Contending with Bart Ehrman

This post reviews an essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics, the latest installment in the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge that I undertook some time ago. This time I’m looking at Daniel Wallace’s essay “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”.

I was looking forward to Daniel Wallace’s essay, because it is the first to directly address a professional skeptic whose work I’ve seen*. Wallace speaks to Bart Ehrman’s arguments for scriptural corruption – that is, the position that the texts of the Bible as we have them are not the same as those penned by the original first-century authors. He doesn’t address Jesus Interrupted (the book that opened this Challenge), but Ehrman’s earlier book, Misquoting Jesus (MJ from here on). So I had some more Ehrman to read. I didn’t mind – he’s a clear and engaging writer, and it was nice to have an excuse for a sidetrack from the apologetics.

Interestingly, the main disagreement Wallace has with Ehrman isn’t a deep split over how to approach the problem of New Testament studies. They both appeal to the same sort of evidence. They even agree on some key conclusions: of the seven major examples where Ehrman suggests important doctrinal points depend on passages that have been changed, Wallace flat-out agrees with Ehrman on three of them. (That is, Wallace agrees that the passages as we have them were not written by the original authors. He denies that this fact undermines important doctrines.) On the other points, he disagrees in highly technical ways, so that I cannot competently referee the disagreement.

What sort of differences can I evaluate?

Well, Ehrman focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are authentic, and Wallace focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are inauthentic.

Call me conciliatory, but maybe they’re both right. Maybe the original texts of the New Testament books were fairly close to what we have today. But, using evidence available to us, we cannot be certain how close, or on what points. A belief in Biblical inerrancy seems to be fatally undermined by the evidence. But it’s likely true that the original authors of the books in the New Testament believed most of the main things Christians today believe about Jesus.

The great lesson I took away from Ehrman’s book is that the evidence that has survived is undeniably altered in some places. There’s a whole lot of evidence that has not survived. (Ehrman and Wallace both talk about “patristic” writings – by early church fathers – that talk about texts we do not have any more.) What changes may have taken place without leaving a paper trail for people like Ehrman and Wallace to follow? All of the key evidence has spent most of its history in the hands of people who were hell-bent on making sure we believe one story: the now-dominant, orthodox story. It is biased evidence. Even knowing that, I’m willing to take it as probably being fairly close to the original, for the most part. But those qualifications (“probably” and “fairly close”) stand.

So much for the philosophical differences. Unfortunately, some of the content of this article is more personal. Wallace’s rhetoric leaves me with strong doubts about his inclination to be impartial. He uses the term “radical” about any view that departs from orthodox Christianity, and anyone who promotes such a view. And he distorts Ehrman’s own claims in rather easy-to-spot ways. Here is one of his main accusations (p152):

“There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” argues Ehrman. Elsewhere he states that the number of variants is as high as 400,000. That is true enough but by itself is misleading. Anyone who teaches NT textual criticism knows that this fact is only part of the picture and that, if left dangling in front of the reader without explanation, is a distorted view. Once it is revealed that most variants are inconsequential – involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, word order changes, and the like – and that only a small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus. Indeed, less than 1 percent of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable.

(As a side note, even before I read MJ, the math of this jumped out at me. Less than 1% of 400,000. Wallace is basically saying, “Ehrman exaggerates. There are only upwards of four thousand meaningful and viable variants in the New Testament texts.” Is that supposed to inspire my confidence?)

And here is a passage from Ehrman that gives the claim Wallace pounces on (pp10-11):

Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today (and they didn’t even have dictionaries, let alone spell check).

Do you notice the immediate context of the line Wallace quoted above? The very next sentence completely undermines Wallace’s claim that Ehrman is alarmist in his rhetoric. Ehrman raises readers’ interest with an impressive statistic, then provides context, encouraging us not to over-interpret that statistic. Wallace claims that “Scholars bear a sacred duty not to alarm layreaders on issues where they have little understanding.” What about undermining a colleague’s credibility with selective quote-mining?

So Wallace is quite willing to use misleading rhetoric to undermine Ehrman’s credibility. But let’s return to the actual claims at hand.

