Thursday, April 24, 2008

Student of Wallace v. Fan of Ehrman

This is a response to Tim Riucchuiti who responded to my last post on If I Were A Bell, I'd Ring.

Thanks for responding Tim. I realize that I can get a little bombastic. I would also like to note that I was not impressed by Bart Ehrman’s opening presentation either. It really did seem like nothing more than a rehash of Misquoting Jesus. Given the audience, it is hard for me to believe that he couldn’t have provided some more challenging insights. However, I really did not feel like Dan Wallace’s presentation provided any deeper insights than popular apologetics.

As a skeptic (and even when I was an evangelical Christian in my late teens), I have always seen the lack of evidence from the earliest days of Christianity as the challenge that apologetics most fails to meet. To quote Ehrman, “We just don’t know.” I thought it significant that both members of Wallace’s team noted both the scarcity of evidence and the higher rate of variants during that period. Michael Holmes said that the first century years of any document are the time when alterations are disruptions are most likely to arise. William Warren noted that during this period the scribes were not professionals and they did not recognize what they were copying as being canonical documents.

This is why I thought that Ehrman’s first response to Wallace got to the heart of the matter. For Galatians as well as at least 60% of the New Testament verses, we have no evidence at all. This is the period when the documents were being copied by less skilled scribes with increased probability of errors. It is the period when Christians were still developing their understanding of the life and death of Jesus, increasing the possibility that variants could arise because copyists did not understand the meaning of what they were copying. This is also the period when the copyists did not see what they were copying as canonical documents increasing the possibility that they would feel free to make a change if they thought that it improved the text.

One of the things I would have liked to seen better developed is the distinction between the known variants in the manuscripts we have and the unknown variants that arose during that first century after composition for which we have so little evidence. When Wallace asserts that none of the variants affect essential Christian doctrines he is only talking about the known variants. Regarding the unknown variants, he can only say that he thinks it is probable that they would not affect any essential Christian doctrines. For me, the implication of the existence of unknown variants is the crux of the problem and I don’t think that Wallace addressed it.

My problem with the “telephone game” analogy is that I think Ehrman made it clear that he was not talking about that level of distortion. I thought that one of his most interesting examples came in his closing remarks when he talked about Luke 22:19 where Jesus says “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Ehrman suggested that the “for you” was a scribal addition intended to impose the doctrine of substitutionary atonement on Luke. While I don’t claim to know whether Ehrman is interpreting this correctly, I think it does illustrate that it only takes the addition or subtraction of a few words to significantly change the way a passage or even a whole book should be read.

Ehrman also pointed out that the single word “not” can completely change the interpretation of a passage and I can give you a modern example of this. In Why I Believe the New Testament is Historically Reliable, Gary Habermas argues that "The sort of thoroughgoing propaganda literature that some critics believe the Gospels to be was actually nonexistent in ancient times. Sherwin-White declares, 'We are not acquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography.'" The problem is that A.N. Sherwin-White said the exact opposite. He wrote that "we are not unacquainted with this type of writing."(emphasis added) Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament p. 189. He was saying that historians were familiar with such propaganda and able to deal with the distortions that characterized these types of writings. I don’t know how Habermas came to make this error, but it did not take anything like a “telephone game” distortion for him to completely change the meaning of the passage.

I think that the telephone game analogy was a straw man in large part because I don’t think that the distinctions Wallace drew between it and the textual transmission of the New Testament really address any of the problems created by the early copying. For example, textual critics cannot go back to manuscripts and multiple streams in the first and second century, when the text was most at risk, because the evidence is not available. Wallace cited the witness of the apostolic fathers, but one of the things that Michael Holmes noted is that the early fathers like Ignatius and Justin Martyr did not cite things in a form that allows any firm conclusions about the texts they were citing. The factors cited by Wallace might avoid telephone game like distortions in the later manuscripts, but I don’t think they help much for the early period.

I think it is important to distinguish between the first century A.D. and the first century after the writing of the New Testament, which is in fact, the second century A.D. There were several times that speakers mixed both modes of speaking, as in one of Michael Holmes comments.
With the 15 percent from the 1st millennium of the text’s existence, the closer in time that you get to the origins of the New Testament, the more scarce the manuscript evidence becomes, and indeed, for the first century or more after its compositions, from roughly the end of the late first century to the beginning of the third century we have almost no manuscript evidence for any of the New Testament Documents and for some books the gap extends to two centuries or more.
In fact, Holmes critiqued three scholars who thought that more could be known about the early texts than the evidence warranted.

I don’t think it is accurate to say, as you do, that “[t]o believe that something other than that conservation in later scribal practices was happening in the 1st century is to ignore all available evidence in favor of an argument from silence.” I thought that several affirmative reasons were offered to raise concerns about the earlier scribal practices. Ehrman pointed out that the rate of variants for the second century manuscripts we do have is higher. Holmes pointed out Origen’s complaints about poor practices among early scribes. He also pointed out that the citations in Clement’s letter to the Corinthians in 95 A.D. already reflect fluidity in the texts of Paul’s letters. Warren noted that the earliest copyists would not have viewed themselves as copying canonical scripture. It would of course be wrong to say that all the scholars agreed about the implications of these problems, but I think they all recognized their existence.

That is why I was dissatisfied that Wallace discussed of the number of manuscripts from within the first three hundred years of the originals without discussing the unique problems posed by the earliest period. You might argue as Warren and Holmes did that these impediments should not cause despair. On the other hand, you might argue as Ehrman did that historical methods are unable to overcome this uncertainty. However, I felt that Wallace simply glossed over the problems.

Regarding the idea of conspiracy in the scribal corruption, I still think this is a red herring. Here is what Ed Komoszewski had to say about it:
Vinny, I think you need to read Misquoting Jesus and Lost Christianities again.
Ehrman clearly sees the proto-orthodox doing something with the text that was
not out in the open. Further, he hints here and there that they would have
suppressed the heterodox manuscripts. These two points in combination suggest a
soft conspiracy.
Well, I have been reading them again and I am not finding it.

In Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scriptures and Faiths We Never Knew, Ehrman writes about the battles between the version of Christianity that eventually came to be accepted as orthodox and the various other beliefs that were rejected as heresies. The major front in this battle was the polemics of writers like Irenaeous in his book Against Heresies. Ehrman believes that many of the textual variants he discusses in Misquoting Jesus were inserted in the New Testament as a result of these battles, but I don’t find anything alleging a conspiracy, even a soft one. In a sense, the textual variants were collateral damage from the battles rather than a planned attack. However, even if Ehrman had alleged proto-orthodox conspiracy and control, I cannot see why it would matter that Islam had pulled off a similar scheme more effectively several centuries later. Perhaps the Caliphs decided not to make the same mistakes that the early church had made.

I cannot argue with your assessment of Ehrman’s opening statement and you are certainly in a better position to judge who won the weekend. However, as a reasonably thoughtful skeptic, I can tell you that Wallace’s presentation did not make any points that I felt warranted a prolonged response. On the other hand, I thought Ehrman’s discussion of the 150 years before our first copy of Galatians really highlighted the problems that needed to be addressed. I found it interesting that both Wallace’s team members, Warren and Holmes, addressed these problems and neither of them seemed to have any factual disputes with Ehrman in the discussions that followed.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your well-thought out response. I think we probably agree on much more than we disagree about in this discussion, though it does seem we end up at different conclusions. I've posted the first of my responses here, and I hope to get a couple more up before the end of the day.