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Fundamentalist Arguments Ad Absurdum about the “Original” Text of the NT

I’ve been looking for a scrappy question to tangle with, and today I received one!



You make the case that we do not have the original New Testament manuscripts.  In fact, we do not have any complete manuscripts of books that eventually became part of the New Testament until the 3rd century, correct?  The response often given by fundamentalist Christians is this:  So, you don’t believe that Socrates died by drinking hemlock?  You don’t believe that Julius Caesar was Emperor?  You don’t believe that Plato wrote Plato’s Republic?  The manuscripts for Jesus are superior in quality to the manuscripts for other historical figures.

This is sort of a sneak way of convincing people that if they don’t accept Jesus (his historicity or divinity?) than you don’t believe anything about ancient history.  I am guessing that you aren’t a scholar of ancient Greece.  But in a debate with a fundamentalist Christian, it’s often tempting to pretend to be one simply to swat away these silly arguments.

What do you think is the best argument in response to this?



Fundamentalists are amazing creatures.  I have to admit, deep down I admire their focus and simplicity (I don’t often tell anyone this!).   They have one particular point of view, it is simple and direct, and they are going to stick to it no matter what.   It’s refreshing, in its way.

The downside is that doing so leads to all sorts of crazy arguments, illogical assertions, non-sequiturs, and nonsense.

This particular argument is that if we don’t know for certain what the authors of the New Testament wrote, then that must mean we don’t know anything about the *things* they wrote *about*.  And that must mean that those things aren’t actually true.  And if you take that logic, than we don’t know if *anything* is true.  Maybe Jesus was a Buddhist monk!  Maybe Julius Caesar wrote the book of Revelation!  Maybe the Bible was given to us by Martians!  Hey, why not!

In simple terms this is known as an argument ad absurdum.  An argument ab absurdum takes an argument, plays it out to a conclusion (which is always something ridiculous, and is, in fact, almost never the conclusion that would sensibly be drawn), points to the absurdity, and concludes that the flaw is in the argument itself, since no one could accept that conclusion.  And so, for example, If there was a newspaper article about Apollo 11 that had factual mistakes in it, that must mean we can’t trust the article, and that must mean we never landed on the moon, and that must mean that the whole thing is a hoax, and that must mean that we can’t land on the moon, and that must mean that maybe the moon really might be made of green cheese.  Is *that* what you want to think?  Huh?  Huh?   (Implication: this article must be 100% correct).

Specifically, with respect to the fundamentalist argument ad absurdum about the manuscripts of the New Testament – why doesn’t anyone simply look at our surviving copies and ask whether they all agree or not (none of them do, in many many details) and then ask whether it is possible to get experts together to concur at every place of the Greek New Testament what the original texts said (in fact it is *not* possible)?  If that can’t be done, why not simply conclude that there are places where we don’t know what the NT originally said?

The vast majority of those places will be very small, picayune little details that no one even cares about.  I’ve always (always!) said this (even if people, on either side, never seem to hear me say it).  On the other hand, there are some places that matter for how one can interpret a verse, or a passage, or an entire book; and some of them are deeply relevant for understanding what this, that, or the other author really thought about one important issue or another.  These claims should be *entirely* non-controversial.  They are simply true.

But fundamentalists who think that every single word of the Bible has to be the one God directed the authors to write, and if it’s not then we can have no guidance for how to live or what to believe, and then we can believe just about anything, and therefore we can just as well become inveterate hedonists or raging tyrants (or both) and…. And so the argument goes.

So let me say as plainly as I can: the problems with the Bible are indeed the problems we have with every literary text from the ancient world.  These problems don’t make the Bible stand out as a sore thumb.  Every text copied by hand has the same problem.  Yes, it is a problem for Plato’s account of the death of Socrates.

How then can we know if Socrates drank the hemlock?  We don’t know it because we believe Plato’s Phaedo (where the account can be found) was inspired by God and inerrant in its every word.  We have to examine all our sources of information, evaluate their merits, critically weight their claims, compare them to one another and other contemporary documents, determine if they are generally reliable, ascertain the possible biases of the author that may have affected his reporting, and … and and and – we have to do the work of historians.  One alternative to doing history is having faith.  You could simply believe that the Phaedo is the inspired word of God so everything it says is necessarily accurate.

