Sunday, February 1, 2009

Misquoting Ehrman

We can know some things with relative certainty. We can know what Bibles
look liked in the twelfth century. We can know what Christian churches in the
twelfth century, what their Bibles looked like. We can know what Bibles looked
like in some areas in the seventh century. We can know what one community’s
Bible looked like in the fourth century and the farther you get back, the less
you can know. . . . It’s the nature of historical evidence that you have to go
with the evidence if you are going to be a historian and you can’t fill in the
gaps when you don’t have evidence. And in the early period, we not only have
very few manuscripts, but the other striking phenomenon, is that the manuscripts
we have vary from one another far more often in the earlier period than in the
later period. And so the variation is immense and there aren’t very many
manuscripts. So the historical result, whether we like it or not, is that we
just can’t know.

Bart Ehrman in Q&A after debate with Dan Wallace.

I think most people would look at those comments and say, “That sounds pretty reasonable.”

However, the Christian apologist takes a different approach. He pulls the last sentence out, looks at in isolation and says, “Wow! That is like . . . so misleading. It almost sounds as if he’s saying that we that we can’t like . . . know anything. Ya know? I mean, if you’re going to be like . . . that hyper-skeptical, all historical knowledge would in doubt.”

Why do apologists do that?

The problem is that most evangelical Christians spend every Sunday of their lives listening to sermons in which their pastors talk about what the Bible says as if you can be just as certain about the sayings and doings of a first century itinerant preacher as you can about yesterday’s football scores. They hear things like “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” They hear apologists like Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel tell them that the evidence supporting the New Testament is overwhelming. They are told that no rational person would remain unpersuaded by this mountain of evidence but for a willful rejection of God.

The problem isn’t that reading Ehrman gives them a false picture of the uncertainty of the texts. It’s that they have spent their entire lives developing a false sense of certainty about the Bible.

Most apologists will acknowledge that the evangelical clergy has done a poor job of preparing the laity to deal with the issues that Ehrman raises, but they still want to argue that there really isn’t anything in the field of textual criticism that should upset the believer. After all, no essential doctrines are affected. However, if you are a Christian who has spent his entire life looking at the Bible as the exact words that God wanted you to have in order to guide your life and know His purposes, the fact that you can still be confident of the essential doctrines might not be all that comforting.

The reason that apologists spend so much time trying to exaggerate Ehrman’s skepticism is that they think it makes the Bible look better. After all, even if the texts aren’t as reliable as the average believer always thought they were, they still aren’t as bad as he might think based on the imaginary hyper-skeptical epistemology that the apologists have invented and attributed to Ehrman. As an added bonus, the apologist might get to score some cheap points in a debate with Ehrman by getting him to “admit” that he’s not as skeptical as the apologist claimed he was.


  1. I think that's a great summation of how fundamentalists feel about the Bible. They can't accept the truth because it upsets the apple cart that they've perched their belief on.

    Very nice. Do you mind if I link to your article when I post my review (if I finally get around to it this week)?

  2. Hi Vinny,

    I was googling "curmudgeonly skeptic" and I found your page!

    I've told skeptics many times before that Ehrman looks at all the same data that evangelicals look at and he says: "We can't know very much about the early texts." Yet an evangelical scholar like Dan Wallace says: "We can know a lot."

    How can there be such a difference?

    There are about 100 manuscript fragments that precede the two great codices of the 4th century. From these we can get a good look at all the books of the NT and compare the text to the later manuscripts. It is true that there are "significant" variants in the manuscripts of the NT. No one denies that. But there are huge misunderstandings on both what the word "significant" means and how much they affect the meaning of the text.

    First, about 80 percent of these textual variants are differences in spelling and grammatical differences that don't actually affect the meaning of the text. Other variations have to do with word inversions, such as writing, "Christ Jesus" and "Jesus Christ."

    Textual critics throw these variants out because they are not significant. They don't alter the meaning of the text and most often they can be easily explained as the slip of the pen or a scribal error.

    What we are left with are about 10 to 15 percent of the text that have "significant" variants in some documents. Most of these variants can be solved beyond a reasonable doubt with textual criticism.

    Depending on who you talk to, it is thought that the received text of the NT is about 95 to 99 percent of what the original had.

