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Ruffling the Feathers of My Fellow Textual Critics

I seem to get under the skin of a lot of my fellow textual critics.  Or at least a lot of them find my views somewhere between troubling and irritating.   That became most clear when I published my book Misquoting Jesus.   From what I can gather, the most common complaints about the book were about its perceived “tone.”  Some scholars thought that I made the situation of our manuscripts to be worse than it really is.  I, on the other hand, am not so sure about that.

What has probably struck me the most in the years since the book was published (it’s been ten years now!  Very hard to believe….) is that critics almost never say that anything I claimed in the book is actually wrong.  In fact, so far as I know, everything I said in the book is completely right.  How many books are attacked for not saying anything wrong?

Here are the main points that I stress in the book.

  • We do not have the originals for any of the books of the New Testament
  • What we have are copies – thousands of copies (over 5600), in the (original) Greek language alone.
  • All of these copies differ from one another, sometimes in significant ways and lots of times in insignificant ways.
  • We do not know how many differences there are among our manuscripts: some scholars think there are 300,000 variant readings, others say 400,000, or even more.
  • Most of these differences are immaterial, insignificant, and important for nothing more than to show us that ancient scribes could spell no better than most people can today.
  • But some of the differences do matter, and matter a lot, to how a verse, a passage, or an entire book of the NT is to be interpreted.
  • Scholars have wide-ranging disagreements about many of these significant differences, so much so that there are places of the NT where we will probably never know for certain what the authors originally wrote.

Is there anything to disagree with in these claims?  Nothing that I know of.   But some textual critics – especially conservative evangelical ones (not to name names) – took real offense at the book.  My occasional sense (maybe just when I’m being cynical?) is that such scholars would prefer that people not know this basic information, that they would rather have the reading public simply trust us that we know what we’re doing and that they can rest assured we have given them the “original” text as the authors originally wrote it, so that they can rely on their Bibles.

Even though Misquoting Jesus contains what some people see to be the most inflammatory comments I have made about textual criticism, it was not the first time that I ruffled the feathers of my colleagues.  Long before that book I made comments that they (some of them) found offensive.  There is one comment that I used to make that always elicited some aggravation among fellow experts, a comment in fact that some scholars (e.g., Dan Wallace) have claimed stands directly at odds with my statement that there are places where we will never know what the authors of the NT originally wrote.  I think he is completely wrong about that.  Completely wrong.

Here is the comment that I used to make (and in fact still make when the occasion arises):

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  1. Avatar
    Brian  August 28, 2015

    Um, I don’t see any inconsistency.

  2. Avatar
    mjordan20149  August 28, 2015

    I don’t know if you choose the titles for your books, or if they are chosen (or suggested) by your editors; but, often, in my experience, a title is chosen in order to attract the attention of likely readers in order to sell more copies. I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily an “evil” practice: if you want people to read your books, you have to attract them, and a provocative title can really help. Perhaps, then, your colleagues are reacting to the provocative title of the book more than the information therein. Frankly, a lot of the information you include in the books you have written is pretty main-line scholarship, and its only objectionable to the most rabid fundamentalists-at least that is my view.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 29, 2015

      Ultimately by the editors. But my critics objected to more than the title!

  3. Avatar
    shakespeare66  August 28, 2015

    I suppose that if all of the Greek manuscripts were “copied” into a computer, that some kinds of analyses could be exercised on them in order to differentiate between what the actually differences are? I know we have programs such as spell check, style check, etc. Could that be of any benefit in discerning further differences in the Greek manuscripts? Or has this been done?

  4. John4
    John4  August 28, 2015

    Discovered *on* Mount Sinai, eh [emphasis added]? I never realized that the codex Sinaiticus was carved in stone, lolol!

    Seriously, though, *Misquoting Jesus* was the first book of yours that I read, Bart. It blew me away. It’s a *wonderful* book, and I’m so *very* glad that I stumbled upon it. It has made a difference in my life. 😀

  5. Avatar
    rivercrowman  August 28, 2015

    Bart, your New York Times bestselling book “Misquoting Jesus” is my favorite. In a later book of yours (I’ve been buying them ever since), you pointed readers (in a footnote) to the books “Misquoting Truth,” by Timothy Paul Jones, and “A Christian Minister Responds to Bart Ehrman,” by Greg Sheryl, but neither of these opposing authors swayed me in the least. … I appreciate this blog just as much as your books. Thanks!

  6. Avatar
    qaelith2112  August 28, 2015

    While I enjoy the debates you’ve had with other textual critics and the occasional person who is not a textual critic but chooses to debate the topic with you anyway, in one sense I find them maddeningly frustrating to watch. In the debate you had with a generally pleasant-tempered bald gentleman whose name eludes me, he suggested that we don’t seem to face a problem with an absence of material, but rather with an abundance of it — that among all of the manuscripts, very likely everything that was in the autographs is probably somewhere in at least one of the extant manuscripts. Maybe so, though we cannot be certain of it, let’s grant the premise for argument’s sake.

