Is the New Testament Reliable? Even Bart Ehrman Says Yes

UNC Chapel Hill Professor Bart Ehrman has made quite a name for himself as a critic of the New Testament documents.  The conclusions he draws in his popular best-selling book Misquoting Jesus cast doubt on whether we can accurately reconstruct the original New Testament documents. Ehrman appears to be at odds with most New Testament scholars– liberal and conservative– who have long agreed that more than 5,700 Greek manuscripts (many of which you can see here) and over 36,000 quotations from the early church fathers make reconstruction of the original quite certain.  In fact, there are relatively few places of uncertainty in the New Testament text and none of them affect any essential Christian doctrine.

Ehrman only appears to be at odds with this conclusion.  Once you read his academic works and the appendix of the paperback edition of Misquoting Jesus, you’ll get a different story

Bart Ehrman was mentored by Bruce Metzger of Princeton University who was the greatest manuscript scholar of the last century.  In 2005, Ehrman helped Metzger update and revise the classic work on the topic– Metzger’s  The Text of the New Testament.

What do Metzger and Ehrman conclude together in that revised work?  Melinda Penner of Stand to Reason writes,

Ehrman and Metzger state in that book that we can have a high degree of confidence that we can reconstruct the original text of the New Testament, the text that is in the Bibles we use, because of the abundance of textual evidence we have to compare.  The variations are largely minor and don’t obscure our ability to construct an accurate text.  The 4th edition of this work was published in 2005 – the same year Ehrman published Misquoting Jesus, which relies on the same body of information and offers no new or different evidence to state the opposite conclusion.

Here’s what Ehrman says in an interview found in the appendix of Misquoting Jesus (p. 252):

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.

So why does Ehrman give one impression to the general public and the opposite to the academic world?  Could it be because he can get away with casting doubt on the New Testament to an uninformed public, but not to his academic peers? Does selling books have anything to do with it?  I don’t know.  I just find the contradiction here quite telling– the man who gets all the attention for casting doubt on the text of the Bible, upon further review, doesn’t really doubt it himself.

For those of you that would like a point by point refutation of Misquoting Jesus, click here for a paper by SES Professor Tom Howe.

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28 replies
  1. Lion IRC says:

    I havent seen anything from “the bible errancy crowd” which stands up to a bit of rigorous “Cross Examination” to borrow a term.

    More importantly, if one used the same approach that they adopt to critique the brute assertions made by “science” you would be accused of insincerity.

    So-called “contradictions” about how close a person was standing to the foot of The Cross or what time the crucifixion “took place” (remembering that it was a process not a specific time on a stopwatch) really make Gospel skeptics look mawkish. When what they really need most is to appear academically neutral.

    Some descriptions and language used by astro-physicists about cosmology is AT LEAST as vague and nebulous as anything in the bible. (See Mr Hawkings latest metaphysical comments about gravity being the Cause of an inevitable yet spontaneous appearance of the previously non-existent universe)

    Lion (IRC)

    Reply
    • Samay says:

      Although I do believe the bible to be corrupted as a Muslim, I wholeheartedly agree that anything that has to do with minute details in the gospels is just nitpicking. This is common in all historical documents, you always will find minute discrepancies that don’t contradict the main story or event narrated.

      Reply
  2. dlewisa@yahoo.com says:

    “So-called “contradictions” about how close a person was standing to the foot of The Cross or what time the crucifixion “took place” (remembering that it was a process not a specific time on a stopwatch) really make Gospel skeptics look mawkish.”

    What you’re saying is that—even though a few books in the bible can’t agree on something so simple as what was written above jesus’s head as he was hanging—it still qualifies as inerrant . . . even though they both can’t be correct. This represents a very low standard of being inerrant.

    And I don’t think the word you wanted was mawkish.

    Reply
  3. Lion IRC says:

    Mawkish – from the middle ages English word “mawk” – maggot.
    nauseating, insipid, weak, sickly,

    That is what I meant.

