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Bart Ehrman seems to be the atomic bomb of the Christian community, having released books like Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted, which call into question the reliability and inerrancy of the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament. Are his arguments new? How does one respond to or refute his arguments?

For example, Ehrman argues that some scribes "corrected" or reworded certain verses to fit their particular theological views or to align with what made sense to them (e.g., Jesus being angry as He healed the leper).

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  • @AaronJohnson I've changed the title, but you should still make the question itself much more specific.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 8 '16 at 1:14
  • Like @curiousdannii said a specific quote from Bart Ehrmann suggesting which books or chapters of the Bible scribes changed would be useful. Also, certainly, some sects like the Essenes who copied the Dead Sea Scrolls have a bias evident in the scrolls. Hence, the Dead Sea Scrolls are used for historical research but have not been broadly accepted by mainstream Christians for theology purposes.
    – nickalh
    Aug 9 '16 at 4:56
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    Ehrman himself admits that the use of scribes to write what the "author" was telling them, sometimes word for word but sometimes thought for thought, essentially nullifies many of his arguments about authenticity of the NT. So I suspect the accusation that scribes edited things to their liking would then be his next argument. You should focus this to a "When was the first extant record of the idea of later scribal editing to fit mainline theology?"
    – Joshua
    Aug 9 '16 at 10:58
  • What is Ehrman arguing? Supposing the title premise, "Church scribes corrected and changed the Bible to fit their theology?" is true, then what does Ehrman maintain is the consequence?
    – user22553
    Aug 16 '16 at 22:03
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    Thank you for the clarification. I guess what I really should have asked was apologists for what? Apologists for Christianity? Apologists for Biblical inerrancy?
    – user22553
    Aug 22 '16 at 1:51
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I mean no offense, but as the comments following the question above attest, the OP’s real purpose is to find a refutation to a scholarly argument he hasn’t yet read and doesn’t fully understand or appreciate. Attempts to make the question suitable to this site forced the OP to focus on a single thin example of Dr. Ehrman’s work, undocumented and barely sketched out here for others to critique. Explicit throughout is the mistaken idea that Christianity and the Bible need ‘defending’ from Ehrman and that ‘advocates’ and ‘believers’ necessarily oppose his critical scholarship. Referring to Ehrman himself as “the atomic bomb of Christianity” violates the respectful tone expected of participants on this site.

Dr. Bart Ehrman, Critical Scholar of New Testament Texts

Some clarification, then, might be helpful. At issue is the evidence Bart Ehrman has offered on the question of whether changes made to the biblical texts by early Christian scribes were theologically motivated. This was the topic of two Ehrman books: perhaps his most popular title, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperOne, 2007), and a more academic handling of the same issue, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 1993).

These are not works of theology but of history. Ehrman explores the historical evidence surrounding variants in the biblical texts, he posits explanations for the differences based, again, on the historical evidence, and he suggests how these changes had implications on the development of early Christian theology. For example, he writes:

“Christianity is a religion of the book. From the outset, it has stressed specific texts as authoritative scripture. Yet not one of these original, authoritative texts exists today. We have only late copies, dating from the second century to the sixteenth. And these copies vary considerably. Indeed, the 5,700 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament that have been catalogued contain more variations than there are words in the New Testament. Some scholars say there are 200,000 variant readings, others say 300,000, 400,000 or even more!

“Some variant readings are simply scribal mistakes. Others are editorial ‘improvements’ intended to make the text easier to understand. Still others are deliberate attempts by the scribes to make the texts more amenable to the doctrines being espoused by Christians of their own persuasion and to eliminate the possible ‘misuse’ of the texts by Christians affirming heretical beliefs."

These facts, as with most of Ehrman's scholarship, are generally not disputed. There is no doubt, even among conservative scholars, for example, that Mark 16:9-20 is a late addition to the original gospel, or that the original text of Mark 1:41 is uncertain – variant texts show Jesus responding to a leper either in compassion or in anger. Of course scholars debate the finer points and may draw differing conclusions from the same facts, but Ehrman is generally regarded as a good and fair historian and a clear writer, and the bulk of his academic work reflects the consensus view of contemporary critical scholarship.