    So here’s where it gets frustrating. That belief alone seems to be good enough for the conservatives. But even if that were somehow absolutely known to be the case, they always grossly underestimate the most significant point you make: “Scholars have wide-ranging disagreements about many of these significant differences, so much so that there are places of the NT where we will probably never know for certain what the authors originally wrote.”

    That seems critical to me. Even if included in all of these manuscripts is every single word of the autographs, along with a bunch of variants, what good does it do if we can’t know which variant is the original? If I get directions from my aunt to get to her house, passed along by two different people, and one says “go left at the fork” and the other says “go right at the fork”, even if I know with certainty that one of the two came from her without error but I don’t know which, the directions are pretty much useless because unless I choose the correct variant by sheer chance, I’ll end up in the wrong place. Not a perfect analogy because obviously I could back-track, but the idea should be obvious.

    I wonder if conservatives feel more comfortable with this because whenever the evidence is more ambiguous or fails to indicate a markedly better probability of one variant over others, I notice they tend to somehow manage to nonetheless find reasons to favor one variant, and invariably it ends up just happening to be the variant that is most consistent with an orthodox theology. I read the relevant notes to the “New English Translation” (an overall good quality translation though created by a group of mostly evangelical scholars) and a few others while reading “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” to see which variants they selected and why, and while the NET team agreed with your assessment (citing you a few times, in fact) where it was the widely selected variant (in other translations), all of the more difficult passages always ended up happening to be the most orthodox variant. So I’m speculating (perhaps wildly) that the conservatives might not see the disagreement as being especially real — as I feel that maybe they ascribe a bit too much certainty to their case for the more orthodox variant on difficult passages. And I could be way off base here.

  7. Avatar
    rivercrowman  August 28, 2015

    Forgot to mention “Lost in Transmission,” by Nicolas Perrin. It was a balanced and “even-handed” effort to refute “an agnostic historian like Ehrman.” Found the footnote in Bart Ehrman’s 2009 “Jesus, Interrupted.”

  8. Avatar
    flcombs  August 28, 2015

    You do and have done a great service to the topic and areas of your work. The problem you have with your critics is not uncommon. The problem, like in other areas, is having a predetermined outcome and trying to make the data fit it rather than drawing honest conclusions from the data no matter where it leads. If someone has a problem with what you say factually, then all they have to do is provide the evidence to show your error or why your conclusion isn’t as likely (unfortunately all issues don’t have clear proofs or answers with available information). People can consider both or multiple sides. Just the fact there is reasonable disagreement is a factor in of itself on these issues. Whether Christian, Muslim or any other group, fundamentalist approaches and logic are very similar. I’ve usually found when I offer to consider their views open-mindedly and ask for their evidence and ask them to consider views such as yours it is a one-way street. Often to them personal opinions of “Bob the Barber” or the like who read the bible somewhere that agree with them far outweigh considering the life work of scholars such as yourself. People are entitled to have all the faith they wish, but when they want to claim “proof” and “evidence” for their claims they have a higher standard to meet.

  9. Avatar
    Judith  August 28, 2015

    As the premier textual critic, you may have to endure another year or two or three of grumblings before your peers can give up their pique over not having that position for themselves. But then there’ll be something else as there always is. Perhaps you would discover it’s lonely at the top if it were not for us. We won’t let that happen!

  10. Avatar
    Jeff  August 29, 2015

    MIchael Shermer’s book, The Believing Brain, highlights that as humans we naturally believe first then find evidence that supports it later. I think this must be more so in your area of study wherein some scholars as you described have the added pressure to tow the company line as attested with those who ” would prefer that people not know this basic information.” There’s not much more they can do unless they deny the very scholarship they were taught. I have mentioned before how conservative scholar Paul Meyer carefully selected his words to me of accepting textual errors of such but then denying their relative importance. I can understand he had to be careful in his statement as the public forum had a makeup primarily of believers, the Missouri Synod. Sadly, after that experience I lost a degree of respect to someone I used to look up to.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 29, 2015

    Great post, especially concerning those who criticize you without really arguing about any of the facts. I have really struggled with how often religious people will not really discuss evidence with reason, but just tend to ignore any evidence that they think discredits the Bible contending that all is a matter of “faith.” You would think that they would be very interested in understanding such evidence. Often times, these are people who are actually very good at critically analyzing evidence in other fields, such as the field of medicine, but they don’t apply these same skills to examining religion. I don’t completely understand this, but confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance reduction, and indoctrination in childhood, church, and university educations are probably major factors. How and why people do this is one of the major themes of your upcoming book entitled “Remembering the Messiah.” I think insiders and outsiders tend to see things very differently. If one’s most important activities are church related and one attends a lot of church classes and has mostly church friends and so on and so forth, then it all seems very clear to one. An outsider to such a system will see it very differently and just not “get it.” Reason and evidence often have little to do with it.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 29, 2015

    By the way, I once shared the views you outlined above from “Misquoting Jesus” with a good friend only to be told that I had a “choice”: I could either “believe Ehrman or I could believe Jesus.” Again, none of the points in the book were refuted.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 29, 2015

      Ha! That’s a good one. Like a professor of mine once said, “Do you want to believe me or believe the Bible — which is one and the same thing!”

