Colbert, Ehrman and the textual transmission of the New Testament

An old interview but worth dusting off, if only to see how not to do apologetics. Stephen Colbert, on his show The Colbert Report, engages the agnostic Biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman. Colbert replicates the fundamentalist timbre, retreading the familiar rhetoric and arguments that many Christians can often fall back on too easily. This is Colbert, of course, at his inimitable best – imitating a subculture for deliberate comedic effect. Ehrman however, is not trying to be funny, he actually wants us to take him seriously.

The book he is promoting in the clip went on to become a New York Times bestseller. Misquoting Jesus narrates Ehrman’s own intellectual recourse from Christianity, after encountering problems in the Gospels during his PhD program. In the wake of the Jesus Seminar and the Dan Brown frenzy, Ehrman’s conclusions have captured the attention of the media and popular consciousness. It’s no wonder; questions about the trustworthiness of the Gospels assail at the heart of the Christian faith. If the New Testament documents are inaccurate and an unreliable guide of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – our Christian footing is infirm, our hope misplaced.

Colbert aside, there have been compelling scholarly responses to Ehrman. While the Biblical self-witness must not be robbed of its place and power in determining its own authority, Christians can confidently argue for the historical reliability of the New Testament documents. Many critics have shown that Ehrman handles the data in a way that exaggerates the significance of the discrepancies in the textual streams. At the Greer-Heard Forum with Dan Wallace in April this year, Ehrman tellingly admitted that no essential belief of the New Testament was compromised by the textual variants. Yet a more controversial side of Ehrman seems to persist and, along with the Jesus Seminar, portray a skewed, idiosyncratic representation of the scholarly world. Such a segment stands in contrast to what has been called the third quest for the historical Jesus. A movement that is substantially more optimistic about reconciling the Jesus of history with the Jesus of the New Testament.

For those interested in a primer on Textual Criticism Paul D. Wegner’s A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bibe is a good start. To keep up with the contemporary discussion from the evangelical perspective, the Evangelical Textual Criticism Blog has a fine grouping of contributing scholars.

Some actual reviews of Ehrman’s book (I recommend reading their full appraisals):

Dan Wallace: “He still sees things without sufficient nuancing, he overstates his case, and he is entrenched in the security that his own views are right. Bart Ehrman is one of the most brilliant and creative textual critics I’ve ever known, and yet his biases are so strong that, at times, he cannot even acknowledge them.”

Craig Bloomberg: “What most distinguishes the work are the spins Ehrman puts on some of the data at numerous junctures and his propensity for focusing on the most drastic of all the changes in the history of the text, leaving the uninitiated likely to think there are numerous additional examples of various phenomena he discusses when there are not.”

Ben Witherington: “Time and time again in the book, highly charged statements are put forth that the untrained person simply cannot sift through. And that approach resembles more an alarmist mentality than what a mature, master teacher is able to offer. Regarding the evidence, suffice it to say that significant textual variants that alter core doctrines of the NT have not yet been produced.”

Thomas Howe: “A 92% average stability of the text does not seem to support the idea that the text has been “radically altered.” There is no question that the manuscripts differ from each other … but there is a big difference between saying that the variants make a difference in the theological conclusions we draw from these particular texts, and to claim that the multitude of variants call into question the validity of our theology.”

29 replies
  1. Vinny
    Vinny says:

    According to evangelical Christians, the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God. Properly understanding its contents determines whether a person suffers an eternity of torment. The findings of evolutionary biology are trumped by the Bible. The conclusions of psychologists and sociologists regarding human sexuality are rejected. Foreign policy choices are advocated based on Old Testament land grants.

    If I wanted to learn brain surgery, I would not be satisfied with 92% stability in a textbook. For all the issues on which the Bible purports to be authoritative, 92% stability does not strike me as very impressive.

  2. Dale Campbell
    Dale Campbell says:

    Vinny,
    Your comment reflects an apparent agreement that the Bible should be 100% ‘stable’ (or inerrant/infallible)? Whose standards of the Bible are higher? Fundamentalists? Or yours?

