Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ehrman v. White: A Scorecard (Opening Statements)

I've been reading through the transcript of Bart Ehrman's recent debate with James White regarding the question, "Did the Bible misquote Jesus?" The first hour was devoted to opening statements. Ehrman's remarks were pretty familiar to anyone who has read his recent popular treatments of New Testament textual criticism, emphasizing the following:

* The ease with which ancient scribes made errors

* The relative lack of early witnesses to the text of the New Testament (as he notes, ninety-four percent of the extant manuscripts date from beyond the ninth century, and many of the earliest copies are extremely fragmentary)

* The obviously large number of variant readings between the surviving witnesses (although he admits that many of these are inconsequential, relating to minor matters such as spelling)

* Passages which display significant scribal alteration/interpolation (e.g., the Pericope Adulterae, the ending of Mark, etc.)

For his part, White echoed Ehrman's earlier comment that the majority of variants are not significant in terms of the meaning of the text, noted the extreme similarities between P75 (second century) and Codex Vaticanus (mid-fourth century) and concluded that it reveals the existence of "a very clean, very accurate line of transmission... that goes back to the earliest part of the second century itself," and suggested that while there may be places in the New Testament where a single variant cannot be chosen with absolute certainty, there are not any places where all of the variants may be dismissed as a possible original. Thus he quotes Rob Bowman, who describes the text-critical process as working a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle with more than a thousand pieces in the box. "The task is weeding out the extra; the originals are there." His characterizations of brave Christians diligently copying the scriptures in the face of extreme persecution were at times overly romantic (and potentially misleading, as the first systematic persecution of the early Christian movement did not take place until the mid-third century), and his comment that "[w]e have a dozen manuscripts within the first 100 years after the writing of the New Testament" requires clarification (P46, the famous codex of Pauline writings, was certainly copied within a century of the completion of the last portions of the New Testament, but approximately 150 years after the death of Paul). Generally, however, I found it to be a vigorous, passionate presentation.

I'm eager to see the debaters engage one another directly... that should make for more exciting reading.

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