Lecture 24: Responding to Bart Ehrman
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
Lecture: Responding to Bart Ehrman
I. Bart Ehrman on the Black Hole
Bart Ehrman says, ‘Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals, we don’t even have copies of the copies, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.’ Bart Ehrman has a great style of writing that creates panic among some Christians. C. J. Woliman who wrote the book, Jesus Lied, makes a statement saying that we didn’t even have manuscripts until the 20th generation of copies. He totally made this up; the rest of what he says is from Ehrman. He is talking about Ehrman’s book, Jesus lied. It is just not so. Let me give you six ways to respond to this. In 2015 in a bulletin of Biblical Review, Crag Evans, a very decent New Testament scholar, wrote an article he called ‘How Long Was the Late Antique Books in Use?’ This was based on some work by George Houston that had recently come out; it was where Houston examined fifty ancient libraries where there was still material intact. What he discovered was that literary preparatory, that is, literature that was meant to be read, not received for an individual but instead something that was meant to be of some literary value, often lasted hundreds of years and the average was about one hundred and fifty years. And so, Evans takes from this that it was possible for a copy of the New Testament, that perhaps a century later could have been a copy of the original. This is a really good argument. And one of the things that Ehrman says in his ‘Misquoting Jesus’ is that we don’t know how the originals got lost. I think we have a fairly good test; there were copies so much that they became worn out from the copying. And that is the surest way we can get back to the originals; we don’t have evidence of the ancient church burning or destroying manuscripts. They didn’t destroy them like that. Typically, if it became worn, they would bury it. So, the argument is that they would last a lot longer. You might have what might be a 3rd or 4th generation scribe copying from the original or a first-generation copy. In fact, we have one manuscript as I mentioned earlier that is a 10th century copied from a 4th-century copy. It was copied directly from that 4th-century manuscript and this kind of thing did happen.
Secondly, there was no central control over the copying of the New Testament like it was with the Muslim Quran. With the Quran, you had Caliph Uthman, who came a few decades after Muhammed and gathers up all the Qurans that had been done which were full of variances and had all of them destroyed. He then said that my Quran is the official one. So that basically he reinvented Islam through his own copy. Here you have M.L. Ostomy who says that the early church destroyed all their copies of the New Testament that had different Christology and different views of Christ. So that they would conform to one view and he thinks that happened in Constantinople in the 4th century. Well, the problem is, we know that is what happened with Islam, his religion but it didn’t happen with the New Testament. Because there was no central control that said that the copy must be done in a certain way and we are going to conform it to this. We did not destroy earlier copies. We just didn’t have that happening in any part of the history of Christianity. The New Testament is unlike the Quran, in fact, quite a bit unlike the Quran. At the same time, there was a group of scribes that didn’t say that they were going to get rid of certain variances, but they intended to make accurate, precise and correct copies as they possible could of the New Testament. These were the Alexandrian scribes. Alexandrea was the most famous city in ancient Greco-Roman world for the careful copying of manuscripts, starting in the 2nd century BC. There were basic rules on this and what we see in our typically best manuscripts are those that come from Alexandrea or around there. The Christians were certainly influenced by this Alexandrian tradition. And even Bart Ehrman in his book with Bruce Metsker, The Text of the New Testament, argues that the Alexandrian manuscripts are an exception to the more chaotic manuscripts we have earlier on. And that they are very accurate copies of a very accurate tradition that goes back to a very ancient time. He doesn’t say that in his book, Misquoting Jesus, but in his scholarly writing, he does say that.
A fourth argument and probably the most important argument here; when Ehrman says that we don’t have copies of the original for four generations. Let compared that with other ancient Greco-Roman literature, anything, and what you discover with the New Testament; we have copies that comes as early as decades of the original New Testament was written. We have as many as a dozen papyri from the 2nd century, at least from those that have been published so far; there may be more that will come. We also have a lot more manuscripts from the 3rd century and 4th century and even before the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, which we will talk about in a few minutes. We have as many as sixty to sixty-five manuscripts where you can reconstruct the whole of the New Testament from. Let’s compare that to the average Greco-Roman author of the time. The average classical author, we are talking about averages here, would have fewer than fifteen copies of his books still in existence today. And the average time gap from when that author wrote until we have copies is close to a thousand years. The time gap for the New Testament, only decades, but for the average classical author, it is a thousand years. How many manuscripts do we have of the New Testament? We have close to six thousand in Greek alone and somewhere between twenty and twenty-five thousand when you count all of the ancient versions. And so we have approximately a thousand times as much material or more than the average classical author has. And we have manuscripts that come, on average, a thousand years earlier than the average classical author does.
