Presupposing Perfection: Bart Ehrman and N.T. Textual Transmission
Whenever I encounter the work of a new biblical scholar who is critical of orthodox Christianity, I have to admit to feeling a twinge of anxiety. Is it because I fear that I'll be exposed to some new facts that will destroy the foundation of my beliefs? Well, I suppose that's logically possible, but I am more consciously concerned that I'll hit an objection that I am unable to engage without first dedicating years of time acquiring the background to even begin the task. Fortunately, I've found few such issues. Most can be addressed at a fairly high level before even going into the details. And I find that it's not always the details that are the problem anyway, but the presuppositions applied to the data.
This gives some background as to why I had both apprehension and enthusiasm about hearing Dr. Bart D. Ehrman's critiques. It seems that I've been hearing Ehrman's name come up quite a bit this last year and when I did some investigation I came to the conclusion that he was one of the better class of skeptics. No Dan Brown conspiricist or John Crossan stealth-atheist: Ehrman is a UNC Chapel Hill scholar and author (most recently, Misquoting Jesus) who knows his biblical history and says exactly what he believes about it without straying too far from the data itself. So, hearing him speak in his own words on the Issues, Etc. radio show turned out to be both a treat and an education, in ways he did not intend.
Todd Wilken, the host, did a wonderful job of drawing out Ehrman's position and the basis of his conclusions. It seems that Ehrman discovered at some point in his theological education that there are variants in the ancient biblical manuscripts, and this set him down a road that caused him to question the inspiration of the original text and, ultimately, his own faith. Let us review, then, this compelling data that has driven Ehrman to reject classical Christianity.
Confronting the changes
The first thing to note is his point regarding the variations in the manuscripts. Somehow this fact, or the implications of it, managed to escape his attention all those years he read his Bible, most versions of which are footnoted with the more substantial variant readings. This is no secret, and is available information to any willing to look at the widely published materials (even from conservative sources). In fact, Ehrman admits that we have an "honest record of the changes." That is to say, there are no rumors of hidden ancient manuscripts and no incriminating documents that "fundamentalists" won't admit onto the field.
Ehrman did not just learn these things from liberal scholars. Indeed, one of his mentors was Bruce Metzger, a conservative whom Ehrman calls "the world's leading New Testament scholar." When Wilken asked how he came to differ from Metzger, Ehrman admits that they are both using the same raw data, but they simply take different things away from it. And Ehrman freely offers the grounds of his own conclusions, which turn out to be dependent upon a rather problematic presupposition about the way God ought to work in inspiring and transmitting the Scriptures.
Ehrman suggests that if God didn't go to the trouble of preserving the words of Scripture, He probably didn't inspire them in the first place. To be honest, he's got a compelling point. I've even used a form of this argument against Mormons and Muslims, who depend on the idea of a radical corruption of the text to support their departure from it. If God couldn't manage to get a meaningful record of His words and deeds down for posterity, then why bother, or what kind of God is that?
Inflating the problem
So, just how bad are the damages? Is there any hope of sifting the wreckage for the surviving original? Here's where it gets interesting. Enigmatically, Ehrman admits that the New Testament is "not fundamentally unreliable," and that for approximately 95 percent of the material "we know pretty much exactly what the text said." In fact, the whole reason we know that there's been any changes at all is because we've got a raft of surviving original language copies against which we can make comparisons, and the age of some of these copies dates to within 50 years after the originals were penned. Ehrman is forced to admit that we are in far worse shape in regards to most other classical texts.
But, detectable as they may be, what are these changes in the text? Perhaps there is a conspiracy afoot to mythologize the story of Jesus and weave "orthodoxy" into the text, which Ehrman does seem to believe. Wilken invited Ehrman to give an example of a variation that affects an important doctrine of Christianity. This was his big chance to drop a bombshell on the listeners. Did he have an example to offer, like Jesus "blessed" the water rather than "turned it into wine," or the tomb was "ransacked" rather than "empty?" No. The example he did give relates to Jesus' reaction to the lepers in Mark 1:41. In most manuscripts it says He had "compassion," but in a few it says He expressed "anger."
