikely understanding of Jesus and his ministry, we must assume some such picture as we find in Gerd Theissen’s brilliant work, The Shadow of the Galilean. Jesus was constantly moving from place to place, working without the benefit of mass media. It is not just likely, it is in the highest degree probable, that he told the same stories again and again in slightly different words, that he ran into similar questions and problems and said similar things about them, that he came up with a slightly different set of beatitudes every few villages, that he not only told but retold and adapted parables and similar sayings in different settings, and that he repeated aphorisms with different emphases in different contexts14. Scholars of an older conservative stamp used to try to explain varieties in the synoptic tradition by saying cautiously that ‘maybe Jesus said it twice’. This always sounded like special pleading. Today, once a politician has made a major speech, he or she does not usually repeat it. But the analogy is thoroughly misleading. If we come to the ministry of Jesus as first-century historians, and forget our twentieth-century assumptions about mass media, the overwhelming probability is that most of what Jesus said, he said not twice but two hundred times, with (of course) a myriad of local variations15.

“…When we add to this the high probability that Palestinian culture was, to put it at its weakest, more used to hearing and repeating teachings than we are today, and the observation that much of Jesus’ teaching is intrinsically highly memorable, I submit that the only thing standing in the way of a strong case for Jesus’ teaching being passed on effectively in dozens of streams of oral tradition is prejudice16. The surprise then, is not that we have on occasion so many (two, three, or even four) slightly different versions of the same saying. The surprise is that we have so few. It seems to me that the evangelists may well have faced, as a major task, the problem not so much of how to cobble together enough tradition to make a worthwhile book, but of how to work out what to include from the welter of available material17. The old idea that the evangelists must have included everything that they had to hand is always, at best, a large anachronism18.” (Wright 1992; 422-423)

Then there is the question of the impact that early Christian prophets may have had on the preservation of the NT texts. Many critics since Bultmann have argued that many of the sayings found in the Gospels are the result of the incorporation of sayings of early Christian prophets (speaking on behalf of the “exalted Jesus” or the Holy Spirit) into the Gospel narratives, originally uttered to address important issues that were facing the early church. N.T. Wright explains why this is problematic:

“A third misunderstanding concerns the belief of many early form-critics that the stories in the early tradition reflected the life of the early church rather than the life of Jesus, in that the early church invented (perhaps under the guidance of ‘the spirit of Jesus’) sayings of Jesus to address the problems in their own day. The main problem with this assumption is that the one fixed point in the history of the early church, i.e. Paul, provides a string of good counter-examples, which work in two directions4.

“On the one hand, as is often pointed out, Paul regularly addresses questions of some difficulty, in which he does not even quote the words of Jesus, in the synoptic tradition, which could have been helpful to him. Still less does he appear to attribute sayings to Jesus which were not his5. Why was he so reticent, if ‘words of Jesus’ were regularly invented by Christian prophets, of whom Paul was assuredly one, to address problems in the early church?

“On the other hand, as is not so often noted, Paul provides evidence of all sorts of disputes which rocked the early church but left not a trace in the synoptic tradition. From Paul, we know that the early church was torn in two over the question of circumcision. There is no mention of circumcision in the whole synoptic tradition6. From Paul, we know that some parts at least of the early church had problems in relation to speaking in tongues. There is no mention of this in the main stream of synoptic tradition7. From Paul, it is clear that the doctrine of justification was a vital issue which the early church had to hammer out in relation to the admission of Gentiles to the church. The only mentions of the admission of Gentiles in the synoptic tradition do not speak of justification, and the only mention of justification has nothing to do with Gentiles8. In Paul it is clear that questions have been raised about apostleship, his own and that of others. Apostleship is of course mentioned in the synoptic tradition, but so far is the tradition from addressing post-Easter issues here that it does not discuss the question of subsequent apostolic authority except for one passage—and in that passage it still envisages Judas sharing the glorious rule of the twelve. In Paul we meet the question of geographical priority: does the church in Jerusalem have primacy over those working elsewhere? In the synoptic tradition the criticisms of Jerusalem have to do with its past and present failures, and with its wicked hierarchy, not with the place of its church leaders within a wider emerging Christianity. So we could go on: slavery, idol-meat, womens’ [sic] headgear, work, widows; and, perhaps above all, the detailed doctrines of Christ and the divine spirit. The synoptic tradition shows a steadfast refusal to import ‘dominical’ answers to or comments on these issues into the retelling of stories about Jesus. This should put us firmly on our guard against the idea that the stories we do find in the synoptic tradition were invented to address current needs in the 40s, 50s, 60s or even later in the first century.