For example, take Xenophon, a well-known historian with his book, Hellenica, which was of the final seven years and the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War in 431-404 BC. We don’t have any copies of any substantial size until eighteen hundred years later. Yet, scholars of Xenophon don’t question what he originally said; they said that this is what we have to work with. They just decided to see what they could reconstruct and sure there will be lots of gaps, and were things that they were not sure what the original text said. But, if our New Testament was in that same kind of situation, it would be like saying that the earliest substantial copy of the New Testament was at the same time as the Wright Brother blew their plane. That is when the skeptics would have a field day. When it comes to the New Testament, compared to any classical author, we have manuscripts that come significantly closer in time and we have significantly more manuscripts. So in terms of material evidence, we should be a thousand times more confident about what the original text of the New Testament says than we should of virtually any classical author. This is very significant. Let me give two other arguments quickly; it is not just the Greek manuscripts that we are looking at but it is also ancient versions. The New Testament was translated earlier on in the late 2nd century into Latin and then into Coptic and then Syriac and Georgian and Gothic. Those versions and Church Fathers quotations of the New Testament that starting in the late 1st century is so massive that we have a kind of triangulation of material to point us back to what the original text said.
I would finally say that Bart Ehrman should know better. It is the confluence of external and internal evidence from the different versions, the quotations of the Church Fathers and manuscripts from various parts of the Mediterranean regent from the Alexandrian text especially but not exclusively. And internal evidence in comparing the regents where we say that this regent gave rise to these manuscripts as seen in Romans 8:1 that can enable us to recover the original wording, which is what he dedicated his scholarly life to until he became skeptical in the last few years. First, to think that a non-professional scribe is going to be sloppy, this has been proved false by C.H. Roberts who published in 1977 a book dealing with Christian Manuscripts from Egypt. This was his lectures in Oxford University. Roberts discovered that of ancient Greek literature, you never had literary professional scribes abbreviate numbers. They would always write out the word for the number, but New Testament scribes often abbreviated them earlier on. Later on, they wrote them out when professional scribes did the work of copying. They wrote the words out but they used the abbreviations to start with.
II. Ehrman on Quality of Copies
And so he said that the only other group of writers that did that are bean counters, bureaucrats, people who were writing the ledgers and making sure that everything lined up. Those are the least creative people on the planet. Now I don’t mean to impugn CPA’s and other folks like that but you have a left-brain that is massive and the right brain that is less so, but these people were trying to be accurate. So, if you have a non-professional scribe, we know the kind of non-professional scribe that we usually have, which is going to be that kind of person. He is non-professional because he doesn’t make uniform sized letters. That is how you determine if a scribe is professional, if he follows the notion of lines where only certain letters can be above the line and some below. Non-professional scribe’s writing corresponds with their non-professional hand and abbreviating the letters, which is really significant. That is not the kind of person who is going to create textual variances that are intentional.
Secondly, I would say, if they are careless, as Ehrman says and he makes unintentional mistakes, he well knows that it is the kind of textual variance that is the most easily detected. For example, if we had handwritten manuscripts of the constitution and I saw one and it said, ‘We the People of the United States, in order to order to form a more perfect onion,’ I’ll say, that is a mistake, it is not supposed to be onion, everybody knows that it is union. It is supposed to be union, and you see that mistake and you correct it. Peter Gerry, who was a former intern of mine, just got his doctorate at Cambridge University on textual criticism; he wrote an article about how many variants there are in the New Testament manuscripts. One of the things he noted, which was very significant, is when you have these mistakes that are careless mistakes, they are found in one manuscript. They are not repeated. That creates what is called singular readings. A mistake which that scribe made and nobody else makes it and it doesn’t get copied. Every once in the while they do, if it is careless and it makes sense, but not if it doesn’t make sense and those are the ones that are the easiest of detect. Bart and I have debated three times; at Southern Methodist University in 2011 where I pointed out that some of these non-professional scribes actually create a much more accurate text. And I talked about the difference between Papyrus 75 and Papyrus 66 or P 75 and P 66. P 66 is a manuscript written about AD 200 which contains the Gospel of John. P 75 was written a little later, early 3rd century and has Luke and John in it. The scribe from P 66 was completely consumed with making beautiful letters. And so he leaves out words here and there, and he also adds words, he doesn’t seem to be that concerned with accuracy, but then he had to come back later and makes four hundred and fifty corrections to his manuscript. The scribe of P75 is not a professional; his handwriting is just not nearly as elegant as that of P 66. He copies out one letter at a time; we know this because the only kinds of mistakes he makes are transpositions of two letters or either he drops a letter or adds a letter.
