Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Bart Ehrman vs. Dan Wallace

Whilst the focus on Ehrman recently has been on his spat with hack writer, history revisionist, and pathological liar extraordinaire, Richard Carrier, and whilst I did intend to write a review of Richard Dawkins' excellent book, The Greatest Show on Earth, I thought I would write this quick blog post on another issue, and that is Bart Ehrman's approach to the textual reliability of the New Testament. Despite the concerted attack on Ehrman by the rabid pack of the unlearned horde of Christ-Mythers, following their latest self-appointed spokesperson into battle, Ehrman is a critic of Christianity. As a textual scholar, Ehrman has published several sensationalist popular books attacking the credibility and reliability of the New Testament. New Testament textual scholars, of course, haven't taken this lying down and have issued several responses and challenges to Ehrman's, often highly misleading, presentations in his popular level works. One such textual scholar, Daniel Wallace, has recently debated Bart Ehrman a number of times. Whilst several reflections have been produced, including a book which I am anxious to read, Ehrman has recently made a blog post on their most recent debate. In this blog post, Ehrman addressed one particular argument employed by Wallace, and one that I and other apologists have also used. The problem is not only does Ehrman severely misrepresent Wallace, he gets some basic facts wrong too.

The argument in question is the appeal to the genuine paucity of textual manuscript evidence for classical works. The New Testament has a vastly greater number of manuscripts, the earliest of which are closer to the originals than the manuscripts of classical works are, and are of substantially better quality. Yet, classical authors do not run about like headless chickens lamenting that we cannot know what they originally wrote. Ehrman, however, mischaracterises this argument. First of all, Ehrman implies that this is Wallace's ONLY argument, when it isn't. Secondly, Ehrman explicitly and outrightly focuses on the original words.
"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 source of scholarly inquiry and debate for over 2000 years!"
Fortunately, this has not escaped Wallace's attention, who notes in his response to Ehrman's blog post the following:
"It is significant that Bart subtly shifts the ground of our discussion. I have never said in our debates that we are absolutely certain of the wording of the text of the New Testament. So, I would agree with him that “we really don’t have any way to know for sure.” But that’s a far cry from saying that we don’t have probability on our side. And for him not to divulge how scholars go about raising their level of confidence regarding the original wording, while simultaneously speaking in generalities about what we can’t know for sure, is disingenuous."
I'm not aware of any serious Christian scholar or apologist who argues we can know the precise wording. For the simple reason that we don't need to:
"…to apply the concept of original and copy to ancient documents is anachronistic… we must abandon the modern concept of authenticity and the modern requirement of exact verbatim correspondence down to the very punctuation.” - Rosalind Thomas, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens, Cambridge University Press, (1989), p47-48
Here is a personal example that should be pertinent. I am currently at university studying History and Music. As such, I have had a few exams, including one I am currently revising for. In preparation, I am expected to revise on one or two key subjects (or on a specific question if it is an exam where we are told the question beforehand.) The current exam I am revising for is on the Classical music period, where I am doing the same thing. I have been going over class notes and reading Charles Rosen's The Classical Style. Even though I can't take these notes in, I still make them. Why? Well, for the simple reason that I can structure what I plan to say, memorise it, and then when it comes to the exam, I will have a general outline of what to say.

First, I shall note the problems of defining the Classical style, then discuss symmetry, and so on. For my US history exam last semester, I revised on the issue of slavery and civil rights. I memorised general outlines, which allowed me to recall specific points. I would not be able to recall the exact the words I used, but I can still remember what I wrote. And the ancients had much better memories than we did, since they were primarily an oral society. Ehrman's argument about not knowing what was originally said simply collapses like a deck of cards once this naive obsession with exact words is abandoned.

The supreme and monumental irony is that Ehrman implies Wallace doesn't know much about classical textual criticism. Yet, Wallace notes that Ehrman makes some particularly egregious mistakes regarding the manuscripts evidence for classical works. Ehrman claims that in some lucky cases, such as Homer, we have hundreds of manuscripts, but never a thousand. Wallace notes that such ponderings are 65-80 years out of date.
"He seems to be basing his opinion about Homeric mauscripts on works from the 1930s and 1950s, whose authority on this matter is cited in all four editions of The Text of the New Testament (the first three by Bruce Metzger and the fourth co-authored with Ehrman). But these cited works are now fifty to eighty years out of date! The reality is that we now have more than 2000 manuscripts of Homer..."
This is ironic, and by no means a trivial point, as Ehrman is implicitly trying to label Daniel Wallace as not being up to date with classical scholarship. This is Ehrman's main failing as a scholar, he is highly misleading, and tends to make a number of errors. However, Ehrman is infinitely more respectable than slimeball, Richard Carrier. If reading Bart Ehrman is like having a stream of sewage come unbidden into one's home, then reading Richard Carrier is like having someone construct a sluice to let the sewage in.


  1. Bart Ehrman writes the following :-

    'With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) -- sources that originated in Jesus' native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.'

    It is surprising that the Gospels are 'pretty outstanding' evidence.

    But it would take more than 'pretty outstanding' evidence for Bart to believe what they say.

    Bart claims that the Aramaic of the story of Jesus raising a child from the dead goes back very early and that there is 'very little dispute' about this.

    But, of course, Bart does not believe it happened.

  2. "But it would take more than 'pretty outstanding' evidence for Bart to believe what they say."
    Indeed. Most sceptics tend to believe things in the face of evidence.