“Conversely, it has been shown often enough that the synoptic tradition has preserved material which is not so relevant to, or so obviously taken up by, the first-generation church. Well-known examples include the concentration on Israel10; Jesus’ attitude to women11; and many other features. As Moule concludes, ‘Aspects of Jesus’ attitude and ministry have survived in the traditions, despite the fact that the early Christians do not seem to have paid particular attention to them or recognized their christological significance.’12

“(6) Apart, of course, from Jesus’ own circumcision (Lk. 2.21). That sayings about circumcision could easily be invented is clear from Gos. Thom. 53.

“(7) The ending of Mark is the exception that proves the rule: Mk. 16.17.

“(8) Gentiles (but not justification): e.g. Mt. 8.5-13. Justification (but not Gentiles): Lk. 18.9-14. (Wright 1992; 421-422)

Similarly, Dunn writes:

“On the other hand, despite the quite frequent references to prophets in the early Christian tradition, there is no clear indication at any point that they spoke of or were expected to speak in the voice of Jesus within the gathered Christian assembly. Revelation 2-3 is hardly a model for what is envisaged. It would be surprising, for example, if no prophet in a Pauline church ever uttered a prophecy regarding circumcision; yet such an utterance is completely lacking in the Jesus tradition81. The role of prophets, vital as it was in Paul’s eyes, was much more circumscribed or modest (1 Cor. 14.3) than the above hypothesis envisages82. Moreover, in the Jewish and Christian tradition prophecies are normally given in the name of the prophet, even when the prophet is confident that he speaks for God. Thus, no OT prophetic book names Yahweh as its author83; Luke always names the prophet concerned (Acts 11.27-28; 13.1; 21.9-14) and distinguishes Spirit speech (Acts 13.2; 21.11) from utterances of the exalted Christ (Acts 18.9-10; 23.11)84; and Paul makes a point of distinguishing his own inspired opinion from the Jesus tradition (1 Cor. 7.10, 25, 40)85. All this suggests that Bultmann and Boring are overeager to find evidence of prophetic activity in the Synoptic tradition86. The broader evidence suggests rather that such utterances were the exception rather than the rule.” (Dunn 2003; 188; for a more extensive discussion of this issue cf. Dunn, Prophetic “I” Sayings, 1998; 142-169)

Consider further the pertinent remarks of German scholar Peter Stuhlmacher:

“The view suggested above in thesis form is confirmed when one situates the debated texts within the formative process behind the synoptic tradition, as it has been newly explained over the last thirty years by H. Schurmann, B. Gerhardsson, M. Hengel, and R. Riesner. According to this new view, the decisive origins of the synoptic tradition lie in the ‘school’ of Jesus, who taught as the ‘messianic teacher of wisdom’ (so M. Hengel). The παραδοσεις or traditions of this school were transmitted to the primitive church in Jerusalem by the μαθηται whom Jesus himself had called. These traditions then formed an essential part of the "teaching of the apostles" (διδαχη των αποστολων) mentioned in Acts 2:42.10 Since a carefully maintained continuity of tradition existed between Jesus' disciples and the Jerusalem church, and since the apostolic guarantors of the Jesus tradition remained alive until the outbreak of the first Jewish war, synoptic texts may be spoken of as subsequent ‘formulations of the church’ only when it can be shown exactly who created them, when, why, and for what recipients they were created, and under what circumstances they were accorded equal authority with the Jesus tradition backed by the apostles. When one cannot provide the answers to these questions, one must reckon with authentic tradition in the synoptics.” (Stuhlmacher, Isaiah 53 in the Gospels and Acts, 2004; 149)

Here we’ll end our brief discussion of oral tradition as it relates to New Testament scholarship. There is fortunately a great deal of relevant scholarship on this issue to which we could only scratch the proverbial surface in this article. However, the reader is encouraged to consider the following resources for more information:

“The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition” by Paul Rhodes Eddy & Gregory A. Boyd, particularly chapters 6 and 7

“Jesus and the Eyewitness: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony” by Richard Bauckham

“Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making” Vol. 1 by James Dunn; pp. 173-254 (this resource is particularly valuable in that it includes an examination of a number of parallel narratives of the same stories/sayings among different Gospels and their relevance to the performance variation of oral tradition)

A couple of helpful on-line resources can be found at the following links: (specifically the material under “comment 12”) (contains some material relevant to the issues discussed or alluded to in this appendix, cf. esp. parts 5-6 & 8-12 which are listed under the third point)

Appendix 2: Indications of Jesus’ Belief in His Divinity from the Gospels

We mentioned that there are a number of implicit indications from the Gospels that Jesus believed in his divinity in the section where we discussed the variant readings of John 1:18. Here we will briefly discuss 3 such indications.

