Friday Night Lights: Day One of the 2008 Greer-Heard Forum

The Greer-Heard Forum is an outstanding stage for dialogue between evangelical and non-evangelical scholars with opposing views on controversial subjects. It got off to an interesting start in 2005, when Dom Crossan and Tom Wright debated the reality of the bodily resurrection of Christ. This year’s event kept the tradition—high-powered speakers and a highly-charged atmosphere—alive.

A Bird’s Eye View of the Forum

This year’s topic was the reliability of New Testament manuscripts as pointers to the original text, featuring Dan Wallace (with whom readers of Parchment & Pen are quite familiar) and Bart Ehrman. Ehrman, as is well known from his Misquoting Jesus (which made the New York Times Best Sellers List), is very skeptical about recovering the wording of the original text. He has even hinted that the original text did not affirm the deity of Christ or other cardinal Christian doctrines. Not surprisingly, then, this dialogue was (at least in many respects) about what Ehrman has published and said in the public square.

The event began Friday evening with a 40-minute presentation by Ehrman, followed by Wallace’s 40-minute salvo. About 800 people were in attendance, which is a very large crowd for something dealing with textual criticism! This was followed by a 10-minute response by Ehrman to Wallace’s lecture, then a 10-minute response by Wallace to Ehrman’s. Next, each scholar was given five minutes to wrap up. Q&A from the floor, lasting about 30 minutes, rounded out the evening.

Saturday morning, the "teams" for each scholar spoke. It had been raining very hard that morning, yet the attendance was terrific”about 500 people". Dr. Bob Stewart, the man in charge of the Forum, said that this was the best attended second day of any Greer-Heard Forum to date. Mike Holmes of Bethel University and Bill Warren of New Orleans Baptist Seminary were on Wallace’s team; David Parker of Birmingham University (England) and Dale Martin of Yale University were on Ehrman’s. Of these, only Martin was not a textual critic. But Martin is a brilliant scholar (and, I understand, one of Ehrman’s best friends). Each team member spoke for 30 minutes, and their lectures were followed by 25 minutes of interaction from Ehrman and Wallace. Holmes went first, then Parker. Martin and Warren followed after lunch. At the end of the lectures and responses by the main speakers, Ehrman and Wallace each summarized their own views in 5 minutes before fielding audience questions for the final 20 minutes.

Impressions from the Front Row: Friday Night

What follows are my personal impressions from Friday night. Most readers of Parchment & Pen will recognize me as a coauthor of Dan Wallace’s, as well as a former student of his at Dallas Theological Seminary. Though I can’t help but be unconsciously biased (who can?), I’ve tried to simply "call ’em as I see ’em." It’s also worth noting that I’ve tried not to “spill the beans†with respect to arguments given throughout the Forum. Audio and video recordings will soon be available through the Greer-Heard Forum website, and the presentations are slated to be published by Fortress Press. I simply wish here to provide a select taste of the event as I experienced it.

Ehrman’s Presentation
Ehrman’s opening address combined a simple PowerPoint presentation with a lively lecture. He’s an engaging speaker; witty, at times funny, and certainly provocative. What he had to say was right out of Misquoting Jesus. He noted that the earliest scribes were not professional scribes but made plenty of mistakes and would not necessarily be concerned to get the contents exactly right. He also argued that we don’t have "the copies of the copies of the copies of the copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. "(I counted six generations of copies before we get to our current manuscripts. Though I doubt that Ehrman was intentional in his repetition, this provides a taste of his rhetorical strategy.) He also noted that there are hundreds of thousands of textual variants among the manuscripts, a key point also made in his book. More precisely and provocatively, Ehrman said, "there are more variants than there are words in the New Testament." Ehrman capped off his lecture by discussing a few passages, but it was apparent that he ran out of time before getting to all that he wanted to say. Nonetheless, he discussed in some detail the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), the long ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20), and the angry Jesus (Mark 1:41). Ehrman discussed each passage rather nicely, arguing that the first two texts were not authentic and that the last one (Mark 1:41) spoke of Jesus as being angry—rather than compassionate—when he healed a leper.

