In our previous debate, we learned Bart Ehrman’s peculiar twist on the integrity of the New Testament text. His focus is on the first hundred years or so of the original writing of the New Testament, for which we have essentially no manuscript evidence. His contention is that we can’t be sure how radical the variations were during this period because that early in history the scribes couldn’t have been as well trained as the scribes and monks of the middle ages, so what we have may be vastly different than what was originally written by the apostles and their associates.
Wallace rightly characterizes this as radical skepticism, and argues for the proposition that Ehrman’s claims are making a mountain out of a mole hill. His contention is that it’s less likely that the variation was as extreme as Ehrman wants us to conclude. This is part of what I came away with from their last meeting on Wallace’s turf in Dallas, Texas.
Now they plan to meet on Ehrman’s turf to “dialogue” (as opposed to debate? Is this just postmodern euphamism?) on whether the original New Testament was lost. I suspect my summary of their positions above will be at the heart of this dialogue. Wish I could attend, but, then, it gets old hearing the same jokes out of both fellows. Hopefully they come up with fresh material. More on this in a few weeks after the debate is made available to those of us unable to attend. (Click for more info)
The debate between Dr. Daniel B. Wallace and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman on October 1, 2011 at the McFarlin Memorial Auditorium was the largest event of its kind ever, being attended by 1,500 viewers on all sides of the issue of the reliability of the New Testament text. The DVD of the debate is now available for sale by Dr. Wallace’s Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. Click here to order a copy for yourself.
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)
The following is the next few paragraphs from C. S. Lewis’ essay, “Fern Seed and Elephants,” in which he gives one educated sheep’s skeptical perception of modern liberal theology and higher textual criticism. You will find among Lewis’ comments that he evidences a lack of entire agreement with the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, but overall, his critiques of the more extermely liberal theological and textual critical views remain helpful even for conservative Evangelical inerrantists.
For more information on the Evangelical doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, read the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (this link takes you to my Creeds, etc. page on the statement, from which you may link elsewhere to read the document).
The Skepticism of One Educated Sheep
The undermining of the old orthodoxy has been mainly the work of divines engaged in New Testament criticism. The authority of experts in that discipline is the authority in deference to whom we are asked to give up a huge mass of beliefs shared in common by the early Church, the Fathers, the Middle Ages, the Reformers, and even the nineteenth century. I want to explain what it is that makes me skeptical about this authority. Ignorantly skeptical, as you will all too easily see. But the scepticism is the father of the ignorance. It is hard to persevere in a close study when you can work up no prima facie confidence in your teachers.
Lewis’ First Bleat: New Testament Critics Lack Literary Judgment
First then, whatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgement, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading. It sounds a strange charge to bring against men who have been steeped in those books all their lives. But that might be just the trouble. A man who has spent his youth and manhood in the minute study of New Testament texts and of other people’s studies of them, whose literary experience of those texts lacks any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general, is, I should think, very likely to miss the obvious thing about them. If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour; not how many years he has spend on that Gospel. But I had better turn to examples.
“Reportage,” or a Genre Ahead of its Time
In what is already a very old commentary I read that the fourth Gospel is regarded by one school as a ‘spiritual romance’, ‘a poem not a history’, to be judged by the same canons as Nathan’s parable, the book of Jonah, Paradise Lost ‘or, more exactly, Pilgrim’s Progress‘. After a man has said that, why need one attend to anything else he says about any book in the world? Note that he regards Pilgrim’s Progress, a story which professes to be a dream and flaunts its allegorical nature by every single proper name it uses, as the closest parallel. Note that the whole epic panoply of Milton goes for nothing. But even if we leave our the grosser absurdities and keep to Jonah, the insensitiveness is crass – Jonah, a tale with as few even pretended historical attachments as Job, grotesque in incident and surely not without a distinct, though of course edifying, vein of typically Jewish humour. Then turn to John. Read the dialogues: that with the Samaritan woman at the well, or that which follows the healing of the man born blind. Look at its pictures: Jesus (if I may use the word) doodling with his finger in the dust; the unforgettable nv vuz (13:30). I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read. I would recommend him to read Auerbach.