Jesus as Pre-existent

First, there is the Synoptic evidence of a number of sayings of Jesus that presupposes his pre-existence. Simon Gathercole in “The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke”, leaves little room for doubt in his excellent treatment of this subject. This is particularly evident in Jesus’ “I have come” sayings. Below we list some of the most relevant examples:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother in law — a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'” (Matthew 10:34-36)

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49)

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." (Luke 19:10)

These examples seem especially pregnant with meaning given that they relate Jesus’ “coming” in the sense of performing a task that encompasses his entire ministry. Gathercole writes in regard to this:

“The reason the ‘I have come’ sayings have attracted a certain amount of attention is that they are summaries of Jesus’ mission as a whole. Although some have argued that one or two of the sayings above refer to Jesus coming to a particular location (e.g., Capernaum), no scholar has attempted to defend the indefensible by arguing that all of them have this sense. It is generally agreed that the sayings as a whole concern the entirety of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and that the goals of his coming are his life’s work.” (Gathercole 2006; 85)

And later,

“The controversial point to be emphasized in the present chapter is that there is a strong prima facie case for seeing preexistence implied in the Synoptic ‘I have come’ sayings. Specifically, because the sayings talk of coming with a purpose, they imply that the coming is a deliberate act. A deliberate act requires a before-and-after, and, in the case of a ‘coming’, an origin from which the speaker has come.5 Hence the usual sense which one would attach to the statement ‘I have come to do such-and-such’ would be that the person was previously not carrying out the task, but has come from somewhere in order to carry it out. Furthermore, if the person is referring to his whole earthly activity as the goal of the coming, the place of origin is logically somewhere outside of the human sphere. This is of course not watertight, since there may be some kind of idiom in operation. As a result, it is necessary to test this hypothesis, by examining the formula in its Jewish context to see what the most likely meaning for the phrase would be. But at this point, the prima facie sense should at least be open for discussion.” (ibid. 87; emphasis original)

Subsequently the author spends approximately 25 pages responding to potential objections and other explanations used by scholars to account for the “I have come” sayings of Jesus. As a result the author concludes that earthly figures, including prophetic and even Messianic language, typically do not use such language to describe their whole life’s work (ibid. 88-112).

Gathercole then spends a chapter examining the use of what he refers to as the “'I have come' –plus–purpose formula” in Jewish texts of the ancient period as it is applied to angels. A couple of examples are found in the book of Daniel:

“He [Gabriel] instructed me and said to me, ‘Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding. As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed.’” (Daniel 9:22-23; emphasis added)

“On the twenty-fourth day of the first month, as I was standing on the bank of the great river, the Tigris, I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist. His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude… Then he continued, ‘Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.’" (Daniel 10:12, 14)

Overall Gathercole gives 25 such references from Jewish literature from the time of the composition of “Daniel” to the later 1st century apocalyptic texts like IV Ezra and II Baruch and into the period of the composition of the targums and midrash commentaries of the OT (ibid. 119-145), subsequent to which he concludes:

“We have seen above, then, a strong tradition which begins very early, in the numerous references in Daniel. This tradition is then appropriated repeatedly up to our terminus ad quem in the time of Midrash Mishle and the Vision of Daniel. There is a consistent use of the “’I have come’ + purpose formula” which is not conventionally used in early Judaism by human figures to describe the totality of their life’s work.102 Instead, the formula refers to the totality of the heavenly figure’s earthly visit, and to the purpose of that visit. There is thus a strong comparison to be made between these Jewish traditions and the equivalent statements in the Gospels. These advents of angels constitute parallels considerably closer than any hypothetical prophetic or messianic tradition. Because of this, it makes sense to adopt a more literal, rather than idiomatic, interpretation of the sayings in the Synoptic Gospels as referring to a coming from ‘a’ to ‘b,’ and thus implying a place of origin, namely heaven.” (ibid. 145-146, emphasis original)

As this brief summary can in no way do justice to the impressive case argued by Gathercole, the reader is encouraged to examine the full breadth of the author’s case in pages 83-147 of his book.

