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My Very First Post: Do Textual Variants Matter??

In three days we will hit the seventh-year anniversary of the blog.   I thought it would be fun (for me) to look at the earliest posts.  Here is the very first one, from April 3, 2012  (I’ve edited it a bit to tone down the rhetoric; I was a bit more hot-headed in those days!)   It’s about one of the most interesting and hotly disputed topics I’ve dealt with throughout my career.

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Probably more than any of my other books, Misquoting Jesus provoked a loud and extensive critique from scholars – almost exclusively among evangelical Christians, who appear to have thought that if readers were “led astray” by my claims in the book they might be in danger of losing their faith or (almost worse!) changing what they believed so that they would no longer be evangelical.

I’m not so sure there is really much danger in presenting widely held scholarship to a lay-readership, and so I was a bit surprised at the vitriol I received at the hands of some of my evangelical critics. There were four books written to refute my discussion: (1) Dillon Burroughs, Misquotes in Misquoting Jesus: Why You Can Still Believe; (2) Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus”; (3) Nicholas Perrin, Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus; and (4) Gregory Koukl, Misquoting Jesus? Answering Bart Ehrman.

In addition, there were scores of blogs and various Internet postings taking on me and my views, some frontal assaults by New Testament scholars who are not credentialed in the field of textual criticism, some of whom produced such long-winded responses that to give a fair representation of their “points” would take another major book!

But there are a few claims that my critics have been made that seem to me to be worth addressing, and if any readers know of any in particular that they would like me to answer, I will be more than happy to do so. Just let me know!

One common claim made by my evangelical detractors is that despite the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of differences among our surviving manuscripts of the New Testament (and that no one of these manuscripts is the “original” or an “accurate copy of the original”) NONE of these differences affect “any cardinal doctrine” (as Dan Wallace has been fond of saying). Here is one such statement by Ben Witherington, in his provocatively entitled response “Misanalyzing Text Criticism.”

It is simply not the case that any significant theological truth is at issue with the textual variants that Ehrman wants to make much of. As I remember Bruce Metzger saying once (who trained both Bart and myself in these matters) over 90% of the NT is rather well established in regard to its original text, and none of the remaining 10% provides us with data that could lead to any shocking revisions of the Christian credo or doctrine. It is at the very least disingenuous to suggest it does, if not deliberately provocative to say otherwise.

I have lots of things to say about this critique. To begin with, let’s be clear (I don’t mean this as an attack, but I’m just stating what I think are the facts): when Ben indicates that both he and I were trained in textual criticism by Bruce Metzger, I’m not completely sure what he means. Prof. Metzger taught at Princeton Theological Seminary his entire career. I went to PTS to study with him, worked three years taking all of his classes as a master’s student, wrote a master’s thesis under his direction, stayed on to do a PhD under his direction (I was his final doctoral student), and wrote my PhD dissertation under him. Altogether I worked with him for seven years – and after that he hired me to work with him for the New Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible, another two years. I honestly don’t know when Ben studied with him, since Ben did not study at PTS.  Maybe he took a summer school course once?

In any event, I find Ben’s argument that there is no “significant theological truth” at stake in any of the variant readings of the New Testament to be problematic for a number of reasons:

  • I never claimed in my book (or elsewhere) that there were theological truths at stake. What I argued is that textual variants affect theologically important passages of the New Testament. Surely a careful reader – Ben prides himself on being a careful reader – realizes that is a different matter altogether.
  • The reason “theological truths” are not “at stake” in any of the textual variations I discuss is because theologians, or even theologically interested interpreters like Ben, never, ever, develop their “theological truths” on the basis of any one passage of the Bible. You can take away this passage or that passage, and they will still find ways to find their “truths” in Scripture. Scripture is great that way: it opens itself up to all kinds of theological speculation. If theologians can find the Trinity in Genesis chapter 1 (they can! You can find anything if you look hard enough for it), then certainly the alteration of a verse here or there in the New Testament is going to have relatively slight effect on any doctrine – any cherished doctrine whatsoever.
  • That is not to say that textual variations are unimportant for theological discourse. They are important. But not in the way Ben is imagining (or imagining that I’m imagining). The reality is that textual variants affect numerous passages of theological significance: the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the atoning significance of his death, and so on. If Ben wants to deny this then we will have a real brouhaha on our hands!
  • Most important, I wonder why “theological significance” is the major criterion being used to determine what matters when it comes to the text of the Bible. In a couple of public debates, Dan Wallace, for example, made the bold and startling claim mentioned above, in response to my views, that “not a single cardinal doctrine” of the Christian faith was affected by the textual variation of the New Testament. After hearing him make this claim a couple of times, I decided to fire back. “Why should that be our gauge for whether textual variation matters or not?” Only someone so deeply rooted in theology that nothing else ultimately matters would even think to use this rhetorical ploy.But think about it in other terms. Suppose, I asked, we all woke up tomorrow only to find that the New Testament books of Mark, Philippians, James, and 2 Peter had disappeared, that they no longer exist, they are no longer in anyone’s Bible. Would their absence have any effect on “any cardinal doctrine” of the faith? Not in the least! Doctrine would remain exactly the same for virtually every Christian on the planet. But would you say their sudden disappearance would be significant? YES it would be  HUGELY significant. And so my point, changes in the Bible can be inordinately significant without affecting any cherished doctrines of the evangelicals.
  • And it is important to stress, textual variants often affect all sorts of things. In many instances they affect what a verse means. Or a passage. Or even an entire book!.  Just think of some of the Big Ones: Did Jesus forgive the woman taken in adultery in the Gospel of John? It depends which manuscripts you read. Did Jesus appear to his disciples after his resurrection, or not, in the Gospel of Mark? It depends which manuscripts you read. Did Jesus go into great agony and sweat great drops as if of blood in Luke’s version of his arrest? It depends which manuscripts you read. Does the Gospel of Luke teach that Jesus’ death was an atoning sacrifice “for us”? It depends which manuscripts you read. Does the Gospel of John present Jesus as “the unique God”? It depends which manuscripts you read. And on and on.

So, for anyone who is deeply committed to his or her theology, who is worried about how the textual variants of the New Testament might affect it, let me say it once again: none of your cherished doctrines appears to be in real danger because of variations in our surviving manuscripts (at least the variations that we know about). But that is not my claim and never has been my claim.
My claim is that there are important variations in the surviving manuscripts of the New Testament; some of these variations affect how an entire passage — indeed, in some cases how an entire book — is to be interpreted; some of these variations affect how we understand the theology of this or that biblical author; there are numerous passages where scholars continue to debate what the “original” text of the New Testament said; and there are some places where we will never know. All of that does indeed seem to be significant to me.

For nearly seven years now, blog members have received posts like this five or more times a week, week in and week out.  If you were a member, you could too — and access all seven years’ worth.  It costs little, and every penny goes to charity.  So think about joining!

 


Were Miracle Stories Originally in the Gospels?
Did Jesus Pray “Father Forgive Them” from the Cross?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 31, 2019

    Regarding your second point – Martin Wagner of the Atheist Experience was fond of calling the Bible “the big book of multiple choice.” You can find a Biblical justification for practically anything, including atrocities like those that happened in Christchurch recently.

    5
  2. Avatar
    Adam0685  March 31, 2019

    I’ve been a member since the beginning. It’s been 7 years already?!
    I hope you’ve got as much from the experience as I have.

    2
  3. Avatar
    rivercrowman  March 31, 2019

    Historic!! … I’ve already printed a copy of this post to tuck into my copy of Misquoting Jesus. I discovered Bart this same year as I ordered Jesus Interrupted, soon followed by reading his other books. … Thank you Bart Ehrman!

    2
  4. fefferdan
    fefferdan  March 31, 2019

    Bart, first let me say thanks for revisiting older posts. There’s much good material there I’m sure, and it gives us Newbies a chance to weigh in on these posts without digging through the dusty archives.

    But I’m surprised that you’d say “I never claimed in my book (or elsewhere) that there were theological truths at stake.” I agree that theologians don’t rely on only one passage of scripture, but the theological issue of biblical inerrancy itself is significant in itself IMO. Moreover when scribes insert tendentious material to strengthen their own theology that does tend to cast doubt on theologically significant doctrines. I have in mind the Johannine Comma, for example, which represents one of the only trinitarian passages in the NT. Also the inclusion of the story of the Woman Taken In Adultery was significant for ecclesiology, assuming it’s true [as I think] that it was included to discourage Novatianism and to make the church more welcoming of “fallen” women.

