Monday, April 20, 2009

A Review Of The White/Ehrman Debate On The New Testament Text

I recently watched the debate between James White and Bart Ehrman, on the topic "Does The Bible Misquote Jesus?", which occurred this past January. (For a link to a transcript of the debate and a link for ordering the DVD version, go here.) I wrote about Bart Ehrman and my expectations for the debate in an earlier thread. The debate went as I expected.

Judging from his reaction to James White's opening remarks, as well as his uncertainties about what White believes and his misrepresentations of what White had said, I doubt that Ehrman knew much about White going into the debate. The difference between the two debaters in their level of preparation for the debate was evident. White frequently cited Ehrman's work, whereas Ehrman never cited White's. White generally went into more detail and made more of an effort to understand and interact with his opponent's arguments.

Unfortunately, some of the most significant comments occurred late in the debate, during the audience questions segment. In response to a question about the transmission of the New Testament documents prior to our earliest manuscripts, White correctly noted that we shouldn't remove these texts from their historical context. He mentioned the presence of eyewitnesses, including New Testament authors like the apostle Paul, during the earliest stages of textual transmission. He cited Richard Bauckham's Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006). There are reasons to trust the early transmission of the text, even where we have no manuscripts. White answered the audience member's question after Ehrman had replied to it, so Ehrman didn't have an opportunity to follow up on White's comments before the topic was changed.

However, White had mentioned another reason to trust the pre-manuscript transmission of the text earlier in the debate. He mentioned that if a different version of the text had existed earlier on, we'd expect it to be reflected in the later historical record. And Ehrman knows that the manuscripts aren't our only evidence for the reliability of the text. There are pre-manuscript sources who discuss what the text contained in their day, we can know the general outlines of the text by the beliefs of the people who lived prior to our earliest manuscripts, etc. Though White brought up some arguments in the audience question segment that he hadn't mentioned earlier, such as his citation of Bauckham, Ehrman should have addressed such evidence without waiting for White to bring it up. Instead, Ehrman didn't address such evidence at all. He just made vague references to how we allegedly don't know what the state of the text was prior to our earliest manuscripts.

Ehrman acknowledged that he's changed his position over the years regarding our knowledge of the original text. He's become more skeptical. But, during the opening and rebuttal periods of the debate, he referred to how we don't know the original text in some places. The implication is that we do know it in other places.

He made much of the fact that the text is more varied early on than it is later. The earlier manuscripts differ from one another more than the later manuscripts differ from each other. But he attributed the larger degree of textual variation early on to the more frequent use of non-professional scribes in earlier generations. It should be noted that such an appeal to the use of non-professional scribes implies honest mistakes in textual transmission rather than dishonest alterations. Atheists, Muslims, and other critics of Christianity who cite Ehrman on textual issues often have a dishonest altering of the text in mind, not honest mistakes made by people who lacked the training and experience of later scribes. As Ehrman has noted elsewhere:

"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], p. 177)

In such an environment of general honesty, despite the existence of some dishonesty as well, why doubt the reliability of the earliest manuscripts we have? On the one hand, Ehrman keeps making much of the fact that we don't have any manuscripts from the earliest years of Christianity. On the other hand, he acknowledges that we have significant evidence for the reliability of the transmission of the text prior to the earliest manuscripts. I suspect that either he's undecided on the issue or he realizes that the overall balance of the evidence favors the reliability of the text, but he chooses to be vague on the issue or to play to people's doubts when it's to his advantage to do so.

Ehrman kept going back to the fact that the earlier manuscripts differ from one another more than the later manuscripts differ from one another, but even if we assume an even higher degree of variation prior to our earliest manuscripts, that variation would still be relatively low. Think about how different the original manuscripts would have to be in order to sustain some of the theories of atheists, Muslims, and other critics of Christianity. There isn't much significance in saying that textual variation increases as we go earlier into church history if the earliest levels of variation aren't nearly what they would need to be in order to sustain the critical theories.

Ehrman repeated an argument he often makes, despite the weakness of the argument and despite the fact that the argument had already been corrected when he used it in previous contexts. He asked why men like Daniel Wallace invest so much time and money in studying textual variants if those variants aren't significant. But there are differing degrees of significance. We can think that a textual variant has some significance without thinking that it has as much significance as somebody like Ehrman claims or implies. James White recently wrote a response to Ehrman on this subject.

