Saturday night, my son, a few friends and I, attended the debate between Dr. Daniel B. Wallace of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, the best-selling rock star of unbelieving New Testament textual criticism at McFarlin Memorial Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University (SMU). It was a very interesting and entertaining debate. Wallace has a much better sense of humor than the seemingly self-important Ehrman.
I’ve only got one observation about the debate. Just judging from the weightiness of each debater’s arguments, Wallace wins. Compared to Wallace’s informative presentation, Ehrman’s was much clearer, because he generally stayed on a much more simplistic level. While it’s easier to follow a simplistic presentation, it’s also easier to distort the truth in one. But you’d expect me to favor Wallace’s presentation. I agree with him on most of his defense of the New Testament.
But I won’t leave you completely without input from the debate. It turns out that the night of the debate was also the release date of Wallace’s latest book, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (2011, Kregel). This is a collection of academic essays by Wallace’s interns with an introductory chapter by Wallace which just happens to contain the information in Wallace’s arguments in Saturday night’s debate. I was able to purchase a pre-autographed copy, so I’ll share some of it with you.
In chapter one, “Lost In Transmission: How Badly Did the Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?” Wallace discusses the number and nature of variant readings, the theological issues involved with the issue of the variants, and the essential reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. You’ll be able to read an excerpt from this chapter at the end of this post.
Chapter two is called “The Least Orthodox Reading is to be Preferred: A New Canon for New Testament Textual Criticism?” by Philip M. Miller. He discusses the historical backdrop of this seeming modern canon of textual criticism, demonstrates Ehrman’s use of this canon, then critiques it, and discusses its value and role.
In chapter three, “The Legacy of a Letter: Sabellianism or Scribal Blunder in John 1.1c?” Matthew P. Morgan presents scribal habits as a “historical lens” on theological development in the early church. He focuses on the roots and rise of Sabellianism, the reactions of the Chruch Fathers to it. Then Morgan analyzes scribal habits in codices Regius and Freerianus, and finishes with a presentation on the grammatical viability of the textual variant in John 1.1c.
Adam G. Messer writes chapter four, “Patristic Theology and Recension in Matthew 24:36: An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Text-Critical Methodology.” According to Messer, those who discern ulterior motives in variants judged to have been purposely made by orthodox scribes, may be assuming too much. “Although any change is a deviation from the original, the difference in a clarification is that it typically better preserves the meaning and buttresses it against heretical counterfesance.”
Tim Ricchuiti has us “Tracking Thomas” in chapter five. In his chapter, Ricchuiti takes “A Text-Critical Look at the Transmission of the Gospel of Thomas.” This chapter provides the “Apocryphal Evidence” in Wallace’s subtitle. Ricchuiti’s “purpose [in this chapter is] (1) to conduct a comparison of the Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas to the full Coptic manuscript, (2) to assess the merit of the four manuscripts containing Thomas with respet to their originality, and (3) should the assessment yield fruit, to draw a few conclusions on the scholarly consensus regarding both the character of the Greek fragments versus the Coptic text and the amount of theological alteration present, particularly in Thomas, but more generally in noncanonical works as a whole” (page 226).
Finally, in chapter six, Brian Wright examines several New Testament texts which explicitly call Jesus “theos” or God, attempting to demonstrate that this was not a theological development, as many skeptics claim, but rather began with the first century New Testament writings.
This book looks very satisfying. Pick up a copy for yourself, if you’re inclined to this sort of reading. Now, with all of this in mind, the following is how Dr. Wallace not only introduces his book, but also his argument in the debate. With these words, he gives us sage advice.
Two Attitudes to Avoid
To begin with, there are two attitudes that we should try to avoid: absolute certainty and total despair. On the one side are King James Only advocates; they are absolutely certain that the KJV, in every place, exactly represents the original text. To be frank, the quest for certainty often overshadows the quest for truth in conservative theological circles and is a temptation that we need to resist. It is fundamentally the temptation of modernism. To our shame, evangelicals have too often been more concerned to protect our presuppositions than to pursue truth at all costs.
On the other side are a few radical scholars who are so skeptical that no piece of data, no hard fact, is safe in their hands. It all turns to putty because all views are created equal. If everything is equally possible, then no view is more probable than any other view. In Starbucks and on the street, in college classrooms and on the airwaves, you can hear the line “We really don’t know what the NT originally said since we no longer possess the originals and since there could have been tremendous tampering with the text before our existing copies were produced.”
But are any biblical scholars this skeptical? Robert Funk, the head of the Jesus Seminar, seemed to be. In The Five Gospels he said,
Even careful copyists make mistakes, as every proofreader knows. So we will never be able to claim certain knowledge of exactly what the original text of any biblical writing was.
The temporal gap that separates Jesus from the first surviving copies of the gospels—about one hundred and seventy-five years—corresponds to the lapse in time from 1776—the writing of the Declaration of Independence—to 1950. What if the oldest copies of the founding document dated only from 1950?
Funk’s attitude is easy to see: rampant skepticism over recovering the original wording of any part of the NT. This is the temptation of postmodernism. The only certainty is uncertainty itself. It is the one absolute that denies all the others. Concomitant with this is an intellectual pride—pride that one “knows” enough to be skeptical about all positions.
Where does Ehrman stand on this spectrum? I do not know. On the one hand, he has said such things as the following:
If the primary purpose of this discipline is to get back to the original text, we may as well admit either defeat or victory, depending on how one chooses to look at it, because we’re not going to get much closer to the original text than we already are.
… [A]t this stage, our work on the original amounts to little more than tinkering. There’s something about historical scholarship that refuses to concede that a major task has been accomplished, but there it is.
In spite of these remarkable [textual differences, scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the original words of the New Testament with reasonable (although probably not 100 percent) accuracy.
The first statements were made at the Society of Biblical Literature in an address to text-critical scholars. The last is in a college textbook. All of this sounds as if Ehrman would align himself more with those who are fairly sure about what the wording of the autographic text is.
But here is what Ehrman wrote in his immensely popular book Misquoting Jesus:
Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later….And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places….[T]hese copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even known (sic) how many differences there are.
We could go on nearly forever talking about specific places in which the texts of the New Testament came to be changed, either accidentally or intentionally. . . . [T]he examples are not just in the hundreds but in the thousands.
And here is what he wrote in another popular book, Lost Christianities:
The fact that we have thousands of New Testament manuscripts does not in itself mean that we can rest assured that we know what the original text said. If we have very few early copies—in fact, scarcely any—how can we know that the text was not changed significantly before the New Testament began to be reproduced in such large quantities?
The cumulative effect of these latter statements seems to be not only that we have no certainty about the wording of the original but that, even where we are sure of the wording, the core theology is not nearly as “orthodox” as we had thought. According to this line of thinking, the message of whole books has been corrupted in the hands of the scribes; and the church, in later centuries, adopted the doctrine of the winners—those who corrupted the text and conformed it to their own notion of orthodoxy.
So you can see my dilemma. I am not sure what Ehrman believes. Is the task done? Have we essentially recovered the wording of the original text? Or should we be hyperskeptical about the whole enterprise? It seems that Ehrman puts a far more skeptical spin on things when speaking in the public square than he does when speaking to professional colleagues.
These two attitudes—total despair and absolute certainty—are the Scylla and Charybdis that we must steer between.
(Daniel B. Wallace, ed. Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence, ©2011, Kregel. Pages 23-26)