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Why Textual Criticism is “Safe” for Conservative Christians

It is probably not an accident that when I was a very conservative evangelical Christian who wanted to get a PhD in New Testament studies, I chose to focus, in particular, on textual criticism, the study of manuscripts in order to establish the wording of the original text.  That was, and is, a fairly common “track” for evangelicals who want to be biblical scholars.  Maybe it’s not as common now as it used to be.  But it used to be common.

As it turns out, most of the scholars who work in the field of New Testament textual criticism in North America either are or used to be committed evangelical Christians.   You might think that the findings of textual criticism would drive evangelicals away from their faith.  But just the opposite is the case.  I know very few people who have found their faith challenged by their knowledge of the textual problems of the New Testament.  Very few indeed.  I was a bit of an oddball that way.  (I’ll say more about that in a future post.)

The reason most textual scholars in this country are, or used to be, evangelical Christians (and throughout the world, if they are not evangelicals, they are at least fairly conservative Christians) – and the reason I probably was attracted to textual criticism myself as an evangelical – is that this is one field of biblical studies that is considered “safe” for those with a high view of the inspiration of Scripture.

Most New Testament scholars are deeply interested in and committed to views of “higher criticism,” the rigorously historical attempt to understand the New Testament.  Engaging in this kind of critical work virtually presupposes that one will acknowledge (and be willing to discover) that there are historical problems with the New Testament: discrepancies, contradictions, historical errors, and factual mistakes.  The goal of higher criticism is not simply to point out such problems.  The goal is to provide a historically rooted understanding of the text.  But for most scholars, doing so means acknowledging that such problems exist, simply at the starting point.

But evangelical scholars – such as I, when I was at that stage – simply refuse to acknowledge that view.  Which means they cannot start where all the other critical scholars start.  They start not with the sense that the New Testament needs to be treated like all other books from the ancient world, but that it needs to be treated differently, as the inspired Word of God.  But if that’s the starting assumption, you can’t really do the kinds of analysis that others apply with their own assumption that the New Testament is a very human book with all the frailties that a close connection with fallible human authors entails.

And so it is very hard to be a New Testament interpreter as an evangelical if you want to work in and contribute to scholarship done by others in the field.  It can be done (depending on which interpretive issues you’re dealing with), but it’s very tricky.   This is true on so many levels.  For example, if you don’t think there can be any contradictions in the Gospels, then your interpretation of a passage in Matthew that is also in Mark will be affected, because you will not be able to acknowledge that Matthew has changed something in Mark in a way that is at odds with it.  But that kind of acknowledgment is absolutely fundamental to a historical-critical understanding of  Matthew.

Or if you refuse to acknowledge that there are letters in the New Testament that claim to be written by Paul which in fact were written by someone else simply claiming to be Paul, then your interpretation of those letters will be radically different from someone who, on historical-critical grounds, thinks that some of the thirteen letters claiming to be written by Paul were written in fact by someone else.   If you think Paul wrote 1 Timothy (evangelicals as a rule do; non-evangelicals, among the scholars, as a rule do not), then you would use 1 Timothy as evidence for what Paul thought and taught, and you would interpret 1 Timothy in light of what Paul says elsewhere and you would interpret what Paul says elsewhere in relation to what he says in 1 Timothy.  If you think Paul did not write the letter, you simply would not treat it that way.  And your interpretation would be massively different.

And so, if you want to talk with other scholars in the field, or publish articles and books in the field in journals and presses that presuppose historical-critical views and approaches,  and you have a completely different set of assumptions and presuppositions … well, it’s very hard.  Most of the time it doesn’t work.

