Question: Does textual criticism tell us anything about inerrancy?

Textual criticism tells us unequivocally that God does not care about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Open your Bible and read the following verses: Matthew 17:21, 18:11, 23:14; Mark 7:16, 9:44, 9:46, 11:26, 15:28; Luke 17:36, John 5:3-4; Acts 8:37, 15:34, 24:6-8, 28:29; Romans 16:24 and 1 John 5:7-8. If you are not using a King James Version, you might be a bit perplexed. They are all missing from modern translations of the Bible which just skip right over them. It turns out that most textual scholars today feel these were not part of the original New Testament documents (the autographs as they are called), but were added to the text at a later time period. Why are scholars confident they were not in the original New Testament documents? In most cases, they are missing from key early manuscripts leading textual scholars to conclude they are additions or corruptions of the autographical text. Most of them do not amount to very much. Matthew 23:14 is simply what we also find in Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47. Someone probably added this into Matthew, assimilating the text with what we find in the other two synoptic Gospels. Not a huge deal. Doctrinally speaking, 1 John 5:7-8 is the most significant of these 16 omitted verses as it implies a very direct statement of the Trinity was added to the text of some copies of the first Johannine epistle:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. KJV
There was extensive debate about the Trinity and the nature of Jesus in the early church before the issue was largely settled. As you can imagine, many scholars sought to defend the authenticity of the Comma Johanneum, as 1 John 5:7-8 is called, to little avail as its authenticity is almost universally denied today. This passage is not quoted in the early church and that silence is inexplicable if it was in the autographical text given the extensive debates over this issue. It also does not show up in any early Greek manuscripts. Its first appearance was in the fifth century outside of the New Testament and it was then assimilated into copies of the Latin translation of the New Testament known as the Vulgate.

Each of the 27 books of the New Testament was composed at a different time, in a different location and by many different authors, some of whom are known and some of whom are not. We must also realize that writing in antiquity was not as easy as it is today and the New Testament documents were all originally written on parchment or papyrus and over time and use, would become damaged and need to be replaced with a new copy. We do not have any of the original copies of the New Testament works. Those have all been lost to time. What we have are copies, of copies of copies. How many steps exist between the putative autographs and our earliest manuscripts is largely unknown. With copying comes errors, intentional and unintentional ones as the manuscripts clearly attest.

The Bible did not fall from the sky as a completed text. Our English New Testament comes from publishers, not heaven. It is translated by a committee based off of accepted critical editions of the Greek New Testament which have evolved over the years and in turn are based off of collections of manuscripts and attempts to reconstruct the earliest version of our New Testament documents. There are literally thousands of variants between the manuscripts and entirely different textual families. Many (not all) of these variants do not amount to significant doctrinal concerns but these errors are present and this causes some evangelical Christian organizations to make very precise statements about inspiration. Article X of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy reads as follows:
"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. We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant."
I agree that textual errors do not affect essential errors of the Christian faith but strongly question the veracity of the last statement. Errors in the New Testament manuscripts almost certainly render the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant. Bart Ehrman wrote:
"If one wants to insist that God inspired the very words of scripture, what would be the point if we don't have the very words of scripture? In some places, as we will see, we simply cannot be sure that we have reconstructed the original text accurately. It's a bit hard to know what the words of the Bible mean if we don't even know what the words are!
This became a problem for my view of inspiration, for I came to realize that it would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place. If he wanted his people to have his words, surely he would have given them to them (and possibly even given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew). The fact that we don't have the words surely must show, I reasoned, that he did not preserve them for us. And if he didn't perform that miracle, there seemed to be no reason to think that he performed the earlier miracle of inspiring those words." [Misquoting Jesus pg. 11]

Note that Ehrman critiqued a model of inspiration known as verbal-plenary inspiration, whereby God literally chose every single word of Scripture. Ehrman thinks we can't know the exact words of scripture in many places whereas the evangelical Chicago statement thinks it can be "ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy." I think evangelicals and Christian textual critics (who are often conservatives) have greatly underestimated our textual uncertainty. Ultimately, the manuscript testimony we possess for New Testament books mostly comes upwards of 150 years after each work was written. There is a long period of time in which we simply have no evidence one way or another and this was in each work's earliest stages when it would most likely be fluid, before it was considered immutable scripture. Ehrman's words then, offer a devastating criticism to those inerrancy advocates who think we can be certain or highly confident we have extremely accurate copies of the autographs on purely historical grounds. My position is one of faith. If God chose to incarnate himself then I consider it likely God would have left us a reliable record of the incarnation. I think the attestation for many New Testament works is good but there is a lot of uncertainty. What seems true to me is that clearly God had no concerns with leaving us an inerrant Bible since it is unlikely anyone in the history of the church has ever actually possessed one. Paul J Achtemeier wrote:
"Surely, a God who can inspire error-free composition could inspire error-free copying. Since he did not, it would appear he did not think our possession of error-free Scripture very important. But if it is not important for us, why was it important originally? To suggest that God allowed the autographs to perish lest they be a temptation to idolatry is simply foolish. Error-free copies would serve the same purpose as error-free originals, and those who would succumb to idolatry of an error-free original, will, in its absence, find other things to idolize." [Biblical Inspiration pg. 71-72]

If we use textual criticism as a model for inspiration, what type of Bible are we left with? Are we to believe the will of God was thwarted? How does one maintain that God desired to provide an inerrant text to the church when no one in the Church has ever possessed such a text? God was concerned with and decided to inspire an inerrant scripture but failed to preserve it for his Church? Surely we must set the bar higher for God. If He wanted us to have a completely inerrant version of the Bible, He could have easily given us one. We have been given, possibly and paradoxically, a message of God's perfect salvation from a book containing errors, preserved by a fallible Church and preached by imperfect pastors. That might seem improbable but not any more so than a first-century Jewish wood worker from Nazareth dying for the sins of the world.

If we argue the New Testament manuscripts with their thousands of known errors, additions, omissions and divergent readings, are good enough at conveying the essential message and meaning of the original texts, then so too can a softer model of Biblical inspiration, one that permits errors, convey the essential salvific message and meaning of Scripture (2 Tim 3:15-17). A softer model of inspiration is far more consistent with the physical evidence and the findings of textual critics. What we do possess is a reliable record of God's salvific work. One might suppose that we possess exactly what God wanted us to. Does it make sense to suggest we possess anything else? I firmly and emphatically disagree with the Chicago Statement here.

Since everyone has imperfect Bibles on textual grounds alone we see that the existence of errors in the Bible has never been a problem for Christianity. The bottom line is that no one that we know of in the entire history of the Church has ever possessed a complete and error free New Testament and it is unlikely anyone we don't know of ever possessed one either. Even if the individual works were inerrant, by the time the individual books of the entire New Testament were all written, disseminated and collected together into a whole, errors would have been present. An inerrant Bible is an object that has never existed in reality. God just doesn't care about the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Someone should let the advocates of that doctrine know! I'd like to close with a quote from Raymond Brown:
"...sometimes we spend too much effort in protecting Jesus from things Jesus might not wish to be protected from. We have spent too much time protecting the God who inspired the Scriptures from limitations that He seems not to have been concerned about. The impassioned debate about inerrancy tells us less about divine omnipotence . . . than about our own insecurity in looking for absolute answers." [The Critical Meaning of the Bible pg 18-19]

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