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Name:M.S. Bruce
Location:Charlotte, North Carolina, United States

Friday, March 24, 2006

Textual criticism gone wrong - An answer to Bart Ehrman

Today is Thursday March 23rd 2006. This marks the first ever post on my blog site and it comes on the heels of a lecture I attended by Bart Ehrman promoting his new book, "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why".

According to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Ehrman attended and graduated from Wheaton College. During his undergraduate work he claims to have been a conservative Christian. However, after studying at Princeton and decades of personal research, he became an agnostic. He now is the chairman of the department of religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill.

My biggest problem with Dr. Ehrman in this particular lecture was his overgeneralization of textual criticism, unfounded conclusions to textual variants, and his blatant un-factual accusations concerning the lack of divinity claims in the synoptic gospels. I believe that much of what Ehrman presents as evidence for an incorrect transmission is based on self-defeating claims and therefore proves the opposite.

Dr. Ehrman begins by saying that there are over 5700 copies of the Greek New testament and those copies contain somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 errors. He goes into a long commentary on the flippant nature of scribes and even cites the possibility that a simple cough in the room while Paul was dictating his letters to a scribe could have caused an error that would throw Christianity into absurdity. He then draws a conclusion that if God were to go through the trouble to give man a perfect text, he would have created another miracle to preserve that text.

This argument against textual accuracy is really nothing new for the apologist. One fact that Dr. Ehrman failed to mention is that along with the 5700 Greek New testament manuscripts we also over 36,289 quotations of the text by the early church fathers. In fact from them we could reconstruct the entire New Testament except for 11 verses. All of these copies and quotations of the Bible can be compared to other ancient text such as Homer with 643 copies, Plato with 7 copies or Herodotus with 8 copies. This builds a strong case for our ability to discern a true copy from a fake or a correct copy from an error.

One point to note is that when we are dealing with far more copies of a text, of course we will be dealing with more errors. An example will help illustrate my point. If Scribe A copies a manuscript and spells the disciple's name Jone instead of John and then his manuscript is copied 500 times we now have 500 variants. However, we are easily able to identify the problem, and it poses no problems for the meaning of the text. Even Ehrman was willing to admit that the vast majority or these transmission errors are insignificant. He claims that there are 2 types of errors. There are errors that are unintentional, like the example I gave above, and then there are those that would be intentional. The examples he cites to argue for the alleged intentional altering of the text are based on a self-defeating argument. Dr. Ehrman not only admits we do not have the original autographs of the New Testament, but he uses that fact to undermine the reliability of the manuscript copies we do have. Then he argues that passages like the woman caught in adultery (John 8) and the ending of Mark's gospel are obviously additions to the text because they do not appear in many early manuscripts.

Even if he is correct that John 8 and Mark 16 are not original (and there are many good arguments in favor of their authenticity), Dr. Ehrman is still arguing contradictorily. Either we cannot declare any passage to be definitely in or out of the original autographs since we do not have them, OR we can argue for the inclusion or exclusion of passages based on the reliability of the copies we have. It seems that Dr. Ehrman wants to argue for both positions at the same time, which is logically contradictory.

Ehrman also speaks quite loosely about the manner in which scribes copied the text. According to Ehrman, the church was just lucky to find anyone that could read and write. When they did find this person, he was given free reign to reproduce the text in any manner he chose. This is quite different from the actual account. I won't deny that some copies were copied poorly, especially as we get to later manuscripts, but to a religious scribe the copying of the text was a very serious matter. These scribes considered the text the word of God. They would not copy it line by line as Ehrman suggested, and not even word by word. The scribes would actually copy the text character by character, letter by letter, and devoted much time and energy toward creating an accurate transmission of the text. In fact if errors were found during or after the copying process, they would destroy the entire document. So we can be sure that at least the early copies would include a very accurate transmission and therefore high levels of accuracy and reliability.

