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.