“Are the errors in the Bible part of God’s plan? If yes, why does God’s plan involve the corruption of holy texts, even slightly? If no, then how can we decipher which parts of the Bible are in line with His word and which parts are not?”
When Professor Ehrman says there are more errors in the nearly 6,000 transcripts of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament (approximately 180,000) it definitely gets one’s attention. But then how can he say next that these errors are inconsequential? They are inconsequential because they are spelling “errors” or typographical “errors.” No one I know of claims that any of the Bibles we possess today in English (or Greek) is devoid of spelling, typographical, or copyists’ errors. His book Misquoting Jesus, in which he makes that claim, is far from the controversial piece that the subtitle suggests: “The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.”
The subtitle implies that there is a great conspiracy behind people changing the words of Jesus and the apostles for the cause of a hidden agenda. The truth is that Jesus is NOT misquoted in the New Testament. Professor Ehrman respectfully dedicates his book to Bruce Metzger, his professor at Princeton, who was the leading authority on textual criticism in the second half of the twentieth century. Bruce Metzger devoted his scholarly life to identifying as accurately as possible what words were original to the New Testament documents. The results that he and other textual scholars have achieved give us 99+% assurance that the text we have in the latest critical edition of the New Testament in Greek is the original text. As he writes in the introduction to the United Bible Society text he edited along with Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, et al, “By far the greatest proportion of the text represents what may be called an A degree of certainty [“the letter A signifies that the text is virtually certain”].”
In your question you ask if the errors in the Bible are part of God’s plan. Clearly the God of the Bible is great enough to have preserved the actual original copies of the books of both the Old and New Testaments. That he did not do so must indicate that such preservation was not according to his plan. He has given us a trustworthy transmission of the words of the apostles, so that we can be completely confident that we have the true words of Jesus and his commissioned agents, the Twelve. F.F. Bruce’s work, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, provides a classic case for the trustworthiness of the gospel and epistle accounts of Jesus and his teaching.
More importantly you ask how one may tell which parts of the Bible are legitimate and which are not. If we know there are errors in the Bible but we don’t know what they are, how are we supposed to pick and choose without giving way completely to subjectivism? The answer is that there are not material or content errors in the Bible anywhere. The classic doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible holds that God breathed into prophets and apostles to insure that their words would not only reflect their distinctive personalities, perspectives, and historical periods but also be the very words of God (II Timothy 3:16; II Peter 1:20-21).
This view of inspiration was Jesus’ own view that we learn from the merely historically reliable New Testament books. It is only after we learn what the historical Jesus taught about himself and conclude that he was the Son of God that we then submit to his teaching about the nature of Scripture. For the Jesus that Christians call Lord, “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). He affirmed the Old Testament completely (Matthew 5:17-19) and predicted that his apostles would write a New Testament (John 14:26; 15:26-27; 16:13). So, don’t worry about substantive errors in the Bible. There are none.
David Bowen, PhD