Can we Know the Original New Testament?

Here is a reprint from Parchment and Pen Blog about a debate on this issue.

The focus of the debate in Dallas was narrower than that of New Orleans: Can we recover the wording of the original text? The give-and-take wasn’t concerned with theological implications (though these were inevitably raised), the historicity of the Gospels, or whether the New Testament speaks truth when it talks about Jesus. Rather, this debate was purely focused on how confident scholars can be that the original text can be recovered. Ehrman took a radically skeptical position, whereas Wallace argued for a cautiously positive view.

Both men began with a thirty-minute monologue. Each had prepared a PowerPoint presentation, though I understand that neither got to see the other’s slides ahead of time. These presentations were followed by two rounds of questions and rebuttals of six minutes each. Then, thirty minutes were devoted to questions from the audience, capped by concluding arguments of five minutes for each speaker. The event lasted just under three hours.

Frankly, the structure of the debate was disadvantageous to Wallace. After Ehrman and Wallace had launched their opening salvos, Ehrman was able to respond first. So when Wallace took the podium again, he was faced with a dilemma: Would he critique Ehrman’s opening monologue (as Ehrman had done of Wallace), or would Wallace answer Ehrman’s questions? If Wallace had chosen to merely answer Ehrman’s questions, then Ehrman would not have had to defend anything in his monologue. But if Wallace had chosen to simply critique Ehrman’s monologue, it would have appeared as if he were dodging Ehrman’s questions. Wallace wisely chose to do both, and he did as well as could be expected in the cramped space of six minutes.

Ehrman’s basic point was simple (even “simplistic,” according to some attendees): We don’t have the earliest copies of the New Testament and the early copies that we do have are the worst manuscripts of all. Therefore, extrapolating backwards toward the originals, we can have absolutely no confidence that the New Testament manuscripts correctly represent the original text. A number of people seemed underwhelmed by this argument. More than one was overheard saying, in essence, “Is that all that can be mustered against the New Testament text?”

Given the fact that he’s known as somewhat of an intellectual workhorse in both the field of New Testament studies and in the classroom (have you seen the guy’s 827-page intermediate Greek grammar?), it’s no surprise that Wallace carried a weighty argument into the podium. Yes, he tends to give a lot of data in his presentations. But as one who studied under him at Dallas Theological Seminary, I was—and am—grateful that he knows his listeners can handle more than they think they can. He knows how to stretch people without snapping them, and he’s always clear to those who pay careful attention. Wallace’s central argument was six-fold:

(1) The New Testament has vastly more manuscripts than any other ancient author. In fact, it has more than one thousand times as many copies as the average classical author does. An impressive argument was that if we treated the rest of classical literature the way Ehrman treats the New Testament, we would have to confess ignorance about almost everything from the ancient world. This, in quick turn, would usher us back into the dark ages.

(2) The New Testament has far more manuscripts in the early centuries than any other ancient author. It boasts more than 500 manuscripts within 800 years of its completion. Within 200 years of its completion, the New Testament has three times more manuscripts than the average classical author has in 2000 years! Wallace also noted that there are as many as a dozen New Testament manuscripts (all fragments) from the second century, and more than 60 through the third. Ehrman basically ignored these facts and played his single note: We don’t have the earliest copies, so how can be sure that we can get back to the text?

(3) There are two attitudes that rational people will avoid: absolute certainty and radical skepticism. When examining historical data, we simply can’t be as certain as scientists are when their experiments are repeatable, controlled, and predictable. History doesn’t yield itself to such certainty. But it also does not warrant the rampant skepticism that is found among many postmodernists today. Although Wallace never called Ehrman a radical skeptic, Ehrman ultimately wound up portraying himself as one. This was in spite of Ehrman’s acknowledgment that a good historian deals in probabilities—precisely as Wallace had been arguing.

(4) The New Testament copying was not like the telephone game. Though Ehrman never used this analogy, his representation of the copying process was sure reminiscent of it. Wallace gave five or six reasons why this approach is false. Among his points, he mentioned that researchers can go “up the line” to earlier witnesses to find out what they said, that there were multiple lines of transmission rather than a single line, that the copying was in written rather than oral form, and that there was no desire to botch the job (which is the whole point of the telephone game).