Of course, establishing that the Synoptic Gospels implied Jesus’ pre-existence is not enough, by itself, to prove that he was divine anymore than it proves that the angels to which the formula is applied throughout Jewish literature of the crucial period were thought to be divine. The most that can be said for certain based on this data is that Jesus saw himself as pre-existent, which of course is an essential (though not exclusive) attribute of deity.

Jesus as Wisdom Incarnate

Although it is a controversial issue, a good case can be made that Jesus implied that he was the Wisdom of God Incarnate. So what is Wisdom? James Patrick Holding provides us with some crucial background material:

Jesus, as God's Word and Wisdom, was and is eternally an attribute of God the Father. Just as our own words and thoughts come from us and cannot be separated from us, so it is that Jesus cannot be completely separate from the Father. But there is more to this explanation, related to the distinction between functional subordination and ontological equality. We speak of Christ as the ‘Word’ of God, God's ‘speech’ in living form. In Hebrew and Ancient Near Eastern thought, words were not merely sounds, or letters on a page; words were things that ‘had an independent existence and which actually did things.’ Throughout the Old Testament and in the Jewish intertestamental Wisdom literature, the power of God's spoken word is emphasized (Ps. 33:6, 107:20; Is. 55:11; Jer. 23:29; 2 Esd. 6:38; Wisdom 9:1). ‘Judaism understood God's Word to have almost autonomous powers and substance once spoken; to be, in fact, “a concrete reality, a veritable cause.”’ (Richard N. Longenecker, The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity, 145.) But a word did not need to be uttered or written to be alive. A word was defined as ‘an articulate unit of thought, capable of intelligible utterance.’ (C. H. Dodd, Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 263. It cannot therefore be argued that Christ attained existence as the Word only ‘after’ he was ‘uttered’ by God. Some of the second-century church apologists followed a similar line of thinking, supposing that Christ the Word was unrealized potential within the mind of the Father prior to Creation.) This agrees with Christ’s identity as God’s living word, and points to Christ's functional subordination (just as our words and speech are subordinate to ourselves) and his ontological equality (just as our words represent our authority and our essential nature) with the Father. A subordination in roles is within acceptable Biblical and creedal parameters, but a subordination in position or essence (the ‘ontological’ aspect) is a heretical view called subordinationism.

Background: The background with Wisdom Christology is found in the concept of hypostasis. What is a hypostasis? Broadly defined, it is a quasi-personification of attributes proper to a deity, occupying an intermediate position between personalities and abstract beings. In the ANE here are some examples:

  • Hu and Sia, in Egyptian tradition the creative word and understanding of Re-Atum
  • Ma'at, also Egyptian, a personification of right order in nature and society, a creation of Re
  • Mesaru and Kettu, or Righteousness and Right, Akkadian hypostases conceived of as qualities of the sun-god, or as gifts granted by him, or sometimes as personal beings or independent deities
  • the divine word, which proceeds via the character of breath and wind, in Sumerian and Akkadian literature

“Wisdom in Proverbs 8, and Wisdom in Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, and Philo's logos, all fit hand in glove with these. Now let's look at some cites, starting with Prov. 8.

‘Proverbs 8:22-30 The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him...’

“This passage is one of several in the Old Testament (see Ps. 58:10, 107:42; Job 11:14) in which abstract qualities are personified, following an Ancient Near Eastern tradition of personification. (Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, 44.) Here, and in other parts of Proverbs, Wisdom ‘makes claims for herself which are elsewhere made only by, or for, God.’ The verb used by Wisdom to call attention to its messages is the same used by the prophets to call for returning to God in repentance. (R. N. Whybray, Proverbs, 44) The speech made by Wisdom in this chapter is ‘a lengthy self-recommendation in which (Wisdom) boasts of her power and authority and of the gifts she is able to bestow,’ following a known Ancient Near Eastern literary genre in which a divinity praises itself. ‘Wisdom is intended to be understood as an attribute or heavenly servant of the sole God Yahweh to whom he has delegated certain powers with regard to his relations with mankind.’ Finally, to complete the picture, Proverbs 2:6 tells us, ‘For the LORD giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding.’ God is the source of Wisdom; Wisdom is one of God's characteristics and attributes. (Bruce Vawter, ‘Proverbs 8:22: Wisdom and Creation,’ Journal of Biblical Literature 99/2 (1980): 205-216, argues that Proverbs 8 depicts Wisdom as a separate deity that Yahweh ‘acquired.’ I follow Hurtado in replying that ‘this language of personification [used in Judaism as a whole] does not necessarily reflect a view of these divine attributes as independent entities alongside God.’ Such personifications ‘must be understood within the context of the ancient Jewish concern for the uniqueness of God, the most controlling religious idea of ancient Judaism.’ Thus he regards claims like that of Vawter's, that Wisdom here is depicted as an ‘independent deity,’ as something that is ‘simply unwarranted and imports into such passages connotations never intended by the writers.’ Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, 46-7. For more on this verb, see here.) [Source]

