Debating Misquoting Jesus
On Wednesday January 21, I had the privilege of attending the debate between Dr. James White and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. The weather hardly seemed Floridian at fifty degrees with a breezy chill, so it was a good night to be inside anyway. The resolution on the floor: “Does the New Testament Misquote Jesus?” With two men with over fifty years of scholarship and about fifty books between them, the evening promised some mental stimulation at least, and did not disappoint.
Before I get to the meat, let me express a little disappointment that this debate devolved, as most debates do, into many issues besides the actual topic. The rabbit trails may run closely to the original, and may have crossed the correct path a few times, but the three-hour debate essentially involved two and a half hours of related ideas and arguments and only about a half-hour actually on the main point. It was educational, lively, inspiring and challenging, and even entertaining, but in the end (despite some comments to the contrary) neither party established their own view well enough, and both parties had an effective counter to the fullest claims of the other.
This may come as a surprise to the many who have read Dr. White’s assessment of his performance. Far be it from me to disagree with his established authority on these matters, but I find the implications that he essentially steamrolled Ehrman to sound a little inflated. He writes of Dr. Ehrman:
He did not prepare for the debate, had no idea who I am, and did not read anything I’ve ever written, hence, he was in a tough spot, given that I had studied his works so thoroughly. As a result, he made horrific blunders in misrepresenting me in his rebuttal.
I don’t know for sure that Dr. Ehrman (whom I have no necessary interest in defending) did not read White’s works in preparing, but I also don’t know how it would have made a difference if Ehrman did. I’m not sure what unique contribution Dr. White’s works have added to manuscript scholarship that Ehrman would not have already crossed in over twenty years in New Testament textual studies, journals, etc., after having studied under the most well-known name in the field in Bruce M. Metzger at Princeton, crossed both conservatives and liberals of all degress, and having earned international recognition in the field himself. In the midst of the debate, Ehrman showed that he was well familiar with the arguments White put forth as they simply represent the standard Evangelical defense within academia for some years now. And besides, the subject for debate was not “What Has James White Written on the Subject?,” or “Who Is James White?,” it was “Does the New Testament Misquote Jesus?” The issue of White’s publications on the subject is substantially a red herring.
Despite both men possessing scholarly credentials and reputations, during the course of their debate over the integrity of Biblical manuscripts, each resorted at times to Ad Hominem appeals. For example, James White argued that God has preserved His word in the multiplicity of fragmented manuscripts (5000+ to date), even though many of those manuscripts contain differences. Though within the many pieces, the “tenacity” of the word remains. “It’s like having a 1,010 pieces for a 1,000pc jigsaw puzzle. It’s all there, we just have more than we need,” he illustrated. Amidst his rebuttals of this claim, Dr. Ehrman complained that only Evangelical Christian scholars continue to make this “tenacity” argument (against the vast weight of international scholarly opinion), and Evangelicals do so because they must defend their underlying doctrine of inspiration.
You can see how Dr. Ehrman’s rebuttal at this point commits the classic Circumstantial Ad Hominem: he dismisses Dr. White’s “tenacity” argument essentially by saying, “You only believe that because you have a vested interest in doing so: your religious tenets require you to do so at the expense of facts.” But this dismissal only attacks Dr. White’s alleged motivation and says nothing about the issue itself. Even if Dr. Ehrman’s claim were true, it would not disprove, or even weaken, the “tenacity of the text” argument.
At several points, however, Dr. White treats Dr. Ehrman in a similar manner. It is worth noting how even devout believers do not escape the human frailty for fallacious arguments, and here we have a case in point. Dr. Ehrman primarily argued that since the manuscripts of the Bible exist in multiple fragments which contain many discrepancies (a fact agreed upon by all sides), therefore they in fact do not preserve God’s word. Throughout the debate, Dr. White left the main issue in order to point out that Dr. Ehrmanelsewhere in his writings and interviews denies the orthodox doctrine of inspiration. White himself after the debate explicitly made an issue of this: “In any case, [Ehrman’s] radical skepticism was clearly documented, and those in attendance found it very useful.” White appears to think this is relevant to the main point, but logically it is not.
The “radical skepticism” charge implies that we should dismiss Dr. Ehrman’s argument as biased liberal propaganda. (White alludes to this again explicitly after the debate, pronouncing that Ehrman’s behavior during the debate “betrays his deep bias and prejudice.”) But this again completely avoids the main issue. Even though Dr. Ehrman’s argument does not prove the extent of what he claims (for other reasons), Dr.White’s emphasis on Ehrman’s personal denial of inspiration does not address the points of the actual argument. Even if Dr. Ehrman loved to draw Satanic symbols on his notebooks and burn Bibles for fun, these facts would have no necessary logical connection to his argument about the texts. At best they could possibly motivate his argument, but, as in the case of White’s motivations, they could not serve as a logical refutation.
I also find White’s mentioning that, “I think those in attendance were a little surprised at Dr. Ehrman’s treatment of me, but I wasn’t overly surprised,” to sound a little like an plea for pity. Ehrman treated White no more harshly than vice versa. Anyone who emerges from a debate with the vigorous and sometimes jabbing rhetoric that White gives should expect a little in return. Another reviewer on the web notes that “Ehrman’s aggressiveness was appropriate.” I agree. It’s the nature of academic debate, as White knows way better than I do.
Ultimately, each man said enough to refute the other’s most positive claims, and yet not enough to substantiate his own. White’s claim that the multiplicity of fragments contains the whole of the Word will not hold as a historical or logical proof. It does, however, present a problem for Ehrman who claimed positively that since the manuscripts contain errors, therefore they do notfaithfully transmit the message of the originals. This strong of a claim will not hold either. Since we simply do not have the originals to compare with the much later copies that we do have, we simply cannot say one way or the other based on current physical evidencethat the modern Bible does or does not faithfully transmit the originals. We as Evangelicals believe that it does, but the evidence itself cannot prove or disprove this.
White’s “tenacity” argument—the standard Evangelical argument—successfully defends againstEhrman’s view by allowing for the possibility that the originals are retained, but it does not and cannot prove it. Yet Ehrman can rightfully argue from the same evidence and the same lack of originals that based on manuscript evidence we cannot positively say that the originals were faithfully preserved. We simply don’t know unless we have the originals to compare.
In the end, despite all of the helpful information and engaging points, the debate proved little beside the limitations of evidentialist apologetics. If manuscript evidence forms the basis of our trust in the veracity of Scripture, then we cannot conclude veracity one way or the other. Without the prior existence of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, revelation in any form cannot exist. Our trust that the Bible faithfully preserves the word of God requires such a priori Truths. This is why, in nearly all of the Reformed Confessions and in much of subsequent creedal traditions, the inspiration of Scripture is an article of faith as much as the existence of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. The current evidence itself is consistent with this belief, but cannot stand as the basis, foundation, justification or proof of it.
White’s own 1689 Reformed Baptist confession states as much (virtually identical to the Westminster Confession of Faith on this point):
4. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.
5. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church of God to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scriptures; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, and the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, and many other incomparable excellencies, and entire perfections thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
8. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic;…
We can consider New Testament textual evidence to be among those “many other incomparable excellencies,” but yet must admit that the persuasion of its veracity comes not from that evidence, but from the Holy Spirit. Ehrman, despite whatever errors he may commit, knows at least this much, and Evangelicals should acknowledge it.