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The Bart Ehrman Blog and the Reliability of the New Testament Text

Bart Ehrman started his own blogsite last week with a bang! It’s slick, with several links to subdirectories. He’s obviously been planning this for sometime. The main site features his New York Times Bestsellers through alternating banners, with titles such as “NYT Bestseller ‘Misquoting Jesus,’” and “Critics Rave about ‘God’s Problem.’”

In a post he put on the site yesterday he began to discuss the debates that he and I have had in public forums regarding the reliability of the text of the New Testament. This blogpost (“The Text of the New Testament: Are the Textual Traditions of Other Ancient Works Relevant?”) about our debates is the first of three scheduled to appear, but unfortunately the other two are reserved for those who sign up to his members’ site—a site that is not free. He also does not allow comments unless someone pays to join the site. The money, however, goes to a good cause: the Bart D. Ehrman Foundation. This non-profit foundation has an “overarching purpose… to raise money for charities devoted to poverty, hunger, and homelessness… All money collected from membership fees is given over to charities devoted to helping those in need.”

Be that as it may, what he says in the public forum about our debates comes up short on accuracy. This piece will offer some critiques.

Bart essentially argues that we can’t know whether we have the original New Testament or not:

“For practical reasons, New Testament scholars proceed as if we do actually know what Mark wrote, or Paul, or the author of 1 Peter. And if I had to guess, my guess would be that in most cases we can probably get close to what the author wrote. But the dim reality is that we really don’t have any way to know for sure.”

“We simply create a little fiction in our minds that we are reading the actual words of Mark, or Paul, or 1 Peter, and get on with the business of interpretation. It’s a harmless fiction…”

It is significant that Bart subtly shifts the ground of our discussion. I have never said in our debates that we are absolutely certain of the wording of the text of the New Testament. So, I would agree with him that “we really don’t have any way to know for sure.” But that’s a far cry from saying that we don’t have probability on our side. And for him not to divulge how scholars go about raising their level of confidence regarding the original wording, while simultaneously speaking in generalities about what we can’t know for sure, is disingenuous. Bart himself has been one who has worked diligently to recover the wording of the originals, and with most of his decisions I agree. All who work in New Testament textual criticism owe him a debt of gratitude for his incredible efforts over the span of three decades in this regard. Consequently, I’m sure he wouldn’t like the suggestion that it’s up for grabs whether the story of the woman caught in adultery was part of the original text of John.

I would also dispute that New Testament scholars “create a little fiction”—a “harmless fiction”— that we are reading the original text. Most New Testament scholars still proceed with the belief that we have in all essentials and most particulars recovered the original text. To be sure, there are some skeptics who would call our enterprise ‘a little fiction’ but this is by no means the majority. Look at any critical commentary on the New Testament and you’ll see comments about intrinsic evidence for various readings. That is, the commentator is arguing on the basis of what the biblical author is likely to have written in a given place based on what the author has written elsewhere. And Bart has argued this way, too. Virtually every book he has written on New Testament themes assumes that he knows right down to the myriad of details what an author wrote. His ground-breaking Orthodox Corruption of Scripture is a case in point. In order for him to assess how proto-orthodox scribes changed the text, he must presuppose what text has been changed. And when he discusses individual textual problems, we see the constant refrain that a particular variant goes against all that the biblical author has written and therefore must be rejected. To make such claims requires more than seeing our task as a convenient fiction.

Bart then represents my “typical counter-argument” as one that focuses on the amount of New Testament manuscripts compared to other ancient Greco-Roman literature. And here he misrepresents me as suggesting that “If we have no problem accepting that we have something like the ‘originals’ of these writings, why not for the New Testament?”

