Dr. Bart Ehrman and the Agnostic Argument against Christianity

Part 2: Ehrman's Old Arguments

By Robin Schumacher

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Continued from Page One

Where Bart and Christianity Part Company

Although we should thank Bart for a number of things, we must also respectfully part company with him where his core assault on Biblical reliability begins. While I could cite a number of examples where I believe Ehrman to be incorrect, let me take aim at just two.[3]

First, Bart tells his audience that the number of differences ("variants") in the existing New Testament manuscripts can be pegged at about 400,000[4] which equates to there being "more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament."[5] Ehrman's claim shows how a partial truth – one left without full explanation – can lead to people walking away with the wrong conclusion.

While an uninformed Christian lay audience may gasp at the statistics Bart relays, anyone who has studied Biblical textual criticism yawns at Ehrman's statements. First, keep in mind that one variant of one letter of one word in one verse in 2,000 manuscripts counts as 2,000 variants (and there are nearly 6,000 manuscripts to compare).

Second, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of variants are completely inconsequential, consisting of spelling and numerical differences that can't be translated in certain manuscripts, sentence word order changes, etc. The bottom line? Scholars have concluded that the New Testament text is 99% pure leaving only 1% of the text that contains any meaningful variants.[6]

"Aha!" cries the skeptic, "even if 1% of the New Testament has 'meaningful' differences that can still greatly affect things!" I'm sorry to disappoint them, but that simply isn't the case.

To understand why I say this, let's look at an example of a 'meaningful variant'. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul describes himself either as 'gentle' or as 'little children.' In the Greek, there is a one-letter discrepancy (epioi vs. nepioi). Does such a thing affect any Biblical doctrine or call into question something about Paul that could change our view of him? Not at all.

Examples like this, and the real story behind the other 399,999 variants, is why I believe Ehrman to be shooting blanks in his attempt to call into question the New Testament's transmission reliability.

Does it Really Depend on Which Gospel You Read?

A second example of Ehrman blowing Gospel differences out of proportion is his somewhat famous "It depends on which Gospel you read…" speech that he gives on various occasions such as the debates he's had with a friend of mine, Dr. Mike Licona, who defends the authenticity of the New Testament and the resurrection of Jesus. How many women were at Christ's tomb on that first Easter morning – 1, 2, 3, or 5? Were there two angels or only one that announced His resurrection? Were they angels or men? Did Jesus appear to His followers at Galilee or Jerusalem? These are the types of questions Bart raises in an attempt to have his listeners question the veracity of the New Testament accounts.

While one might expect your standard internet atheist who blindly cuts-and-pastes arguments from his/her favorite skeptical wiki sites to bring up such things, it's hard to believe that someone as educated as Ehrman would do so. He certainly knows that mountains of material exist that more than adequately explain such things.

Being a schooled historian, he also knows historical analytic rules of thumb like a partial report is not a false report and a divergent account is not a false account. The writers of the New Testament used techniques and methods that literally all ancient historians employed in arranging their material – techniques that do not produce actual contradictions at all, but instead end up highlighting various points/individuals or summarizing accounts for their readership.

When Bart or others try to call into question the reliability of the New Testament by stressing these types of differences in the Gospels – ones that were produced via accepted historical writing methods – the end result can be likened to a BB bouncing off a tank. There's just no real impact.

Continue to Page Three

Dr. Bart Ehrman: The Series

Part 1: What Ehrman gets Right
Part 2: Ehrman's Old Arguments
Part 3: Ehrman's Wrong Conclusions

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Published 6-10-13