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.
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.