Curiously, in speaking about the most copied classical author, Bart says “In some VERY luck [sic] instances, such as Homer, we have hundreds of manuscripts (though never a thousand)…” He seems to be basing his opinion about Homeric manuscripts on works from the 1930s and 1950s, whose authority on this matter is cited in all four editions of The Text of the New Testament (the first three by Bruce Metzger and the fourth co-authored with Ehrman). But these cited works are now fifty to eighty years out of date! The reality is that we now have more than 2000 manuscripts of Homer (see Martin L. West, Homeri Ilias, vol 1: Rhapsodias I-XII Continens, Bibliotheca Scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana (Stutgardiae et Lipsiae: In Aedibus B. G. Tebbneri, 1998; see also Graeme D. Bird, Multitextuality in the Homeric Iliad [Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2010] 1: “Homer’s Iliad is currently represented by more than 1,900 manuscripts (at least 1,500 of which are on papyrus, although many of these are of a fragmentary nature)”).

This is not a trivial point. Bart implicitly faults me for not understanding the situation for classical textual criticism (“it is not true that scholars are confident that they know exactly what Plato, Euripides, or Homer wrote, based on surviving manuscripts. In fact, as any trained classicist will tell you…”). He is right that classical scholars do not ‘know exactly’ what these classical authors wrote. This is what I have said regarding the New Testament, too! We may have a high level of confidence, but it never rises to the point where we know exactly with absolute confidence what the text said. Absolute certainty concerning historical documents is a myth. I’ve not said otherwise. But for him to continue to cast the debate in terms of absolute certainty is neither helpful nor accurate. Further, for him to argue that we have fewer than 1000 manuscripts of Homer is to reveal that he has not kept up with classical scholarship.

Regarding my ‘typical counter-argument,’ Bart has misrepresented what I have said. First, this is by no means my lone counter-argument (even though Bart speaks of it as “Dan’s typical counter-argument” rather than “a typical counter-argument by Dan”). I build a cumulative case. It is true that my first point is that the New Testament far outshines any classical text in terms of the number of copies. But in our three debates I have not stopped there. I have also spoken about the relative date of New Testament manuscripts compared with those of classical authors. For example, the average classical author’s extant literary remains don’t appear until half a millennium after he wrote, while the New Testament is completely found within three hundred years of composition, with more than 43% of the verses attested within 125 years of its completion. It’s the early date of the surviving manuscripts, not just the amount of manuscripts, that increases our confidence as to what the original New Testament text said.

He has also repeated the refrain that “94% of our surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament date from after the ninth Christian century.” At first blush, this sounds very damning for New Testament manuscript evidence. But, as I have noted in our debates, it’s a relative issue. If this were true, it would mean that there are about 300 surviving manuscripts of the New Testament that were written before 900 CE. This is at least fifteen times more than the surviving manuscripts for the average classical author over a span of 2000 years. But Bart’s statistics are off by 50%: we have today more than 500 Greek New Testament manuscripts that were written prior to the tenth century, giving us over 9% of the total.

When Bart says that “we don’t have nearly enough of the right kinds of manuscripts,” he is speaking in generalities. It is true that the earlier manuscripts are usually better, but there are many exceptions. And even the late Byzantine manuscripts disagree with what scholars have reconstructed as the most likely autographic text only about 4%–5% of the time. This means that even these late manuscripts are decent witnesses to the original text, and that the text of the New Testament has grown very little over the centuries.

There are numerous other arguments I have used, though they don’t show up in Bart’s first blogpost on the subject of our debates. I presume he will interact with them in his second and third posts.

I’m all for a lively exchange of ideas regarding the text of the New Testament, but I would hope that we could represent each other’s views more accurately. That I have made the claims I mentioned above in my debates with Bart is easily verifiable. If you want to find out about the contents of these debates you may go to these resources:

The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace in Dialogue, co-authored with Bart Ehrman and Robert Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010). This book gives a truncated version of my lecture in our first debate (April 2008 in New Orleans), but Bart’s full lecture.

Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence, edited by Daniel B. Wallace; volume 1 of Text and Canon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011). The first chapter is the full text of my lecture in our first debate, complete with documentation.

Can We Trust the Text of the New Testament? (A professionally-produced DVD of our second debate (October 2011 in Dallas).

