Sunday, February 12, 2012

Wallace/Ehrman debate

Andreas, thanks for carving out the time to come to the debate, for tweeting during it, and for your “wrap-up” comments. I am deeply concerned for laypeople’s understanding of these crucial issues; your affirmations about the Christian faith are an excellent complement to what I had to say in the debate.
I would like to take issue with some of your points (and agree with some of them, too), however, and also note a few items that you overlooked.
1. I spent too much time listing all the MS evidence. I disagree. Laypeople have time and time again expressed surprise at the wealth of material we have for the NT. Several folks came up after the debate and told me this, too. It is important to not only list the evidence we have for the NT, but also to compare it to classical authors. Although Bart attempted to insulate the crowd from what I was going to say, I don’t think he was entirely successful.
2. You said that Wallace “did not satisfactorily engage him on the theoretical question as to how we can say we have the original text of the NT.” I disagree. Here, again, are my five points:
(1) If the early MSS exhibit wild copying practices, then we are in an excellent position for recovering the original since there was no conspiracy to make just one kind of text. Further, those that were carefully produced in Alexandria reveal a careful copying process that reaches back to the earliest times. I illustrated this with Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and P75, and noted that when all three of them agree they probably reflect the original wording. Bart did not challenge this statement. I spoke at length about P75 and B, noting that the common ancestor was older than P75 and that B actually reflected a purer stream of transmission.
(2) The standard critical text used today, the Nestle-Aland 27, only follows conjecture in ONE place, and even there the two senior editors disagreed with the rest of the committee. This shows that conjecture is not needed for the NT like it is for virtually all other Greco-Roman literature. And when the MSS display coherence, this indicates that there are not gaps in the MS tradition.
(3) Not a single new reading from any of the 134 papyri has proven to be autographic. In the last 135 years, not a single new reading of any MS has such a pedigree either. This shows that the autographic wording is to be found among the MSS somewhere. I concluded this point by saying, “So, what would happen if we found MSS even earlier than our earliest papyri? They will no doubt confirm the wording that we already considered to be original. If all the NT papyri that have been discovered have not been able to introduce a single original reading, why should we think that more discoveries would be any different?” This cut into Bart’s main argument, and he did not respond directly to the point.
(4) The copy of Mark that Matthew used is a first-century Mark, and yet it differs from what scholars think the original Mark said in only a handful of non-translatable places. Bart himself had indicated (in Misquoting Jesus) that we have a first-century copy of Mark, but he concluded that Matthew and Luke were ‘just like the scribes’ in that they changed the text significantly. I argued that they were not like the scribes and that the scribes hardly changed the text at all.
(5) The first-century fragment of Mark was my final point. Not only does its existence contradict Bart’s claim that we don’t have anything from the first century of Mark, but “This papyrus fragment—just like the other new discoveries that we are preparing for publication—strongly confirms what most scholars have already said is the original text.”

I believe that these five points quite adequately answered Bart’s claim that we have no idea what the original wording was.
3. You claimed that my strongest argument was when I quoted from Misquoting Jesus to the effect that Bart agrees that none of the variants affects a major NT doctrine. Further, “If I had been in Wallace’s place, I would have kept reiterating this point several times, especially since Ehrman never responded to it.” I disagree. My quoting of Misquoting Jesus was technically outside the purview of the debate’s topic; I intentionally put it in because I knew that many Christian students would be concerned about the implications of what we were saying. So, to press this point would be counter to what the debate was purportedly about.
4. “Another golden opportunity missed on Wallace’s part, in my opinion, was that he never pressed Ehrman on his comment that there were several places in the NT where there were serious problems with the text.” I disagree. There was no such opportunity because I agree with Bart on this front. I had made the point that they didn’t affect cardinal doctrines, but much more than that I cannot claim.
5. As for 2 Corinthians, I actually did say that not all scholars agreed with Bart that it was a patchwork book. I did, however, state that 2 Corinthians is problematic (as you noted). I believe that it’s a unit, but also recognize that many good scholars have seen it as a patchwork document. I also focused on John 21, which Bart claimed was almost universally viewed as a later addition; I noted that a doctoral student at DTS is doing his work on this very question. Bart also mentioned Mark 16’s last page as having been lost, but I pointed out that the majority of scholars in the last fifty years would disagree with that viewpoint, and that it presupposes that the book was originally written on a codex, which most scholars who work in this field would find untenable.
I should also mention that Bart’s arguments about 2 Corinthians, John, Luke, Acts, and Mark were all related to composition criticism, not textual criticism per se. It seems to me that Bart wanted to employ this tactic to divert the discussion from the real issue. I think he was partially successful at this, but not entirely.
6. You are quite right that I should have asked Bart to lay out what he needed to believe that we had the original text of the NT. This was asked in our debate last October, and Bart said that he would need to see ten MSS of Mark, written within a week of the autograph, and having no more than a 0.001% deviation. I called him on that skepticism in the TC-List, and he conceded that he was speaking off the cuff and that it was an exaggeration. I noted that the question asked had to do with the minimum he would need to believe, so if he gave an exaggeration he was not really answering the question asked. Further, I noted that since there are only 57,000 letters in Mark, to require no more than 0.001% deviation would mean half a letter at most! Since then he has backed off on his skepticism, and this debate was the result.
7. As for the mention of the Mark fragment, this actually was in direct response to what Bart said in his opener—viz., we have no first-century MSS of Mark. I also noted that this fragment, along with the other six second-century fragments, demonstrated that the text was stable.
8. Regarding Zuntz’s collection theory in AD 100, you are right that I should have objected. However, Zuntz’s view has a great amount of scholarship behind it. What may well be its undoing is four of the new fragments discovered—all of Paul’s letters! But since the data are not out on them yet, I couldn’t comment on this specifically. However, you also have to keep in mind that we each had five minutes to respond to the other person. One has to choose what to focus on.
9. As for Ehrman’s agnosticism, that was off the table. The rules of engagement laid down ahead of time specifically noted that we could not speak of each other’s faith or lack thereof.
10. As for your suggestion that I speak of my faith at the end, this again was not part of the topic. But you didn’t note what I did say. When Bart spoke of the bloody sweat verses in Luke as a later addition, noting what the author’s viewpoint of the passion was all about, I pointed out that this presupposed that Bart knew what the original text of Luke was saying. I think this was perhaps my strongest point in the debate. Even Bart ultimately has to claim that the original wording is available to us. Further, I noted that the scholarship of the last two thousand years has presupposed that we have the original wording in broad strokes and even in most particulars. In that respect, Bart’s views are indeed those of a radical skeptic.
11. Your comment that “some seemed unsure why the issue even mattered” is rather poignant. In many respects, it doesn’t. That is, I think that Bart was arguing on a technicality—viz., that some of the NT books may have been patchwork documents and thus the original form is difficult, if not impossible, to locate. But how important this is in terms of the real issue that people are wrestling with—whether we have a NT that is reliable—is a different matter.
12. Finally, one other comment: I asked in my opening statement, “How does [Bart know that these early MSS do not give us the original wording]? What criteria does he use to determine that they made mistakes? Either such errors are patently obvious—like “Onion” for “Union”—or he is judging these early papyri by later MSS that have an excellent pedigree—later MSS whose wording reaches back to the time before our earliest papyri.” Bart said I pitched him a softball because he was able to determine that the MSS were defective by patristic comments from the second century. I responded that this was overstated—that is, he was using the great uncials as well as patristics to point to the autographic wording. And precisely because of the majuscules of the fourth century scholars have concluded—with Metzger—that the wording of their texts is hundreds of years older than the MSS themselves.

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