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    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2019

      Ah good point. I was referring to “theological truths” that evangelicals find to be stated in the Bible, not the theological truth that they assert *about* the Bible.

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  5. Avatar
    doug  March 31, 2019

    Given that some people think that if you don’t hold the right beliefs you’ll go to hell for eternity, to even appear to lead people away from those beliefs is sometimes seen as a crime worse than murder.

  6. epicurus
    epicurus  March 31, 2019

    I remember a debate you had with Craig Evans many years ago were you had to make these points as well because Evans just dismissed it all as unimportant.

  7. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  March 31, 2019

    Hello

    when matthew says, “when they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted”

    is the doubt on what they saw or

    is it right to worship a man before them, “some doubted”
    lack of conviction to do the act of worship?

    in the greek, is the “some doubted” linked to “when THEY SAW him” ?

    1
    • Avatar
      Iskander Robertson  April 1, 2019

      this is a difficult sentence to understand. “they” refers to ALL of them and then “some” from the “they” doubted ?

      “some” worshiped and DOUBTED?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2019

      It appears to mean that they doubted he was really there. Hard to figure that one out. In my book How Jesus Became God I give an argument that the statement provides evidence that some of Jesus’ own followers (the remaining eleven) did *not* ever come to believe in him.

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      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  April 1, 2019

        how would you reply to the speculation which says that they saw and recognized jesus, but they doubted the act of worship they were doing ?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2019

          I don’t think “doubt” in the early CHristian tradition ever refers to doubting acts of worship. You doubt people or beliefs.

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          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  April 4, 2019

            there is one speculation which says that the disciples doubted because they were afraid what jesus was going to do with them.
            if this was the case, why did they even bother to make the trip to galilee?
            why didn’t matthew say “they worshiped and were afraid”

            Dr Ehrman wrote :
            I don’t think “doubt” in the early CHristian tradition ever refers to doubting acts of worship. You doubt people or beliefs.

            yes, thats what i meant, but i worded it wrongly. is it possible to interpret the text that they doubted their beliefs ? should we (disciples ) worship…we are not so certain, we have doubts.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 5, 2019

            Not their beliefs about worship, no. Their beliefs about whether Jesus was really raised or not.

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  April 4, 2019

        Dr Ehrman wrote :
        It appears to mean that they doubted he was really there

        this is how it appears to me.

        “when they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted”

        “when they saw him… some doubted”

        now is the doubt in the mind (heart) or in the eyes (physical appearance)?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 5, 2019

          I’m not sure ancients made that distinction (not knowing how the physiology worked)

  8. Avatar
    dennislk1  March 31, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    It would seem you and Misquoting Jesus were attacked for the same reason John the Baptist and Jesus were attacked: Crowds of people were beginning to listen to what you had to say, and what you were saying was not in agreement with the opinions of those who believe their opinions count for more.

    Religions do not do well with the color gray because gray creates doubt. They prefer everything to be black and white and teach it that way, but everything is gray to the one who is open to trying to understand. Lying is evil, except when lying to a German soldier about the Jews in your basement. Your books add truth and clarity to understanding the Bible and Christianity but they inject very much gray into the discussion.

    How have the criticisms about what you write changed since Misquoting Jesus? I believe you are a very known quantity now, an expert in your field. In your online debates, your opponents seem to see you as a good person, someone who they respect, but who is misguided. They don’t attack your credentials, just your conclusions.

    Thank you,
    Dennis Keister

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2019

      Yeah, same attacks, never ending! A new book is just coming out from two evangelicals about it (“Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism”)

      1
  9. Avatar
    mikezamjara  March 31, 2019

    How accurate would you think this idea is?: “The textual variants affect the meaning of the text but do not affect doctrines because the doctrines don’t come from the text but the text was built by already believed doctrines”

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2019

      I agree with everything up until the last “but.” I’d could probably agree with *that* too, depending on what you mean by “built by.”

  10. Avatar
    nichael  April 1, 2019

    >> “Does the Gospel of Luke teach that Jesus’ death was […]”

    WAIT…

    HIS DEATH?

    HE DIES??

    Good grief, haven’t you people ever heard of a spoiler alert?!?!?

