Bart Ehrman appeared with a Christian textual scholar, Peter Williams, on the January 3 edition of the "Unbelievable?" radio program. As I've said before, I think Ehrman is overestimated by many critics of Christianity. Ehrman isn't saying what some people think he's saying, and what he is saying about textual issues isn't of much significance. In the January 6 and 8 editions of his webcast, James White gave some examples of the tendency of critics of Christianity to misunderstand or misrepresent what Ehrman is saying. You can listen to White's comments on Christopher Hitchens and Reginald Finley on his January 6 webcast here. Start listening at the thirty-four minute point.
Near the end of his recent appearance on "Unbelievable?", Ehrman claims that the textual matters he's been discussing with Peter Williams are "significant issues" that "really do matter". What did they discuss? Issues like whether Jesus was angry or compassionate in Mark 1:41 and the authenticity of John 7:53-8:11. Do such issues have some significance? Yes, but not much. As Williams repeatedly noted during the program, Ehrman's conclusions on the text of the New Testament aren't much different from the conclusions of Christian textual scholarship, including Evangelical textual scholarship. Here are some examples of Ehrman's positive comments about the New Testament text in one of his recent books:
"Most of these [textual] differences are completely immaterial and insignificant....In fact, most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple - slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another....when scribes made intentional changes, sometimes their motives were as pure as the driven snow....And so we must rest content knowing that getting back to the earliest attainable version is the best we can do, whether or not we have reached back to the 'original' text. This oldest form of the text is no doubt closely (very closely) related to what the author originally wrote, and so it is the basis for our interpretation of his teaching....In a remarkable number of instances - most of them, actually - scholars by and large agree [about what the earliest attainable text said]....It is probably safe to say that the copying of early Christian texts was by and large a 'conservative' process. The scribes - whether non-professional scribes in the early centuries or professional scribes of the Middle Ages - were intent on 'conserving' the textual tradition they were passing on. Their ultimate concern was not to modify the tradition, but to preserve it for themselves and for those who would follow them. Most scribes, no doubt, tried to do a faithful job in making sure that the text they reproduced was the same text they inherited." (Misquoting Jesus [San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005], pp. 10, 55-56, 62, 94, 177)
Why is Ehrman so popular among critics of Christianity, then? Largely because of his conclusions on other issues and because of how much emphasis he places on the textual problems that do exist when discussing those problems in isolation from a larger context. Ehrman will say a lot at one point about the significance of textual problems with a passage like Mark 1:41 or Hebrews 2:9. But at another point he'll acknowledge that these textual problems don't have much effect on Christian theology and are exceptions to the rule of general textual reliability. Critics of Christianity often only hear the former type of comments that Ehrman makes, or they choose to emphasize the former while ignoring or downplaying the latter. One of the advantages of Ehrman's discussion with Peter Williams is that Williams doesn't allow the discussion to have the sort of lopsided emphasis on textual problems that we often get when Ehrman is interviewed without somebody like Williams present. I recommend listening to the program.
I want to comment on some issues that I don't think Williams addressed, though. The Johannine Comma was discussed, and Ehrman repeated his claim that this interpolation in 1 John 5 is "the only passage in the entire Bible that explicitly delineates the doctrine of the Trinity" (Misquoting Jesus [San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005], p. 81). As Ehrman acknowledges during this recent radio program, Christians believe in Trinitarianism for a variety of reasons. They aren't dependent on the Johannine Comma to justify that belief. But is Ehrman even correct about the passage's significance in explicitly teaching the concept? The three Persons of the Trinity could be one in some non-Trinitarian sense. The Johannine Comma doesn't tell us much about the sense in which they're one. If the Johannine Comma is to be considered "explicit" on the issue of Trinitarianism, then why not conclude the same about a passage like Matthew 28:19? Matthew 28 doesn't use the term "one" to describe the relationship among the three, but it was written in a monotheistic context. And it occurs in a discussion of authority ("All authority has been given to Me", "in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit", "all that I commanded", etc.). An affirmation of the unity of the three Persons in such a context of authority seems to have a weightier Trinitarian implication than an affirmation of that unity in a more vague context like that of the Johannine Comma. Even if the Johannine Comma is thought to be more explicit than Matthew 28, why should we think that Matthew 28 isn't also explicit by Ehrman's standards, even if to a lesser degree? Ehrman's claim about the Johannine Comma wouldn't have much significance if the claim were true, and I don't see why we should think that it is true.
The other issue I want to comment on is Ehrman's often-repeated claim that the textual problems with the New Testament prevent us from being confident that we have the word of God, if the Bible is to be considered God's word. Since Ehrman thinks that the sort of problems we see with passages like Mark 1:41 and Hebrews 2:9 are representative of only a small minority of the New Testament text, then he seems to be saying that we lack confidence for a small minority of the New Testament. So what? If we think our conclusions about the large majority of the text are highly probable, whereas a small minority of our conclusions are no more than a low probability, how much of a problem is such a scenario? We don't need a high probability in order to believe something, and having a high probability for the large majority of the text is highly significant. How is the Bible's communication to us diminished by the small minority of problematic passages Ehrman has in mind? Not much. If Ehrman is assuming that any God who might exist wouldn't allow there to be any textual problems, then that's a dubious assumption that he'll need to justify. Christians have known about such textual problems for a long time without drawing the conclusions that Ehrman has reached. He should make more of an effort to explain why the textual problems supposedly wouldn't have been allowed by God if the New Testament were a Divine revelation. In the recent radio program he did with Peter Williams and in other contexts in which I've seen him address this issue, he's far too vague. Why wouldn't God allow these textual problems?