Monday, May 08, 2017

What Is the Value of the Comparative Argument for the Reliability of the NT Text?

There is a common apologetic argument that says we should be far less skeptical about the text of the NT than we are for the text of other classical works since we have far more and far earlier manuscript evidence for the NT. You can find the basic comparison all the way back in Bentley. Among Evangelicals, the argument was deployed best by F.F. Bruce and his numbers for classical authors are still cited as if they have’t changed in over half a century. Today, the comparison is something of a staple of Evangelical apologetics.

But Bart Ehrman doesn’t buy it. He thinks the comparison is baseless and he gives three reasons why in a blog response to Dan Wallace. He explains:
First, it is not true that scholars are confident that they know exactly what Plato, Euripides, or Homer wrote, based on the surviving manuscripts. In fact, as any trained classicist will tell you, there are and long have been enormous arguments about all these writings. Most people don’t know about these arguments for the simple reason that they are not trained classicists. Figuring out what Homer wrote – assuming there was a Homer (there are huge debates about that; as my brother, a classicist, sometimes says: “The Iliad was not written by Homer, but by someone else named Homer” ) – has been a sources of scholarly inquiry and debate for over 2000 years!

Second, and more important: just because we are WORSE off for other authors than for those of the New Testament does not in itself mean that we can trust that we know what the NT authors wrote. I am a lot stronger than my five-year old granddaughter. But I still am not able to bench-press a half-ton truck. Yes, but you are MANY TIMES stronger than her! It doesn’t matter. I’m nowhere near strong enough. We have far more manuscripts of the New Testament than for any other ancient writing. But that doesn’t mean that we can therefore know what the originals said. We don’t have nearly enough of the right kinds of manuscripts. Leading to my third point.

Third, even though we have lots and lots of manuscripts, the vast majority of them are comparatively late in date and not the kinds of manuscripts we would need to know with confidence that we have a very, very close approximation of the “original” text. 94% of our surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament date from after the ninth Christian century. That is 800 years (years!) after the so-called originals. What good do these late manuscripts do us? They do us a lot of good if we want to know what text of Mark, Paul, or 1 Peter was being read 800 years after the originals were produced. But they are of much less value for knowing what the authors themselves wrote, eight centuries earlier.

As I will explain in my next post, the kinds of manuscripts we would really need to be able to say with some assurance that we know what the “originals” said – very early and very extensive manuscripts – simply don’t exist.

So it is absolutely true that the New Testament is far better attested than other ancient writings – pagan, Jewish, and Christian. But it is also true that this mere fact in itself cannot provide us with assurance that we know what the authors originally wrote.
There are some fairly obvious problems with some of this. The first point shows Ehrman’s typical rhetorical practice of raising the epistemological standard to new heights (note the use of “exactly” in the first sentence) before arguing that we can’t reach them because—surprise, surprise—scholars debate things. But there’s little reason to follow his standard here. Classicists need not know exactly what Euripides wrote in every case in order to understand, learn from, or appreciate his plays. So too in the case of the NT authors. In Ehrman’s third point, he makes a blind assumption that early is necessarily good and late, necessarily bad when it comes to manuscript evidence. He seems to forget how closely our late NT manuscripts agree with our early ones. Hence, his need for both very early and very extensive manuscripts is unnecessary—though certainly not undesirable!

But I do think the second objection raises a real point, one that Christian apologists need to think about. The question is, just how “bad” does the classical evidence need to be in order for the NT evidence to be “good”? Or, to turn the question on its head using Ehrman’s own illustration, what if the textual evidence for both classical works and the NT is good enough to “bench-press a half-ton truck”? In fact, what if the evidence for some classical authors was actually better than the NT? Would that change the reliability of the NT text in any way? If it wouldn’t, then does the comparison still have value? If so, what is it?

I have my own answer, but I’d like to hear what readers think about this.


  1. Thanks for this. I have a few things to add.

    1. Yes, Ehrman often raises the epistemological stakes, and it is true that classicists don't need to know the exact words to appreciate and learn from their texts. A point of distinction, however, is that classicists don't hold to the inerrancy of their texts, while the Ehrman's imagined interlocutors do, and as the former fundamentalist Ehrman once did. A doctrine of the inerrancy of the autographs seems to up the stakes at least somewhat and require some, if not considerable, confidence in being able to tell what the inerrant autographs actually say. This is not a concern of classicists.

    2. I see the second point as a variation of the precision argument, where the stakes are raised so high that even a scintilla of doubt is too much.

