QUESTION:

Dr. Ehrman just out of curiosity, why do people pit you against your teacher Dr. Bruce Metzger? Did Metzger also find the construction of the originals impossible due to the late manuscript attestation and the inability to know how the original looked like? Or did your teacher, Dr. Metzger, disagree and hold to biblical inerrancy?

 

RESPONSE:

It’s a very good question and it has a very straightforward answer.  The people who do this are all, to my knowledge, conservative evangelical Christians who find it upsetting over two of the things that I say:  (1) that I am now no longer a believer because I do not think the Christian faith can adequately explain how a good and powerful God can be in control of this world when there is so much senseless pain, misery, and suffering in it and, completely unrelatedly, (2) that since we do not have lots of early manuscripts of the New Testament (let alone the originals) there are places where we cannot know for sure what the authors originally wrote.   The response of (some of) these people is:  Well, your own teacher Bruce Metzger didn’t think that!!

So the logic of that argument is clear.   The teacher is greater than the student.   The teacher knows more than the student.  The teacher’s views are superior to those of the student.  Since the teacher Bruce Metzger was not disturbed away from his Christian faith because of the suffering in the world, either should his student Bart Ehrman.  If Ehrman is disturbed in that way, he’s obviously not seeing something that his teacher saw.  And since the teacher Bruce Metzger thought that we can know with almost complete reliability what the original words of the New Testament were, so too should his student Bart Ehrman.  If Ehrman does not think this, then there is obviously something wrong with his thinking.

I’ve never found this kind of argument convincing, for two reasons.  One is that it is so short sighted.   Bruce Metzger himself had teachers.  Is someone who wants to use this argument against me willing to use it against Bruce Metzger, by pointing out that he himself should not have taken the positions he did – for example, on the inspiration of the Bible – because his own teachers (classicists at Princeton University) did not have those views?   If someone is not willing to make that argument for Metzger’s teachers, then how can they be justified in making it for me?

The other reason I do not find it convincing is because it is, well, irrelevant.   Difficult problems that all of us have to contend with need to be worked out carefully and meticulously by applying rigorous thinking to them.  They cannot be resolved by appealing to an authority.  No one should say:  “If Bruce Metzger says that suffering should not lead someone to question the existence of God, then he must be right!”

Let me affirm with as much emphasis as I can that I always respected, revered, honored, and esteemed Bruce Metzger.  He was my Doktorvater and mentor, not just during the seven years I was in my graduate program studying under him, but for years afterwards.  We had an exceptionally close relationship.  I was closer to him than any other student he had over his long and illustrious career.  He not only directed my work, he made my career.  And I have nothing but fond and grateful thoughts of him, even now that he has been away from us for seven years.

But that does not mean that I agreed with him on everything.  He knew that, and he respected it.  Never, in the twenty-nine years that we knew and interacted with each other, did we have an argument or verbal disagreement.  We respected each other’s views and did not try to change them.

Since the question asked above was focused not on the problem of suffering but on the text of the NT, let me briefly indicate Metzger’s views about that.   Metzger of course realized that there are hundreds of thousands of textual variants in our manuscript tradition of the NT.  He also knew that the vast majority of them were minor, insignificant, and of virtually no importance.  He also recognized that some of the others are very important and have a real effect on the meaning of the text.  But he thought that at the end of the day, we can be reasonably confident of something like 99% of the text of the New Testament.   Textual scholars, in his judgment, argue about that other 1%.

As it turns out, I don’t disagree with most of that.   I don’t put a percentage on what we know and don’t know the way Metzger did, because I don’t think that’s humanly possible.   And I think there are several issues that have become issues since Metzger was personally active in the field as a textual critic.   One is that textual critics today are highly disinclined to speak about the “original text,” because they have come to see how problematic that category is, given the nature of our evidence.   Metzger was relatively certain that the original text probably survives among our manuscripts somewhere, almost certainly in our oldest and best manuscripts.   Where he and I (and many others) differ is that I (and others) are not very comforted by the fact that we have decent manuscripts that date 300 years after the originals were produced.

It’s true that we have early papyrus manuscripts, but these are highly fragmentary indeed.   We do not get large chunks of texts until some papyri of around 200 CE (these too are still highly fragmentary).  That means the text was being copied for over a hundred years before we start getting full chapters of any of it preserved.  Our first complete copies of any of the books come from 150 years after *that*, around the middle of the fourth century.

I simply don’t see how we can know what changes were made in the first month or two, or the first year or two, or the first decade or two of the text if we don’t have any manuscripts from that time – or in fact any manuscripts with those passages for another 300 years.    This did not bother Metzger so much because at the end of the day he had faith that the manuscripts we do have are accurate representations of the original text.  But that really is a matter of faith, not of logic or evidence.  My view is that we simply don’t *know* if we can get back to the original text.   Metzger thought we could.   But knowing everything he said about the matter, I don’t see why he, or anyone else, should ever have thought so.

I should say in closing, in direct response to the question, that even though Metzger thought that we could be completely confident about 99% of the time, he did not hold to the doctrine of inerrancy.  He had a very high view of Scripture and its divine inspiration, but that did not mean, for him, that there were absolutely no mistakes of any kind in the Bible.  There are mistakes, and he knew it.  Moreover, he knew that Genesis 1-3 contained “myths” (his term) and he did not believe Peter wrote 2 Peter even though its author claimed to be Peter.   So he was a conservative Christian scholar of the Bible, but he was not an evangelical by self-identification.

 

Bruce Metzger is the author of several books including The Early Versions of the New Testament and The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, And Restoration.