Critiques of Bart Ehrman

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Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus : The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why has become quite a publishing success since it came out in November. Those who know biblical studies will recognize it as mostly a good popularization of standard textual criticism (comparing the various manuscripts of biblical books to try to reconstruct with the text originally said). Those who don't know the subject will take it as a strong argument against the integrity of the Bible, but any familiarity with text criticism will demolish that impression rather quickly. Ehrman's conclusions on such matter simply don't follow from his arguments. I've not looked too much at the book itself, but I've read several reviews over the last few weeks:

Craig Blomberg in Denver Journal
Daniel Wallace at bible.org
Ben Witherington at his blog (which includes Wallace's comments with his own thoughts surrounding it)

All three scholars conclude that Ehrman's presentation of the actual data is excellent as an introduction at the popular level to a difficult field but that he paints his conclusions to suggest something way beyond what the data show. For instance, he handpicks the very worst cases of textual corruption and then acts as if those are fairly representative, when in reality hardly anything is on that level. I could go on, but I'd rather you just read what the biblical scholars say.

13 Comments

I am not sure I follow what you said.

You said that

1. people who are not familiar with the subject of standard textual criticism (STC) will take this book to be a challenge on biblical authority.

And apparently the opposite for those familiar, viz., that those familiar with STC will not view this as an argument against the Bible's integrity.

So then they will view it as and argument for the Bible's integrity ???

How can they then see that his conclusions do not follow from his arguments?

This is petty caviling... but anyway.

- Raj

Something doesn't have to be an argument for the Bible's integrity for it not to be an argument against the Bible's integrity. Many arguments are pretty irrelevant to the issue of the Bible's integrity and thus aren't an argument one way or the other. People who know text criticism will realize that Ehrman is just presenting text critical issues, which are by and large irrelevant to the issues he raises when he draws his conclusions about the reliability of the Bible.

Text criticism isn't an argument for anything. It's a field of study regarding how to reconstruct the original text. There are problems in doing so, but not one of them undermines the overall consistency of scripture or the view that the Bible is 100% inerrant in its original manuscripts. The problems are generally minor, and only a small handful few have the magnitude of the examples he presents as representative (e.g. the woman caught in adultery in John, the longer ending of Mark, and the Latin trinitarian formula added to I John).

The impression of the average reader will be that we can't really know anything about what the Bible originally said because it has such problems, but those who know text criticism know better. That field of study shows no such thing, and most scholars seem to think we have a pretty reliable record of virtually anything of serious importance in the Bible. Evangelical text critics know full well all the issues raises in Ehrman's book and yet conclude that there a few things that are minorly interesting that we aren't sure of but nothing of doctrinal significance that you can't get in some other passage that isn't textually disputed.

I totally disagree with your conclusion. I talk to people all the time who are not aware there are no original copies of New Testament books. They are not aware how influential personal opinion can be in translating ancient manuscripts, and this book opens the eyes of an uneducated person onto how these texts were handed down.
Those of us who have attended evangelical churches know full well that we are told over and over "The Bible is the infallible Word of God", or "The Bible has been preserved without error". This book points out to those of us who have not attended seminary that these statements aren't exactly true. One very small example is John 2:4, where it is translated in the NIV "dear woman", when "dear" is nowhere to be found in the Greek. Is a sentence with a word added still a "perfect" transmission of God's ideas? Who makes that decision?

People who are wrong such as yourself often use your tactic: painting with a broad brush of generalities instead of being specific. Dr. Ehrman gives SPECIFIC examples of corruptions in the text.

If people are uninformed, then it's fine to inform them. What's not fine is to twist the facts the way Ehrman does. Pretending that most of the NT is as unreliable as John 7:53-8:11 or Mark 16:9-20. His book makes it seem as if those are par for the course rather than the only two passages of significant length that any text critic seriously doubts.

I'm not sure where your second paragraph is coming from. I understand full well all the facts Ehrman is pointing out, as do all serious evangelical scholars. It doesn't stop them from believing that the Bible is the infallible word of God. Any evangelical pastor who has attended seminary knows that there are errors in how the texts have come down to us.

That doesn't in any way conflict with the doctrine of inerrancy, however, which does not say that we have the originals preserved without error. It says that we have something close enough to the originals to preserve what scripture says but t eadmits tharrors in copying have occurred, which means we need to do careful study to reconstruct the original in the places where texts disagree. In almost all minimally important places where that occurs, the answer is usually clear enough to make a good decision on the original reading.