    3. I think "comparatively late in date and not the kinds of manuscripts we would need" is a reference to the vast bulk of Byzantine manuscripts in non-specialist language. On that point, he's right that finding yet another Byzantine manuscript is hardly going to change our understanding of the "original" text.

  2. Stephen,
    Yes, inerrancy is a uniquely evangelical concern and does indeed raise the bar as to the importance of identifying the 'original text.' Still, I don't believe this makes the 'quest' itself more difficult. Certainly, Erhman's polimec that his brother or other scholars doubt Homer wrote or lived has dramatic flair but, little substance. The second point Erhman raises also creates a false comparison. While acknowledging that some apologists have made the argument that he raises from the number of manuscripts available for the N.T., The actual argument is not about certainty but, similarity. If most scholars accept the historicity of the classics which are further in age from the originals why wouldn't the same benefit be given to N.T. manuscripts that are closer?
    The third point that Erhman makes is also rhetoric. At what number of manuscripts and percentage of text that predates his 'early' category would he accept that the text we have is 'original'? Again, this fails to recognize that the 'original text' is not only contained in the autographs but, also can be found, hence textual criticism, in the existing manuscripts. It also, as Peter points out, misses the agreement between the early and later manuscripts. This point is often overlooked by both Majority Text and Early Text advocates. The common core to all text types or clusters is secure.


  3. It sounds like you two are talking past each other.

    In the full text of Bart's blog, also says this:

    "I have had three debates with Dan Wallace on the question of whether or not we can know for certain, or with relative reliability, whether we have the “original” text of the New Testament. At the end of the day, my answer is usually “we don’t know.” For practical reasons, New Testament scholars proceed as if we do actually know what Mark wrote, or Paul, or the author of 1 Peter. And if I had to guess, my guess would be that in most cases we can probably get close to what the author wrote. But the dim reality is that we really don’t have any way to know for sure. "

    The point he is debating is the certainty with which we have the original texts as they were written by the original author. He goes on to say here (and in another paragraph of his post) that if he had to guess in most places we can get really close to what the authors wrote.

    You go on to say, "Classicist need not know exactly what Euripides wrote in every case to understand, learn from, or appreciate his plays. So too in the case of NT authors."

    However, Bart doesn't seem to ever be arguing that we have to know "exactly" what an author wrote in every single circumstance to understand them, learn from them, or appreciate them. He's not saying the NT text is total bunk. He's saying that we can't know with certainty that what we have is what the authors wrote in every case, and that the comparisons to other texts from antiquity isn't a sufficient argument for "proving" such as case (to that I agree: just because you know subject A better than subject B is not a sufficient argument for proving subject A). He even acknowledges that if he had to guess it's probably right or really close in most cases. He says nothing about this lack of certainty making the text useless for learning or studying (otherwise I assume he would have never bothered writing a textbook about the New Testament).

  4. I don't think that comparing the number of manuscripts between classical and NT is a good way to go about apologetics because it fails to address the quality of the MSS extant. It doesn't matter if we have 500,000 Greek copies if each one descends from a corrupt archetype. Apologists need to show why the NT MSS are good copies, whether 3 or 3,000 from the 2nd century and not that there are many MSS. I think that cuts through the drama of Ehrman's blog narrative and gets to the heart of his objection. If so, I agree with Ehrman on this.

    1. Tim,
      First, as usual, you are correct. It is the quality of the manuscripts that matters however, that is not Bart's objection! He, in fact, contends that unless we have both large quantities of manuscripts and text and these are early we cannot 'know' that we have the original text.
      I also wonder what would constitute enough 'early' and 'complete' text since he has stated previously that we currently only have copies of copies, hundreds of years removed from the originals.

    2. Thanks Tim. I see what you are saying about my "summary" of Ehrman's argument. It does seem as if he is setting the bar too high. For example, the text of a NT book (say Mark) could be considered very reliable even though the MSS are very sparse from the early centuries, if it could be shown that the extant MSS are descended from good copies. I think that this can be done, but not through pointing to the number of MSS.

  5. The problem is the move from an analogical argument to a comparative one. F.F. Bruce's argument is sound because it is analogical. We accept X, therefore why not accept Y which has equal or better evidence? The premise is that we already accept X. It's perfectly valid as presented by Bruce. The comparative argument is simply that evidence for Y is better than evidence for X. If you like you can add a 'yah boo' at the end for rhetorical flourish. There's no agreed premise, and whereas the analogical argument is happy with 'equal' the comparative argument requires 'better'. Unfortunately, the comparative argument is the one which is more commonly found. Arguably the writings of Josh McDowell represented a turning point in the move from the analogical argument of Bruce to the newer and inferior comparative argument.

