Bart Ehrman, Textual Criticism and Lack of Catholic Engagement


#1

I have been reading some of the writing and watching some debates and lectures of a popular agnostic professor of Religious Studies named Bart Ehrman. He specializes in New Testament textual criticism and the point of pretty much all his books (and it seems he’s kind of been rewriting the same book with a slightly different emphasis over and over) is that if you look at the variants between the oldest copies of the New Testament, it seems that what he called “proto-orthodox” scribes altered the texts to suit their theological views. For example, he says that Luke 2:33 has older variants “You are my son; today I have generated you” as opposed to “You are my son in whom I am well pleased”, and that scribes changed the text because the former could have suggested an adoptionist viewpoint, which held that Christ was not always the son of God (and likewise, God), but simply received God’s authority or power, like Moses or David.

Ehrman thinks this is quite a big deal, and indeed it was this sort of thing that made him start to lose his faith (he claims he was some sort of liberal Christian for about 15 years after leaving evangelical fundamentalism and only became an agnostic from grappling with the problem of evil - which I honestly doubt, but I suppose we have to take him at his word). In fact, he eventually came to the conclusion that Luke, Mark, and Matthew (the oldest Gospels) don’t posit Jesus as divine at all, and that what we call orthodoxy is a later interpolation. I think it all hinges on the question of whether those variations that Ehrman sees as intentional attempts to shape doctrine where really so, and not something he is reading in to them. Ehrman also seems to believe, though he claims it is only an opinion and not an object of scholarship, that if the New Testament were inspired, God would have miraculously preserved the originals - though what he means by “preserved” is very difficult to figure out, because he doesn’t think this miracle would be any greater than what medieval Jews accomplished this without a miracle as their transmissions of texts were always exact. So it sounds like he’s talking about the process of copying, rather than a miraculous preservation of the original text like it was the incorruptible body of a saint. So I somewhat question his motives - did he first come to question the scriptures because some of the textual variants suggested, to him, that they were deliberately altered to reinforce “proto-orthodoxy”, or did he come to question them because there were any variants at all and he didn’t believe inspired scripture should have any variants. That is to say, did he only pursue this line of thinking to back up what he admits is just his “opinion”, something that is leveled at many critical scholars of his work (with the their opinions being the inspired status of scripture).

This is probably the most important point I’m going to mention in this post, and the one I hope the more learned can answer. It seems to me that almost all of Ehrman’s critics and those engaging with him in debates are Evangelicals. I have yet to find a single response from a Catholic scholar or theologian on the topics he brings up, and indeed it seems that the only believers in the field of textual criticism are Evangelicals. Why is this the case? I understand that, because Protestants err with the doctrine of sola scriptura, defending the text may seem more important to them - but I don’t understand why it shouldn’t be a matter of some concern to Catholics. I can imagine that some will say that the Church is the primary thing, not scripture - but what Ehrman is basically saying is that the “proto-orthodox” - basically “the Church” altered the earliest texts of the Bible in order to fit their views. I can also imagine that some might even think such a thing could be justified, since the Church is the arbiter of scripture, not the other way around, and that might be right - but I don’t think that could be right if, as Ehrman claims, these were significant alterations that attempted to change the meaning of the text as it originally was to something completely different. You would need to at least argue that the originals did not carry the implication of unorthodox meaning, and that those scribes were simply reinforcing the meaning they already knew was there in neutral passages. The main thing is that it would seem at least that this is an issue that Catholic thinkers and scholars should be engaging with - and if they won’t be in the near future, then I wish someone could explain why not.


#2

#3

My guess is the RCC has held solid ground for centuries regarding Scripture and Tradition and finds no real need to debate or defend this issue among Catholics or those separated.

Andreas J. Köstenberger "“The Heresy of Orthodoxy” is a good book attacking Walter Bauer’s thesis and Bart Ehrman.


