Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Did Jesus Exist?" (6): Is Corruption in Transmission Relevant?

I have been a fan of Bart Ehrman ever since reading Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why in which he describes how errors occurred when scribes copied the New Testament texts and how scholars go about trying to identify those errors.  This was the book that first gained Ehrman widespread attention and aroused the ire of conservative Christian apologists. However, when it comes to Jesus' existence, Ehrman dismisses this as a cause of concern:
I do not need to explicate all these problems here, as I have written about them in more detail elsewhere.  My point in this context is the for the question of whether or not Jesus existed, these problems are mostly irrelevant.  The evidence for Jesus' existence does not depend on having a manuscript tradition of his life and teachings that is perfectly in line with what the authors of the New Testament gospels really wrote. (p.180)
He goes on to say,
If we had no clue what was originally in the writings of Paul or in the Gospels, this objection might carry more weight. But there is not a textual critic on the planet who thinks this, since not a shred of evidence leads in this direction. (p.109)
This sounds pretty reasonable, but I have a hard time squaring this with what he said in a 2008 debate with Dan Wallace at the Greer-Heard Forums:
Can we trust that the copies of Galatians we have are the original copies. No. We don’t know. How could we possibly know? Our earliest copy of Galatians is p46 which dates from the year 200. Paul wrote this letter in the 50’s. The first copy that we have is 150 years later. Changes were made all along the line before this first copy was made. How can we possibly know that in fact it is exactly as Paul wrote it. Is it possible that somebody along the line inserted a verse? Yes. Is it possible that someone took out a verse? Yes. Is it possible that somebody changed a lot of the words? Yes. Is it possible that the later copies were made from one of the worst of the early copies? Yes. It’s possible. We don’t know.
. . . .
What I have said to my colleagues is that we are as close as we can hope to be to what we might imagine as the earliest text. What I have said in popular audiences is we don’t know if we can get back to the original text. And I stand by both statements. We don’t know what Paul originally wrote to the Galatians, and we no hope of getting any closer in the future than we are already now. We have no evidence that can get us any further back than we have already gotten and our earliest evidence is from the year 200, 150 years later. So can we know for certain? No. We can’t know for certain that the text is reliable. You might want to think it is. You might want to hope it is. You might want to say there are intelligent people who say it is so probably it is. But think about it. There are people copying these texts year after year, decade after decade.
Recall that it is in Galatians 1:19 where Paul says that he saw James "the brother of the Lord," which Ehrman says proves that Jesus was a historical person "beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt." (p.144) How can we possibly have that kind of certainty if "[w]e can’t know for certain that the text is reliable"?   If it's possible that someone changed a lot of words in Galatians, then it has to be possible that "the brother of the Lord" was added by some scribe to identify which James Paul was talking about and that it wasn't written by Paul himself.

I cannot help but think that there is a bit of inconsistency here.  When debating a conservative Christian apologist, Ehrman insists that everything in Galatians is subject to at least some degree of doubt due to uncertainties about its transmission.  However, when arguing against mythicism, Ehrman insists that we can be certain "beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt."

It's very disappointing to see Ehrman argue that way.


  1. "This was the book that first gained Ehrman widespread attention and aroused the ire of conservative Christian apologists."

    As part of the Ehrman receives for that book from conservative apologists, he is often accused of "having an ax to grind" with Christianity. My opinion is that Ehrman definitely does have an ax to grind with Christian fundamentalism, and in particular with the doctrine of inerrancy. Fundamentalists mistake his criticism of inerrancy to be an assualt on all of Christianity, because of course for them the two can't be separated.

    Could this also be at work regarding Ehrman's discussion of errors in the texts in his debate with Wallace? He is using the same facts (textual errors/discrepancies) to affirm or reject different ideas (doctrine of inerrancy vs. existence of historic Jesus). Is that inconsistent?

    Note: I have been following along with your reviews of his new book and generally agree with what you have concluded, so I am not intending to defend Ehrman's views generally on HJ, just question whether or not he is being inconsistent with the argument you note here.

  2. That's a fair point. Ehrman is offering the uncertainty about Galatians in the debate on a different issue than he is addressing the book. I would also note that I have quoted a part of the debate where Ehrman is riffing in response to something Wallace said rather than delivering prepared remarks so it wouldn't be fair to expect the same precision that we find in his books.

    Nevertheless, I still can't see how he claims that it is irrelevant. Clearly the possibility of scribal alterations has implications for the weight that we can place on any individual passage. I think those implications needed to be addressed.

    My basic take after listening to that debate and the other lectures that were part of the 2008 Greer-Heard forum was that for every word in the New Testament, there is at least a chance that it was corrupted in transmission. The probability may be small, but it's not trivial. I would therefore think that the best evidence we could have that some idea is originally Paul's is if it shows up more than once and fits well with his general themes and interests. The reference to James as the brother of the Lord only shows up once and there is nothing in any of Paul's writings to suggest that he would care about who was biologically related to Jesus. That doesn't mean that it's not Pauline, but it does mean that it's not corroborated which means that we can't be as certain about it as we can about other passages.

  3. This post is very clever, Vinny.

    you are slowly persuading me :)

  4. Thanks Boz,

    I swear to God that I was hoping that Ehrman would convince me. I really do get tired of being accused of "drinking the Kool-Aid."

    If he had taken the same "we-can't-be-as-sure-about-the-past-as-we'd-like-but-historians-think-this-is-what-probably-happened" attitude that he takes in his debates with Christian apologists, I think I would be much more comfortable with his arguments.

