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On Being Just a Textual Critic

I’ve decided to address a question about my own academic life in this week’s Readers’ Mailbag.  It involves an issue that comes up a lot, but not in this form.



Is there a story (post) about your move from textual criticism to other things?



I can’t remember if there is (though I’m sure someone will tell me!).  But I would like to say something about it, since it is an issue that seems to come up a good deal, not usually from people who are genuinely interested in knowing about my academic life per se (as this questioner is), but from critics who aren’t at *all* interested, but who want to inform their readers that my books are not written by an expert but by someone who was only trained as a textual critic.

Most recently this was brought to my attention in a comment by the Christian apologist, himself a professional philosopher, William Lane Craig, who told his readers that I had no expertise on the question of whether Jesus’ tomb was empty after the “resurrection,” since I was trained as a textual critic and wasn’t a historian.

I have to admit, I always laugh when I hear something like that.  For one thing, Craig knows nothing about my education or training (he certainly, for example, doesn’t know what Masters and PhD seminars and examinations I took in my graduate work).  For another thing, what would it take for a person to be an expert on the disciples’ claims about Jesus’ tomb?  Does someone need to have a PhD in Empty Tomb Studies?

In any event, first let me make sure we’re all on the same page.  When someone says that my training and expertise is in “textual criticism,” that could be and often is misunderstood by lay readers.   Textual criticism does not refer to the analysis and interpretation of literary texts, as many people assume.  It is a technical term that refers to the field that tries to decide what an author originally wrote (completely independently of what he actually *meant* or the historical circumstances of his writing).

Textual critics of Shakespeare try to figure out what the Bard actually wrote when he produced Hamlet, given the fact that we don’t have his original manuscript but only later ones that are significantly different from each other.   So too with textual critics of Milton, and Chaucer, and all the ancient Greek and Latin classics and … and every author who wrote before the invention of printing (and even after).  Textual critics of the New Testament explore the many, many manuscripts of the New Testament to try to figure out what words probably go back to the original authors.

Normally when an academic indicates that another academic is a textual critic, they almost *always* mean that — either with respect, or more commonly (it may be surprising to know from an outsider’s perspective), with a roll of the eyes – that the person is a trained technician who can get into the detailed nitty gritty – and is needed for that – but cannot get outside of that.  He’s the mechanic who can fix your fuel injector, but he’s not an intellectual who can write about the historical and economic significant of the invention of the automobile.  Of course, most of us who do *not* roll our eyes think that doing the latter is no better or more important than the former.  On the contrary, the former is what we are very much more interested and invested in.  And it requires a massive amount of knowledge.  My father-in-law was a mechanic, and I couldn’t believe what he knew and could do.  But in only rare instances would you expect your local mechanic to write a lengthy treatise of the varying roles of automotive technology in Marxist vs. Capitalist societies.

When someone indicates that I’m a textual critic, what they almost always mean (in coded language) is that I’m ONLY a textual critic.  I can read manuscripts and decide which ones are more likely original at one point or another, but I have no ability to interpret them, or to reconstruct the historical events that they purport to discuss.   That takes completely different skills.  So if I make a comment about what an ancient text means, or about the history that lies behind it, I’m just guessing, as someone who is trained as a technician and has no business doing other things.

This may sound like a cynical read – but I can assure you it is right.  I had a friend in graduate school who used to give an analogy from one of the other realms I was once passionate about, competitive tennis.  He said that textual critics were the ones who strung the rackets; they weren’t the ones who knew how to play the game.

This is all pretty funny, and in point of fact, there’s something to be said for this view when it comes to a lot of textual critics!  I know this for a fact because I personally know virtually all the textual critics in North America and most of the major ones in Europe.  They really are passionate about manuscripts and only manuscripts and cognate fields – such as Greek philology – and simply haven’t invested any time or energy in fields such as exegesis and history.

So all that is background.   For a weird set of circumstances, that’s not my background.  It’ll take another post to explain the fuller story that answers the question that was asked.  But for now let me just say something about my education and expertise.

When someone indicates that my training is in textual criticism, I’m always tempted to ask them what they think my Master’s and PhD programs were like.   I spent three years taking courses for my Masters (five courses a semester) and two additional years of PhD seminars (three very intense seminars a term).   I also took a battery of PhD exams before writing my dissertation.

Of all those courses and seminars and exams, how many were devoted exclusively to the study of textual criticism?   Here’s the surprise.  The answer is:  None.   In my entire five year graduate program of study (prior to my PhD) there was only one-half of one course (in my Masters degree; none in my PhD) that was devoted to textual criticism.  And none of my PhD exams.

I had two major foci when it came to the study of the New Testament and early Christianity.   By far the main one was the historical exegesis of the early Christian writings, especially the New Testament (by “historical exegesis” I mean the interpretation of the texts in light of their historical contexts and circumstances); the other was the history of the early Christian movement of the first centuries.