The NIV "dear woman" issue is completely different. That's just a case where people of different translation philosophies will disagree on how to translate it. Those who care more about form than meaning will translate is as "woman", even though that sounds rude to us when it wasn't rude at all. Those who care more about sense than other aspects of meaning will translate it as the NIV, even though that's misleading in another way. Translation is never perfect, and people disagree on how to do it. So what? Translators have to make decisions on how to render these things, and that's why it's wise to use different kinds of translations if you're unwilling or unable to learn the original languages.

I'm aware of specific examples. My point is that no one of them nor the sum of all of them threatens the doctrine of inerrancy. You haven't said anything to counter that but have simply spoken in generalities instead of showing specifically how any of this makes any difference to the inerrantist. Ironic, isn't it?

I read Ehrman's book, "Misquoting Jesus", and found it to be very insightful.While the Bible is full of spiritual truth, even a layman with minimal research can see that the Bible is also full of factual error, inconsistencies, and contradiction. I am a Christian, and my relationship with God is not limited to the words of men, no matter how inspired those words may be.

Can you give an example of a factual error, inconsistency, or contradiction? I've read the entire Bible several times in many translations and a fair amount of the NT in Greek, and I know of no such things. I know of plenty of claims that there are such things, but not one of them has stood up against careful inquiry as a clear case. People can feel confident making such general claims without showing any willingness to engage with the details of any particular example, and thus people will accept the general claim. But that's no argument. You need to present a detailed case of something that you think is one of these categories and then explain why the standard explanations are impossible (not just implausible). Otherwise you have no clear case of factual error, inconsistency, or contradiction.

Geez, Greg... You obviously haven't read Ehrman!

"It doesn't stop them from believing that the Bible is the infallible word of God." Yes, Cameron, this what it's all about, isn't it? The trick is to figure out how to do text criticism in such a way as to be able to continue believing the Bible is the infallible word of God. This is, undoubtedly, a demanding endeavor, but I don't think it should be confused with scholarship.

Davee, it's usually best to address your comments to the person who actually wrote them.

The trick is to figure out how to do text criticism in such a way as to be able to continue believing the Bible is the infallible word of God. This is, undoubtedly, a demanding endeavor, but I don't think it should be confused with scholarship.

What, then, is scholarship? Doing textual criticism with some feigned sense of neutrality? Everyone has assumptions. Ehrman has his, and it's fairly easy to see what they are and how they color his conclusions. Lots of people, when faced with the same information, do not conclude that there's little hope of getting a reliable and likely reconstrution of the text, as he does. His view involves all sorts of assumptions that are both unwarranted and ideologically driven. So if you're going to say that approaching textual criticism with some intellectual assumptions makes the venture unscholarly, then be sure to apply that judgment to all sides.

As it happens, I think it's fairly easy to distinguish between two kinds of scholarship, and you're ruling one out of court with basically no argument for doing so. One kind of scholarship is figuring out what can be shown without a doubt based on assumptions that everyone will agree with. That doesn't show you very much, but in not showing very much it also doesn't show Ehrman's positive skeptical claims about what is impossible to know. It is simply neutral on those.

The second kind of scholarship includes all manner of controversial epistemological claims that need philosophical support, and thus the venture is in part philosophical. Once you bring those in, it's certainly not pure observational scholarship. You need to make judments about probabilities, what counts as a reasomable of justified belief given the agreed-upon facts, and so on. Why that doesn't count as scholarship is hard for me to see. Epistemologists and philosophers of science manage to land good jobs all the time doing that sort of thing. Why shouldn't an interdisciplinary field of study also not consider people who do that to be genuine scholars?

Dear Jeremy,

Today I was informed how Bart has disproved the New Testament with his ever wise textual criticisms. When I asked for specific instances, no examples were provided to me. One guy did a quick Google Search from some Atheist-Bible Bashing Site. This guy was unable to provide any thoughts of his own. Erhman was qouted time and time again but nothing of value was provided! "Mark Erhman says Jesus did not write the Gospel!" How profound that statement was to me! I thought it was Santa Claus who did! The poster who stated he runs into people all the time who don't know there are no original fragments or scrolls left is unoriginal. Either the people have no Bible education he is around or slept through their Pastor's sermons week after week. Every Church I have ever been to has always mentioned this fact. So I doubt his credibility but with our culture more focused on pedant things and distracted by Satan it is possible.

How would you compare Bart's skill set with Tishendorf? How would Bart fare against the NIV committee? How about Sir Fredric Kenyon who is rarely quoted? Maybe I am comparing apples to oranges but it sure is strange how all the great scholars who loved God's Word don't get mentioned. John Milton and the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, Tyndale, Wycliffe, Jan Hus are being thrown out the door. Why are they allowing these new age-rs to con them out of life? What scares me is people post items like the above "While the Bible is full of spiritual truth, even a layman with minimal research can see that the Bible is also full of factual error, inconsistencies, and contradiction. I am a Christian, and my relationship with God is not limited to the words of men, no matter how inspired those words may be."

