As part of my ongoing review of Bart Erhman debates, I'm going to comment on a few positions Ehrman staked out in his debate with James White:
1. Ehrman said: let's say Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, and they got a copy, and then somebody made a copy of that original, and then made a couple of mistakes, then somebody copied that copy made a few mistakes, then original was lost and the first copy was lost, and that all other MSS ultimately derive from that third copy. The original wasn't copied any more, the first copy wasn't copied any more, the second copy was copied twice, and both of those were copied five times...so they all go back in a genealogical line to the third copy rather than to the original. All you can reconstruct is what was in the third copy.
The claim is that we can't recover the original text because we hit a wall. We can't go behind the earliest extant MS, or the extant MS with the fewest intervening links in-between the copy and the original autograph. We can't go back any further than the extant MSS. So we can't get back to the original.
I'm not a textual critic, but on the face of it, Ehman's contention is obviously and demonstrably false. For instance, I read lots of articles, books, and book reviews. Sometimes I run across typos. Now all I have is my copy of the book or article. I don't have anything to compare it to. I don't have direct access to the author's original.
Yet when I encounter typos in the text, I normally I have no difficulty going behind the text to reconstruct what he meant. If he (or the publisher) used the wrong word, that mistake is generally obvious. Moreover, it's generally obvious what word he intended to use in its place. If you know the language, you can usually figure that out. You can infer the original word.
And it's not just me. Some book reviewers do the same thing. Near the end of the review they may list notable typos in the book. Not only do they flag the mistakes, but they have no hesitation correcting the typos. They will confidently say the book mistakenly used this word when the right word is such-and-such. Ironically, reviewers have done that in reference to Bart Ehrman's own publications. Now all they have to go by is the text before them; a single text. Yet they can go behind the errant text to say what word the author meant to use. This is just routine. I could give many examples from online book reviews.
2. In the debate, Ehrman repeated his stock objection that if God wanted to give us his words, why didn't he preserve his words? He then spelled out his alternative. How did he think God could and should have gone about that? He didn't propose that God ought to make every scribe infallible. He didn't propose automatic writing.
Rather, he said God could have preserved the original autographa. And that would give later scribes a standard of comparison.
i) Well, that's consider that scenario. The problem with Ehrman's suggestion is that it's too compartmentalized. When you propose these counterfactual scenarios, it's hardly enough to say, why did God do this instead of that, and leave it there. That's only a beginning. You can't stop there. It's not just a matter of changing one variable, for these are not isolated variables. You must take into account everything that flows from this or everything that flows from that.
It's like asking, what if Hitler won WWII or the South won the Civil War? But a major point of those alternate historical scenarios is to explore the downstream consequences of damming or diverting the river upstream. What follows from the counterfactual? How would that alter the course of history?
ii) Apropos (i), if you know much church history, it doesn't take much historical imagination to generally predict what would happen if God preserved the originals indefinitely. For starters, these would become relics. Objects of veneration. You'd have pilgrimage churches where these relics were enshrined.
In addition, you'd have religious wars over possession of these relics. They'd be prized as talismans. Lucky charms for kings and conquerors, to ensure success in battle or ward off invaders.
iii) Whoever had custody of the relics would use for self-aggrandizement. Imagine how the papacy or the patriarchate of Constantinople would use them in self-promotion, as the keeper of the holy relics.
iv) In addition, having custody would result in restricted access. The keeper of the relicts would determine who gets to see them–for a price!
v) Ironically, preserving the originals indefinitely would be an unparalleled opportunity to tamper with the text of Scripture. Due to restricted access, those in charge could swap out the original and swap in a doctored version that contained readings which endorse the papacy, the patriarchate of Constantinople, or whatever.
Although having the originals would be useful to scribes early on, when the church was decentralized, yet over the passage of time, as ecclesiastical power becomes consolidated in "Apostolic sees," the originals would be weaponized to exalt Apostolic sees. This would be a mutual dynamic. Custody of the relics would expand the authority of the custodian, while expanded authority would further augment control over the relics.
3. Here and elsewhere, Ehrman keeps insisting that unless we have the autographa, we no longer have the words of God. But that confuses the medium with the message. That confounds God's word with a record of God's word. The word of God isn't the paper and ink, but the message. A MSS is just a storage and retrieval mechanism–like a CD. The same information, the same word of God, can be instantiated in various media. It can be written. Or spoken. Or digitized. Or memorized. In the latter case, the word of God is mentally rather than materially exemplified. God's word isn't lost whenever a physical record of God's word is lost.
(Peter J. Williams makes a similar point, although he uses different terminology to draw these distinctions.)
4. During the debate, Ehrman said that because some of Matthew's OT quotations don't exactly match the LXX or underlying Hebrew, in the extant samples at our disposal (e.g. MT, DDS), Matthew had different form of the text.
But although it's possible that Matthew's quotations bear witness to a different textual tradition, surely that's not the only explanation. He may simply be editing the passage to incorporate it into his narrative. An interpretive paraphrase. Combining two different passages. That sort of thing.