Prof. Bart D. Ehrman needs no introduction to this forum as his publications and especially his best-seller Misquoting Jesus have aroused considerable interest on this blog. Nor does it really need to be said that the perspective from which this blog operates and Prof. Ehrman’s own views differ somewhat. He describes himself as a ‘happy agnostic’. However, it is to be hoped that his participation here will lead to some clarification of positions and lead to more fruitful discussion in the future. Owing to the busy nature of Prof. Ehrman’s schedule he has been invited on the understanding that he should not be expected to answer questions placed in comments subsequent to this interview.
PJW: So, Prof. Ehrman, what do you think is the best thing about being a New Testament textual critic?
BDE: When I started working seriously in textual criticism twenty-five years or so ago, the field was not at all what it is today. The vast majority of textual critics were technicians who were experts in many of the demanding technical aspects of the discipline. But they had no interest or ability in seeing or explaining how their studies related to broader fields within biblical or religious studies. After doing my dissertation I started realizing that it was impossible to do serious text-critical work without relating that work to such fields as NT exegesis, the social history of early Christianity, the development of early Christian doctrine, to such questions as orthodoxy and heresy, Christian apologia, the role of women in the early church, the rise of Christian anti-Judaism, and so on. Not only were these other fields important for understanding the transmission of the text of the NT, the textual data known almost uniquely by textual scholars were important for seeing developments in these other fields. For me, the most exciting thing about being a textual critic over the past 15-20 years has been seeing how textual criticism has moved beyond its myopic concerns of collating manuscripts and trying to determine some kind of “original” text to situating itself in the broader fields of discourse that concern an enormous range of scholars of Christian antiquity. Textual critics are uniquely situated to contribute to these larger concerns, meaning that now, finally, the work textual critics do can be seen as widely important and relevant, not simply of relevance to textual technicians.
PJW: What do you see as your most important contribution to scholarship?
BDE: I think my early work on methods of manuscript classification that I developed in my work on the Gospel Text of Didymus the Blind continues to have a significant role to play. But my most important contribution, I think, was in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, where I tried to show the symbiotic relationship between the emerging textual tradition of the NT and the conflicts raging in the early Christian centuries between proto-orthodox Christians and “heretics.”
PJW: Amongst the various books that you have written do you have any favourites?
BDE: They are like my children. I love them all! But I have to confess a particular tug at my heartstrings for Orthodox Corruption (as a serious scholarly book) and Lost Christianities (as a popular book). (I should note: I try to alternate between writing serious books for scholars and popular books for the Barnes and Noble crowd – and I think one of my contributions has been to show that a scholar can do both, without compromising scholarly integrity).
PJW: You’re rather prolific as a writer. How many hours a day do you work and how long does it take you to write a book like Misquoting Jesus?
BDE: Well, it’s very hard to say how long it takes to write a book. In one sense, Misquoting Jesus was the result of 25 years of study. In another sense, it took me five or six months of additional reading to get ready to write it. The writing itself goes very fast. I’m an intense, focused writer. I can crank out 30-35 pages on a word processor in about six hours. But then I definitely need to take a break and get a work-out!
PJW: What is it, do you think, that makes Misquoting Jesus such a success as a book?
BDE: To my knowledge, it’s the first time anyone has tried to make the recondite field of textual criticism accessible to an audience that knows nothing (NOTHING) about the field. People reading the book often don’t know that the NT was written in Greek, they don’t know what a manuscript is, they don’t realize that we don’t have the original writings of the NT, etc. I think the reason no one has tried to write a book like this before is because it is awfully difficult. How do you explain these things in a way that is true to scholarship, on the one hand, but interesting to a complete non-expert on the other? I decided early on that the only way to do it was to tell lots of stories and anecdotes, to keep the writing lively, to avoid all technical discussions, to show what really mattered about this field, to stress the very most interesting aspects of it. I know I’ve gotten in trouble for this – especially among textual critics who would prefer to talk technical language to one another rather than reach out to a broader audience (and also among scholars who aren’t textual critics but who feel like I went too far in making the field interesting). To them all I would say is that if there is a better way to write a book like this – they should do it!
PJW: How would you respond to the suggestion that Misquoting Jesus only engages with popular notions of the inspiration of scripture? After all many Christians down history have believed in verbal inspiration and at the same time that they did not have copies that exactly reproduced the inspired words.
BDE: This book is not about inspiration. In it I do talk about my own former views about the authority of scripture, but I don’t ever make any statements (that I recall!) in which I try to lay out a scholarly view of inspiration – I’m not trying to teach a doctrine of inspiration! I begin the book (and end it) with comments about my own spiritual journey away from a view of Scripture that was taught in the evangelical circles I was associated with (I never claim that this was the only view of inspiration in evangelical circles, or other Christian circles; I simply refer to it as the view in the circles I was associated with): the view of “verbal plenary inspiration” (the Bible is inspired completely, in all of its very words).