“Reassimilating” the Parousia and the Passion
Here, from Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament is another: ‘Observe in what unassimilated fashion the prediction of the parousia (Mark 8:38) follows upon the prediction of the passion (8:31). What can he mean? Unassimilated? Bultmann believes that predictions of the parousia are older than those of the passion. He therefore wants to believer – and no doubt does believe – that when they occur in the same passage some discrepancy or ‘unassimilation’ must be perceptible between them. But surly he foists this on the text with shocking lack of perception. Peter has confessed Jesus to be the Anointed One. That flash of glory is hardly over before the dark prophecy begins – that the Son of Man must suffer and die. Then this contrast is repeated. Peter, raised for a moment by his confession, makes his false step: the crushing rebuff ‘Get thee behind me’ follows. Then, across that momentary ruin which Peter (as so often) becomes, the voice of the Master, turning to the crowd, generalizes the moral. All his followers must take up the cross. This avoidance of suffering, this self-preservation, is not what life is really about. Then, more definitely still, the summons to martyrdom. You must stand to your tackling. If you disown Christ here and now, he will disown you later. Logically, emotionally, imaginatively, the sequence is perfect. Only a Bultmann could think otherwise.
The Personality of the Lord
Finally, from the same Bultmann: ‘the personality of Jesus has no importance for the kerygma either of Paul or John… Indeed, the tradition of the earliest Church did not even unconsciously preserve a picture of his personality. Every attempt to reconstruct one remains a play of subjective imagination.’
So there is no personality of our Lord presented in the New Testament. Through what strange process has this learned German gone in order to make himself blind to what all men except him see? What evidence have we that he would recognize a personality if it were there? For it is Bultmann contra mundum. If anything whatever is common to all believers, and even to many unbelievers, it is the sense that in the Gospels they have met a personality. There are characters whom we know to be historical but of whom we do not feel that we have any personal knowledge – knowledge by acquaintance; such are Alexander, Attila, or William of Orange. There are others who make no claim to historical reality but whom, none the less, we know as we know real people: Falstaff, Uncle Toby, Mr. Pickwick. But there are only three characters who, claiming the first sort of reality, also actually have the second. And surely everyone knows who they are: Plato’s Socrates, the Jesus of the Gospels, and Boswell’s Johnson. Our acquaintance with them shows itself in a dozen ways. When we look into the apocryphal gospels, we find ourselves constantly saying of this or that logion, ‘No. It’s a fine saying, but not his. That wasn’t how he talked’ – just as we do with all pseudo-Johnsoniana. We are not in the least perturbed by the contrasts within each character: the union in Socrates of silly and scabrous titters about Greek pederasty with the highest mystical fervor and the homeliest good sense; in Johnson, of profound gravity and melancholy with that love of fun and nonsense which Boswell never understood though Fanny Burney did; in Jesus of peasant shrewdness, intolerable severity, and irresistible tenderness. So strong is the flavour of the personality that, even while he says things which, on any other assumption than that of divine Incarnation in the fullest sense, would be appallingly arrogant, yet we – and many unbelievers too – accept him as his own valuation when he says ‘I am meek and lowly of heart’. Even those passages in the New Testament which superficially, and in intention, are most concerned with the divine, and least with the human nature, bring us fact to face with the personality. I am not sure that they don’t do this more than any others. ‘We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of graciousness and reality… which we have looked upon and our hands have handled. What is gained by trying to evade or dissipate this shattering immediacy of personal contact by talk about ‘that significance which the early Church found that it was impelled to attribute to the Master’? This hits us in the face. Not what they were impelled to do but what impelled them. I begin to fear that by personality Dr. Bultmann means what I should call impersonality: what you’d get in a Dictionary of National Biography article or an obituary or a Victorian Life and Letters of Yeshua Bar-Yosef in three volumes with photographs.
That then is my first bleat. These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight.
I’m looking forward to attending the upcoming debate between the evangelical Dr. Dan Wallace of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and the agnostic Dr. Bart D. Ehrman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on the trustworthiness of the text of the New Testament at McFarlin Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas on Saturday, October 1, 2011. (debate website) This debate necessarily involves the issue of the undermining effect the discipline of higher textual criticism has had on orthodox theology in general, and the orthodox doctrine of the inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy and authority of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments in particular.
Several decades ago, world famous Christian apologist, novelist and literary critic, Dr. C. S. Lewis, addressed a body of Anglican ministers and shared his concerns as an educated parishioner (or “sheep”) that modern higher criticism lacks credibility, and thus higher critics, in his view, lack literary judgment. The next several posts will include sections of this lengthy lecture/essay including my own helpful section titles. It is not the easiest read, due to many unfamiliar literary or other academic references, but there is much wisdom to be gained by the diligent reader, and it may help to motivate further diligence to know that it is generously sprinkled throughout with Lewis’ characteristic wit.