That P 75 manuscript has become one of the most important and accurate manuscripts we have of the New Testament. It was done by a non-professional or not as professional scribe as P 66. A few years ago, it was owned by the Bodner family in Geneva; they were renovating their museum, their library and they needed more money and so they sold this manuscript which was a mistake in my opinion. It was the best manuscript they had in the whole museum. Yale University offered the Bodner’s fifty million dollars for this 3rd century Papyrus which has most of Luke and most of John. The Bodner’s turned them down and then sold it to the Vatican for an undisclosed price. That is how important this manuscript is. I think what is significant about it, the professional scribe, who wrote Codex Vaticanus, in the 4th century, has greater agreement with P 75 than any other manuscript. In fact, these two manuscripts have greater agreement with each other than any other manuscript through the first eight hundred years of the Christian era. And yet, we know that this manuscript is not a copy of P 75 because there are places that have more original readings, earlier readings, so we know that P 75 must have copied from a tradition that creates perfections in the text more. Which means that both of them, when they agree, which is most of the time, go back to a very early text that was very accurately produced, probably one from the 1st or 2nd decade of the 2nd century.
Here, we have a facsimile of Codex Vaticanus before us; the real manuscript is in the Vatican as the name might imply. It was a manuscript that was first recognized to exist in AD 1475 when the Vatican produced its first catalogue of its library. And this manuscript was already in that library. It has never been something that has been tucked away in a secret room, but it hasn’t always been available for scholars to examine. Finally, in the late 19th century, the text of it was published, but scholars haven’t been able to actually see it. Samuel Perdoe Gregalas saw it for a few days and wrote down a number of the variants it had. Even Erasmus in the early 1500s wrote to a friend and said, for 1st John 5:7 & 8, some people say the wording should be, ‘the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, these three are one.’ He said that he didn’t have any manuscripts that had this. Does this manuscript have it? His friend said, no, it is not in this manuscript. There is no evidence of it. It is a manuscript that has been known for a long time and it has most of the Old Testament and most of the New Testament. It ends at Hebrews 9:13 and that’s because it is a codex, like our modern books. This is a codex where it is bound on one side, you have three sides that are open; this form was invented in the second half of the 1st century. And Codex Vaticanus by the 4th century, you could make these books big enough to contain the entire Bible. We still have two of them today, Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, which is our oldest complete New Testament. This may be one of those two Bibles that Emperor Constantine commissioned. In the life of Constantine, Eusebius says that he ordered these manuscripts to be produced in threes and fours. There are many interpretations of this, but T.C. Skeet who was the curator of the British Library for many years, suggested that it may mean three or four columns.
