[ I initially set out to write a post called Implicit Duplicity in Biblical Inerrancy. The post was going to discuss why I think Evangelical apologists are duplicitous when they downplay the importance of inerrancy in order to be a Christian. To do so, I was going to primarily discuss Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus and a video by William Lane Craig on inerrancy. While writing it, I realized I had just as much to say about Strobel’s analysis of Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus: The Story of Who Changed the Bible and Why that I decided to divide it into two posts instead of one ridiculously long post. What follows is my second idea of a post defending Dr. Ehrman from Strobel’s criticism in his book. ]
I’ve been a fan of Bart Ehrman for a while now. I saw him speak in person at OSU in the fall of 2008, read his book Misquoting Jesus the same year, listened to a lecture series of 24 lectures on the historical Jesus, and watched numerous lectures and debates online from pseudography, theodicy, the resurrection to the reliability of the New Testament. I think he’s a great speaker and an astute scholar. I enjoy reading his work, and likewise enjoy listening to him speak. Obviously, I find it refreshing to hear a position on the New Testament which vindicated my own suppositions when I first began examining my faith. Lastly, through him I was inspired to seek out deeper levels of understanding in the bible and ultimately to encounter a wide variety of authors and scholars on all sides of the spectrum.
For some reason the last time I went home, I decided to raid my brother’s formidable collection of Christian apologetics. Among the books I gathered was Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus. I had thumbed through it when it first came out, but wanted to reexamine it after having become far more acquainted with both Ehrman’s work and New Testament Criticism. So what did I think about it my second time reading through it?
I was appalled. In fact, I hardly recognized the book they were discussing as Ehrman’s. Their characterization of it was so off that they hardly even assessed any of his actual arguments, and when they did, Daniel Wallace (the expert Strobel interviewed) conceded most of Ehrman’s views on which parts of the bible have been altered, added, or changed! (ie – the longer ending in the book of Mark, the women caught in adultery, and Mark 1:41 originally saying Jesus grew angry).
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Strobel’s mischaracterization of Ehrman
I think Strobel intentionally mischaracterizes Ehrman’s understanding of inerrancy, his loss of faith, and his position on the variants in The New Testament. Strobel intentionally misleads his readers in such a way to reduce the credibility of Ehrman thereby bolstering his own case. Strobel’s goal is not to accurately interact with Ehrman’s text but rather the public’s perception, and the Christian reaction to, Ehrman’s text. Strobel is duplicitous by claiming on the back cover jacket of his book that he is engaging in “honest scrutiny” and a “no-holds barred quest for the truth about history’s most important figure.” Strobel has a bias and agenda in his book which colors his writing and obscures honest investigation. In his introduction he indicates he is responding to the most “powerful and prevalent objections to creedal Christianity that are currently circulating in contemporary culture” and that he “could not gloss over these allegations” (Strobel, 15). Yet when he addresses Ehrman’s so called challenge, he claims he “….would have to face Ehrman’s masterfully written critique head on” (ibid, 17). I will argue that he is actually addressing the popular perception of Ehrman’s objections that circulate in contemporary culture, and in doing so, is decidedly not facing Ehrman’s critique head on.
From the beginning, Strobel mischaracterized Ehrman’s aim and intention in the book, his reasons for leaving the faith, and what he says in the book. Firstly, Strobel insinuates that Ehrman is biased in several places. He (more accurately, the person he interviews, Daniel Wallace) accuses Ehrman of not only not checking his biases, but feeding them (Strobel, 72). Later Wallace insinuates Ehrman is a “radical liberal” who starts where he wants to end up (ibid, 73). This is incredibly ironic. Strobel claims to be engaging in an honest investigation, and states he had to “open himself up to the possibility that they (the attacks) could legitimately undermine the traditional understanding of Christ (ibid, 15). If this were the case, why does he only seek out to interview scholars who already agree with his conclusion? In this chapter he interviews Daniel Wallace a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. This institution explicitly affirms the doctrine of inerrancy. Is he really checking his own biases at the door by interviewing someone who already agrees with him? He writes “People who have searched for Jesus have often discovered exactly who they wanted to find in the first place” (Strobel, 12). Should we be surprised then that Strobel uncovers the Jesus portrayed by conservative evangelicals? Is it surprising that he ultimately discovers what he wanted to discover to begin with: The Jesus he came to believe in is the real, authentic Jesus.
