Bart Ehrman's Master Argument

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A couple weeks ago, I finished Bart Ehrman's bestselling Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. I'm not going to do a full review of the book at this point, but I wanted to record some thoughts on what I see as Ehrman's master argument.

The bulk of the book is just standard textual criticism. Ehrman tends to be more radical on a few points than the average textual critics, but most of the book simply presents consensus views on the history of the discipline and gives examples that mainly do illustrate the points he wants to make. He's often criticized for the suggestion that the examples he picks are only the most extreme and thus give the impression that the textual changes are more common and more extreme than they really are. He responds that he does say that most changes are extremely minor and that the cases he's presenting are unusual. But what his response ignores is that his own master argument makes an explicit case for the point that his critics are only accusing him of suggesting, and he takes offense even at that accusation.

His master argument is presented in the introductory chapter and then again in his conclusion. The argument is basically as follows:

1. We know that there are textual changes in manuscript transmission.
2. Some of these are ideologically-motivated.
3. The earlier manuscripts have more diversity due to less-careful copying practices.
4. It's possible that there were changes in ideology from the original manuscripts that we no longer thus have any evidence of.
5. Therefore, we can't have much confidence about what the original New Testament manuscripts said. All we can do is give arguments for which of several existing readings were the earliest.

I think he overstates the ideological changes, although there indisputably are some. I didn't find myself agreeing with all his cases, several of which were extremely controversial among scholars (e.g. I Cor 14:34-35, which a few but only very few notable scholars think is an addition to the original text). I think the fact that there are more readings in earlier manuscripts makes it more likely that the original reading is among the surviving manuscripts in any given case, even if it also raises the possibility that we can't know if the original survives. So that same fact provides some support for opposite views.

But the main issue is really epistemological. Ehrman holds to a skeptical standard when it comes to being sure of original manuscript readings that would lead to hopeless conclusions about ordinary knowledge. Hardly anyone in epistemology accepts this kind of standard anymore, even if it has had firm support in the history of philosophy (perhaps most famously with Rene Descartes). The chance that any particular well-attested reading among the NT manuscripts is really the product of an ideological change from the original manuscript is extremely low.

Ehrman is right that you can't rule it out absolutely. He bristles at the suggestion from his evangelical critics that he misleads people by minimizing the overwhelming support that we have of the New Testament as a whole given the entire manuscript evidence that we have. But then he gives exactly the suggestion that they assert when he gives his master argument, because there's no way you can derive 5 above from the premises unless you have a ridiculous standard of evidence for trusting something.

If we took the same view of knowledge based on our senses, we similarly couldn't rule out the possibility of being in the Matrix, dreaming vividly, or some such thing. We couldn't trust our memories, because memories do fail people, and it's always possible that it might be one of those moments. We couldn't ever trust people, because we know people lie, and often we can't tell that they're doing so. Even if this particular case involves someone who seems always to have been honest to us, we can never be sure. This high-standard approach to knowledge is a recipe for radical skepticism if you apply it consistently. As far as I can tell, Ehrman doesn't do that and just applies it in this particular argument against the possibility of any confidence that we still have manuscript readings for the basic New Testament documents. Hardly anyone working in epistemology today maintains the kind of standard Ehrman is requiring the biblical documents to be able to meet if he's going to be confident of what the text originally said.

What I think bothers me the most is Ehrman's claim that the manuscript data show the impossibility of inerrancy. This claim is a complete non sequitur. Ehrman seems to think that inerrancy can't be maintained if you can't be sure which reading is the original one that was inspired inerrantly. But why should that be? Inerrancy claims that God inspired the original manuscripts. It doesn't say anything about how those were copied. For inerrancy to have any practical value for Christians today, God would have had to preserve enough of the originals, and enough evidence to figure out what the likely original reading was, that we can usually state with some confidence in any particular case what the original reading is likely to have been.

He seems to think inerrancy has no value unless you have 100% confidence that a certain reading is exactly the original. Why? If we have 90% confidence that a certain reading is original, then we should have 90% confidence that such a reading is from God. I don't know anyone holding to inerrancy who thinks our interpretation of the Bible is inerrant, just that the original manuscript was. Similarly, it doesn't matter if we have to work to get likely readings at best, because it doesn't undermine the original claim or its value for the Christian. It takes careful study to figure out the social background to the Bible, to understand what certain terms in the original languages meant, and how someone in that culture would have taken a certain idiom. It also takes careful study sometimes to figure out which reading is likely to have been the original one. Inerrancy just claims that such likelihoods are aims to figure out which reading is most likely to have been the original, and then you can place as much confidence in debated readings as you can that the one you think is most likely is the original.

