How Do Scribes’ Alterations Square with Inerrancy

“In his ‘The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture’, Ehrman argues that theological motives drove some Christian scribes to make changes in biblical texts as they copied and recopied them down through the generations. This parallels the well-known Jewish tikkune soferim, in which pious scribes felt driven to alter the text in cases where God seemed to be disrespected.  How does this square with claims of inerrancy?”

Most claims of inerrancy account for the transmission process of scripture by affirming that the text is inspired and inerrant only in the original autographs. Article X of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states:

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

If one claims that the scriptures are inerrant in the original autographs, the practice of textual criticism can help scholars determine which variants are more likely to be original and, therefore, inerrant. Ehrman’s argument about theologically motivated changes to the biblical texts does not threaten the inerrancy of the original autographs.

Ehrman himself acknowledges that his methods are not vastly different than ones used by those who affirm inerrancy. The difference is his aim: “I am less concerned with interpreting the words of the new Testament as they came from the pens of its authors than with seeing how these words came to be altered in the course of their transmission” [Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, (Oxford: OUP, 1993), xi.].

So the main difference between the textual critic who holds to inerrancy and Ehrman is that the former focuses on determining the wording of the autographs, while Ehrman works to determine the nature of variants from the autographs. It is also important to note that the nature of the variants between manuscripts pose little challenge to orthodox belief. Many of the variants Ehrman notes that are most challenging to orthodoxy in their claims are not considered viable as the original wording. No cardinal doctrine of the faith is affected by any viable variant.

Paul Wheatley, ThM
Dallas Theological Seminary