Question: I just read Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus and it’s sort of rocked my world. How can we believe the Bible is God’s inerrant Word when we don’t even know what the original Bible said?
Answer: I actually went to graduate school with Bart Ehrman (at Princeton). We used to smoke pipes together up in the smokers’ lounge at Princeton Seminary. I really liked him. He was “edgy.” But it was clear, even back then, that he had a sort of chip on his shoulder about the fundamentalism he’d been raised in. I suspect this chip on his shoulder biases his scholarship a bit.
Now, I’ll start by expressing a point of agreement with Ehrman’s work. What seemed to erode Ehrman’s faith in Seminary, so far as I could tell, was the challenge textual variations posed to a belief in “inerrancy” (the belief that every word of the Bible has to be without error). How can anyone hold that it’s important that every word of the Bible is “without error” when we don’t even know what many of the original words even were?
Ehrman’s got a strong point here. If we think it’s important to believe that the Bible is without error, we set ourselves up for the very problem Ehrman ran into — and now exposes with his book. The word “inerrant” only has meaning if we have “inerrant” copies of the Bible to measure “error” up against — and that is precisely what Bart shows we don’t have. (Though this is nothing new really. Textual critics have been saying this for centuries). For me, it’s enough to hold that the Bible is “inspired” and generally historically “trustworthy.”
Having said that, there’s six brief observations I’d make about Ehrman’s work.
1) The book is a good introduction to the science of textual criticism. But some of Bart’s conclusions seem to outrun the evidence — even the evidence that he himself cites. Consider that Bart is looking at the same evidence every other textual critic looks at. He’s “discovered” nothing new. Yet, hardly anyone goes to the extreme Bart goes to in his conclusions.
One of Ehrman’s teachers, whom I also knew at Princeton, was Bruce Metzger. Metzger came to much more conservative conclusions than Ehrman — yet looked at the exact same evidence. The vast majority of textual critics are closer to Metzger than Ehrman.
2) The way Bart phrases things has an “alarmist” ring to it. I think he just likes to shake things up. For example, he makes quite deal over the thousands upon thousands of variations there are in the textual tradition. Uninformed lay readers could easily get the impression that almost every verse in the New Testament is in question.
Well, Ehrman is technically correct that there are thousands upon thousands of textual variations. But it’s also the case that the vast majority of these thousands of variations are simply copies of copies of copies, etc… In other words, once a variation enters the textual tradition, it gets copied over and over and over again. Ehrman sometimes seems to count each of these copies as though it was a distinct variation when it’s not.
3) Even the most liberal textual critics grant that at least 95% of the text of the New Testament is not in question. (The standard estimates I’ve read are closer to 98%). And the 5% or less about which there may be some doubt do not affect anything of substance in the faith. Not only this, but most of this 5% is not totally in question, for scholars assign probabilities to this material. In other words, a text may be (say) 80% certain — but so long as it’s not 100%, it’s put in the “questionable” category.
4) We have over 25,000 manuscript pieces of textual evidence to help us reconstruct the originals of the New Testament documents, and much of this evidence is very early. This is by far and away the best attested work in history. The next closest ancient document in terms of textual support is Homer’s Iliad which has about 900 manuscript pieces of evidence to support it. My point is that if we’re going to seriously question whether we can trust that what we have today is a reasonably close approximation to the New Testament, we should distrust our copies of every ancient author.
5) Bart’s book makes “mountains out of mole hills” all over the place. For example, he makes a big deal over the fact that 1 John 5:7 , which speaks about the Trinity, wasn’t in the original Bible. In fact, it was inserted by Erasmus in the 16th century. But so what? The doctrine of the Trinity has never been based on THAT verse — obviously, since the doctrine of the Trinity was articulated in the first four centuries of church history and this verse wasn’t in the Bible these early fathers were using.
Not only this, but hardly any scholars have taken I John 5:7 seriously for the past four hundred years! That’s why it’s omitted in all translations of the Bible except the King James Version.
6) Bart may (or may not) have substantiated his claim that sometimes intentional alterations were made in the text to make a passage sound more “orthodox.” Even if we grant this (and many textual critics would not), it doesn’t affect much.
First, if we throw out all the texts about which there is some question — including those that may have been intentionally altered — it wouldn’t affect our general estimation of the reliability of the New Testament documents and wouldn’t affect anything important to the faith.
Second — and this is very important — in the ancient world written texts were regarded as expressions of an oral tradition, and it was understood that it’s okay to slightly modify oral traditions to address new issues that have arisen in the community. So even if certain texts were altered slightly (and all the alleged alterations are in fact slight), it doesn’t mean there was anything sinister going on. This is what people expected to be done.
So, if you ask me, Ehrman’s book need not rock anyone’s world. It perhaps challenges those who put a lot of stake in a particular view of “inerrancy,” but in my view it was ill advised to put much stock in that view in the first place.