But here is the final point, in some ways the most important one.  Fundamentalist and conservative evangelicals often argue that since we have so *many* manuscripts of the New Testament – far more than for any other book from the ancient world (to no one’s surprise, since the copyists in the Middle Ages who preserved our ancient literature for us were, after all, Christian monks!  Of *course* they’ll copy their cherished scriptures more than other books) – that since we have so many manuscripts then we can trust that we have the New Testament in the original form and therefore we can trust what it says.

It is that final “therefore” that should make you screw up your eyes and ask, Huh???  (The first “therefore”is a non-sequitur as well, but I won’t get into that here.) (BTW, when reading a logical argument you should always ask what the “therefore” is there for.)   Why would having thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament mean you can trust what it says?

It actually makes zero sense.  That’s easiest shown with an illustration.   Do we have any doubt at *all* about what Adolph Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf?.  There are millions of copies in print.  One of them is a first edition signed by Adolph Hitler!   There is no doubt about what Hitler wrote in the book.   Does that mean we can trust what it says?

Trusting the *content* of a content of a book has no relation to its manuscript tradition.   The manuscript tradition could be *terrible* (we have only one massively fragmentary copy of Cicero’s de Republica, e.g.); but what the author said in the book might be completely true.  On the other hand, the manuscript tradition could be *excellent* (e.g., for the Communist Manifesto), but what the author(s) said in the book might be completely wrong.  You judge the contents of a book differently from its manuscript tradition.  No relation.

Textual critics are experts who try to establish what an author originally wrote.  For the New Testament, there is an abundance of evidence.   For the first fifteen years or so of my scholarly career, I was obsessed with it and devoted my life to it.   We do our best to know what the author’s words were.  My guess is that most of the time we’re right.  But it’s only a guess – there is no way to know, given the state of our evidence.

That is not a problem for most people, any more than it’s a problem that we may not know in some passages the original words of Plato’s Phaedo.   But it *is* a problem for fundamentalists, who insist that we must and do know the very words God inspired.  I’m sorry, but even though it’s a focused and simple view, it just doesn’t pass muster in the face of masses and masses of evidence.   The evidence can be ignored or … a person can stop being a fundamentalist!

What *Greek* Version of the New Testament Do I Use?
Did Jesus Write Anything in the New Testament?



  1. Lev
    Lev  January 6, 2019

    “On the other hand, there are some places that matter for how one can interpret a verse, or a passage, or an entire book; and some of them are deeply relevant for understanding what this, that, or the other author really thought about one important issue or another.”

    I think this is a really important point that Christians of all stripes should be aware of. I was deeply impressed with how you demonstrated the text of the NT was altered in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture **in order to make theological claims that the original authors did not make.**

    The changes made to combat adoptionists, for instance, has altered Christological theology for thousands of years. I often think that the story of Jesus would be more credible and believable if we read the unaltered versions of the gospels, but that would require some uncomfortable challenges to some entrenched doctrines such as the virgin birth and the Trinity.

    I am curious if the more traditional Churches who have devoted considerable resources to biblical research (such as the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglicans) – whether they are aware and accept the critical scholarship that has uncovered these changes, and how they respond to the theological challenges they present?

    I understand much of the changes get cleaned up in the Novum Testamentum Graece – but do you know if the scholars and theologians within the larger churches embrace this and think through the mounting evidence that perhaps the authors of the NT had a very different view of the faith that most of the Church does today?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2019

      I don’t know if “churches” are aware of these things, but scholars certainly are. Depending on their theological traditions and personal views, they deal with them in a variety of ways, from saying that none of these differences ultimately matters to arguing that the Bible is not infallible in any sense.

      • Lev
        Lev  January 7, 2019

        It sounds like you’re saying that much of the church is impervious to critical scholarship, and dismisses or ignores the findings of scholars who uncover patterns of changes to the NT text.

        Have you ever come across any Jesuits who have examined critical scholarship of the NT? I understand they are usually very intelligent scholars and have sometimes unsettled the Vatican with some of their work – but I’ve only read 2nd or 3rd hand reports of this.

        It amazes (and frustrates) me that the Church closes her ears and shuts her eyes to scholarship that actually brings us closer to what the original authors wrote. You would think the Church would want to know!!

        • Bart
          Bart  January 8, 2019

          Yes, I’d say most Christians in most churches are, based on being in and speaking to hundreds of churches over the past 45 years! But yes, Jesuits are famous for their serious and deep learning.