Though Ehrman was lively and offered some nice discussions, I was disappointed on a few fronts. For starters, he stammered far more than I expected. I could see that he was working from an outline rather than a full manuscript, and that might explain things. I understand, however, that he has given this same lecture many times since Misquoting Jesus came out a couple of years ago. (In fact, three people mentioned that they had heard the exact same lecture, almost verbatim, in Oklahoma, South Carolina, and California, respectively.) He did not impress me in person the way that he has in writing or short radio and television interviews. Second, and most disappointingly, Ehrman pitched his lecture at a high school (or, at most, college) level. Speaking at a theological seminary with world-class textual critics participating in the dialogue, Ehrman simply didn’t deliver an appropriate lecture. Third, he ran out of time before he could really make his major points, or at least discuss some of the disputable texts. Fourth, he spent the bulk of his time, (unwisely, in my opinion) on things that didn’t establish anything either way. Apart from some rhetoric about not having copies of copies and that we have more variants in the manuscripts than we have words in the New Testament, he didn’t make much of an argument at all.

Wallace’s Presentation
Wallace’s presentation was also lively and helpfully accompanied by PowerPoint slides. He began with some gravity-breaking jokes, even poking a little fun at Ehrman’s agnosticism. Wallace, however, made far more fun of himself. He declared that he and Ehrman had similar academic careers and showed (tongue-in-cheek) how this was so. For example, Wallace said that "while you [Ehrman] were cruising through your doctoral program, I was driving a truck to make ends meet. Similar activities and "By the time you [Ehrman] had written your 15th book, I had already written my 15th article!" Those who know Wallace were not surprised by his genuine self-deprecation, though many may have been surprised to see how much Wallace admires Ehrman and the contribution he has made to New Testament textual criticism. Wallace went on to list five points of agreement with Ehrman: (1) the high number of variants (as many as 400,000), (2) the lack of significance of the great majority of them; (3) that he and Ehrman would agree on the wording of the original text almost all the time; (4) specific agreements over special hot-button passages (Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-8:11; Mark 1:41; 1 John 5:7); and (5) that orthodox scribes occasionally altered the text. This strategy had, as far as I could tell, the effect of removing the shock value of Ehrman’s comments about things like the enormous quantity of textual variants and the spuriousness of the story of the woman caught in adultery. (For more discussion of these points and others in Wallace’s lecture, see Tim Ricchuiti’s blog.)

Wallace then began addressing their disagreements, but he did so in a surprising way: he put up extensive quotations from Ehrman’s own writings and showed that what Ehrman said to professional colleagues was quite different than what he said to laypersons. In other words, Wallace showed that Ehrman disagreed with Ehrman! The implication was clear: Ehrman is too certain in scholarly circles and too skeptical in popular circles. He presents himself as an extreme modernist in one place and an extreme postmodernist in the other.

One of the sub-plots that laced Wallace’s lecture was his gibes at Ehrman, Southern Baptists, and his own tradition of dispensationalism. Wallace is known for his dry wit, and he was really on Friday night. He noted, for example, that Ehrman had listed six generations of copies before we get any manuscripts, which is more than Ehrman implies in any of his printed work. Wallace then commented, "I suppose if a story is worth telling, it’s worth embellishing!" He took jabs at the Southern Baptists, too. At one point he was speaking about how many words were in the Greek New Testament—"about 140,000 or so; but if you’re really anal, it’s 138,162 words." Then, he turned back to Dr. Stewart, who was still sitting on the stage and said, "Oh, Im sorry, Bob! Can I say anal in this place?" A good half dozen times Wallace did that sort of thing on different issues. It always got a good chuckle, yet I suspect that it was about more than humor. Wallace was innocuously distancing himself from the theological views of some Southern Baptists, who might be quick to argue for things like a doctrine of the perseveration of scripture. But the biggest laughs came when he took a swipe at dispensationalists (of which he, as a Dallas Seminary professor, is one). He was speaking about the number of the beast, and how a couple of early and important manuscripts have "616" (which Wallace said some might call "the neighbor of the beast" !) instead of "666." He asked how important such a variant is and noted that it didn’t alter any creedal statement, but that, if it proved to be the original reading, would "send seven tons of dispensational literature to the flames!"