#4

I appreciate the reference. But wouldn’t it be of merit to defend against Ehrman’s statements essentially that what became the Church became so by changing the earliest manuscripts to suppress dissent? That seems like a fairly serious charge. I know that someone has claimed to know a student in one of Ehrman’s lectures who, upon hearing Ehrman’s firm assertion that Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem (likely an assertion that Luke 1-2 are later additions), broke into tears. I know that I am personally distressed by it, greatly in fact. But it seems like like there are only two sides in this argument - Evangelicals who hold to Biblical inerrancy and Atheist/Agnostic critics like Ehrman who treat it as a historical document they believe proves the early Church was dominated by views we would now call heresies. There don’t seem to be any Catholics engaged.


#5

I suspect Catholic scholars don’t try to “engage” Ehrman because at this point, Ehrman probably isn’t engageable. They also don’t spend much time trying to engage Mormons, JW’s and a host of others. They have other things to do. Ehrman rejects the whole foundation of Christian thinking, there are no arguments from a Catholic view that would hold water in his eyes.
Ironically his books do, indirectly, support the Catholic (as opposed to Protestant) view. He emphasizes that there were several very different Christianities in the ancient world, each with their own scriptures and scholars, each claiming to come from Christ. Ehrman points out that any of them could then - (or even now?) claim to be authentically Christian, but that one Christian power structure imposed its canon on all the other Christianities, essentially destroying its opponents, and their equally Christian scriptures.

The implication IMHO is that Rome’s NT canon did not rise up spontaneously out of the Christian community (as Protestants say), but was selected - imposed - by a hierarchy, what I would call the Magisterium. Some Christians accepted the papacy, while others who rejected it were defeated by the Catholics, their equally valid scholars and scriptures rejected. If Ehrman is right, then Protestants today are following the ancient popes, their imposed Catholic NT canon, and traditions, rather than deriving directly from the apostles.

Ehrman isn’t intending to affirm Catholicism of course, but you can see why Protestants have to oppose him so much. Some churches quietly are now introducing some “scriptures” that Rome long ago rejected. Protestants will eventually have to choose between Rome, and its 27 book closed NT canon - or else - accept scholars like Ehrman, whose views support efforts to reopen the canon.


#6

I haven’t read Ehrman in many years now, nor any of the Jesus Seminar crowd. It was probably Luke Timothy Johnson who helped me see the limits of the project to reformulate the historical Jesus, especially his book The Real Jesus.

His point: bracketed off from faith, it’s very difficult to say much at all about Jesus of Nazareth, especially from a hermeneutics of suspicion. There was a man named Jesus. He worked miracles. He had disciples. He preached the kingdom of God. He was crucified. His followers preached his resurrection. If you don’t trust the gospel witnesses, and don’t have a relationship with the risen Christ, you can’t say much more, historically speaking.

He summarizes his position well in this brief article, The Jesus Controversy.


#7

But I think Ehrman is a lot more likely to need refuting. Let’s say, for me personally, I want to know what a Catholic scholars response is to his assertions. And I think he needs to be engaged, because his assertion is that “The earliest manuscripts [which you would assume to be closest to the originals and the experience of the apostles] were deliberately altered in order to present theological view they originally did not”. He’s basically saying, the Church covered up the original Gospels to present a view they did not.


#8

First, the verse is Luke 3:22, not Luke 2:33.

Second, it is my understanding that the author has substituted the English word “generated” for the more traditional word “begotten.” This is possibly to obscure what I’m about to tell you:

Third, “You are my son, this day have I begotten you” is an important messianic proclamation from Psalms 2:7 that is repeated in Acts 13:33, Hebrews 1:5, and Hebrews 5:5. It would be easy for a copyist to accidentally transpose it to Luke 3:22 because the phrase “You are my son” appears in both.

Fourth, that messianic proclamation does not support adoptionism because, among other things, adoptionism concedes that the Son existed before the Baptism in the Jordan. According to both Adoptionism and Catholicism, the Son was not begotten on that day in a sense that precludes His preexistence. See a good Catholic commentary on Acts 13:33, Hebrews 1:5, and Hebrews 5:5 for more information.

Fifth, it is my understanding that only the Codex Bezae puts that phrase in Luke 3:22. And it is definitely not the oldest manuscript of that passage that we have. It is late compared to the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus.