    Also, please be informed that many an ‘evangelical Christian’ don’t have such a simplistic view of things as your first paragraph indicates. But hey, much easier to beat down an easy straw man, I guess… Carry on doing so if you must! :)

  3. Vinny
    Vinny says:

    If the simplistic view really were a straw man, then Misquoting Jesus would never have stirred up the fuss it did among evangelicals. The reason so many evangelicals were shaken by Ehrman’s book is that all they had ever gotten from their preachers was “The Bible says it—I believe it—that settles it.”

    Pretending that it is the skeptics who have unreasonable expectations is a neat rhetorical trick, but it is just a trick. I look for a level of reliability commensurate with the purposes for which a thing is used. I consider my lawn mower engine sufficiently reliable if it starts by the third or fourth pull and doesn’t die more than two or three times while I am cutting my grass. I would consider the same performance in an airplane engine utterly unacceptable. For the purposes that I would use the Bible, it is a remarkably stable text. For the purposes that evangelicals would like me to use it, it fails miserably.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant
    Dominic Bnonn Tennant says:

    Vinny, four things:

    Firstly it sounds like you’re confusing fundamentalists and evangelicals.

    Secondly, why are you going after the lowest common denominator (uninformed lay Christians) when trying to defend your representation of Scripture? Is your argument so weak that it only finds traction against uninformed lay Christians? Does it rely on a simplistic, poorly-formed doctrine of Scripture? If so, then Dale is quite correct to label it a strawman (the fact that some Christians believe said strawman doesn’t change this). If not, why does it not reflect a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of evangelical teaching?

    Thirdly, what precisely are the purposes to which you refer—the purposes for which evangelicals would like you to use the Bible? You don’t seem to have made these at all clear, so it’s hard to know what your objection even is.

    Fourthly, having established these purposes, could you please provide a concrete example of an instance where some textual variant adversely affects them?

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  5. Vinny
    Vinny says:

    In my local school board elections, it is the uniformed lay Christians who vote for the candidates who seek to purge the curriculum of materials that contradict their understanding of their holy book. I would prefer that the curriculum reflect the conclusions reached by the leading scientists at the top research universities in the fields of biology while the uniformed lay Christians want to see intelligent design taught. I prefer that the curriculum deal with issues of human sexuality in a way consistent with the best thinking in the fields or psychology and sociology, while the uniformed lay Christians want it to reflect their understanding Leviticus. In short, the uniformed lay Christians wish to override empirical research in a number of fields with their understanding of a book they believe to be inerrant and infallible. Those are the kind of purposes I am thinking of.

  6. Dale Campbell
    Dale Campbell says:

    Vinny,
    I hear you on those points (especially the ID v. evolution one).

    May I suggest, however, that your method of complaint is unhelpful. Lumping together into one comment every thing you find annoying about ‘evangelical Christians’ not only fails to appreciate the diversity within that term, but also is an unhelpful way to address your complaint. Not all Christians are 6-day creationists, not all see evolution as being contrary to Scripture, not all view human sexuality the same way, etc. In short, not all Christians wish to override empirical research, etc.

  7. Vinny
    Vinny says:

    Dale,

    I understand your point, but I don’t quite buy it.

    In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman explains why he abandoned the fairly strict view of inerrancy and infallibility that he held coming out of Moody Bible Institute. I would tend to call that the “fundamentalist” view. Having listened to the Greer-Heard forums, I am aware that many evangelical scholars highly respect Ehrman’s expertise in textual criticism. I am also aware that many evangelical scholars do not subscribe to the fundamentalist view of inerrancy and so, if push came to shove, might acknowledge that Ehrman was correct to abandon it.

    Nevertheless, a post like the one on this blog contains nothing to give the fundamentalists pause. I cannot imagine that they would take anything away from it other than the idea that Ehrman is wrong and should be rejected. The idea that they might be wrong as well is never going to occur to them. If the more sophisticate evangelical scholars don’t want to be lumped with the fundamentalists, I think they need to be as clear about where they think the fundamentalists are wrong as they are about where they think the liberals and skeptics are wrong.