    As it is, I still thing he does a good job of making the positive case for mythicism look silly, at least the one offered by uncredentialed fringe. My only trepidation is that he so overstates the case for the historical Jesus.

  5. Yeah, it seems no one really appreciates that a really good meta-theory about the collection of evidence can in fact allow us to bump off a verse without any specific direct evidence. It's typically seen through the lens of unprincipled thinking patterns we associate with Christians, but even if they had a really good theory, and needed a particular verse to drop off the texts, that could be a valid argument to me. Or when the debate is between Christians and naturalists, one single verse that seems to add a whole lot more credibility to a supernatural claim would probably be a good candidate for interpolation just because of how low a probability any supernatural explanation is going to have applied to history. The main thing is to be able to compare different meta-theories and see who has to do this kind of thing *the least* and to appreciate that virtually every theory will require at least a tad of ad hoc reasoning to shore things up that's completely within the realm of logical possibility. Ad hoc explanations are not poison, they are just weaknesses. Black and white thinking isn't going to get us anywhere.

    Although as far as the "James, the brother of the Lord" verse is concerned, Carrier's arguments for it as a Christian title seem compelling enough.

    The issue really isn't about that verse, it's much more about how much better mythicism or historicity explain most everything else in the earliest Christian writings. Perhaps the verse in Hebrews (that Doherty, as I recall, said was his "smoking gun") that seems to say Jesus was never on earth would be a good juxtaposition here where historicity basically has to say it doesn't say that. I'm sure Carrier will cover the full gauntlet of issues he believes historicity has trouble dealing with that mythicism explains better in his second volume. I don't know if any of those issues are as straight forward as the James verse. He should probably at least mention the issues even if he doesn't elaborate on his blog since a lot of historicists seem to get hung up on it. I'll email him or comment or something.

  6. Yeah, it seems no one really appreciates that a really good meta-theory about the collection of evidence can in fact allow us to bump off a verse without any specific direct evidence.

    That is nicely put Ben.

    I've never understood the strong presumption against interpolation. Actually, I guess I understand it, but I don't think that it is justified. I've always thought that it should be perfectly legitimate to take any verse or word and ask how our overall picture would change if we posited it as an interpolation. If a more coherent picture emerges without the particular word or verse or passage, that is sufficient reason to suspect an interpolation even if it can't be deemed most likely.

    Given that intentional alterations tended to be in the direction of orthodoxy, I think that it reasonable to assume that the autographs were less orthodox than the texts that came down to us.

    Here's another hypothesis: It was known to the Galatians that there were two men named James among the Jerusalem Christians at the time of Paul's first visit, one of whom subsequently had a falling out with the leaders and left to form a rival cult. All Paul is saying in Gal 1:19 is that he met James the Christian rather than James the Apostate. As far as I can see, there is nothing that makes that implausible, and it doesn't invoke interpolations of convenience, uncorroborated use of "brother" as a title, or disputes over Paul's use of 'the'.


    A fascinating article in which Bart Ehrman claims that we simply don't have the manuscripts to have 'some assurance' as to what Galatians 1:19 said .

    '‘As I will explain in my next post, the kinds of manuscripts we would really need to be able to say with some assurance that we know what the “originals” said – very early and very extensive manuscripts – simply don’t exist.’

    And in response to a question whether Paul wrote 'brother of the Lord', Ehrman claims that we would need evidence to suggest it has been changed.


    Bart looks at the manuscripts and says these manuscripts are missing, we can't say what was the original.

    But when it comes to his texts that he relies on, he says the manuscripts are missing, so we can't say it has been changed....

    1. I posted one comment there to which Ehrman responded and I have the following comment awaiting moderation:

      I can accept that the historian needs some positive reason before he says that the text was more likely than not to have been altered, however, I think that the historian can and should assign a non-trivial probability to the possibility of tampering based simply on the lack of manuscripts from the first 150 years of transmission and the fact that it is pretty easy to come up with plausible reasons why some scribe might have wanted to add “the brother of the Lord” even if Paul had only identified the man he met as “James.” The historian studying the origins of Christianity is like someone trying to put together a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle with only about 75 of the pieces. No matter how carefully and logically he analyzes each piece and no matter how many other historians agree with his analysis, he can never overcome the uncertainty created by not having all the pieces.

      I think this becomes particularly important when a conclusion becomes a premise. Even if the probability of tampering is only 5%, it is a source of uncertainty that carries over when the conclusion “Galatians 1:19 is genuinely Pauline” becomes a premise in the argument “Paul knew the biological brother of Jesus.” The historian’s certainty about his conclusion cannot be greater than his certainty about any one of his individual premises, and unless the certainty of the various premises is perfectly correlated, the certainty of the conclusion is going to be less than the certainty of any of the individual premises.

    2. That's a good comment. Hope he posts it and responds.

    ' and since we know from other sources that the James who headed the church in Jerusalem was in fact known to be the brother of Jesus).'

    Out of curiosity, which sources would they be? Luke/Acts, the Epistle of James, Jude? Does Josephus ever claim James was the head of the church?

    1. EHRMAN: In the NT, just Acts. But later traditions of the second century are uniform in making this claim, I believe. And they got the idea from *somewhere*!

      Apparently he thinks Acts identifies the James who was leader of the church as the brother of Jesus rather than the son of Alphaeus.