Ehrman @ PSU 5

Last night Bart Ehrman gave the Luther H. Harshbarger Lecture in memorium Bill Petersen. It was very nice to hear his lecture in person and I had a chance to have a drink with him after the talk. But I thought Targumistas might like a short review/commentary on the talk. The talk was a summary of his Misquoting Jesus retitled in honor of Bill Petersen, Lost in Transmission. (This was also Ehrman’s preferred title. The other was suggested/required by the publisher.)

Making Text Criticism Sexy

The first thing I need to put up front is that throughout the talk I was amazed that the packed room was enraptured with a talk about text criticism. Truth is, he didn’t say anything that I hadn’t learned in a sophomore class, but these people were eating it up. How does he do it? Two key things: (1) He is a very engaging and likable speaker. He is amusing and engaging (and of course very knowledgeable). (2) He builds up the rhetoric to make it sound as if the very foundation of Christianity has crumbled, the NT is nothing but “mistakes, upon mistakes, upon mistakes.” He concludes the opening section by announcing that there are more errors in the NT MSS than words in the entire NT.

Ehrman then went on to discuss two kinds of errors, accidental and intentional. Again, nothing really new here. In fact, Ehrman, to his credit, pointed out that the vast majority of these thousands of errors are totally insignificant. Accidental errors include, parablepsis, spelling errors, etc. The intentional errors are also no surprise to anyone who has worked with the NT, but are, of course, more significant. Erhman offered four main examples.

  • 1) John 8 – The woman caught in adultery.
  • 2) Mark’s ending, clearly additions have been added. (And now there is talk of a “new” ending.)
  • 3) Mk. 1.40ff – Healing the leper, was Jesus moved by pity or anger?
  • 4) Lk. 23.34 – “Father forgive them.” Removed from later mss because of anti-Jewish sentiment.
  • None of these are, as I pointed out in conversation later, very significant in terms of the overall view of the message of Christianity or even the Gospels. He did make a very strong point, however, that where these errors/alterations DO have significance would be, for example, with respect to whether or not Luke has a theology of atonement. (Cf. Luke 22.19 “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” I do not have a critical NT with me, but not all MSS attest the “for you.” I will have to look up the precise variants once the snow allows me back into my office.) Without this phrase in Luke’s Gospel, Ehrman points out, Jesus’ death is not “for” anyone.

    Whys and Wherefores

    What is of interest to me is how this knowledge effects people, Christians in particular, of course. Ehrman began by telling how in his large 300-some person class he now asks students to raise their hands if they believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Practically the whole class raised their hands (remember, he teaches at UNC Chapel Hill, NC). Then he asked who had read The Da Vinci Code, same result. Then he asked how many had read all the Bible. A few raised their hands, a very few. He then said, I can understand why one would read Dan Brown’s book, it is a page turner, but “if you believe God wrote a book don’t you think you ought to….” He also pointed out that if one believes that God conveyed His word without error to the authors could he not have also preserved it without error.

    Ehrman last night shared, in response to a question about how his work has effected his faith, that he came from a “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” background that held the Bible to be the inerrant word of God. (I have heard him talk about this many times, including on the Daily Show.) Obviously his work began to erode that conviction. (As an aside, he noted that he is now an agnostic but this was due to all the suffering in the world, not because of errors in transmission of the text.) I certainly know of people who had similar reactions to his knowledge and, not surprisingly, one finds it among people who come from inerrantist traditions and not mainline churches or the catholic or orthodox traditions. I have heard people defend their view that Scripture is without error in the face of textual errors by maintaining that the “autographs” are without error. But I always point out that what if we find the “autographs” and they too have errors? Is that, the error-free text, the foundation of Christianity?

