I run a little weekly column in the local newspaper called ASK THE PREACHER. Sometimes people send me questions, sometimes I repost questions I have encountered elsewhere and try to answer them to the best of my ability. This was a good question I encountered earlier this week - and yes, others have answered it in more depth and detail than I have here - but for a short column I tried to cover as much as I could.
Q: How can the New Testament be considered "inerrant" when there are so many errors in the manuscripts?
A: The first thing that needs clarifying is the term "inerrant." Theologically, what this means is that the New Testament contains God's revelation through His Son Jesus Christ, and that its teachings on matters of faith and morals are complete, authoritative, and without mistake. It does not necessarily mean that every word of every verse has been passed down precisely in each hand-written copy across twenty centuries of time!
Bart Ehrman made a big splash about a decade ago with a book entitled MISQUOTING JESUS, in which he described that the Greek manuscripts contain over 400,000 variant readings from each other - in short, 400,000 "mistakes." Since the original copies of the Gospels and Epistles that make up the New Testament were lost long ago, how can we possibly trust a text that has so many mistakes in its transmission? Well, first of all - Ehrman didn't say anything that New Testament scholars have not known for the last two centuries. When you are dealing with thousands of texts hand copied over a period of centuries, of course there are going to be variant readings. In fact, these variations are useful for textual analysis, since they help us tell which texts were copied from which. Secondly, Ehrman really fiddled with the figures to arrive at that total of 400,000 "errors." For example, a single misspelled word that was copied into twenty different manuscripts made from the one containing the original error - most people would count that as a single error. However, Ehrman would count it as twenty-one - the original, plus the twenty copies! Over 70% of the errors he cites are simple misspellings by copyists, easily detected and easily corrected. Another 25% or so are word reversals - switching the order of two words in a sentence. Of those reversals, 80% of them were a single phrase - "Jesus Christ" in place of "Christ Jesus," or vice versa. In other words, neither misspellings nor word reversals significantly effect the actual meaning of the passage wherein they occur! A very small percentage of the variations are paraphrase - where a later copyist used a simpler or more modern word meaning the same thing in place of an earlier term that was more complex, or perhaps simply outmoded.
What does that leave us with? A small handful of passages, like the ending of Mark's Gospel, where the exact wording is unknown. All the "doubtful passages" combined comprise less than 1% of the New Testament text, and none of them change a single major doctrine of the Christian faith. Most modern translations put these verses into brackets and include a footnote explaining what the problems associated with them are. In short, the New Testament has been transmitted for two thousand years, being copied exclusively by hand for the first fifteen hundred of those years, with at textual accuracy in excess of 99%. No other work of the ancient world comes anywhere close.