This next chapter titled, “Kinds of Errors in New Testament Manuscripts” is a summary of the various types of scribal errors that can be observed in extant manuscripts, so this article will likely be short. Carson employs this chapter to give his reader context to the actual decision making process that is practiced by textual critics.
The Kinds of Errors in Manuscripts
Carson categorizes scribal errors into two categories: Intentional and unintentional. The study of scribes has been improved upon in the last decade and is most thoroughly examined by Dr. Jim Royse in his book entitled Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri published by Brill in the New Testament Tools, Studies and Documents series edited by Bart Ehrman. This book can be had for $436.00. Despite the further development of scribal habits, much of what Carson says in this chapter is still relevant today.
I will make one note on the study of scribal habits overall. While there are many things that can be discerned by the habits of scribes, some practices will never be understood fully. Take for example Carson’s commentary on marginal notes.
“Occasionally, honest errors of judgment have led to the introduction of an error. For example, if a scribe accidentally left out a line or a few words, the corrector might put them in the margin. The next scribe who came along and copied this manuscript might reinsert the words into the text at the wrong place. Alternatively, the marginal note may have been a scribe’s comment rather than an integral part of the text; but the scribe who copied that manuscript might well have inserted the note into the new copy he was writing, thus adding something to the text of Scripture that should not be there.”Carson, D. A.. The King James Version Debate (p. 22). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Notice how Carson employs the words “may” and “might.” This is very important for the layperson to understand if they are not familiar with the way scholars interpret data. What these types of words should signal to everybody is that any statement that is prefaced with “may,” “might,” “probably,” etc. is that the statement is not some established record of fact. That does not mean that using such language is wrong or bad, just that it should be interpreted as what is likely, not what is certain. Scribes did not leave definitive guides to interpreting their annotations and much of what scholars come up with are educated guesses. Again, this practice is not wrong, it is just important to note as it is relevant when discussing with certainty what is in the text of Scripture.
The reason I take note of this is due to the fact that the average person will read this statement and others like it, and take it as a statement of certainty as to what is occurring. Because the scribes who inserted words in to margins do not offer explanation as to what the marginal note is or why it is there, the scholars must use “may haves” and “might bes” to speculate what exactly those marginal notes are. This is an accepted practice in every discipline of scholarship where the data does not offer certainty. It is a responsible practice, though Christians should be aware that any statement of certainty issued on top of the premise of a “might be” is severely irresponsible from a scholarly perspective. This practice is quite common among Critical Text apologists, so I wanted to make note of it here. If the goal is determining the text of Scripture with certainty, then statements prefaced by “may bes” and “might bes” are not adequate to do furnish that goal.
What Carson does practically in this chapter is assure his reader that despite the errors that he is describing, there is no cause for worry.
“Before taking the discussion further, I should pause and set at rest the troubled concern of anyone who, on the basis of what I have written so far, concludes that the manuscript tradition is entirely unreliable, or that we can not really be certain of any of it. There is no need for such rigorous pessimism.”Carson, D. A.. The King James Version Debate (p. 24). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Based on what Carson has said, he is correct in making this statement. The problem with this statement is with the scholarship that informs this statement. If the situation were as simple as correcting errors with a complete set of manuscripts, then there is no issue at all with what Carson says here. The problem is that there is not a complete extant record to draw from and ultimately much of, if not all of the conclusions made by textual scholars end up being prefaced with “may,” “might,” “likely, ” and “probably.” Dan Wallace makes a nearly identical argument when he presents the scenario as a spectrum between radical skepticism and absolute certainty. I address this topic in further depth frequently on my blog, but this brief survey of quotations should help my reader understand the thin foundation Carson’s statement is built upon.
The last note I will make on this chapter is regarding Carson’s sources. In this chapter, Carson quotes Metzger on the topic, which should inform us that what we are going to find is essentially the condensed thoughts of Metzger. This is an important observation as it gives the reader an idea of the school of thinking Carson is drawing from.
This chapter is essentially a brief summary of the types of scribal errors described by Metzger. There isn’t a lot to comment on here, other than the references to Metzger inform the reader the school of thought behind Carson’s thinking. If the reader wanted to do further studies on the material in this chapter, they could pick up a copy of The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration which is the text referenced by Carson and the standard textbook in most seminaries on the topic. Bart Ehrman co-edited this textbook, which might be an important detail for some readers. This book is still recommended as introductory material on textual criticism by current scholars such as Dr. Peter Gurry and Dr. Elijah Hixson.