Ehrman’s oft-repeated line that we don’t even have copies of copies of copies…†was challenged by Wallace. He said that such rhetoric comes dangerously close to saying that New Testament copying was like the telephone game. He then proceeded to show six ways in which the telephone game is not at all like New Testament copying practices. I think it’s fair to say that this evidence alone should have retired Ehrman’s non-nuanced quip, but Ehrman continued saying it for the duration of the conference!

Wallace then discussed the concrete example of the relation of P75 to Codex B. He noted that although B came 100-150 years later, it was not a copy of P75 because it frequently had older readings than those found in P75. This meant that, since these two manuscripts are very close in wording to each other, both had a much older ancestor—one that was probably from the early part of the second century. Coupled with Aleph, B’s readings are very ancient. This shows that even though we don’t have late first century manuscripts or very many 2nd century manuscripts, we can extrapolate what they would have looked like from the manuscripts that we do have.

Perhaps the most provocative part of Wallace’s lecture was his comparison of what Ehrman claimed was true about New Testament transmission with the transmission of sacred texts in another religion: Islam. Wallace gave three basic points that showed that what Ehrman wanted to see in New Testament manuscripts simply wasn’t there—specifically, an early, controlled text in which the earlier manuscripts were destroyed. Wallace noted that, You can’t have wild copying by untrained scribes and a proto-orthodox conspiracy simultaneously producing the same variants. Conspiracy implies control and wild copying is anything but controlled." As far as I was concerned, this was the silver bullet that ripped a hole through Ehrman’s entire thesis." Further, Wallace noted, the lack of controls that Ehrman argued for were only true of the Western text-type, not the Alexandrian.

Wallace then went on to discuss the nature of the variants. He argued that 99% are inconsequential, while less than 1% are both meaningful and viable (that is, possibly reflecting the wording of the original). He gave one example of this last category, the number 616 in Rev 13:18. He noted that although it may be significant, it did not affect any cardinal belief. Wallace reemphasized that no essential belief is in jeopardy because of the viable variants.

Finally, Wallace discussed the major variants that Ehrman had put forth in Misquoting Jesus. He was running out of time, so he concentrated on Matthew 24:36. Here he noted how Ehrman used it as his "bread and butter" example of orthodox corruption, but showed that there were some things in the text that Ehrman had not considered. For example, if the scribes had no qualms about deleting nor the Son why did they leave the word alone in the text? Without nor the Son the passage still implies that the Son of God does not know the date of his return: But as for that day and hour no one knows it—not even the angels in heaven—except the Father alone. Ehrman’s argument that this passage is clearly an orthodox corruption either shows that the scribes were rather inept since they didn’t cover up the Father’s exclusive knowledge or else they changed their mood once they got into the corruption and had second guesses about deleting the "alone." He concluded by saying that too often Ehrman’s views were only possible, but that Ehrman had turned possibility into probability and, at times, probability into certainty.

Overall, Wallace’s lecture was polished, focused, and clear. He dealt with the very objections that Ehrman raised (copies of copies, tons of variants) and offered a far more coherent and carefully nuanced picture of the transmission of the text. While Wallace was lecturing, Ehrman looked, at times, uncomfortable. I’m not a mind reader, but I’m guessing that he realized that he had come underprepared for this dialogue and had little time to rectify things in his remaining ownership of the floor. I was disappointed that Wallace also seemed to run out of time and couldn’t include all of his arguments. But he squeezed in far more than Ehrman, who essentially only rehashed material already in Misquoting Jesus.

Ehrman’s Response
After a short intermission, Ehrman gave a 10-minute response to Wallace’s paper. He started by saying, "I was under the impression that this was supposed to be on the reliability of the text of the New Testament, not the reliability of the writings of Bart Ehrman. "It got a laugh, but it was clear that Ehrman was not pleased with the evidence that Wallace had put forth. To be sure, Wallace never did anything that looked ad hominem, so it seemed as though this was a fair thing to do. Wallace later explained why he took the approach he did, and Dale Martin (Ehrman’s team member!) would defend this same approach the next day. Ehrman then critiqued Wallace’s lecture as simply a message meant to comfort Christians into not doubting their Bibles, even saying that Wallace had provided no evidence for his position. (This is a debater’s standard technique: instead of wrestling with the arguments that his opponent brings up, he simply says that the opponent never said anything worth saying. But in this instance, I can only conclude that Ehrman was blowing smoke.)