This is where the kind of manuscript evidence we have is significant. In most cases, it's obvious which reading is original, and it doesn't have any effect on biblical doctrine, either because it has no effect on meaning at all, it has a very minor effect on something of little practical significance, or the doctrines in question are taught in other, undisputed texts, often several times. We have a vast diversity of manuscript traditions, but that just makes it more likely that the original reading is somewhere in there in any given case. If inerrancy is true, it's extremely likely that God did preserve the original readings among the manuscript tradition along with clues as to which readings are correct. This isn't a claim that anyone can infallibly figure these things out, just that God's word can be infallibly preserved, even if our fallible methods of reconstruction can arrive at the correct readings only with some degree of likelihood rather than absolute certainty.

All told, it's hard for me to resist the conclusion that Ehrman illegitimately applies a rightly-disfavored epistemological thesis in an ad hoc way to favor his thesis without recognizing that the same standard, if applied fairly to all issues, would undermine the very knowledge that he relies on to make his argument. He also seems to be arguing against an inerrancy thesis that no one holds, and when he tries to respond to that claim all he says is that it's a view he once held. Well, no wonder he had to reject evangelical Christianity if he found arguments that decisively refute the straw version of it. It doesn't make it legitimate to consider his arguments to count against actual evangelical views. It doesn't mean he's actually said a thing to undermine the kinds of inerrancy doctrines that evangelical scholars have ever actually held. So it seems to me that there's of much value in this book, but some of it way overstates the case, and it's all sandwiched between two instances of a master argument intended to undermine evangelical Christianity via highly fallacious argumentation. I'd heard enough good things about this book that I was hoping there would be more to it. I don't think there is.

8 Comments

Its difficult for me to decide what he true view is. As Wallace has said, he kind of wears to masks, because much of his academic writing is less radical. He makes some interesting statements about the original text in his review of Novum Testamentum Graecum Editio Critica Maior:

http://rosetta.reltech.org/TC/vol03/Ehrman1998.html

But the main issue is really epistemological. Ehrman holds to a skeptical standard when it comes to being sure of original manuscript readings that would lead to hopeless conclusions about ordinary knowledge.

I am highly skeptical about this statement. I suspect that Ehrman’s standard of skepticism is one that would be perfectly acceptable to any scholar in any field other than a conservative Christian scholar of scripture.

Would any classicist dismiss the possibility that the works of Plato were not really written by a man named Plato? If it could be demonstrated that the works were actually written by a brilliant but unknown philosopher living a century after Plato who used a more famous person’s name simply to get his works read, would it in any way make anyone feel hopeless about the security of ordinary knowledge? I doubt it. Given the scarcity of ancient documents, I would think that most scholars would acknowledge the possibility that this could have happened. However, no one is concerned about this possibility because the cultural and historical significance of The Republic is not dependent on whether it was actually written by the man we think of as the historical Plato.

However, the books of the New Testament present an entirely different situation for the conservative Christian because their theological significance is wholly dependent on who actually wrote them. We are told that one of the key criteria for the early church in deciding which books belonged in the New Testament canon was apostolicity. While the impact of The Merchant of Venice and Othello does not depend on whether they were written by Francis Bacon or William Shakespeare, the theological authority of the Gospel of Mark depends on whether it was a factual account written by a companion of the Apostle Peter or simply a work of fiction by an unknown writer. No one in the world is bothered by the possibility that the words attributed to Socrates weren’t really spoken by the historical Socrates, but the beliefs of millions of Christians are completely false if the words attributed to Jesus weren’t really spoken by the historical Jesus.

I highly doubt that Ehrman’s reservations about the transmission of the early texts of the New Testament are any greater than other scholars’ reservations about the transmission of other ancient texts. I simply think that other scholars don’t try to draw conclusions that would be up ended by the possibility that the texts had been corrupted. While Ehrman’s reservations would be unremarkable in any other field, they are extremely important to conservative Christians because their beliefs and practices are contingent on the extent to which the words of scripture can be attributed to specific historical persons.

Would any classicist dismiss the possibility that the works of Plato were not really written by a man named Plato?

If you asked them if it's remotely possible, they'd say sure. It's remotely possible. They just don't think it's likely enough to stop them from listing the Platonic works that are authentic and from assuming the authenticity of anything the manuscript tradition includes without actual manuscript evidence against it. Ehrman is much more free to raise questions about everything in the manuscript from the mere possibility that it might have been changed without any record left to us.

