Evangelical Textual Criticism

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Dan Wallace reviews Misquoting Jesus

Dan Wallace has now written a review of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus on the Aspire2 Blog. His review takes the subject from a different but complementary angle to mine. I limit myself to one quotation:

'Unfortunately, as careful a scholar as Ehrman is, his treatment of major theological changes in the text of the NT tends to fall under one of two criticisms: Either his textual decisions are wrong, or his interpretation is wrong. These criticisms were made of his earlier work, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, which Misquoting Jesus has drawn from extensively. Yet, the conclusions that he put forth there are still stated here without recognition of some of the severe criticisms of his work the first go-around.'

4 comments:

  1. http://kfuo.org/IE_Main.htm

    Has a bit more substance than previous NPR interview's.

    Also, is anyone aware of J.R. White of Aomin.org running commentary on the NPR discussion?

    At times, he seems to favour sweeping assertions in the same quantity as Ehrman.

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  2. Thanks for these links. Actually, White makes an important point if Ehrman has indeed say that any human uncertainty whatsoever about the text of scripture—even about one variant—makes it impossible to believe that God inspired the words of scripture. I may not be able to listen at the right time, but I'd appreciate a transcript of the relevant section of the interview if anyone could make one.

    Such a position, depending on the detail, might imply that according to Ehrman people in the fourth or sixteenth century already had evidence that logically ought to have led them to abandon belief in verbal inspiration. Thus all the information Ehrman presents about more recent knowledge of the multiplicity of variants within the manuscripts should be superfluous to his argument.

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  3. As per PJW’s request, I have transcribed a small part of the interview which I think states quite clearly Ehrman’s position:

    TW. My first question had to do with the fact that he says early in his book that his study of the Greek New Testament lead him to a major shift in his thinking about whether or not the New Testament is in fact reliable and I asked him to describe that shift in thinking.

    BE. Well before this I started out as a strong evangelical Christian who believed that the Bible had no mistakes in it. And as I started, as I learned Greek and started looking at Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament, I realised that these words of the New Testament that I thought were inspired by God, in some places we don’t even know what the words are. These words have often been changed by scribes copying the text, and that made me wonder then did God really inspire these words if in fact these words hadn’t been preserved over the years by God miraculously, what made me think that God had inspired them in the first place.


    I think some people are misunderstanding Ehrman.

    As far as I can gather, Ehrman’s basis for his rejection of the inspiration of the text of the New Testament relies on his understanding of divine providence.

    E.g. PJW’s original reading/text today, might be somebody’s (or even his own) secondary reading tomorrow.

    If new manuscript evidence, methodologies, or any other reason comes to light and PJW relegates an original reading to secondary and insists another reading is now original, for that period of time he has affirmed that God said something he did not say/or inspire the author to say. Not only that, but consider PJW had presented this (previously) original reading as original to other Christians and non-believers. Essentially, PJW has involved himself in the propagation of falsehood. A grievous charge indeed.

    PJW said: “…multiplicity of variants within the manuscripts should be superfluous to his argument”;

    However, if I have understood Ehrman correctly, this is critical to his argument and it is from where it receives its strength.

    If God can’t protect his word, wherein any given original reading cannot be clearly adduced or is unknown, what allows one to a priori theologically affirm that this is the case with any other reading, given that the certainty ascribed to this reading is based on human thought processes and calculations – thought processes and calculations which inevitably change with time, circumstances, methodologies for reconstructing the text, view of transmissional history, documentary evidence (see WH introduction 1882, pg 66), etc…

    N.B. PJW was the first name that came to mind! Any historical personality/group could be used… I have no gripe against PJW and the above example should be understood in context with my understanding of Ehrman’s difficulties.

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  4. Anon wrote:

    'E.g. PJW’s original reading/text today, might be somebody’s (or even his own) secondary reading tomorrow. ... If new manuscript evidence, methodologies, or any other reason comes to light and PJW relegates an original reading to secondary and insists another reading is now original, for that period of time he has affirmed that God said something he did not say/or inspire the author to say. Not only that, but consider PJW had presented this (previously) original reading as original to other Christians and non-believers. Essentially, PJW has involved himself in the propagation of falsehood. A grievous charge indeed.'