Ehrman cited some of his usual examples of the alleged significance of the textual variants in the New Testament. He refers to the significance of the Johannine Comma in 1 John 5 in the context of Trinitarian doctrine, for example. I've discussed Ehrman's misuse of such variants elsewhere.

On the subject of the relationship between the Divine inspiration of the Bible and the preservation of the text, Ehrman argues that God would preserve what He wanted us to have. Since the original texts weren't preserved, why think that God inspired the originals? But the fact that God doesn't preserve the originals for us doesn't tell us whether we should view what has been preserved as inspired. And what's been lost could have been inspired and serve some purpose other than what Ehrman thinks it should, much as the Bible refers to other material that hasn't been preserved for us (John 21:25, etc.). Why think that every detail, down to the spelling of an ancient city name, for example, would have to be preserved? If the vast majority of the text has been preserved, as the evidence suggests and as Ehrman sometimes suggests, then why think that God hasn't preserved enough? The reason why God wouldn't need to keep performing miracles in order to prevent scribes from making mistakes is because the usual means of textual transmission would be sufficient to preserve what God wanted preserved.

I think this debate was useful in many contexts. James White is one of the best debaters in the church today. He's highly knowledgeable of textual issues. He made a good case for a high view of the reliability of the New Testament text. And he effectively demonstrated some of the weaknesses in Ehrman's position. Getting Ehrman to repeatedly acknowledge the New Testament's superiority to other ancient texts, and putting it in terms like "Misquoting Suetonius", was helpful. It was useful to demonstrate Ehrman's desire to avoid making negative comments about Islam, despite how obvious it is that his reasoning concerning Christianity would have to lead one to such conclusions about Islam as well. It was good to see Ehrman acknowledge that his view of how God should preserve the text is different from how Jesus and the apostles viewed the preservation of the Old Testament text. And it was good to see somebody speaking, in Ehrman's presence, about the misuse of Ehrman's material by men like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I suspect that Ehrman was already aware of some of that misuse and encouraged it, but perhaps he'll make more of an effort to discourage it in the future. We'll see. At the least, we know that he's aware of the problem. Any Muslim who has used Ehrman's textual material against Christianity in the past should be more hesitant to use Ehrman's material in the future, if he watches this debate.

In future debates with Ehrman, I'd like to see his Christian opponents put more focus on the non-manuscript evidence for the reliability of the text. White mentioned Richard Bauckham's book, and I'd like to see Ehrman questioned about that book and its implications for textual issues. I'd like to see him asked about the implications of his acknowledgement that most of the early scribes were honest. Their honesty suggests that the earliest textual variants would primarily consist of honest mistakes. I'd like to see him asked about the general assumption of textual reliability among Christianity's enemies, both heretics and those who didn't even profess to be Christians. Although charges of textual change were sometimes made by Christianity's early enemies, the general assumption seems to be that the text is reliable. Christians and heretics argue over the same texts. Non-Christians usually assume textual reliability in their criticisms of the religion. Etc. There's a lot more I'd like to see asked of Ehrman, but his debate with James White is a step in the right direction. I'd especially recommend the debate to those who are less knowledgeable of textual issues, but even those who are more knowledgeable should find it helpful on some points.

1 comment:

  1. Jason, I found this post to be extremely helpful. I'm writing as a layman who's only beginning to understand all that's involved with looking at "textual issues".

    For example, I've got both the Aland book "New Testament Texts," as well as the Metzger/Ehrman work on the same topic. I had no idea, but each and every manuscript is named and catalogued, by where it was found, other who might have copied it, what textual variations or "family" it might have come from, etc. (I'm greatly simplifying here and am only working from memory).

    This is an incredibly complex discipline, requiring knowledge of languages, history, archaeological research, etc., and yet, this discipline is probably as close to "where the rubber meets the road" as any other discipline. It's where (as you alluded) great damage can be done by individuals like Ehrman and his pseudo-followers, and where diligent work (such as that done by White) can go a long, long way to demonstrating the authenticity of Christianity to a largely unbelieving world.