    I don't think these arguments have anything to do with inerrancy, since, arguably all sorts of people in church history have believed in the errorlessness of God's words in Scripture without it ever crossing their mind to argue for the reliability of the Scriptures because there were more copies of them. What would Augustine have made of the stupidity of trying to argue that the Scriptures were true because there were more copies of them than of Virgil? (There weren't.)

    1. I brought up the issue of inerrancy because I think his understanding of it and how he used to believe it is a factor in these public debate in America in his raising of the bar to certainty. I don't think that Augustine's notion of the errorlessness of God's words in Scripture is really a part of his thinking. Perhaps there are other reasons for his setting the bar so high.

    2. I agree with Dr. Williams that inerrancy, rightly understood, has little to do with Ehrman's arguments. On the other hand, though I haven't read extensively in the Ehrman corpus, I can testify that his understanding of inerrancy—as instanced for example in his debate with Dr. Williams on "Unbelievable" a little bit back— is precisely the (mis)understanding I was taught growing up. Point for point.

      If, I was taught, the KJV [never mind the Greek!] can be shown to be wrong in even a single instance, then it is absolutely meaningless to claim to have the "Word of God." Anyone who claimed the KJV (or for some, the TR) to be in error at any point, however minute, was, for many, a "Bible denier" or worse. Though some took a more moderate position, for the majority it was either perfect or worthless. Of course this is, from any historical point of view, utter nonsense—but that only causes those who believe it to hold it all the more passionately.

      Though Ehrman doesn't have a "KJVO" background, the logic of that position has deep roots in American fundamentalism and it seems to me that it comes out in almost everything that he writes. The similarity of Ehrman's logic to that found in the more extreme branches of fundamentalism is almost eerie.

    3. Great insight from the KJVO position Peter.

    4. I agree here--and while not KJVO, I still think it is a wonderful translation and I use it a lot.

  6. At the same time, it doesn't appear that Ehrman is retracting any of his many writings that treat the text of the New Testament as if it accurately represents what was written in the original autographs, or that treat the text of numerous other ancient writings of which he admits we are even less certain, as though they too are accurately reflected in the manuscripts we have of them.

  7. As I see it, from the standpoint of modern eclecticism, Ehrman is actually correct in his claim:

    “We have far more manuscripts of the New Testament than for any other ancient writing. But that doesn’t mean that we can therefore know what the originals said. We don’t have nearly enough of the right kinds of manuscripts . . . . The vast majority of them are comparatively late in date and not the kinds of manuscripts we would need . . . .. The kinds of manuscripts we would really need . . .– very early and very extensive manuscripts – simply don’t exist.”

    Granting that a working presumption of most eclectic scholars (including Ehrman) is that the vast bulk of NT MSS basically should be excluded as irrelevant for the primary establishment of the text, Ehrman’s statement makes perfect sense. Rather than claiming some sort of text-critical superiority to the classics based on the sheer quantity of extant MSS, modern eclectics perhaps should acknowledge that their actual preferred witnesses for establishing the best approximation to the “original” NT text number only in the few dozens, as opposed to the several thousands otherwise set aside from serious consideration.

    Of course, given the ca. 94% of the NT text that remains textually secure among all Greek MS witnesses (including those from beyond the 9th century), perhaps one might see a potential answer to Ehrman’s question “What good do these late manuscripts do us?” — an answer that transcends how the NT books may have been read by various individuals or churches — but that is a matter for separate discussion.

  8. Ehrman states "kinds of manuscripts we would really need ... very early and very extensive manuscripts – simply don’t exist."

    How early does a MS have to be to be a “very early” MS? Is it before Constantine, before Origen, first century?
    What exactly is an “very extensive” MS? Is it 5% of text extant, or 50%, or 100%


    Matthew Hamilton

    1. Just guessing, but Ehrman has argued that most of the changes happened in the early transmission because there weren't professional scribes doing the copying till much later So that is an indicator of how early they would have to be.

  9. Thanks for the feedback. I'm travelling so I will be brief. My position is basically that of Pete Williams. There are really two types of arguments historically and Bruce's form is still legitimate. But it is more limited and less dramatic which explains why it has been eclipsed in recent years. But the other form is problematic and I think Ehrman is right on this.