Regardless, he then goes to considerable lengths to undermine the reasons why Ehrman left the faith. In multiple places Strobel either implies or directly states that Ehrman left the faith as a result of his studies. Furthermore, he often insinuates that Ehrman lost his faith because he stopped believing in the doctrine of inerrancy. For instance, he says Ehrman “throws everything out” when a professor questions inerrancy, and claims Ehrman’s understanding of faith and doctrine is inverted –placing inerrancy above other doctrines such as God’s existence or Christ’s atonement (Strobel, 75). He even goes so far as to imply (without justification) Ehrman believes if you find one error in the bible you should throw the whole thing out (ibid). When Wallace hears this he exclaims “Good grief! What a shockingly naïve view to take!” (ibid). In fact, Strobel directly states that finding one apparent discrepancy in the bible “essentially wrecked his (Ehrman’s) faith” (parenthesis mine ibid, 80).
If Ehrman really believed you should throw the whole bible out because of one error, that would be a shockingly naïve view, but understandable considering the current state of fundamentalist Christianity. Nevertheless, is this a view which Ehrman subscribes to, or ever subscribed to? Was Ehrman’s faith wrecked because of one purported discrepancy in the bible? In the beginning of his book, Ehrman gives a brief autobiography detailing his journey and understanding of the bible. He does say that once he made that admission (of an error in the bible) “the floodgates opened” and he began to question other passages in the bible (Ehrman, 9). A little later he indicates that his study led to a “radical rethinking” of what the bible is and its meaning (ibid, 11). But did he lose his faith because of his study? He emphatically denies it, writing the issue that caused him to become agnostic “has to do not with the bible, but with the pain and suffering in the world” (italics mine ibid, 248). Elsewhere, he indicates he was a “…God believing, sin-confessing, church-going Christian…” who believed “the bible contains God’s word, trustworthy as the source for theological reflection” for twenty years after his radical rethinking (Ehrman’s loss of faith). Indeed, he goes on stating that after his radical rethinking he didn’t become an agnostic, he simply reassessed his understanding of divine inspiration and inerrancy (ibid, 251). This certainly doesn’t sound like someone who abruptly abandoned his faith for one trivial error in the bible, held a naïve overemphasized view of inerrancy or who misplaced his doctrinal priorities.
So why then does Strobel try to paint the (fallacious and irrelevant) picture that Ehrman lost his faith as a result of his studies? He’s trying to undermine Ehrman’s credibility. He’s trying to show that Ehrman is biased, that way we don’t take his views as seriously as we should. He’s trying to show that we can dismiss Ehrman’s agnosticism as naïve and misguided – this way, we reduce the shock of a top biblical scholar leaving the fold. But, even if he held shockingly naïve views, and left the faith for bad reasons, what bearing this have at all on Ehrman’s actual assertions? This is nothing more than a red herring. Even if Ehrman did these things, it’s completely irrelevant to Ehrman’s argument. In fact, it’s not only a red herring, it’s practically an ad-hominem attack on Ehrman’s credibility as a scholar as a result of his (irrelevant) theological beliefs.