If it could be demonstrated that the works were actually written by a brilliant but unknown philosopher living a century after Plato who used a more famous person’s name simply to get his works read, would it in any way make anyone feel hopeless about the security of ordinary knowledge?

No, but I haven't suggested anything of the sort. I wasn't saying that finding such a thing would undermine ordinary knowledge. I was saying that Ehrman's skeptical standard would undermine ordinary knowledge if you applied it to ordinary cases. Ehrman thinks that you can't know anything if there's any possibility that your belief is wrong. The mere possibility that any textual reading we've got was changed with no manuscript evidence of the original reading is enough for him to say that we have no knowledge of the original text, even though we've almost certainly got the overwhelming majority of the original text. I don't think it's very likely that I'm in the Matrix, but there is that possibility. I can't rule it out for sure. If I applied Ehrman's standard to that, then I'd have to say that I don't know my wife exists or that what I remember doing yesterday even happened.

Given the scarcity of ancient documents, I would think that most scholars would acknowledge the possibility that this could have happened. However, no one is concerned about this possibility because the cultural and historical significance of The Republic is not dependent on whether it was actually written by the man we think of as the historical Plato.

Not the issue. If pressed, they'd admit it. But they confidently attribute his works to him, except for a few letters that they're not sure of, and they confidently assume any universally-preserved manuscript reading is what Plato wrote unless there's evidence to the contrary. They don't say that we don't really know for sure what Plato wrote and can say at best that all we have is what people centuries later preserved of him. They consistently publish papers defending interpretations of Plato that simply assume what we have is what he really wrote, and I've never seen any hedging about manuscript issues.

As for cultural and historical significance, I'm not sure why you're restricting yourself to that. Maybe in the history of ideas, scholars are concerned more about how ideas have affected subsequent history, but historians of philosophy are mainly concerned with (1) reconstructing what the historical Plato thought (as opposed to what he preserves of Socrates' teaching and what later philosophers such as Aristotle and the neo-Platonists held him to have taught), (2) analyzing his overall systematic views to see if it's internally consistent and well-supported by his arguments, and (3) seeing how his views might have changed over time or whether his earlier and later works might fit together.

That's the majority of what Plato scholarship by historians of philosophy consists of. All three of those things will very certainly be affected if it turns out the Timaeus was not written by Plato but by Plotinus many centuries later or that a certain argument attributed to Plato by Aristotle is actually closer to Plato than what we read of him iun his own works.

the theological authority of the Gospel of Mark depends on whether it was a factual account written by a companion of the Apostle Peter or simply a work of fiction by an unknown writer

False dilemma. A number of evangelical scholars have disputed the traditional authorship of the gospels while asserting that they are reliable in what they report (since the traditional authorship is viewed by them as most likely not originally part of the book; following Martin Hengel, I happen to disagree on that, but that is the majority view). Witherington, for example, thinks John wasn't written by the apostle John. Keener doesn't Matthew and John were written by the apostles of those names. I'm pretty sure Bauckham doesn't think John wrote any of the Johannine literature. I think it's a huge stretch to accept a conservative position on scripture and allow for pseudonymity for a book that says it was written by someone it wasn't written by (Richard Bauckham and Andrew Lincoln's arguments notwithstanding). But for the gospels? Nothing in the text, according to the standard view, requires any particular author, set of authors, or editors/compilers.

As for canonicity, I'm not sure the standard for which books to pay attention to should be any higher than
the standard for what the original text said or the standard for which order Paul wrote his books in, which interpretation among some possible ones is most likely, or whether a book was written to a certain ethnic group or locale or to the church at large. If a reasonable but not airtight argument supports a certain view, then that's good enough reason to believe it. Even if the stakes are raised by questions with much more serious an outcome, we can't ever have absolute certainty about anything of much consequence besides mathematical truths, logically necessary relationships, and knowledge that we exist and have our current experiences. Most of the things we know do not involve absolute certainty. There's plenty of room for the possibility that we're wrong. In cases where we're wrong, it's not knowledge. In cases where we're right but, as far as we know, could be wrong, it can be knowledge as long as the means of knowing is a reliable-enough process based in information that really does come from the original source. We assume such a standard when we say we know things.

They don't say that we don't really know for sure what Plato wrote and can say at best that all we have is what people centuries later preserved of him.

If pressed, however, wouldn’t they admit this as well? When they speak confidently about something being written by Plato, we don’t interpret them as meaning the same thing as a Civil War historian who is confident that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address. With Plato, we cannot fix the day and time that any particular work was first made public. We cannot trace Plato’s movements in the preceding days. We have no reports from contemporaries who saw him working on it or who discussed it with him. A scholar’s confidence that Plato wrote some particular work is not confidence in any absolute sense, but confidence relative to the surety we can have about anything that happened that long ago.

