Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Insights from the Ehrman vs. White Debate

Earlier this year, James White debated Bart Ehrman on "Can the New Testament be Inspired in Light of Textual Variations". The debate is relevant to this website on two counts: 1 - The topic of New Testament reliability is relevant to any Muslim-Christian apologetic dialogue, and 2 - Muslim apologists love quoting Bart Ehrman's perspective to defend their points of view.

During the crossfire period, Dr. White asked Dr. Ehrman a couple questions which I think are quite revealing and will provide a better lens through which we should see Ehrman's position regarding the New Testament.

White: You discussed the length of time that exists between the writing of Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the first extant copy, that being 150 years. You described this time period as “enormous”. That’s a quote. Could you tell us what term you would use to describe the time period between, say, the original writings of Suetonius, or Tacitus, or Pliny and their first extant manuscript copies?

Ehrman: Very enormous... ginormous. Ginormous doesn’t cover it. (For) the New Testament we have much earlier attestation than for any other book from antiquity.

This is a very revealing quotation. Despite Ehrman's outspoken claims of being unable to be absolutely sure of the text of the New Testament, he has unvoiced claims that we must be less sure of all other books from antiquity! To paraphrase Ehrman: You name it, if it's a book from antiquity it is less reliable than the New Testament. That's Ehrman's position.

At another point in the crossfire, Dr. White asks just how different Ehrman's critical edition of the New Testament would be from the Bibles we have. He asks:

White: Peter Williams of Cambridge suggested that if you were to edit an edition of the Greek New Testament using all your own decisions regarding textual variants, then it would differ less from the Nestle-Aland UBS platform than the Textus Receptus does. Would you agree?

Ehrman: Yes.

What Ehrman is essentially agreeing to is that his critical edition of the Bible, the one with all his changes and insertions and deletions, would be less different from today's New American Standard Bible than the King James Version!

But is this what Muslim apologists should be gleefully quoting in debates? The New Testament is the most well attested book from antiquity? That Ehrman's NT would be in between a New American Standard and a King James? No! What Muslim apologists need is a position which says "Jesus never claimed to be God. The evidence says he only ever just claimed to be a prophet! And he never died on the cross, it just appeared that way." Muslim apologists need an entirely different Bible for their arguments to be strong, and that's just not what their getting.

The position that Ehrman takes actually strengthens the Christian point of view: even the most vociferous scholars against New Testament reliability agree that the New Testament is extremely well attested and what was originally said can best be found among the most popular Bible versions of today.


Nakdimon said...

Nabeel, The topic of the debate was “Does the Bible misquote Jesus”. Here a view notes on Bart Ehrman’s inconsistency.

During the debate James asked Bart about the reliability of Tacitus, Homer and all them. And Bart jumped gleefully to attest that these aren’t as reliable as the NT was. And when James asked Bart if it would be accurate for someone to write a book called “Misquoting Tacitus” or “Misquoting …” some of the other historical figures mentioned, Bart jumped up and affirmed it saying “oh, absolutely…”

But when James asked him about the Qur’an and if it would be right to write a book called “Misquoting Muhammad” if the original documents weren’t available (for those who don’t know, Bart Ehrman’s position is that if an original document is inspired and is no longer available, then the text of that inspired document can no longer be deemed as a preserved text since all we have is a copy of a copy of a copy) Bart all of a sudden backtracked and went on the defence. All of a sudden, he didn’t know anything about the Qur’an or about Islam, which I find very strange as someone being the head of religious studies at a prominent University. Bart wouldn’t comment on that since he is not a scholar. But Bart isn´t a scholar on Homer or Tacitus either, but he has no quarrel affirming that it would be perfectly OK to write a book called “Misquoting Tacitus”. Bart even claimed that he didn’t appreciate to be likened to a Muslim by James. While James never even made such an assertion. Why does asking a question about the Qur’an make you a Muslim, but asking a question about Homer doesn’t make you a Homerite? Or asking a question about the NT doesn’t make you a Christian either, does it?

So why the inconsistency? Well, speaking against Tacitus, Homer and even the NT doesn’t get you in trouble, that’s why. Speaking against the Qur’an does have that probability. Either Bart should have not commented on Homer and Tacitus, because he is no scholar on those and therefore rightfully refrained from commenting on the Qur’an as well. Or he should have just commented on the question about the Qur’an, although he is not a scholar, just as he did with Tacitus and Homer. By the way, the question about the Qur’an wasn’t a scholarly question to begin with. Because it stands to reason that if you hold a certain position on a revelation about the original document then such a position goes for all documents of which the original is lost. You don’t have to be a scholar to figure that out.