  8. Dale Campbell
    Dale Campbell says:

    Vinny,
    Now you’re starting to make sense! Good! It would have been better for you to have begun that way (i.e. by acknowledging the lack of criticism of fundamentalism in the original post – which is basically the charge that the post was an overly polemical response to Ehrman)! :)

    Instead, your first comment was itself overly-polemical. When critiquing someone, it’s good to lead by example and always give acknowledgement to where the extremes are…

  9. Vinny
    Vinny says:

    Dale,

    I am intrigued by your recommendation. What you seem to be suggesting is that I should respond to a blogger whose post supports the fundamentalist position on inerrancy by trying to persuade him of the superiority of a more nuanced view. However, as an agnostic and a skeptic, I am persuaded by neither position, although I do have more respect for people who hold the latter. Thus, I think I should stick with meeting the blogger on the ground that he appears to be occupying.

  10. Dale Campbell
    Dale Campbell says:

    Vinny,
    (apologies for the delay, I hadn’t checked back in a while… just saw your comment)

    Actually, this post wasn’t so much (or at all?) supporting ‘the fundamentalist position on inerrancy’ (was it?), but was rather attempting to demonstrate that Ehrman’s critiques are overly polemical. So what I’d say is that rather than a) making the assumption that the post (and the blogger behind it?) occupies fundamentalist ground, and b) beating down a straw-man caricature of that fundamentalist ground, it would be best to c) interact with specific (heck, even general?) points that the post actually is making.

    Hope that makes sense,

    Cheers,

    -d-

    p.s. – We’re all agnostic and skeptical about some things, aren’t we? :)

  11. Vinny
    Vinny says:

    Dale,

    Do you really think that the post made any specific points? The Wallace quote consists of nothing more than an unsupported assertion of bias. The gist of the Blomberg, and Witherington quotes is that people who don’t understand the issues might draw mistaken conclusions from Ehrman’s analysis. These strike me as mere assertions that Ehrman was “overly polemical,” not demonstrations.

    The Howe quote did offer an actual reason, i.e., the 92% stability rate, with which to challenge Ehrman’s conclusions, which is why I addressed it. Had you addressed the substance of my comment rather than criticizing the attitudes that you perceived to be behind it, this discussion might have actually gone some place.

  12. Dale Campbell
    Dale Campbell says:

    Vinny,
    That’s kind of my point, really. The post itself is quite easily interacted with, because it only made one main, simply ‘point’ – namely that Ehrman’s analysis is misleading-slash-overly-polemical. Your initial comment, then, fails to interact with this one, simple, main point. Instead of addressing and/or adding perspective to the issue of polemical views on scripture, you drew attention to the fundamentalist evangelical view, and beat it down. You can be an atheist, agnostic, skeptic or whatever and still a) be aware of various views of scripture, b) helpfully contribute perspective to such conversations, and c) do so without compromising your atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, etc.

    The reason I didn’t address the substance of your comment was because I’m not at all interested in spending time debating various words that start with ‘I’ (inerrancy, infallability, etc.). Your comment seems to agree with the fundamentalist premise that Scripture is intended to function somewhat like a brain surgery textbook. I doubt that the author of this post, nor any of the reviewers linked to have a view anything at all like that. That is why your comment fails to actually interact. Nobody here (yet anyway!) has that ‘textbook’ understanding of the function of Scripture…

    By the way, I’m not meaning to sound condescending here. I’m assuming you and I both have thick enough skin to handle being disagreed with. Cheers.

    -d-

  13. Vinny
    Vinny says:

    Dale,

    I don’t mean to sound condescending either, but can’t we drop this silly charade that I was somehow agreeing with the fundamentalist position? I was addressing it, not agreeing with it. You do understand the difference, don’t you? (Alright, I admit that that last crack was meant to sound condescending.)

    Frankly, I think it is very difficult to interact with that post. What can I say in response to Wallace’s assertion that Ehrman is biased? Since Wallace gives no basis for his claim, “No he’s not!” is the only thing that comes to mind. How do I respond to Witherington and Blomberg who claim that uninformed people might misconstrue Ehrman’s arguments? That’s always true. The post consisted almost exclusively of challenges to the style of Ehrman’s arguments rather the substance. That make it much tougher to offer a helpful perspective.

    I find it similarly difficult to interact with your comments since you prefer to address the style of my comments rather their substance. I appreciate your reluctance but it doesn’t make for a constructive conversation.