Is the Original New Testament Lost? A Dialogue with Dr. Bart Ehrman and Dr. Daniel Wallace (on Youtube).

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20 comments on “The Bart Ehrman Blog and the Reliability of the New Testament Text

  1. Firstly, thank you for letting us post a comment free without having to donate to an unknown poverty fund. My question is, what does all this mean? How does not being able to guarantee original source text wording affect our beliefs of “inspiration”? What is inspiration? How can a phrase be inspired if we don’t know for sure what the phrase is? Is a biblical source as a whole inspired – like a complete writing, such as the book of John, or something by one author? We certainly cannot say a particular single word is inspired. So it must be a thought or principle that is directly from God’s intention…..?? I know this forum is not about inspiration, but I have indeed wondered since studying the original text issue. Thanks for your candidness and risk. Excellent comments.

  2. Dr Wallace,

    Typo in “Homeric mauscripts” ?

  3. Bart Ehrman writes the following :-

    ‘With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.’

    CARR
    It is surprising that the Gospels are ‘pretty outstanding’ evidence.

    But it would take more than ‘pretty outstanding’ evidence for Bart to believe what they say.

    Bart claims that the Aramaic of the story of Jesus raising a child from the dead goes back very early and that there is ‘very little dispute’ about this.

    But, of course, Bart does not believe it happened.

    Have there been interpolations?

    Bart writes about Galatians 1:19 ‘Yes, in theory a later scribe *may* have altered the text. But as with all matters text-critical and historical, one really needs to have some reason to think so. And as all the manuscripts of Galatians are completely agreed at this point, apart from some hopeful or wishful thinking, I don’t know what reason there would be…’

    So Bart can say about a text that there is no reason to think there have been changes.

    So why the hyper-skepticism when he debates Wallace, claiming there is no reason to think the text has been unchanged?

  4. Dan,
    I’d like to see a discussion about what you and Bart agree on.

    • Bart and I agree on quite a bit, as I’ve mentioned in my first two debates with him. For example, we both agree that the scribes changed the texts hundreds of thousands of times, that certain passages are not authentic (notably, the longer ending of Mark and the story of the woman caught in adultery), that the proto-orthodox changed the text at times, that only a small fraction of all textual changes are both meaningful and viable, and that our resultant text would differ in very few places.

  5. Steven,
    remember that Dr Ehrman is a historian so he’s only talking about the text as an object. Just because a text is unchanged doesn’t mean it represents truth.
    For example I could write in my diary that I flew around town on a pig today. And it might be accurately reproduced for the next two thousand years but it doesn’t make it true.
    When it comes to textual evidence historians only ever deal with probabilities and never facts. Therefore when it comes to miracles they can never be historically verified on textual evidence since the more likely probability is that they never happened.

    • That is a very good point Jonathan, and I don’t understand why all scholars on both sides don’t see it? Proving that a text is original, doesn’t make the statement in this text true. It is as simple as that. You either choose to believe it or not. With all due respect I think both Dr. Wallace and Dr. Ehrman are wasting their time trying to prove the authenticity of the texts as a proof of their veracity. It is useless, and endless. Instead, try to find more independent sources, outside of the Bible, that would either support these claims or not. To use your example, Jonathan, if we manage to find at least two completely independent of you and of each other diaries, saying that they saw a guy flying on a pig that same day, time and place, then most likely you really did it.

  6. Dr. Wallace,

    First of all, thanks so much for creating this blog! I’ve been sort of a fan of your Introduction to _____ series on bible.org, and I’ve heard a couple of your talks on the history of the English Bible, among other odds and ends. I really appreciate you making all this stuff public!

    I’m also a fan of Ehrman, though. That’s not surprising I guess, since I’m a skeptic like him. But I never really saw the two of you as saying anything substantially different from each other. Rather, it is simply your choices of emphasis which seem to differ. Ehrman, as a skeptic, seems to want to dispel the popular idea that the Word of God is perfect and without error. In fact, the Bible DOES have errors insofar as it has not been perfectly transmitted. Like almost every other text which comes down to us from antiquity, we don’t know for sure that any given passage is really authentic to the original author, and not some later interpolation, nor do we know for sure that some significant portion of the text has not been lost altogether. We can only speak to probabilities, and that can have some serious consequences for views about inerrancy.

