Michael Horton and New Testament Scholar Daniel Wallace discuss Bart Ehrman (and provide tremendous resources to correct his erroneous ramblings) in this edition of the White Horse Inn:
It has seemed to me that of all the many attacks that Christianity faces in our modern culture, the most egregious and harmful come in the form of the sensationalisms that Bart Ehrman has espoused. Ehrman, who is someone who ought to know that the sensationalisms he espouses are simply not what he publicly says they are, and yet he has “caught the popular imagination”.
Playing clips from Wallace/Ehrman debates (so we hear Ehrman’s whoppers in his own words), Horton and Wallace provide a popular-level response to some of the more egregious misconceptions that Ehrman has spread in his work “Misquoting Jesus” and others.
For example, when Ehrman says “we don’t have the original manuscripts” – he treats the issue as if we are playing the ‘telephone game’ in which errors become multiplied. But Wallace points out that when you compare the copying of the New Testament to the ‘telephone game’, first, the copies were done by hand, not orally, and second, it was not just a single line of transmission.
One of the things he doesn’t say is that we don’t have our earliest copies because they must have worn out. But he doesn’t say how they wore out. They would have worn out from people copying them.
Wallace relates that, off of the first generation of manuscripts, there may have been many multiple copyists making copies of that original manuscript. And the manuscript evidence is that we have a proliferation of imperfect first-generation copies, not a single lineage of them, enabling us to make comparisons of those manuscripts. And by comparing the manuscripts that we have, we can see scribal errors, categorize them, know what they are. Wallace provides this example:
Imagine we came across an early manuscript copy of the Constitution of the United States, and the preamble said, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect onion …” If we were to see that line, we would know that “union” was the original word, not “onion”.
Those are the kinds of mistakes we have find in the early manuscripts. They get corrected early on, leaving us with a far higher degree of reliability than in “the telephone game” or as Horton says, “the bigger fish game”.
As texts and copies proliferated, there is “an enormous amount of agreement among all these texts”. Also, when there are early copies with scribal errors, there is a constant re-correction early on.
The fact is, the more copies of manuscripts we have, the better, because the more we compare them, the more we are able to get back to the original texts.
As well, some manuscripts were in use for 100 or more years. Some of the original manuscripts may have actually lasted to the end of the second century. So it’s possible or even likely that some of the papyri we have may have been first or second generation copies of the original manuscripts.
Ehrman also makes the claim that 94% of the manuscripts we have are from the 9th century or later. In fact, more than 15% of the manuscripts we have are from prior to that time, and he ignores that from the 4th century on, we have complete manuscripts of the New Testament. So by the 9th century, we have six hundred or seven hundred manuscripts or more, and even by that time, we are already on very sound footing.
Ehrman also points out that there are more than 400,000 variants in these manuscripts. Wallace notes, however, that the reason why we have so many variants is because we have so many different manuscripts. In addition to the 5,500 Greek manuscripts, there are more than 10,000 Latin manuscripts, some from the second century, plus Coptic, Syriac, and other Asian and European languages from which to compare. And more manuscripts give you greater certainty as to what the original manuscripts said. Wallace estimates that there are perhaps more than 22,000 manuscripts in existence.
The nature of the differences, the vast majority (70% or more) are spelling variations, in which the wording is not in question. Definite articles, “more perfect onions”. A huge number of variations simply involve the use of the definite article in Greek. The word “the”, for example, there are 16 different ways in Greek to say “Jesus loves Paul” – but all of them get translated in exactly the same way.
Less than 1% of “textual variants”, in fact, are what Wallace calls “meaningful”, that is, it affects the meaning of the text in some way, and “viable”, which means that it can be traced back to the original wording. About ¼ of 1%. In about 1000 places there are variations that are meaningful or viable.
But in fact, not one doctrine is affected by these “meaningful” or “viable” variants.
A couple of Ehrman’s “whipping boys” involve such things as Mark 1:41, in which different variations say “Jesus was moved with anger” or “Jesus was moved with compassion” to heal the leper. It’s not out of the ordinary to think that Jesus was “moved with anger” about a disease.
Another is 1 John 5:7, the Trinitarian formula, was not in Erasmus’s original manuscripts.
He also compares the NT manuscript evidence with the number of Greek and Latin “classics”. For example, we have more copies of Homer – with a 900-year head start, we have 2200 copies of Odyssey and Iliad, only 10% as many manuscripts as what we have for the New Testament.
In fact, for other Greek writers like Aristotle or Plato, the number of manuscripts is far, far smaller. And yet we don’t contest whether we’re really reading those individuals. The earliest MSS of the New Testament come within decades.
This caught my ear because my 14-year-old daughter was asking me about “the telephone game” with respect to New Testament manuscripts. I highly recommend that you give this a listen, and even spread the word among popular circles like Twitter and Facebook (see the links immediately below this article).
This is an area where a discussion like this one can really help to correct some popular misconceptions and restore confidence in the textual transmission of the New Testament that Ehrman and others have undermined.