What is the Textual Evidence? General Agreement

Whether there are 200,000 or 400,000 variant renderings of the Greek texts – and whether ‘many’ or only ‘some’ of these were motivated by a scribe’s carelessness or purposeful theological intent – scholars will debate and differ in good conscience. Evangelical scholars Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger summarize their review of Ehrman’s position:

“Did the battles over heresy and orthodoxy in earliest Christianity affect the transmission of the New Testament text? Yes. No doubt a variety of scribal changes are due to these early theological disputes. .... Since the New Testament is a historical book that has been passed down to us through normal historical means (copying manuscripts by hand), then it inevitably contains the normal kinds of scribal variations that we would expect from any document of antiquity. No doubt some of these scribal variations were intentional and motivated by the theological debates of the day.”

These conservatives see no need to ‘defend’ the Bible or Christianity against historical or textual evidence of the kind Ehrman describes.

What are the Implications for Theology? Opinions Differ

Where they think his opinion wanting, however, is in the implications Ehrman draws from the evidence. In his popular books and public debates Ehrman often describes how the historical facts impacted his personal beliefs and led him away from fundamentalist Christian religion. For Ehrman, studying the Greek texts and their hundreds of thousands of variants undermined [both] his confidence that the ‘original text’ of the Bible was ever recoverable, and his conservative view of biblical inerrancy, authority, and textual reliability. Kostenberger and Kruger weigh the evidence differently: they conclude that “the vast number of textual variants is ‘insignificant,’ and ... we can have confidence that the text we possess is, in essence, the text that was written in the first century."

Determining whether variant readings are insignificant or whether the evidence is sufficient to instill confidence that the biblical-text-as-received is in essence the same biblical text of the first century, is largely a matter of personal opinion or a matter of faith. Only those religious beliefs that are incapable of accommodating contrary historical evidence need an apologetic defense.

In other words, if you are going to do battle with Dr. Ehrman, whom you describe as "the atomic bomb of the Christian community," then Isuggest you be prepared to fight fire with fire: your historical evidence against his historical evidence. If you are not willing to do that, perhaps you need to defend your defense of the faith!

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  • So to shorten it all down, your point is......... Aug 22 '16 at 10:50
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    In short, @AaronJohnson, I challenge your assumption that Christianity needs to defend itself against the facts of critical scholarship, which is mostly what Ehrman offers. How one manages beliefs that contradict historical facts is a personal choice; e.g, 'inerrancy' in light of obvious errors and uncertainties in the text.
    – Schuh
    Aug 22 '16 at 15:25
  • I suppose another question would be how should a believer embrace this fact Aug 22 '16 at 15:43
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    You are welcome to ask that question as well, but the answer will vary depending on school of thought. For example, the Reformed view will differ hugely from the Catholic view or the Baptist view as to how to deal with the issue of variety in manuscripts.
    – Birdie
    Aug 23 '16 at 2:28
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    So we meet again, two years later! Your last paragraph was good, but it was pregnant with meaning and needed to be unpacked, in my opinion. If you think I did a good job of unpacking, fine. If not, feel free to revert to the paragraph as written originally. May 6 '18 at 20:56
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I think one needs to draw a distinction between apologists for Christianity and apologists for Biblical inerrancy. You seem to be referring to the latter and not the former, but I am not sure.

Regarding the latter, from an Orthodox Christian perspective, there is no basis for supposing the Bible to be inerrant in the first place. Even within the same manuscript, the New Testament is riddled with inconsistencies. This was well understood and accepted by the Church Fathers. John Chrysostom (4th century) wrote, for example:

And why can it have been, that when there were so many disciples, two write only from among the apostles, and two from among their followers? (For one that was a disciple of Paul, and another of Peter, together with Matthew and John, wrote the Gospels.) It was because they did nothing for vainglory, but all things for use.

“What then? Was not one evangelist sufficient to tell all?” One indeed was sufficient; but if there be four that write, not at the same times, nor in the same places, neither after having met together, and conversed one with another, and then they speak all things as it were out of one mouth, this becomes a very great demonstration of the truth.

