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Becoming a Textual Critic

Back to my narrative of how I got interested in biblical studies, and specifically textual criticism.   I was just thinking last night about how people (on the blog or elsewhere) sometimes report to me that they have heard my conservative evangelical critics say that I’m not a biblical interpreter (exegete) or a historian, but I’m a textual critic (someone who studies the manuscripts of the New Testament).  And I started thinking about all my training in the Bible and the history of early Christianity.

I did three years at Moody studying mainly Bible and theology; I did a two year completion degree at Wheaton majoring in English; I then did a three-year Master’s of Divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary; and finally a four-year PhD in New Testament also at Princeton Seminary.  Over the course of all those years I must have taken, what?   70 or 75 courses?  How many of those courses were on textual criticism?

I had one class at Moody that was maybe ¼ devoted to the topic.   And one class in my MDiv program that was ½ devoted to it.  And that was all.

My formal training was not in textual criticism.  I learned that on my own.  To be sure, I had rather good guidance.  I went to Princeton …

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My Original Interest in Textual Criticism
How I Discovered Textual Criticism



  1. Avatar
    Boltonian  September 6, 2016

    This might be a naive comment from a non-expert but I cannot see how one can have pretensions to being a biblical scholar of any note without knowledge of both exegesis and textual criticism. They seem to me, given your definitions, to be two sides of the same coin.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2016

      I agree, interpreters of the NT really have to know textual criticism and textual critics have to know exegesis. But so few do!

  2. Avatar
    rburos  September 6, 2016

    It’s starting to read like an Aaron Sorkin screenplay (high compliment).

  3. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 6, 2016

    Two unrelated questions:
    1) There is a primordial monster mentioned in Job 9 & elsewhere, called Rahab; also a prostitute by the same name (in translation at least) in Joshua. Are the names identical in Hebrew? Is that pure coincidence?
    2) What do you consider the most original theme or idea in the New Testament writings?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2016

      1. I’ve often wondered, but don’t know. 2. I’m not sure what you mean!

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  September 8, 2016

        2) I’ve heard a saying about the teachings of Jesus: “Nothing he said that was true was new and nothing he said that was new was true.” I.e. his best teachings were from Jewish tradition. I was asking if there is a major religious or ethical idea that seems to have first appeared (in writing) in the NT.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 7, 2016

      The Rahab in Job and the Rahab in Joshua are actually different names. The first is spelled resh-hey-beth — רהב — in Hebrew, and literally means “arrogance,” so is, therefore, the mythological personification of Arrogance (cf. the Greek Hubris). The name Rahab for the harlot in Joshua is spelled resh-cheth-beth — רחב — and literally means “wide” (for example, the Hebrew word for a main or “broad” street, rachuv, come from this root), and her name may be a pun on her profession (i.e. prostitutes spread their legs for a living).

      • Bart
        Bart  September 8, 2016

        Ah, right — I did know that! (Once, when I bothered to look)

  4. Avatar
    ffg  September 6, 2016

    Great article, Bart. I love how you respect your audience and your intellectual integrity.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  September 6, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, considering that the vast majority of seminary students are devoutly faithful Christians (otherwise why enter seminary?), it would make sense to me that theology and exegetics would be far more “sexy” than textual criticism to not only the students, but to the faculty, too. Would you say that your dissertation topic shifted away from the de rigueur theology and exegetics towards textual criticism because, at that point in your life, your faith was starting to shift as well? And your interest in textual criticism was a way of exploring that shift?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2016

      As it turns out, I got interested in it well before the shift, as I’ll be explaining in the next few posts, including today’s.

  6. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  September 6, 2016

    Metzger must have really cared about you to break out the Red Pen! But why aren’t some scholars able to write trade books very well? I recently read a trade book by a biblioscholar, and I just couldn’t finish it. I bought it because it seemed to be a fan favorite and it’s one of my favorite topics, but it was a jumble to me. I am now reading The Bible Unearthed and enjoying it very much.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2016

      Yes, I”m getting to that. It was supposed to be the point of this thread, but I’ve moved to a thread within a thread within a thread! But *I’m* enjoying it at least!

