Monday, February 28, 2011

The problem with Ehrman (part 1)

New Testament scholar Dirk Jongkind gives a striking rebuttal to Bart Ehrman’s arguments against the reliability of the text of the New Testament. Ehrman frequently appeals to the fact that there are more variant readings for the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament. This is true, as there are between 300,000 and 400,000 manuscript variants for the New Testament, and approximately 134,000 words in the New Testament. To the uneducated, these stats give the impression that not one single word of the New Testament (or at best very few of them) can be considered authentic. This, however, is complete nonsense.

First, we must understand what constitutes a variant. A textual variant is any word or reading of a verse or passage which is different from another one in any way. So, for example, if the name of King David is spelled differently in one hand-written Greek manuscript from how it is spelled in another one, that’s a variant. One feature of writing before the modern period (and not just in Greek) is that there were no standardized spellings for proper names. Jongkind points out that William Shakespeare spelled his own name 13 different ways! There are at least four different ways that “David” is spelled in New Testament manuscripts. Each of these is a variant; moreover, each of them is a variant each time it occurs. The name David appears 59 times in the New Testament. That is potentially 236 variants just on that one name alone. You can multiply that by all of the other proper names in the New Testament – not just names of people, but also of places. These kinds of inconsequential variants account for about 99% of all variants in the New Testament. This fact is well known by anyone who has studied criticism of the New Testament text – including Bart Ehrman. His use of this statistic can only be described as disingenuous and misleading.

But there is another fact which sheds a very different light on the number of NT variants. The total number of manuscript pages of handwritten Greek texts of the NT is estimated to be about 2,600,000 pages. This is the reason why we have so many variants – because we have so many texts. But this means that on average there is about 1 variant for every 8 pages of handwritten Greek text. Try copying the New Testament by hand and see if you can do that well! But keep in mind that 99% of these variants have nothing to do with the meaning of the text and are merely a question of the spelling of proper names, word order (which in Greek is flexible and can be changed without affecting the meaning). This is far from Ehrman’s only problem, but it is quite a notorious one given the frequency with which he publicly uses this highly misleading stat without explaining what it really means.

3 comments:

kilo papa said...

So god carefully inspired the authors of the New Testament to write exactly what he intended but when it came to the scribes who copied them god was apparently too busy playing chess with the angels to really bother himself,right? Is that the argument?

God made sure all the "important" parts were copied correctly but he didn't feel the need to "sweat the details" so to speak.

So who cares how truly astonishing it would be if there were no variations among the manuscripts which would be rather difficult to explain without some "divine" guidance. Christians like John would then be exclaiming "See!! There's no way these manuscripts could be this perfect without God Himself guiding every single word!!
Praise God Almighty!!!

Ah, but no matter what the evidence, Christians find a way to believe that "God did it and it's not for you or me to know why!"

Ah, yes, that makes perfect sense.
If you're a Christian and desperate to explain away little details that don't really add up to your invisible man in the sky beliefs.

And I've seen Ehrman, in print and on video, state clearly that the majority of the variations are very minor and do not dramatically alter the meaning of the text. Though he does believe that some variations are significant.
I wish I had a dollar for every one of you fundies who have "misquoted" Bart.

www.divine-interventions.com

John Fraser said...

Kilo papa,

I just noticed your comment here, sorry for the delay in replying.

You said, “So god carefully inspired the authors of the New Testament to write exactly what he intended but when it came to the scribes who copied them god was apparently too busy playing chess with the angels to really bother himself,right? Is that the argument?

Not, that’s not my argument. My argument is that the scribes who copied it were very careful – only one variant for every 8 pages of handwritten text is quite impressive. Also that we have so many manuscripts that we can be completely confident of the vast majority of the NT. Is there something in there that you’re challenging?

You said, “God made sure all the "important" parts were copied correctly but he didn't feel the need to "sweat the details" so to speak.

I have no inside information on the process - I'm simply pointing to the facts. Do you have anything to say about that?

You said, “So who cares how truly astonishing it would be if there were no variations among the manuscripts which would be rather difficult to explain without some "divine" guidance. Christians like John would then be exclaiming "See!! There's no way these manuscripts could be this perfect without God Himself guiding every single word!!
Praise God Almighty!!!


If there’s an argument in here, it’s a bit obscure to me.

You said, “Ah, but no matter what the evidence, Christians find a way to believe that "God did it and it's not for you or me to know why!"

Actually, I’ve referred you to the evidence. Perhaps you’d care to actually make a comment on that.

You said, “If you're a Christian and desperate to explain away little details that don't really add up to your invisible man in the sky beliefs.

Which little details have you seen me explain away?

You said, “And I've seen Ehrman, in print and on video, state clearly that the majority of the variations are very minor and do not dramatically alter the meaning of the text. Though he does believe that some variations are significant.

Yes, Ehrman does say that. But more often he repeats his misleading comment that there are more variations than there are words in the New Testament. I can find the quote if you’d like.

You said, “I wish I had a dollar for every one of you fundies who have "misquoted" Bart.

It’s not a misquote, KP, it’s a matter of public record. When I get a chance I’ll put it up for you so you can eat those words. Or more likely not. I don’t think you’re the kind of person that deals well with evidence.

Dave Williamson said...

Kilo Papa, we're waiting for your response. It seems Frazier gave a decent response to your rebuttal, clarifying the record. What he said was quite clear to me all along. All you did was raise suspicion and doubt, never providing any factual evidence to the contrary. When you can provide a substantive argument to invalidate the documentry authenticity of the scriptures, then by all means, belly up to the bar. We all would love to see what you have to say. You have a hard road to hoe, because no one has done it so far. There are plenty of ex-atheists who tried to do that and failed miserably, becoming christians as a result. Are you up for the challenge?

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.