    As for inerrancy, it has played a role ain the U.S. context and Peter Montorro's point about the "all or nothing" argument is very relevant here. I was given the same argument at some point and it was by no means a KJVO context. It's not a good one though. But I have found it in John Wesley, so it has a long pedigree. Still, I do not think inerrancy has any real bearing on this issue except insofar as inerrancy has (too) often been tied to Evangelical epistemology. But that's a topic for another post.

    I would like to hear from others about Maurice's objection that the reasoned eclectic's use of this apologetic is hypocritical. Does that charge stick? Why or why not?

  10. Two thoughts:

    First, from an apologetic standpoint, we should welcome Ehrman's first argument. It helps us refine Bruce's overstatement, "The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which NO-ONE dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond ALL doubt" (The New Testament Documents, 1987:15).

    Secondly, in terms of Bruce's primary argument in this particular passage of his book, he identifies the reality that the Scriptures, as a "sacred book," are "ipso facto under suspicion [by critics], and demand much more corroborative evidence for such a work than they would for an ordinary or secular pagan writing." He then concludes, "From the viewpoint of the historian, the same standards must be applied to both [sacred and classical documents]."

    I agree both with Bruce's conclusion and sentiment. Yet it is the sentiment that we must be careful to control in our apologetics.

    Stephen Samec

  11. This may give some clues on Ehrman's past and pr sent attitudes toward biblical literature. It's from his book "Forged" on page 5.

    “The Bible contained errors. And if it contained errors, it was not completely true. The problem for me, because I wanted to believe the truth, the divine truth, and I came to see that the Bible was not the divine truth without a remainder. The Bible was a very human book. But the problems didn’t stop there. Eventually I came to realize that the Bible not only contains untruths or accidental mistakes. It also contains what almost anyone today would call lies. That is what this book is about.”

  12. And these are the kind of people you've committed your bibles to for "revision". No thanks. Go ahead and laugh, but I'll stick with my King James.

    1. To which sort of people do you intend to refer to by "these" ?

  13. I'm surprised that no one has brought up Shakespeare. As far as I know, no one among scholars of English literature doubts that Shakespeare existed, but--like Homer of old--there is considerable doubt as the the authorship of much of what has been attributed to him.
    Furthermore, there is a lot of textual uncertainty in regards to Shakespeare's (or Pseudo-Shakespeare's) work. There is reasonable doubt that the debut performances of his plays verbally matched ANY subsequent transcription.
    If we want to highlight the uncertainty of an original, copies of which have since spread around the world, we don't have to go back any further than the time of the King James Version.

  14. As always the El-aleph-font in the chat room is the GMark Ending, the most important part of the Christian Bible. While there are only 3 heavenly Greek witnesses to 16:8 as original, most E-Angelicals accept 16:8 as the original ending.

    At the other End (so to speak), a popular explanation for nogo after 16:8 is that is was lost, where the Manuscript support goes from 3 to -0-.

    [understatement]This suggests that Textual Criticism for the Religious has issues that Classical does not.[/understatement]

    1. Hi JoeWallack
      I am not sure, if I fully understand your post, but I will try to comment anyway.

      The discussion of the long ending of Mark shows us with all clarity, I believe, several pitfalls to avoid when doing textual criticism. One is, that the external evidence cannot be reduced to Greek manuscripts alone. Besides the tree Greek manuscripts (א, B, 304.), the short ending is attested in the versions in Syriac, Coptic, Armenian (more than 100 manuscripts), and Georgian, and when consulting the patristics, it is attested by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome. Eusebius even comments on the long ending saying that, the majority of manuscripts in his day are lacking the longer ending. This underline, that mere numbers of manuscripts don’t make the point, and that what is in the majority of manuscripts known today, doesn’t always have to represent the majority reading in earlier times.

      My point is not that religious text cannot have specific issues, which classical texts are exempt from, but as far as the analogical argument goes, and a case like the ending of Mark shows us, NT-textual criticisms has the advantage of an enormous corpus of manuscripts, versions, patristics, lectionaries etc., that is most classical authors denied. That should give us, text critically speaking, a relatively higher confidence in finding the original wording of the NT texts, than of comparable classical texts. Or we could put it another way: The religious text of the new testament, by virtues of having an enormous textual corpus, has huge advantages compared to the average classical writer, that by far outweighs the problem caused by individual scribes’ religious tendencies.