As far as a cough in the room during dictation preventing the autograph from being a perfect text, I would say Dr. Ehrman either is unaware of or he purposefully misstates the nature of plenary verbal inspiration. It is the original text, not the thoughts or words of the authors, that is inspired. Also, his assertion that God would have to perform a second miracle to allow for perfect transmission of the text by every single person that copied it all throughout history is completely unnecessary. All that is necessary is a text that is remarkably similar to the original. Despite Ehrmans example of the errors outnumbering the words of the New Testament, the fact is that the manuscripts we have are 99.9% in agreement with each other. Not only that, but absolutely none of the tenets of Christianity are in question, leaving the remaining errors little more than fuel for prideful language scholars and topics for inaccurate best sellers.

One blatant factual error that Ehrman spoke quite extensively on is that there are NO claims to the divinity of Jesus in the synoptic gospels. Perhaps Dr. Ehrman can explain a few of these away:

Mark 2:5 - Jesus claims to forgive sins (Something only God can do)
Matthew 22:43-44 - Jesus calls himself Lord
Matthew 14:33 - Jesus was worshiped as the Son of God
Mathew 15:25 - Jesus receives worship
Mark 5:6 - Jesus is declared to be the Son of the Most High God
Matthew 28:17-19 - Jesus received worship and claims all authority in heaven and earth
Matthew 16:16 - Peter's confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God
Matthew 2:5-6 - The chief priests tell Herod that the Messiah of Micah 5:2 would be born in Bethlehem
Matthew 1:21 - Jesus acts as God by forgives sins
Matthew 26:63-64 / Mark 14:61-62 / Luke 22:70 - Jesus says He is the Son of God, and also the Son of Man -- both are claims to deity
Matthew 20:28 - Son of Man sits on His throne in glory
Matthew 25:31-34 - All nations will be gathered before the Son of Man
Mark 2:5-12 - Jesus forgives sins, something only God can do
Mark 13:26-27 - Jesus is the Son of Man, a claim to deity from Daniel 7:13-14
Luke 2:11 - The angel of the Lord announces birth of the Savior "who is Christ the Lord", an unmistakable claim to deity

As Dr. Dave Johnson, with whom I attended the lecture with, pointed out, not believing the claims of deity of Jesus is one thing, but denying that such claims are made in the synoptics is quite different. Ehrman incorrectly denies that there are any divinity claims in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Yet another comment that came from a question Ehrman received seemed to cast the idea of the Trinity into the realm of fiction. His sarcasm and comedy suggested that the idea of Jesus being Man and God was ridiculous and he claimed that if you think you understand it, you don’t. Quite the contrary, any simple intro to philosophy text should explain the difference between a person and a nature. It is perfectly reasonable that God can be three persons and one nature somewhat similar to the way a triangle must have three sides and yet be one shape. There is no philosophical problem with Jesus being one person, but having two natures.

My last rant against Dr. Ehrman was in response to another question. The question was asked, how did Christianity spread if the resurrection is denied. Ehrman addressed the question as if it had no merit, and he equated the spread of all other religions and the fact that they spread. However, I suspect that what the audience member was really getting at was how was a religion of peace spread by eyewitnesses of a resurrection that did not happen. Then he must explain why those eyewitnesses each took that "lie" to the grave when they were killed for it. In other words, people die all the time for things that they believe to be true, but nobody dies for what he knows to be false. The apostles would have known one way or the other if Jesus was a fraud. They spent 2-3 years with him, they saw and did miracles, they saw Him resurrected, they touched His resurrected body and they witnessed His ascension. They had nothing to gain by maintaining a lie, but they had everything to lose by proclaiming and dying for what they knew was true.

In closing I would like to know, Mr. Ehrman, how do you draw these conclusions from the textual variants? How can we trust any ancient text by the standards that you judge the New Testament? On what grounds do you identify additions to the text? Why do you make blatant and erroneous denials regarding the Deity claims in the synoptics? Why can't you understand basic metaphysics regarding the Trinity? Why would almost all of the apostles die for what they knew to be a lie? Most of all, why do you base your personal beliefs that Jesus was not God and that there was no resurrection on such poor arguments that are laced with untruths, circular reasoning and unwarranted conclusions?