I am open to the possibility that Ehrman overstates the corruption of the biblical texts. Wallace is right that Ehrman would probably sell fewer books if he put more emphasis on the uncertainty and less on the possibility that the texts are altered. On the other hand, Ehrman came to these conclusions from within an evangelical belief system. He was a believer; he learned about the texts; and the evidence forced him against his inclination to reject the inerrantist position he preferred. That gives him far more credibility as an unbiased investigator than those who believe their salvation and self-identity rely on the conclusion they defend.

The question of how unchanged our modern reconstructions of the New Testament are from their original forms is a fascinating debate from a sociological standpoint. But I think I should close by pointing out that, however this debate comes out, it doesn’t really affect the underlying question at issue in the Challenge: does a god – the Christian God or any other – actually exist? If the Greek and Hebrew texts we have today are exactly the words written by the first people to put them to paper, and if those words faithfully record the recollections of the early Christians, it would still just be a report of the beliefs of some ancient people. It would, at best, make the merest smidge of a difference in my estimate of how likely a god is, or the possibility of life after death. It would have no affect on my moral rejection of the idea of substitutiary atonement or the doctrine of infinite consequences for finite actions.

* Yes, a couple of the earlier essays in this book responded to Dawkins. But they were responding to Dawkins’ philosophy (an area of interest to him, but not one where he is an expert), not his science (where he is a recognized leader in his field). This essay takes on Ehrman in his home arena: New Testament studies.



5 Responses to “Contending with Bart Ehrman”

  1. Scott F Says:

    “But it’s likely true that the original authors of the books in the New Testament believed most of the main things Christians today believe about Jesus.”

    Interestingly enough, scholars like Ehrman and James McGrath would argue that the authors of the synoptics were likely to have believed that Jesus was not divine or at least not equal with the Creator. This would be greatly at odds with what is orthodox doctrine now.

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Yes. I remember some of Ehrman’s thoughts on this from Jesus, Interrupted. I honestly still haven’t got my head around what the “trinity” really means. It seems to me to be a cobbled-together patch over multiple competing ideas among early Christians regarding Jesus’ relationship to God. Ehrman has certainly convinced me that not all of the NT authors had the same idea about who Jesus was and what his life and death meant.

    I am continually amazed at the depths of illogic and fallacy that the apologists in this collection sink to in order to support their beliefs. The very next essay, “Who did Jesus think he was?” by Michael Wilkins, opens like so:

    “Who did Jesus think He was? From a twenty-first century, evangelical Christian perspective, we might suppose that is almost a silly question. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinitarian Godhead. And if we believe that of Jesus’ identity, then surely He thought the same thing.” (my emphasis)

    What amazing arrogance.

  3. Brisancian Says:

    Reblogged this on Jericho Brisance and commented:
    This brief review of Dan Wallace’s critique of Ehrman does well at highlighting the rhetorical climate that surrounds the topic of biblical criticism. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the goal of much writing on the subject seems to be one of terminating further inquiry by the reader and rendering as dismissible the issues raised by scholars like Ehrman, Finkelstein, etc.

  4. reasonablyskeptic Says:

    I find another thing interesting about the excerpt you used from Wallace:
    “Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today (and they didn’t even have dictionaries, let alone spell check).”

    These scribes were copying text, not entering a spelling bee. No dictionary required. Text should be copied letter by letter from the previous manuscript(s). This implies to me that even the spelling errors and text rearrangements tell us something significant about the non-critical changes. They show a lack of credibility on the case of the scribes to produce an exact copy.

    Whether intentionally (because the scribe thought the prose sounded better when rearranged) or unintentional (scribes got lazy on the job and misspelled a few hundred thousand words), it is overwhelmingly significant when one is arguing for textual infallibility (although it doesn’t seem Wallace is going that far… perhaps he is sticking with textually “close enough”).

    However, if we excuse spelling errors because, hey, scribes are people too, then what do we say about the translators?


    Excellent post!

  5. Timothy Mills Says:

    Yes, just because an error is not doctrinally critical doesn’t mean it can’t tell us something about the copying process and its reliability.

    It may be worth pointing out, however, that differences might not be errors as such. Once upon a time, people just used alphabets to sound things out. So if a scribe reads something they might say, “hey, that was obviously written by a Gallileean”, and when they transcribe it they will spell it according to their own pronunciation.

    So spelling differences don’t necessarily mean spelling errors – they might just reflect differences among scribes’ pronunciations.

    But again, they still tell us something about the (un)reliability of textual transmission.

    Thanks for your comment!

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