Bart Ehrman is the US author of the bestselling book “Misquoting Jesus” (In the UK “Whose word is it?”). He calls into question the authority of the New Testament as scribal changes over time have changed the documents.
So can we trust the scripture? Bible scholar Peter Williams believes in the reliability of the New Testament and that Bart’s prognosis is far too pessimistic.
This post is a re-post from 2011. I have been listening to this lecture by Peter J. Williams on “Misquoting Jesus” this week, and it reminded me to re-post this debate.
Summary of the Williams-Ehrman debate:
Note: this summary is snarky. If you want an accurate view of the debate, then listen to it. My summary is meant to be humorous.
- I had a mystical experience in childhood and became an evangelical Christian
- I went to Moody Bible Institute, and they told me that the Bible was inerrant
- For a while, I was committed to the view that there are no mistakes in the Bible
- At Princeton, I was taught and graded by professors who did not accept inerrancy
- By a strange coincidence, I began to see that the Bible did have errors after all!
- We don’t have the original documents written by the original authors, we only have thousands of copies
- if the words of the Bible are not completely inerrant, then none of it is historical
- if all of the words in the copies of the Bible are not identical, then none of it is historical
- I would say the New and Old testaments are the Word of God
- We don’t need to have the original Greek writings in order to believe in the authority of the Bible
- I believe in inerrancy, but doesn’t mean there are no problems
- the doctrine of inerrancy has always referred to the original Greek copies, not the translations
- what are the main points of Misquoting Jesus?
- we don’t have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament
- we have copies that are much later, sometimes even centuries later!!1!
- the copies we have all differ from one another – they were changed by scribes!!1!
- we have 5000 manuscripts in the original Greek language
- there are hundreds of thousands of differences!!1!
- most of the differences don’t matter
- some differences are significant for meaning or doctrine
- errors are propagated because the next scribe inherits the mistake of their source copy
- a large gap between the time of writing and the first extant copy means more errors have crept in
- the reason we have so many variants is because the number of manuscripts is large
Angry Jesus or compassionate Jesus in Mark
- most manuscripts say that Jesus was compassionate when healing a leper, but one says he was angry
- it makes a huge huge huge really really big difference if Jesus is compassionate or angry
- the whole Bible needs to be thrown out because of this one word between different in one manuscript
- this variant is important for understanding the passage, but it has no great meaning
- the change is probably just an accident – the two words are very similar visually in Greek
- it’s just an accident – it emerged in one manuscript, and it impacted a few more
- the tiny number of manuscripts that have the error are geographically isolated
- I’m pretty sure that WK prefers the angry Jesus anyway – so who cares?
- no! someone changed it deliberately! it’s a conspiracy! you should buy my book! it’s a *big deal*!!!!!1!!1!one!!eleventy-one!
The woman caught in adultery in John
- it is isn’t in any of the earliest manuscripts
- this is an apocryphical story that some scribe deliberately inserted into the text
- most people don’t even know about this! it’s a cover-up! you need to buy my scandalous book!
- that’s right, it’s a late addition by some overzealous scribe
- and it’s clearly marked as such in every modern Bible translation
- the only people who don’t know about this are people who don’t read footnotes in their Bible
- and in any case, this isn’t a loss of the original words of the New Testament – it’s an addition
Grace of God or apart from God in Hebrews
- well this is just a one word difference, but it makes a huge huge really really big difference!
- the words are very similar, so it’s could be an accident I guess
- but it wasn’t! this was a deliberate change! it’s a conspiracy! it’s a cover-up! scandal!
- buy my book! It’s almost as good as Dan Brown!
- hmmmn…. I kind of like “apart from God” – why is this such a big scandal again?
- you don’t care? how can you not care? it has to be inerrant! or the whole thing is false!
- Moody Bible Institute says!
- yeah Bart is always saying that every change is deliberate but it’s just an accident
- the words are very similar, just a few letters are different, this is clearly an accident
- I have no problem with apart from God, or by the Grace of God
- please move on and stop screaming and running around and knocking things over
- but what if pastors try to use this passage in a sermon?
- well, one word doesn’t make a big different, the meaning that appears is fine for preaching
- it’s only a problem for people who treat the Bible as a magic book with magical incantations
- they get mad because if one word is out of place then the whole thing doesn’t work for their spell
- then they try to cast happiness spells but the spells don’t work and they experience suffering
- the suffering surprises them since they think that fundamentalism should guarantee them happiness
- then they become apostates and get on TV where they look wide-eyed and talk crazy
- hey! are you talking about me? a lot of people buy my books! i am a big success!
- it is very important that people don’t feel bad about their sinning you know!
Is Misquoting Jesus an attack?
- it’s rhetorically imbalanced and misleading
- it tries to highlight change and instability and ignore the majority of the text that is stable
- he makes a big deal out of 5 or so verses that are different from the mainstream text
- he says that scribes deliberately changed the scriptures, but he doesn’t prove that
- it’s just as likely that the differences are just scribal errors made by accident
- well, maybe the variants aren’t a big deal, but what about one angel vs. two angels?
- that’s a significant issue! significant enough for me to become an apostate – a rich apostate
- if one word is different because of an accident, then the whole Bible cannot be trusted
- it has to be completely inerrant, so a one word difference means the whole thing is unreliable
- we don’t even know if Jesus was even named Jesus, because of one angel vs two angels!!!1!
- buy my book! you don’t have to read it, just put it on your shelf, then you’ll feel better about not having a relationships with God – because who’s to say what God really wants from you? Not the Bible!