          • Avatar
            godspell  January 8, 2019

            And for pissing off the Vatican. Particularly when one of them runs it.

            Institutions tend to be resistant to ideas that call their authority into question, and this is not just a religious thing.

        • Avatar
          RodOlson  February 4, 2019

          For me, when a nonsensical or circular arises. I tend to stop, realizing that we are getting nowhere. I will see if I can extract out the variables and see if are really even discussing the actual thing, in this case it’s points of doctorine.

          I see this argument, not really about doctrine per se, but a natural, unhelpful human cognitive process hard at work. And I hate to use these “trendy/hot” psychological understandings… yet I could say, what is really going on is that when an individual or institution, etc., gets confronted with some form of “cognitive dissonance” immediately, without fail and usually, unconsciously the process of “confirmation bias” begins to work on overtime.

          That is how most of us have to deal with the fast pace of our changing world circumstances. If not, mental illness would spike to epidemic proportions.

          Many of us know this realization, “the Christian paradigm” or “worldview” when finally fully accepted, mentally and emotionally, it’s an earth shattering experience almost beyond any other emotional pain.

          I think, most of us stay within a lower developmental stage because of the cost of loss, that has to happen to move past and then the long stage of the grieving processs!

          That is how I can manage my frustration, from my POV, towards anyone who will not, cannot or recognize that it’s even possible.

          It reminds me of Steven Hassan’s work on “destructive mind control” groups. They tend to rely on circular/straw-man/nonsensical apologetic answers to satisfy the illogic of say, their origin story.

          It’s all fascinating and heartbreaking, from all sides.

    • Avatar
      mcmemmo  January 7, 2019

      “I am curious if the more traditional Churches who have devoted considerable resources to biblical research (such as the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglicans) – whether they are aware and accept the critical scholarship that has uncovered these changes, and how they respond to the theological challenges they present?”

      They are aware & accept them. However, scripture is only one of several sources of doctrine for the Catholic & Orthodox Church. They use an entirely different model or process for determining what is correct or *orthodox* teaching than do many Protestant churches. It is only in the denominations that regard scripture as the *sole* rule of faith (i.e., Sola Scripture) that the inerrancy of scripture matters.

      For example, none of the four Marian dogmas of the Roman Catholic church depend on scripture. All are theological statements derived from Christology. So even if it were suddenly discovered that scripture said nothing at all about the Virgin Birth, the Catholic Church could still derive the doctrine of the Virgin Birth using the doctrines of the Incarnation and Hypostatic union. The argument could go like this: As the *New Adam* the body of Jesus would have had to be made out of *virgin* material (like the clay of Eden) so Mary, whose body supplied the raw materials for Jesus’ body, would have had to be a virgin in all respects.

      This would make Jesus a male-Mary clone, which from a biological point of view is highly unlikely, but not statistically impossible. In other words, it would be a miracle! Miracles are what religion exists to explain if you don’t want to believe your life has no inherent meaning.

  2. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  January 6, 2019

    Sometime in the future (when it won’t interrupt a thread), would you consider making a post that summarizes the most important extant Papyri (even if fragmentary), including a brief mention as to why each one is significant?

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  January 6, 2019

    Matt Dillahunty told a story about some Pentecostals who studied Mark and especially the last part, where it talks about snake charming and drinking poison etc. And they looked at the evidence and *had* to conclude that the last part of Mark really was added later, but they came to the conclusion that just because it was added later that didn’t mean it wasn’t inspired by God. That’s a nice example of having your cake and eating it.

    And yes, we have excellent reason to believe that we know what the first Amazing Spider-man said. It even refers real-life places and (possibly) people. Doesn’t mean Spider-man is real.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2019

      Yup, that’s a good evangelical way to deal with it!

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  January 7, 2019

        Tangentially related: I heard a fundamentalist claim that historians regard the quality of evidence in the Gospels is so good that the historians’ consensus was that Jesus really walked on water, raised the dead, fed the masses, etc. Personally I don’t see how any historical evidence could be sufficient to prove that someone actually raised the dead, but I’m no historian. Is there a consensus view – did Jesus really do all these things?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 8, 2019

          Historians in general don’t look at the Gospels that way, though believing Christian historians believing in the Bible do.

  4. Avatar
    godspell  January 6, 2019

    I’ve actually never seen a fundamentalist bring Socrates and Plato into it, but I’m sure some of them do.