    When the bible errancy crowd fixate on the presence of additional words in one Gospel and assert that the absence of those words in a less detailed Gospel amounts to a CONTRADICTION as opposed to a CONTRAST then, yes, I really do think it makes their intellectual position look weak and insipid rather than scholarly. And I really do ask myself…”scarlet robe versus purple robe?” – is that your idea of a bible contradiction? Is that really the best you got?

    Furthermore, you will often hear these same sholars of “bible errancy” conveniently dismissing the “biased” views of other scholars simply because they are Christians. Apparently, if you are an atheist your opinions about the bible are unbiased and Christian bible scholarship is supposedly tainted.

    Reply
  4. TobyR. says:

    Uh . . . well . . . a contradiction is an error. Imagine two news stories: One states that Bill O’Reilly was shot in the head by a deranged gun nut. The other states that Bill O’Reilly was shot in the chest by a deranged member of the ASPCA.

    These statements contradict each other. As Frank likes to go on about the Law Of Non-contradiction, I think he’d be the first to admit that the first story can’t also be the second story. The outcome is the same, that the end result of the story is that Bill O’Reilly was shot. But they contradict each other so not both of them can be TRUE. So bring along a third reported story and it’s different as well. One might start wondering if the even ever happened at all.

    I could send you websites filled with bible “contradictions” (errors). So we have a few accounts of something that happened 2000 years ago and no further stories to verify it. It tends to make a non-believer skeptical.

    Reply
  5. Lion IRC says:

    Hi TobyR,
    Do you know what myopia is?
    It is tunnel vision.
    It is like the sort of unclear thinking which holds that a person can be shot only once.
    It ignores the possibility that a person may have been shot twice. Once in the head and once in the chest….perhaps even by two people… perhaps two gunmen (one on a grassy knoll)
    It ignores the possibility that a bullet may enter the body in one place and exit from another (an exit wound)
    Some skeptics (through intellectual vanity) discount the possibility that they themselves may be biased against the bible and ASSUME a contradiction where none exists.
    These two reports do NOT contradict one another.
    Clear thinking – 101
    Lion (IRC)
    PS – I have seen a few of the bible errancy websites. If that’s the best they can do with a book that has been around for a few thousand years (studied, critiqued, analyzed by billions of greater minds than yours or mine) then it is safe to say the bible will remain the most widely published book in human history for another few thousand years.

    Reply
  6. TobyR. says:

    Myopia is actually nearsightedness. Tunnel vision is actually a loss of peripheral vision. Which we could probably both apply to each other. One saying that the other is too close to see the big pictures, blah, blah, blah.

    What two reports do not contradict one another? The ones I presented or your grassy knoll thing? Because if you’re talking about what I said, then you have no idea what a contradiction is. What you’re saying here is that essentially, “details don’t matter.” shot here, shot there, who cares? he was shot. This is your tunnel vision. You’re saying that it doesn’t matter if someone writing this was wrong, and hence could be wrong about other things. It doesn’t matter that Solomon had either 4000 stalls of horses or 40000. That’s a pretty big friggin ERROR in counting. Either someone couldn’t count, someone didn’t count, or someone was too stupid to translate correctly.

    Reply
  7. Lion IRC says:

    Hi TobyR,

    See there you go again. This is typical of the “straining at gnats” we see from the bible errancy crowd. Quibbling about “myopia” versus “tunnel vision” as if holding the page of a book very close to your face didn’t deprive you of the ability to see peripheral things.

    Your quibbling ironically serves to prove the point even more.

    Consider if one of the two news reporters in your example was viewing the scene through a telescope. (Any shooter knows the risks associated with not being able to see points outside the scope which may be moving into the line of fire.)

    Now, the one with the telescope reports what they can see. The other from a different vantage point may certainly have seen it differently and yet neither is contradicting the other.

    I am NOT saying details don’t matter. I am saying the opposite. Details are precisely what MATTERS because in order to assert a contradiction about how far people were standing from the foot of The Cross you need specific details – not generalities.

    What you need is a report in the bible that person “A” was standing 15.3 metres from the foot of The Cross – not standing “afar”.

