Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bart Ehrman vs Daniel Wallace - "Is the text of the New Testament trustworthy?"

Isaac and I went to a debate on Saturday night between Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace over the topic of: "Can we trust the text of the New Testament."

Bart Ehrman speaks at the University of TennesseeIt was SO much fun.

I do realize that thinking a debate about textual criticism is fun officially makes us complete nerds. These are my thoughts after the debate, but I am a lay person. For the thoughts of someone that is himself studying these issues, you can see this blog, which when I stumbled upon it I realized was written by the guy sitting beside me, who I did not talk to. My apologies, sir.

In any case, this debate had a lot of buzz surrounding it and we bought tickets immediately. The first 500 went fast so they moved the debate to the larger auditorium on the campus of SMU. 1,500 people sold out the place. Why? Because of the speakers. Experts in the field of text criticism with opposite conclusions. I put both of their bios on the bottom of the post. In the crowd I saw DTS students, people with "atheist" on their t-shirts, Isaac's professors, church staff, and a couple I know where she is a Christian and he's an atheist.

It was fascinating. Both men were lucid and funny, but it ended up not being a debate so much about the evidence for the New Testament text as it was about presuppositions. I expected Ehrman to attack the text itself, since he is a textual critic and that's what the title of his books hint at. Instead he sort of argued from our points of ignorance - the first 150 years after the texts were originally written before our early fragments and manuscripts. Ehrman granted so many of Wallace's points - that the New Testament has a vast amount more evidence supporting it than any other ancient document. That while there are lots of little variants in the text, the vast majority of them make no difference in the actual meaning, and few if any make any difference to Christian theology. That even without the early documentary evidence that we have, the early church fathers quote the scripture so much that you can almost recreate the entire NT from their quotes alone.

What was his point? The statement he made again and again was that while the evidence for the text was good and actually unparalleled, we don't know for sure. Can we be certain? Is it proven? Wallace kept coming back and pointing out that he wasn't saying that we could absolutely know for sure or that we couldn't know for sure - he was just examining the evidence and saying that based on the mountains of evidence it looks as though we probably have a trustworthy text today.

It was fascinating. Wallace sounded like the scientist, since he was the one following where the evidence led him. Wallace gave loads of evidence, often from Ehrman himself, for the unmatched reliability of the NT text, and for the field of text criticism to help solve the places where there are variants - to get back to the "original" text. Most of it Ehrman didn't disagree with. Ehrman just kept saying that before the earliest fragments begin there's a gap and so we can't know for sure that the text is trustworthy.

It's so interesting that this was Ehrman's point. Can anyone that's read his books tell me if this is his main argument? It doesn't make any sense to me considering that his life's work and expertise is in textual criticism, a field that assumes that you can examine text and if your textual evidence is good enough and you use good textual criticism principles, you can discern the errors in transmission and discern the original. And yet here he is undermining his own field by saying that no matter how excellent your evidence is, essentially if you don't have the original, the readings can't be trusted.

In the Q & A later someone asked Ehrman what sort of manuscript evidence he would need in front of him to convince him of the reliability of the text. He said that he'd want a copy made within the first week of writing and with .01% variance. Really? So essentially he says it's not trustworthy unless it's one step away from the original. Wallace's first and perhaps most necessary point was that there are three paths to take, and Ehrman walks the far left - radical skepticism. Wallace is a moderate. He may be a theological conservative, but his approach to the text is moderate.

And yet later in the Q & A someone asked a ridiculous question about how the New Testament was decided at the Council of Nicaea (a view perpetuated by The DaVinci Code). Ehrman dismissed this as a modern myth. His phrasing caught my ear though. He said something like, "We know what happened at the council, it was written about, and that (deciding the scriptures) didn't happen." Okay, so in Ehrman's standards we have textual evidence enough to "know" about the Council of Nicaea. And yet we have a vast amount MORE textual evidence backing up the New Testament, and yet he said again and again that we "can't know". Why the double standard?

I thought both men did a great job. Of course I'm biased because I agree with Wallace, but he did an excellent job.  I've been thinking about what Ehrman's intent was, and I think that more than anything it's to cast doubt into the minds of the conservative Christians who know nothing about how we got the Bible we read today but base their faith on a literal reading of the Bible. For someone who has just assumed that this is the scripture passed from the disciples on down in this exact form, understanding how various letters and manuscripts came to be accepted and passed down in this form can shake up your faith. Indeed, a KJV only person asked a question, and another person asked (accusatorily, as if he might catch Ehrman in his tracks) if in all of his work he'd found any pages or even paragraphs added to the NT text. There were silence and chuckles as Ehrman pointed out a few examples that he'd already used in the presentation and that anyone who has studied the history of the Bible or textual criticism is very familiar with. It's funny to us, but the reality is that there really ARE a lot of Christians that are ignorant about their Bible, and to them Ehrman's message is daunting.