I begin with this autobiographical note in order to show what struck me as the deeper significance of what I came to understand the more I explored the manuscript tradition of the NT. We don’t have the original texts of the NT; we all knew this, of course, already while I was at Moody Bible Institute: that’s why we talked about the inspiration of the autographs. But I came to see that the absence of the originals, and our inability in places to know for certain what was in the originals, rendered the claim that the original texts were inspired more or less irrelevant. What good does it do to say these original texts were inspired if we don’t have them??
For some people this is no problem, and if so – well, what can I say? Most non-evangelicals realize that it is in fact a problem. But if it’s not for someone else, who is an evangelical, well, I think maybe that person and I look at the world differently! (By the way, in direct response to the question: I don’t mean to deal “only” with “popular” notions of inspiration. I deal with one form of the notion – the one that I, and other evangelicals that I knew, used to have. But I must say that this way of putting the question also strikes me as odd: since this book is meant for a popular audience, why would I deal with a view of inspiration that is not popular?? In any event, I’m not making any universal claims about inspiration; I’m simply saying why I can personally no longer subscribe to the evangelical views that I once held.)
PJW: You wrote: ‘The more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realized just how radically the text had been altered over the years at the hands of scribes, who were not only conserving scripture but also changing it.’ (Misquoting Jesus, p. 207). Do you think the same could be said relative to the textual transmission of Classical literature?
BDE: I’m not quite sure what the question is after: is it asking whether I realize that other texts besides the NT were changed in the process or transmission? Uh, I am a scholar, not an idiot!
There is an interesting issue, of course, of whether classical literature was changed as much as the NT was. I don’t know the answer: we don’t have anything like the manuscript tradition for the classics (even Homer!) that we have for the NT.
Another interesting aspect of the question is that the copying practices of classics and sacred Scripture may have been different. Kim Haines-Eitzen has made a compelling case that Scripture in the early centuries of the church was principally being copied by scribes who wanted to use the copies themselves, whereas the classics in this period were copied by scribes for the use of other people. That no doubt affected the process of transmission of scripture (it is the reason, within the NT textual tradition, that harmonization is so prevalent, as are the elimination of apparent inconcinnities and errors, etc.)
But maybe I’ve misunderstood the question!
PJW: Do you think that anyone might ever come away from reading Misquoting Jesus with the impression that the state of the New Testament text is worse than it really is?
BDE: Yes I think this is a real danger, and it is the aspect of the book that has apparently upset our modern day apologists who are concerned to make sure that no one thinks anything negative about the holy Bible. On the other hand, if people misread my book – I can’t really control that very well. Maybe ironically, this could show the fallacy of the view also held widely among evangelicals (at least the ones I know), that the intention of an author dictates the meaning of a text (since my intentions seem to have had little effect on how some people read my text).
My book is about how the NT got changed by the scribes, and here I insist that there are certain things that can be stated as factually true. I try to state these things as clearly as I can in the book. There are over 5000 Greek mss of the NT. These all differ from one another. The differences number in the hundreds of thousands. The vast majority of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant and don’t matter for much of anything. But some of the differences are very significant and can change the meaning of a passage or even of an entire book. Is there any textual critic who can say that these are not facts?
Still, I know that some evangelicals have raised objections to the book (oddly enough, I don’t know of serious objections raised by non-evangelicals. Or have I missed something? If only evangelicals are concerned, is that because only evangelicals care? Or is it because only they are threatened? If threatened – threatened by what exactly??). Many of the objectors have complained that readers of the book may not read those several strongly worded passages where I emphasize that MOST of the changes don’t matter much, and that they will instead notice only the passages where I discuss significant changes. To this kind of objection I really don’t know what to say. If people can’t read what I say – well, what can I say??
PJW: How do you view fellow textual critics who are evangelicals?
BDE: Hey, some of my best friends are evangelicals! I’ve published books with Michael Holmes and Gordon Fee, and in the guild, there are very very few textual critics of the NT who are not evangelicals! What do I think about them? Well, I like most of them! What do I think about their views? Well, I think their theology is wrong and I personally find their views untenable. And they find my views untenable. Isn’t scholarship great?!
PJW: What are your medium or long-term publication goals?
BDE: Right now I’m working on an edition of the apocryphal Gospels: original text on one side of the page (Greek/Latin/Coptic) with fresh facing page translations. It’s a lot of work and is meant, obviously for scholars (it’s a “Loeb-like” edition, but it will be done by Oxford, rather than Loeb). I’m doing it with my colleague Zlatko Plese, a brilliant classicist and Coptologist.
I have a whole list of other books I’ll be working on in the next couple of years, some of them scholarly (a commentary on some second-century apocryphal Gospels for the Hermeneia Commentary series) and some of them popular (a discussion of biblical traditions that deal with the problem of suffering). I like doing a range of things in my publications, for a range of audiences, and plan to continue full hilt for the time being.
PJW: Thank you Prof. Ehrman for taking time to respond to these questions
BDE: My pleasure!
Bart Ehrman's homepage,
Evangelical textual criticism roundup on Misquoting Jesus,
Williams' review of Misquoting Jesus.