    The atheist fundamentalists–the ones who want to say 100% of the gospel accounts are fiction–are just as crazy, just as addicted to absurd argumentation. It’s really the same argument, when you get right down to it. You believe everything, or you believe nothing. I was arguing with some atheists on a political forum, and it was so hard for them to grasp that it didn’t have to be all or none. I was literally accused of being a smorgasbord Christian, picking and choosing–it was like being at bible class! Pick a side, stick to it!

    The same mentality can infect completely opposite POV’s, because really it’s much more about what habits of mind you have than what beliefs you were raised with. There are Christians who are extremely reasonable and urbane, and there are atheists who are, sorry to say, raving fanatics. And vice versa, of course, but let’s just remember, not being a believer in divine beings does not make you rational. It’s how you believe, or disbelieve, that matters.

    FYI, Bart, I brought up your name, and one of my antagonists said you were okay about some things, but I should read Richard Carrier.

    I said some things about that, and he left in a huff.


    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2019

      If you want to know about mythicist conspiracy, definitely read Carrier. If you want to know about biblical studies or the history of early Christianity, read scholars trained in *those* areas.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  January 13, 2019

      I don’t know of any fundamentalists who are making a point with Socrates or Plato either godspell.

      As far as mythicism goes, I don’t think it deserves to be treated as a conspiracy theory. How was the idea that Moses was a myth treated when first introduced? It drew plenty of criticism, and now if a critical scholar believes Moses was real, the criticism is flipped! Consensus is great, but it can also be wrong. Carrier may be uncouth at times, but he went to an Ivy League college and earned a PhD in Ancient History, so he’s not ignorant or dumb and plenty qualified to speak about all religions from the ancient world. I don’t agree with his views, but is it any worse than an atheist NT scholar teaching young Christians?

      Bart wrote a book about memory, but he’s not a scientific expert for memory. That doesn’t mean I don’t value his opinion on the matter. He doesn’t believe Jesus was buried and wrote a book called God’s Problem—that flies into the face of consensus and a smack at those who believe there’s a God. I don’t disregard him just because he thinks differently.

      There’s plenty of criticism to be handed out all the way around. I know for a fact there’s people on this blog who tend to believe the mythicist position is correct but are afraid to say anything because they know that Bart thinks it’s crank and don’t want to suffer the consequences of voicing their opinion.

      • Bart
        Bart  January 14, 2019

        For me it’s not a question of whether other theories that once were seen as “out there” came to be more widely accepted; it’s whether a theory that is actually taken seriously and studied assiduously is still seen as being widely and wildly unacceptable. If those who hold the theory refuse to budge an inch even in the face of evidence that every other expert sees as completely compelling — what would be our definition of conspiracy theory?

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  January 14, 2019

          When you say that mythicism has been taken seriously and studied assiduously, by whom are you referring to?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 15, 2019

            Well, myself for one.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  January 13, 2019

      I should also add that several months ago when Tony (the mythicist) asked Bart if he would hire a NT scholar who was a mythicist, Bart replied with a “No”. That’s why I wrote —is an atheist NT scholar teaching young Christians any worse? I think the world of Bart, but I also think his belief system affects his work. Just like Carrier’s beliefs affect his and Dan Wallace’s belief system affects his. No one’s work is without bias. And so, to me, it seems absurd to go along with the consensus view. I see this particular statement repeated to ad nauseum: 99.9% of NT scholars believe Jesus existed; therefore, no *serious* scholar believes Jesus was a myth—it’s absurd to say that a scholar isn’t a *serious* scholar if s/he believes Jesus never existed. That places pressure on present and future scholars to conform, so they won’t be seen as outcasts. Is that not a bullying tactic? How could we ever expect to learn truth when there’s so much pressure to go along with everyone else?

      • Bart
        Bart  January 14, 2019

        I don’t see why you’re equating a *historical* view that is everywhere discredited (mythicism) with a *theological* view that is widely shared among scholars and non-scholars alike (atheism). Ones’s personal religious beliefs shouldn’t have any bearing on ones’ historical conclusions. The better analogy is this: would you think it strange if a biology department in a major university refused to hire a faculty member who did not believe in evolution but in Adam and Eve, or a geology department that refused to hire a creationist? No reputable science department in the Western world would ever do so. It has nothing to do with prejudice against equally defensible positions.