Textual criticism was something I pretty much picked up on my own, under the private guidance of arguably the greatest textual critic of modern times, Bruce Metzger.  His guidance was invaluable.  But it principally involved making suggestions about what to read and write about.   Only rarely did we meet – for example, never in a private tutorial or an independent reading course – to talk about problems in the field of textual criticism.  I read massively, he suggest what I might want to think about writing on, he read it, and told me if I was on the right track.  My actual training – in which I took courses, seminars, exams – was in other things.

I’ll pursue all that in my next post.

If you were a member of the blog, you would get five substantial posts a week on everything connected with the New Testament and the history of early Christianity, each and every week of the year.  It’s certainly worth the small membership fee.  And the entire fee goes to charity.  So why not join??


Pursuing My Passion for Textual Criticism
Mark’s Central Focus on Jesus’ Death



  1. Avatar
    Hon Wai  February 10, 2019

    “William Lane Craig…told his readers that I had no expertise on the question of whether Jesus’ tomb was empty after the resurrection, since I was trained as a textual critic and wasn’t a historian….For another thing, what would it take for a person to be an expert on the disciples’ claims about Jesus’ tomb? Does someone need to have a PhD in Empty Tomb Studies?”
    This is a very common rhetorical tactic by evangelical apologists to encourage their fans to ignore the opinions of scholars who don’t share their religious convictions. They want their followers to limit their reliance on their allies who completed a PhD on the resurrection (e.g. Michael Licona, and Craig himself) or published a massive academic tome on the subject (e.g. N.T. Wright). There is strong self-selection bias at work on a topic like this, as only conservative Christians would devote years of their life at cost of time and expense to do a PhD on the historicity of the resurrection. More mainstream scholars are more inclined to insulate their research against questions not amenable to conventional historical methods.

  2. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  February 10, 2019

    Thank You!

  3. Avatar
    Hngerhman  February 10, 2019

    Dr Ehrman – thank you for this. On many levels. That anyone could think to question your bona fides – education, qualifications, specialty – could only happen in such an intellectual area as frought with emotion as historical Christianity studies. It’s just maddening that, when people don’t have strong arguments, they resort to ad hominem attacks. You bear it with grace. Thank you.

  4. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  February 10, 2019

    I am sorry that people question your education/expertise over something like whether or not you being a textual critic only….such a ridiculous, manipulative-with-half-truths argument to make.

    Just like when writers/scholars like to hide behind the “modern scholars say” BS. If people digest garbage, they will crap garbage. That includes basement dwelling philosophers and multi-degreed scholars.

    What matters is the truth and finding it. Having a love for IT wherever it takes you.

    I do NOT agree with many of your conclusions but see you as the leading biblical scholar of our day.

    God bless your search for truth and may He always keep your eyes and heart open as well as those of all of us.

  5. epicurus
    epicurus  February 10, 2019

    I’ve read and heard plenty of Christian apologists who speak outside their area of expertise and I doubt Craig has a problem with them, even when they say silly things.

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 10, 2019

    I’ve seen William Lance Craig discuss cosmology and quantum mechanics, which are certainly *not* his fields of expertise, so maybe he should remove the beam from his own eye first…

    What was your dissertation about? Is it still relevant or has time passed it by?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2019

      Didymus the Blind and the Text of the Gospels. I discuss it in three posts in mid August 2018; just search for Didymus.

      • Avatar
        Lactantius  February 16, 2019

        It’s still very much relevant and will continue to be for anyone studying the development of the New Testament Canon. I used your work on “The New Testament Canon of Didymus the Blind” as a source to support a paper in a master’s program. I was warned by the professor “Ehrman is a heretic.” I though you more resembled the definition of an apostate, but you were among very few actual historians in all the literature I was looking through to support my narrative. Although, Metzger’s work on the New Testament Canon is excellent.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 17, 2019

          Wow, OK. What school was this?

          • Avatar
            Lactantius  February 17, 2019

            Well, I’ll just say it’s a private religious school at least one of the apologists you debated attended. I still have three classes left so…

            The credentials probably won’t matter much outside Christian institutions, but we can’t all go to Princeton.:)

          • Bart
            Bart  February 18, 2019

            It’s just a bit weird because my article on teh canon text of Didymus had nothing theological at all in it, so it’s hard to see how “being a heretic” would have any bearing! Good luck with the remaining three classes!

  7. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  February 10, 2019

    Reminds me of what I found when I went from being a training athlete to spectator later in life.
    I noticed ( and I realize this could be a generalization) the fans who were the smartest, the ones for example who knew the advanced statistics and could recite players entire career in detail statistics wise never played the game in their lives.
    Those of us who actually played the game, had no idea what these statistics meant….

  8. Avatar
    mannix  February 10, 2019

    Being criticized by Craig is a Badge of Honor…. I recently watched the beginning of a “debate” on whether the tomb was empty. In his opening remarks he insisted on “presupposing” the existence of God who, according to scripture, is capable of raising the dead. Well, if one accepts that premise, then it is quite possible the “empty tomb” is the result of a Resurrection! He then goes though “arguments” that other explanations are not, or less, likely. Therefore, a “Resurrection” is the most likely explanation. Craig essentially is debating whether a Resurrection is possible by presupposing it is! Amazing!