    5
    • Avatar
      nichael  April 1, 2019

      [[P.S. Congratulations –and thanks– for seven great years, from someone who’s been here since the very beginning –N]]

      1
    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2019

      Hey, brace yourself. He also rises from the dead.

      8
  11. Avatar
    brenmcg  April 1, 2019

    Could you say if the writers of the gospels saw the versions we have today theyd say this bears very close resemblance to what they had originally written and there’s nothing here that they’d disagree with?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2019

      I’m afraid there is no way of knowing, since we don’t know if what we have is what they originally wrote. My *guess* is that on the whole it’s very close. But technically there’s no way to demonstrate it.

      2
      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  April 1, 2019

        Dr Ehrman –

        Question: What level of probability, evidentiary and/or epistemic standards do you think should be met by scholars in order to establish/disprove:

        – a long-standing received tradition?
        – a standing scholarly consensus?
        – a new scholarly proposal?

        Some works (even some of the classics) seem to employ quite slippery intra-work standards, depending on whether they are giving treatment to their own views, the views of allies, or the views of opponents. Sometimes it’s to the level of: if they applied a self-consistent set of standards to their own arguments as they did for their opponents, they’d succeed in swiftly detonating their own points.

        As further evidenced by your above comment, your work seems to generally take a high threshold/hurdle approach to the epistemology and evidence necessary, so curious how you feel about what the broader normative standards should be (and maybe how pervasive you think this slipperiness is).

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2019

          I think that would require a book rather than a reply! It’s not an easy set of questions with a simple answer. Short story is that anyone who makes an assertion bears the burden of proof; and when you’re dealing with history you’re not talking about mathematical or scientific proof, but relative probabilities based on evidence that can usually be interpreted in multiple ways. And so probability has to be argued, based on plausibility, point by point by point — different for every assertion made. But yes, consistency is good!

          1
          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  April 3, 2019

            Thanks a ton

  12. Avatar
    Silver  April 1, 2019

    Did Witherington subsequently explain how he, like you, was ‘trained by Metzger’ given the fact that he did not attend PTS?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      Not to my knmowledge. But I’m sure there’s a very simple answer. Possibly Metzger was a visiting professor once at his seminary??

  13. fefferdan
    fefferdan  April 2, 2019

    Back to the “but some doubted” phase. It reminds one of the Doubting Thomas story. Bart, do you agree with Elaine Pagels and others that the story of Doubting Thomas was told in conscious opposition to the “Thomas Christians” who saw the physical resurrection as meaningless since the whole point of salvation/enlightenment is to escape being entrapped in the physical world?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      No, I heartily disagree. I think the doubting Thomas episode was *earlier* than the formation of the Thomasine Christian communities.

  14. Robert
    Robert  April 2, 2019

    Evangelical text critics are still complaining about Misquoting Jesus:

    http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2019/03/a-non-evangelical-reads-misquoting-jesus.html?m=1

    The problem is with silly doctrines of inerrancy that cannot deal with the realities of the human scribal tradition and with church pastors in general who prefer to let their congregations to remain ignorant. In America this is part of a long religious history of pietistic anti-intellectualism dating back to the Christian religious wars following the Reformation when the persecuted crazies came to the so-called New World to practice their religious faith in freedom. At least that is what I learned when studying church history in Europe. On if my favorite quotes is from Nikolaus Ludwig con Zinzendorf, bishop of the Moravians who founded Winston-Salem:

    “Theology is the creation of the Devil!”

    And yet it was also among some of these pietists, who eschewed dogma in preference for the imitation of Jesus’ moral teachings that one also finds a stronghold of abolitionists as well as egalitarian and communitarian villages that themselves owned slaves.

    Moral of the story: Opposition to theology may create very bad theology indeed, but Christians should concern themselves much more with orthopraxy.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      The funny thing is that I’ve never heard an evangelical mention an actual *mistake* in the book. (If you have, let me know.) So they don’t appear to be objecting to the facts I deal with; they just think I’m telling the wrong story.

  15. Avatar
    bensonian  April 2, 2019

    Hey Bart, when did people start viewing the bible as the ‘word of God?’ Was it part of the Scottish Confession of Faith (1560)?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      No, much earlier. Already in the New Testament (a number of times. See Matthew 15:6, e.g.)

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