A couple days ago I watched the DVD of the Ehrman and Wallace SMU debate on textual criticism.
The debate was between Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace. It took place at SMU, Southern Methodist University, in October 2011. I enjoyed it very much. Even though it was a debate, Ehrman’s opening statement of the problems and issues of the Greek New Testament text and manuscripts thereof, is a good introduction for most people who are unfamiliar with New Testament textual criticism. I gladly passed the DVD on to my 13 yr old son.
The two scholars agreed on most things, but Wallace believed that Erhman was too much of a skeptic as to whether the original New Testament text can be ascertained or reconstructed. The main issue of disagreement was about the question of how much corruption took place between the time of the original writing of the New Testament books, and the time of the earliest manuscripts we have of the New Testament.
Wallace said that in some classes which he teaches, he gives his students an excercise in textual criticism on a fictional document written by “Snoopy,” and that his students were successful in reconstructing the original text. For this reason, Wallace is optimistic that the New Testament text can be re-constructed as well.
Ehrman’s main concern was that the quality of the scribes or re-copiers of the manuscripts in the first 150 to 200 years after the originals, the “autographs,” the quality and skill and qualifications of those scribes appears to be very poor. For this reason, Ehrman fears that the text of the New Testament underwent severe changes and diffusion in those intervening years.
Wallace queried Ehrman once or twice, as if he was puzzled, as to which manuscripts exactly Ehrman was talking about that were done by unskilled scribes. This was surprising and puzzling itself, since Ehrman was perfectly clear that one such manuscript was Papyrus 66, produced around the year 200 C.E. I wish Wallace had addressed Ehrman’s issues with Papyrus 66.
Wallace majored on showing how relatively intact and ascertainable the manuscript evidence for the text of the NT is compared to Greek classical literature, and also compared to the texts of the historians of the Greco-Roman world. That if the academic world had the same standards for those historians, and the same degree of despair and skepticism about the TC of those documents, then they and all of us must conclude that we really cannot have confidence that we know the history of the world.
Ehrman objected that Wallace was evading Ehrman’s main area of concern- the years intervening the autographs and the first extant mss. of the New Testament, other documents notwithstanding. Wallace stated that the early Alexandrian scribes produced a high quality of text, and that though they were not qualified scribes in the narrow field of re-copying theological works like for example medieval monks, they were competent, according to evidence of their style and use of numbers, competent as public record scribes, as if they were accountants or lawyers or government officials.
Ehrman objected that Wallace was certain of his position that the original text can be reconstructed. Wallace countered that on the contrary, he was not 100% certain, but “relatively” certain. And that Ehrman was too extremely skeptical, a degree of sekpticism that is not realistically reasonable for practical living in this world, such as even knowing general history of our world and civilization.
Ehrman objected to the phrase “original text” and pointed out that the two centers of New Testament textual criticism, Birmingham and Münster, no longer use that term at all, but rather, the “ausgangstext.” Ehrman asked Wallace what the translation of that German term into English would be, and Wallace answered “exit.” (Many scholars now speak of the “source text.” By this is meant that text and the state thereof, from which the first extant copies of the Greek New Testament were copied “from” ablative. This is perhaps an indication that those scholars in those two places only hope to recover the generation of the text immediately preceding our first existing copies of the New Testament.
Both Ehrman and Wallace agreed that we simply do not know how many times the manuscripts of the New Testament were copied and re-copied prior to the first copies that do still exist.
This debate will certainly not satisfy those who believe that the New Testament text is certainly and perfectly preserved. Neither those who have an animus for the Alexandrian text stream. To the latter I would say, “Which is a greater act of preservation: to preserve for 1,200 years a manuscript that was written in 600-900 A.D., like most Byzantine manuscripts, or to preserve for 1,800+ years a manuscript written by Alexandrian scribes? If you profess to believe that God preserves his word, then clearly, he has preserved the Alexandrian manuscripts longer than the Byzantine manuscripts. If not God, then is Satan in the business of preserving the text of the New Testament? Some will actually say he is, that it is Satan that preserved the Alexandrian text in Egypt. Such people have a resulting animus for Egypt, forgetting that “out of Egypt I called my son.” God preserved his Son in Egypt from the dragon who was seeking to kill him. But soon after he was born, Jesus’ mother fled to the desert in Egypt, where Jesus, the “Word of God,” was preserved in Egypt from Satan.
This certainty of the text of the King James Version is an example of the two extremes which Wallace in the debate urges us to avoid. He said there are two extremes to avoid: over-certainty, like what King James Onlyists have, and hyper-skepticism, like what he believes Bart Ehrman has.
I observe how more transparent and real the situation is with the Greek New Testament text, than it is with the Hebrew Tanakh text, or especially with the Arabic text of the Qu’ran. With the Hebrew text, the Masoretes accomplished a “recension” of the text, a process by which they destroyed widely varying manuscripts of the text, and established an approved standard text which was exclusively copied from that time on, by order of the authorities of their religion. But we know from the text of the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls that there existed Hebrew manuscripts of the Tanakh that differed very much from the Masoretic text. Prior to a recension of the text of the Qu’ran, there existed thousands of copies of the Qu’ran, which were hand copied by households of means, for their own use. In that process, just like in the early transmission of the New Testament books, there were certainly mistakes made in the copying. At some point, all varying copies of the Qu’ran were burned, and one standardized text was decreed by order of the authorities of that religion. The fact of this Qu’ran recension is certainly taboo, but that does not create an atmosphere of learning the truth. (I learned this history of the Qu’ran from my friend Peyman Rafii, whose great uncle, Zarin Koub, was the world’s foremost Islam scholar at Baghdad University.)
As to whether there ever was a similar recension of the text of the New Testament, that is something to debate, but I would declare that if there was one, it was never as severe in the degree of destroying unapproved manuscripts, as were the recensions of the Hebrew Tanakh and the Arabic Qu’ran.