Codex Vaticanus is the only three column Greek New Testament manuscript we have from the 1st Millennium. Codex Sinaiticus is the only four column Greek New Testament manuscript we have of any century of any date. These are the only threes and fours from the 4th century. So after Hebrews 9:13, you notice when you get to the end, the handwriting changes to cursive hand which was done several centuries later to fill the manuscript out as the last few leaves were lost from centuries of use. That is what happens with Codices. It is a really important manuscript and I have it open to the ending of Mark’s Gospel where the final column has nothing. And then the next page begins with Luke’s Gospel; there has been a lot of speculation to why there is nothing in that final column. Some have said that there were no other places in Vaticanus that has a column that is blank. That isn’t exactly true because it is a manuscript of the whole Bible. You look at the columns in the Old Testament and there are three places where it is blank. It has a very strong tendency to put a blank column when the next book is a shift in genre. Now, what is interesting here, the next book is Luke, the same genre, the Gospels. But some scholars believe that one, the codex form was invented and started to be used in the 2nd century where you could put the text of a whole Gospel and even more in a single codex, Mark would have been the last Gospel. The Order would have been in what is now known as the Western Order: Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark. Our oldest manuscript that has all four Gospels is manuscript P 45 from the early 3rd century; this has the western order in it and so do a number of others. They put the apostles first then Luke because he was an associate of Paul and then Mark because they thought he was the least important. So putting the blank column in, meant that was what came next, the Book of Acts, a genre shift. We have very firm evidence in this particular manuscript that he rearranged the order of the books from the manuscript that he is copying from, and in Paul’s letters he puts Galatians in a different order and Hebrew into a different order from where they were in the copied manuscript. There are ways you can tell, the paragraphs and the numbers are out sequence. So I think what he may have done is to copy the formatting of the exemplar without having the same meanings. So he has put Mark into a different order but the exemplar had a blank column there because Acts would follow. An exemplar means the manuscript which you are copying from; it is the original for that particular scribe.
Emperor Constantine had no role in the transmission of the Greek text, except to ask Eusebius to make fifty Bibles. Constantine didn’t tell him what was to go into those Bibles. In fact, Constantine has been accused of doing all sorts of things in order to corrupt Christianity. In Dan Brown’s da Vinci Code, Sabin is talking to Sophie at his home in France and he says, ‘until that moment’ referring to the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, ‘Jesus was viewed as a man, a mortal, just a human, not deity.’ And he essentially argues that Constantine invented the deity of Christ. Dan Brown gets this from a novel authored by three British novelists and so he really believed that Constantine invented the deity of Christ. In that novel, the British folks said that there were no New Testament manuscripts prior to the Council of Nicaea, none. This simply means that they didn’t do any research on the subject and thus they just made things up. They believe this, it’s a historical novel where they try to promote these things. It is just like Dan Brown who thinks his book is a historical novel. We have as many as sixty-five manuscripts, just in Greek alone prior to the Council of Nicaea. We have a lot of Church Fathers who comment on Scripture and they have full commentaries on various books. We have versions; we have an endless amount of material prior to the 4th century. Interestingly, William Lane, teaching at C.L. Pacific University had a motto on his desk that he lived by, ‘an ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption.’ And let me give you an ounce of evidence that goes against this presumption that is a popular myth that Constantine changed the Greek New Testament to confirm the deity of Christ and other doctrines.
Let me go back to P 66 from AD 200 approximately, maybe a bit earlier. At John 1:1, it says what every single manuscript, no matter what language, it says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ This is written about one hundred and twenty years before the Council of Nicaea. Now, unless Constantine was perhaps a hundred and fifty years old when that council convened, I rather doubt that he invented the deity of Christ. And you have the Church Fathers and the Apostolic Fathers and manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. When you compare all these texts, there is not a single doctrine that is jeopardized by any of the viable variances and there is absolutely no evidence that Constantine changed the texts of the New Testament or even dictated what the books of New Testament should be. Because Eusebius in his ecclesiastical history which we know was written before the Council of Nicaea; in book 3 chapter 15 he has a description of four categories of books that could potentially be canonized as New Testament. He has homologumena, Antilegomena, pseudepigrapha, and Apocrypha. The homologumena becomes a technical name for those books that
have been accepted unanimous with a chain of tradition going all the way back to the 1st century in the five major churches of the ancient world. There is unanimous testimony from Bishop to Bishop saying, yes, this is authentic. This includes twenty-two of the New Testament books. The Antilegomena are those books that were accepted by most of the churches but didn’t have a unanimous testimony and those are the remaining New Testament books. Then you have the pseudepigrapha which are books that are attributed to certain authors but not by those people and the church always rejected these books. Then you have the Apocrypha which are hidden books and things that were rejected because they were heretical. Here, before Constantine issued the commission to Eusebius in 332 AD to produce these Bibles, Constantine had already recognized the twenty-seven books that we would consider the New Testament. He had to know what books to put into the New Testament and he knew that before he ever had any contact with Eusebius.