On Wednesday, February 1, 2012, I debated Bart Ehrman on his home turf at UNC Chapel Hill. The topic: Is the original New Testament lost? The format was a 30-minute opener from each of us (Bart, then me), followed by two rounds of 5-minute responses to the other man. Then, questions from the floor and, finally, a one-minute closing statementfrom each of us. Miles O’Neill was the moderator and the debate was sponsored by the Ehrman Project, which Miles heads up. Over 1000 people were in attendance.
Bart Ehrman is well known as a superb debater. He was on a national championship debate team in high school and has been debating ever since. This was my fifth everdebate—three now with Bart. I still have a lot to learn about debate technique. But in all three of my debates with Bart I recognized that they would either be recorded or turned into a book (the first one is now available as The Reliability of the New Testament: A Dialogue between Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace (Fortress Press, 2011). The second debate—the largest such debate in history with over 1400 people in attendance—was professionally filmed and edited and is available at www.csntm.org as a DVD for a modest price. I was as concerned for those who would be able to study the arguments in some detail as I was for those who attended each debate. Therefore, I geared my responses to those who would study these issues later on.
Andreas Köstenberger, an erudite professor at Southeastern Baptist Seminary, attended the debate and wrote up a review of it. You can access that here. Köstenberger offered a critique more on me than on the debate, and on the debate tactics of each of us more than on the substance of what was said. My response to him has been posted as a comment on his blogpost.
For P&P readers, I would like to summarize the debate from my perspective. If you attended the debate, your comments are especially welcome (but of course so arecomments by others!).
Bart’s opener focused on three questions:
- What do we mean by original text?
- Where are all the early manuscripts?
- Why do scholars disagree so much about the wording of the original New Testament?
He answered the first by arguing that several NT books were composite works and that it’s impossible for us to get back to the original wording of those books. His examples included 2 Corinthians, John, Acts, Mark, and Luke. Among other things, he argued thatall critical scholars recognize that 2 Corinthians was never sent out by Paul in that form, that it was originally two different letters that Paul wrote which were later fused together. But this is not true: not all critical scholars believe this (e.g., Raymond Brown argues against it, as do Carson & Moo, Ellis, Guthrie, and a host of others). Regarding John’s Gospel, Bart said that chapter 21 was added later. I argued that this is by no means a settled belief, and that a doctoral student at Dallas Seminary, Charles Cummings, is writing his dissertation on this very topic. We also discussed Mark’s Gospel, which Bart claimed has a lost original ending. He was presupposing that the text after Mark 16.8 was lost and that scribes filled it in with what they could. I agree that later scribes added to the Gospel (there are multiple endings), but that the last leaf was almost surely not lost. The reason is that Mark almost surely wrote on a scroll rather than a codex (the modern book-form with binding on one side and individual pages). The codex form was invented late in the first century, but the best scholars on the codex-form, T. C. Skeat and C. H. Roberts, in their book The Birth of the Codex, argued that Mark’s Gospel was written on a scroll. If on a scroll, then the last leaf would be the most protected. I believe that Mark intended to conclude his Gospel at 16.8, as do most scholars of the last fifty years. Bart was overstating his case.
This first question really addresses composition criticism rather than textual criticism. It struck me that Bart was using this tactic as a way to win the debate, simultaneously detouring us from the real discussion. Yet even a scholar the stature of Kurt Aland, unquestionably the finest German textual critic of the last sixty years, said that there is zero evidence in the manuscripts for such compositions and that all the variants that ever came down the pike are still to be found in the existing manuscripts. Bart did not respond to this point.
He answered the second question by saying that we really don’t have any early manuscripts. But this again is a huge overstatement. We have as many as eighteen second-century manuscripts (six of which were recently discovered and not yet catalogued) and a first-century manuscript of Mark’s Gospel! Altogether, more than 43% of the 8000 or so verses in the NT are found in these papyri. Bart had explicitly said that our earliest copy of Mark was from c. 200 CE, but this is now incorrect. It’s from the first century. I mentioned these new manuscript finds and told the audience that a book will be published by E. J. Brill in about a year that gives all the data. (In the Q & A, Bart questioned the validity of the first-century Mark fragment. I noted that a world-class paleographer, whose qualifications are unimpeachable, was my source. Bart said that even so, we don’t have thousands of manuscripts from the first century! That kind of skepticism is incomprehensible to me.)
Further, in comparison with other ancient literature, the NT has far more early copies than any other work. In the first two hundred years after the composition of the NT thereexist today well over sixty manuscripts. That’s three times the amount of manuscripts that exist for the average classical author in two thousand years.
He answered his third question by claiming that scholars have done all they can but still can’t come to agreement over the wording of the original text. Again, this is not true. Bart had acknowledged that we don’t know the exact number of variants yet because we haven’t examined all the manuscripts in detail yet. We also don’t know the exact number of Latin, Coptic, and Syriac manuscripts (our earliest and most important translations of the NT), let alone what they all say in detail. Bart further argued that a Greek NT that came out in 2005 which claimed to have the original wording differs from other texts in over 6000 places. This is true, but he was not telling the whole story: That text is one that both Bart and I would seriously disagree with, as would most textual critics and NT scholars. It is the majority text, which is based on Greek manuscripts that for much of the NT are only from the ninth century and later. I also pointed out that Ehrman and Metzger would only disagree in about two dozen places as to what the original text said. And Metzger represents pretty much the standard view today among NT scholars.