      • Avatar
        Rthompsonmdog  September 7, 2016

        You are not alone, this has been an enjoyable thread.

      • Avatar
        doug  September 7, 2016

        I’m enjoying it, too. Thank you.

  7. Avatar
    Habib  September 6, 2016

    Super. Very interesting and encouraging. Hard work pays off.

  8. TWood
    TWood  September 6, 2016

    Interesting. I assume Metzger (who wasn’t an inerrantist) believed there is canonical pseudepigrapha… but did he think any of the commonly understood pseudepigrapha were genuine?

    I also wonder the same question about B.B. Warfield (who was an inerrantist)… what was his position on canonical pseudepigraph?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2016

      Metzger though 2 Peter was pseudepigraphic, but in the New Testament, that was the only one. Warfield thought all the books were authentic, I believe.

      • TWood
        TWood  September 7, 2016

        They’ve both been dead for a while, Metzger not that long ago I guess, but I’m wondering if any evidence for canonical pseudepigrapha has been found since either of them were actively studying?

        It makes me wonder if Metzger was less objective than I thought, or if the case for pseudepigrapha is not as strong as I thought. Metzger was a very respected scholar who wasn’t an inerrantist, so I’m struggling with how he could believe Peter wrote 1 Peter (who apparently couldn’t read or write Greek) or that Paul wrote the pastorals, etc. Did Metzger use the argument that a secretary was used for the pastorals and the other three pseudo-Pauline letters? Any other thoughts you have that might help clarify why these two (esp. Metzger) didn’t see what you see would be appreciated.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 8, 2016

          Not much *new* evidence, no. Metzger though (if I remember correctly) that Peter used a secretary for the book.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 7, 2016

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this.

  10. Avatar
    mjt  September 7, 2016

    If the majority of students attending seminary are there for the purpose of leading churches one day (and there tens of thousands of churches out there to employ them), does that mean that the opportunities for someone looking to be a textual critic, a historian, a professor of New Testament, etc. are more limited?

    Another way to ask, if you knew from the start that you would become a nonbeliever and would never pastor a church, would it be a huge risk to undertake getting a phD in something related to the study of the bible? Are there a lot of unemployed theologians?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 8, 2016

      Anyone who wants to be a textual critic usually does it for personal and intellectual reasons, not professional — there are very few professional (full time) textual critics in the world. There are some who do the work part time while they pastor; the majority are professors who teach a range of other topics in the field. I never wanted to pastor a church — I always wanted to be a professor.

  11. Avatar
    Judith  September 7, 2016

    What is the possibility of reading your eulogy for Dr. Metzger? For some reason, it’s not possible to use the search bar tonight to find where someone mentioned it on the blog as unforgettable. I mentioned back then wanting to read it. Would you make it available perhaps for the Mailbag?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 8, 2016

      I never delivered a eulogy. I’ve just spoken of him publicly sometimes. I’m not sure my comments have ever been published.

  12. Avatar
    Judith  September 8, 2016

    The reason for wanting to read what you wrote is to find out what you said memorable all those years later when everything good had already been said and/or written about him. (No step for a stepper (you) but still intriguing.)

  13. Avatar
    Judith  September 9, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, it was Larry Angus’ 9/21/15 comment to your “Do I Have A Grudge Against Bruce Metzer?” on 9/19/15: “…some thoughts you gave at his memorial service at The Society of Biblical Literature before at least three hundred. To this day, I don’t believe I have ever heard a more powerful obituary of love, fun and respect for a scholar.” And your reply, “Thanks. I wonder if I still have those remarks somewhere.” Maybe The Society of Biblical Literature has a copy and I can find out. All I know is someone remembered them eight years later and that’s extraordinary even for something you said.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 11, 2016

      Ah, right. Now I remember. Unfortunately, I did not write out my comments that I gave, but simply had a few notes to myself that I spoke from. Too bad!

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