Stifling the Sting: tackling textual criticism
Before addressing Ehrman’s actual contentions, he spends a sizeable chunk of the chapter trying to reduce the sting of the neophytes realization of the great task of textual criticism itself. Strobel and Wallace denounce the often used analogy of playing the game “telephone” because textual criticism doesn’t involve oral tradition, but written tradition (Strobel, 81). They ask us to imagine we played telephone by writing it down! It wouldn’t be a game because it’s too easy! Instead, Wallace offers up his own analogy: the Gospel according to Snoopy; a game which Wallace uses when giving seminars to college students and churches. In it six “scribes” from the audience copy a 50 word statement and produce errors, intentionally or unintentionally. The next day, the original manuscripts are lost, there are holes in the transmission and the rest of the group is left to figure out the originals while the silent scribes look on. The result is almost inevitably, the original is reconstructed word for word, or almost word for word, to which the audience often bursts into spontaneous applause (ibid). Certainly this sounds like a fun game (I know I’d play it!) and it certainly softens the sting of realizing we don’t have the originals, or copies of the originals, but does it accurately convey the transmission of the text of the New Testament? Here’s my own game: In English tell a group of people 4 different stories and have them circulate it by word of mouth for a few weeks. Tell them their goal is to convince people the stories are real. Afterwards, individually tell groups of people who have heard the stories, but not from the original people who told the stories to write down what they heard in german. Then have many different people copy those stories in German thousands of times over the course of two years. As they copy it, have them come in contact with the different stories and then copy and combine those stories. Then, completely destroy any copy from the first year. At the end of this ridiculously long game, get an entirely new group of people, who have never heard the stories, to try to reconstruct the original. Afterwards, translate the original into Chinese. Lastly, have someone fluent in English and Chinese compare the original stories. Somehow I doubt they would be identical! Obviously this would be nearly impossible to do, and certainly impractical! But this comes closer than either telephone or Wallace’s game does to the herculean task of reconstructing the originals (as well as translating them). Hardly reducing the sting of the task at hand, I think this more accurate game demonstrates the almost Sisyphean nature of reconstructing the originals; a point which Ehrman argues in debate with Wallace: it’s impossible to accurately reconstruct the originals (Ehrman-Wallace Debate)
The Number and Nature of Variants
Let’s look now at one of the first (actual) contentions Strobel deals with: the number of variations in the New Testament. Ehrman writes we have more variations in the New Testament than words in it. (Ehrman, 10). Wallace is quick to respond pointing out the most common variation is simply a spelling error, and that the majority of the variations are insignificant (Strobel, 86, 87). What Strobel neglects to tell his readers, leaving the impression that Ehrman is being duplicitous by leaving out this fact, is that Ehrman unequivocally states this – in multiple places! In fact, right after he says we have more variations than words, he states “most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most of us today” (Ehrman 10,11). It turns out, Strobel is the one being duplicitous! Ehrman is frank about this from the get up. In fact, with few exceptions, I’ve been quoting Ehrman entirely from his introduction! I can’t help but wonder: Did Strobel actually read Ehrman’s book? If he didn’t, he’s certainly not conducting “hard hitting investigation” If he did, he’s being intentionally misleading to once again reduce Ehrman’s credibility.
So what does Strobel’s scholar say in regards to the other variations, however small a percentage of total variants, which scribes intentionally changed? Wallace concedes “He’s absolutely correct. Sometimes Scribes did intentionally change the text” (Strobel, 88). Additionally, he goes on to say they changed the texts for theological reasons to make the text look more orthodox (ibid). I find it fascinating that after wading through 23 pages of red herring and ad hominem attacks against Ehrman, Wallace essentially agrees with Ehrman’s contention: Sometimes scribes changed the text for theological reasons. Now, to be fair, Wallace strongly disagrees that when this happens doctrines are in jeopardy. He unequivocally asserts that he firmly believes no doctrines are in jeopardy because of this (ibid). But does Ehrman argue that entire doctrines are at stake? Does Ehrman ever assert that certain passages change a doctrine? In multiple locations Ehrman states the main thesis of the book is that in certain passages, how you resolve the textual variant affects either the meaning of the passage, or the theological conclusions you draw from them (Ehrman, 208). Elsewhere he writes “my question is not about traditional Christian beliefs, but about how to interpret passages of the bible (ibid, 252). The closest he comes to asserting that doctrines are in Jeopardy is “Sometimes the meaning of a verse, a passage, or an entire book depends on which textual variants the scholar decides as “original” (ibid, 260, 261). In fact, that last quote came from Ehrman’s own summary of what he’s trying to convey in Misquoting Jesus. At no point does he directly assert, or even imply, that entire doctrines are in jeopardy. Instead, he writes that the meaning of the text as it stake – a very different claim altogether. The former claim, which Strobel wrongly attributes to him, insinuates Ehrman is writing a polemical book to dismantle Christianity or arm its detractors with the tools of textual transmission. The latter claim is what scholars have known, and almost always agree on: sometimes scribes intentionally changed the text and it affects the meaning of that passage. This is a very important difference that I will turn to again, at the very end.
