One of Dr. Ehrman’s most common arguments is an argument based on sheer numbers. Dr. Ehrman likes to quote suggested numbers of variants within the New Testament textual tradition – 200,000; 300,000; even 400,000. Numbers mean a lot to him. In fact, on numbers alone, Dr. Ehrman makes all sorts of declarations and conclusions about whether the New Testament can be trusted and relied upon. He even says there are more differences in our manuscripts than words in the New Testament. That is a very intimidating thing to learn from a professor. But the problem is that Dr. Ehrman leaves a lot of things out of the equation which he neither includes in his book nor tells his students in the way they ought to be declared that make these numbers look very different than they do at first glance.
One thing Dr. Ehrman never bothers to talk about – at least at length in his book – is not just the quantity of numbers, but the kind of changes that we are talking about. It is not just the quantity but the quality that is in view. What kind of changes are we talking about? Something that most people do not realize is that in ancient documents – not just the New Testament, but in every document in history – there are certain types of scribal changes that just happen naturally, such as slips of the pen, misspellings, word order changes, omissions, and minor scribal variations that do not affect the integrity of the New Testament at all. Most of these kinds of changes make upwards of 80% to 90% of the scribal variations that we talk about. So when talking about meaningful scribal variations, we are talking about very few. If you add up all the different scribal changes that are out there – all the meaningless ones – of course you are going to get a high number. But if we are talking about the meaningful ones that make any impact, there are very few.
Another thing Dr. Ehrman fails to mention is that even of that small number of variants within the textual tradition that would be meaningful we can determine which of those were original and which were not. These changes that people think threaten the integrity of the New Testament actually do not threaten it precisely because we can spot them when they happen. We can see when a scribe has made a mistake; we can see when a change has been made; and since we can spot those things within the manuscript tradition, they do not threaten the overall integrity of the New Testament text. The reason we can spot these changes when they take place is because we have so many manuscripts at our disposable that we can compare with one another. We can see where the changes take place. We can see where changes entered tradition and exit-ed tradition. We can see these changes happen over time, and trace our way back to the originals.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing that Dr. Ehrman does not discuss is that the reason we have so many textual variations is because we have so many more manuscripts than any other document of ancient history. The number of manuscripts is usually a positive thing in historical investigations. Usually if you have a lot of manuscripts, then that is a good reason to think you can have a reliable text. But Dr. Ehrman takes something that is usually positive historical evidence, and turns it around and makes it negative historical evidence. Because we have so many thousands of manuscripts, we have that many more opportunities to discover variants within the textual tradition; and the numbers go up. I often wonder what Dr. Ehrman would say if we only had 5 copies of the New Testament and very few manuscript variations. Would he then consider the New Testament to be historically reliable because it had so few variants? One suspects the answer to that would be no. No doubt the argument would then be that we do not have enough manuscripts. So whichever way you go – whether it is lots of variants or lots of manuscripts, either way – Dr. Ehrman has set the stage so that the position of seeing the New Testament as historically reliable simply will not hold.