A Review of ‘Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism’ edited by Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry

A Review of ‘Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism’ edited by Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry

One of the first books I remember buying after I began following Jesus was Josh McDowell’s massive tome, ‘The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict.’ It was a 750-page Christian apologetics guide that covered everything from the reliability of the Old Testament to the evidence for the resurrection. And I devoured it – cover to cover.

I can still remember reading it at a church youth camp and being left in awe at the manuscript evidence for the New Testament. Homer and Julius Caesar didn’t have anything on Jesus. Their works were only attested by a handful of handwritten manuscripts. The Gospels (and other books of the New Testament), on the other hand, had thousands upon thousands.

Over the years, I’d often go back to that evidence when giving presentations on (or just discussing) the reliability of the New Testament.

But… like many fledgling, Christian apologists, I didn’t have any of the data myself. I’d never counted manuscripts – I’d never even seen one. I was simply relying on what I’d heard.

Unfortunately, a lot of the information that gets passed around on the popular level is simplified, stretched, or flat-out wrong. And that’s the problem ‘Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism’ was written to address.

For those not familiar with the term, ‘textual criticism’ is the process that biblical scholars go through in hopes of figuring out what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the rest of the gang actually wrote down. They compare different handwritten copies of the New Testament books along with different ancient translations and use a handful of principles to determine the most likely reading of ambiguous or divergent passages.

If you’ve ever seen a little footnote in your Bible that says “some ancient manuscripts read…”, then you’re seeing the work of textual critics.

‘Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism’ includes essays from fourteen different scholars that examine…

  • What the original New Testament books (also called ‘autographs’) would have been like and how long they would have lasted…
  • How many New Testament manuscripts we actually have…
  • How the New Testament manuscripts compare to other ancient literature…
  • How scholars date the New Testament manuscripts…
  • How ancient scribes made copies of the New Testament and how errors/differences crept into those copies…
  • The issue of variant readings in the manuscript evidence…
  • What the Church Fathers can tell us (and not tell us) about the New Testament…
  • How early translations can (and can’t) help us reconstruct the original wording of the New Testament…
  • And more…

So… this book covers a lot of ground. And I really appreciated its breadth.

But what I loved about it the most was its commitment to seeking truth even when bending it might work in the author’s favor. As I mentioned earlier, when I was a young Christian (and Christian apologist), I was led to believe that there was hardly any manuscript evidence for other ancient works when compared to Christianity.

But in his essay on ‘Responsibly Comparing the New Testament to Ancient Works’, James Prothro points out that scholars of Classics count manuscript evidence differently than Biblical scholars. And on top of that, Christian apologists are prone to keeping their tally of New Testament manuscripts up-to-date while not bothering to update the evidence for other ancient works.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the Bible is no better attested than the Illiad. The Bible still comes out on top. But it’s not nearly at the order of magnitude that well-meaning, zealous Christian apologists have often claimed.

And that’s just one reason that this book needs to be read by every Christian who’s actively defending his faith against critics. Though it’s not technically an introduction to textual criticism, it could function as one for an interested layperson. After all, it covers all of the major topics. And it does so in a fairly accessible way.

The authors are also willing to go after sacred cows on both sides of the aisle – from casting doubt on a super early date for P52 (one of the oldest New Testament manuscripts ever discovered) to arguing against Bart Ehrman’s contention that scribes changed the New Testament so much that we don’t even know what it said.

Overall, I’d say that this is a balanced, well-researched, and up-to-date collection of essays on an incredibly important topic for Christian apologists and other interested parties. Though there may have been a chapter or two that left me yawning (mainly the last one that dealt with modern translations), most of the information here was excellent and faith-building. It left me feeling just as good about the evidence for the New Testament as Josh McDowell’s book did 17 years ago. Only this time, I’m left with a more nuanced understanding of it.

With all of this said, this is a book on New Testament textual criticism. If that doesn’t sound like a topic that would keep you on the edge of your seat… well, you’ll probably want to give it a hard pass.

But if you’ve always wanted to learn more about the evidence for the New Testament, how it’s come down to us, etc., then I can think of no better way to get a quick understanding of the latest research.

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