To be skeptical about whether or not Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address may start to implicate some Matrix-like doubts about our ability to know anything about the past. However, to acknowledge the limitations in our knowledge of who wrote Plato or the New Testament, or how the manuscripts might have been altered during transmission is not the same thing at all.

My very point is that there should be something different between what they say when pressed and what they ordinarily say. Your standards should go up when you're asked a question involving a greater standard of certainty. You should concede in the face of a request for what we can be absolutely sure of that we're less certain of Plato's works than we are of Lincoln's. But that doesn't mean it's not knowledge, which requires a lower degree of certainty than absolute certainty. A reasonable argument can be made that we've got pretty good sources on Plato, just as it can be made (even more strongly) that we've got really good sources on the New Testament and that there are few spots where we have good reason to question readings that are pretty universal in the manuscript tradition. The only ones where we have some reason to wonder on a serious level is if something appears missing or problematic by the internal standards of the document, and even then it's a bit of a stretch to conclude that what we've got is wrong, as Fee and Ehrman do in the disputed I Cor 14 verses.

So I'm not saying that it's wrong to acknowledge the limits of our understanding. What I'm saying is that in an ordinary context of discussing what Paul wrote we should generally take him to have written at least the works generally attributed to him, without having to hedge our statements with disclaimers. Ehrman always seems to do that whenever he talks about the original text. There's good enough reason to trust it for ordinary purposes, and the likelihood that it's been significantly altered is much lower than he seems to give it credit for.

There's good enough reason to trust it for ordinary purposes, and the likelihood that it's been significantly altered is much lower than he seems to give it credit for.

That may be true, but in Misquoting Jesus Ehrman is discussing inerrancy, which I would contend is the most extraordinary purpose imaginable.

Can you imagine anyone claiming that we should set public policy toward homosexuals based on Plato's opinions on the topic rather than the best thinking of experts in the fields of sociology and psychology? Would anyone claim that the biology curriculum in our schools should be based on Plato's ideas rather than peer reviewed research from leading universities? Would anybody claim that our foreign policy in the Middle East should reflect Plato's suggested land divisions and his predictions about the future or that we should ignore the problem of global warming because of something Plato wrote?

If anyone tried to use The Timaeus for any of these extraordinary purposes, then the fact that the dialogue might have corrupted in transmission or written by someone else would take on a much greater significance even if we deemed that probability to be small.

I agree that the main issue is epistemological, but not in the sense that we are any more or less sure about the original texts of the New Testament than we are about any other text concerning which we have similar evidence. The epistemological issue is that the doctrine of inerrancy maintains that the original texts provide a way of knowing things about the world in which we live that either outright trumps or significantly undercuts all other ways of knowing things. Doesn’t that require a pretty high level of certainty about what the those texts really said?

There's so much in your comment that I think is completely off-base that I want to say some things about that before I look at what I think is a more serious argument, which I'll say something about in a second comment.

There are plenty of inerrantists who don't think we should make biblical morality the law of the land. It's not an issue of inerrancy that some do that. It's an issue of their particular views about how scripture should affect our political engagement. So the consequences of inerrancy on political engagement in many of the ways you suggest aren't as great as you suggest. It's the consequences of additional views tacked on that one might argue to be serious. I'm going to defend inerrancy, not those extra views.

There are plenty of inerrantists who do not take the first few chapters of Genesis as a science textbook. In fact, I would say that probably nine of the ten most important evangelical commentaries on Genesis do not take Genesis as teaching six-day creationism of the 6000-year-old-earth sort. I'm not sure any of those commentators would deny inerrancy. Those who want to teach intelligent design in high schools are a different sort, but nothing in their argument is based on any biblical text, at least not the careful ones. They give a philosophical argument. They also don't mind teaching the straight science as science and teaching this as an additional argument that supplements it. The view itself is therefore not dependent on inerrancy at all.

Also, the vast majority of those who oppose same-sex marriage do not do so merely because they believe the Bible says so. Most people have philosophical reasons for most of their views, even if they have a hard time putting them into words and even if their gut response might sometimes be "because the Bible says so". Most religious opposition to abortion does include the argument that moral status begins at conception, which is a philosophical reason. Most opposition to same-sex marriage comes from one or both of (a) homosexuality is unnatural and ought not to be recognized as equal to heterosexuality and (b) marriage is a longstanding tradition that ought not to be tampered with lightly, often with (c) the proper method of making changes to legal recognition of marriage is through legislation, not court decisions or executive orders serving as the most immediate catalyst.

