Having just recently read Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, I decided to go back and reread Bruce Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration. Bruce Metzger was Ehrman’s teacher and yet Metzger came to much different conclusions. Metzger had a much more positive view on our ability to reconstruct the Greek text. After comparing the New Testament to other ancient classical texts, Metzger notes: “Instead of the lapse of a millennium or more, as is the case of not a few classical authors, several papyrus manuscripts of portions of the New Testament are extant which were copied within a century or so after the composition of the original documents.” This seems to put us in a good position in terms of New Testament studies.
Metzger also has a different view of the competency and motives of the early Christian scribes. One of the selling features of Ehrman’s book is that he attempts to demonstrate the theological motives of the scribes’ intentional alterations of the text. In contrast, Metzger only gives two and a half pages to alterations made because of doctrinal considerations. Metzger also makes this interesting statement about the skill of the scribes:
Even in incidental details one observes the faithfulness of scribes. For example, the scribe of codex Vaticanus copied quite mechanically the section numbers which run in one series throughout the corpus of the Pauline Epistles, even though this series had been drawn up when the Epistle to the Hebrews stood between Galatians and Ephesians and is therefore not suitable for the present sequence of the Epistles in Vaticanus. These examples of dogged fidelity on the part of scribes could be multiplied, and serve to counterbalance, to some extent, the impression which this chapter may otherwise make upon the beginner in New Testament textual criticism.
This is far from the conclusions of Bart Ehrman.
One of the things that both Metzger and Ehrman have in common is the reluctance that the church had in embracing textual criticism. Does the possibility of a scribal error in some passages mean the end of the faith? What do we do with the fact that passages such as Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11 and 1 John 5:7 were not originally in the New Testament? Metzger’s book, and to a lesser degree Ehrman’s, demonstrate our ability to restore the text to its earliest form. Textual criticism is not just about the transmission and the corruption of the text but also its restoration. Our current tools and the large number of manuscripts that we have mean that we can be very confident in the state of the Greek text of the New Testament. If our faith is based on the Textus Receptus, the faulty Greek text that is the basis of the King James Version, our faith should be shaken. But if our faith is in the God who revealed himself in Christ Jesus as recorded in the original autographs of the New Testament, reconstructed by the tools of modern textual criticism, there is no need for our faith to be shaken.