Bart Ehrman Swallows the Camel

"You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!" (Matthew 23:24)

Bart Ehrman, author of the surprisingly popular book Misquoting Jesus recently had an article written about him in the Danville Register Bee entitled Bible's words up for debate. In typical newspaper fashion, the article is entirely too gracious to him -- accepting his words without any serious attempt to determine if there is any substance behind them. (Which brings to mind the question: why has the press lost all ability to question people about religious statements unless they are evangelical Christians?) In fairness to the reporter, Susan Elzey, she probably doesn't have the knowledge base to be able to challenge Ehrman. So, as usual, it's left up to us to point out some statements reported in the newspapers are . . . well, let's say a little bit suspect.

In this article, Ehrman makes the following point:

"The only way to spread [the books of the New Testament] around then was to make copies, and the only way to make copies was by hand," Ehrman said.

Copying, of course, meant mistakes, which continued to be copied and added to new mistakes, he said.

"This goes on year and year, and eventually the original gets lost or worn out," Ehrman said. "We have lots of copies that survived, and no two are alike. Some say God wouldn’t allow mistakes, but we have them. At last count, there are 5,400 copies of the Greek New Testament.

"Most of the mistakes are completely minor, insignificant, immaterial and don’t matter and show nothing more than the scribes could spell not better than students today."

Some matter a whole lot, however, he said, and look like they are intentional changes to the manuscript.

Ehrman cited as an example the story of Jesus being found in the temple by Mary and Joseph when he was 12. Earlier manuscripts read, "Your father and I have been looking for you," while later ones change to "Joseph and I" and then to "we were looking for you."

Ehrman explains that scribes, realizing that Joseph was not the father of Jesus, changed the manuscripts intentionally.

Stop right there. Let's take a closer look at these claims. First, I don't personally know if Ehrman is being accurate in claiming that these later versions exist. For purposes of this post, I accept that these variants exist.

Second, note that Ehrman makes no allowance for the fact that the Hebrew people were an "oral culture." The fact that it was an oral culture has been discussed many times in many places. It was recently the subject of Layman's fine post, Was the Gospel Tradition Like a Game of Telephone? (the answer being, of course not). The mere fact that the Gospels were originally spread largely orally making multiple numbers of people familiar with both the story and the particulars of the Gospel appears to be ignored.

Third, it is critical to note what his post actually says. It notes that most of the differences between manuscripts found in the Gospels are minor changes such as word order. In Lee Strobel's interview with Dr. Bruce Metzger in The Case for Christ, Strobel asks Metzger whether the changes in the manuscripts tend to be more minor than substantive. Metzger, an acknowledged expert, says:

Yes, yes, that's correct. The scholars work very carefully to try to resolve them by getting back to the original meaning. The more significant variations do not overthrow any doctrine of the church. Any good Bible will have notes that will alert the reader to varient readings of any consequence. But again, these are rare.

Apparently unphased by the fact that Metzger would find his argument specious, Ehrman presses forward with the argument that the original text of the story of Jesus in the temple uses the phrase "your father and I" have been looking for you as some point of proving that the Gospel's cannot be trusted. Ehrman doesn't explain why he thinks that this variant is important, but I think one fairly obvious possibility would be that Ehrman is trying to make the point that the earliest writers of the Bible didn't believe that Jesus was conceived by God through the Mary while she was still a virgin. After all, why else would the writers of the Bible try to cover up the language that Joseph was Jesus' "father"? But is this really a good argument? I think that if this is his argument, it is flawed for several reasons.

First, I think that its pretty obvious that the use of the phrase "father and I" is considered pretty benign in most circles. My own NIV Study Bible has the phrase "my father and I" and not "Joseph and I" or "we" in Luke 2:48. Thus, to the extent that there may have been efforts by later Christians to change the text to not read "your father and I", such changes are not even reflected in modern translations of the Gospel of Luke.

Second, if there were attempts to change the original language, one doesn't necessarily need to ascribe evil motives to the effort. The person doing the re-writing of the text may have been doing it solely to clarify that Jesus' real father was God and they didn't want the issue confused (more on this in a moment) in the same fashion as Ehrman. After all, when people see the word "father" it is only natural that they would assume that the word means "biological father" -- it is an easy connection. It certainly is possible that some well-meaning but mistaken copier of the texts thought something like, "Some might make that connection, so to make it clear, I am going to change the wording to reflect the intent of the writer and avoid the confusion." Such an action would be wrong, but it would not reflect the effort to change the Bible but rather an attempt to make it easier to read while remaining consistent with the original intent.