Let me stress – I can’t stress this enough, although roughly 36% of my readers won’t believe me or possibly hear me – I am NOT saying there cannot be evangelical scholars of the New Testament.  That is absolutely not the case, in the least.  There are lots of evangelical scholars of the New Testament.  Some of them superb scholars.  BUT, if they approach the New Testament from the point of view that there can be no mistakes of any kind in the New Testament (that would be a very hard-core evangelical, and certainly a fundamentalist, position) then they have to restrict their scholarly conversation partners to one another, publishing in journals and with presses that support their theological views, not in the standard critical journals and presses.

And so fundamentalists – people like me back then – simply do not work in the realm of the critical scholars.  They do scholarship for fundamentalists.

How to avoid that problem if you are a fundamentalist or hard-core conservative evangelical?  One of the most popular ways to avoid it is to work in an area of New Testament studies where your presuppositions about the inspiration of Scripture have almost NO bearing on your work.   And one area where that is true is textual criticism.  Anyone, with any personal theological views about the inspiration of Scripture, can study the manuscripts of the New Testament to determine what the authors originally wrote.  It’s a very difficult field to work in, because it involves massive expertise in a range of complicated areas.   But it does not require a person either to presuppose or not to presuppose that the words written by the biblical authors are inspired by God.

And so many evangelicals who want to be serious biblical scholars turn to textual criticism.  It is a “safe” discipline.  That too is what I did, when deciding what to focus on in my graduate studies.

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Comments

  1. Wilusa  September 11, 2016

    I’m curious: Where do Roman Catholic scholars fit into this picture? When I was growing up, I’m pretty sure we were told that almost everything in the Bible was true. “Fundamentalists” were people who believed, literally, in the “Adam and Eve” story – but I don’t remember being taught what the supposed alternative was.

    People were encouraged to read the Bible (you could earn “indulgences” that would shorten your time in Purgatory!) – but never to question it. The official Church understood how any apparent discrepancies could be resolved; we ordinary people were supposed to take it on “faith.” (I’m sure most people never read the Bible at all. My parents didn’t own one, till I had to buy one when I was in high school.)

    So, what do Catholic *scholars* believe? And what do they write, in the kinds of books that will be read mostly by other scholars?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2016

      There are certainly Roman Catholic equivalents of fundamentalists, and Roman Catholic scholars who do historical critical work. Two of the finest NT scholars of our time were Raymond Brown and John Meier (Meier is still living and cranking it out), both R.C. priests.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  September 11, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m endlessly fascinated by critical religious scholars who are conservative faithful, or at minimum liberal faithful. Although I understand their underlying cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization from the scientific point of view, their actual experience of simultaneously holding opposing ideas and beliefs in their heads, that’s a completely alien experience to me. (When I come across new information that disproves or merely calls into question my worldview, it becomes too mentally and emotionally uncomfortable for me to continue holding onto that questionable worldview.)

    Two scholars, in particular, come to mind for me: John Meier, author of the multi-volume doorstop A Marginal Jew, and your friend Dale Martin at Yale. When I read Meier, it’s clear that he’s trying to approach the historical Jesus from a genuine critical analysis of the evidence. And in the conclusions he arrives at he is definitely not pulling any punches. Indeed, anyone who knew absolutely nothing about Meier could reasonably come away thinking he believes 75%+ of the Gospel history is total fabrication. Meanwhile, Meier is a Catholic priest who teaches theology at Notre Dame!?! When I consider the disjunction between Meier’s scholarship and this actual beliefs, the only thing that comes to my mind is “WTF?”

    And Dale Martin is another interesting character. Not only does he seem to hold onto a critical view of the NT on par with your own, Dr. Ehrman, he is also an openly gay man. And yet, he too is a thorough-going Christian, who believes the very texts that say he is an abomination and a sinner doomed to an eternity of torment in hell, that those texts are holy scripture inspired by the All-loving Creator of the Universe. And, I must confess, just trying to reconcile Martin’s beliefs with himself as a person, well, that makes my head hurt!

    • Kirktrumb59  September 13, 2016

      The head of NIH is an observant, believing Christian. A migraine for you.