        • Robert
          Robert  January 14, 2019

          “Ones’s personal religious beliefs shouldn’t have any bearing on ones’ historical conclusions. The better analogy is this: would you think it strange if a biology department in a major university refused to hire a faculty member who did not believe in evolution but in Adam and Eve, or a geology department that refused to hire a creationist? No reputable science department in the Western world would ever do so. It has nothing to do with prejudice against equally defensible positions.”

          This! On the other hand, many confessional colleges and seminaries do indeed require their teachers to forgo academic freedom in favor of some view of orthodoxy and even inerrancy and they hire well trained young academics who have themselves come out of the same or a similar seminary system. The result is that a very large number of especially American ‘scholars’ of Christian origins really should not be taken seriously. But they are.

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  January 15, 2019

          But do you think that your work is unbiased? I loved The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, MJ, How Jesus Became God…. And I think you try very hard to be fair, but I wonder about the choice to write a book on suffering. And the ultimate purpose behind Jesus Before the Gospels.

          As far as the hiring process goes, I’m not sure I’m following. Are you saying that a Geology Dept. would not hire a Creationist because of their belief system or that they wouldn’t be hired because of what their work demonstrated? Surely universities aren’t asking about the religious backgrounds and belief systems of their hiring candidates. I think a mythicist’s work would be sufficient enough to nix being hired. Their work would demonstrate inappropriate conclusions.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 15, 2019

            No, I don’t at *all* think I’m unbiased. We’re not talking about biases. We’re talking about adhering to the widely held standards of scholarly research, shared by the vast majority not only of everyone who works in the field but of virtually all scholars of the historical disciplines. A Geology department would not hire a creationist because everyone who is an expert in geology knows that the earth, as a planet (I’m not talking about life forms) evolved billions of years old. It did not come into being at a point of time some thousands of years ago. It just didn’t. And if someone says it did, whatever their religious beliefs are, they’re not a bona find geologist.

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  January 15, 2019

          There are a dozen things I would like to say here, but you’re probably ready to strangle me by this point, so I’ll try to keep it simple.

          Changes were made to the New Testament and that is a fact, but most Christians didn’t know much about this until you informed us. It’s not debated among scholars but it’s still information that needed to be shared. I feel like it’s the same with mythicism. It’s not debated among scholars, but as agnosticism and religious nones grow in numbers in our current context, it’s important to not sweep this subject aside. It’s significant to the lay audience, not scholars, and that’s the bottom line. If the question of Jesus’ existence was posed to a million people, the belief that he existed is probably very high. But if it’s posed to deconverts from the faith and agnostics, the numbers would come out very differently. And it’s this group I am concerned with. I’d hate to see a mass of people come out of one false set of erroneous beliefs only to step into another.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 17, 2019

            There’s a huge difference. The reason scholars didn’t debate about textual variants is because they had studied the question for centuries and knew it was true. They knew all the data. The reason they don’t debate mythicism is because they’ve studied the question for centuries (the view has been around since the French Enlightenment) and they know it’s *not* true. Again, they know all the data.

            Also, speaking for myself, I precisely do NOT sweep the question aside. I spent a good chunk of my life writing an entire book about it!

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  January 16, 2019

          I already commented, but I think we may be talking past each other here. I think like a K-12 educator in that a historical position does not necessarily mean that *that* position is taught in the classroom. I work with teachers who believe in Adam and Eve but teach evolution. In my mind, if a mythicist has the proper educational background, then they can teach the New Testament just the same as anyone else who’s qualified. I assumed—maybe wrongly so— that in a public university, there’s a standard or guidelines required to follow when teaching the New Testament. (They would have to teach the consensus view regardless of their position.) How is a mythicist any different than an atheist teaching the NT because I think it’s strange to be teaching Christians when one’s theological views are so outside the box—so fringe. In my mind, both are teaching the same information.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 17, 2019

            No, there are not guidelines in the public university, no oversight committees and no curriculum. The entire point of academic freedom is that if you are deemed an authority, you teach where you believe your research and knowledge guide you. A mythicist could absolutely teach mythicism — or any other view — in a state university, if he/she were hired as a faculty member. That’s why hiring committees in geology do not hire creationists.

          • Robert
            Robert  January 17, 2019

            Patty: “How is a mythicist any different than an atheist teaching the NT because I think it’s strange to be teaching Christians when one’s theological views are so outside the box—so fringe.”