Also Bart claimed that he was not a theologian, but he was a historian, so he wasn’t going to make theological statements. But he has recently written a book called “Jesus Interrupted”, which is filled with theological statements. So again, Bart claims one thing in one setting, but does a 180 in another setting.


Anonymous said...

Does the New Testament Manuscript Tradition Contain the Original Readings of the Book of the New Testament.Was that the topic of the "Does the Bible misquote Jesus"/"Can the NT be inspired in light of textual variations" debate?

Hogan Elijah Hagbard said...

I have to say that reading 'Misquoting Jesus' did not have an negative appeal upon me against the New Testament.

As a matter of fact I 'Misquoting Jesus' as well as 'Lost Christianities' (one of my favorite books) both strengthened my view.

It is vital to grasp that Ehrman's view does not even discredit the Bible to the extent we are meant to believe, it only sounds so; unfortunately our muslims friends have generally not taken the time and effort to probe into all this (which takes considerable time to do anyway).

Ehrman did not loose his faith in Christianity due to his discoveries on the Bible, he lost his faith based upon the issus of God and suffering. This is also obvious in his debate with William Lane Craig on the resurrection of Jesus, in which he doubts the resurrection not because of historical investigation but because of his own new philosophy of agnostic naturalism in which resurrection belongs to the supernatural realm (which is the proposition of the atheist (I suppose) muslim Ibn as well).

faktb said...

As a side note, in order for Christianity to be true, it doesn't have to be shown that the NT documents are inspired.

For Christianity to be true, all that essentially needs to be shown is that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus HISTORICALLY took place. And that can be accomplished by treating the NT and other documents as HISTORICAL (not theological) documents.

Issues of inspiration are more related to orthopraxy (the practices of Christianity) rather than orthodoxy.

I wonder what needs to be shown in order for Islam to be true. Perfect preservation of the Quran? Or is that too high of a standard?

Michelle Qureshi said...


That was the title of the debate, but the subtitle usually does a better job of approximating the topic of the debate. The problem was, I've seen multiple subtitles for this debate. If the other subtitle "Can the New Testament be Inspired in Light of the Textual Variants?" is what they used on the day of the debate, then I'll edit what I wrote in my article.

In regards to your point, I think I have to disagree. Ehrman might not be a Tacitus or Homer scholar, but he is at least familiar with these works, he knows the languages, and he has studied the historical context of the region.

The Qur'an is an entirely different book in an entirely different social context. Yes, you're right - if he applied his criteria to the Qur'an, it would fail miserably. But I don't think we can force him into that corner if he does not know Arabic, has not studied 7th century Arabian culture, and has not done any research in that field.

What we can say is that if we apply Ehrman's criteria to the Qur'an (something we cannot force him to do, but we ourselves can do) then the Qur'an falls on worse grounds than the New Testament. And I think that will have to be our next step.

Your underlying point may well be true - I don't think he wants to get on Muslims' bad side. But I think we would equally be in the wrong for forcing him to comment on something he does not know about.

James didn't do that in the debate, and it was weird how Bart flipped out in the crossfire when James mentioned "the Qur'an". It shows that he's a bit touchy in that regard, for whatever reason.

Finally, I do agree with you that Bart is being duplicitous in regards to his stated intent. At one moment he says he's not a theologian and at another moment he makes all kinds of theological allegations against Christianity. That is probably the main reason I don't like Bart's style. He strikes me as someone who goes with the flow that will keep him popular because of maneuvers like that, and that earns zero respect points from me.

faktb said...

Here is a link to a debate on Premier radio between Bart Ehrman & Richard Swinburne concerning the topic: "God's Problem: does the Bible fail to answer the problem of suffering?"


Scroll down to the 10 January 2009 show.

Radical Moderate said...

My self and Nak had a funny experiance on paltalk with a few muslims after this debate. Three muslims in a row, got up on the mic and were quoting the Bart Erman gosple. They were taunting me saying "YOu disagree with Bart Erman?" What they failed to realize that it was they who disagreed with Bart Erman. After I mentioned Barts statement about the NT being the most attested book of atniquity.

