In listening to the debate, I think Ehrman provided a very good summary of his position in what he called (in his opening statement), a “very quick conclusion.” Ehrman stated:
Do we have a reliable text of the New Testament? Are there places where the Bible misquotes Jesus? The short answer is, there is no way to tell. We don’t have the originals, or the original copies, or copies of the copies. There are passages that scholars continue to debate: is this the original text or not? and there are some passages where we will never know the answer.
I strongly disagree with this conclusion. In support of such disagreement, I direct a few points of criticism.
1) Ill-formed Set / False Dichotomy
Ehrman seems to try to break things down into two possible categories: (1) The Text is Reliable or (2) The Bible’s Text is Uncertain in Some Places. These categories are not mutually exclusive. There is a difference between a “reliable” text and a “perfect text.” The argument is that the text has been substantially preserved, not perfectly preserved. The argument is that the text we have is reliable, substantially unaltered from the original.
On this issue, Erhman and our KJVO brethren agree. They both consider that the text is only reliable if it has been perfectly preserved. The KJVO folks assert that it has been perfectly preserved, whereas Ehrman says it has not. Both groups, however, seem to assert that the only way the text is reliable is if it has zero uncertainties.
This is not a standard that we normally apply to the word “reliable.” If say that so-and-so is a “reliable preacher” we don’t mean that he never makes mistakes. If we say that our car is a “reliable machine” we don’t mean it never breaks down. If we consider rail to be reliable form of transportation, it doesn’t mean that there are never stoppages.
2) “There is no way to tell.”
This is simply a rejection of conventional textual criticism. That is to say, his claim that “there is no way to tell” is basically a rejection of the idea that we can determine with a high degree of confidence the text of an original document from the copies that remain.
Ehrman is not open about the fact that his conclusion that there is no way to tell is a break with almost 300 years of modern textual critical scholarship. Thankfully, later in the debate, Dr. White was able to bring to light the fact that other scholars believe that we can know what the original said, and consequently can know whether a particular manuscript has an original reading or a misquotation at a particular point, in most cases.
This throwing up of one’s hands, is the reason Dr. White refers to Dr. Ehrman’s position as “radical skepticism.” What is interesting is that Dr. Ehrman doesn’t seem afraid of the fact that the conclusion is that we cannot know about anything where we don’t possess the particular artifact in question (or an exact replica of it).
3) “We don’t have the originals, or the original copies, or copies of the copies.”
I bet Ehrman is right about this. I think it is reasonably certain that we don’t have even any fragments of the original, autographs themselves. It seems probable that we also don’t have any copies that were made directly from the autographs. How on earth, though, can Dr. Ehrman assert that he knows we don’t have any second generation copies. Keep in mind that all that would be necessary for a second generation copy to exist is this: (1) an autograph survived for a couple of hundred years, and was copied by a scribe, then (2) the first generation copy survived for about 800 years, and was copied by another scribe. That would put our “third generation” copy in among the large number of manuscripts that exist from 11th or 12th century.
There are two questions though: how can Ehrman be so sure that there are no copies or copies of copies, and why should it matter? After all, why must we insist that we would need the originals, or first or second generation copies in order to know what the original text said? Why should that be the standard?
Ehrman pointed out that there was the possibility of accidental errors in the transmission of the text and of intentional alterations to the text (either to fix errors or for other reasons). These possibilities, however, only reduce our knowledge of the text from 100% regarding 100% of the words, to a standard of the text being merely “reliable.”
4) “There are passages that scholars continue to debate: is this the original text or not? and there are some passages where we will never know the answer.”
This may be true as well, but these are very weak claims compared to the very strong claims that preceded it. There are a few places (a very small fraction of the text) where scholars disagree over what the original says, and sometimes the issues are very hard to resolve (to the point where the scholars may disagree with each other). This, however, undercuts Ehrman’s thesis.
First, because the number of such places is relatively small, the arguments about those few small places normally involve arguing from the “internal” evidence of the context. Of course, one could never argue from the internal evidence, if one doesn’t know what the internal evidence is.
Second, the scholars that are engaged in this activity either do not share Ehrman’s extreme cynicism or they are deceivers. The scholars that are engaged in this activity normally purport to be engaged in this activity in order to determine what the original reading of the text is. Thus, the very fact that they are engaged in the activity (leaving aside the idea that they may just be frauds) demonstrates that they disagree with Ehrman’s view as a practical matter.
I was not impressed by Dr. Ehrman’s glib claims. His presentation emphasized heavily the fact that there were mechanisms for manuscript change in the manuscript tradition. His presentation, however, failed to account for the fact that there are mechanisms (especially the large number of copies made, the geographic distribution of the copies, the large number of translations made, and the relative isolation of the translations and copies especially in the early centuries) that God providentially provided for the preservation of the text.
His presentation failed to provide an adequate reason for departure from the 300 years of textual criticism, and relied on an extreme standard of “perfect preservation” to assert that the Bible is not reliable. If all that Ehrman means is that we are not 100% certain about the precise spelling and word order of 100% of the words of the New Testament, he’s right – but that doesn’t mean we have an unreliable text.
God has preserved his word for us. Does the Bible misquote Jesus? The answer is “no,” which we can know from God’s promise to preserve his Word, and which we can see evidence of in the science of textual criticism. I don’t believe that God has preserved his word because Dr. Bruce Metzger (Ehrman’s former teacher, with whom Ehrman now disagrees) says so, but yet Dr. Metzger’s work confirms the fact that the text we have today is substantially the same as the text that the prophets, apostles, and evangelists wrote.