“But the contrary,” it may be said, “hath come to pass, for in many places they are convicted of discordance.” Nay, this very thing is a very great evidence of their truth. For if they had agreed in all things exactly even to time, and place, and to the very words, none of our enemies would have believed but that they had met together, and had written what they wrote by some human compact; because such entire agreement as this cometh not of simplicity. But now even that discordance which seems to exist in little matters delivers them from all suspicion, and speaks clearly in behalf of the character of the writers.

But if there be anything touching times or places, which they have related differently, this nothing injures the truth of what they have said. And these things too, so far as God shall enable us, we will endeavor, as we proceed, to point out; requiring you, together with what we have mentioned, to observe, that in the chief heads, those which constitute our life and furnish out our doctrine, nowhere is any of them found to have disagreed, no not ever so little.

But what are these points? Such as follow: That God became man, that He wrought miracles, that He was crucified, that He was buried, that He rose again, that He ascended, that He will judge, that He hath given commandments tending to salvation, that He hath brought in a law not contrary to the Old Testament, that He is a Son, that He is only-begotten, that He is a true Son, that He is of the same substance with the Father, and as many things as are like these; for touching these we shall find that there is in them a full agreement.

Homily I on the Gospel According to St. Matthew

Thus, one could devote time to testing the truth of Ehrman's premises and the logical validity of his argument, but this does not seem to be time well spent, even if his particular arguments against Biblical inaccuracy are unsound.

Christian apologists, on the other hand, should not be troubled by Ehrman. The Christian Church was founded on the person of Christ and faith in Him (Matthew 16:16,18), and not on the Bible. Hilarion Troitsky, a Russian Orthodox theologian (died in 1927 from typhus contracted at a Gulag), wrote:

In the Church there are no stone tablets with letters inscribed by a Divine finger. The Church has the Holy Scriptures, but He Who established the Church wrote nothing.

Christ did not write anything. It seems that if one reflects enough on this fact, one can somewhat understand the very essence of the work of Christ. As a rule, other religious leaders of humanity, founders of various philosophical schools, have written readily and in abundance, and yet Christ wrote nothing at all.

Was the Incarnation of the Only-begotten Son of God necessary only in order to write a book and entrust it to mankind? Was it absolutely essential for Him to be the Only-begotten Son of God just to write a book? If the Church insisted with such determination on the Divine dignity of her Founder, then obviously she did not regard writing to be the essence of His work. It was the Incarnation of the Son of God that was necessary for the salvation of mankind, and not a book. No book is able, nor could it ever have been able to save mankind. Christ is not the Teacher but precisely the Savior of mankind. It was necessary to regenerate human nature, which had become decayed through sin, and the beginning of this regeneration was laid by the very Incarnation of the Son of God—not by His teaching, not by the books of the New Testament. This truth was expressed with the utmost resolve by Church theologians as early as the second century.

Holy Scripture and the Church

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  • Interesting "take" on the matter at hand, and two interesting citations from John Chrysostum and Troitsky. I cannot, however, let your following sentence go unchallenged: " Regarding the latter [i.e., apologists for biblical inerrancy], there is no basis for supposing the Bible to be inerrant in the first place." Here is where I will quote answerer @Schuh, where he talks about "the respectful tone expected of participants on this site." I suggest your bald statement lacks respect for the many Christians who believe there IS a basis for believing the Bible's original MSS to be inerrant. Don Aug 23 '16 at 14:58
  • @rhetorician noted. Thanks. Didn't mean to be offensive, but Orthodox Christians aren't known for equivocation :). I qualified my statement. Thanks for the guidance.
    – user22553
    Aug 23 '16 at 15:03
  • You're welcome, I'm sure. Sorry I came on a little strong, which I am wont to do on occasion. I do not fault you for espousing a point of view which reflects your Orthodox background and presuppositions. We all espouse a point of view which MAY or may NOT reflect our denominational loyalty. God knows not every person under any given denominational umbrella agrees with and shares the orthodox (lower-case O) view of his or her tradition. Sometimes bowing to orthodoxy for unity's sake is God honoring, just as sometimes refusing to bow (as did Luther with his 95 theses) is also God honoring. Aug 23 '16 at 15:26
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    :) The Orthodox Church is fanatical in defending against doctrine which it sees as wrong in the context of what the Church Fathers taught - in an age when it is taboo to even suggest that some things actually are wrong or false and some other things actually are right or true. That having been said, the contemporary cleric Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (author of The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way) once said that many Orthodox Christians will one day be surprised at how many "Non-Orthodox" are in heaven and how many "Orthodox" are in hell.
    – user22553
    Aug 23 '16 at 15:36
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+50