    There are some like Ehrman who make up the extreme end of the critics. I see Ehrman's problem as a moral one, not a critical issue. He's discovered a way to gain some notoriety and fame from being the outspoken apostate, but the only one he's fooling are people who haven't actually looked at the texts themselves (you can see all of this on the Internet now) or people who have a biased agenda and WANT TO DISBELIEVE.

    I personally think that what we probably have is 99 percent or above accuracy to the original autographs. However, anyone who is going to categorically state that it is less than 95 percent hasn't spent ANY time looking at the texts and what the variants actually consist of.

    What has been shown time and again is that the Received Text is remarkably preserved.

    There are some disputes about longer passages such as the Adulterae Pericope and the ending of Mark, but these passages also have some strong arguments in favor of their inclusion. I am one who would tenaciously defend these passages because they were known to the early church fathers, even though they are missing from some later texts.

    However, even if I had to concede, the idea that the Christian religion would collapse on the basis of a few disputed texts is ridiculous.

    What we don't have is any variation in the New Testament that would even slightly alter a tenet of Christian doctrine.

    But I am sure you've heard this line of argument before. If you disagree, I'd like to know of a variant that affects Christian doctrine.

    Evangelicals don't claim that every letter and word of the NT is preserved as a photocopy of the original autograph. If this were necessary to preserve inerrancy, then modern translations into English would be impermissable, since there are far more variations between English translations than there are in the Greek text.

    Obviously the original authors and church fathers did not purpose for the received text to be altered, but their definition of inerrancy did not include a word for word accuracy -- we see this in the way they often quote passages of scripture on the fly.

    The word for word rendering of the text throughout the centuries does not affect the doctrine of inerrancy as held by evangelicals.

    For a definition of what evangelicals mean by "inerrancy" and inspiration, see the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. It's at a number of sites and everyone who wants to understand what we mean by "inspiration" and "inerrancy" needs to read the Chicago statement.

  3. Hey Vinny,

    You graciously stopped by one of my blogs so I thought I'd return the favor! I appreciate your call to let Ehrman say what he's saying and, more importantly, to let the Bible be what it is. I am still one of those who acknowledges an appropriate degree of uncertainty in some matters, especially pertaining to historical reconstruction of specific letters in ancient texts, while at the same time finding the evidence for the general reliability of the New Testament quite compelling. But you are nevertheless absolutely right to insist that we not use guys like Ehrman to polish our rhetoric!

    And to your other point about the typical over-expectations evangelicals place on Scripture, I find it very interesting that this kind of thing played a key role in Ehrman's journey. He was raised in what seem to have been strict fundamentalistic circles, which in part led to his present agnosticism. (I know the more significant reasons, as Ehrman himself has often explained, have to do with other questions, but certainly his opinions of Scripture certainly played a part in all this.) All that to say (though not very well!), we both certainly agree that asking the Bible to do too much is bad for all of us!

  4. I really appreciate how you connect the apologist's criticism of Ehrman and the mentality they are trying to protect, that of the certainty of biblical authority which is preached by fundamentalists. It is really a rigid system of interpretation of the bible that is not capable of flexing to allow for facts like Ehrman brings out in his writing. And this applies to any scholar who is critical of the traditional, fundamentalist interpretation of what the bible is. Yes, we can know a lot about the original texts, but that is a very relative term when you are proclaiming the high level of confidence preached on Sunday.

    And I thoroughly disagree with commenter Jay -- it is absolutely not just people who have a "biased agenda and want to disbelieve." Though this is of course true of some, there are vast numbers of scholars (and regular people too ;) who have honestly sought not to be biased that way. If you read through many testimonies of scholars who have left the fundamentalist faith you will see that it was agonizing for most and something they didn't want to do. Many even moved to more progressive forms of Christianity, not even leaving Christianity. That is a convenient argument used to either cling to fundamentalist beliefs or to refuse to engage the thought process of the one who leaves the fundamentalist faith. "I refuse to think you might be right, therefore you must have a moral failure, you don't want to follow God." Well, it is not hard to find justification for that type of thinking in the bible, oh well.

    Commenter michaeld: I like your turn of phrase, "an appropriate degree of uncertainty." Though people obviously differ on what that degree is in their understanding of biblical texts, just acknowledging that there is an appropriate degree is helpful. Then we can agree or disagree about where that appropriate degree comes into play, rather than making baseless moral assertions.