After I said that I was dotted, and a muslim admin got on the mic and said "Who is Bart Erhman, he is a straw man... We dont need Bart Erhman" lol. Ever since that debate I am hearing muslism less and less go to the Goslpel according to Bart.

Nakdimon said...

Yeah, me and The Fat Man have a lot of funny experiences in that “dialogue” room with Muslims. It’s been a while though, we should relive those times again very soon. You can almost hear the Muslims sigh in the room when they see our names pop up in the room.

Nabeel, I think we have to respectfully disagree about Ehrman, though. Fact is that you don’t even need to be a scholar of the Qur’anic text to answer the question that James White asked Bart Ehrman. And I would have pressed him on it too. If a certain standard is good enough for the NT, Tacitus, Pliny, Homer, etc., then this also goes for the Qur’an. (And again, I find it hard to believe that the head of the department of RELIGIOUS STUDY knows almost nothing about Islam. Especially about the textual history of “the fastest growing religion”) And if you have a problem with people asking you questions about the Qur’an because that’s “likening [you] to a Muslim”, then why aren’t you bothered when people “likening [you] to a Christian” or a Homerite when they ask you questions about the NT or Homer? These are just all non-sequiturs.

Anonymous said...

This has been one of my favourite posts on any blog for a long time. Thank you!

Fernando said...

robmanning... wellcome to this blogue... hoppe too see you around here more times inn the future...

faktb said...

Where are the rooms with the Muslims? I'd like to check it out.

Jeffrey Pacheco said...

And to add. Ehrman admits in the Greer-Heard Forum with Dan Wallace that he is not an idiot to lost his Christian faith because of textual variants.

Dk said...

Nabeel how do you understand Ehrman saying the NT has the most "earliest attestion" and equivocate it with "the NT is the most reliable document in all of ancient antquity".

This seems like a non-sequitor as a document may have earlier attestation than others, but if the events described are still erroneous (regardless of the time frame found e.g. 150 or 300 after the autograph) then errors still exist.

The question that must be asked here is: DESPITE Erhmans admission that the NT has earlier copies than other of it's kind, does he believe the ACTUAL content described in the NT is a reliable account of the events?

Erhman obviously would not grant 100% infallibility in this area.

p.s. Erhmans silence on the Quran is disturbing.

Michelle Qureshi said...

DK -

You quoted me as if I said "the NT is the most reliable document in all of ancient antquity". I didn't say that anywhere, and I'm wondering why you used quotation marks, as if they were my words. Perhaps I should title this response "Misquoting Nabeel".

I think it's clear in the context of my article that I'm talking about the text itself, not the description of the events. And I'm a million miles away from saying that Ehrman would "grant 100% infallibility" to the accounts found in the NT, as you have insinuated I would say.

I think you simply misinterpreted my article. What Ehrman is commenting on is the text, and that is all I'm saying. In fact, that is all his expertise is in - he is not a theologian, nor a historian. He is a textual critic, and when it comes to the text itself, he agrees it is the best of all antiquity.

I hope this helps,

Lothair Of Lorraine said...

Just 'FYI', Bart Erhman produced a set of audio lectures called 'The Historical Jesus' and it struck me as very strangs, but he said that there was 'no doubt that God chose Muhamamd to be a Prophet'.

So, Erhman has no problem discussing Islam.

Michelle Qureshi said...


Good to hear from you, friend! Which lectures are you talking about, and where can we find them? If Ehrman said these things, he's gonna be hearing backlash from all sides...

Fernando said...

Lothair Of Lorraine... hi! It's the firste time I see you arounde here, but itt looks like, from Doctor Nabeel reaction, you're a well famous blogger... never the less, good to see you around here...

You're information is trully important to the reconstruction of professor Ehrman's mentality puzzle...

and bie the way: whie your name? whie Lothair Of Lorraine in particular? anie connection with the historical Lothair Of Lorraine?

ounce again: glad to see you around here...

t_a_s said...

You're all missing the point....

There is a huge possibility that entire texts have changed over time to adapt to the society where the Bible will be delivered too...there will be wrong corrections, there will be mistranslations..we don't know who the writers are...put it this way, it is all an historical mess.

And I know you cannot hide from this truth.

Even in the NT that's been corrupted, it even says that there is a lot of people corrupting the original teachings and turning it to the teachings of man...this makes you question....Original teachings vs the teachings that are said to be corrupted (today's view of trinity)?

Your choice.