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Why Don’t You Believe Like Your Teacher, Dr. Metzger?

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.


Do Textual Variants Really Matter for Anything?
The Year’s Society of Biblical Literature Meeting

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Comments

  1. RobertHutchinson  November 24, 2014

    Great question and great answer!

    But for the life of me, and as someone who has read most of your books including Jesus, Misquoted, I can’t quite see the significance of the 1% of texts for which there are scholarly doubts about the most accurate readings. And even for the 1%, from what I can tell (as a layman) many experts seem to think we have a reasonable approximation of the original text either “above or below the line” — that is, either in the “approved” NA28 text or in the variants cited “below the line.”

    And I got the impression (I can’t remember where or if you said this… or if Bruce Metzger said it) that no significant Christian doctrine is threatened by text critical issues… and so, if that is the case, who cares if, in Mark 4: 18, Jesus spoke of the “illusion” of wealth or the “love” of wealth. I mean, who cares other than textual critics and Bible translators?

    Finally, one charge leveled at you is that you say one thing in your scholarly works — in which you take a fairly conservative line roughly like that of Metzger, saying “we can reconstruct the original words of the New Testament with reasonable (although probably not 100 percent) accuracy” — but, in your popular books, you do your best to make things sound far scarier than they actually are (speaking of “copies of copies of copies of copies” and how there are so many variants we don’t even know how many variants there are, etc).

    What sayest thou?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      There are lots of passages where the meaning is completely altered depending on which textual variant you choose. Sometimes the meaning of an entire book changes. Is that significant? Only if it matters what hte Bible says. If that doesn’t matter, then no, variants are not significant.

      My view is that we simply can’t *know* if we have reconstructed the text of the NT with complete accuracy; but as historians we proceed as if we have. The same is true of all texts from antiquity — it’s not unique to the texts of the NT!

      • Kevin  November 25, 2014

        Complete accuracy shouldn’t be the goal and I’m not sure it is. Was it Metger’s? What’s with this need for perfection for knowledge?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 25, 2014

          Well, I think like most historians Metzger wanted to get things as accurate as possible.

  2. sashko123  November 24, 2014

    Do you think Copernicus’s detractors argued “But your teacher taught the Earth is the center of the universe”?

  3. rbrtbaumgardner  November 24, 2014

    It is not surprising that conservative evangelical Christians would expect you should follow your mentor, Dr. Metzger, since these Christians place a high value on authority and tradition. As one sociologist puts it, “Religion is a team sport” and you are expected to follow your team captain. It’s incomprehensible to evangelical Christians at a gut level that you would defect to the other side. Something must have gone wrong with you!

  4. Judith  November 24, 2014

    You’re back and with another great post!!!!

    Did all go well? Was the review section for your book all positive? What papers were of special interest? Can you post for us your “Are the Gospels Based on Eyewitness Testimony? Were there videos you might share?

    In other words tell us all about it please.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      I’ll see if I can get around to that. It’s still going on!

      • Judith  November 25, 2014

        Only if you want to and have the time but we would love it!

  5. Jason  November 24, 2014

    You hint at a topic which I find very interesting here-the physicality of the earliest fragments. Have you ever considered editing or writing a for-the-masses photo/scan/visual guide to the earliest, most interesting and most important bits and pieces (including the b/w photos of “secret Mark)? Glossy 80# or greater, 6 color and the best part is you don’t have to write as many words per page as you’re used to and it still holds the reader’s interest. I’d buy it!

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  6. Luke9733  November 24, 2014

    This is a bit unrelated, but has there any *any* word yet at all about the possible 1st century copy of Mark? I remember reading about it a long time ago, but since then, I haven’t heard anything. Have you heard any updates on when information on that might be published?

  7. simonelli  November 24, 2014

    Dr. Herman, please allow me to offer you a plausible answer to those two things that disturbed your Christian life, you wrote. “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.”
    By your argument I understand that you are saying, there is no God because a God in charge would not allow such sufferings. I am glad to hear that you are more compassionate than God. Please consider this: God has put in place His LAWS, we all know about them, despite this fact we choose to ignore them, because He also has given us freedom of choice, therefore we can live within His law or live out of it and suffer the consequences. You and others may say my thinking is primitive; yes it does look to be primitive, but consider that He is like our governments, you would not consider our government cruel for dispensing punishment to those who live lawlessly. Yes I know what you are going to say: “what about children, they are innocent?” I cannot answer that for I am not God, we should ask Him about that when we get in front of His judgement sit. All I know is that, He is choosing His family and heirs among us humans; and He is Just.
    You also wrote, “(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 scriptures have mistakes in them, some mistakes are involuntary, but the majority of them have been put there by an enemy of Christianity, Why? you can figure out that. However God is alive and well; and even today He can reveal what is true and what is false. You be the judge of what I am about to reveal to you.
    The following example will clearly demonstrate to you that sequential confusion of Scripture has also been introduced in some epistles. In John 20-23 we read: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
    This commission that the Lord has given to the disciples is exercised by the Catholic, the Orthodox Church and a few others denominations, but most of them do not do that. Maybe these denominations do not forgive sins because of the lack of demonstrating examples in the epistles? We all know that we have to forgive those who sin against us: the Lord’s Prayer is very clear on the matter. But who forgives those who sin against their own conscience and the body of Christ?
    I am certain that in 2Corinthians between Chapter 1:16 and Chapter 2:11 there is a hidden example of the administration of this important sacrament, ministered by Paul to the Corinthians. The problem in recognising it as such lays in the undeniable fact that part of the explanation of this sacrament has been moved from its original place so that its significant content would appear to be addressing something else. I pray you therefore follow me with patience and I am certain you will see.
    If we read 2Corinthians 1:16 followed by verse 23, we realise that those verses are united by the line of thought of the subject (the visit) that Paul is clarifying to them. This line of thought continues, slowly changing into another subject, but it is uninterrupted until Chapter 2:11. If we then go back to chapter 1:17 and read until verse 22 we find that the line of thought of Paul and the new subject (forgiven sin) also continues uninterrupted and Paul’s ministry becomes clear as well. Arranging and reading these scriptures in that order, the truth will become obvious, for these last six verses (17-22) are not united to the promise of Paul to visit them, but they are united to the promise of God to forgive sins through the anointed disciples.
    The verses in question have been written below in the explained above order.
    We read in 2Corinthians 1:16: “That is to pass your way into Macedonia, and again from Macedonia to come to you, and by you to be helped on my journey to Judea.
    (1:23.) But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I come no more to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm. But I determine this for my own sake that I would not come to you in sorrow again. For if I cause you sorrow, who then makes me glad but the one whom I made sorrowful? And this is the very thing I wrote you, lest, when I come, I should have sorrow from those who ought to make me rejoice; having confidence in you all, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not that you should be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you. But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree in order not to say too much to all of you. Sufficient for such a one is this punishment, which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, lest somehow such a one be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. For to this end also I wrote that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. But whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, ……………………… I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his schemes.
    (1:17.) Therefore, I was not vacillating when I intended to do this, was I? Or that which I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, that with me there should be yes, yes and no, no at the same time? But as God is faithful, our word to you is not yes and no. For the Son of God, Christ Jesus, who was preached among you by us, by me and Silvanus and Timothy, was not yes and no, but is yes in Him. For as many as may be the promises of God, in Him they are yes; wherefore also by Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us. Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge.”