    I think this is where I am a little uncomfortable with Ehrman’s approach to this. While it is great that he is making text criticism sexy and interesting to people, he does it in a bit of a “fear mongering” way. It is true that if one’s entire Christian faith is based upon a belief in an error free text then the reality of textual transmission (and omission) can and will be devastating and indeed he attests that it had this effect on his own faith. But there are countless others who have understood this and assimilated this into their understanding of the life of the community of faith. We may no longer be sure of Luke’s view on atonement, but the community did not preserve Luke’s gospel in isolation. So while it is good ad copy, draws a crowd, and sells books there is nothing here that will rock the foundations of Christianity, but it may, and has, shake a few Christians.


    Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    5 thoughts on “Ehrman @ PSU

    • pf

      Why in the world would finding errors in the scripture not affect one’s faith? Seriously, we are taught from an early age in evangelical churches that all the answers are in the Bible. When one concludes that the Bible is not accurate history or even preserved terribly well, what does that say about the faith?

      One has to conclude that the books were written by individuals with a particular agenda. If some of what they say is not true, why should be believe the rest of it?

      Look at one of hundreds of examples — the story in Acts about Paul’s conversion and the description of the events by Paul in Galatians. There is no way to reconcile the stories. What does that say about whether Paul actually was taught what he said he was taught? Not to mention, Paul only heard Jesus’ voice a few seconds. When did the complex details of his theology get transmitted during that time? The answer is that it probably didn’t. Paul made something up and said it came from God, the way people like Pat Robertson do today.

      If you read a health book that said ingesting poison was good for you, would you think it unimportant and believe the rest of it? Of course not. But people want desperately to hold on to their faith. If the Bible is true, great, if not, then it doesn’t matter. That’s just denial.

    • Chris Brady

      Thanks pf. You have a lot of questions there, I will just address one and the underlying issue. You ask “why in the world would finding errors in the scripture not affect one’s faith?” There are several components to my answer. The first, in reference to Eherman’s talk/book, is that most of the kinds of errors that he is talking about are insignificant textual errors. To find out that words are spelled in different ways, even within the same verse, is not a real threat to anyone’s theology. Even to find some words changed (was Jesus moved by pity or anger?), is not that significant. Unless…

      One believes that every single word of the Bible is not just inspired, but without error. As you point out, this is often the teaching in Evangelical churches (although less than many seem to think, “evangelical” is not synonymous with “fundamentalist”). In this case then yes, the discovery of errors, even of a very minor textual nature, can be the beginning of a crumbling of faith. It is not surprising that Ehrman, like so many of the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, came from a literalist background. Their faith was in the Bible as the literal and inerrant Word of God instead of the containing the Word of God (a subtle but important difference) so when the text is shown to have problems a fundamental pillar weakened.

      If one has an understanding of Scripture as a product of God’s inspiration through humanity, working with and through the foibles and humanity, through canon and redactions, then such retellings (as with Paul) or textual errors are not a threat. It is the canon as a whole, including the process, that has been given to the community of faith.

      Finally, a word about history. Many historians would argue that there is no such thing as “accurate history.” (Aside from, perhaps, their own.) It would be inappropriate and anachronistic to view ancient author’s accounts of events, their retellings, in the same way we view a modern account, say from a newspaper or even an historian. (Remember, historians, even modern ones, are not just reporting events. They are trying to synthesize a wide variety of sources and perspectives. They are attempting to interpret and explain events.)

      So you ask, “what does that say about faith?” Not much because reliance upon the Gospels or Paul’s letters for a NYTimes-type of account is not based upon faith, rather it is based upon particular, modern expectations of how facts are to be reported. Faith is that far more slippery and allusive thing that the author of Hebrews described as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

    • richard

      Xian inerrantists are, to me, the laziest of religious fundamentalists. Moslem, Jewish, and Buddhists literalists, though you may disagree with them, at least read their texts in the original language; most Xtians cannot even read Aramaic, much less the subsequent languages of translation. I would love to see a survey asking “Do you read your sacred texts in the original?” During my thirty years teaching in deep southern Georgia, I had to often remind Bible thumpers, “No, Christ did not speak English” and then ask, “Why haven’t you learned Aramaic – or, at least, Greek?” But I have yet to meet a Hasid who can’t read and speak Hebrew.