Review of the SMU debate on textual reliability with Wallace and Ehrman

From Kacie at “The Well-Thought-Out Life” blog.

Here are the speakers:

Bart Ehrman is a professor and scholar in the field of textual criticism. He literally wrote the book of textual criticism with his own professor, Metzger. Isaac has had his books as textbooks in his graduate studies on textual criticism. He’s also become known on the popular level, though, because he came out of fundamentalism to evangelicalism to liberalism to agnosticism (he’s a Moody and Wheaton grad). At the moment I’d call him an agnostic evangelist, and that’s why he intentionally is willing to do debates like this in the Bible Belt. He wants to engage conservative Christians and directly challenge their beliefs. He’s written books like Jesus, Interrupted, Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, and Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. His work is quite personal to me not only because of his attendance at Moody, but because his writings have drawn my friends away from Christianity.

On the opposite side you have Daniel Wallace. Wallace is also a textual critic, and on the scholarly level has written the textbook on Greek grammar that everyone uses, Harvard, Princeton, etc. He’s started the Center for Biblical Manuscripts, which is going around the world doing high quality photography of all of the ancient biblical manuscripts so that they are recorded for history. He’s a professor at Isaac’s school and has directly engaged the ideas of Ehrman in an essay, “The Gospel According to Bart: A Review Article of Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman.” He is an evangelical Christian and one of my husband’s professors.

Excerpt:

Isaac and I went to a debate on Saturday night between Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace over the topic of “Can we trust the text of the New Testament.”

[…]In any case, this debate had a lot of buzz surrounding it and we bought tickets immediately. The first 500 went fast so they moved the debate to the larger auditorium on the campus of SMU. 1,500 people sold out the place. Why? Because of the speakers. Experts in the field of text criticism with opposite conclusions. I put both of their bios on the bottom of the post. In the crowd I saw DTS students, people with “atheist” on their t-shirts, Isaac’s professors, church staff, and a couple I know where she is a Christian and he’s an atheist.

It was fascinating. Both men were lucid and funny, but it ended up not being a debate so much about the evidence for the New Testament text as it was about presuppositions. I expected Ehrman to attack the text itself, since he is a textual critic and that’s what the title of his books hint at. Instead he sort of argued from our points of ignorance – the first 150 years after the texts were originally written before our early fragments and manuscripts. Ehrman granted so many of Wallace’s points – that the New Testament has a vast amount more evidence supporting it than any other ancient document. That while there are lots of little variants in the text, the vast majority of them make no difference in the actual meaning, and few if any make any difference to Christian theology. That even without the early documentary evidence that we have, the early church fathers quote the scripture so much that you can almost recreate the entire NT from their quotes alone.

What was his point? The statement he made again and again was that while the evidence for the text was good and actually unparalleled, we don’t know for sure. Can we be certain? Is it proven? Wallace kept coming back and pointing out that he wasn’t saying that we could absolutely know for sure or that we couldn’t know for sure – he was just examining the evidence and saying that based on the mountains of evidence it looks as though we probably have a trustworthy text today.

It was fascinating. Wallace sounded like the scientist, since he was the one following where the evidence led him. Wallace gave loads of evidence, often from Ehrman himself, for the unmatched reliability of the NT text, and for the field of text criticism to help solve the places where there are variants – to get back to the “original” text. Most of it Ehrman didn’t disagree with. Ehrman just kept saying that before the earliest fragments begin there’s a gap and so we can’t know for sure that the text is trustworthy.

[…]In the Q & A later someone asked Ehrman what sort of manuscript evidence he would need in front of him to convince him of the reliability of the text. He said that he’d want a copy made within the first week of writing and with .01% variance. Really? So essentially he says it’s not trustworthy unless it’s one step away from the original. Wallace’s first and perhaps most necessary point was that there are three paths to take, and Ehrman walks the far left – radical skepticism. Wallace is a moderate. He may be a theological conservative, but his approach to the text is moderate.

If you want to see a nice debate feature Ehrman on textual reliability, you can listen to the Ehrman-Williams debate. I recommend a lot of debates, but this one is one of the best I have heard on this topic. At least read my snarky summary, it’s one of my favorite snarky summaries.

5 thoughts on “Review of the SMU debate on textual reliability with Wallace and Ehrman”

  1. That was a pretty gentlemanly debate, then. I’ve seen a ton of non-Christian scholars ripping at Ehrman’s scholarly dishonesty in his newer books, and they generally think he’s so full of special pleading and other logic sins that his eyes are brown.

    Maybe he comes across better in person; but given his final demand for proof, he obviously doesn’t accept any Roman or Greek history that we’ve got, other than invoices from out in the desert. Even people’s letters are generally written “too far from the event” for these ridiculous standards. (I mean, obviously the kid writing home from Alexandria isn’t trustworthy about his voyage having been completed safely! That was a month ago!)

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  2. I felt that Ehrman won by a hair, but not because Wallace didn’t have the evidence, but rather because he failed to concisely and persuasively state the implications of that evidence in the face of Ehrman’s bold rhetorical position of skepticism in the face of gaps in the earliest evidence.

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  3. I didn’t hear the debate. Did Wallace challenge Ehrman’s argument from the dating of the Isaiah scroll found among the Dead Sea scrolls, how, when discovered, it pre-dated the oldest copies of the text by 1200 years, and demonstrated that texts can retain integrity over a great period of time?
    At the end of the day, people are just going to believe what they want to believe anyway. If the authors had been brought back from the dead and affirmed the integrity of our current texts, someone would suggest that they couldn’t possibly remember what they wrote 2000 years ago. :)

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  4. Dave, that point was brought up during the audience Q&A (which was mostly laughable due to a lack of screening), but Ehrman I think pointed out that there are some really divergent OT texts found at Qumran, too (1 Samuel, maybe?). Wallace’s arguments and evidence were stronger, but his presentation not as persuasive.

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