(5) The Alexandrian family had roots that almost surely went back to the first decades of the second century. Wallace demonstrated this with P75 and B, and quoted Ehrman to prove his point! Ehrman never disputed Wallace’s point, but still tried to claim that we “have no idea” what the earliest manuscripts had. That sure sounded like special pleading and simply ignoring any arguments that didn’t fit Ehrman’s theory.

(6) Wallace’s coup de grâce was his listing of various titles of books that Ehrman had written. Wallace argued that if Ehrman was right that we simply have no idea what the original text said, then all of Ehrman’s books on the New Testament would be pointless! Among them are Orthodox Corruption of Scripture; Misquoting Jesus; The New Testament: A Historical Introduction; The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration; and Forged. Wallace showed that in Forged Ehrman assumed that he knew what the words were in Paul’s authentic letters (which Ehrman identifies as seven of the thirteen letters traditionally attributed to Paul), to the degree that he could pronounce judgment on the words in the Pastoral letters. It was a brilliant stroke: Forged was published earlier this year, and it simply reveals that Ehrman is massively inconsistent on what he thinks the original New Testament said. In his response, Ehrman said something to the effect that “many of those books were written nearly twenty years ago, and I have changed my mind in the last few years.” Wallace responded that none of the books was twenty years old and that most of them had been written in the last five or six years. Indeed, Forged came out earlier this year. Wallace even hinted that 2000 years of New Testament scholarship would be flushed down the toilet if Ehrman’s new, inconsistently-held view of the text were to win the day.

Wallace painted Ehrman as a radical skeptic. Is that picture true to form? One person from the audience asked Ehrman what it would take for him to be sure that we knew what the original of, say, the Gospel of Mark was. He said if we had ten first-generation copies, written within a week or so of the original, with “0.001% deviation” between them, then he could be relatively assured that we had Mark’s Gospel intact. Forget the fact that such requirements are not made for any other ancient literature, or that the New Testament is so rich in copies that scholars can get a very good sense of the original wording. Ehrman’s response to this question confirmed that Wallace had indeed framed things accurately.

During the give-and-take, Ehrman at one point said that Wallace had not answered his question about how we can trust the manuscripts we do have when the manuscripts we don’t have may have been quite different—especially since the earliest manuscripts were the least accurately produced. Wallace came back with the fact that he had answered this question in great detail (see the itemized points above), but he patiently went over the material once more. And again, some of it was in agreement with things that Ehrman had said in print—even recently.

Wallace also noted that when Ehrman spoke of the earliest manuscripts being the worst, he was talking about one of two kinds of witnesses. On the one hand, he may have been talking about Western manuscripts. But for these, Wallace pointed out, we’re waiting until the third century before we get any fragments of Western manuscripts. And we’re waiting until the fifth century before we get our first fully Western manuscript. Yes, the Western text was reckless and wild. But we don’t have direct evidence that it is extremely early. So Ehrman may have been inconsistent in arguing for early Western manuscripts, which we lack evidence for, while denying that we have early decent manuscripts, which we have evidence for. On the other hand, he may have been talking about Alexandrian manuscripts. However, these are of exceptional quality overall and come from an excellent tradition, reaching back very early into the second century. If Ehrman was talking about Alexandrian manuscripts, some of the earliest ones have many accidental errors. But even Ehrman noted that accidental errors are the easiest to detect—a point that Wallace reminded him of.

Significantly, Wallace pointed out that the untrained scribes were sometimes far better copyists than the trained scribes—a fact that Ehrman seemed totally unprepared to handle. Wallace mentioned that P75, an early manuscript produced by an untrained scribe who copied very carefully, one letter at a time, was a far better witness to the text of the New Testament than P66, a manuscript produced by a trained scribe whose primary focus was on making “pretty letters.” Ehrman responded that he would not use P66 as a good example of faithful copying, showing that he completely missed Wallace’s point and contradicted his own argument.





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