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.