Ehrman vs. Williams on Unbelievable?

January 6, 2009

I picked up the trail on this story via either James White or Justin Taylor. I don’t remember. These are my raw notes from an episode of Unbelievable? on Premier Christian Radio in the United Kingdom.

Bart Ehrman is the author of a book called Misquoting Jesus. He was born Episcopalian, then was born again; he attended Moody Bible Institute, then Wheaton, and finally Princeton Theological Seminary, where he was a student of Bruce Metzger. He first believed that the Bible was inerrant, with no problems or inconsistencies, completely correct in all matters scientific and historical. To him the original words matter, and as he lost his faith in this model of the Scriptures he lost his faith, period.

Peter Williams takes the position that the Scriptures are “inerrant with some problems, but still true in the normal sense.”

Ehrman’s opening argument:

  1. There are no original copies of the (New Testament) text available; the copies available were made much later than the originals. For example, the earliest complete collection of Paul’s writings dates to about 350AD, nearly three centuries after Paul’s death.
  2. The copies differ; this means that scribes changed the texts
  3. We have no clue how much; the changes are extensive: there are thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of changes across the body of available text
  4. Most are not material, but some are; some are doctrinal

Ehrman is advocating a model of scribal error that propagates and compounds errors, and furthermore the important errors were introduced intentionally.

Peter Williams starts here; he agrees on the facts regarding dates, but takes a “half-full rather than half-empty” view:

  1. The quality of Scriptural textual traditions is much better than for e.g. classical texts
  2. Agrees there are hundreds of thousands of errors across the total textual tradition
  3. Agrees most are of secondary importance
  4. Says the many texts imply a strong tradition, even with many errors, and claims that Ehrman suggests just the opposite: the more texts there are the weaker the textual tradition is.

The host asked offhand why God didn’t keep errors from creeping in, then deferrs the question for a later show.

Which changes matter:

Ehrman: Mark 1:41: the angry Jesus. Claims the minority tradition, where Jesus is angry (at the man who wants to be healed) is authoritative, vs. the majority tradition, where Jesus is compassionate. This fits Mark’s Jesus better.

Williams: Agrees it matters but not much in this case; questions that there’s any evidence of intent: the minority tradition is geographically concentrated.

Ehrman: gives a weak direct response, then appeals to Matthew/Luke: they both give this story, presumably from Mark, but neither portray Jesus’s emotional state.

Williams: Ehrman consistently prefers an “intelligent design” theory of textual problems, rather than a “random chance” theory. Suggests the spread of changes from Mark to Matthew/Luke suggests accidents, not intent.

Host introduces the story from John of the woman taken in adultery.

Ehrman: this story doesn’t belong in John; how did it get into the text? Williams agrees on the facts, differs on interpretation.

Host: next week Ehrman will be back debating Richard Swinburn and pushing his book God’s Problem, on the problem of evil.

Williams: We can reconstruct the original text from the available textual tradition. Translations improve over time due to 1) more texts and 2) better scholarship. Tradition regarding existing translations is a drag on progress; Bible translators are unwilling to jump whole-hog into modern translations because doing so would hurt sales.

Williams also distinguishes between textual traditions according to their moral value vs. their historical value, and suggests that the older witnesses (secondary sources) are more important than later extrabiblical witnesses.

Ehrman: picks up Hebrews 2:9: did Jesus die by the grace of God? Or did He die apart from God? One word separates these two traditions, and the words are spelled very similarly. Argues the latter/more difficult reading is more likely correct, and the change was a response to a 2nd Century argument with Gnostics, who claimed Jesus “had the Christ” rather than “was the Christ.” This sort of change is the most worrying, because it suggests that the text may have been changed to fit theology, rather than the other way around.

Williams: the preponderance of the evidence suggests chance/random changes.

Host: what does this imply for what/how people believe?

Ehrman: rejects that he has taken a “falsus in uno” position. Brings up the point of 1 John 5 regarding the Trinity. Says theologians don’t generally change their minds regardless of what the Scriptural text actually says, or in response to changes in the understanding of the history of the text.

Williams: Ehrman’s book overstates the problem/how much is really at stake. The overall significance/impact of the Bible is not touched by Ehrman’s argument.

Ehrman: these issues per se didn’t ruin his faith. Reasserts that there are hundreds of important changes.

Williams: early variant readings represent small disagreements. Scholarly agreement is not the central issue; it isn’t the foundation of the authority of Scripture. Appeals to the Old Testament story of Josiah: the Scriptures were completely unavailable, but that didn’t mean they weren’t authoritative.

Analysis: Ehrman is probably correct in that he was constrained by the format of the show: he presented two, maybe four cases, out of what he claims are hundred of important textual problems. Williams had better soundbites: his “glass half-full” and “intelligent design” bites were better than anything Ehrman had in response. Williams had the advantage that he was free to attack Ehrman’s book, while he had no corresponding book to defend.

Conclusion: each man presents and argues a model of scribal error inferring a model of textual variance. It’s difficult to argue conclusively back from the text, which is available, to the scribal process, which can’t be observed. Neither side really has a knockout punch: Ehrman would need say the minutes of a text-changing committee, Williams a cache of authentic texts from 120AD or so closely resembling what’s available today.

Unfortunately, the question they’re purporting to answer, regarding the importance of variations in textual traditions, don’t touch the question of whether the Bible is the Word of God. They both agree in essence that that’s still a matter of faith, and Williams has it, in some form, while Ehrman doesn’t.

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