    Actually, the charge would only be grievous if PJW (or whoever) had actually affirmed a definitive judgement on the text. If, say, I were editor of a GNT and affirmed that everything I had printed was exactly the same as the original text and that my text was unalterable, and then I subsequently changed my text, I would be guilty of something grave.

    However, my position may not be so vulnerable. Though not all evangelicals agree with this, I hold as a matter of considerable, but not absolute certainty, that all the words that God inspired in the NT are contained within extant mss. I might therefore edit a book of the GNT and not be sure whether variant a or b is the inspired one, but if provisionally accept the wrong variant, I have still not absolutely rejected the right one. I do not think that I have done anything so grievous, therefore.

    Moreover, it may be that one variant is ηλθον and the other is ηλθαν. If I accept the wrong one I am at worst accepting a semantically identical 'translation' of the original text.

    Now we should realise that what I am articulating here is not some new casuistry. I should imagine that many copyists of Greek NT mss through history were probably convinced that there was a single correct text and they were also probably convinced that they had not completely attained to it. They believed that the text was certain—certain to God. Insofar as they were uncertain they felt drawn to God as the source of all certainty. Ehrman needs to establish that it is obligatory for a deity undertaking verbal inspiration of a book to guarantee therewith complete certainty of the verbal sequence not to himself, but to humans. Ehrman should also specify how many humans need to attain this certainty for inspiration to be reasonable.

    Anon again:
    'If God can’t protect his word, wherein any given original reading cannot be clearly adduced or is unknown, what allows one to a priori theologically affirm that this is the case with any other reading, given that the certainty ascribed to this reading is based on human thought processes and calculations – thought processes and calculations which inevitably change with time, circumstances, methodologies for reconstructing the text, view of transmissional history, documentary evidence (see WH introduction 1882, pg 66), etc...'

    We need to change 'can't protect' in the first line to 'hasn't protected'. There is no ground for supposing that if God has done something he has done it out of necessity. I am not sure what is meant by 'protect'. I am not suggesting that anything has been lost.

    This paragraph appears to my untrained eyes basically to be an objection predicated on Lessing's Ugly Broad Ditch. The answer to Lessing is the word 'revelation'. Revelation is a process by which God communicates unequivocally with humans. I would not use the spatial metaphor of knowledge of the scriptures being 'based on' various contingent human activities as articulated by Anon. Rather, I would say that the 'base' is God, who involves in his activity the human senses. Since he is the immoveable base of the communicative event there is nothing which is uncertain. Lessing's objection is based upon scepticism about revelation (which is a very shaky base indeed!).

    If I may put the above in different terms, I do not think that evangelicals should allow themselves consistently to be drawn into using language in which their senses are 'foundational' in epistemology.

    Or to approach it from another angle, I am happy to adopt general academic language in which I assign various levels of 'certainty' to different NT readings. Since, according to the presuppositions of general academic discourse, absolute certainty can never be attained I would never—when speaking that particular language—use language of absolute certainty.

    However, I should not confuse that academic language with reality. It is a discourse based on certain views about the world, one of them being that God does not communicate with certainty. Yet my own conviction is that there are many texts in the NT (the majority in fact) which God has so communicated to humans that, though contingent and fallible human senses are involved in the receipt of that revelation, God guarantees certainty in the communication. If that is so, then the receipt of that revelation is not something that I as a human may come to my own mind about, but rather I have a creaturely obligation to receive it. To doubt it would be rebellion against God's communication.

    To take John 1:1 as a case in point. Even viewed from standard academic discourse there is nothing uncertain about this verse aside from the uncertainty that radiates in the background of the academic universe. Viewed from faith this is something that God has so communicated with humans that all who hear are obliged to heed.

    Now I'm beginning to sound like a bad Systematic Theologian. I am not thus trained. I'd be most grateful if someone who is so trained would be so kind as to explain better than me how to respond to Lessing.

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