Bart Ehrman presents a challenge to Christians. His challenge is in the area of textual criticism. His main point is this: We do not have the original pieces of paper on which Mark wrote his Gospel. We do not have a copy of that document. We do not have a copy of the copy of the copy of that document. What we have are copies of copies of copies. How then can we be sure what the original document said?
Most Christians will respond that the documents were carefully copied. Ehrman counters that the earliest copies we have, the papyri, are the ones that contain the most mistakes and display the least careful methods of copying. Ehrman will grant that the texts were carefully and meticulously copied in the fifth and sixth centuries but in his view that doesn’t matter because by that time the mistakes had already crept in.
Ehrman has high credentials as a text critic. He received his PhD from Princeton under Bruce Metzger. He is also very good at presenting his views to a popular audience. In the following paragraphs I will summarize his book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, and then offer a few apologetic responses, drawn from a collection of essays edited by Dan Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament.
Ehrman’s main point in Orthodox Corruption is that the church in the second and third centuries was embroiled in Christological controversies. Ehrman says that the orthodox scribes altered the text of Scripture so that certain passages could not be used by their heretical opponents.
For example, the Adoptionists said that Jesus was a regular man and nothing more. The Adoptionists said that Jesus was a very righteous man and so was adopted by God to be his son. This adoption was usually said to have taken place at his baptism.
Ehrman says that this Christological controversy caused scribes to change the text of the account of Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3. In most manuscripts, Luke 3:22 says, “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” But Codex D, some Old Latin manuscripts, and some church fathers have a different reading: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” Ehrman argues that orthodox scribes saw the word “today,” realized that it could be used by Adoptionists, and took out the line, “today I have begotten you.” (73-79).
Three things might be said in response. First, there is a wide array of external evidence against the reading of codex D in Luke 3:22. Second, it is possible that the variant is not theologically motivated, but is simply a harmonization with Psalm 2:7. Third and most importantly, even if codex D preserves the original reading of Luke, the verse does not have to be taken in an Adoptionistic sense. Paul, who is no Adoptionist, in Acts 13:33 seems to connect the words “You are my Son today I have become your Father,” to the resurrection of Jesus. He also says in Romans 1:4 that Jesus was “appointed Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead.”
Christology is a mystery. We know that Jesus is the Son of God from all eternity. And yet God can say perhaps at his baptism and definitely at his resurrection, “You are my Son, today I have become your Father.” Even if some early scribes had difficulty with that, we can let the two truths stand together. Part of the difficulty is that the word “Son” can be taken in the sense of the eternal, divine Son of God (which Jesus certainly is), but “Son” can also be taken in the sense of Israel’s king (which Jesus also certainly is). If in the statement “You are my Son, today I have become your Father,” “Son” is taken in the sense of Israel’s king, then Jesus being appointed Son of God at his baptism and in the resurrection becomes more comprehensible.
Another of Ehrman’s examples comes from Matthew 24:36. Jesus in his great eschatological discourse says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Some manuscripts do not have “nor the Son.” Ehrman says that the orthodox scribes took it out because it compromises Jesus’ divinity. (107-108)
The problem with that, as many have pointed out, is that the same saying of Jesus occurs in Mark 13:32, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” In Mark 13:32, the textual attestation for “nor the Son” is rock solid. If orthodox scribes tried to remove the phrase from Matthew, why was there no corresponding effort to remove the phrase from Mark? Daniel Wallace has said that it is very possible that the original text of Matthew lacked the phrase, but scribes added it because they knew it from Mark.
A legitimate criticism that could be made of Ehrman’s book is that in most of the instances where Ehrman detects an Orthodox corruption, there is another plausible explanation for the variant. For example in Hebrews 2:9 most manuscripts say that Jesus tasted death “by the grace of God.” Some manuscripts say that Jesus tasted death “apart from God.” Ehrman says that “apart from God” was the original reading. He observes that there was a Christological heresy called Gnosticism, which claimed that the divine Christ came upon Jesus at his baptism and left him before the crucifixion. Orthodox scribes saw that Jesus dying “apart from God” could be used by the Gnostics and changed it to read “by the grace of God.” (171-176).