    And in order to prove that a contradiction of 15.3 metres by a different reporter has occurred… such as…person “A” was standing 6.2 metres… what you need is a report which says person “A” was standing at that 6.2 metre point ALL day and never moved. Because the biblical accounts of where people were standing in relation to the foot of The Cross do not claim such. Person “A” could have been seen standing at the foot of The Cross at 1PM and later been seen by another observer standing off afar.

    And NO CONTRADICTION exists except in the mind of someone whose myopia assumes it. And that is very intellectually lame.

    We can go one at a time and take every single claim you make about bible “errors” and I will do just as I have here in relation to the foot of The Cross. But are you really helping inform your world view about life, death and the meaning of the universe? Isn’t that just a little bit trite? How does “crash testing” every single minute detail in the bible that you think is a discrepancy or contradiction really benefit you as an atheist? Mr Hawking is contemplating gravity and the ultimate cause of the reality and you are arguing about the difference between the color scarlet and purple.

    Even if you took the view that biblical copying errors or wildly varying estimates or different meanings of words MATTER, does that really serve as a basis to shift or reinforce your atheology? I would not want to base my Christianity on something so trivial. I prefer something more solid – like a Rock or a Mountain. Mount Horeb. Mount Ararat. Mount Sinai. Mount Golgotha.

    Lion (IRC)
    PS – 40,000 horses stalled in 4,000 larger stalls/stables with big front doors and 40 horses in each. Each horse therein is tied, restrained, kept…”stalled” in place in its own individual mini “stall”. You see, the etymology of the word “stall” is from middle English and means place or to keep in place or in position. Thus it is perfectly legitimate to refer to stalls within stalls within stalls. If someone asked me how many “stalls” Solomon had, I would say one big one containing 40,000 horses (protected, of course, by guards posted all around) which was spread out over a wide area in which there were 4,000 smaller stalls with 40 horses in each and each of those stalls kept individual horses “stalled” to keep them from kicking/biting etc. So each of the 40,000 horses did have its own stall. But even if that was how the bible was actually written I somehow think you would quibble about whether the number of foals was included.

    Reply
  8. Toby R. says:

    This is from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry’s website.

    How many stalls of horses did Solomon have, 4,000 or 40,000?
    1 Kings 4:26 and 2 Chronicles 9:25

    1. 40,000 (1 Kings 4:26) – “And Solomon had 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariots, and 12,000 horsemen.”
    2. 4,000 (2 Chron. 9:25) – “Now Solomon had 4,000 stalls for horses and chariots and 12,000 horsemen, and he stationed them in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem.”

    There are two possible explanations for this discrepancy. 1) A copyist error. 2) The difference is due to time; that is, one account is at the beginning of Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 4:26), and the other at the end (2 Chron. 9:25). I believe the most probable is a copyist error since we can see that Chronicles does have copyist errors in other areas. Therefore, it is probable that the same thing occurred here.

    “In general it can be said that the books of Chronicles furnish approximate numerical estimates in the form of round numbers, frequently designed, as has been remarked, to express the magnitude of the occasion….Some estimates in Chronicles which appear to be particularly inflated can be corrected or scaled down by reference to the books of Samuel and Kings…However, it is not always the case that the figures in Chronicles exceed their counterparts in Samuel and Kings.”1 The correct answer is probably 4,000 since 40,000 seems extraordinarily large. Furthermore, it seems likely that a single “10’s” place was copied incorrectly accounting for the discrepancy.

    1. 1. Harrison, R. K., Introduction to the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969, p. 1165.

    When you and your ilk claim the the bible is the “inerrant word of god” you’re playing fast and loose with the idea of what constitutes errors. Like saying that tunnel vision and myopia are the same thing.

    “Even if you took the view that biblical copying errors or wildly varying estimates or different meanings of words MATTER, does that really serve as a basis to shift or reinforce your atheology? I would not want to base my Christianity on something so trivial.”

    Well, like ole Frank will say about his books, it’s more of a probability argument and this is just one of the many legs it stands on. The fact that many can’t admit that the book they base their life around has even the smallest of errors in it represents a cognitive dissonance that astounds me. That and most people who profess to live by this book haven’t read enough of it to even know that these errors abound in it, yet some still profess that it’s the UNERRING WORD!