      • Bart
        Bart  September 14, 2016

        Or for him!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 14, 2016

        Yes, Francis Collins, who is also the former head of the human genome project, says that he is able to separate his Christian faith from his science, and all evidence shows this to be the case so far. But the reason Collins is always brought up is that he is actually one of the exceptions when it comes to top scientists. The National Academy of Sciences did a poll of its members and found that about 95% of them are atheist.

    • Newbhero  October 25, 2016

      People tend to focus on christians when it comes to cognitive dissonence and the belief in things with zero evidence and with evidence to the contrary. The truth is that humans in general are dogmatic, including seculat atheists. There is a myriad of unsubstantiated beliefs/dogma that i can correctly guess you subscribe to just by knowing your time and place (western civilization, 2016). For example you probably subscribe to race egalitarianist dogma (the belief that blacks and asians have the same biological intelligence and that any disparity is environmental) despite all the evidence showing the opposite to be true. You probably think homosexuality is objectively neutral if not positive on society despite every metric (quality of life, disease rate, genetic parental investment waste etc) showing it to be an objective net negative on a society. You probably think polygamy is objectively harmful despite humans having been polygamous throughout all of its history, and despite polygamy being know to factually be a superior model for gene selection (only the top percentile of men reproduce, leading to a higher rate of positive traits in the population etc). Welcome to cognitive dissonence, mr “reason and logic rock!”

  3. Rick
    Rick  September 11, 2016

    So, can we take the long ending of Mark as an example? The interpretive scholar might say “‘oh, look, the long ending isn’t in either Sinaiticus or Vaticanus, so probably Mark ended with the three women running home afraid; thus, the long ending was made up later. Hmm, if the long ending was made up, I wonder how much of the earlier Mark was made up too?”‘ To which the fundamentalist textual critic says “….I’m just a critic of how scribes screwed up copies made from the divine original so ask me….. ?

    So much for intellectual curiosity….

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2016

      Yes, that certainly could be the response! But it’s not the response of most conservative Christian scholars…

  4. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 11, 2016

    I understand that Evangelicals, Fundamentalists and Conservative Christians are not all the same even though there is overlap of beliefs, can you state what those differences are and do they all believe in Biblical inerrancy?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2016

      I would say evangelicals are almost always conservative Christians and fundamentalists by definition always are. Evangelicals do not all hold the same view of scripture, but they would all say that Scripture in some sense is inspired. Fundamentalists tend to think there are no mistakes of any kind in the Bible.

  5. John4
    John4  September 11, 2016

    And yet, Bart, your own work in textual criticism appears to me to draw heavily upon higher criticism. Consider, for example, your treatment of the bloody sweat in Luke: a textual problem, certainly, but one elucidated by assuming that Luke’s account contradicts Mark’s.

    Am I missing something here?

    Many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2016

      No, that’s exactly right. But I started doing that only when I was capable of engaging in higher criticism

  6. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  September 11, 2016

    I’ve observed (they don’t really want laypeople asking random questions) a few convos in the NT Textual Criticism group, and there’s no doubt in my mind it’s a tough field. It is an interesting *world* to observe though.

    My question: Are there many people who decide to pursue textual criticism but underestimate its level of difficulty and realize they need to pursue something else?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2016

      There are certainly some. It’s not for intellectual wimps!

      • TWood
        TWood  September 13, 2016

        Question about DTS… it’s produced (in my opinion) some of the worst fundamentalism ever (it’s connected to the Niagara conferences and Lewis Sperry Chaffer obviously). Needless to say, I don’t see any real scholars coming from DTS (among the popular alumni at least [Hal Lindsey is probably the best example])—except for Daniel Wallace. I still don’t understand how he can be a dispy rapturist… but he seems to be as close as there is to a legit textual critic at DTS… or is that not right in your view… I have viewed DTS as fundie rather than Evangelical… how do you view DTS and Wallace?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 14, 2016

          My sense is that Dan would not at all call himself a fundamentalist, even if others would judge him that way. And yes, he is the only bona fide textual critic that I can think of having come out of the program at Dallas.