In my opener, I raised four questions:
- How many textual variants are there?
- What is the nature of the variants?
- What theological beliefs depend on variants?
- Is the original NT lost?
On the first question, I agreed with Bart that we have a huge number of variants—my estimate is about 400,000. But we have a lot of variants because we have a lot of manuscripts: over 20,000 in various languages, and about one million quotations of the NT from the church fathers, reaching back as early as the first century. And these thousands of manuscripts come from all over the Mediterranean region, showing that noearly conspiracy to conform the manuscripts to one text-form existed. I also made comparisons with other Greco-Roman literature, noting that we have on average 1000 times more manuscripts of the NT than we do for the average classical author. If Bart was going to be skeptical about the NT manuscripts, that skepticism would have to be multiplied a thousand-fold for the average classical author. If scholars actually did this, we would immediately go back into the Dark Ages.
On the second question, I noted that the vast majority of variants can’t even be translated and that less than one percent of all variants are meaningful and have a decent chance of reflecting the original wording.
On the third question, I quoted from Bart’s Misquoting Jesus, where he says that no essential Christian belief is affected by any of these variants. This is the most crucial point for most Christians and it was an important point to make, even though it was technically not within the purview of the debate topic.
On the fourth, I gave five reasons why we can be relatively confident that we have the wording of the originals somewhere in the manuscripts today:
(1) If the early MSS exhibit wild copying practices, then we are in an excellent position for recovering the original since there was no conspiracy to make just one kind of text. Further, those that were carefully produced in Alexandria reveal a careful copying process that reaches back to the earliest times. I illustrated this with Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and P75, and noted that when all three of them agree they probably reflect the original wording. Bart did not challenge this statement. I spoke at length about P75 and B, noting that the common ancestor was older than P75 and that B actually reflected a purer stream of transmission.
(2) The standard critical text used today, the Nestle-Aland 27, only follows conjecture in ONE place, and even there the two senior editors disagreed with the rest of the committee. This shows that conjecture is not needed for the NT like it is for virtually all other Greco-Roman literature. And when the MSS display coherence, this indicates that there are not gaps in the MS tradition.
(3) Not a single new reading from any of the 134 papyri has proven to be autographic. In the last 135 years, not a single new reading of any MS has such a pedigree. This shows that the autographic wording is to be found among the MSS somewhere. I concluded this point by saying, “So, what would happen if we found MSS even earlier than our earliest papyri? They will no doubt confirm the wording that we already considered to be original. If all the NT papyri that have been discovered have not been able to introduce a single original reading, why should we think that more discoveries would be any different?” This cut into Bart’s main argument, and he did not respond directly to the point.
(4) The copy of Mark that Matthew used is a first-century Mark, and yet it differs from what scholars think the original Mark said in only a handful of non-translatable places. (One of my interns, Jason Stein, is writing his master’s thesis on this very topic.One of Bart’s doctoral students, Jared Anderson, is also writing on this same topic, and he is coming to quite different conclusions. I wrote to him and asked about what methodological controls he is using.) Bart himself had indicated (in Misquoting Jesus) that we have a first-century copy of Mark, but he concluded that Matthew and Luke were ‘just like the scribes’ in that they changed the text significantly. I argued that they were not like the scribes and that the scribes hardly changed the text at all.
(5) The first-century fragment of Mark was my final point. Not only does its existence contradict Bart’s claim that we don’t have anything from the first century of Mark, but “This papyrus fragment—just like the other new discoveries that we are preparing for publication—strongly confirms what most scholars have already said is the original text.”
In the give-and-take that followed, I failed to ask Bart to lay out what he needed to believe that we had the original text of the NT. This was asked in our debate last October, and Bart said that he would need to see ten MSS of Mark, written within a week of the autograph, and having no more than a 0.001% deviation. I called him on that skepticism in the TC-List, and he conceded that he was speaking off the cuff and that it was an exaggeration. I noted that the question asked had to do with the minimum he would need to believe, so if he gave an exaggeration he was not really answering the question. Further, I noted that since there are only 57,000 letters in Mark, to require no more than 0.001% deviation would mean half a letter at most!
I had asked in my opening statement, “How does [Bart know that these early MSS do not give us the original wording]? What criteria does he use to determine that they made mistakes? Either such errors are patently obvious—like ‘Onion’ for ‘Union’ [I used the illustration of the preamble to the Constitution in which a scribe wrote, ‘We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Onion…’]—or he is judging these early papyri by later MSS that have an excellent pedigree—later MSS whose wording reaches back to the time before our earliest papyri.” Bart said I pitched him a softball because he was able to determine that the MSS were defective by patristic comments from the second century. I responded that this was overstated—that is, he was using the great uncials as well as patristics to point to the autographic wording. And precisely because of the majuscules of the fourth century scholars have concluded—with Metzger—that the wording of their texts is hundreds of years older than the MSS themselves.
We each had a one-minute closing statement. Bart had said, during the Q&A from the audience, that the bloody sweat passage in Luke 22.43–44 was not part of Luke’s Gospel originally and that it changed Luke’s passion narrative significantly. I agreed. In my closing statement I pointed out that this presupposed that Bart knew what the original text of Luke was saying. I think this was perhaps my strongest point in the debate. Even Bart ultimately has to claim that the original wording is available to us. Further, I noted that the scholarship of the last two thousand years has presupposed that we have the original wording in broad strokes and even in most particulars. To assume otherwise is to be radically skeptical.