Bart Ehrman’s Historical Revisionism. Part 1/3. Misquoting Scripture

Bart Ehrman’s primary mission in life is undeniable. It is to discredit Christianity and to deconvert Christians from their faith. Ehrman’s attack on Christianity has been effective because he claims to be speaking as an objective historian (which is debatable), in contrast to apologists and theologians defending their faith and because he is speaking as a lapse fundamentalist with insider-knowledge. Ehrman’s attack on Christianity is comprehensive, but I shall only highlight three of his favorite lines of attack on Christianity.

Ehrman’s gained notoriety with the publication of his book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (1993) This was followed by his more popular version, Misquoting Jesus (2005). Ehrman declares that the New Testament has been textually corrupted by incompetent or biased copyists. But are Ehrman’s charges true? The few examples of tendentious corruption that he could offer only confirm that such cases are uncommon. In fact, the copyists were more concerned with the preserving of the words of the holy text before them than with promoting their own interpretation of the text. As Ehrman himself recognizes, “It is probably safe to say that the copying of early Christian texts was by and large a “conservative” process. The scribes . . . were intent on “conserving” the textual tradition they were passing on. Their ultimate concern was not to modify the tradition, but to preserve it for themselves and for those who would follow them. Most scribes, no doubt, tried to do a faithful job in making sure that the text they reproduced was the same text they inherited” (MJ 177).

Still, Ehrman waxed eloquent in his charge against the New Testament. “The more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realized just how radically [emphasis added] the text had been altered over the years at the hands of scribes, who were not only conserving scripture but also changing it. To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us. It would be wrong, however, to say – as people sometimes do – that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them” (MJ 207-208). It is granted that some variants have bearing on theological conclusions, but it is telling that Ehrman has not pressed his case by demonstrating that these variants have forced the church to revise its theology. Perhaps these variants are not so significant after all.

Ehrman’s highlighting of the large number of variants found in existent manuscripts is no embarrassing expose as it is widely known among textual critics. The latest estimates of the number of variants found in existing manuscripts given by scholars like Bruce Morrill, Matthew Solomon, Tommy Wasserman and Peter Gurry hoover around 500,000 plus variants (New Testament Studies 26 (2016). The number of variants increases in proportion to available manuscripts. It is therefore not surprising to find hundreds of thousands of variants when Christians are working with thousands of manuscripts. On the other hand, with the availability of thousands of manuscripts, we can observe how textual critics “discover these changes and how they developed methods for figuring out what the oldest form of the text (or the “original” text) is” (MJ 690. The irony should not be missed – Ehrman could point to cases of textual corruption precisely because textual critics can determine the original text when the available evidence from all the available manuscripts are taken into account.

Ehrman as a professional textual critic concedes, “I continue to think that even if we cannot be 100 percent certain about what we can attain to, we can at least be certain that all the surviving manuscripts were copied from other manuscripts, which were themselves copied from other manuscripts, and that it is at least possible to get back to the oldest and earliest stage of the manuscript tradition for each of the books of the New Testament” (MJ 62). It seems there are two Ehrmans – the measured professional textual critic and the rhetorical populist’s critic of Christianity.

Ehrman strengthens his critique by questioning the integrity of the four gospels. He writes, “The titles of the Gospels were not put there by their authors…none of the Gospels claims to be written by an eyewitness.” Why then are these gospels called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Ehrman surmises that sometime in the second century “proto-orthodox” Christians recognized the need for apostolic authorities to further their cause and so they attributed these books to apostles (Matthew and John) and close companions of apostles (Mark, the secretary of Peter; and Luke the traveling companion of Paul). Ehrman concludes that “scholars continue to call these books Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as a matter of convenience” (Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, (Oxford, 1999), p. 42, 46). Ehrman’s simply asserts these claims without engaging with the robust evidence-based defence of the traditional authorship of the gospels as this gives him the liberty to advance the claim that later “proto-orthodox” community changed the “original” words of Jesus to suit its agenda.