  7. epicurus
    epicurus  September 11, 2016

    I’ve found evangelical scholars often appeal to the consensus of “the majority of scholars” to support some of their arguments that seem controversial. I think often what they mean is the majority of evangelical scholars. And while there probably are a lot of them, are they the majority of all Christian/New Testament scholars? I’m not sure.
    My apologies If I’m wrong, but I believe Dr. Ehrman raised this point in a debate several years ago with Dr. William Lane Craig, after Dr. Craig used the consensus approach for a position that probably only evangelicals hold, and Dr. Ehrman said that Craig should really only be saying the majority of evangelical scholars, many of whom work at institutions that require them to sigh a statement of faith they cannot deviate from without fear of losing their job.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2016

      Yes, when I myself talk about “majority” opinion it is almost alwasys in reference to “the majority of CRITICAL scholars…”

  8. Hormiga  September 11, 2016

    > One of the most popular ways to avoid it is to work in an area of New Testament studies where your presuppositions about the inspiration of Scripture have almost NO bearing on your work.

    Well, yes, but what about the problem you have repeatedly pointed out: If God wanted all future generations to have access to his inspired Scripture, why didn’t he, omnipotent as he is, go to the trouble of making sure those generations would have a no-question-about-it copy of the True Scriptures? Don’t evangelicals/fundamenalists have a problem with that?

    If we had titanium tablets with the Word inlaid in gold that had been handed down from Biblical times, I, for one, would pay them serious attention. A 1-meter U235 sphere with bas-relief gold Scripture floating above Bethlehem/Jerusalem would be even better. (Yes, I know that a 1-meter sphere of U235 is seriously supercritical — that’s the point.)

    As it is, we’ve got a wide variety of texts fluttering down the millennia and serious, honest, well-intentioned scholars are still at odds over theologically important points.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2016

      Yes, for some it’s a problem! But others don’t see that human error in copies impinges on divine inspiration of originals.

  9. Stephen  September 11, 2016

    “I know very few people who have found their faith challenged by their knowledge of the textual problems of the New Testament. ”
    “…this is one field of biblical studies that is considered “safe” for those with a high view of the inspiration of Scripture.”
    “…an area of New Testament studies where your presuppositions about the inspiration of Scripture have almost NO bearing on your work.”

    Prof Ehrman I find this attitude you discuss very mysterious since the first question I would have for these folks with a “high view of the inspiration of Scripture” is, if The Almighty inspired the scriptures, why would textual criticism be necessary at all? Why would He take the trouble to deliver His revelation but then leave its transmission to the limitations of humans (not to mention the vagaries of language)? Doesn’t having to argue over what the original text said itself put into question the very idea of the the Divine Inspiration of these texts?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2016

      Yup, it’s a good question! But God works in mysterious ways. 🙂

  10. jdmartin21  September 11, 2016

    So, evangelical scholars of the New Testament who focus on the “safe” field of textual criticism can and do publish in the standard academic journals and presses, but those whose focus is historical critical usually cannot because their fundamentalist beliefs is out of step with the scholarship those journals and presses represent. So, they publish in “fundamentalist” journals and presses. In what sense can they be said to be advancing scholarship and how can any of them be considered “superb scholars” if they have departed from the mainstream?

  11. mjt  September 12, 2016

    There is something written here that seems to contradict what I’ve read from you, and elsewhere…it would seem, based on this article, that there are quite a few evangelical scholars out there. And I don’t see any indication that they are vastly outnumbered by critical scholars.

