Taken from Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus Interrupted”:
In response to the assertion, made by conservative evangelicals, that not a single important Christian doctrine is affected by any textual variant, I point out:
a. It simply isn’t true that important doctrines are not involved. As a key example: the only place in the entire New Testament where the doctrine of the Trinity is explicitly taught is in a passage that made it into the King James translation (1 John 5:7–8) but is not found in the vast majority of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. I would suggest that the Trinity is a rather important Christian doctrine. A typical response to this rebuttal is that the doctrine of the Trinity can be found in Scripture without appealing to 1 John 5:7–8. My reply is that this is true of every single Christian doctrine. In my experience, theologians do not hold to a doctrine because it is found in just one verse; you can take away just about any verse and still find just about any Christian doctrine somewhere else if you look hard enough.
b. It seems to me to be a very strange criterion of significance to say that textual variants ultimately don’t matter because they don’t affect any cardinal Christian doctrine. Why is Christian doctrine the ultimate criterion of significance? Suppose, for example, that we discovered a manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew that for some reason was lacking chapters 4–13. Would that be significant? I should think so. But would it affect anyone’s doctrine? Not at all. Or take an even more extreme example. Suppose we all woke up tomorrow morning and found that every trace of the books of Mark, Philippians, James, and 1 Peter had been removed from every New Testament on the planet. Would that be significant? It would be huge! Would it affect any Christian doctrine? Not in the least.
c. Most important, some of the textual variants do matter deeply, for things other than “cardinal Christian doctrines.”:
(1) Some matter for how to interpret entire books of the New Testament. Take a couple of variants in the Gospel of Luke. First, did Luke think that Jesus was in agony when going to his death, or that he was calm and controlled? It depends entirely on what you make of the textual variant in Luke 22:43–44, where Jesus allegedly sweated great drops as if of blood before his arrest. Leave the verses in, as some manuscripts do, and Jesus is obviously in deep agony. Take them out and there is no agony, either in this passage or anywhere else in Luke’s Passion narrative, as we saw earlier when we noticed that Luke had eliminated all of Mark’s references to Jesus’ being in pain, uncertain up to the end. Second, did Luke understand that Jesus’ death was an atonement for sin? It depends on what you do with Luke 22:19–20. Everywhere else in Luke, as we saw in chapter 3, Luke has eliminated Mark’s references to Jesus’ death as an atonement. The only remnant of that teaching is in some manuscripts of the Lord’s Supper, where Jesus says that the bread is his body to be broken “for you” and the cup is his blood poured out “for you.” But in our earliest and best manuscripts, these words are missing (much of v. 19 and all of v. 20). It appears scribes have added them to make Luke’s view of Jesus’ death conform to Mark’s and Matthew’s. I’d say that’s rather important—unless you think that Luke’s views on the subject don’t really matter.
(2) Some variants, including those just mentioned, are terrifically important for knowing what traditions about Jesus were in circulation among the early
Christians. Did Jesus have an encounter with an adulterous woman and her accusers in which he told them, “Let the one without sin among you be the fi rst to cast a stone at her,” and in which he told her, after all her accusers had left, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more”? It depends on which manuscripts of John you read. After his resurrection, did Jesus tell his disciples that those who came to believe in him would be able to handle snakes and drink deadly poison without being harmed? It depends on which manuscripts of Mark you read.
(3) Some variants are crucial for understanding what was going on in the communities of the scribes who were copying the texts. Some scribes, for example,
omitted the prayer of Jesus spoken while being crucified, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they were doing” (Luke 23:34). Early Christians interpreted this as a prayer of forgiveness for the Jews, ignorant of what they had done. No wonder some scribes omitted the verse in the context of Christian anti-Judaism in the second and third centuries, when many Christians believed that Jews knew exactly what they were doing and that God had in no way forgiven them. Or as an example from Paul: it appears that Paul’s injunction to women to be “silent” in the
churches and “subordinate” to their husbands was not originally part of 1 Corinthians 14 (vv. 34–35) but was added by later scribes intent on keeping women in their place. Is that significant or not?
d. Finally, I have to say that I actually don’t believe it when conservative evangelicals say that the textual variations in the New Testament don’t matter very much. If they don’t matter, why do such conservative evangelical seminaries as Dallas Theological Seminary (headed by one of my outspoken critics on the matter) and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary sponsor multi-million-dollar projects to examine the
Greek manuscripts of the New Testament? If the differences in the manuscripts don’t matter, why bother to study them? If they are completely insignificant, why devote one’s career to examining them? If they are altogether immaterial, why devote millions of dollars to investigating them? I wonder what such people say when they’re out raising money for their projects: “We’d like you to invest five hundred thousand dollars to help us study the manuscripts of the New Testament,
because we don’t think they have any significance”?
I think it is quite obvious that the manuscripts do matter. They matter for how we interpret the New Testament; they matter for knowing about the historical Jesus; they matter for understanding the history of the Christian church after Jesus’ death. Those who argue that they don’t matter either are trying to provide comfort to
those who might be disturbed by learning the historical facts, or are