Originally entitled ‘Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism’, Lewis read this essay at Westcott House, Cambridge, on 11 May 1959. Published under that title in Christian Reflections (1981), it is now in Fern-seed and Elephants (1998). HT: Homepage for Orthodox Theology
Introduction: A Sheep to Shepherds
This paper arose out of a conversation I had with the Principal one night last term. A book of Alec Vidler’s happened to be lying on the table and I expressed my reaction to the sort of theology it contained. My reaction was a hasty and ignorant one, produced with the freedom that comes after dinner. One thing led to another and before we were done I was saying a good deal more than I had meant about the type of thought which, so far as I could gather, is no dominant in many theological colleges. He then said, ‘I wish you would come and say all this to my young men.’ He knew of course that I was extremely ignorant of the whole thing. But I think his idea was that you ought to know how a certain sort of theology strikes the outsider. Though I may have nothing but misunderstandings to lay before you, you ought to know that such misunderstandings exist. That sort of thing is easy to overlook inside one’s own circle. The minds you daily meet have been conditioned by the same studies and prevalent opinions as your own. That may mislead you. For of course as priests it is the outsiders you will have to cope with. You exist in the long run for no other purpose. The proper study of shepherds is sheep, not (save accidentally) other shepherds. And woe to you if you do not evangelize. I am not trying to teach my grandmother. I am a sheep, telling shepherds what only a sheep can tell them. And now I begin my bleating.
How the Uneducated Might Respond to Modern Theology
There are two sorts of outsiders: the uneducated, and those who are educated in some way but not in your own way. How you are to deal with the first class, if you hold views like Loisy’s or Schweitzer’s or Bultmann’s or Tillich’s or even Alec Vidler’s, I simply don’t know. I see – and I’m told that you see – that it would hardly do to tell them what you really believe. A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia – which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes – if offered to the uneducated man can produce only one or other of two effects. It will make him a Roman Catholic or an atheist. What you offer him he will not recognize as Christianity. If he holds to what he calls Christianity he will leave a Church in which it is no longer taught and look for one where it is. If he agrees with your version he will no longer call himself a Christian and no longer come to church. In his crude, coarse way, he would respect you much more if you did the same. An experienced clergyman told me that the most liberal priests, faced with this problem, have recalled from its grave the late medieval conception of two truths: a picture-truth which can be preached to the people, and an esoteric truth for use among the clergy. I shouldn’t think you will enjoy this conception much once you have put it into practice. I’m sure if I had to produce picture-truths to a parishioner in great anguish or under fierce temptation, and produce them with that seriousness and fervor which his condition demanded, while knowing all the time that I didn’t exactly – only in some Pickwickian sense – believe them myself, I’d find my forehead getting red and damp and my collar getting tight. But that is your headache, not mine. You have, after all, a different sort of collar. I claim to belong to the second group of outsiders: educated, but not theologically educated. How one member of that group feels I must now try to tell you.
There’s an old adage about the fact that some things get “lost in translation.” The reason it became an adage is because it is so frequently true. Unfortunately, this is a fact that is easily and often overlooked by those of us who believe the Bible can and ought to be interpreted literally. The problem is, many of us forget, or refuse to accept the fact that there may be something more to interpreting the Bible literally than simply taking everything at face value. This messes up our understanding of the Bible and this thinking error can even mislead people into believing that the Bible contradicts itself.
Case in point: Jesus’ being in the tomb for “three days and three nights.” There are a number of schools of thought on just how long Jesus spent. The traditional view that he was crucified on Friday afternoon, and entombed just before sundown, spent all Friday night, Saturday day and night, and rising just before sunup on Sunday morning just leaves the twentieth and twenty-first century Biblical literalist cold.
A couple of weeks ago, I added a new blog to my blogroll. It’s called the Ehrman Project Blog. This is the blog for the larger site of the same name: The Ehrman Project dot com. Speaking of people who allow themselves to be mislead into thinking that the Bible contradicts itself, this blog is devoted to answering many of the misleading claims of Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, the world’s favorite skeptical Bible scholar who is teaching the popular reading public about the details of Biblical textual criticism, and spinning it with his own loss of faith in the reliability of the text of the Bible.
Today’s post at the Ehrman Project Blog offers some helpful pointers to how the Bible itself demonstrates that this is a Hebrew idiom that isn’t always to be taken merely at face value. The context determines the meaning of not only individual words, but also phrases, such as this one. Read “Aren’t there only two nights between Friday and Sunday?“
Saturday, October 1, 2011, Dr. Daniel Wallace will debate Dr. Bart Ehrman on whether we can trust the text of the New Testament. Wallace is an evangelical textual scholar and founder of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. Ehrman is a former Christian, professor of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, and the author of books like Misquoting Jesus and Forged, in which he attempts to communicate much about the field of New Testament textual criticism and uses this information to attempt to demonstrate that the New Testament is not, in fact, either inerrant or inspired by God.
This debate is the second between these two scholars. You can purchase the first if you like from this site.