    And yet I will hear things like ‘Scholars almost unanimously believe that Daniel was composed (or finalized) in the 2nd century.’ I know that evangelical scholars don’t hold that view. And since their numbers are significant, how can it be nearly unanimous that scholars consider Daniel to be a forgery? Are evangelical scholars not included in the ‘consensus’ of certain views? If so, is it because even though they hold opposite views, they are unable to publish them?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2016

      Yes, I try to say “the majority of CRITICAL scholars think x, y, or z”

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 12, 2016

      I’ve been reading Daniel in the original, particularly the Aramaic passages, primarily because I’ve been trying to improve my Aramaic. And from reading it in the original language all I can say is that the Book of Daniel is almost certainly a work of fiction. The first half of the book reads like it comes from the late Persian period (ca. 5th century BCE), while the second half reads like it comes from the Hellanistic period (ca. 2nd century BCE).

      • Bart
        Bart  September 14, 2016

        Yes, the apocalyptic visions are almost certainly from the Maccabean period.

      • mjt  September 16, 2016

        Hi talmoore,
        Is it possible to be a little more specific on your conclusions, to someone who doesn’t know Aramaic? I know that there are many scholars who claim that the Aramaic in Daniel is Imperial Aramaic, which supposedly is difficult to date after about 300 BCE.

  12. chrispope  September 12, 2016

    I’m particularly enjoying this series of posts.
    Having been brought up in the 60s & 70s to accept the whole of the bible without question, what awoke me was the desire/need to understand the historical contexts. Reading the gospels there’s little sense of Palestine being under a fairly brutal Roman occupation, most things seem hunky-dory. ‘Little’ things like ‘go the extra mile’ seem innocuous until you learn that the occupiers could command a local to carry a load a set distance. No sign of resentment or injustice in the gospels – until you read them a little more deeply! (Compare with, e.g., accounts of life in Nazi-occupied countries in WWII).
    Of course, once you start researching the historical contexts (something which IME fundamentalists avoid like the plague) the whole can of worms is opened …

    • HistoricalChristianity  September 14, 2016

      I didn’t see that Dr. Ehrman answered this one. Roman occupation of Palestine was brutal only for those openly rebelling against Roman rule. Most Jews, and especially the elite, were quite content with Roman rule. They thrived in Diaspora under foreign rule. Within their territory, they had nearly full autonomy. The whole Roman Empire thrived with rule of law.

      But if you thought of Jesus as a Zealot, you could find enough in the gospels to identify with. The phrase kingdom of God meant a politically-independent Israel, free of Roman rule. But the gospels portray Jesus more as a sage of Second Temple Judaism. They also wanted an independent Israel, but wanted to accomplish that by having sinners (non-practicing Jews) repent and obey Torah. Then God would bless Israel and give them victory over their enemies (Rome). But really, most Jews there didn’t think of Rome as an enemy.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 14, 2016

        The feeling of “brutal” occupation can be relative. For instance, the Arabs in modern day Gaza can say they are being “brutally” occupied and oppressed by the state of Israel, but the Arab citizens of Israel proper would be hard-pressed to described their lives as “brutally” oppressive (though an argument could be made that Arab citizens of Israel are treated like 2nd-class citizens).

        The same is analogous in ancient Palestine under Roman hegemony. The idea that Jesus and his disciples could feel “brutally” occupied and oppressed in backwoods Galilee — a place where seeing an actual Roman, let alone a Roman soldier, would have been like coming across Bigfoot — is a tad ridiculous. The bitterness in Galilee probably started way back when Herod (soon-to-be) the Great had brutally suppressed an insurgency against his family’s rule, in which Herod was backed by the Romans, ever tainting the Jewish authorities of Palestine with the tinge of foreign influence and corruption. (It’s not unlike how Islamic extremists and Jihadis today see the leaders of Muslim nations, such as the Saudis and the Presidents of Egypt and Jordan, as puppets of America.) And so there arose something of a Jewish nationalist movement — we could call it proto-Zionism — that sought an indepedent Jewish nation, free from Gentile influence and corruption.

