Daniel B. Wallace, ed., Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2011.
This volume is a series of essays of textual criticism. Daniel B. Wallace edits the book wherein five of his students from Dallas Theological Seminary present their work as his disciple. There is no ignoring that four of the six chapters are explicit rebuttals of various assertions made by Bart D. Ehrman. It is an evangelical apologetic and this is not a bad thing.
One of the reasons this book is worth reading is because I think the contributors do a good job of exposing the myth of objectivity. In other words, Ehrman’s agnosticism doesn’t make him an objective text critic while the subjectivity of other’s religious commitments blind them. No, Ehrman himself is guided be particular principles that are often as bias as any evangelical. Where evangelicals may approach the task of text criticism with the presupposition that Scripture is reliable Ehrman approaches them with the presupposition that they are corrupted, often by the proto-orthodox in order to catholicize the Christian religion.
In Chapter 1: Lost in Transmission Wallace explains where he agrees and disagrees with Ehrman. (p. 20-21) He warns that text critics should avoid “absolute certainty” and “total despair” when trying to recover the original wording of the earlier versions of our texts. (p. 22) Wallace expresses confusion over whether Ehrman is certain that we can know certain things about the original autographs (e.g. He is very confident in his assertions that this or that corruption by the proto-orthodox reveals what the original text said.) or if he thinks the whole project is aimless as he seems to state elsewhere when he asserts that all the variants make it impossible to recover the autographs.
Wallace revisits the number of variants (pp. 26-40), the nature of those variants (pp. 40-43), and the theological issues at stake (pp. 43-49). This allows him to present his case for the reliability of the manuscripts of the New Testament.
In Chapter 2: The Least Orthodox Reading is to be Preferred: A New Canon for New Testament Criticism? Philip M. Miller asks if Ehrman’s methodological canon includes the predetermination to find the “least orthodox” reading to be the most likely to be original. In other words, Ehrman is driven to prove his thesis of a diverse, multi-faceted Christianity and any semblance of catholicity is to be rejected.
Miller provides a history lesson in textual criticism going back to the views of some early Christian writers on how textual variants emerged before fastforwding to Johann Wettstein’s observation that the “orthodox” variation is not to be immediately preferred. Along came J.J. Greisbach and pushed it further: we should be suspect of orthodox variations. (p. 61) Miller examines a handful of others before arriving at Ehrman’s 1993 The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. Miller decides to examine Ehrman’s methodology by (1) examining Ehrman’s thesis on a given alteration; (2) discussion external and internal evidence; and (3) analyzing Ehrman’s finding in light of that evidence (pp. 67-68).
Matthew 24.36; John 1.18; and Hebrews 2.9b concluding that Ehrman is likely to decide against “orthodoxy” even when there should be much less confidence. (pp. 68-81) Even more telling is how often Ehrman goes against tne NA27/UBS4 findings, especially in relation to the letter grade they gave. Ehrman is consistently siding in favor of readings that he finds to be against perceived orthodoxy. (p. 81-84) The rest of the chapter looks at the criteria found in Ehrman’s work and critically evaluates it, especially the perceived “Canon of Unorthodoxy”. (pp. 84-89)
In Chapter 3: The Legacy of a Letter: Sabellianism or Scribal Blunder in John 1.1c? Matthew P. Morgan examines the textual variant where καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος is written καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. Most of the essay concerns itself with whether or not there was Sabellian influence on the later term. In other words, did Sabellian scribes attempt to equate “God” and “the Word” in such a way that there was no room for the idea that the Word shared the traits of God [the Father], but that he wasn’t one and the same? Morgan does extensive studies on various manuscripts noticing the types of differences and hypothesizing how those may have arisen.
In Chapter 4: Patristic Theology and Recension in Matthew 24.36: An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Text-Critical Methodology Adam G. Messer asks whether or not an “orthodox” scribe (as Ehrman would put it) removed οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός because it challenged the orthodox view that Jesus was God. Ehrman’s methodology is critiqued in this essay as is proposal that scribes removed it for the aforementioned reason. It is noted that the parallel in Mark 13.32 retains the words and that Matthew 24.36 still has the word μόνος in reference to the Father. So even if we do not have the phrase οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός we have the same idea in both Matthew and Mark.
Messer proposes that the textual differences could have been attributed to various groups including Docetist and Sabellians. That Ehrman proposes the “orthodox” as the most likely to be at fault portrays his bias. Most of the content of these first four chapters focuses on that reality.
