Following last month’s Book Review, we received this letter which is published in full.

Re: Book Review: Bart D. Ehrman: Whose Word Is It?

A rather remarkable review appeared in the November ‘Voice’. It is remarkable for proclaiming, as if it has only just been discovered, a view of the Bible that goes back to the early 19th century and beyond. Every theological student at UK universities (and at most other universities throughout the world) for decades past has learnt about this view and it is simply taken for granted as part of their undergraduate courses! This does not mean that one is led to rubbish the wonderful contents of the Bible as ‘second-hand’ or worse. It does mean that one can be perfectly open to detailed critical analysis of the biblical texts. It does not mean that we can, with a little learning, put ourselves in a position of easy superiority to the Bible, far less to the man Jesus who in His Love has come to this cruel and vastly confused world.

The author of the review starts with a host of words to exalt Ehrman and to make sure we know that what Bart Ehrman says probably has far more authority than the Bible itself. (I do not at all say this was Ehrman’s own view of himself!) As part of this exaltation we are told ‘the words of Ehrman have enormous gravitas (italicised) and must be taken seriously’. We are going to be liberated from our enslavement to biblical inerrancy – I think the writer must imagine we all live in
the American Bible belt!

One interesting fact about Bart Ehrman is that he studied under the great New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger – he was the man who led the team who produced the Revised Standard Version of the Bible – which has been perhaps the most used modern translation of the Bible in churches and universities. Remarkably Metzger chose Ehrman to collaborate with him in a revision of his outstanding work ‘The Text of the New Testament’ – a detailed analysis of the foundation documents of the New Testament.

Metzger’s immense scholarship in no way undermines his Christian faith, rather it strengthens it as we can hear when Lee Strobel (Princeton law graduate) questions him when Metzger was in his 84th year.

…….finally, Strobel asks what Metzger’s scholarship has done to his personal faith.

“Oh,” he said, sounding happy to discuss the topic, “it has increased the basis of my personal faith to see the firmness with which these materials have come down to us, with a multiplicity of copies, some of which are very, very ancient.”

Then Strobel started to ask, again, if scholarship has diluted Metzger’s faith.

Without hesitation Metzger responded. “On the contrary, it has built it. I’ve asked questions all my life. I’ve dug into the text, I’ve studied this thoroughly, and today I know with confidence that my trust in Jesus has been well placed.” . . . Then he added, for emphasis, “Very well placed.”

So the two men who collaborated in a very important work on the New Testament went very different ways as regards their faith. They both greatly respected each other, but one lost his (fundamentalist) faith while the other continued in his faith with apparent joy!

The 4th edition of the work they collaborated on was published in 2005 – the same year Ehrman published ‘Misquoting Jesus’ (The original American title of the book reviewed). There is a Q&A session that appears in some editions as an appendix.

Ehrman was asked by the interviewer: “Bruce Metzger, your mentor in textual criticism to whom this book is dedicated, has said that there is nothing in these variants of Scripture that challenges any essential Christian beliefs (e.g. the bodily resurrection of Jesus or the Trinity). Why do you believe these core tenets of Christian orthodoxy to be in jeopardy based on the scribal errors you discovered in the biblical manuscripts?” To this Ehrman replies:

“Bruce Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was both my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me in the field. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. And even though we may disagree on important religious questions – he is a firmly committed Christian and I am not – we are in complete agreement on a number of very important historical and textual questions. If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands. 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 textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”

From this last sentence one would think that Ehrman would have to commit himself to these ‘essential Christian beliefs’ – yet this for some reason he will not do. It does seem at least a little strange!

Of course there are all sorts of variant readings of many, many passages in the Bible. It is after all a book that was 1000 years in the making. If everything about the Bible had been perfect in the way the reviewer seems to think necessary in order to trust it, then we probably should not trust it at all. It would be too good to be true! As John’s Gospel says of Jesus ‘the word became flesh’ and the Bible itself takes the risk of fallibility in that it reveals God through human lives and human speech and human writing and human weakness. And the Light still shines in the darkness of our human nature. He comes to us in our need. We have the treasure in pots of clay as St Paul says (2 Cor 4:7). We can rejoice in the Treasure. Or we can sit amidst the shards of the clay pots.

However as the strong impression given by the review of Ehrman’s book is that the Bible text is unreliable it might be worthwhile ending by quoting from the Wikipedia article on Textual Criticism of the New Testament.

‘The New Testament has been preserved in more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Ethiopic and Armenian. There are approximately 300,000 textual variants among the manuscripts, most of them being changes of word order and other comparative trivialities. Nonetheless, these manuscripts are copies of copies of copies and maintain a 99.5% accuracy to each other. This fact is unprecedented in light of other ancient texts.’

No ancient book comes anywhere near having the number of supporting documents of the Bible – nor their nearness in time to the events described. The Iliad of Homer is next best attested. It has less than 650 supporting manuscripts or fragments of manuscripts surviving. The nearest in time to Homer is about 200 AD, or 1000 years after Homer! The nearest New Testament fragment is of a few verses from John’s Gospel. It was found in Egypt in 1920. It is dated at about 125 AD. As it was found 2600km from where it was written in Ephesus it certainly must go even further back – perhaps to just 2 generations from the time of Jesus.

If some people were worried by what the reviewer of Ehrman’s book wrote I think they might be reassured that Ehrman is not the only eminent New Testament scholar of enormous gravitas who must be taken seriously! There are thousands of other scholars to take into account.

Peter Finlay