        In fact, if you look at the geopolitics of the region today, it’s almost as if nothing has really changed. The only difference is instead of the Roman Empire there is the American Western Empire, and instead of Roman-backed Jewish aristocracy there is the American-backed state of Israel, and instead of the Jewish nationalists there is the Arab Palestinian nationalists. Where the Jews were the religious terrorists and theocrats ca. 1st century Palestine, the Muslims are today the religious terrorists and theocrats. It’s the same conflict, only with different ideologies.

  13. ztrent89  September 12, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the flurry of recent posts concerning textual criticism, as it is an area that I’ve become increasingly interested in. Unfortunately, the faculty support does not exist at the university I’m attending to allow any formal study of biblical textual criticism, whatsoever. In fact, most of the faculty members I’ve consulted with seem to view NT textual criticism as an antiquated area of study. Although this isn’t something that I plan on pursuing as a scholar, I would like to become more familiar with the seminal works of textual criticism.

    To date, I’ve read Bruce Metzger’s “The Bible in Translation” and “The Canon of the New Testament,” but these books almost exclusively address the formation of the N.T. canon and its translation/transmission. Is J. Harold Greenlee’s NT textual criticism introductory text a good place to begin? Thanks to attending a university with the second largest circulating collection in the U.S., I’ve also managed to source a copy of your “Studies in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament;” I’m sure that will keep me busy for a while.

    Also, what are your thoughts on the work of F.F. Bruce? I’ve been in contact with several professor’s that seem to regard his books as works of apologetics rather than the type of hardcore scholarship that I seek; though I’ve heard the opposite charge from those in evangelical circles.

    Thank you for your time, Dr. Ehrman.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2016

      Yes, Greenlee was my own introductio to the field! F. F. Bruce was a classically trained scholar and conservative Christian. He did know his classics, but I”m afraid his religious beliefs played a heavy role in his views and comments on the NT.

  14. chrispope  September 12, 2016

    Bart, a question please.
    Paul came along when the ‘Jesus followers’ were already established, claimed a direct revelation from God/Jesus, and his theology came to be accepted as ‘orthodoxy’ over a couple of hundred years. (Simplistic summary, I know).
    Joseph Smith followed on from mainstream protestant Xianity, claimed a direct revelation (and much more) and founded the Mormons. Their divisions/splits since seem quite similar to those of the early Jesus followers.
    Charles Taze Russell did the same (plus his pyramidology etc.) and founded Jehovah’s Witnesses.
    The passage of time since Smith and Russell seems to have blunted/obscured/forgiven their daft ideas, and I doubt that many Mormons and JWs know much about the origins of their religion.
    I would guess that many conservative and fundie Xians would regard Smith and Russell (and others of their ilk of about the same time) as mistaken at best, or even crazily deluded. Of course, the availability of information and the modern relative ease of research has had an impact.
    The question is this: To what extent has the passage of time lent Paul and his teachings a credibility they may not have had in their own time – is it likely that he was regarded by many as just another Jewish crazy with a direct line to God?
    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2016

      It’s a good question — and one that is not easy to answer! Some people in Paul’s day clearly thought he was a crazy (thus his being punished so many times, as described in 2 Cor. 11). Others thought he was on to something. Most probably had no opinion, since they ahd never heard of him.

      • chrispope  September 12, 2016

        Thanks for the reply. It’s a strength of this site -and one that still makes me smile and make a donation – that I can ask what may be a basic question and get an answer from a world-renowned scholar. Thanks!

      • TWood
        TWood  September 14, 2016

        Isn’t the major difference that Paul was “verified” by those who personally knew Jesus before he died, namely Peter (the lead disciple of Jesus) and James (the actual brother of Jesus)? Doesn’t this make it impossible for those who came after Paul (e.g. Smith and Russell) to ever get such verification?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 14, 2016

          That’s why the proto-orthodox church developed the idea of “apostolic succession,” that the current leaders were sanctioned by their predecessors who were sanctioned by apostles — in a straight line back to Jesus.

