Sunday, 6 October 2013

Putting Ehrman into perspective

Textual critic Daniel Wallace's review [1] of Misquoting Jesus serves as a scholarly antidote to the hype which has built up around Ehrman's popular works. Credit where credit is due - Misquoting Jesus is a good overview of NT textual criticism. I own most of Ehrman's works and thoroughly recommend them to the discerning reader as Erhman is an excellent populariser of abstruse academic subjects.

The problem, as Wallace points out is that Ehrman still appears to think like a fundamentalist. It's a common problem with ex-Christians from a fundamentalist background. At times, their either-or mindset blinds them. Wallace refers to a pivotal moment in Ehrman's faith pathway when he studied a subject on the Gospel of Mark. Still committed to inerrancy, Erhman was trying to work around the old problem of Mark 2:26 with its reference to David entering the temple when Abiathar was high priest, which is contradicted by 1 Sam 21 which states that Ahimelech was high priest.  After Ehrman's professor made the remark that 'Maybe Mark just made a mistake', Ehrman began to question everything. All or nothing. No shades of gray. 

Wallace notes:
What strikes me as most remarkable in all this is how much Ehrman tied inerrancy to the general historical reliability of the Bible. It was an all-or-nothing proposition for him. He still seems to see things in black-and-white terms, for he concludes his testimony with these words:  “It is a radical shift from reading the Bible as an inerrant blueprint for our faith, life, and future to seeing it as a very human book.. .. This is the shift in my own thinking that I ended up making, and to which I am now fully committed.”  There thus seems to be no middle ground in his view of the text. In short, Ehrman seems to have held to what I would call a “domino view of doctrine.” When one falls down, they all fall down. [2]
Many explanations for this problem have been proposed, but as Wallace says elsewhere [3] nothing serious is at stake on this point. However, for the fundamentalist, if one thing is wrong, then everything is wrong. 

Ehrman's book as Wallace points out in his review can give the neophyte the wrong impression about the number of variants in the NT manuscripts:

First, there is next to no discussion about the various manuscripts. It is almost as if external evidence is a non-starter for Ehrman. Further, as much as he enlightens his lay readers about the discipline, the fact that he does not give them the details about which manuscripts are more trustworthy, older, and so on, allows him to control the information flow. Repeatedly, I was frustrated in my perusal of the book because it spoke of various readings without giving much, if any, of the data that supported them. Even in his third chapter—“Texts of the New Testament:  Editions, Manuscripts, and Differences”—there is minimal discussion of the manuscripts, and none of individual codices. In the two pages that deal specifically with the manuscripts, Ehrman speaks only about their number, nature, and variants. 
Second, Ehrman overplays the quality of the variants while underscoring their quantity. He says, "There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”  Elsewhere he states that the number of variants is as high as 400,000. That is true enough, but by itself is misleading. Anyone who teaches NT textual criticism knows that this fact is only part of the picture and that, if left dangling in front of the reader without explanation, this is a distorted view. Once it is revealed that the great majority of these variants are inconsequential—involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, changes in word order, and the like—and that only a very small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus. Indeed, only about 1% of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable.  The impression Ehrman sometimes gives throughout the book—and repeats in interviews —is that of wholesale uncertainty about the original wording a view that is far more radical than the one he actually embraces. [4]

Put that way, one cannot help but wonder what all the fuss is about. 


1. Wallace D. "The Gospel According To Bart:  A Review Article Of Misquoting Jesus By Bart Ehrman" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (2006) 49:326-349
2. ibid, p 333
3. See Wallace D Mark 2:26 and the Problem of Abiathar 
4. ibid, p 329-330