    On the other hand, you want to emphasize the confidence that we CAN put in the NT mss. Just like people have some crazy notions about inerrancy, so too lots of folks misunderstand the situation with the Bible, thinking it to be far worse than it actually is. For as you well know, we can be VERY confident about the authenticity of each given passage.

    So do you think I’ve misunderstood the situation with you two? Are your differences mostly a matter emphasis? Or do you have a substantial factual criticism of Ehrman’s view?

    Now, I do see that you raise here a few factual disputes, but they seem to me relatively minor—for instance your claim that the Ehrman’s statistic should be 91% instead of 94% of surviving Greek mss. dating after cen. IX. I mean, it’s not that his error doesn’t deserve to be corrected, but it seems like the correction doesn’t really affect his point about how the vast majority NT mss. date from many hundreds of years after the fact. I also agree that he should be more careful about accuracy, but, again, this seems a relatively minor concern. It’s not as if he’s incompetently sloppy. He just makes some careless mistakes from time to time, as we all do.

    I don’t know, though, maybe I’m not being hard enough on him because I enjoy so much his work. But it just seems like his mistakes are few in number and minor in significance.

    Anyway, thanks again for the blog and the scholarship. It is all much appreciated!

    Regards,
    Ben

  7. Jonathan wrote: “When it comes to textual evidence historians only ever deal with probabilities and never facts.”

    If you truly believe that, then you don’t believe anything from the past at all. You don’t believe that Napoleon was real or that the French Revolution ever took place or that Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic, etc.

    Jonathan wrote: “Therefore when it comes to miracles they can never be historically verified on textual evidence since the more likely probability is that they never happened.”

    Given that we can know facts about what has happened in the past, your conclusion doesn’t follow. It’s based on the philosophical naturalistic assumption that miracles can’t happen, Your presuppositions dictate your conclusion, but it isn’t necessarily correct.

  8. Overcomer,

    I agree with you that we can be pretty darn sure about lots of history. However in the case of ancient history, yes we can still be sure of some of it, but (in general) the further we go back the less certain we can be. This is due to the simple fact that our documentation is not nearly as good for ancient history as it is for early modern and modern history, or even high to late medieval history. (The dark ages are of course an obvious exception.)

    More importantly, we don’t need to assume philosophical naturalism to realize that ancient documents are insufficient to constitute evidence for a miracle. It’s sort of like trying to lift a 50-pound cinder block with a tongue depressor—the tongue depressor will break every time under the weight. Well, similarly, the regularities of nature we rely upon for inferring that a narrative depicts a real historical scenario are far, FAR less reliable than the regularities Christians generally want to say were violated in history. So it’s going to be invariably more likely that one of those regularities of data transmission broke down than that a miracle occurred. So for instance, people make mistakes in reporting information, often they outright lie, and sometimes they even draw up conspiracies. That kind of stuff happens all the time. In contrast, we NEVER observe people rising from the dead, or walking on water, etc; but rather we always see people stay dead, or sink, and so on. This doesn’t require a philosophical commitment to naturalism to see. We just need to take notice of the relative strength of the evidences involved.

    Regards,
    Ben

  9. I think a couple relevant points are in order: First off in the aforementioned Text of the New Testament, Metzger and Ehrman write “Besides textual evidence derived from the New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numberous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early Church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.”

  10. In Misquoting Jesus, where Ehrman throws out the misleading statement about how there are more variants in the New Testament than there are words, he does acknowledge “to be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among the manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, and of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.”

    Ehrman also admits in the book when speaking of the scribes “For the most part their intention was to conserve the tradition, not to change it.”

  11. Following up on the last point, I believe Dr. Wallace has also backed up the point of the variants being insignificant to the point of about only about 1% making any difference. Not sure at the moment where I saw that though.