Ehrman then argued that we can’t, for example, really tell what the original text of Galatians looked like if it was sent multiple times to the churches of Galatia. That is, since they were churches (plural), each one of them probably got a letter, and thus the "original" of the letter would actually have been comprised of multiple copies. Ehrman suggested that such multiple copies would all look different from each other. Further, he argued that a secretary probably wrote the letter to the Galatians, with Paul signing off on it at the end of the letter. And the secretary could have made quite a few mistakes as well that would have gone uncorrected. He concluded by saying that in Wallace’s view the words of the New Testament mattered only for essential Christian doctrine—not for anything else. So he asked, Why devote your [Wallace’s] entire career to the study of the wording of the New Testament text if the words don’t matter?

Wallace’s Response
Wallace basically responded to Ehrman’s critique by asking what Ehrman’s theory about Galatians means for Revelation. In other words, if Galatians was sent to multiple churches with one copy going directly to each church, what would that mean for the Apocalypse? Was the latter sent to seven churches as seven different documents? Wallace also noted that when he “writes†a letter that a secretary actually types for him, the wording may not be close to his, but it still reflects his thoughts. Otherwise, he wouldn’t sign the letter. How much more likely is it that Paul, writing an angry letter, would take pains to double-check what he had personally dictated?

Ehrman’s Second Response
Ehrman camped on the 1% of textual variants that mattered and even said that it doesn’t matter how many variants there are that are significant, just that several hundred are very significant. But if they don’t affect a cardinal doctrine, perhaps he is overplaying their significance. Ehrman also said that Wallace had not really answered the question of why these variants mattered if they didn’t affect cardinal doctrines.

Wallace’s Second Response
Wallace said that the reason why doctrinal criteria are important is because Ehrman made them important in Misquoting Jesus. Wallace would revisit this point more specifically on day two. For the moment, he simply said that variants matter because they affect the meaning of the text (spoken like a true exegete!). But he reminded the audience again that the Bible that we have today—in all essentials—goes back to the original text.

All in all, Wallace had a better showing than Ehrman on Friday night. While Ehrman was initially content to summarize Misquoting Jesus, Wallace came prepared to tease out inconsistencies in Ehrman’s professional and popular writings and offer some fresh research en route. Anyone assuming that Wallace merely restated things said in Reinventing Jesus, Dethroning Jesus, or his published review of Misquoting Jesus would be mistaken. But I’ll leave discovery of that fact for those who purchase recordings or publications derived from the event. In the meantime, I’ll gather some thoughts on day two of the Forum and put them in a subsequent post

5 Responses to “Friday Night Lights: Day One of the 2008 Greer-Heard Forum”

  1. Feel free to not post this comment or delete it as it is meant fyi only:
    I wanted you to know that I have borrowed your report on the forum in the following post and those to come thereafter:


  2. This is very helpful. Thanks for writing it.

  3. Glad to see Wallace stood firm for the historical reliability of the New Testament documents.

    I have written this open letter to Bart Ehrman:

  4. I think it’s amazing how after reading this what I concluded is Wallace as most, past and present, still thinks the Church is a building or place, i.e. second response. We, (I) am the Church. They got it wrong in the 1st century and they and you all are still getting it wrong. God speaks to all who ask and truly believe. And I believe you only need to believe God. I agree with both on certain topics. But as in the early centuries we have given to the corporate Church/Building. They hoarded the wealth to build these cathedrals thinking they were giving to Christ. Just imagine what this world would look like if all the money actually went to the people in need. “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” Everything gets corrupted when there is wealth to be had. If the Corporate Church gave everything away they would only have the people serving that truly are servants. Not the misguided evil doers we have now.


  1. Who wrote the Gospel of Mark (Part V) | Dead Heroes Don't Save - January 13, 2013

    […] light (see Daniel Wallace relating his debate experience with him regarding textual variants here and here). The claims he makes regarding the education and literacy of Peter and John based on Acts […]

Leave a Reply