Ehrman is evidently relying on radical application of redaction criticism when he keeps repeating that the gospels contradict one another in his YouTube videos . However, even conservative scholars who accept valid, but limited use of redaction criticism would consider Ehrman’s application of redaction criticism to be arbitrary. For example, he pits the gospel writers against one another whey they could well be complementing one another, which is what one would expect when reading eyewitness accounts narrated from different perspectives (e.g., the resurrection accounts). While Ehrman rightly criticizes conservative scholars whose simplistic harmonization of every part of the four gospels results in artificiality (the usual example given being Harold Lindsell forced harmonization of Peter’s denial of Jesus Christ in the book, The Battle for the Bible (1978), Ehrman commits the opposite error by judging every variation in the different gospel accounts to be an example of contradiction.

Ehrman’s radical conclusions ignore new insights in recent studies of the gospels. For example, 1) Birger Gerhardsson’s study, Memory and Manuscript (1961. 1998) confirms the stability of the oral and textual tradition of the gospels. This would undermine Ehrman’s claim that the early Christians liberally made changes in the words of Jesus tradition; 2) many scholars are beginning to recognize that the criteria to distinguish between redaction and tradition are too imprecise to be helpful; 3) redaction criticism has been guilty of eisegesis when it reads too much into incidental changes in the texts; 4) while one could envisage how free floating traditions in a community could be changed, in reality, it is individual and not community who writes books. In turn, the community holds the individual accountable to the stable, received tradition of the words of Jesus; 5) a good case can still be given for the traditional authorship of the gospels (cf. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (1990), Don Carson & Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (2005)); 6) it is noted that while the gospel writers sometimes introduce changes to the words of Jesus, a closer examination of parallel records in the gospels suggests that the gospel writers did not freely invent the words of Jesus as they were adapting them to meet the specific needs and interests of their target audience. Bruce Chilton, after applying some “microscopic” analysis of the “respective redactional habits of the gospel writers,” concludes that the “saying of Jesus was indeed interpreted, but none but he [Jesus] invented it” (“An Evangelical and Critical Approach to the Sayings of Jesus,” Themelios (1978), p. 85.) Chilton’s conclusion is consistent with many scholars who emphasize that many of the sayings of Jesus in the gospels reflect the voice of Jesus (ipsissima vox) rather than the exact words (ipsissima verba) of Jesus. This is in line with the literary tradition of the early Christian community. Judging the “redaction” of some of the sayings of Jesus as tendentious corruption would be an anachronism.

Redaction criticism may provide some valid insights into the distinctive theological perspectives of the gospel writers. However, the assumption that the gospel writers took much liberty with their sources could be maintained only by ignoring the fact that the writers were subject to eyewitness controls – something which Ehrman ignores because he has (conveniently) adopted late dating of the gospels. Nevertheless, a good case could also be given for early dating of the gospels (cf. Adolf Harnack, J.A.T. Robinson and David Wenham).

To conclude, Ehrman’s prejudgment and rejection of the self-testimony of scripture to be the inspired word of God and his radical application of critical methods to the gospels can only result in skepticism. It seems to be the case that Ehrman is still haunted by his earlier fundamentalist view of scripture which envisages that God’s revelation must be preserved in manuscripts without variants. He reacts by swinging to the opposite extreme view which assumes that the textual variants arise because the gospel ‘writers’ were misquoting Jesus. It is unfortunate that both of these defective views have caused Ehrman to abandon Christianity and to caricature and misquote scripture.

Related Posts
Bart Ehrman’s Historical Revisionism. Part 2/3. Relegating Orthodoxy in Early Christianity.
Bart Ehrman’s Historical Revisionism. Part 3/3. (Mis)placing Jesus Among the gods.

For a technical response to Bart Ehrman see
Tommy Wasserman, “Misquoting Manuscripts? The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture Revisited,” by Tommy Wasserman

One thought on “Bart Ehrman’s Historical Revisionism. Part 1/3. Misquoting Scripture”

  1. Thank you for giving your time to this important subject, Kam Weng. One can imagine how happy certain people are to learn of a book about the Bible with a title like “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.” You are quite correct that we need a good understanding of Ehrman’s popular (and unfortunately influential) arguments and the very best biblical scholarship to respond. It is a service to thoughtful Christians in many different contexts.

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