Why Affirm Biblical Inerrancy and Ignore Missing Original Manuscripts and Other Errors? Part 2: Debating with Bart Ehrman

Ehrman’s Equivocation and the Inerrancy of the Original Text

Peter Williams did well in his recent debate with Bart Ehrman [Unbelievable? Peter J Williams and Bart Ehrman – Are the Gospels historically reliable?] although I wish he were more aggressive and forcefully challenged Ehrman’s presuppositions of secular historiography. Yes, Ehrman is a world-class expert in textual criticism, but he is a biased secular historian pretending to write objective history of Christianity. His competency in theology certainly lags behind his expertise as a textual critic.

Evangelical theologians have not done as well in their debates with Ehrman because they allow Ehrman to dictate the terms of the debates. Ehrman always insists that he will only answer questions on history and not theology whenever his opponent raises an issue which would require value judgment (theological judgment). But in truth, Ehrman is constantly making value judgments in his interpretation of the historical data based on his secular presuppositions. His opponents should remind him of the hermeneutical principle framed by the great scholar Rudolph Bultmann that “no exegesis is without presuppositions, inasmuch as the exegete is not a tabula rasa but on the contrary, approaches the text with specific questions or with a specific way of asking questions and thus has a certain idea of the subject matter with which the text is concerned.” In reality, Ehrman is doing history with unacknowledged theological presuppositions all the time as he accepts as relevant historical data only what fits his presumed epistemological framework. Proceeding with this restrictive and skeptical mindset, it is not surprising that Ehrman excels in his role as a spoiler rather than as a scholar offering constructive history of Christian origins. Ehrman’s opponents should call his bluff to be an objective historian when they debate with him.

Why do Ehrman’s evangelical opponents fail to challenge his uncritically held presuppositions? The evangelical scholars who are invited to debate with Ehrman are top biblical scholars who specialize in biblical languages and history. Presumably, their specialist knowledge and authority qualify them to challenge Ehrman. But the downside in the academia today is that many biblical specialists do not go beyond their area of specialization. Many evangelical biblical scholars today also operate with much the same historical-critical framework as Ehrman as they major on the background studies without giving equal attention to theological exegesis and analysis. These biblical scholars are extremely knowledgeable in matters of history and ancient languages, but their knowledge is not matched by an equally competent knowledge in the field of theology and epistemology. They seldom to go beyond their expertise and undertake self-critique of their methodology which would have given them a sharper awareness of the presuppositions that are shaping the debate. Naturally, they are unable to mount a forceful critique when they debate with an opponent like Ehrman who operates with a secular framework.

It would be unfair to expect scholars to display equal competence beyond their fields of specialization. But if they are to debate well against someone like Ehrman, they should be well-equipped with the prerequisite skills and knowledge for this kind of debates – the ability to unmask and challenge the hidden presuppositions of Ehrman’s secular historiography and contest the validity of Ehrman’s reasoning while demonstrating the coherence and explanatory power of their well-founded epistemology for interpreting the historical data.

Peter Williams obviously has no problem matching his expertise in textual criticism with Ehrman. He is the associate editor for the newly published Tyndale House Greek New Testament. Williams’ well-rounded scholarship is evident as he explains why Ehrman’s insistence that autographs be produced before he accepts the inerrancy of Scripture is both unrealistic and misplaced. He consolidates his case against Ehrman by demonstrating that in the light of “how we know texts were transmitted based on actual evidence, and extrapolate the same processes back into the short period before our earliest witnesses, we do not reach radical uncertainty about the wording of the books of the New Testament.” He concludes that “Ehrman’s own research shows how overwhelmingly scribes did not seek deliberately to change the text.”

Williams referred to the limitations of history done in the secular history department during the debate. Unfortunately, despite his well-rounded expertise, Williams did not have the opportunity to expose the inadequacy of Ehrman’s restrictive epistemological presuppositions because of obvious time limits in the debate.  Thankfully, we may read Williams’ conclusive refutation of Ehrman’ textual skepticism in his article, “Ehrman’s Equivocation and the Inerrancy of the Original Text” published in The Enduring Authority of Scripture, ed., D.A. Carson (Eerdmans, 2016), pp. 389-406. [An excerpt is given below]

Ehrman’s Equivocation and the Inerrancy of the Original Text

Equivocation of the term “Bible” and “Scripture”

I will maintain that in several ways Ehrman’s case gains force through the logical fallacy of equivocation, namely the confusing of two separate meanings of the same terms. The key problem seems to be that central terms used in discussing a doctrine of Scripture – terms such as “Bible,” “text,” and “original” – can have both physical and non-physical meanings. The focus of Ehrman’s critique can often shift indiscriminately between valid but doctrinally irrelevant assertions that we do not have certain physical documents and doctrinally relevant but historically questionable assertions that we do not have the wording of the New Testament, which is of course non-physical. We consider key terms that may facilitate this confusion.