Simon Gathercole provides us with a succinct summary of the activities of Wisdom as found in ancient Jewish literature:

“Lady Wisdom in the OT and Jewish tradition is a very richly characterized figure with a long curriculum vitae. Some of the main features of her identity and functions are as follows: she (a) has a unique relation to God himself and remains unknown and mysterious to human beings, (b) is a figure who, on God’s behalf, comes to the human realm from heaven and (c) appeals to humanity to turn to her and God, often by sending prophets. However, since (d) she is a figure of impenetrable mystery, in the course of her visitation of the human realm, she (e) is rejected by the great majority, and, having experienced this general rejection, (f) returns to God in heaven.

“To tell the story in this way is to invite comparison with the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus is depicted as a figure in a uniquely close relationship to God whom God has sent to announce the kingdom of heaven and to summon people to enter it. However, the vast majority of Israel reject his invitation, and this rejection is instantiated in particular in his execution. After this, however, he is raised from the dead and ascends to heaven. Where the controversy arises for our purposes, however, is in whether the use of Wisdom motifs by Matthew, Mark, and Luke leads to the conclusion that Jesus, like Wisdom, come from a preexistence in heaven.” (Gathercole 2006; 193, emphasis original)

Here we will briefly touch upon a couple of sayings attributed to Jesus in Q and the thoughts of one of the most prominent supporters of the “Jesus as Wisdom” hypothesis, Ben Witherington III.

First consider Matthew 11:16-19 (par. Luke 7:31-35)

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions."

Witherington writes in regard to this passage:

“Let us return briefly to the Q material found in Matthew 11:16-19/Luke 7:31-35. Here we find a deliberate contrast between Jesus’ lifestyle and that of John. Jesus as the Son of Man came eating and drinking, celebrating and dancing, while John came in ascetic fashion as if in mourning. Yet neither style seemed to please the audience. Jesus in particular was accused of being a drunkard and a friend of toll collectors and sinners.93 The passage ends with the remark ‘Yet wisdom (Hokmah) is vindicated by her deeds.’ In other words, though the Son of Man does not receive affirmation or confirmation from some of his audience, nevertheless his actions indicate him as God’s Wisdom. One may properly ask, How so?

“At this juncture, we must consider some samples from the Wisdom tradition. First of all we note that this tradition has a good deal to say about eating and drinking, in particular about banqueting (see, e.g., Sir. 31:12-32:6). Wisdom literature in general encourages one to have a certain joie de vivre, to enjoy eating, friends and the good things in life. But even more to the point, we find traditions like that in Proverbs 9:1-6, which speaks of a feast set by Wisdom herself where she invites very unlikely guests to the table—the simple, those without sense and the immature—so that they may learn to be wise.

“Meals were the occasion for teaching in antiquity, both in the Jewish as well as in the Greco-Roman world, and this is important for understanding Jesus in context. If we ask why it is that Jesus dined with unlikely clientele, just the opposite of those a respectable person might want for dinner guests, the answer must be because Jesus saw it as his mission to reach the least, the last and the lost in his society. In the context of dining he could begin to impart wisdom to them, a wisdom which, as the Wisdom of Solomon puts it, could ‘save’ (cf. Wis 9:18). In short, Jesus is seen acting out the part of Wisdom, and thus not surprisingly he concludes with confidence that he will be vindicated for doing so, for his actions led to the salvation of various people of God who had been given up for lost. In sum, John the Baptist came across like a great prophet of judgment of old, like a Jeremiah or an Amos, but for the most part Jesus did not. This fact must be explained.” (Witherington 1997; 187-188)