Sixth, it is my understanding that Bart Ehrman admits in his scholarly works (as opposed to his popular works such as “Misquoting Jesus”) that the New Testament variances are almost always insignificant, that the New Testament manuscripts are 99.5% in harmony, and that the remaining differences can be almost entirely resolved through textual analysis, so that the Nestle-Aland text is roughly 99.9% resolved.

This is probably the most important point I’m going to mention in this post, and the one I hope the more learned can answer. It seems to me that almost all of Ehrman’s critics and those engaging with him in debates are Evangelicals. I have yet to find a single response from a Catholic scholar or theologian on the topics he brings up

Have you read anything by Trent Horn of Catholic Answers, or listened to any of his radio shows? He responds to Bart Ehrman’s points frequently, especially in his discussions of the Resurrection. It is from one of his radio shows that I got the information in my sixth point above. I encourage you to listen to Trent Horn’s radio shows, where he goes into more detail. They can be found here: catholic.com/radio/shows/browse/all/all/Trent%20Horn/all


#9

I’m talking about just one claim Ehrman makes: early NT manuscripts were intentionally altered by scribes to make them say something different from what they originally said. I want to know the extent to which that is actually the case or not.


#10

I don’t think it is because Catholic scholars find no real need; perhaps they feel it is needed, but they don’t have the ability to engage the Ehrmans of the world. Those who believe in the supernatural inspiration of the Scriptures we have are now regarded in academia and the media as almost comparable to those who believe the universe was created in 6 days. No matter how persuasive the Catholic or Protestant scholar argues, it is the views of people like Ehrman that will prevail, not only on most campuses but on the History Channel, major publishers and NY Times. Many older Catholic and Protestant scholars hold advanced degrees from universities that would probably not grant a degree today to someone who holds their traditional views. If you find a traditional book on scripture in a major library, you probably found it in the closed stacks, it would likely not be purchased today by the library.

OK, maybe they should still try.


#11

First - Yeah, my mistake, I think he does say something about Luke 2:33, but that’s not it (I think he says Luke 1-2 are interpolations anyway)

Second and Third - It’s “today” that is seems to be the main point.

Fourth - So is it the case that Ehrman is misrepresenting Adoptionists? Because the way he said it (and it did make sense at least in context), the Adoptionists would have thought of Jesus as just a man who was given divine power?

Fifth - I think I might have noted this as well, as I think he even conceded this in one talk. So I’ll mention another (he always seems to use the same passages) - the sweating blood in Luke (I don’t know the verse or book). He says that it isn’t there in the earliest manuscripts, but was put in there again Docetists (I think) who claimed Christ didn’t have a real physical body.

Sixth - He does admit this in his talks, and one of the things that I thought made him less convincing in some of his debates was the fact that he rhetorically emphasizes this 400,000 number, but in elsewhere admits that most of the variations are meaningless and there’s only a few dozen instances where he believes there was deliberate alteration. I think he exposes himself a bit there for sure. But nevertheless, if there are at least a few cases where he can point to an earlier manuscript variant and say “They changed this deliberately to make the text say something different than it originally said” - I think that’s something that needs refuting. But, I don’t have the time or energy to read through his whole book, so I can only go to experts and try to figure out what they think of his arguments. And then I get two camps, one evangelical that disagrees with him and another, agnostic or “progressive christian” that agrees - but there’s no Catholic input.


#12

But that simply isn’t true. Most of the people he debates are Evangelical scholars like Dr. James White. I actually would have expected it to be as you say, but Ehrman even says that most of his colleagues in textual criticism are believers. I thinks it a case where only those who really want to prove it right or wrong are even interested in the debate in the first place.


#13

I’ve read most of Ehrman’s books and I must say, what he writes makes total sense to me. When he analyzes the gospels, for example, you can see how the view of Jesus changed from one gospel to the other over the 3 decade span they were written, as followers’ ideas and beliefs about who Jesus was evolved.