          • TWood
            TWood  September 14, 2016

            Right, but within the context of a modern figure with a “new revelation” like Joseph Smith and Charles Russell, they modern prophets couldn’t claim apostolic succession in the same way Paul or even the anti Nicene fathers could, right? I think the question was how is Paul different from later visionary prophets from the 19th century… and I was wondering if the main difference is their disconnection from any legit claim of apostolic authority, certainly not anything like Paul had (who knew Peter and James). Isn’t that why modern prophets can never have the historical verification that Paul had?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 15, 2016

            Yes, I wasn’t referring to modern churches/Christian leaders.

          • TWood
            TWood  September 15, 2016

            I know you weren’t, but the questioner was (from what I could tell at least)… he referred to Joseph Smith/Mormons and as well as Charles Russell/JWs… so that’s where I was coming from with my question…

        • HistoricalChristianity  September 14, 2016

          It’s also impossible for us to verify Paul’s verification. His writings are the earliest primary source we have for earliest proto-orthodox Christianity. In Galatians 1:18-19, Paul said he had minimal contact with apostles (or at least people who said they were apostles), Peter and James. But we have no confirmation of even this. But it’s impossible for Smith and Russell to plausibly claim such verification.

    • HistoricalChristianity  September 14, 2016

      I’m not Bart, but that never stopped me from expressing opinions! Paul never claimed direct revelation from God, only that he had a vision of Jesus after Jesus had died. Not too surprising. Mostly Paul passes on traditions that he received. Walter Bauer, in his 1934 book, presented evidence that proto-orthodox Christianity was not alone, nor was it the earliest Christianity. Many Christians (and of course all non-Christians) disagreed with Paul. Paul’s writings are filled with criticisms of those who disagreed with him. By the end of Paul’s career, likely all Christians had heard of him, and either firmly agreed or firmly disagreed with him. The rest of the Roman Empire (perhaps 97% of the people) likely never heard of him. Certainly no one outside of Christianity ever wrote about him.

      • TWood
        TWood  September 14, 2016

        Paul claims to have seen Jesus and he knew Peter and James. I’ve asked Bart before whether he believes these are historically accurate statements. He says they are as sure as history gets. I wasn’t talking about Paul’s theology per se, I was talking about his claim of seeing Jesus is backed up by those who knew Jesus even before he was crucified.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 15, 2016

          No, I don’t think the visions of Jesus by his followers are *as* certain as other things (e.g., that Jesus lived and that he was a Jew and that he was crucified while Pontius Pilate was governor)

          • TWood
            TWood  September 15, 2016

            Yes, I wasn’t clear… I meant the record of these things (“Paul’s claims”) are as sure as history gets. In other words, Paul’s authorship of Galatians is 99% sure (that’s the percentage I believe you gave). By extension, the same basic statement “as sure as history gets” can be applied to Paul having known Peter and James (these being on par with “that Jesus lived and that he was a Jew and that he was crucified while Pontius Pilate was governor”). I didn’t mean to imply that you believe their visions were equal to these historical events… although it seems very likely they really believed they had visions (rather than lying)… would you disagree with any of my clarification? Thank you, sir.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 16, 2016

            Yes, I think I agree with all that.

  15. RonaldTaska  September 12, 2016

    This blog explains a lot. I was always curious about why Dr. Metzger remained a conservative Christian. Maybe, this blog explains part of the answer. For me, discovering that all ancient Bible texts were different meant that the Bible really could not be inerrant and could not be interpreted literally. There was just no “the” Bible to interpret literally even if one wants to do so. The Bible contradictions that I learned about later confirmed my view about this matter.