In Matthew 8:28 (par. Luke 9:58), we find the following passage:

“Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’"

Witherington comments on this passage:

“A second tradition, which seems innocent enough on first glance, is found in Matthew 8:20/Luke 9:58: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ This has often simply been taken as a statement about the nature of Jesus’ itinerant ministry and the fact that Jesus did not always get a warm reception. But this overlooks the important fact that this image had been used earlier of Wisdom having no place to dwell until God assigned her such a place (cf. Sir 24:6-7 to 1 Enoch 42:2), with Enoch speaking of the rejection of Wisdom (‘but she found no dwelling place’). There is also the further tradition that raises the question of the credibility of an itinerant person: ‘So who will trust a man that has no nest, but lodges wherever night overtakes him?’ (Sir 36:31 [36:26]). The mention of nests in both this saying and in Matthew 8:20/Luke 9:58 is striking. It once again suggests that Jesus envisions and articulates his experience in light of sapiential traditions and especially in light of what happened to Wisdom according to the late Wisdom material in 1 Enoch 42.” (ibid. 188)

Several other such passages could be discussed, but it is a number of factors peculiar to Jesus’ ministry that leads Witherington to the conclusion that Jesus claimed to be Wisdom incarnate:

“This is not the place to do a lot of detailed exegesis, but I want to now show the very diverse elements in the Jesus tradition that find a clear explanation if Jesus saw himself as both prophetic sage and the embodiment of Wisdom on earth:

1. Jesus’ use of the Father language for God, something not characteristic of Old Testament expression at all, is explained in view of the fact that we do find such language much more frequently in Wisdom material (cf. Sir 23:1, 4; 51:10; Wis 14:3 and cf. 3 Macc 6:3, 8)

2. Jesus’ use of kingdom of God language in conjunction with Wisdom speech and ways of looking at things is found almost exclusively in contexts like Wisdom of Solomon 10:10.102

3. Jesus’ exorcisms could easily have led to his seeing himself as, and being seen as, the successor to or one even greater than Solomon. By the first century A.D. Solomon was believed to have been an exorcist, and his wisdom was regarded as the key to exorcisms in the present (cf 11QPs 91; Ant. 8.45).

4. Jesus’ use of Son of Man language echoes not merely Daniel but the sort of esoteric material we find in the Parables of Enoch.

5. The many echoes of Sirach in the teaching of Jesus require and receive explanation if Jesus saw himself as sage and Wisdom (cf. Sir 11:18-19 to Lk 12:13-21; Sir 24:9 and 6:19-31 to Mt 11:29-30; Sir 23:9 to Mt 5:34; Sir 28:3-4 to Mt 5:22; cf. Sir 29:11 to Mt 6:19; Sir 32:1 to Lk 22:26-27; Sir 36:31 to Lk 9:58).103

6. Jesus’ willingness to portray himself in female imagery such as we find in the lament over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37-39/Luke 13:34-35 is also explained by this hypothesis, since this is the way Wisdom is portrayed in such crucial texts as Proverbs 8—9 and Wisdom of Solomon 8—9.104

“To put things another way, the sage and Wisdom proposal is the only one I know of that makes sense of Jesus’ teachings, Jesus’ miracles as Son of David (i.e., one like Solomon cf. Mk 10:46-52), Jesus’ self-presentation as Son of Man in bringing in the kingdom of God, Jesus’ yoke and binding his disciples to himself, the connection between messianic concepts, sapiential concepts and Son of Man material and the development of Christology found in the church as early as the Christological hymns (Phil 2; Col 1; Jn 1). In short, the vast majority of all the material in the Synoptics, and especially its distinctive markers of parabolic teaching, Son of Man sayings, kingdom material, and miracles can be explained by this approach.” (ibid. 193-194, emphasis original)