This is an example of his faith-destroying changes? In fact, most of the variant readings in the texts turn out to be even less consequential than this — things like grammatical and copyist errors. Ehrman thinks, though, that this particular change in Mark is an example of an intentional edit in order to soften the perplexing "anger" saying, which he takes to be the original. Ehrman finds these kinds of helping-the-author-along changes incriminating, and of even more concern to him than the innocent, though more common, copyist errors. The two together are enough to make him question the whole orthodox Christian enterprise.
Missing the point
But Ehrman fails to make the case that any particular copy or family of manuscripts is so riddled with errors as to affect one's ability to glean orthodox Christianity from it. Indeed, the individual manuscript differences are rather sparse and seldom alter the overall meaning of any given passage. Additionally, even if some copyists wrongly took liberties with the text to make it more palatable, understandable, or "orthodox," it does not follow that they were crafting orthodoxy in doing so, only following an existing stream of theology that can clearly be found in the rest of the text.
For example, one variant of Luke 2:33 reads, "Joseph and His mother were amazed at the things which were being said about [Jesus]," rather than "His father and mother" were amazed. Ehrman, in his writings, claims this is done to buttress the case for the virgin birth. But this seems a trivial concern in light of the fact that Luke 1:26-38, which is found in all manuscripts, explicitly tells the story of the virgin conception (not to mention Matthew's inclusion of it). While annotating and clarifying are not desirable in a formal copy of the text, it is exactly what we do with our modern paraphrase translations; and while the Luke 2:33 change may represent a liberty taken with the text, it does not represent a theological corruption given the previously established premise of the virgin birth.
The ironic thing is that in Ehrman's focus upon these textual variants he neglects the stunning claims made within the very same chapters that are not a matter of dispute. For instance, in Mark 1:41, Ehrman may not know the scope of emotions with which Jesus approached the lepers, but the remarkable thing is that all texts agree that Jesus healed them. And in Hebrews 2:9, Ehrman points out the variant of "by the grace of God," but in the very same chapter we find Jesus being attested to by miracles (v.4) and making propitiation for our sins (v.17). It would seem that Ehrman is swatting at gnats while ignoring the camel.
Surviving the ages
I think, though, that when Ehrman points out these variants he is suggesting a sort of evolutionary case for the corruption of the text. This would imply that year-by-year, copy-by-copy these little incidental changes would add up to make later manuscripts that are unrecognizable from the originals. There are at least four problems with this theory.
1) It is not just a case of scribes making copies of copies, which mutate endlessly. At various places and points in history there are intersections where manuscripts come together for comparison, which permit auditing of the text. Examples would be the Textus Receptus from around the Reformation, and the Westcott and Hort text from the late 1800's.
2) We have in our possession numerous writings from the early church fathers who quote extensively from the biblical texts. Indeed, the fact that we can clearly identify those quotes demonstrates that they closely match the surviving Scriptures.
3) If the biblical texts have indeed mutated over time beyond recognition, then we should expect that any discovered ancient manuscripts should be largely alien in nature. As it turns out, in the last century or so we have acquired numerous very old documents, none of which supports a radical corruption theory. In fact, a couple of these — the Rylands Papyrus (P52) and Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 3523 (P90) — date to the first half of the 2nd century and are mere scraps. But even with such scant text for comparison, they are so similar to later, complete works that we can easily tell the book, chapter, and verses to which they relate.
4) As mentioned above, Ehrman himself states that "we know pretty much exactly what the text said."
Imagination and presuppositions
So, where is the big disconnect from the reality of what was written to the copies we are left to investigate? Ehrman tentatively suggests that those initial copies of the originals could have been complete hack jobs. This seems improbable in light of the fact that the church for centuries has shown itself to be disinclined toward substantive revision of the text. Also, this theory evokes an image of a single individual or group of copyists who acted as gatekeepers for all of the canonical texts. However, it is far more complex than that.