The last two chapter have a different aim, though they remain in the category of NT textual criticism. In Chapter 5: Tracking Thomas: A Text-Critical Look at the Transmission of the Gospel of Thomas Tim Ricchuiti examines the “reliability of the textual transmission” (p. 190) of this gospel by viewing the Greek and Coptic text. Chapter 6: Jesus as ΘΕΟΣ: A Textual Examination Brian J. Wright examines the text history of those passages that might refer to Jesus as “God”, namely John 1.1; 1.18; 20.28; Acts 20.28; Galatians 2.20; Hebrews 1.8; and 2 Peter 1.1. This last chapter interacts with Ehrman a bit, but it isn’t as focused as the earlier chapters.
Does this book have value? Yes, it is a great resource for textual criticism. The essays are easy to read, even for a novice such as myself. I think the more important contribution is that it shows that people like Ehrman are far from objective. This doesn’t mean these evangelical students are less subjective, but rather than everyone, even text critics, approach their task with an angle. It would be a great book to read beside Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture of the sections in his popular books where he deals with the same passages these authors address.
It’s kid of sad and funny that the orthodox (laymen and scholars alike) can’t deal with Ehrman without focusing on motive. I think that shows how good a scholar he is. His ideas are hard to refute, so they attack his person. Like the old courtroom maxim, “if you can’t beat ’em with facts, argue the law.”
Ehrman has a rare ability to take boring scholarly material and turn it into something easy to grasp. The historical Jesus is best explained as an aocalyptic prophet. The simple interpretation of all the parables boils down to the concept that they present how Jesus saw the ethics of the coming kingdom. The NT writings have a checkered history — we don’t know who wrote the gospels or many of the epistles, and the original writings were clearly edited. We can debate by whom and how much and why, but the basic fact is clear.
The real issue is that the more we learn about the ancient world, the less satisfying orthodox answers are. The New Perspective on Paul developed (unrelated to Ehrman) because after finding troves of ancient Jewish writings, scholars realized that conventional christian teacging was wrong. Paul wasn’t criticizing Jews for teaching that they were saved by good works. No Jew thought that. While scholars are wrestling to figure out what Paul did teach based on what we know, most preachers across the world have not changed their teachings one iota. While most of this is played out in academia, Ehrman has the impertinence to point it out in public.
I think motive is a very important part of evaluating scholarly work. If we assume the myth of objectivity we will overlook important weaknesses in people’s thought and argument. Likewise, we can recognize particular strengths if we understand where authors get their ideas.
But if motive is so important, then every christian scholar’s work is immediately suspect. Critics of Ehrman want to use motive only in one direction.
The idea (weaved through your review) is that since Ehrman is agnostic, then his work is questionable because it is an attempt to denigrate the faith. Then logically it follows that a christian’s output is equally questionable on its face because it is an attempt to promote the faith. But that is not an acceptable position.
And I know someone will say that christian scholars’ motives are considered, and they are to some small degree, usually about some minor detail. But it isn’t considered in remotely the same way. Nobody (serious) says NT Wright or Timothy Johnson or Darrell Bock are not credible merely because they identify themselves as christians.
Ehrman inspires another level of passion, I think because he is so effective and because he once was on the side of the critics until he realized that the evidence didn’t match his beliefs.
If critics want it to go one direction then I am in agreement with you that there is something wrong. There is no such thing as an objective conservative or an objective evangelical. As to Wright, Johnson, Bock, et al., I think their motives should be considered as well. Now at the end of the day we must ask if their argument makes sense of the data (in other words, motives don’t prevent good results), but I do think we should give some attention to their motives as well.
This whole business reminds me of a debate I once heard, ‘Can an American historian write a good History of America? (asks one). No (says another), you need a Russian to do that!’
I got to this review via your “Top Ten” books list, Brian. I appreciate the exchange you and “bondboy” (thank you for your thoughts also) had. Bondboy put it all quite well. I have spent more total time (adult years) in academic and personal study WITHIN an evangelical theological paradigm and personal belief than outside it, where I am now. And, unfortunately, the “camps”, with a handful of exceptions, are clear and the multiple ones bunch together fairly clearly into two main ones… “traditional” and “progressive” (for lack of broadly-agreed-on terms that could be better).
I appreciate your openness and fairness (honesty), Brian. Still, I have to, like Bondboy, put emphasis more on the need for scholars of faith to face and admit to themselves and to their audiences that their own objectivity is seriously limited as is that of “critical” scholars, and that they typically have “more” to defend, preserve, etc.
