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.