Sunday, January 04, 2009

Misquoting Jesus

I just finished reading the book "Misquoting Jesus" by Bart Ehrman. Of course, there has been no shortage of controversy surrounding this book- I have read articles and listened to debates over this material. So I was glad to get a first hand look at what he had to say.
Having been raised in a King James Only background and then coming out of that by way of study, I am pretty familiar with the history of our Biblical texts and the evolution of textual-critical methods over the years, so I was familiar with much of what he said.
There are certain factual issues in his book which I would have a problem with, but it is important to focus on his conclusion... namely, that the doctrine of inspiration is falsified by the level of textual variation in our texts. However, he also says it is probably going too far to say the originals are inaccessible. It appears he is trying to be radical without being too radical. These opposing conclusions were highlighted in Ehrman's debate with Dan Wallace. Dr. Wallace pointed out that book's conclusion to average person was that the Biblical text is ultimately unreliable, while Dr. Ehrman pointed out that he said no such thing. While Dr. Ehrman is technically correct, Dr. Wallace's reading of the book is inescapable. If Dr. Ehrman were not trying to say what Dr. Wallace alleged, then he is merely repeating what evangelicals have been saying all along- textual variants exist, but the mass of MS evidence gives the Bible tremendous attestation and the originals can be reconstructed to high level of accuracy.
I would like to know what Dr. Ehrman's authority is. Where does he get his doctrine from? If the Bible is a purely human book, how can he know the truth? The question of authority is one that is presented very forcefully by King James Only adherants. If you hold to sola scriptura, you must have a reliable scripture to go back to. The King James Only crowd will come along and say, well, you can find some text-critical reason to excise some passage from scripture, so then you don't have to believe it.
And yet most text-critical decisions made in our major versions of Scripture are made by groups of scholars from different backgrounds. You don't have one group conspiring to change the text wholesale and getting away with it. Texts from different geographical locations and traditions (Alexandrian, Byzantine, etc.) give us independent witnesses. This is the history of our Biblical texts in a short summary. This is why I can turn to the KJVO crowd and say with confidence that we really don't have anything to worry about.
It is also the answer I can give to Dr. Ehrman. Does this resolve all variant questions? No. Does it leave the Biblical text in major confusion? No.
I respect the desire to determine what is scripture and what is not. If Dr. Ehrman has reasons to say a certain text is not Scripture, I want to know. And he does this a number of times in his book. (I also will be examining your changes to see if you have a particular bias or bent.)
Which is why I was puzzled that Dr. Ehrman was willing to dismiss inspiration without dealing with or even mentioning II Tim 3:16 or I Pet 1:21, common proof-texts for inspiration. He didn't grapple with their interpretations or even try to tell us why they shouldn't be considered scripture. I pulled out my HarperCollins NRSV study Bible to see if I could get some insight from a "liberal" point of view. The notes for II Tim 3:16 referred me to I Pet 1:21, and the notes for I Pet 1:21 referred me to three old testament passages were inspiration was not discussed. It feels like a game where you have the bowls and put a ball under one of them, then shuffle and guess where it is. While my NRSV study Bible challenged the Pauline authorship of both books, and Dr. Ehrman challenged the Pauline authorship of II Tim specifically, they both fell short of suggesting they be removed from the canon.
But if liberals have a problem with ignoring inspiration, evangelicals have a problem with ignoring preservation. Dr. Wallace has written in defense of providential preservation, as opposed to the KJVO concept of verbal, plenary preservation. However, evangelicals have not stressed the issue enough, and have not staked a really strong stand on it. They have been content to allow the proliferation of modern versions without explaning and teaching why the scriptures remain trustworthy after two millenia. They have not acknowleged the importance of standing firm on the issue of preservation and providing a consistent answer. Until they do so, the Dr. Ehrman's and KJVOist's of the world will continue to push their unorthodox views to a Church who has not been adequately informed.


DT said...

Good post.
I know Ehrman alluded to his background as being raised "fundamentalist". . I wonder how close it was to IFBx, or at the very least KJVO, because I believe it is Ehrman who propagates the theory, "if God inspired it, He must preserve it", which of course, is, as Dr. Wallace says, "a common fallacy of the KJVO school." Of course, we believe in preservation, but no where does the Bible say it has to be so according to verbal, plenary inspiration. I just find it interesting that Ehrman focuses on that theory as well as on the King James in his book. He is probably a case study for those who reject KJVO - they all become apostate! But really, this makes me so thankful that guys like Wallace can have meaningful discussion with Ehrman and yet still be a conservative and inerrantist. I look forward to Dr. White's debate with him real soon!

David T. said...

I agree... coming from IFBx it is so easy to slide off into unbelief once you see the truth. Or perhaps become Catholic, as happened to one of my wife's friends.
Ehrman mentioned he was educated at Moody so I could see perhaps where he might have picked up a little KJVPreferred and also become acquainted with KJVOs.
As I read his book I kept a copy of Haley's "Alleged Bible Contradictions" on hand. The answers are available if you are willing to accept them. I wonder if something non-academic that happened in Ehrman's life was more than a little responsible for his willingness to capitulate.