    • Avatar
      doug  February 11, 2019

      Craig’s foundation argument for the resurrection has its feet planted firmly in mid-air.

  9. Avatar
    Brand3000  February 10, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Many of them are probably just jealous of your success in the field, and don’t like the fact that your ideas make them think critically. It’s like usual when people don’t like the message they criticize the messenger. There are some good apologists, while others don’t have the first clue about where modern scholarship is. I can usually tell when they try to cite things like the guards at the tomb or quote from a disputed letter by “Paul.” WLC is a smart guy, but even he seems to, i.e. over-state some things like that ‘most scholars’ support the empty tomb, but when you exclude those who are specifically evangelical scholars such as Seminary professors, that number is about 50-50. The highly noted Dale Allison has confirmed that.

  10. Avatar
    Brand3000  February 10, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman:

    One of the strong points you made in the Price debate was that the key 1 Cor. 15:3-8 appears in all of the manuscripts, so would you say with a near certainty that these verses noting the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to the said individuals and groups originated with Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2019

      The either originated with Paul or he was quoting an *earlier* tradition that he had inherited. But they certainly are not *later* than Paul.

  11. Avatar
    EldonTyrell  February 11, 2019

    What about the fact, Dr. Craig, that Dr. Ehrman has written the most heavily utilized undergraduate textbook on the New Testament?!? Just a textual critic? Player, please! 🙄

  12. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  February 11, 2019

    I’m so glad you wrote this. Too often the good guys (obviously in my biased opinion) stoically keep quiet, ignoring obvious falsehoods by less honest people (again IMO). I am constantly amazed at the willingness apologists have to spread falsehoods (and by definition I shouldn’t be!). My opinion: They know their followers are highly – highly! – unlikely ever to do any fact-checking.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 11, 2019

    Well, with all due respect, Dr. Craig needs to read your dozen or so trade books, your textbooks, your scholarly books, your Great courses, your blogs, etc. before judging what you know and you don’t know. It would be impossible to study the body of your work and conclude that you know only textual criticism. You would have to just not want to see something to conclude such a thing.

  14. Avatar
    Bwana  February 11, 2019

    Well, Peter got his training in the fishing business, so what’s he doing writing epistles like a Greek philosopher … ?

  15. Avatar
    Brand3000  February 12, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    If I have this correct from “Forged” the only interpolation in 1 Cor. is in 1 Cor. 14, is that right?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2019

      I’ve never said that, but off hand I can’t think of others.

  16. Avatar
    Brand3000  February 12, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You’re certainly respected on both sides of the aisle. I know an apologist, a good guy, who includes your “Did Jesus Exist?” book as required reading in several of his classes.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2019

      He probably doesn’t respect any of my *other* books!!

  17. Avatar
    Lactantius  February 16, 2019

    Outside the religion of Christianity, no scholar accepts William Lane Craig and Licona’s conjecture that historians are “warranted” for accepting Jesus rose from the dead. Most historians view a person returning from the dead on the third day as being a supernatural explanation that is beyond the work of historians and with good reason—most desire to study history from an academic position.

    These apologists who call themselves historians have more in common among the entertaining historical narratives found on commercial platforms equivalent to the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, Haunted History, etc.

    I really don’t understand how they resonate with their base approaching the subject of the resurrection as strictly historical; it defies ancient Christian theology—special revelation, faith, inspired text and all that.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2019

      They do so because it “proves” what they already believe, and so claiming that it is not a faith-statement but demonstrable history helps convince peole (mainly those who already want to be convinced).

  18. Avatar
    John  February 21, 2019

    Mailbag Question:

    NT Wright has just published a new translation of the New Testament, have you had a chance to review it yet especially looking for interpretations that support the Christian World-view perhaps? For example, in relation to the census in Luke, he says that πρῶτος could mean ‘before’ which appear to resolve the Quirinius problem.

    Any thoughts on this, Bart? A blog on this after you have looked at it might be good.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2019

      Did he? What’s it called? Yeah, that’s not a good translation of πρωτος.

      • Avatar
        John  February 22, 2019


        Looks like it might be something to pull your hair out with.

        • Avatar
          John  February 25, 2019

          So, bearing in mind that you have some experience of translating ancient documents into book format including the NT itself, a review of this, or maybe just one book or even a chapter, might be right up your street. I can think of no one better placed to do it.

          What do you think?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 26, 2019

            Yes, I’d love to. But it’s not gonna happen. Completely overwhelmed with too many other writing projects. Won’t bore you with the details, but it would make you weep. 🙂

          • Avatar
            John  February 26, 2019

            That’s a real shame. My guess is that the result here could well be manipulation of the Greek texts to make theological points that most readers will be unaware of.

            Hey ho, never say never.

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