In the book Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, Philip Miller points out in an essay that there is another plausible explanation for this variant. The previous verse, Hebrews 2:8, says that “everything has been put under Christ’ feet.” Miller points out that a scribe may have read that verse and wrote in the margin, “apart from God,” since 1 Cor. 15:27-28 makes the point that God has put everything under Christ’s feet except for God himself. A later scribe saw “apart from God” in the margin and thought it was a variant reading for the words in the next verse, “by the grace of God.” (79) Ehrman recognizes this possibility, but opts instead for an Orthodox Corruption. The argument that “apart from God” was originally a marginal explanation for the previous verse is not rock solid, but serves to illustrate the point that there are other plausible explanations for the variants which Ehrman calls Orthodox corruptions. Gordon Fee, who is well known for his commentaries but it also a leading expert in the field of textual criticism, said in his review of Orthodox Corruption: “Unfortunately, Ehrman too often turns mere possibility into probability, and probability into certainty, where other equally viable reasons for corruption exist,” (CRBR 8, 1995, 203-206).
Ehrman has many other examples, but the most explosive part of his book actually comes in the “Afterward,” written some years after his book was first published in 1993. In the “Afterward” he makes the argument, repeated many times in live debates with Dan Wallace, that there is no way of knowing how much the texts changed from the time they were first written until the time of our first manuscripts 50 to 100 years later. This is the most serious challenge that demands our attention.
Dan Wallace brings up two points in his essay in Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament that I think can be offered in an apologetic context. First, when you read the Synoptic gospels, it’s obvious that there is some borrowing going on. Most think that Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke both independently used Mark. If we can tell that both Matthew and Luke independently used Mark, at different times and in different geographical places, doesn’t that mean that the text of Mark was stable? I haven’t tested this point against the rigors of scholarship so maybe there are some weaknesses to it, but it seems to me to be a very powerful point. The fact that we can see Mark in both Matthew and Luke is evidence that the original text of Mark was not wildly different from what we have now, as Ehrman seems to imply.
A second point Wallace makes is the relationship between P75 and Codex Vaticanus. Ehrman says that the earliest copying was wild and therefore we cannot be sure what the original text was. Wallace responds:
“There was at least one very carefully produced stream of transmission for the NT MSS…We can illustrate this with two manuscripts that Ehrman and I both agree are two of the most accurate MSS of the NT, if not the two most accurate: P75 and Codex Vaticanus (or B). These two manuscripts have incredibly strong agreement. Their agreement is higher than the agreement of any other two early MSS. P75 is 100 to 150 years older than B, yet it is not an ancestor of B. Instead, B copied from an earlier common ancestor that both B and P75 were related to. The combination of both of these manuscripts in a particular reading goes back to early in the second century.” (33)
Here we have hard evidence for careful copying in the early period of textual transmission. Some early copying may have been careless, but the remarkably close relationship between P75 and B shows that there was also very careful copying in the early period.
Finally I’d like to add one more point that I heard Wallace make in a live debate with Ehrman. Wallace said that if the copying was as wild in the earliest period, as Ehrman suggests, then the result would be chaos. We have a lot of variants among our manuscripts, but we do not have chaos.
The debate between Ehrman and Wallace shows that textual criticism is an explosive area right now in Biblical studies. The fact that Ehrman is very good at presenting his views to the general public (his book Misquoting Jesus is a New York Times Best Seller) shows that it is not a waste of time for a parish pastor to brush up on his textual criticism. And after all the debate, the fact still stands that though we have hundreds of thousands of variants, 99% of them do not change the meaning at all, and none of them come even close to overturning a Biblical doctrine. The virgin birth of Christ, the atoning death of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the deity of Christ can all be found in passages that are rock solid in the textual tradition. God truly has preserved his word for us.
Bart D. Ehrman is an American New Testament scholar, currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a leading scholar in his field, having written and edited over 25 books, including three college textbooks, and has also achieved acclaim at the popular level, authoring five New York Times bestsellers. Ehrman’s work focuses on textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity.
Daniel Wallace is professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, the purpose of which is digitizing all known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament via digital photographs.
The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, by Bart Ehrman. Oxford: University Press, 2011. 401 pages.
Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence, ed. Daniel Wallace. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011. 284 pages.