In addition, Ehrman’s case gains force by unwarranted shifting of the burden of proof onto those who wish to maintain the integrity of an ancient text and by focusing on small areas of uncertainty while ignoring large and increasing areas of certainty…In writing of his [Ehrman] own struggle with inerrancy he says:

I kept reverting to my basic question: how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes – sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.

This is a fairly confused section. Ehrman claims that we do not have the words God inspired, but he has not demonstrated that to be the case. If John the Evangelist or his amanuensis wrote the letter sequence εναρχηηνολογος (John 1:1) then we have the words he wrote, whether we have the words in our minds or in a modern printed edition. One thing that Ehrman never seems to do is to attempt to show that we do not have (either in our minds or in manuscripts) all of the words that the authors wrote. In fact, the situation for the New Testament text is that there are no words that are known or even widely believed by textual critics to be missing from the New Testament text.

Though Ehrman does show what is widely known, namely that there are variants in the manuscripts, this does not amount to a demonstration that we do not have the words God inspired. To do this he would have at least to demonstrate that some words that were alleged to be inspired have been lost, and at most to demonstrate that all words that were alleged to be inspired have been lost…

[In responding to Ehrman’s expedient equivocation, Williams begins with B.B. Warfield’s precise definition the word “text”]

The text of a document is the words on that document; the text of a work is “what ought to be the ipsissima verba of all the documents or copies that profess to represent it, – it is the original, or, better still, the intended ipsissima verba of the author. It may not lie in the document before us, or in any document. All existing documents, taken collectively, may fail to contain it. It may never have lain, perfect and pure, in any document. But if an element of ideality thus attaches to it, it is none the less a very real thing and a very legitimate object of search… since Warfield states so clearly that these intended ipsissima verba of a work may never have existed in a physical copy, this opens the question as to whether a follower of Warfield would need to believe that the intended words of divine Scripture ever needed to have existed in their perfect and exact form in an actual document at the time of the human author in order for the necessary conditions of the making of Scripture to have been fulfilled…An autograph is a physical entity. The text of an autograph is not only immaterial, but is also the text of a document. By Warfield’s definition, the text of a document should not necessarily be equated with the text of a work of literature…

In other words, Ehrman’s insistence that inspiration is not a meaningful belief unless one can produce to him a perfect physical copy of a text not only fails to recognize that Christian doctrines are not focused on physical copies, but also makes a rather arbitrary insistence on the necessity of a physical copy of God’s words in Ehrman’s own vicinity.

The focus on the immaterial nature of God’s words also accords with modern studies of orality in the ancient world including the Old Testament. Ancient reading was generally out loud, and our tendency to see the written in opposition to the oral is not therefore appropriate. Oral communication may exist without writing, but written communication did not generally exist without oral communication. So while writing is important to spread and transmit God’s words, there is no sense in which God’s words become more inspired by virtue of being written down.

All this means that Warfield with his stress on the significance of the intended wording of the author is a very long way from stressing the significance of a physical lost document as he has sometimes been understood to have emphasize.

Resultant Ambiguity
We have seen so far that three of the key terms used in discussion of the inerrancy of Scripture, namely “Bible,” “original,” and “text,” suffer from multivalence, and that there is a danger in each case that friend or foe of inerrancy alike may understand inerrancy to apply to one of these terms in a meaning that is not appropriate. One of the results of this discussion is that we can see that any emphasis that attributes inerrancy to a document (physical entity), rather than to the text of a document, is misguided. However, even the text on a document needs to be distinguished from the text of a work. It is to the text of the work, not of the document, that inerrancy applies. Therefore it is wrong to see inerrancy as having an emphasis on a physical entity that we no longer have.

