Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Defending Textual Reliability by Setting the Bar Low

The basic apologetic strategy for defending textual reliability is to set the bar low enough to make the New Testament look good by comparison. You simply compare the New Testament to something that is much worse. Dan Wallace used the following comparisons in his debate with Bart Ehrman at the recent Greer-Heard Forum to demonstrate that we could imagine barriers even higher than the ones Ehrman identified:

  • The Telephone Game: Even though no one ever claimed that the first and second century transmission of the New Testament texts was anything like the telephone game, Wallace seems to thinks the fact that it wasn't should make Bible believers feel better.
  • The Transmission of the Koran: Even though no one ever claimed that the transmission of the New Testament texts was anything like the Koran, Wallace apparently thinks believers can feel good that is wasn't.
  • Earlier Copies than Other Ancient Manuscripts: Even though Ehrman argued that we could never be sure of what Plato actually wrote either, Wallace thinks believers can be comforted that we have earlier manuscripts of the New Testament than we have of other ancient works.
  • Manuscripts Within 300 Years of Originals: Even though conservative scholar Michael W. Holmes said that we know next to nothing about the shape of manuscripts within 100 years of the originals and that this is the crucial time period for alterations and disruptions, Wallace thinks believers can be comforted by the fact that there are lots of manuscripts within 300 years.
  • Degree of Uncertainty: Even though Ehrman never claimed absolute skepticism about the text of the New Testament, Wallace thinks believers can be happy that the uncertainty is not wholesale.
  • Conspiracies: Even though Ehrman did not claim that scribes conspired with one another, Wallace comforts believers with the thought the orthodox corruption of scripture was not as pernicious, sinister, and conspiratorial as believers might think after reading Misquoting Jesus.

Ehrman’s summary of Wallace’s straw man arguments was nothing if not frank.

I think I want to tell you honestly what I think that Dan’s talk was. I
think Dan’s talk was a very learned presentation that was designed by it high
intelligence to comfort you with the thought that you can trust that the
text of the New Testament is reliable and that it was designed less to convince
by evidence than by intelligence.
I personally suspect that Ehrman may have been more that a little disappointed that this was the best that Wallace could come up with.


  1. I, on the other hand, think that Ehrman was reeling from Wallace's presentation, and was attempting little more than a debate tactic to unsettle the audience because he had no response for Wallace's arguments.

    I didn't want to fill up your comment space with a massive post, so I addressed some of your objections here.

    I understand your frustrations with Wallace and Komoszewski from the Parchment and Pen blogs, and I certainly hope you don't think I'm just trying to join in on the piling on. But I think at this point you are letting those frustrations color your interpretation of the event. Ehrman delivered a lecture he's given many times before on Friday night, and it bit him in the ass. Wallace anticipated much of what he said, and in his initial presentation was already ready to counter it. Ehrman's decision to respond by saying that there was nothing to respond to was a desperate attempt to look like he wasn't woefully unprepared. It didn't work. He lectured the audience like an angry father for a few minutes, answered some questions, made a few quips, but the night was over. As I've written, I think he made up some ground on Saturday, but the strength of Wallace's presentation on Friday night won the weekend.

  2. Sigh.

    I am tempted to buy the debate. I guess my question is this: Is it worth it? Not so much the $10 (I think I can spring that) but I simply HATE audio format for the time it takes. I read so much faster.

    Having read much of Wallace, and Metzger (and skimmed Ehrman)—is there anything new and wonderful here?

  3. Tim,

    Thanks for commenting. It will take me a little while to respond.


    Given your previous reading, I am guessing that slogging through the audio would not be very satisfying to you.