Inauthentic Passages in the Bible
Let’s look at the two passages of greatest contention in the bible: The story of the women caught in adultery whom Jesus shows mercy, and the longer ending of the book of Mark. Wallace concedes both of these passages in the bible are also inauthentic. Wallace qualifies his dismissal of the first passage by indicating it’s not “literally authentic” but is probably historically authentic. He clarifies stating “something may have happened with Jesus being merciful to a sinner, but the story was originally truncated in form” (Strobel, 91). Unsurprisingly, this is very similar to what Ehrman says on the issue who indicates that it’s inauthentic, was added later by scribes, and posits an oral tradition for its origin (Ehrman 64, 65). One must ask what then has Wallace added to Ehrman’s analysis of the story?
Likewise, the same is true of the longer ending of Mark. Both explain why they think it’s inauthentic, and how it probably came to be added later. Wallace, however, indicates that it doesn’t harm the resurrection at all. Ehrman, however – remains silent on the issue (Ehrman, 68). Ehrman’s silence speaks volumes. He doesn’t imply that because we don’t have that longer ending of Mark the resurrection is in jeopardy, or one must view it differently. Indeed, he hardly mentions the resurrection at all, except with the curious question: If the women left the tomb and told no one, how did the disciples learn of the resurrection? In fact, to the best of my knowledge, he nowhere calls into question the validity of the resurrection. So why does Strobel bring up that matter in the first place?
An Angry and Scared Jesus
Again, when Strobel and Wallace discuss Mark 1:41, Wallace concurs “I think Ehrman is probably correct about the text” (Strobel 95). In the original text it writes that Jesus grew angry when a leper asked Jesus to heal him; in contrast, most bibles write he was filled with compassion. Strobel then claims that Ehrman is making the implicit argument that Jesus isn’t God because he got angry. When I first read Ehrman’s book, I didn’t pick up that implication, so when I reread it this time, specifically looking for clues as to why Strobel would read that, I found none. Maybe they’re there, maybe I’m missing something – but I honestly didn’t see that. Once again, I’m inclined to think Strobel is misrepresenting Ehrman. You can look for yourself the relevant passage is on pages 133-139.
Ehrman’s view is that the original passage in Mark portrays Jesus as angry, not compassionate. He then offers an explanation why Jesus was angry which Wallace claims Ehrman fails to back up. (Strobel 95). Whether or not Ehrman is right or wrong is certainly up to debate –after he’s only offering up an interpretation of the text. Nonetheless, he does give reasons why he thinks Jesus is angry – he offers a few other relevant passages dealing with his anger, and a plausible rationale. In the end, Ehrman’s explanation is second to his main point: “There’s a completely different feel to the story” and “Mark appears to have portrayed an angry Jesus” (Ibid, 139).
If one starts with the view that Ehrman is trying to wreck our understanding of Jesus, then he certainly failed. If one starts with the view that a variation in the manuscript changes the very meaning of the passage, he obviously succeeded. Strobel falsely ascribes the former view to Ehrman and succeeds in dismantling that straw-man characterization; he however has done nothing to show how Ehrman’s actual view is wrong. Ehrman only asserts that meaning of that passage is changed with the resolution of the textual variant – and it is.
