Bart Ehrman vs. Dan Wallace, Or Don’t Put The Bart Before The Horse

On October 1, 2011, around 1400 people watched Dan Wallace square off against Bart Ehrman on the topic of “Can we recover the original text of the Bible?” The guys at Parchment and Pen have recreated Wallace’s central six-fold argument:

(1) The New Testament has vastly more manuscripts than any other ancient author. In fact, it has more than one thousand times as many copies as the average classical author does. An impressive argument was that if we treated the rest of classical literature the way Ehrman treats the New Testament, we would have to confess ignorance about almost everything from the ancient world. This, in quick turn, would usher us back into the dark ages.

(2) The New Testament has far more manuscripts in the early centuries than any other ancient author. It boasts more than 500 manuscripts within 800 years of its completion. Within 200 years of its completion, the New Testament has three times more manuscripts than the average classical author has in 2000 years! Wallace also noted that there are as many as a dozen New Testament manuscripts (all fragments) from the second century, and more than 60 through the third. Ehrman basically ignored these facts and played his single note: We don’t have the earliest copies, so how can we be sure that we can get back to the text?

(3) There are two attitudes that rational people will avoid: absolute certainty and radical skepticism. When examining historical data, we simply can’t be as certain as scientists are when their experiments are repeatable, controlled, and predictable. History doesn’t yield itself to such certainty. But it also does not warrant the rampant skepticism that is found among many postmodernists today. Although Wallace never called Ehrman a radical skeptic, Ehrman ultimately wound up portraying himself as one. This was in spite of Ehrman’s acknowledgment that a good historian deals in probabilities—precisely as Wallace had been arguing.

(4) The New Testament copying was not like the telephone game. Though Ehrman never used this analogy, his representation of the copying process was sure reminiscent of it. Wallace gave five or six reasons why this approach is false. Among his points, he mentioned that researchers can go “up the line” to earlier witnesses to find out what they said, that there were multiple lines of transmission rather than a single line, that the copying was in written rather than oral form, and that there was no desire to botch the job (which is the whole point of the telephone game).

(5) The Alexandrian family had roots that almost surely went back to the first decades of the second century. Wallace demonstrated this with P75 and B, and quoted Ehrman to prove his point! Ehrman never disputed Wallace’s point, but still tried to claim that we “have no idea” what the earliest manuscripts had. That sure sounded like special pleading and simply ignoring any arguments that didn’t fit Ehrman’s theory.

(6) Wallace’s coup de grâce was his listing of various titles of books that Ehrman had written. Wallace argued that if Ehrman was right that we simply have no idea what the original text said, then all of Ehrman’s books on the New Testament would be pointless! Among them are Orthodox Corruption of Scripture; Misquoting Jesus; The New Testament: A Historical Introduction; The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration; and Forged. Wallace showed that in Forged Ehrman assumed that he knew what the words were in Paul’s authentic letters (which Ehrman identifies as seven of the thirteen letters traditionally attributed to Paul), to the degree that he could pronounce judgment on the words in the Pastoral letters. It was a brilliant stroke: Forged was published earlier this year, and it simply reveals that Ehrman is massively inconsistent on what he thinks the original New Testament said. In his response, Ehrman said something to the effect that “many of those books were written nearly twenty years ago, and I have changed my mind in the last few years.” Wallace responded that none of the books was twenty years old and that most of them had been written in the last five or six years. Indeed, Forged came out earlier this year. Wallace even hinted that 2000 years of New Testament scholarship would be flushed down the toilet if Ehrman’s new, inconsistently-held view of the text were to win the day.

Wallace painted Ehrman as a radical skeptic. Is that picture true to form? One person from the audience asked Ehrman what it would take for him to be sure that we knew what the original of, say, the Gospel of Mark was. He said if we had ten first-generation copies, written within a week or so of the original, with “0.001% deviation” between them, then he could be relatively assured that we had Mark’s Gospel intact. Forget the fact that such requirements are not made for any other ancient literature, or that the New Testament is so rich in copies that scholars can get a very good sense of the original wording. Ehrman’s response to this question confirmed that Wallace had indeed framed things accurately.

During the give-and-take, Ehrman at one point said that Wallace had not answered his question about how we can trust the manuscripts we do have when the manuscripts we don’t have may have been quite different—especially since the earliest manuscripts were the least accurately produced. Wallace came back with the fact that he had answered this question in great detail (see the itemized points above), but he patiently went over the material once more. And again, some of it was in agreement with things that Ehrman had said in print—even recently.

(HT: Parchment & Pen)