  14. jason
    jason says:

    Vinny,

    The short quotes I’ve reproduced in my post are not to be taken as substantive critiques of Ehrman but instead are representative of each reviewers more fuller discussions of Ehrman’s work. Perhaps another post could retread the errors he makes, but all I wanted to do here was note that in fact 1) Ehrman has been answered (Christians don’t need to shelter in irrational fideism to respond to attacks on the Bible) and 2) Ehrman himself has admitted that no essential doctrine is undermined by the conclusions he makes (even if they are legitimate, which many textual scholars would disagree with). The popular portrayal of his comments are misleading and do not accurately depict where the academic world is at.

    If you’re interested in the actual issues of the transmission debate, I would suggest you take a look at the reviews that I have linked to there (or I can recommend a book or two, if you wish) and I think you’ll see that the criticisms of Ehrman are not bare assertion but in fact sufficiently argued. Check out Wallace’s full article, for example, he does in fact interact with Ehrman’s claims and supply solid reasons for his own position.

    – Jason

  15. Dale Campbell
    Dale Campbell says:

    Thanks Vinny,
    Fine, fine, you were ‘addressing’ the fundamentalist issue, and not ‘agreeing with it’… But more than this, you were the one who raised it in order to address it…

    Again, not trying to sound condescending here, but (as Jason points out) if you want to interact with this post, you might want to have at least skimmed the reviews he linked to. Yes, it’s much harder and more time-consuming to do that, but that’s what I meant about it being much easier to knock down the straw man.

    And cheers for not getting too annoyed by my ‘philosophy of blogging’ typing tone! :)

    -d-

  16. Vinny
    Vinny says:

    Dale,

    Let’s look at my comment in context. Misquoting Jesus is a book that criticizes the fundamentalist view of inerrancy that Ehrman once held. Jason’s post contained a number of quotes from reviewers that criticized Ehrman work. Was it really so outrageous of me to raise and address the fundamentalist view? Wasn’t it at least a reasonable topic of discussion given the nature of Ehrman’s book?

    I had in fact read Wallace, Blomberg and Witherington’s reviews before and I was well aware that they addressed many specific points. However, Jason did not quote any of those points. I hadn’t read the Howe review before so I addressed the point of his that Jason quoted. I understand that you are not interested in discussing the fundamentalist view of inerrancy, but I can’t see that you have raised any other substantive point that you are interested in discussing. I am having a hard time finding anything in your criticism of my comment other than a complaint that I did not choose a topic that you wanted to talk about.

    I do find your “philosophy of blogging” tone rather tiresome simply because I have been in such discussions before and they never seem to go any where. They always wind up as a discussion of the discussion itself rather than a discussion of a substantive point that someone is trying to make. If someone thinks that I have misunderstood something and they explain their understanding, then I can address their understanding or clarify my own position. When they simply tell me that I should have discussed some point other than the one I chose, it is hard to make any progress. (In previous such discussions when I have tried to address a different point, the new point always turns out to suffer from some flaw similar to the first one.)

    Jason,

    I have also listened to the Greer-Heard forum and I was aware of Ehrman’s admission about essential Christian doctrines, but I am pretty sure that he made the same admission in the paperback edition of Misquoting Jesus so I don’t see why it is all that telling. I agree that Ehrman’s comments are often misleadingly portrayed, but I find that evangelicals frequently are the ones doing so in an effort to portray his views as more radical than they really are.

  17. Dale Campbell
    Dale Campbell says:

    Vinny,
    I can appreciate your frustration – and I don’t mean to be frustrating. :)
    I didn’t start off in ‘philosophy of blogging’ mode. I started off with a simple and direct challenge to you that you had built (or ‘raised’) a straw-man argument and then bashed it down. This was immediately relevant to the post and your initial comment. The reason the discussion has gone the way it has is because you don’t yet agree that you’ve used a straw-man argument.

    I’ve not read ‘Misquoting Jesus’, (and I’ve never made any statements that would require me to have read it) and maybe it does critique fundamentalist views? But this post still wasn’t about that. And further, the fact that several of the reviewers certainly do NOT hold those fundamentalist views of Scripture make it all the more inappropriate to raise that view in argument (especially if you actually had read the reviews).