      • Avatar
        SidneyFinehirsh  September 8, 2015

        Or as the great Marxist philosopher Chicolini once said to Mrs. Teasdale, patroness of Fredonia, while ‎impersonating Rufus T. Firefly, the President of said country: “”Who are you gonna believe, me or your ‎own eyes?” [Duck Soup, 1933]‎

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 29, 2015

    “Barring some fantastic new discoveries (such as the originals!), or some radical developments of method, we will never get any closer to the original text than we already are.”

    At this point, I don’t see why that wouldn’t be consistent with scholars’ having different opinions on specific passages. But for me, it would suggest that there’s no reason for anyone to keep working in the field of textual criticism! If the remaining uncertainties simply *can’t* be resolved barring those “fantastic new discoveres” or “radical developments of method”…

  14. Avatar
    Jondee209  August 29, 2015

    Well i see why Dan wallace took offense because he believes that the “Originals” DO exist. (within the manuscript tradition) And i think its just a matter of interpretation when you say that some of these differences “change the entire MEANING of a book”. I see that kind of bleeding over into Theolgy do you agree sir ?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 29, 2015

      No, I don’t think the question of what a book means is a theological question but a literary one. It’s the question you would ask of any book, religious or non-religious

  15. Avatar
    Adam0685  August 29, 2015

    I’m really enjoying reading your posts!

    What writing projects you working on these days now that your done “Jesus become the Gospels”? (I’m sure that book will ruffle feathers too haha)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 29, 2015

      Yes it will. I’ll be describing it on the blog soon.

  16. Rick
    Rick  August 29, 2015

    Dr. Ehrmann, you said that you seem to get under the skin of a lot of your fellow textual critics… But, (and I would be surprised if data were available) how many of those are like yourself – competent critics who are not Christian believers or from a believing tradition? As you suggested believers likely prefer to keep the “cat in the bag” and resent your letting it out!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 31, 2015

      Yeah, very few. But that’s not the only reason, as I’ll try to point out.

  17. Avatar
    Jeff  August 29, 2015

    I understand Donald Trumps favorite book is the Bible. Thus, would you care to address this phenomena at a later posting? With all due respects a little humor might spice up your blog. Bart, for some ideas click below:


  18. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 30, 2015

    I asked Dr. Wallace about the issues with the Nicodemus conversation. I posted his answer on my blog. If you want to see it, you’ll need to subscribe. Just click on my name.

    Just kidding. Here’s what he said:

    “Bart continues to see things in black or white terms only. It is of course distinctly possible that Jesus and Nicodemus spoke in Aramaic, and if so a double entendre here is out of the question as far as I know. That would not mean that the conversation did not take place, just that the evangelist represents it in his own style. But what Ehrman does not seem to acknowledge is that the conversation may have taken place in Greek. There is a significant group of scholars, though still in a minority, who believe that Jesus spoke in Greek most of the time. And there were even groups of Pharisees in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus who spoke only Greek.”

    I did post it on my blog though. You two keep me entertained.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 31, 2015

      Ha! That’s a good one. So Jesus speaking in Aramaic (his native tongue) is black and white. But if we imagine he spoke Greek, it’s grey!! Ha!! OF COURSE I’ve considered whether Jesus could speak Greek. Which New Testament scholar hasn’t?? Does Dan think this is a brilliant new discovery or something. My view is one I’ve stated repeatedly (and he would know this): as a rural peasant from backwoods Galilee, Jesus almost certainly could not speak Greek, let alone fluent Greek. (I give the evidence in my books) Moreover, there would be no reason for an Aramaic speaking Jewish peasant and an Aramaic speaking Jewish scholar in ARamaic speaking Jerusalem to be carrying on a sophisticated conversation in Greek. This is just a council of despair, in my opinion.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  October 15, 2015

        I thought your response was interesting, so I asked Dr. Wallace if he had anything else to add. He replied, “Typical Bart.”

        Um, I think I’ll be quiet.

  19. Avatar
    jhague  September 1, 2015

    I agree with you saying that conservative evangelical scholars would prefer that people not know this basic information. They definitely want people to assume that they have the “original” text as the authors originally wrote it, so that they can rely on their Bibles. Even pastors who were taught the truth in school go on to preach traditional messages to their congregations knowing that very few know any difference. The internet is helping with this issue.

    • Avatar
      Helmut  September 3, 2015

      There is also the real possibility that if these pastors did not preach traditional messages their congregations would fire them. People want to be right and don’t want to have to admit they are wrong.

      • Avatar
        jhague  September 7, 2015

        Yes. That’s definitely true. Most church people want to hear messages about what they already believe. They do not want to be challenged with new thoughts and ideas, even if the old ideas are wrong.

  20. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  September 2, 2015

    Professor, my search discloses that there are several publications by Hort alone. Might you pleaee give me the title of the companion work, to which you refer as “the second volume of their (Westcott & Hort’s) work” ? Thank you.

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