  12. From following Ehrman since Misquoting Jesus, it’s my belief that he likes to have his cake and eat it too on the issue. I got to interact with him regarding this.

    http://libwww.freelibrary.org/podcast/media/20110331-bartd.e.mp3

    Go to minute 45.

  13. Yeah I think he could have a future in politics somewhere. :) I like this analogy I’ve read recently that gets at why Ehrman’s comments about the variants are so misleading. If someone were writing a book and it had 50,000 words in it and asked two people to make copies by hand, lets say there was 1 mistake made every 1,000 words (thats 99.9% accuracy). When they were done each copy would have 50 mistakes for a total of 100. But, if we changed that from two people to two thousand making copies of the book and mistakes were made at the same rate (1 mistake every thousand words); in the end there would be 100,000 mistakes or more variants than words in the book as Ehrman would say. But, the fact is having 2,000 copies to work with (even though there are 100,000 variants) would put one in a much better position to find the original wording than two copies with 100 variants.

    The actual situation is that as Ehrman and Metzger also write in The Text of the New Testament “the textual critic is embarassed by the wealth of the material.”

    I think Ehrman also fails to take into consideration that the gospels are more of a Hellenistic biography and how that accounts for some of his “significant errors.”

  14. [...] 8/1/12: Ehrman and Wallace have begun their own blogs. Here’s an example post where Wallace replies to a comment by Ehrman on their debates. Share [...]

  15. Dr Wallace,

    Thank you for your fair-minded and honest evaluation of Bart Ehrman’s work. It is quite evident that you are unbiased. I am going through a period where I really desire tostrengthen my reasoning for my Christian beliefs. I just want the people teaching the faith to be as honest, thorough, and accurate as possible and to admit when they are not sure of something. As an ex-meteorologist, I like the ideas of probabilities. Why not theological probabilities as well as meteorological ones? I can still choose to believe in Jesus and His transforming power based on reasonable evidence without requiring absolute certainty. I can’t be certain that my food is free of poison from pesticides but I still eat!

    Steve Flood
    Loughborough, Leicestershire UK ssflood04@msn.com

    • Steve, what an excellent illustration! Indeed, absolute certainty is a phantom, a vestige of the Enlightenment and historical positivism that is best left in the pile of failed experiments in the history of thought.

      • Good morning Dr Wallace,
        Thank you for your quick reply!

        It was so good when as immature believers, we could just trust what our pastor aid and not worry about it. But as we know life is far more complcated than that.

        For a start,.based on creation, it is reasonable to believe that God exists and that such a God would communicate key truths to his creation. So the idea of inerrancy in the original autographs is reasonable, though not necessarily provable.

        Then we have the textual variant problem that Bart Ehrman points out, and deciding which manuscripts are most representative. It seems as though the keys truths God wants to communicate to us are still coming through despite textual variants. For example, His moral law is still written in the hearts of men…some more than others… and shows up in the judicial laws we have in our governments

        Then we have the next layer off uncertainty:..translation . Even if we had perfect manuscripts, there are so many judgement calls that must be made! Interpreting the grammar of original Greek and Hebrew can be quite a challenge, with numerous disgreements among reputable scholars.

        In the next layer we have Doctrine- another tricky area. We now have to fit the translations into a much larger picture of who Jesus is, without distorting the truth. We need to see the context, and distinguish between literal, symbolic, and word for word translations, etc . We need to be living, speaking, and writing the truth in intellectual integrity so that the Spirit can guide us int all truth. .We must not make the data fit our preconcieved notions. .

        With multiple layers of uncertainty, I think a lot of humility is called for when we read Scripture. I’m afraid to touch fulfilled prophecy now because somebody is likely to pop ut and say, ” That never happened, andd I can prove it.” How do I answer that? When we defend prophecy we need to back up what we are saying with reputable material anyone can find on the Internet. Recent predictions of the second Coming of Christ are but one example of apparently failed prophecy

        Thanks for taking the time to read this…Steve Flood
        .

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