In any case, it was great. The Q & A part of the program exhibited the ignorance of a great many people on either sides of the issue. A number of times someone asked a question angrily as if they were really making a strong point, and the audience would first sit in amazed silence that such a stupid comment was actually just made, and then would collectively burst into laughter. Sort of sad, but really, really deserved. I mean, really deserved. One guy thought he was calling Wallace out by pointing out that the New Testament is about Jesus but Greek doesn't even have a "J". Hah! I mean.... has this guy never learned another language? Or someone else who asked if these scholars that copied scripture were the same that condemned Galileo. What?

The debate was recorded but it isn't accessible yet. I highly recommend you listen to it when it comes out!

Bart Ehrman is a professor and scholar in the field of textual criticism. He literally wrote the book of textual criticism with his own professor, Metzger. Isaac has had his books as textbooks in his graduate studies on textual criticism. He's also become known on the popular level, though, because he came out of fundamentalism to evangelicalism to liberalism to agnosticism (he's a Moody and Wheaton grad). At the moment I'd call him an agnostic evangelist, and that's why he intentionally is willing to do debates like this in the Bible Belt. He wants to engage conservative Christians and directly challenge their beliefs. He's written books like Jesus, Interrupted, Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, and Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. His work is quite personal to me not only because of his attendance at Moody, but because his writings have drawn my friends away from Christianity.

On the opposite side you have Daniel Wallace. Wallace is also a textual critic, and on the scholarly level has written the textbook on Greek grammar that everyone uses, Harvard, Princeton, etc. He's started the Center for Biblical Manuscripts, which is going around the world doing high quality photography of all of the ancient biblical manuscripts so that they are recorded for history. He's a professor at Isaac's school and has directly engaged the ideas of Ehrman in an essay, "The Gospel According to Bart: A Review Article of Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman." He is an evangelical Christian and one of my husband's professors.


Jaimie said...

Ooooh let me know when it comes out on audio (if you keep up with that). I want to learn more about interpolations.

EricW said...


While I agree in large part with your comments, I think it's important to mention Ehrman's point that it appears that the earlier the scribes' work was, the more prone to errors or variants, and that to me sort of tipped the debate more towards Ehrman than toward Wallace. I guess it depends on how one reads or understands the debated question: "Can We Trust the Text of the New Testament?"

I think Wallace would argue, and Ehrman would agree, that we have a lot of evidence to support the belief (or conclusion?) that the New Testament text we have or are able to reconstruct from the manuscripts, Church Fathers, etc., is almost certainly very close to, if not identical with, what the various authors originally wrote.

The point I think Ehrman was making was that combining
a) the facts or evidence that the earlier scribes were the worst copyists, with
b) the long (time-wise) gap between the oldest largely extant mss. and the time the originals were written,
makes it unknowable what may have been added or omitted. (And because of things like the Pericope Adulterae and the Longer Ending of Mark, we know things were added.) Hence, we can't say (and hence "trust") that the New Testament text we have or are able to reconstruct is what the authors originally wrote.

The other point Ehrman made was that NT textual critics no longer talk about restoring/recovering "the original text," and haven't used that terminology for 20(?) years. Rather, they talk about restoring the text as it was in the 3rd(?) century. While that text is or would be or would become our New Testament text, one shouldn't assume that such a reconstruction is identical in wording or content or length to what the original authors originally wrote.

If I recall correctly, the answer to one of the Q&As indicated that the reliability of what we have in the Church Fathers (which are some important witnesses to the text in the 2nd and 3rd century) is difficult to determine. I suspect if much of what we have of those Fathers is in Latin that was translated from Greek, there will always be a problem knowing what wording a Church Father actually had in front of him.

Also, I think Wallace mentioned when discussing the Synoptic Problem - again during the Q&A time, I think - that he was thinking that perhaps Matthew and Luke had two different versions of Mark. (Both Wallace and Ehrman affirmed Q, I believe.) I'd have to hear the tape to be sure. That should raise some questions in persons' minds about what, then, is "The New Testament Text," at least as far as Kατα Mαρκον is concerned.

Thanks for a great blog write-up!

Kacie said...

Eric - great comment!

To your point, yes. Ehrman's argument that the most important fact for not trusting the text is the years before our manuscript evidence was mostly driven by the point that it appears that earlier scribal work was more erroneous.

