Monday, April 20, 2009

Bart Interrupted--- A detailed Analysis of 'Jesus Interrupted'--- Coda

In the first part of Chapter Six Bart Ehrman rehearses for us some of his major conclusions to his earlier work, Misquoting Jesus. Since I have responded to that elsewhere (see e.g. my Gospel Code book, and earlier blogs) I will not repeat myself here. The point Bart wants to stress, to which I do not object, is that some of the textual variants in our Greek NT manuscripts are theologically significant. Again, he cites 1 John 5. 7-8, which if deleted, deletes one discussion of the Trinity in the NT. He then goes on to add, that the response to his saying this is not in the original text is that the notion of the Trinity can be found elsewhere in the NT (see e.g. Mt 28). In my view, both the deity of Christ and the Trinity are notions that are clearly in various NT texts, but these ideas are equally clearly only more fully developed later in church history, at various ecumenical councils and elsewhere. Bart admits that “every single Christian doctrine” (p. 186) can be found in Scripture without appealing to textually debated or dubious ideas. If this is so, then it is of course right to ask the question--- What’s the big deal about textual variants if no essential Christian doctrine is at risk of being read out of the canon due to textual uncertainty? Well, in this book I think Bart makes clearer that the issue is that some textual variants are of theological significance, and as such we should not ignore this fact. I am fine with this point, but what this means is that the “sky is falling” approach to textual variants does no justice to the actual situation. I don’t lose any sleep over whether Lk. 22.43-44 is canonical or not, since of course the Passion of Christ can be found elsewhere in the Gospels. Bart is right that it matters to getting an accurate assessment of Luke’s portrayal of Christ as to whether these verses are original or not, but that is the only way it really matters.

The bigger issue that Bart wants to raise is of course how one could think the Bible as we have it is the inspired Word of God when, 1) this concept is limited to the original autographs of the Bible, and 2) we don’t have them any more, and anyway 3) the canon of Scripture was compiled by fallible human beings, not by God. For him, the deeper theological problem here is why God would allow us to lose the original manuscripts if it was so important to have the inspired Word of God. This is a perfectly appropriate question, and it deserves a fair answer. If we wanted to give a theological answer, we could immediately remind the reader of the problem with golden calves… namely in the hands of fallen human beings they tend to get worshipped. It is entirely believable to me that God allowed things to go as they did in regard to the original manuscripts of the Bible to prevent mistaking the means for the end, and even worshipping the means, by which I mean the original autographs of the Bible. In other words, bibliolatry, the worship of a perfect book, was and is a real possibility for fallen human beings. But in fact a more historical answer is possible. The Bible is not a book written by God (apart ostensibly e.g. from something like the ten commandments), it is a book written by human beings inspired by God, and there is a difference. More to the point the Bible, after the time of the original inspired authors, was transcribed by non-inspired and often not very inspiring scribes! They made numerous mistakes in copying, and sometimes they also made deliberate changes. Bart is right about this, but he is also right that no essential Christian doctrine hangs on these variants at all. There is a difference between a theologically significant textual variant, and a theologically crucial or world-changing one. And there aren’t really any of the latter out there to be worrying about. The Bible as we have it is an ever more close approximation of what was originally given. The good news is today, as Metzger says we know with a high degree of certainty what about 92% of the Greek NT originally said, and no crucial doctrine hangs on the other 8%. Indeed we have over 5,000 mss. of the Greek NT in whole or in part, and this is frankly far more and better evidence than we have for any other document of comparable antiquity. And we keep finding more such fragments and documents, which leads us closer and closer to the original text. It would be nearer to the truth to say that textual criticism actually helps confirm our faith and understanding in the original text and what it said, than deconstructs such a faith, because as it turns out in the vast majority of cases of importance, the scribes faithfully represented what was originally written.

