This is the conclusion of my multi-part series responding to Bart Ehrman’s book, Misquoting Jesus. Here are links to the earlier portions of this series:
In chapter 7, The Social Worlds of the Text, Ehrman discusses how the social situation in the early church shaped changes that were made to the text. In particular he discusses the status of women, and mentions several instances of textual change that relate to it. Amongst these are Junia/Junias in Romans 16:7, and the prohibition for women teaching in 1 Corinthians 14:33-36.
Next he discusses the relationship of Christians and Jews. Some alterations in the text make the Jews look bad. By the 2nd century, Christians were a separate religion, and often engaged in polemic against Judaism.
Finally he discusses paganism and apologetic alterations to the text. He provides numerous illustrations in each case.
One of his major points in this section is to show how the scribes were human beings whose world shaped the way in which they transmitted the text, and thus to some extent the text itself. When you hold a Bible in your hands, you hold the complex product of numerous people, each of whom have had a small part in shaping the text you will read.
It is in the conclusion that a differ significantly from Ehrman’s view. In technical terms, he is certainly expert, and he displays that expertise throughout the book. As a popularizer, he is clearly one of the best. I have not seen a clearer explanation of the basics of New Testament textual criticism for the non-scholar.
The fundamental difference in our conclusions results not from the content, but from our starting points. I begin with the view that inspiration is something that happens to people, and that people express that inspiration in various forms, including text. While a person experiences God, individually or in community, the expression of that experience is distinctly human.
Ehrman seems to accept the standard evangelical view of Biblical inspiration that assumes that God’s breathing of scripture is essentially the impartation of data to be expressed in words.
How radical are the changes?
If you see inspiration as involving the impartation of data to be accurately expressed in words, and expect those words themselves to be divine, then the alteration of such words must come as a shock. This is the experience expressed by Bart Ehrman in his conclusion. He sees the changes as radical and important because they alter the words, and to him the words are the vehicle of inspiration, or in the end of the lack of it.
For me these changes are not nearly so radical, because I assume that the writers chose their own words, and in most cases their own facts. Thus alterations are interesting, but neither shocking nor dismaying. If one studies a broad enough basis of the text, one can get to who Matthew, Luke, John, or Paul really were, and to me that is the key to inspiration. God spoke to the community through these people in a special way and I want to get to know them.
One quotation will illustrate this point:
In particular, as I said at the outset, I began seeing the New Testament as a very human book. The New Testament as we actually have it, I knew, was the product of human hands, the hands of the scribes who transmitted it. Then I began to see that not just the scribal text but the original text itself was a very human book. This stood very much at odds with how I had regarded the text in my late teens as a newly minted born-again Christian, convinced that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God and that the biblical words themselves had come to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As I realized already in graduate school, even if God had inspired the original words, we don’t have the original words. So the doctrine of inspiration was in a sense irrelevant to the Bible as we have it, since the words God reputedly inspired had been changed and, in some cases, lost. . . . (p. 211)
I would like to point out one other thing, however, and that is that those who argue Biblical inerrancy, with or without verbal plenary inspiration, as it applies to the autographs do need to respond to the issue of the relevance of such inspiration. What is the importance of the inerrancy of a document we do not possess? If we can deal with 98% accuracy in the Bibles we actually have, why would the discovery that the autographs were also only 98% accurate suddenly be a devastating blow to the authority of the Bible?
This is why it seems to me that the doctrine of inerrancy of the autographs is more a doctrine about God than about the accuracy or authority of God’s communication. What the doctrine says is that God is perfect. Certainly, I can agree with that. But that still seems irrelevant, because the issue is how well did human authors comprehend what God revealed to them?
Dependence on Scholars
On one last issue I think that Ehrman makes a particularly good point. I have heard many people express either the desire to be completely independent of Biblical scholarship or even the feeling that they are independent. Sometimes these are people who do not even read the source languages, much less work with the manuscripts to determine the text. When we consider context, the history and culture that stands behind the text, many more specialized fields come into play, and nobody is able to be proficient in all of those areas. All of us are dependent at some point on the scholarship of others.