Lastly, Strobel and Wallace discuss a variation in the passage Hebrews 2:9. The relevant verse in question is whether or not Jesus died apart from God (probably original) or by the grace of God (probably altered). Strobel indicates Ehrman insists this alters the whole meaning of the book, and flat out states Ehrman has a hidden agenda of proving Jesus isn’t God because when he died on the cross he died screaming and terrified. Perhaps I’m just not as astute at picking up hidden meanings as Strobel is, because I read, and reread Ehrman’s relevant passage (144-149) and never picked up on Ehrman’s hidden meaning, nor did I catch where he claims it alters the meaning of the whole book. In fact, he offers a compelling Christology in light of the original meaning. In the context of the surrounding verses, Christ “lowered himself below the angels to share fully in blood and flesh, experience suffering and death as a human death” continuing “it is as a full human being that Jesus experiences his passion without any succor that might have been his as an exalted being. Ironically, Wallace asserts that this doesn’t change our understanding of Jesus because the Markan passion also has Jesus crying out at his death. Who else makes the parallel to Mark? Ehrman does at the end of his discussion of the text (Strobel 96 and Ehrman 148).
Once again, I don’t think Ehrman is trying here to radically change our total understanding of Jesus, he’s trying to change our understanding of that passage, and potentially of the book of Hebrews. Has the textual variant put doctrines in jeopardy? No. Did Ehrman claim it would? No. In fact, Ehrman isn’t at all commenting on the divinity of Christ, or that because Christ suffered a fully human death he wasn’t divine. Ehrman is fully aware of the orthodox view of Christ as being fully human and fully divine and therefore the passage indicating Jesus died apart from God, as both Wallace and Ehrman assert, would do nothing more to reduce Christ’s divinity than the Markan narrative would.
Doctrines in Jeopardy revisited
The one largest issue of contention in the entire chapter (which sadly only takes up about one page) is whether or not the variation affects any doctrine. Strobel quotes Ehrman as “It would be wrong…to say –as people sometimes do, that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them…Just the opposite is the case. Strobel then asks Wallace: “Exactly how many Christian Doctrines are Jeopardized by textual variants in the New Testament? (Strobel 88). Notice the two ellipses (…) in that quote? What’s missing from there? For your pleasure here’s the entire (lengthy) quote
“It would be wrong, however, to say – as people sometimes do, that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them. We have seen, in fact, that just the opposite is the case. In some cases the very meaning of the text is at stake, depending upon how one resolves a textual problem: Was Jesus an angry man? Was he completely distraught in death? Did he tell his Disciples they could drink poison without being harmed? Did he let an adultress off the hook with nothing but a mild warning? Is the doctrine of the trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament? Is Jesus actually called the unique God there? Does the New Testament indicate that even the son of God himself does not know when the end will come? The questions go on and on and all of them are related to how one resolves difficulties in the manuscript tradition as it has comes down to us” (Ehrman, 207,208 emphasis mine).
I took the time to type that entire thing out by hand for two reasons: First because Strobel reproduces the bulk of it at the beginning of the chapter (p. 67-68) and secondly because it indicates exactly what Ehrman means when he says the meaning of the texts and the theological conclusions that one draws from them. Strobel interprets Ehrman to be attacking Christian Doctrine, claiming they’re in jeopardy. But when we read the text in its entirety it’s fairly clear he simply means the theological interpretation of that particular text is changed given how one resolves a textual dispute. Indeed, as I briefly showed –if we claim the original Mark 1:41 said Jesus was filled with compassion, we get a different picture of Jesus than one filled with anger. Does the meaning of that text, and the theological implications we draw change with the way we resolve that particular textual difficulty? Yes! Does that completely change our understanding of Jesus. No! Did Ehrman claim it did? No! Does Strobel imply it does? Yes!
One last note about this issue: Both Strobel and Ehrman bring up Bruce Metzger, the person whom Ehrman dedicated the book, and his mentor. Strobel does it on the last page of the chapter, and Ehrman In the Q&A at the end of his book. Strobel leaves the reader with a portion of his interview with Metzger where Metzger affirms that the “more significant variations do not overthrow any doctrine of the church” and that his scholarship has demonstrated to him that his faith in Jesus has been “well placed, very well placed” (Strobel, 99). Someone asks Ehrman a question about Metzger and how their views differ in the Q&A at the end of the book. Ehrman’s response is illuminating. He indicates that “The position I argue for in Misquoting Jesus does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by variations in the New testament….For the most part, I think that’s true.” (Ehrman, 252). Once again, Ehrman isn’t out to disprove Christian doctrine, nor does he think he does that. Strobel’s indication to the contrary is misleading and puts words in Ehrman’s mouth.