The Burden of Proof: Do We Have the Wording or Not?
Having established that it is the wording, not the physical autographa, that matters, we need to consider whether or not we can have confidence that we have the wording of Scripture. This is partly a question of epistemology and of the burden of proof. Between the time of Matthew Henry and Bart Ehrman there clearly has been a significant shift from emphasizing what we have to what we do not have. For Ehrman it appears that one does not have the authorial wording until a proof is produced that one does have it. One also wonders whether there could ever be a proof that would demonstrate to Ehrman’s satisfaction that we had the authorial wording. On the other hand, Henry seems to hold to the position that what is brought to him by the testimony of manuscript witnesses is the authoritative wording. To dissuade Henry of this position we may imagine it would be necessary to adduce actual manuscript testimony.

Although the position of believing that what you have received is the intended wording of the author may appear more credulous than not believing it to be so, we may at least notice one difference between these approaches. Those who actively refuse to believe the wording to be that of the author and prefer to remain agnostic, are in an epistemically invulnerable position. This may seem to be its strength, but it is also a weakness since it means that no amount of textual evidence could ever move one from agnosticism to active belief. Their approach thus allows little room for falsification.

A further disadvantage with the skeptical position is that it has no (or little) forfeit if it is wrong. In most areas of life, such as investments or medicine, there are consequences both to right and wrong beliefs. However, in the discipline of history as now conceived skepticism is not penalized, but actively encouraged. Thus whereas there is a potential benefit or loss for an investor involved with adopting both the belief that the market will go up and the belief that it will go down, for the historian there is a quite disproportionate loss of reputation for affirming something to be true when some doubt remains and no loss of reputation for disbelieving something when there is some limited evidence for its truth.

In addition we may note that Ehrman is unreasonably demanding proof concerning a negative if he asks others to demonstrate that the text has not changed, and in this case the negative is not possible to prove. When we work from the manuscript evidence we actually have, we observe the point made by both Warfield and Ehrman (among many others) that when a document of any significant length is made by copying, it is likely that errors are introduced. However, when we take the history of transmission we also see that the rate of introduction of errors, even in the earliest centuries, is not such that it creates a situation in which any part of the wording of the work is more likely to have been changed through transmission than preserved. Whether we work from late-fifteenth-century manuscripts of the New Testament and measure the rate of change from earlier documents, or consider the range of difference among the very earliest papyri and versions, we see that change in the wording through transmission is generally rarer than stasis.

In general, then, the presumption that we have the authorial wording until evidence arises to the contrary seems a more reasonable position than to refuse to believe that we have the authorial wording until an impossibly high level of proof be obtained that we do. The rational status of belief in the correctness of the text is that of a disprovable presumption.

However, one can put the case for textual reliability much more strongly than this. Here we simply outline a number of different lines of argumentation that can be used to establish a high degree of confidence in our knowledge of the authorial wording of the New Testament.