Third, the phrase "father" is the Greek word pater which can mean, according to the Blue Letter Bible lexicon, "one who stands in a father's place and looks after another in a paternal way." Thus, there is certainly no reason to conclude that the use of the phrase "your father and I" means that the authors of the text originally thought that Joseph was Jesus' biological father.

Fourth, and most important, the whole whole idea falls flat is that the verse that Ehrman singles out is found in Luke 2:48. Consider that Luke is the Gospel that contains the most detail about the birth and childhood of Jesus. Throughout the Gospel of Luke it is made abundantly clear that Joseph is not the father of Jesus. It is Luke 1 where the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive and bear a son, and Mary objects, "How will this be since I am a virgin?" (Luke 1:34) Is there any question that Luke is saying that Joseph is not the father of the baby? Is there any question that verses like Luke 1:34 were not part of the original text of Luke? To my knowledge, the answer is no.

Also, right after the "your father and I" line is used, Jesus clarifies the relationship Himself. Jesus responds to Mary's statement about "your father and I" by making sure it is understood that He has a different father to whom he holds higher allegiance. Jesus says: "And He said to them, 'Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father's {house?}'"

In all sincerity, Ehrman seems to be focusing on a minor, insignificant change that has no impact on the text at all while ignoring the monster in the next room that is screaming over and over that Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus. Ehrman, straining at the gnat of the change in language, swallows the camel because he igores the fact that Jesus' virgin birth is taught elsewhere in language which, to my knowledge, has no later variants. Is he saying that all of these other verses were also changed? That's a might broad claim that seems unlikely that he has, or will be able to, prove.

Is it enough to point that later changes occurred to the text to prove that we can't rely on the earlier text? That argument, at least seems a little better to me, but it also fails. The fact that we are able to track so many different families of the Bible and track back the changes that occurred, it is pretty clear that the present translations that we have of the Bible are demonstrably based on reconstructions of the texts from very early copies (if not the originals). Thus, if there were earlier versions of the entire Gospel of Luke, given the oral culture and the ability to trace back the language from the multitude of early copies, it is very, very, very doubtful that any changes would be significant -- at least not so significant as to allow for Jesus to have suddenly have had a virgin birth added to his biography without some of the apostles or their followers objecting.

I find Ehrman's effort strained, at best. The changes he points to seems mainly to provide evidence of the fact that Bible translators have already taken into account the variants such as the change from "your father and I" to "we" to produce an honest, reliable reconstruction of the original text of the books of the New Testament. Imagining undiscovered earlier versions of the language of the New Testament books based upon such flimsly evidence is strikingly desperate.

Would you like some fries with that camel, Mr. Ehrman?


Anonymous said…
I think Ehrman's book is partly self-refuting (in the conclusions it tries to draw, not the entire book). He suggests that all these textual variants in the New Testament indicate that we can't be sure what it originally said. Yet for pretty much every textual variant in the book, he uses textual criticism to establish confidently what he believes the documents originally said. I realize he means to imply "the presence of these textual variants means there are probably a bunch more that we don't know about", but with that kind of thinking we have to be fanatically skeptical to all of ancient history.
BK said…
I haven't personally read Ehrman's book, but what I have heard about it suggests that you are on spot with your comment.
Jason Pratt said…

(Btw, is that you Cam?)

Emily said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said…
Nope, that wasn't me.

Steven Carr said…
'The mere fact that the Gospels were originally spread largely orally.....'

DO we have a writer in the first 100 years saying 'I heard person X tell me Gospel story Y'?
Jason Pratt said…
No; but that doesn't necessarily abrogate the original orality of the Gospel stories. The stylisms and the cultural context point in that direction, which is why it's such a popularly accepted position (including among sceptics, as I'm sure you have to be aware.)

Luke in his prologue may be telling us that, in general, he is synthesizing from eyewitness reports made by those who were leading personally (not just by writing correspondence); though the interpretation is disputable.

"Since many have, in fact, already put their hands to drawing up an account of certain matters--of which we are fully assured among ourselves, as sure as those who, having become eyewitnesses and deputies of the Word since the beginning, have passed those things down to us--it seemed fitting for me, having traced everything carefully from the very first, to also write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the certainty of the words about which you have been taught!"

(I've intentionally not tried to make it come out certainly in favor of a redaction of oral material; this translation could be read either way, I think.)

I'm far from dissenting against the notion of disciples making early shorthand notebooks during the time of Jesus' ministry, too. (The texts affirm He had scribes in a couple of offhanded references; and that would have been de rigeur for a prophet/rabbi with a widescale following, as Kitchen points out in an entirely different context.) But I'm pretty sure that wasn't what you (of all people) were trying to make a point in favor of. {lopsided g}


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