    It’s an important discussion, because much time is wasted in such conversations with all the ‘talking past’ one another. The annoyingly stale (not to mention false) evolution-‘versus’-creationism debates provide a helpful example of what can sometimes happen when people ‘speak past’ each other. “Yeah, those Christians are so dumb – they think the universe is 6,000 years old, because an old book tells them so…”, etc. and then the equally insane rebuttal: “Yeah, well, evolution makes people racist. Just look at Hitler…”, etc. These all-too-realistic examples show how people can make statement which seem to be completely unaware of the large diversity of views on a topic – in this scenario, other views, such as those who can accept evolution as the mechanism of a Creator.

  18. Vinny
    Vinny says:

    Dale,

    I hate to break this to you, but you are absolutely wrong. It really could have made a big difference if you had read Misquoting Jesus because you might have understood the point of my first comment. You probably would still have disagreed with me, but at least we could have had a substantive discussion rather than wasting our time on this.

    My point in addressing the fundamentalist position was not to accuse Wallace, Witherington, Blomberg, or Howe, or Jason for that matter, of being fundamentalists. By raising the fundamentalist position, I was challenging the poster or anyone else who cared to respond to my comment to declare his or her own position on inerrancy. If they declared themselves to be fundamentalists, I could have pointed out some of the areas where Wallace actually agrees with Ehrman. (I would have chosen Wallace because I am most familiar with his positions.) On the other hand, if someone expressed a more nuanced understanding of inerrancy, I could have pointed out that Ehrman’s position was not nearly as radical as the quotes made it sound. I think that trying to force someone to declare his own position like that is a pretty standard rhetorical device.

    I don’t know how to say this in a way that does not sound contemptuous, but that is because I am feeling that way at the moment. You cannot possibly know that you “never made any statements that would require [you] to have read” Misquoting Jesus. That is just silly. That is not to say that you could not make valuable observations on the issues under discussion. However, only a fool could think that it did not matter whether he had actually read the book that was the basis for the discussion.

  19. Damian
    Damian says:

    Gentlemen.

    Being a Christian can be loosely defined as “someone who follows the teachings of Christ”. But, because there are many, many different interpretations of what, specifically, the teachings of Christ meant there are about as many different types of Christians as there are people who call themselves that.

    Some Christians believe that there are other people who call themselves Christians who don’t deserve the label but, on the whole, most Christians seem to accept that a self-confessing Christian is entitled to the label even if they don’t agree on some of the finer points (i.e. the age of the earth).

    Now, there seems to be an argument that crops up quite often and I believe that Dale uses it extensively here. That is that when someone criticises the beliefs of a particular Christian or group of Christians there will always be someone that cries foul because they feel that the criticism is a strawman argument due to the fact that not all Christians believe the proposition that is being attacked.

    This can be remedied by critics like myself directly targeting the particular beliefs rather than the group those beliefs are predominant in. But I also think that, for clarity, it would help for Christians (yes, I’m talking about you, Dale!) to be less picky about particular labels because it often detracts from the core of the argument.

    If I were to say that “the Christian belief that the earth is 6000 years old is demonstrably wrong” you needn’t get overwrought at the use of the label because, technically, it is true that there is a Christian belief (a belief unique to Christians, that is) that the earth is 6000 years old. Crying foul that the argument is a strawman is a diversionary tactic.

    What Vinny said was true in the same way: “According to evangelical Christians, the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God”. Sure there might be some evangelical Christians who don’t share that view but what you’ve done here Dale is attempt derail the valid point that Vinny was making.

    Anyway. That’s my bit done. Critics, be more targeted for the sake of clarity; Christians, harden up and accept that you voluntarily share a label with people who you don’t agree with.

    :)

  20. Vinny
    Vinny says:

    Thank you Damian,

    I consider myself an agnostic along the lines of Ehrman rather than an atheist. Unlike Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins, I don’t view religion as an inherently negative or destructive influence on society. Nevertheless, I realize that on many issues, a Christian might not observe any discernible difference between my agnosticism and the atheism of others as I tend to agree with the atheists much more than I agree with the Christians. When I think the distinction is significant, I try to explain why, but I take no offense that others don’t always appreciate the same distinctions that I do.