This article directly addresses Ehrmann's claims:

https://www.str.org/w/textual-variants-it-s-the-nature-not-the-number-that-matters

The author categorizes the approximately 400,000 textual variations as

  • meaningful or meaningless
  • viable or not viable

Meaningless changes (like misspelled words) are irrelevant and easily spotted by a Greek scholar. They do not cause a change in meaning.

Meaningful changes cause a change in how we understand of the passage.

Viable changes appear either in enough manuscripts or in crucual very ancient manuscripts. They are plausible alternate readings that may have been in the originals.

Non-viable changes appear in one or a small number of more recent manuscripts. There is no chance they were in the originals.

The statistics given are that 70% of variations are meaningless and non-viable. Only 1% are meaningful and viable. Of this last category, none change any doctrine or practice of the church. They shade the meaning of passages in ways that could be true but do not lead us to change our faith in any way.

Thus the large quantity of textual variations is not a problem for Christians.

This other article by Daniel Wallace, commenting on the book Can we still believe the Bible? by Craig L. Blomberg makes great points:

https://danielbwallace.com/tag/400000-textual-variants/

One of his footnotes is helpful:

Page 27: “no orthodox doctrine or ethical practice of Christianity depends solely on any disputed wording.” I would word this a bit differently. We can definitely say that no cardinal doctrine depends on any disputed wording, but I think there are some places in which less central teachings—both in terms of orthodoxy and orthopraxy—are based on texts that are disputed. For example, whether exorcists casting out particularly pesky demons need to pray and fast depends on a variant in Mark 9.29, and the particulars of the role of women in the church may depend, in part, on 1 Cor 14.34–35 (a passage that, although found in all MSS, is disputed by some scholars).

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  • +1 for succinct point that puts the 400,000 in context. However, I can assure you some of the textual variants are relevant for the trinitarian-unitarian debate - they matter for at least 1 core doctrine. Oct 11 at 17:04
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    @OneGodtheFather - If you are correct, then the author of the article I cited overstated his case. A generous interpretation of what he said would be that no Christian doctrine rests solely on what is stated in a variant. Of course ruling against a variant could remove one support for that doctrine while leaving others intact. Thus the variants may diminish support for but not eliminate a Christian belief. Oct 11 at 17:35
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I think your question needs reframing. Firstly, how a Christian would 'defend' against these arguments would depend entirely on their denomination. Some may agree that the Bible has been changed by another denomination to support their doctrine but have confidence that their own beliefs are sound.

Secondly, there may be no need to 'defend' the claim at all. To make such a claim, one would have to show that 'version A' is the original, and that a differing 'version B' is the evidence that it has been changed to fit doctrine. Well, that's fine, so long as your Bible translation is based on version A, and is a scholarly one. It isn't really an accusation that all Bibles are corrupted and all Christian beliefs are misguided, just that some are.

Modern archaeology has turned up plenty of very old Bible manuscripts that support the texts already in existence. There are currently 11 fragments of 'New Testament' books dating from the 2nd century. Discoveries like these have helped translators to identify which later, complete texts are trustworthy.

There are of course some small changes that are recognised by scholars, many of which just reflect changes in the original languages that they were written in. Such changes are unlikely to be responsible for changes in doctrine. The greatest differences between trusted original language copies used by scholars today and early modern English translations can mostly be attributed to the Latin versions that existed in between. Modern, scholarly translations of the Bible today look to the earliest original texts and consider all the latest understanding of those ancient languages. If you use one of these and base your beliefs upon it, there is no need to 'apologise' for any other version.

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