Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sandbagging Bart Ehrman

On April 4, the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary hosted a debate between Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace on the textual reliability of the New Testament. According to two attendees, Tim Richutti and Ed Komoszewski, Ehrman’s opening statement was a somewhat uninspired rehash of Misquoting Jesus. In his opening statement, Wallace chose to present a number of quotes from Ehrman’s own works that were designed, according to Ed to show “what Ehrman said to professional colleagues was quite different than what he said to laypersons.” Interestingly, in his comments on Wallace’s opening statement, Ricchutti did not even mention the use of quotations, although he did note Ehrman’s response. “I was under the impression that this was supposed to be on the reliability of the text of the New Testament, not the reliability of the writings of Bart Ehrman.”

From Ricchutti’s summary, it sounded to me like Wallace generally made the same points that he made when Lee Strobel interviewed him for The Case for the Real Jesus. Komoszewski, on the other hand, seemed to think that Wallace had delivered a “silver bullet that ripped a hole through Ehrman’s entire thesis.” That bullet apparently consisted of Wallace’s observation that, “You can’t have wild copying by untrained scribes and a proto-orthodox conspiracy simultaneously producing the same variants. Conspiracy implies control and wild copying is anything but controlled.” This struck me as odd because I don’t recall anything about a proto-orthodox conspiracy in Misquoting Jesus.

As it turns out, Komoszewski co-authored Reinventing Jesus with Wallace and Dan Sawyer, a book that “[c]onfronts issues raised by the two most popular assaults on historic Christianity: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus.” He is also a former director of research for Josh McDowell Ministries. When I asked Komoszewski whether he had helped prepare Wallace’s presentation for the debate, he acted as if the idea were ludicrous: “I couldn’t help Wallace with his work in this area if he hit his head and forgot everything he knows! Wallace is a world-class textual critic and I by no means specialize in this area.” It kind of makes me wonder why Wallace would choose him as a co-author.

When I questioned Komoszewski about his theory that Ehrman’s entire thesis was based on a proto-orthodox conspiracy, he advised me to reread Misquoting Jesus and an earlier book by Ehrman titled Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. The earlier book discusses the competing understandings of Christianity that flourished in the first few centuries such as Docetism, Gnosticism, and Marcionism. These Chrisianities eventually lost out to the proto-orthodox position which came to be considered orthodoxy while the rest were dismissed as heresies, but according to Ehrman, there was a time when it was not clear which version of Christianity would triumph. In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman suggests that some of the variants that appear in the New Testament manuscripts reflect a scribe's attempt to oppose some allegedly heretical by making the text conform more closely to the proto-orthodox position. However, Misquoting Jesus only deals with alternative Christianities to the extent to which the competition is reflected in the manuscript record. It does not deal with the manner in which proto-orthodoxy eventually triumphed and does not implicate any conspiracies.

Of course, evangelical Christians utterly reject the thesis Ehrman develops in Lost Christianities and a similar book, Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It into the New Testament. They insist that their present understanding of Christianity is the same one that Jesus himself taught and the apostles themselves preached. They reject the notion that competing Christianities with an equal claim to historical legitimacy ever could have existed. They believe that Christianity was monolithic at least through the completion of the writing of the books of the New Testament and that the heresies arose later in the second century. After all, it wouldn’t do to think that there might be some Gnostic influence on Paul’s writings. It also would not do to think that the gospels were written to defend one particular viewpoint from competition rather than to accurately record historical events.

So it sounds to me like Wallace sandbagged Ehrman by expanding the debate beyond textual criticism. Ehrman would have been prepared to address the textual reliability of the New Testament which he had written about in Misquoting Jesus and The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. In fact, Ehman did so in his opening statement. Wallace, on the other hand, decided to use the opportunity to attack Ehrman's arguments that competing versions of Chrisitianity in the first few centuries might have had an equal claim to historical legitimacy. Wallace accused Ehrman of believing some conspiracy theory that was inconsistent with his positions on textual criticism. This would certainly make for an interesting debate, but one for which Ehrman deserved fair warning.


  1. The Da Vinci Code is an attack on Christianity? Talk about raging paranoia!

  2. If you could count on your adherents not to swallow everything they hear uncritically, The Da Vinci Code wouldn't be much of a threat. If you count on the opposite . . . .

    Actually, I think they go after the The Da Vinci Code because it is such an easy target. If they slap Dan Brown around enough, maybe no one will notice that they never laid a glove on Ehrman.

  3. Hey are you a History teacher? Definitely cool! I like your writing style, although I agree with a very small percentage of what you say ... ha.

    Stay Up,


  4. Ehrman is not my idea of an unbias reporter of facts. He puts his own spin on things.

    As to the "swallow everyting they hear uncritically" comment: I pretty much count on nearly everyone in America to do exactly that, wheter in church or not. That's why I so nervous during elecgtion years.


  5. I think Bart E. does echo the opinion of Bauer's "Orthodoxy and Heresy" monograph and so that comment you mentioned does seem like a valid point to me!

    On a different note, did you know Dr. Ehrman is scheduled to debate James R. White on this topic in Jan. of '09? Should be very interesting ...


  6. To the blog author: I saw you are an agnostic. I reccomend the blog post in the left menu at that contains a proof of the existence of an Intelligent and Perfect Creator (of the universe).

    I also reccommend you the formal logical and historical research of what Ribi Yehoshuas (the Messiah) from Nazareth's taught found at

    It is more accurate than Bart Ehrmans research.