            A university level course in New Testament texts or the history of Christian origins is not the same as a religion class in a Catholic high school or Sunday school or even graduate level seminary training in homiletics. A university professor, whether a Christian believer or atheist, is not supposed to be imparting or strengthening the faith of her students, who also need not be Christian to want to learn more about this period in history. A great many New Testament scholars at Bart’s level and above are agnostic or atheist in their personal views and especially so in their scholarly work. ‘This seems to contradict the creed we profess on Sunday’ cannot be used as an historical argument.

          • Avatar
            Pattycake1974  January 17, 2019

            Oh, I see now. I was thinking this whole time there were fixed guidelines to follow. Teaching Bible Literacy in K-12 is still new, but one of the recommendations is utilizing consensus documents. I thought that if I have to teach a consensus view, then so does everybody else!

            What’s to keep a professor from going on a tangent when teaching? Is there any accountability process?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 18, 2019

            Do you mean on a tangent when giving a lecture? Nothing. Do you mean taking an entire semester’s class off in some weird direction? Technically nothing. BUT there are indeed very serious accountability measures, even for big-shot Professors with named chairs: at my school everyone’s research and teaching is reviewed on a five-year schedule in a very serious evaluation process by the department, and deficiencies are explored and remedies are sought. I’ve never heard of someone ever being dismissed for teaching content that others disagree with, but in large measure that’s because a school like mine only hires faculty who are recognized as bona fide experts in their fields.

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  January 17, 2019

          I know you’ve spent a lot of time on the subject. I wish other scholars would devote some time to it as well.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 18, 2019

            Well, most of my friends in the field thought it was a bit crazy for me to devote a book to it, since the evidence is so overwhelming that if someone doesn’t see it, they just don’t want to. Most scholars think that it’s a bit comparable to asking for more books by professional astronomers demonstrating that the moon landing really happened.

  5. Avatar
    Beninbuda  January 6, 2019

    No one participates in a debate with an open mind The debater’s aim is to have their perspective sound superior to their opponent’s.

    No debate, be it religious or political, will convert the participants. Would Hannity or Limbaugh care what Colbert or Fallon has to say? Would the head Rabbi of Israel wish to be converted during an audience with the Pope or Imam?

    And so, it is the audience, not the debaters, that has the responsibility of attending debates with the aim of being persuaded.

    Good luck in finding such an audience.

    Bart, it is wonderful that you are able to continue with your research and writing in the midst of the opposing vitriol and airwaves. You readers want the pure essence of a text, and not the eisegesis.

  6. Avatar
    balivi  January 6, 2019

    Dear Prof!
    There is also a third option the reagard of the bible. The manuscript tradition exellent, but what the author said in the book, the reader’s understands completely wrong, the reader misunderstands it. This is why it’s realy important the work of textual critics: what was, that an author originally wrote.
    What is important to me is what you wrote for the 1Cor11: 23 (in The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot).
    So I was able to understand Paul’s theology.
    Many thanx for your job! 🙂

  7. Avatar
    mkahn1977  January 6, 2019

    Sounds very much like circular reasoning too- there’s a great book on this subject by David Hackett Fischer called “Historians’ Fallacies” and it deals with faulty logic in historiography. I think a lot of the examples can be applied to what fundamentalists try argue.

  8. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  January 6, 2019

    Another great post, Dr. Ehrman!

    I would love to see you write a post about how so many scholars treat ancient believers as if they were incredulous idiots who lack the good sense of modern man.

    For me, in my poor attempt at study and learning, the hardest part of reading academic papers is to discern what is actually in the paper of value: religious scholars tend to show their biases by not only what they focus on but what they ignore while so-called modern/ purely academic scholars tend to show their biases by what they reject as “theological” or their own modern approach to study that dismisses miracles or God as make-believe. Both approaches lack objectivity, no matter how well-intended the scholar is or desires to be.

    In my opinion.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2019

      Interesting. Which scholars are you thinking of?

    • Avatar
      fishician  January 7, 2019

      “My point is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” ~ John Dominic Crossan

      • Avatar
        godspell  January 8, 2019

        John W. Campbell over and over stressed the fact that myths are never meant to be taken literally. To be believed in, yes–but not the same way you believe in the chair you’re sitting on, or the sun rising in the morning.