That was the point I found myself walking away and wanting to more about. Ehrman mentioned it repeatedly but didn't cite much evidence. WHY do we believe those earlier scribes were more unreliable? If we have no manuscript evidence, how can we know that they were less trustworthy? Isn't it true that through text criticism we can discern that it appears certain areas were more precise in their scribal work than others (the Alexandrians)?

In any case, Ehrman could have had a great point there, but because he didn't cite much evidence it was hard for me to know how good of a point it actually was.

As to your point B, it seems to me that it being a "long" gap is sort of relative. It's an incredibly short gap in contrast with what we'd expect for other ancient texts, correct? You're right, the existence of any gap makes the changes unknowable, but with text criticism it seems we can point to probable or improbable trustworthiness. It seemed to me that Wallace's point is that the evidence we have points to the text we have being relatively trustworthy.

And finally, the discussion of the usage of the term "original" was beyond me and my knowledge of the field and current debate on the issue! I was struggling to keep up at that point. I suppose it comes down to my first question. If Ehrman thinks we can only reconstruct the 2nd or 3rd century version of the text and that before that it's unknowable, what specific things make us think that the first century of transmission was so much more full of scribal errors than later years?

Again - not an expert here. Semi-educated lay person attempting to understand. :)

EricW said...

I'm out of my depth on this, too. I know some basics and have lots of books on the subject, and have a couple years of formal NT Greek instruction and lots of years of reading on my own, but never learned TC well enough to even know what mss families the various mss belong to, nor which family is the best (e.g., Western, Alexandrian).

To change gears: I saw from your blog that in times past you were exploring Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. We've been there, too, read all the conversion stories, church history, Pelikan, etc. Even joined the EOC, but then apostacized. :o

Kacie said...

I also have to say that I find it fascinating that since I've looked into Ehrman more since the debate, he did lot lose his faith because of textual criticism. His own essays share that he lost his faith because of the question of suffering in the world. And then, having walked away from Christianity in any form, he proceeded to change his mind as to whether we have enough evidence to consider the text trustworthy.

Different progression than I expected.

Pilgrim Bill said...

As any strong Christian believer grows in his or her faith, there will be certain paradigm shifts affecting one's non-negotiable convictions. In mathematics we can know something with a 100% certainty, but science accepts a thesis with only(?) 51-99% evidence. One can embrace Ehrman's doubts, and still be a strong Christian. After all, the very definition of "faith" is believing in something for which one does not yet have 100% proof.

Pilgrim Bill said...

As any strong Christian believer grows in his or her faith, there will be certain paradigm shifts affecting one's non-negotiable convictions. In mathematics we can know something with a 100% certainty, but science accepts a thesis with only(?) 51-99% evidence. One can embrace Ehrman's doubts, and still be a strong Christian. After all, the very definition of "faith" is believing in something for which one does not yet have 100% proof.

Kacie said...

Indeed. Except that Ehrman is certain that we can't be certain, and his conclusion is that the text is not reliable. He presented himself as much more "certain" than Wallace did.

David Ould said...

After all, the very definition of "faith" is believing in something for which one does not yet have 100% proof.
Except that it's not, is it? That's the straw man that the New Atheists spit out because they follow the Kantian divide between the noumenal and the phenomenal (albeit further than Kant ever intended).

Biblical faith, however, is utterly different. It is the trusting dependence upon one who makes promises, on the basis that the promise maker has proven themselves to be faithful (Heb 10:23). It is grounded in what we do know.

Rae said...

I wish I could have been there just for the Q&A. :-)

WayneVA1 said...

I see a serious lacuna in Bart’s assessment of the early decades of the churches. It seems to me completely lost in this assessment is the textual statements concerning it’s own formation and preservation. Even though there are no known manuscript fragments from the first several decades of the churches, I see at least three serious oversights in this history:

1) Jesus of Nazareth was a Rabbi. He trained his disciples as a Rabbi would: teachings, repetitions, memorizations, imitations (Luke 19:39; John 14:25-26).
2) Numerous eyewitnesses experiences were repeated many times and written down within a few years or less (Luke 1:1-4).
3) Late First Century converts were trained by the Apostles as if they were Rabbis, learning teachings, memorizations, Jesus’ lifestyle, extensive writing, traveling and checking on other churches (Romans 16:22).

All of this serves to preserve the accuracy of the Gospels and the Apostolic writings with complete integrity.

Anonymous said...

Hello there. I stumbled across your blog while searching for the video of the debate. Thank you for the detailed analysis, I thoroughly enjoyed your remarks. To my dismay, I now know that it wasn't broadcasted live and still hasn't been disclosed to the public.

Shannah said...

FYI - in a sign of how small the world is, Bart is my cousin.

brown one said...

This debate is now on YouTube at