Regardless of whether those are good arguments, they are philosophical arguments and not biblical arguments. If it's political stuff you're concerned about, I think you're barking up the wrong tree.

I don't know what you're getting at with foreign policy. I know of no serious political commentator and no major government figure who would base foreign policy on the Bible. I know of no one who thinks we should ignore global warming because of anything in the Bible either. There are people who think the science to support global warming is fishy. There are people who think the science is secure that it's real but also think we can't do much to affect it. There are also people who think we can do something to change it but only at a cost that's too great to the ordinary person, especially the poor and lower middle class. But those aren't biblical arguments, regardless of whether they're good arguments.

Now I think you can leave all those issues aside, because there are beliefs that someone seeing the Bible as inerrant will hold with utmost seriousness. Those won't be political policy beliefs, but they will include how one conducts one's life and how one sees one's relationship with God. You say:

The epistemological issue is that the doctrine of inerrancy maintains that the original texts provide a way of knowing things about the world in which we live that either outright trumps or significantly undercuts all other ways of knowing things. Doesn’t that require a pretty high level of certainty about what the those texts really said?

Technically speaking, inerrancy doesn't say that. All it says is that the original manuscripts had been inspired exactly as God intended them to be inspired and with no mistakes in content. They communicate exactly what God wanted them to communicate, according to the linguistic norms of the immediate context and the standards of the literary genre in question. Most inerrantists would add a second doctrine, the view that God has more-or-less preserved enough of the original text to satisfy God's giving us everything necessary for life and godliness and for the word of God to useful in all the things II Timothy 2 says it's useful for. Most inerrantists believe that to be true, but they don't believe it to be part of inerrancy.

But among those who think it's true, it's not an immediate implication that what we can learn through scripture is known with a greater degree of certainty just by reading the text. Most inerrantists think the role of the Holy Spirit is extremely important in convicting of sin and in guiding toward righteousness. If we're going to do epistemology of Christian faith, we can't ignore that. The view is not that we can know with absolute certainty what the original text was. It's that we can have reasonable understanding of almost all of the original text, such that the Holy Spirit can use that revelation to guide believers to live righteous lives.

I suppose I should lay out my own epistemology here just so you can see where I'm coming from. I don't rely on the evidentialist model that requires proof even of the most reasonable view before you can believe it, but I also don't hold to anything like fideism, which just takes things on faith as Kierkegaard would use the term, whereby you have no reason to believe the thing but do so anyway, for what reason I've never been sure. I hold to externalist epistemology, where what justifies your beliefs and what grounds knowledge is not always a matter of what you're internally aware of. This view is pretty much the dominant view in contemporary epistemology. As long as there's a reliable process to generate your belief from what makes it true, that can be knowledge. It doesn't matter if you have access to all the information that makes it true.

So if God really exists, and if God really did inspire the biblical texts in the original manuscripts, and if God did preserve the original text among the many manuscript variants, and there's enough information there to have a pretty good understanding of what the original was, then we can have a pretty good understanding of what the original was, and it's knowledge in the cases where we do get it right (and false belief in the cases when we don't). According to this epistemological view, it doesn't matter if we can't tell for sure which cases we've gotten it right and which we haven't. All that matters for knowledge is that we did get it right by relying on a process that reliably (but not necessarily infallibly) gets us the right information. Contemporary philosophers have largely accepted this sort of view about knowledge from our senses, and the same view allows Christian epistemologists to explain knowledge via reading scripture, provided that God really is behind how you got the information.

I should also say that many people who hold to inerrancy do not hold to the view that scripture always trumps other sources of knowledge. Most inerrantists believe in general revelation. They accept that, while our senses are fallible, science is fallible, and philosophy is fallible, so too is our interpretation of scripture and our reconstruction of the original text. Inerrancy isn't a claim that our understanding of what scripture says is infallible. Only Catholics think that, and they think it only of the Pope when he's speaking ex cathedra. Inerrancy says the text doesn't have errors, not that our interpretation never does or that our reconstruction of what the inerrant text was never errs. So inerrancy is certainly compatible with seeing our knowledge from the text as fallible, and in most cases those who think deeply about these things understand this.

Given this epistemology, what I'm saying simply follows. To say what Ehrman says, you either need to misrepresent inerrantists or adopt a standard for knowledge that I think gives up on the only reasonable response to massive skepticism about most of our knowledge. I think he does both, but there's no way to say what he says without doing at least one.

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