        At some point in a religion’s development, myths harden into dogma, and dogma cannot be questioned. Dogma can then further solidify into fundamentalism, which won’t rest content until NOBODY questions it. Which means it’ll never rest content.

  9. Avatar
    doug  January 6, 2019

    The credibility of a text may be affected by whether the writer had an agenda he/she wanted to promote. A person who is determined to show that they were abducted by aliens is likely to be more biased in their writing than an author who has nothing to gain either way and just tries to write an honest article about alien abduction claims.

  10. Avatar
    Hon Wai  January 6, 2019

    Many apologists cite from Josh McDowell’s “Evidence that demands a verdict” the contrast between thousands of NT manuscripts, and under a dozen copies of classical works e.g. only 7 copies of Plato with a gap of 1300 years, 10 copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars with gap of 1000 years. I have always been suspicious about the rather small numbers cited for Plato and Caesar. I checked up https://www.trismegistos.org/authors/index.php#index-graphs, and see that the number of manuscripts for Plato’s works up to 8th century CE is 114 . I suspect the figure of 7 refers to manuscripts of a complete book. Do all these sound about right?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2019

      It’s true that we have so many more thousands of copies of the NT than these other books (I don’t have their precise numbers handy). But it’s also irrelevant. What does it “prove” exactly??

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    The Agnostic Christian  January 6, 2019

    That was a great post. Your best in a long while out of many great posts I have have enjoyed reading recently. But this one speaks to one of the core issues I had as a Fundamentalist.

    Obviously the most irrational position Fundamentalists take on this position is to declare the KJV itself as God’s inspired Word in English. Which is an utterly absurd position when looked at from the outside, but a logical conclusion of this type of thinking.

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    Matt2239  January 6, 2019

    Or a fundamentalist can redefine his or her faith to accommodate the new information. It isn’t necessary for anyone to become skewered on the horns of a dilemma.

    It seems unfair to dismiss the voluminous ancient manuscripts of Christian writings by saying they were all written by monks who had a lot of time on their hands. The phenomenal work of ancient Christians to record and spread their religion through time-consuming, labor-intensive, detail-exacting copying is nothing less than a miracle. Over the world, in the history of the world, nothing else compares to their accomplishment.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2019

      Yes, indeed! But fundamentalists who do that almost always move away from being fundamentalists.

      I’ve never said that about monks; are you possibly referring to someone else?

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    alanpaul  January 6, 2019

    Hi Bart
    I couldn’t agree more with your post. What vexes me most about some of our fundamentalist friends is that, on the one hand they profess to be totally committed to the idea of learning from scripture, yet on the other, when backed into a corner, they shut down discussion which delves too deeply into a text (especially in the original language) even if the objective is to understand better what the author is trying to tell us. In other words, when push comes to shove, they choose authority over insight. For them, knowledge of NT Greek is fine if it lends a kind of spurious legitimacy to purveyors of doctrine, but it is definitely not fine if it should become too much of a challenge. Fundamentalists prefer that scripture should kept in a strictly climate controlled environment and bible study should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

    The question I like to put to my fundamentalist friends is: if you believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, wouldn’t you want to try to make really sure that you understood what the inspired writers of the bible intended to say to you? (I live in Hong Kong, where most people use a Chinese translation of an English translation of a Greek original. This is not conducive to crystal clarity and the Chinese language can’t always cope with the precision of English, let alone Greek, grammar.) They don’t really have an answer to that question, but I guess what they are thinking is that if God really wanted us to understand he would have made it clear and anyway they have a direct line whenever they need it. Sigh.

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    ddorner  January 6, 2019

    This is a great point. I’ve never understood how a text’s proximity to the original event it records makes that event any more likely to have occurred. As Dale Martin points out, Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon himself shortly after the supposed events. Does that make it any more likely to be true?

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      dankoh  January 15, 2019

      ALL ELSE being equal, one can begin with the rebuttable presumption that the earlier text is more likely to be an accurate record of events than a later one. But that is only a first assumption and often wrong.

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    mcmemmo  January 6, 2019

    Regardless of whether they are fundamentalists or agnostics, I am deeply grateful to all the people who worked so hard over the last century to get us to the point in Biblical studies where we are today. I would much rather know where we stand in terms of the reliability of the text of scripture & other early sources, than to be totally in the dark about how much of it we can actually trust. Other faith traditions are not so fortunate. I hope your book on the Afterlife will include the Apostolic Fathers. I loved your Great Courses lectures on them!