1. It is possible to use many forms of a fortiori argumentation based on high levels of scholarly confidence of the wording of other ancient or classical works. In an overwhelming number of cases witnesses for the books of the New Testament outstrip other ancient works in number, geographical diversity, and age. The New Testament text also shows up in a great variety of material forms: papyrus, parchment, paper, stone, pottery; codex and scroll; majuscule and minuscule; continuous text, lectionary, and extract.
2. The New Testament writings are also almost invariably attested in a greater variety of languages than other ancient writings. For instance, John’s Gospel existed in eight different dialectal versions of Coptic, and in two pre-Jerome Latin versions, the Vulgate, and in the Old Syriac and Peshitta versions, to mention early versions in just three languages. In the case of other ancient writings any one of these versions would, on its own, be taken to give scholars a reasonable level of confidence as to the content of a work.
3. In addition to manuscripts and translations (versions) we have extensive quotation of the New Testament by church fathers.
4. Any one of the three main categories of witness (Greek manuscript, versions, church fathers) on its own would be sufficient to be able to have detailed discussions of matters such as the grammatical style of the authors. Taken together these provide a mass of data allowing us to reach rational conclusions about how texts were transmitted. When we consider how we know texts were transmitted based on actual evidence, and extrapolate the same processes back into the short period before our earliest witnesses, we do not reach radical uncertainty about the wording of the books of the New Testament.
5. We are able to make a number of genealogical observations about the interrelationship of witnesses and thereby trace the occurrence of errors in manuscripts and discount them from the editions that we make.
6. The existence of manuscripts such as P52 and P90, containing parts of John 18 dating from the second century and coming from Egypt, suggests that large numbers of copies of parts of the New Testament were made in a short time. It would be logistically almost impossible for anyone to enter systematic changes into the text of any book once a significant multiplicity of copies was spread over a wide area.
7. For those who express confidence in their ability to reconstruct sources of the Old or New Testaments (e.g., Q as a Gospel source), an a fortiori case can be made for confidence in our knowledge of the text of the New Testament.
8. The history of the study of the wording of the New Testament gives us a high degree of confidence in that wording. The printed wording of the first Greek New Testament of Erasmus, based on seven manuscripts from the twelfth century or later, and on no more than four in any one instance, is relatively speaking reasonably close to the wording of modern critical editions. This means that the text that would be produced if we disposed of nearly five centuries of discovery would still be relatively similar to the modern text. In broad terms, if one were to dispose of our earliest 5,000 or so witnesses and then to make a critical text based on what remains, the difference between the text thus produced and critical editions such as the Nestle-Aland 28th edition would probably be less than the difference between the Textus Receptus of Erasmus and the Nestle-Aland edition.
9. The text of the New Testament does not depend on any single witness. We could ignore a favorite witness such as Codex Sinaiticus from the fourth century. How much would this change our text? The answer can be found by considering the edition that Tregelles made of Matthew and Mark, which differs relatively little from the Nestle-Aland edition. In fact, the editions of Tregelles, Tischendorf, and Eberhard Nestle were made without knowledge of the papyri that are now important for the text of the New Testament. Nevertheless, their editions do not differ greatly from those in the later twentieth century (Nestle-Aland 26th edition), which are made using knowledge of such papyri. Thus we can say that even the discovery of quite important witnesses makes only a small impact on the shape of the New Testament text in contemporary editions.
12. Ehrman’s own text-critical and exegetical work often depends on his being able to establish one form of the text as prior to the others. In fact the text that Ehrman affirms differs relatively little from that found in modern editions of the Greek New Testament.
13. Although Ehrman’s soundbite the “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” has been widely received, he has in fact demonstrated how little deliberate corruption went on. The number of examples of deliberate corruption that he alleges is rather limited, and we must remember that Ehrman brings these examples together from all manuscripts. Without even allowing for the fact that many of his examples may in fact be wrong, it is amazing to find so few cases even of possible deliberate corruption when searching across so many manuscripts. Thus Ehrman’s own research shows how overwhelmingly scribes did not seek deliberately to change the text.
14. When we are dealing with our uncertainties as to the identity of the original text, we are dealing with known unknowns…

The sorts of criticisms that Ehrman has made of inspiration are significant and require response. However, the fact that the critique has resulted in part from misunderstanding should also goad inerrantists to check that their own formulations have been as clear as they can be. The contention here is that they have not, and that we need to engage in debate as to what terms might serve well at both the popular and the scholarly level in the future. These are my initial proposals:
1. Where possible we should seek to make the older terms “Scripture” and “Scriptures” more current rather than the term “Bible” when speaking of the doctrines of inspiration and revelation since Scripture and Scriptures have a narrower focus and avoid physical associations.
2. We should avoid the term “text.” This can be replaced by “wording” since, again, “wording” avoids the physical focus. It is easier for someone to deny that we have the original text (which might mean original document) than it is for them to deny that we have the original wording.
3. However, even the word “original” has its ambiguities, having earlier been used in opposition to a translation. In some instances it may be possible to replace this by the word “authorial,” so that we might speak of “authorial wording” rather than “original text.”
4. We should not speak of text of the autographa, but of wording on the autographa, or use other similar formulations that distinguish clearly between the message and the physical carrier of the message.

The purpose of all of these proposals is not merely to use precise language for doctrinal formulation among theologians, but also to introduce a shift of emphasis in common Christian parlance away from formulae that suggest or emphasize that we believe in the inerrancy of something nonexistent. The Word of God does not die or age when it is copied, nor is it less powerful when it is spoken without reference to a physical copy. It is not made less certain by our uncertainty as to its identity, nor is there a compelling reason why our own uncertainty as to the identity of one part of it should make us uncertain as to the identity of another part.

Related Post: Why Affirm Biblical Inerrancy and Ignore Missing Original Manuscripts and Other Errors?