Saturday, April 5, 2008

Ehrman's significance

Last night at the NOBTS Ehrman-Wallace showdown, Bart spoke in a way to maximize his "shock" effect and Dan spoke in a way to minimize Bart's shock effect. Bart chided Dan for intellectualizing the problem and for trying to tell the audience (which was pretty packed and seemed to be mostly students) that everything's ok, to just put things in perspective. Bart kept coming back to the point that we do not have originals or anything close to it, e.g., our earliest copy of Galatians is 150 years after Paul wrote it. There is no way to tell if it is even close to what the original said. Given his experience in textual criticism, it probably isn't, but even if it is, there's no way to know that it is.

Bart remarked that people should stop worrying so much about their theology and try to hear what he's saying: theology should not be the only criterion used to judge whether textual variants are significant. Any way one slices things, we have copies of copies of copies and every copy has mistakes. [He even suggested that there were probably some mistakes in the originals where someone who was taking dictation didn't get some of Paul's words right, for example.] He explained that he has long since decided that it's time to stop talking about originals--textual critics have already accomplished the exceptional feat of establishing a version of the text that is as close to the the originals as humanly possible. Now it's time to fess up and say that scholars' best reconstruction of the NT (which is an amazing scholarly accomplishment) is still centuries away from the time of writing. What did the very first copies look like? We will never know, in fact, we should stop asking that question.

Bart was taken to task for being overly skeptic and for not taking inventory and comparing the situation of the NT with that of other ancient works. Yet Wallace was very careful to delineate just how much agreement there is between him and Ehrman and that if each of them were to reconstruct the NT independently, the end results would only differ in a dozen or so places. Wallace's question was, "so what?" So what if we can't have absolute certainly? So what if we'll never know what the original said? No major doctrine is effected. Bart's response was very illuminating: doctrine is not the point. I could take out Mark, Phillipians and Revelation and say these whole books are spurious and not a single doctrine would be effected, he remarked.

The point I take away from this is that people hold to doctrines for a host of different reasons, but if people were to examine why they believe, they would find that they do not hold to doctrines because of evidence. People should take a look and see if they've been fed a lie. Bart knows that there's enought that hasn't been disclosed to shake up his various audiences, who seem primarily to be Christian believers. Wallace, for his part, candidly countered that he himself finally changed his mind about the Majority Text after 17 years because of the evidence. That may be the case, but not everybody is as lucky as Wallace---to be able to work full-time for 17 years toward the resolution of a problem. The significance of Ehrman's work, whether his "we don't know what the Bible says" argument is right or wrong, is that he's making people see either what they've never been told about before or what they've never really taken the time to see and making them wonder why their teachers and tutors in the faith never told them about this stuff before. I commended Bart for his work when I talked with him and I wish him the best of success.