I don’t feel he’s saying the Church “covered up” anything exactly (except when he describes the Erasmus/trinity issue. That one sounds quite deliberate. And I think, of course, the holy scriptures that did not agree with the decisions at the councils hundreds of years later were then banned or burned or whatever.)
But more like…the that proto-Orthodox group tried to make everything go in the direction they believed in…just as the other Christian groups at the time–Ebonites, Marcionites, Gnostics–probably did.

Take that whole born-in-Bethlehem question.
That was the first point he made that hit me like a baseball bat. That there was no Empire-wide census that would have required Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem on foot/donkey when she was 9 months pregnant. So then…why did one (or two?) gospel writer write this?
Well…the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem, so…

I find it interesting when he points out the differing facts in the gospels and the creative license taken and for what reason, like the date on which Jesus died–I think two gospels have him dying 2 or 3 days apart from each other? By the time the John gospel is written, his death is aligned to parallel the “lamb of God” sacrifice…the slaughter before Passover…so in the later gospel, he is killed before Passover instead of after, as per an earlier (and most would say, more accurate) gospel. If I was writing that later gospel, I , too, might have made that same creative touch for literary purposes!

Anyway. I appreciate his pointing out how bits were changed or added (eg, the end of Mark; the “he who cast the first stone” story, etc), deleted, or mistranslated in the gospels along the way, as they were copied by scribes and then later, translated and published, and why. It sure taught me a lot about the evolution of the religion of Christianity and how and why it grew.

I’ve seen Bart debate many, many theologians and scholars…but you are right, I’ve never seen him debate a Catholic “expert”. Then again, in the dozens upon dozens of debates I’ve watched on youtube against the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Ehrman, Harris, Dillahunty, Krauss, et al…I think I’ve seen them debate a Catholic representative maybe once. Just once! But it’s not as though they don’t want to.

I always wish someone from the Church would, indeed, go out and debate these guys.
I agree with you that they should.
They really, really should.

.


#14

It is simply enough for us to say it is false. We don’t need to prove it. Why?

  1. Our Lord did not bring in a single legion of angels when he was convicted by the lies and jealousy of his enemies.
  2. He promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth, keeping the gates of Hell from prevailing against his Church. Thus we have no fear that the Scriptures we received are indeed the Scriptures intended by the Spirit, including from the authors and from the hands of those who preserved them as they were copied. (At Mass you claim, “I believe in the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Catholic Church”. Well, do you really? Then the claim by Ehrman is simply false.
  3. We know that either reading poses no alteration to Church doctrine

If you were to say to Ehrman, “The Holy Spirit kept the scribes faithful”, which is the truth, do you think he would back down saying, “I stand corrected”?

Catholics are a strange breed that defines and maintains its own “founding documents” rather than having their being (as a Church) depend upon a pre-existing founding document. Catholics wrote the New Testament (copyright) and owned editing rights and publishing rights. We did not come after the fact and steal it and “fix” it to say what we wanted. It was originally written to say exactly what we wanted, for Luke was a Catholic, as were the Scribes, as was the Council establishing the Canon, as were the translators.


#15

Maybe I’m misinterpreting him, but I think “cover up” is EXACTLY what he’s insinuating all over the place. He wrote a whole book on how some of the NT was Forged, and its quite clear from the rhetoric he employs there that he sees the whole thing as a deliberate act of deception in order to create ideological conformity, and an ideological conformity contrary to what the originals said. That is, they took Mark, Luke, and Matthew, which didn’t all really say the same things about Jesus, and then they changed them so they did.

As to Bethlehem and all that - that’s not one of the things I’m actually concerned with, since that’s criticism of the text using outside sources. I’m not actually even concerned if Jesus really was born in Bethlehem or not. I’m concerned with his claim that that narrative was added for the specific purpose of refuting Docetists who believed Jesus was a phantom and not really ever “born”.


#16

Well, he would say, “Then why didn’t they all write down the same thing, because there are variants”

Catholics are a strange breed that defines and maintains its own “founding documents” rather than having their being (as a Church)

I think I already mentioned that I understand the idea that “The Church can define what is scripture and not, because it is the Church” - but he is directly saying “The earliest Church lied about what Jesus said and did according to the Gospels and I can prove it because of all these differences in the earliest texts we have.” I know that there’s probably no amount of proof that would be sufficient to show him this was not the case, but what I need is proof to show myself this is not the case. And I know you can just say “Have faith” and I assure you, I want to and have tried to, but issues like this really bother me and I think they should be answered.