The individual books that make up our New Testament were written at diverse times and places all around the Mediterranean at a period where there was no organized and centralized church. Copies were made and distributed, usually in isolation from the other manuscripts (especially so with the epistles), and it is absurd to believe that in every case only one reengineered copy was produced with the original being suppressed or destroyed. This means that there would be many copies of many different manuscripts in circulation among various autonomous groups, each seeking to add what they could to their collections. The fact that the surviving copies are so consistent both with each other and, theologically, across all other writings suggests that we either have a faithful tradition of textual transmission or there was some remarkable transcontinental conspiracy to edit all the documents and purge the field of every last trace of the originals. Ehrman does not prefer the former though he does not suggest the latter, but it seems to be his necessary conclusion.
In light of the fact that there are no grounds to assert that the substance of the New Testament documents has been lost, Ehrman must be depending upon his presupposition about God's preservation of the text to claim that it has been lost. His assumptions seem to run both ways: he thinks that the text can only be faithfully transmitted if it is inspired in the first place, and it can only be inspired if it is faithfully transmitted. But even assuming that God is not behind the text does not imply that it must have been corrupted. It only implies that the authors were wrong about what they wrote, but that is not Ehrman's starting point (though he has stated it as one of his ultimate conclusions).
Ehrman's rejection of the documented resurrection and divinity of Jesus doesn't seem to be based on his unwillingness to accept this as possible truth (if we are to believe his former claim to faith), and it doesn't seem to be based on any evidence we have that the Scriptures are forged or fictional manuscripts. It seems to be based, as evidenced by his own personal reflections, on his presupposition that God must perfectly preserve His words if He is to offer them at all. Let's take a minute to think through the implications of this requirement.
What would it look like for God to superintend the textual transmission process in the simple and straightforward way that Ehrman demands? Well, first of all, there would be no copying mistakes. Every resulting manuscript, some taking days or weeks to complete, would be flawless reproductions. Any manuscripts slated for reproduction would be immune to stain or damage. The words "I intend to copy this" would be like a magical incantation, turning any document into Kevlar®, at least until copies were completed.
There would never be any liberties taken with the material by well intentioned, misguided, or malicious scribes. Such persons would either be mysteriously barred from scribal duties or would often find their pens acting on their own behalves. Scribal training and quality control would become superfluous because of every person's uncanny ability to reproduce Scripture without error. In fact, the selection of the canon would have been automatic for the church fathers, since they could merely identify which texts were being flawlessly reproduced and which not. Copying the text blindfolded would be a popular party trick, and letting atheists try their best to make a flawed reproduction would be an evangelism tactic.
But possession of a flawless text would be only half the battle for Ehrman's God. After all, what's the point of having perfect revelation in a book if it can't be perfectly transmitted into the eyes, ears, and minds of the people? For this reason, these perfect Bibles must make it into the hands of perfectly literate people who would perfectly comprehend it with the acumen of a master theologian. Either that or the evangelists and preachers must have photographic memories and flawless presentations. Language barriers would be no problem either, as every foreign encounter would be a guaranteed occasion to repeat the miracle of Pentecost. And leaving anything out, embellishing, or paraphrasing would be divinely prohibited. A commission to preach would instantly make one a walking Bible.
If this seems ridiculous, then at least some localized imperfections in the copies must be tolerated. But it does not mean that God cannot divinely preserve the content through history in more broad and subtle ways, or that the essential messages cannot be found in some of the worst reproductions.
How important is it to have absolute precision in the miscellaneous areas that Ehrman points out as containing variants? There are Christians who have lived and died without knowledge even of the passages themselves. In the earliest church not all manuscripts were completed or widely circulated during the lives of some Christians, and in the medieval church a copy of the Bible was a rare commodity. But the central message of Christ was preached, and through it all the canonical documents were copied and spread by, and in spite of, fallible men, giving naysayers like Ehrman both the cause and privilege to spot the inaccuracies and improve future editions.
Has God preserved His message to us? Effectively, yes, in spite of the fallibility of men and even with the unwitting participation of some like Ehrman. It is ironic that at a time, two thousand years after the events, when we have more documents than ever before, and more global community among scholars to share, analyze, and reconcile these documents, that "Christian" scholars like Bart Ehrman can raise the protest that God hasn't done His job in preserving His revelation. Bart Ehrman may have other grounds for rejecting Christianity, but it would seem that his initial cause for doubt is ill-conceived and neglects the valuable contribution that his own area of scholarship has offered to the church.