Does Strobel deal with Ehrman head on?
Given how terrible Strobel’s exposition of Ehrman’s position is, I now return to one of my original questions: Is Strobel actually interacting with Ehrman and his views, or what most Christians think Ehrman says, as distilled through popular media? It’s a question on which I can only speculate. If Strobel were actually interacting with Ehrman’s book, he would have acknowledged that Wallace and Ehrman agree on far more than they disagree, change his characterization of Ehrman’s intentions in writing the book, and the reasons Ehrman left his faith. Strobel is so blatantly biased and mischaracterizes Ehrman so egregiously that his book only serves to further stifle intellectual inquiry into these highly important matters. If Strobel really wanted to investigate Ehrman’ claims he would have to actually address them. Instead, he spends the first 25 or so pages engaging in innuendo and insinuation dragging red herrings across the page and attacking Ehrman with ad hominem remarks. After all the innuendo, he only addresses a straw-man understanding of Ehrman’s views. In the few places which he directly addresses Ehrman’s actual point of contention, he concedes most of them to Ehrman. In the most important place in which he disagrees, he misattributes Ehrman’s intentions.
If Strobel actually wanted to assess Ehrman’s “attack” on the Identify of Christ (as the subtitle of the book implies) he wouldn’t have even addressed Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman’s book has very little to do with Jesus himself. In fact, he didn’t even want to title it that. As Strobel acknowledges (albeit, in an endnote) Ehrman wanted to title the book: Transmission Troubles, to highlight what it’s about: How the bible changed. But Ehrman has written a book, nearly a decade earlier, about Jesus. It’s called Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennia. That’s the book Strobel should have addressed, because it’s the book where Ehrman argues against Jesus’ divinity, and against our understanding of Jesus as distilled through the bible, and argues for a different interpretation of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet was (obviously erroneously) claimed the world would end soon. But, Strobel didn’t do that either.
Strobel isn’t writing this chapter to actually deal with Ehrman’s views, or to accurately reflect what Ehrman’s book is about. If he were then he wouldn’t distort Ehrman’s views so much, but since he does, I have to ask why? In fact, I could have easily titled the post as “Misquoting Bart: The story of who changed his book and why” So, here’s why:
Misquoting Bart: The Story of who changed his book and why
He’s doing this because he’s responding to a straw-man fear of Ehrman that Christians have. Christians know so little about the bible and how it’s transmitted to us that they feel hoodwinked when they find out one of their favorite passages is not authentic to the bible (Strobel, 92). Strobel writes that it’s not only a shame, it’s a “crime” how much we’ve dumbed down the church (Strobel, 94). Likewise, Evangelicals may be on their last breaths if they don’t “repent” and are “led into proper historical research” (ibid, 97, 98). Ehrman knows this. In fact, he wrote his book so that lay people could find out about this. When addressing why his book was so shocking to people when it’s old news to scholars, he indicates (and Strobel and Wallace affirm this in multiple places) that scholars, pastors and clergymen have not done a good job informing the public about these issues. He goes on to say “readers of the New Testament have a Right to know! (this information) (Ehrman 254). Indeed they do, and Ehrman did his best to inform them of it. But is Strobel advancing the cause by engaging in such blatant rhetorical fallacies? Or is he just doing damage control because a book which is advancing the cause created such a stir that the faithful were unequipped to deal with it and panicked about things scholars have known for centuries? As it turns out Ehrman wasn’t set out to unravel our understanding of Jesus after all; he was actually just trying to educate people so they would actually understand how we got the bible. What’s wrong with that?
works cited (in case it already wasn’t obvious what I cited)
The Case for the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel
Misquoting Jesus: The Story of who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart Ehrman
I also included two links. The first to an article Ehrman wrote explaining how and why he lost his faith. The second I included to give anyone interested to hear Ehrman articulate his own views, and Wallace’s rebuttal to them (the scholar Strobel interviewed).