#17

I was a Lutheran, thinking the Catholic Church abandoned the Gospel until Luther rediscovered it.
Today I am a Catholic, perhaps one of the staunchest defenders of the Papacy and Magisterium, even though it included the likes of Leo X (I believe it was). When I read the Catechism, I see nothing of the evil excesses and abuses of some leaders, but see the truth only.

There are many things in the Church we cannot answer to critics, and only because they do not believe in Us as the Church. Scripture and doctrine did not make us Catholics, meeting Jesus and wanting him to let us be with him made us Catholics. We believe this person Jesus. And the Church is his body, the place we are in the presence of Jesus. We the Church are a Person (literally, the body of that Person), and Ehrman either will believe that Person or not. But for you, believe the Church is real and not in its essence corruptible.


#18

Well, yes…his book Forged. I’ve read that.
Most scholars and biblical experts agree that many parts of the bible were written by authors unknown, and then given a name to make it “authentic”. Indeed, the gospels did not have names on them like Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John when they were first written, it seems–not until many, many decades later.
I’s pretty much universal agreement, I think, that many of Paul’s letters were not written by him, for example. And the list goes on.
It was common practice for writers to do this in that day, he notes. To add the name of someone of prominence as the byline so attention would be paid to their writing.
Who exactly added these false names, I dunno. Do we know?
If the Catholic Church “gave us the bible”…and made these changes on purpose…is that deception?
I think that re Paul’s letters…and some other books…they were thought and believed to be written by the names on them at the time.
But this was hundreds of years after the fact. Those who put the books of the bible together in a canon and choose what went in and what didn’t make the cut went on “faith”. But with modern examination, we now know that some of the authors assigned to some of the books in the canon could not be authentic.

Was this because of error or was it deliberate?
Seems to me that Bart is saying it’s a combination of both.

.


#19
  1. Debates tend to measure the skill of the swordsman rather than the merits of the position. The old debates of several decades ago, for instance G. K. Chesterton vs. an amiable agnostic, with both seeking truth and listening, are less likely to occur today. Do you think the people you referred to are really seeking to hear the Catholic view, to learn from it?
  2. In a way, the Catholic Church is at a disadvantage, because we keep affirming the same eternal truths, while the secularists can make it up as they go along. Every generation of secular scholars refutes half the scholarship of the previous generation of secularists. Ehrman’s ideas have been repackaged several times since the late 1800s. No matter if someone totally refutes his theses now, they will be repackaged, and represented, later on.

They word their ideas a little differently, “discover” an ancient text, present it as “new” evidence, even though that ancient text was evaluated in ancient times, and many times since. Spiritual evidence is excluded. If we want to engage the secularists, we have to do it on other ground, not their ground, with their rules. Debates tend to presuppose the secular world view as a “given”, without having to prove it before using it. Maybe I could understand your point of view if you could tell me what the proposed benefits would be.
I suspect if Mr. Ehrman were to be “engaged” the last place it would happen is on a stage. His stage.
3. Mormonism is closer to Catholicism than Ehrmanism. It impacts the faith of far more people. What are your thoughts on Catholics engaging Mormons?


#20

As a former atheist I find the whole liberal approach to textual criticism as intellectually embarrassing and completely self serving.

Unsubstantiated claims are routinely put forward with the expectation they NEED to be proved false. Any textual evidence of their falsity is brushed away as later interpolations.

I find people like Ehrman to have very little substance.

When you make claims such as the gospel circulated anonymously without any evidence or that that a certain group (the adoptionists - God help us) did this because … I reckon, it suits my purposes,… with no evidence then I’m sorry, such arguments are for children.

Most liberal scholars I have met go to ridiculously outlandish and intellectually laughable lengths to discredit the gospels and then recast them into a politics which suits their own.

It is an embarrassment to the intellectual enterprise that anyone takes them seriously.


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