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.”