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    HawksJ  January 6, 2019

    “think that every single word of the Bible has to be the one God directed the authors to write, and if it’s not then we can have no guidance for how to live or what to believe”

    That’s an interesting way to put it, but I think it’s an inaccurate characterization of what Fundys’ believe. I don’t think they believe in literal innerancy because otherwise ‘we wouldn’t know how to live or what to believe’. I think that’s backwards. I think they believe that they have instructions on how to live and what to believe precisely because they literally have the words of god.

    That’s a subtle, but I think important, distinction.

    One reason it’s important is that, ironically, the way you put it is the best argument against fundamentalism: since we do NOT literally have the words of god, then we cannot know with precise certainty what he or she wants. The lack of certainty about religion is the antithesis of fundamentalism.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2019

      My sense is that fundamentalists think *both* things, and see the two views as mutually supporting of one another.

  17. epicurus
    epicurus  January 7, 2019

    The notion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence doesn’t seem to register with many fundamentalists. The bar for saying what we can know about Socrates or Caesar is lower because if we are wrong about them or anything in the ancient world well, ultimatly, so what? But the supernatural, extraordinary claims about Jesus and the events of the old and new testament are but forward as a truth that must believed, otherwise an eternity in hell awaits. If that were the case for knowing about Socrates or Caesar I’m sure many would say we just can’t know anything about the ancient world- there’s just not enough evidence.

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    car3366  January 7, 2019

    Ah yes. This argument (along with the one that touts the comparative number of NT vs non-NT manuscripts) is one Christian Apologists turn to often. I like your response but what do you think about adding or emphasizing the following?
    1) Facts or conclusions about events in ancient history are always provisional! As with science, our knowledge of history is always open to adjustment based on future discoveries or better evidence about the past. By stark contrast, the Gospel authors do not countenance any doubts or skepticism about what they write.

    2) The authors of ancient history and the authors of the NT are asking two very different things from their readers. When I read a history of Plato or Plato’s Dialogues, I’m not being told that I risk eternal damnation if I dont believe that Socrates existed or that he actually took poison. Regardless, I think most rational people would not take anyone’s written or oral testimony at face value without corroborating evidence.

  19. Ali Sharifli
    Ali Sharifli  January 7, 2019

    Maybe they assume that if we have some second century manuscripts which are closely similar to our modern NT passages (except minor disagreements) , we can assume that our modern NT books aren’t so different from “original” works and if we have mid-century manuscripts, they likely point out to existence of first century manuscripts. Is what they think problematic?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2019

      Yup, it’s an “assumption” (not a “proof”). One could assume the opposite as well. (our 2nd c. mss, btw, are just scraps/fragments)

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    anvikshiki  January 7, 2019

    Though I have been interested in Biblical scholarship for about three decades, I’m no scholar in it. I do, however, do scholarly work in ancient texts of other traditions. Beyond the fundamentalist arguments here, I often find it a challenge in my courses to make students appreciate that, in many many cases, ancient texts did not even start out as one unified “book,” but were compiled from fragments of aphorisms or narratives or philosophical arguments, then edited, altered, added to and so on, most of the time over the course of several centuries, and are only later attributed to a single author, a famous historical figure or even famous but entirely legendary figure. There are of course important, singled-authored exceptions. But, to a great degree, even with the oldest available versions of ancient manuscripts of any notable length, one is most often looking at what is already an “anthology.” Maybe some feel that such complicated histories of composition shield us from the historical “origins” of what was being written about. And maybe sometimes they do in the most literal senses. But I often prefer to find reasons to value ancient texts precisely because they contain what whole communities of people, even intergenerational communities, thought and believed about the contents of the text, and that in itself tells us much of great importance about history. That fact in itself, that something was important enough not just to pass on to the next generations but to keep working on and arguing over for centuries and in very different human circumstances, languages and cultures from the “original” one, that tells us something important about what was most “real” to ancient people. The “origin” may often not be the most valuable thing about a tradition, but instead just the way the tradition began, and what became even more important was why the tradition survived into so many different eras and cultures. So, the Jesus we see in even the earliest Gospel manuscripts is already who Jesus had become for multiple communities of people. That’s exactly how the spoken words of Jesus, which may well have proclaimed the immanent end of “history” in the lifetimes of those around him, were transformed into written words that have been important for at least two millennia. That’s how history is “really” made.

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