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).