    Reply
  9. Tim D. says:

    That and most people who profess to live by this book haven’t read enough of it to even know that these errors abound in it, yet some still profess that it’s the UNERRING WORD!

    But Pastor Jones told me it was the unerring word!

    Reply
  10. Lion IRC says:

    If CARM says….

    “There are two possible explanations for this discrepancy”

    What they should instead say is….

    There are at least two possible explanations maybe more for this alleged discrepancy claimed to exist by some people.

    I have not seen one alleged bible “contradiction” that could not be resolved with a little bit of clear thinking.

    Reply
  11. Toby R. says:

    “I have not seen one alleged bible “contradiction” that could not be resolved with a little bit of clear thinking.”

    Or in other words interpreting it. Which means anyone can interpret it in a way that fits with their opinion. I just love to hear people bending their good book in all directions to fit with all kinds of beliefs.

    Reply
  12. matthew says:

    “Or in other words interpreting it. Which means anyone can interpret it in a way that fits with their opinion. I just love to hear people bending their good book in all directions to fit with all kinds of beliefs.”

    Do you love to hear it when atheists bend their “scientific proofs” as well?

    Reply
  13. Toby R. says:

    “Do you love to hear it when atheists bend their “scientific proofs” as well?”

    Yes, I’m sure that sometimes atheists can bend their “scientific proofs” as well, but the difference is that you can usually find the true theory or hypothesis that they are distorting, but when it comes to a “good book” all you get is more interpreting which will vary from sect to sect.

    Reply
  14. Frank Turek says:

    This post deals with the ability to reconstruct the text, not the question about whether or not the text is true. That’s completely another question that is dealt with on other posts. In other words, this post has to do with the errancy of Bart Ehrman– not the inerrancy of the Bible.

    Does anyone on this site want to defend or explain Ehrman’s contradictory positions?

    Blessings,

    Frank

    Reply
    • RC says:

      Bart Ehrman, in his book, ‘Misquoting Jesus’ is saying that the NT manuscripts are full of changes. He also says that the vast majority of the changes don’t affect Christian doctrine. I might have been a little more precise and also said that the only ‘doctrine’ that is affected is the belief that scripture is inerrant. It seems to me that he challenges inerrancy throughout his writings, debates, and lectures. I don’t think Ehrman is contradicting himself.

      Reply
  15. Luke says:

    I think there has always been a disconnect between the way Bart Ehrman’s books and the things they say, and the way they are promoted.

    I don’t know if I could count the number of times he says in his latest book that none of the textual criticism he presents makes the Christian faith illogical or silly. He is very explicit that he could easily be a faithful Christian while knowing all he knows about about the text. (Again, I don’t know how many times he talks about the fact that it’s theodicy, not textual problems, which led to his agnosticism. He talks of friends and fellow scholars who agree with him on textual issues that still have strong faith and that he understands and respects that.

    I guess I just don’t see him as contradicting himself on this point, at least in his books. But I agree that his books are promoted as shooting some mortal wound into the Bible; I’ve just never read anything Dr. Ehrman has written which makes any such claim.

    (His book on theodicy could be seen as making such a claim, but it’s not a book dealing primarily with textual criticism.)

    I gues I think the contradiction exists between the capitalistic book publishers (interested in what will make the most money and be talked about more) and their author.

    Luke

    Reply
  16. Luke says:

    To be fair, though, he can be fairly critical at times of a very fundamental reading of the text, but again, this is not an issue of weather the textual criticism shows the text to be reliable or not.

    I have heard him say in public several times that the overall message of the text is not in dispute or problematic from a textual criticism standpoint.

    Reply
  17. Mark says:

    The Bible IS the Inerrant Word of God (the original writings). This statement is supported by the following:

    1) There is more manuscript evidence for the Bible than ANY other ancient document in history – more than 24,000 New Testament manuscript copies (fragments and full manuscripts combined), with the closest fragment copy being within 30 years of the original and a near complete copy between 100-150 years after the original. Compare that to the next closest ancient document in history – The Iliad by Homer. There are approximately 643 manuscript copies with the closest copy to the original being 500 years old.