    As you can see, these last six verses are too deep in significance to be addressing a simple promise of Paul to visit them. But, in these last six verses Paul is declaring to them that his forgiveness is solid, because it is not according to the flesh, but the yes resided on the promise of God, and like all other promises the yes is in Christ. Paul’s authority is a gift of an anointing from God. NASB

  8. dragonfly  November 24, 2014

    Since when is there anything wrong with having different beliefs or ideas from your teacher? Or anyone else for that matter?

  9. doug  November 24, 2014

    Are there writers who try to make a scholarly case that the Bible is inerrant? Could you give any examples of such writers? It would seem like a lot of Bible bending would be required to make the Bible seem inerrant.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      Tons of writers! Just go to Amazon and search for something like Inerrancy of the Bible.

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  November 25, 2014

        Better yet, just Google it. It’s amazing how many experts there are in the world! And they all have blogs!

  10. Rick
    Rick  November 24, 2014

    If we had never stretched our understanding beyond our teachers
    we would not even have the wheel….

  11. Kevin Nelson  November 25, 2014

    I’m a little surprised by your statement that you never had any disagreement whatsoever with him. To me, the polite and respectful expression of disagreement is part of what academia is all about. Do you think he would have been able to tolerate your trying to change his mind about anything?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      I don’t know — I never tried to change his mind about anything! And never would have wanted to do so.

      • Kevin Nelson  November 26, 2014

        If I may inquire a little more….

        I’ve noticed that as a general rule, you’re not shy about trying to change people’s minds. You’ve advocated the ideas you believe in at length, and you’ve explained at length what you find wrong about the ideas you disagree with. That’s part of what I like about you, and it’s part of why I subscribe to this blog. Even when I’m not convinced by what you say, I always find your reasons worth thinking about.

        And I know you did have different ideas from Prof. Metzger on some subjects. So, if you could have persuaded him to see things more your way, wouldn’t that have been an accomplishment? Over the course of his long career, there must have been some issues that he did change his mind about. Why wouldn’t you have wanted to ever make him look at things differently? Was it due to your personal respect for him? I can sort of understand that, but at least for me respect does not preclude disagreement.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 26, 2014

          I really don’t desire to change people’s views if they are well thought out and well reasoned. And Metzger’s were certainly *that*!! I had no desire to make him agree with me on important issues that he was also expert in.

        • webattorney  December 1, 2014

          Kevin Nelson, I disagree with your statement that Bart is “not shy about trying to change people’s minds”. I get a distinct sense that he doesn’t care what you or I believe. Specifically, he doesn’t try to convert you to his beliefs. Actually, that’s why I subscribe to this blog. Had Bart tried very hard to convince me to agree with his agnostic views, I would have been very suspicious of his motives.

  12. RonaldTaska  November 25, 2014

    Terrific post. Thanks.

  13. Rosekeister
    Rosekeister  November 25, 2014

    Isn’t the real point that if we had the original texts fresh from the hands of their authors we would be no closer to the historical Jesus? By the time the gospels were written in another country, another culture and another language we are far from the historical Jesus and well into the Christ and moving right along on the way to full deity. The earliest traditions we find are a great distance into the reconstruction and theological interpretation of Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 26, 2014

      I’d say that’s *one* of the real points. But there are lots of others that are also interesting.

  14. webattorney  December 1, 2014

    Am I correct in assuming that you feel that there is no specific evidence either way that the original manuscripts are the same or differ from the copies? Do you think the original manuscripts, if found, differed in significant points? I guess my point is that since no one has found original manuscripts (except tiny portions), either position is just based on faith.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2014

      Yes, there can be no direct evidence unless the originals are discovered. My general *sense*, though, is that the originals were not radically different from what we have. But it’s only a sense based on intuition and guess and, to some extent, the tendencies of *later* traditions, not hard evidence.

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