Now, certain objections to the Wisdom hypothesis have been raised. For example, Simon Gathercole, despite arguing extensively for the positive case for Jesus’ pre-existence in the Synoptic Gospels (see previous section), criticizes the use of Wisdom motifs to argue in favor of pre-existence (Gathercole 2006; 193-209). He mentions, for instance, that some scholars see in Simon ben Onias (as portrayed in Sirach 50) the “embodiment of this Wisdom.” Yet, there is no hint of Simon’s pre-existence in the chapter (cf. ibid. 196-197). Also, in Luke 7:35 (par. Matthew 11:19), Jesus is said to have stated that “Wisdom is vindicated by her children” rather than “…by her deeds”. If this is so, it may suggest that Jesus is implying that he is a prophet of Wisdom rather than Wisdom-incarnate (though cf. Witherington 1997; 184 for response). Overall, however, Wisdom material (as it is attributed to Jesus) is so pervasive throughout the New Testament (Witherington’s whole discussion in ibid. 161-196 is instructive, but his 400+ page tome on the subject in “Jesus the Sage” treats this matter very thoroughly) that I think, despite the criticisms, there are good grounds for accepting that Jesus thought of himself as Wisdom-Incarnate, and that this not only implied his pre-existence but also his divinity. See also James Patrick Holding’s material on Wisdom at the below link (included at the bottom of the page are more links that respond to some objections to the thesis, such as the compatibility of the hypothesis with Wisdom’s being portrayed as female in the relevant literature):

Jesus the Son of Man

That the historical Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man” is historically probable. Raymond Brown notes:

“The Gospel usage of this title for Jesus presents statistics that are dramatically different from the statistics discussed in relation to ‘the Messiah’ and ‘the Son of God.’ The acceptance or usage of those titles during Jesus' lifetime is difficult to discern even from the surface evidence of the Gospels, in part because of their infrequency; but ‘the Son of Man’ appears some 80 times in the Gospels and in all but 2 partially debatable instances (Mark 2:10; John 12:34) clearly as self-designations by Jesus. It has been estimated that these constitute some 51 sayings,140 14 of which are in Mark and 10 in the Sayings-Source (Q). Outside the Gospels the phrase occurs only 4 times, viz., Heb 2:6; Rev 1:13; 14:14; Acts 7:56; and only in the last of these (which is a Lucan borrowing from the Gospel usage) does it have the definite article as in the Gospels. The debate whether the historical Jesus used this title of himself or whether it is a product of early church reflection retrojected into Jesus' ministry has raged throughout the last hundred years. If one takes the latter view, one faces two major difficulties: Why was this title so massively retrojected, being placed on Jesus' lips on a scale far outdistancing the retrojection of ‘the Messiah,’ ‘the Son of God,’ and ‘the Lord’? And if this title was first fashioned by the early church, why has it left almost no traces in nonGospel NT literature, something not true of the other titles? (Brown 1994; 90)

As a result, the current scholarly consensus believes that Jesus did refer to himself as “Son of Man”, yet scholars are divided as to what he meant by it. However, despite the disagreement in the scholarly literature, I think it is clear that the Gospels indicate that Jesus, by referring to himself as “Son of Man”, was indicating that he represented the exalted figure of Daniel 7:13-14:

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

By the late 1st century, apocalyptic texts such as I Enoch and IV Ezra expanded upon the “Son of Man” concept introduced in the passage from Daniel, demonstrating the exalted and pre-existent status of this Messianic figure that shares the divine throne (so Collins 1995; 173-189). Interestingly, the “Son of Man” figure in the Similitudes of Enoch is the lone example of a highly exalted angel, patriarch, or intermediary figure that arguably is included within the divine identity, in this case receiving worship and executing Judgment while sitting on the divine throne (cf. Bauckham 2008; 169-172). Witherington argues that the sources in the relevant portions of I Enoch likely pre-date the ministry of Jesus (cf. Witherington 1990; 234-236).

While Jesus utilizes the “Son of Man” language in several conceptual contexts, including that of his impending suffering (see. e.g. Mark 9:31, 10:45), he also uses it to express imagery consistent with what we might expect given the background of the Daniel 7:13-14 passage. Pertinent examples include the following:

“If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38)

“Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’” (Mark 14:61-62)

“For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:8)

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” (Matthew 25:31-33; to be noted here especially is the resonance of this passage with Daniel 7 as a whole, the context of both being the Final Judgment)

“For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.” (Luke 17:24)

“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man.” (John 3:13)

Thus the Gospels, consistent with Jewish apocalyptic materials that were being published at about the same time, indicate that Jesus is the “Son of Man”, a highly exalted figure who shares the heavenly throne to be derived from the imagery of Daniel 7:13-14. Obviously, this presents a huge problem for Muslim polemicists in trying to argue that the original Gospels did not purport Jesus’ divinity. For further discussion of this topic see the following article by James Patrick Holding:


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