Ehrman’s “loss of faith” took place during his academic training, relatively early if I recall his chronology right. While I’m not a professional scholar, I do have 5 grad years of seminary (M.Div., Talbot; 2 years FTE PhD work, Claremont), plus Masters in counseling, Biola U.) and a LOT of personal study since. My own transition was similar to his, but later (about age 45) and only after my 4 part-time years at Claremont, not really during it. The point of this bio info is one example among many, many in which students generally move significantly toward “progressive” (or less certainty and simplicity of understanding) re. history, theology, textual transmission, etc. People can argue “how far is too far?” but that HAS to be a very personally-worked-out issue… there IS not “objective” way of measuring, let alone an objective standard. So it all IS very dicey.
To me issues of trust and of faith (not the same to me) are really “located” elsewhere than is typically thought, and don’t relate very closely to dogma, “orthodox” or otherwise. I do know that many pastors, and at least some academics (professors, etc.) purposely hold back sharing what they really believe or the serious doubts they may have but push aside without deeper investigation. They do so to either keep their jobs or sometimes mainly to “keep the peace” in their congregations or institutions.
Thomas Kuhn and many others since have shown just how much ego, career and turf-protection keep scientists (and virtually all academics) from embracing truth and valid paradigm revolutions or adjustments. When issues of life and spiritual meaning and core values are added to the mix, as with religion/spirituality, it shouldn’t be surprising just how deeply subjective and NOT open or clear-minded is most of the theological enterprise.
Most of those who move in similar ways to Ehrman either do not choose or don’t have the skills or drive to do the kind of popularizing he has done, but they are OUT THERE… and the number of those who move in the other direction (toward traditional positions via deeper study) seems, from all I can see, to be MUCH lower. This makes sense, in that multi-disciplinary, multi-modality studies of “structuralism” in human development shows with scientific validity of sorts, that higher (indeed, as in “more developed or advanced”) levels of development fit much better with general universalism, which includes theological universalism, than do the “lower” levels of much of traditional religious perspectives and values (not including the unconditional love part, of course, which SOMEWHAT mitigates the other restrictive elements).
Howard: Honestly, this discussion makes the most sense at the level of an individual passage. Everyone has their interpretive biases, but it too broad a brush stroke to say this whole group that or this whole group that when it comes to textual criticism. All we can do is examine a text, hear the opinions, and ask whose opinion makes the most sense of a text critical matter.
I take your point. I know I was broadening it beyond textual criticism, which it sounded like even Wallace had done, but maybe not. I don’t find many contexts, beyond my own blog, in which thinking, studying people will even engage the paradigms and bias or “objectivity” issues. When it IS addressed, it is often very superficial… Maybe you have a past post where you’ve discussed the topic more broadly, to point me to, or might you consider addressing the issue… And incidentally, are you familiar with Kuhn’s work and its responders, or that of the developmentalists I referred to (in the general line from Wm. James–incisive & ahead of his time–thru Piaget, Kohlberg, Gilligan, Fowler, Wilber et al.)? This set of inter-related research and theory-construction I feel is critical to both the academic endeavor overall, and to all its many sub-categories–not to mention its value for the general public as it may filter down to them. This is again off the specific topic of textual criticism, but that also is one of the sub-sub-specializations within academia.
I am familiar with Kuhn’s work, but I haven’t read it. I haven’t interacted with those other authors. I think there are several posts on this blog dealing with questions of objectivity and subjectivity, though I don’t know if any are relevant to this discussion here. Most of my objectivity-subjectivity discussions center on hermeneutics.
Kuhn is actually a generation or more “passe” now, I suppose, but still relevant and to-be-noted as popularizing (not coining) the term “paradigm” with his “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. Was all-the-rage in the 70s and into the 80s (? – I’m guessing). Despite his “pulling back the curtain” pretty effectively on much of scientific academia, particularly, not much seems to have changed (institutional/personal inertia). If you do read his major work, I recommend the 1969 ed. which includes responses to initial critiques and some comments on applications to religion which were not in the original ed. (Not a lot on religion, even there, but it’s not hard to validly extrapolate.)
As to “centering on hermeneutics”, I’d think those posts ARE relevant, as broader postmodern studies have been heavily about hermeneutics, used in the broad sense rather than just biblical hermeneutics. As to Wilber, particularly, and “Integral theory”, it is at least one step beyond postmodern, as is the more self-aware aspect of academia, and thus Wilber can be about as critical of postmodern inconsistencies as anybody, and I agree with him, feeling it must be pointed out as part of settling the modernist-postmodernist conflict, with everyone advancing.
It seems to most people who “pull back the curtain” are ignored for quite a while. In philosophical hermeneutics it has taken a while for folk like Gadamer and Ricouer to gain attention from people in fields like biblical literature. The aforementioned “paradigm shift” is hard to force!
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