  16. SidDhartha1953  September 12, 2016

    Would the inerrantist’s assumptions about the inspiration of scripture not predispose her to choose one variant reading over another on theological, rather than evidentiary, grounds, if one reading seemed to agree with her view of scripture and the other called it into question? How then can a committed evangelical or fundamentalist be even a first rate textual critic?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2016

      It *could* do that, but it wouldn’t *have* to do that. If it always did, then yes, she could not be a very good critic.

  17. nichael  September 12, 2016

    Dr Ehrman: I have a (slightly) off-the-wall question:

    The other evening I was with some friends and one guest, a retired Episcopal minister, began repeating the standard story about “ancient, pre-literate peoples having better memories and better mnemonic devices than we do, so they were able to pass along ancient texts without error” (in his case he was describing the transmission of the Hebrew Scriptures before they were written down).

    Anyway, ignoring his errors and misunderstandings, what caught my ear was that, as “evidence” he mentioned “research by Margaret Mead”.

    I have to admit that this is the first time I’ve ever heard her name mentioned in this context.
    So my question is whether, during your research on “Jesus Before the Gospels”, you recall ever coming across Margaret Mead in any relevant context?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2016

      I’m not familiar with her work on the transmission of tradition accurately either. But I can give a very long lists of anthropologists (and related others) who do deal with the topic and show precisely the opposite. The list would include Albert Lord (classic text: Singer of Tales); Jack Goody; Jan Vansina; and Walter Ong. THese are works that everyone in the field knows and cites, for good reason!

      • nichael  September 12, 2016

        Thanks.
        (Just to be clear, I wasn’t suggesting the minister’s claims were correct [and I’ve read the other folks listed here]. I just thought it was strange that Mead’s name was dropped into the middle of all this, apparently out of nowhere.)

      • TWood
        TWood  September 14, 2016

        Isn’t it true that the creation and flood stories were written so that they would be easily remembered after they were written? I don’t mean they were written because they were remembered before they were written.

        I’m asking because from my research it seems that the creation and flood stories were written for mnemonic purposes (using their strange stories), but for memorization afterwards… not because of memorization beforehand. Is that right?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 14, 2016

          I don’t have a sense that these stories were “memorized”

          • TWood
            TWood  September 14, 2016

            Interesting… I know some Harvard studies have said they were… wasn’t the basic purpose for them to be read to the people… isn’t that also how the New Testament letters were too… to be read among the churches? Written copies were rare…

            Brings up another question… insofar as they were genuine, did Jesus teach in parables to make them more memorable—considering he spoke to public crowds rather than writing to churches and people?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 15, 2016

            Yes, the early Christian writings were produced to be read aloud. Jesus parables: we don’t really know what his motivation was for teaching this way. Our earliest account, Mark (4:10-12), has an amazing passage that explicitly states that Jesus used parables precisely so that no one would understand what he was teaching!!

        • HistoricalChristianity  September 14, 2016

          Before these people had and used writing, all the traditions were oral. As I understand it (though I haven’t studied it), the general consensus is that these people didn’t try to memorize the stories. But the stories were told and retold. Any individual was likely to hear several people, each telling his own version of the story. That individual then had literary license (and religious motivations) to choose how they in turn retell the story. Once written, there was no need to memorize. The stories became more stable, for a population like Israel who valued and revered their sacred writings. The priests (the ones who likely did the writings) had some freedom among themselves to edit the texts as they copied them to preserve them. It appears that those edits ended during and after Babylonian Diaspora. To me, they appear edited to reflect their then-current beliefs and practices, while still preserving enough of the more ancient traditions so that the people would still recognize them and identify with them. But once written, edited, generally accepted, and more widely copied and distributed, freedom to change them is lost.

  18. Tempo1936  September 13, 2016

    In the fictional work, “the Fifth Gospel” , the author cites many of the same conclusions that you mention in your books as to how the NT was created. In conclusion, The main character (A well educated Priest) says to a young student, “you see the bible did not create the Church, rather the Church created the Bible.”

    It was interesting to see the research and work flowing from textual criticism used in such a creative way in this novel.

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