This person offered you no specific examples to back his empty speech? Is this what Paul had talked about? Have you noticed that Bart is now the poster boy for atheist to bring up at cocktail parties? He is their hero who has single handedly killed the Jesus Words in the Greek Scriptures! Will Mr. Ehrman go on tour with Richard Dawkins next? Richard has been looking for more Bible Bashers to add to his "God Delusion Tour.". I can see it all ready in my eyes! Richard invites Bart up to tell a story how he was once fooled by mainstream Christianity until he was educated in the ancient Koine, Classical Greek, Hebrew and Aramiac and found that the Bible did not add up!" Crowds of Atheist cheer on loud and strong as they can finally cut that nagging thing called a conscience from their mind! They can be free at last because Mr. Erhman has freed them from the Shackles of Christianity at last!

I know the above comments seem harsh but we Christians are being attacked from all avenues. We have Islam telling us that the Bible is full of factual and textual errors. I had two Islamic men tell me Bart has helped them see how wrong the Bible is! Has Bart created a united force of liberals, atheists, Islamists (I think they are just on this bandwagon for the ride. They share nothing in common with the atheist except their disbelief in Jesus Christ and the Hebrew Bible. Keep up the good work and I appreciate and other Christians appreciate you standing up against this fluff which has no substance.

God Bless You!

I couldn't agree more with prof Ehran.When I first started reading the bible under the assumption that this was a perfect piece of knowledge, it didn't take long to see there are many holes in the story line.For the most part the die hard believers either say they don't see the errors in the Bible ,or they are afraid to admit they have been misled.Many things that are attributed to what the writers say that Jesus said just doesn't fit the mold of someone sent to help a world so disoriented. I don't have enough space here to point out every thing I see wrong in the Bible, but I can say that whoever put the Bible together knew allot about how to trap someones mind.When Jesus said it's done unto you as you believe, he didn't explain the mechanics behind the law and how it works.When you see how it does work, other things become much clearer.This my friend is the way Jesus was talking about,this is surely the way.Don't be afraid to look outside the box.

Mike, you must have quite the interesting conspiracy theory about how the Bible was put together by this very long-lived intelligent designer who just wanted to trap people. I'd say you might be channeling Philip Pullman, but he's not actually dead yet.

In the study of textual criticism we see bias that is present in the heart of any issue. One part of Mr. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus talks about how the book is dedicated to his long time teacher Bruce Metzger. As you all know Bruce is a Christian believer. Bart studied under his guidance at Princeton. Bart is quoted as saying “Bruce Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was both my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me in the field”. Well if you dedicated this book to him I don’t think he would agree with half of the issues raised within the book. As well Bart starts the book of with his own personal journey. HE CLEARLY HAS A BIAS BEFORE EVEN THE BOOK starts in Chapter one. He is out to disprove the Bible as being the inspired words of God.
And one thing I noticed. The book is titled Misquoting Jesus even thought not once in his book does he ever refer to this title. Or maybe I missed something?
The major passages from the gospels that are troublesome does not and I repeat DOES NOT!!!!!! Tamper with Christian theology. The two major passages are from the gospel of John and Mark. Gospel of Mark 16:9-20 is not present in the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament. Great We already knew that. Bart is not the first to single out such a claim. But if we examine what this part talks about it simply showing appearances of Jesus after his death. Even with these passages omitted it doesn’t mean that Jesus did not appear. Even Bart himself accepts the notion that some supernatural event happened to the disciples after the death of Jesus that made them all of a sudden start preaching and spreading the word of God. Bart does not denying this fact whatsoever. What he denies is that he does not know exactly what prompted the disciples to do what they did but he admits that something out of the ordinary occurred. As well the other three gospels mention post resurrection appearances of Jesus and these passages do not seem to have any conflict with them.
The gospel of John mentions a story about an adulterer. Yet again if this passage is omitted it does not have any GREAT SIGNIFCANCE on Christian theology whatsoever. This was a simple lady brought to Jesus to see what he would do with her. Doesn’t change the fact he was merciful. We see that scribes loved this story so by later generations it was added into the bible. If you all refer to your bibles there is a note made saying these particular parts of the text are not found in the earliest manuscripts. This should not come as a surprise to any Christian! THE MAIN POINT IS THAT BOTH THESE PASSAGES THAT BART SEEMS TO SLEEP ON EVERY NIGHT DO NOT HAVE ANY SIGNIFICANT BEARING ON CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY. He paints a picture of “well they were not in the original manuscript so let’s scrap the bible as a whole”. Well that’s not necessarily true Bart and you that!! Good day everyone!!

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