    2) With the exception of approximately 11 verses, the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from early church writers.

    3) No charge of a contradiction in the Bible has ever been sustained (this refers to EVERY apparent or alleged contradiction having a plausible answer.)

    4) More than 25,000 pieces of archaeological evidence support the Bible; NONE REFUTE IT.

    5) There are more than three dozen sources outside the Bible that support the Bible, to include hostile testimony which is among the best possible evidence that can be put forth.

    6) Scientific FACTS that are completely accurate in the Bible, LONG before man confirmed them.

    7) Several hundred Old Testament Prophecies fulfilled by Christ, combined with the principles of probability that any one person could accidentally or coincidentally fulfill all of these probabilities is astounding (See Professor Peter Stoner, George Heron and others).

    8) Several New Testament writers affirmed the truthfullness, reliability and divine inspiration of BOTH the Old and New Testament and NONE of their writings are in question in this category in any way whatsoever.

    9) Last, BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST, Jesus Christ Himself affirmed the reliability, truthfullness and divine inspiration of the Old Testament, AS WELL AS that the New Testament would in fact be reliable, truthful and divinely inspired and NONE of His words in this category are in any way whatsoever disputed.

    This comes from HUNDREDS of hours of research on my part, pouring over evidence from Christians, non-Christians, Atheists, Agnostics. skeptics, liberal scholars, conservative scholars, etc.

    If an amateur such as myself can sift through mounds of information and come to this conclusion, it isn’t a difficult thing for the average person to do. The key is one’s mind and heart MUST BE OPEN, seeking TRUTH.

    Anyone claiming the original writings of the Bible are errant bear the burden of proof; good luck with that…….

    GODSPEED

    Reply
  18. Stephen B says:

    “More than 25,000 pieces of archaeological evidence support the Bible; NONE REFUTE IT.”

    Archaeology appears to refute the account of very large numbers of Israelis living for years in the Egyptian desert.

    “Jesus Christ Himself affirmed the reliability, truthfullness and divine inspiration of the Old Testament”

    Isn’t that begging the question? Effectively you’re offering as evidence that it’s the word of God because it says it is.

    “Scientific FACTS that are completely accurate in the Bible”

    Can you give examples? The bible makes reference to a vantage point so high one can see the entirety of the world; how do we square this with a spherical world? How do we square the Genesis account with modern physics and biology?

    Do you have any contemporaneous accounts of Jesus outside of the bible? In other words, references to him while he was still alive, or even within a couple of decades of his death?

    “with the closest copy to the original being 500 years old.”

    That’s still 15 centuries or so after it was supposedly put together.

    Reply
  19. RichC says:

    I don’t think Ehrman has erred or contradicted himself at all. I have read “Misquoting Jesus”, and while some of the rhetoric in the book might seem a bit sensational, I came away thinking that the Bible has been changed quite a bit, however not to the point that essential Christian doctrines are affected as Ehrman has repeatedly said.
    In my opinion, if Ehrman attacks anything in his writings, it is the conservative-fundamentalist notion that the Bible is without error. Many believe that the original writings are without error because the authors were inspired by God. Fine, but people like Ehrman (and myself) are not believers and therefor cannot take it for granted that the original writings are inerrant or that the authors were inspired.
    It will be a fascinating day when 1st century NT manuscripts are discovered and published.

    Reply
  20. Charles Laird says:

    Curious last statement from you: (Cross-Examination – if you please)

    I just find the contradiction here quite telling– the man who gets all the attention for casting doubt on the text of the Bible, upon further review, doesn’t really doubt it himself.

    Bart concedes that Biblical inerrancy is not the reason to doubt the beliefs of the bible. Bart starts with the assumption that God isn’t real and so, despite whether the bible is accurate or not – Bart supports that it’s accurate – Bart just doesn’t believe that it’s true.

    I am in Metzger’s camp and qualify as a Christian.

    Reply

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