  21. Damian
    Damian says:

    Vinny, I’m agnostic in principle but atheistic in practice. I don’t believe the question can be answered but my conclusions based on all other evidence available to me lead me to believe that there is no God. You don’t have to believe that religion is bad for society to be atheistic though. I personally think there have been some benefits.

    (But I didn’t label you as anything other than a ‘critic’ did I? Sorry if I did.)

  22. Dale Campbell
    Dale Campbell says:

    Vinny,

    “I was challenging the poster or anyone else who cared to respond to my comment to declare his or her own position on inerrancy.”

    Then you should have just asked/challenged them to do so! :)

    “…that Ehrman’s position was not nearly as radical as the quotes made it sound…”

    Then just say that then! :)

    “…a pretty standard rhetorical device.”

    Nah, looked like a straw man to me! :D

    On me not having read Misquoting Jesus:
    I was simply saying I’ve not ever claimed to have read it, etc.

    Damian,

    If I were to say that “the Christian belief that the earth is 6000 years old is demonstrably wrong” you needn’t get overwrought at the use of the label because, technically, it is true that there is a Christian belief…

    …hopefully you wouldn’t use such sloppy language, because you’re more aware of the diversity than some critics… you, being a clued-up critic would not say ‘the’ christian belief, but rather would say ‘a’ (common?) christian belief… :)

    In short, if we’re clued up as to the diversity of an issue – we’ll (all of us) avoid generalised language (unless, of course, we actually mean to make a general claim)…

  23. Vinny
    Vinny says:

    Damian,

    I didn’t feel you were labeling me at all. I was just drawing an analogy between the agnostic/atheist distinction and the evangelical/fundamentalist distinction. It is silly for either skeptics or Christians to expect people on the other side of the great divide to have the same sensitivity to the distinctions as those within the group do.

    Dale,

    Maybe it would not have looked like such a straw man if you had read the book. There is really no way for you to know, is there?

  24. Dale Campbell
    Dale Campbell says:

    Vinny,
    I’m struggling to see how me reading more than a summary of Misquoting Jesus will suddenly swing open the door of understanding for me, enabling me at once to see how your initial comment doesn’t after all represent (even slightly) a straw-man form of argument. When I responded to your comment, I was well aware of the basic thrust of his book (which appears to simply present well-known facts about textual variances to a popular audience ).

    It’s really quite simple…

    Original post (paraphrased):
    Bart Ehrman’s views in Misquoting Jesus (which happens to – among many other things – critique a fundamentalist view of the Bible) have been criticised by a, b, c & d… You can learn about Textual Criticism by reading e, f, etc., etc.

    Your initial comment (paraphrased):
    Evangelical Christians (all?) believe x, y and z about the Bible. That’s silly, and won’t work for me…

    Example of a constructive comment from a skeptical/agnostic person:
    I’m familiar with a, b, c, d, e and f, and for reasons g, h and i, I think Ehrman isn’t as far-fetched as this post makes it seem… etc., etc.

  25. Vinny
    Vinny says:

    Dale,

    It’s pretty simple.

    Bart Ehrman’s book criticized the fundamentalist take on scripture.

    Dr. Howe said that Ehrman was wrong because, inter alia, the texts are 92% stable.

    I said that 92% stability isn’t really all that impressive given how evangelicals use the texts. By this I meant that a 92% stability rate is not sufficient to rehabilitate the view that Ehrman is criticizing because that view requires a higher rate of accuracy in order to be reasonable.

    It is true that I could have used “fundamentalists” in that last statement rather than “evangelicals,” but I tend to avoid that term because I have found that many Christians consider the term “fundamentalist” to be pejorative even if it fairly characterizes their views.

    I really don’t see any strawman there since I have not accused anyone of holding a position that they did not in fact hold. I simply tried to demonstrate that Howe’s 92% stability rate really does not counter Ehrman’s criticism of the fundamentalist position.

  26. Dale Campbell
    Dale Campbell says:

    Cool Vinny,
    I think we’ve reached a good place to leave it. I’ll not try to get in any last words. Hope I’ve not annoyed you too much! :)
    Have a good one.

    -d-

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