So in the end, as it actually turns out, textual criticism is not in the main where I would disagree with Bart about most things. It is rather his reading of early Christian history that is fundamentally problematic. Consider for example the banner headline on p. 191—‘The Wild Diversity of the Early Christian Church’. Which church are we referring to? The church of the first century A.D. or thereafter? It doesn’t much matter to the discussion of the NT canon if there was considerably more diversity in the church in the second and subsequent centuries of Christian history, when in fact no books in the NT canon were written in or came from the period after A.D. 100. It is not really of much relevance to the discussion of the NT to talk about the Marcionites or the Gnostics when no such groups existed in the first century A.D. and we have no hard historical evidenced to suggest they did. Even in the case of the Ebionites, the NT itself bears witness to no such extant group, and no NT document refers to them or seeks to correct or rebut them. If they existed in the NT era, it would seem they were either so tiny or insignificant that they did not call for mention or rebuttal even by notably argumentative types like Paul who ran into all types of Christians in his travels. The problem for Bart is a fundamental historical assumption that he has by no means demonstrated, namely that the diversity one finds in the second century and subsequent centuries of the church already existed in the first century A.D. even when it comes to radical theological and ethical diversity. What we do find however in the NT documents is already a concept of heresy and its condemnation. This is not a surprise when all the NT documents were written by conservative Jews or their co-workers, such as Luke. So, again, it is not helpful nor is it convincing to chronicle heretical movements from the 2nd and subsequent centuries and either assume: 1) they already existed in the NT era, or 2) that the first century church must have been as diverse as that of subsequent eras. In fact, the evidence suggests this was not so, and Bart’s attempt to find dueling apostles and apostolic movements evidenced in the NT is weak at best, and I have dealt with it in previous posts in this series. So far as the first century church was concerned there was only two groups--- the proto-orthodox ones, and the heretics who had not yet become full-fledged movements like later Gnosticism. The proto-orthodox group does not begin in the second century with Irenaeus or Tertullian and the like, it begins with Paul, and Peter and Mark and others in the first century. Irenaeus and others are simply running with the ball the apostles and their co-workers handed them. They are certainly not the inventors of Biblical orthodoxy, and they would strongly protest any such suggestions were they here to do so.

Perhaps the most serious error in the discussion in Chapter Six is the assumption that ‘the proto-orthodox’ sat around and decided which books ought to be in their corpus of sacred texts and which not. The historical truth is quite otherwise. There was never a time when any Gnostic texts were ever included in a list of sacred texts, either a list like the Muratorian canon list in the second century A.D., or even the list of the heretic Marcion. The notion that the situation was open ended until the 4th century, or even that some heretical books were ‘in’ until they were excluded in the 4th century is historically false. There were indeed some extra books considered for inclusion amongst the sacred texts—books like the Shepherd of Hermas, or even the Apocalypse of Peter. What is notable about such books is that they were basically theologically and ethically consonant with the books from the NT period. No books from any Gnostic collection, or Ebionite collection were ever considered for inclusion in the NT, and with good reason. The criteria for being considered a sacred text, as already manifested in the Bishop Sarapion controversy in the second century over the Gospel of Peter were: 1) apostolicity (they had to be written by apostles) and/or; 2) eyewitnesses or co-workers of eyewitnesses. This in effect meant that the canon was closed of necessity by the end of the NT era, because no apostles or eyewitnesses survived beyond that period or wrote any documents beyond that period of time. I have dealt with this issue of canon and canon lists at great length in The Gospel Code, and in my forthcoming book What’s In a Word? (Baylor), so I will not belabor the point here. What happened in the 4th century was the recognition of the books which had already and indeed always been considered apostolic with very little debate ( 2-3 John and Revelation are partial exceptions, for there was some debate about them, especially about Revelation because Eusebius and others did not like its eschatology). One of the mistakes Bart makes when it comes to a manuscript like Codex Alexandrinus is the assumption that just because a book is included in a codex, it must be assumed to be considered canonical. Wrong. Such codexes are mini-libraries of collected and valuable books deemed to be orthodox. That 1 and 2 Clement is included in this codex merely means that someone thought it was valuable Christian literature that was not heretical. Codex Alexandrinus or Sinaiticus are not canon lists. They are approved reading samples. Already in the second century we see with Bishop Serapion a difference between what was approved for reading by Christians, and what would be read from the pulpit and preached on. The former corpus of books is larger than the latter. The notion of a 4th century power play, instigated in part by Constantine in order to determine the canon and what was orthodox Christianity is a very poor reading of what actually happened at the Council of Nicaea. The canon of 27 books was recognized later in the 4th century, not at Nicaea when Constantine was present, and I use the word recognized advisably. The church in Africa, Asia and in the West recognized these 27 books as our NT, which is pretty amazing since they disagreed on other important issues such as church polity. But they did so because they understood that the proper criteria for recognition was that these source books are either apostolic or eyewitness in origins. And as such they had to come from the very beginnings of Christianity, and could not include later fictions and forgeries. And in my view, the NT certainly does not include such books, nor were heterodox books ever considered for inclusion in the canon. And this rule thus applies—a book can not be said to be excluded from a canon that it was never included in, in the first place. You will look in vain for lists that include any Gnostic texts in early Christian canon lists.

At the end of the day, Bart Ehrman continues to do Christians a good service, as he makes them examine their unexamined assumptions about early Christianity, the origins of the Bible, and other related subjects. The fact that many of us would disagree with his historical analysis is not because we are reading the Bible devotionally and he is reading it as a historian. No, the difference is because we disagree about the history itself and what conclusions are warranted from a critical analysis of the history. My point would be that Bart Ehrman is entitled to his opinion but he does not speak for the majority of ancient historians when it comes to the New Testament, though he certainly speaks for a growing and ever-more vocal group amongst those historians. Bart Ehrman speaks for himself, and my concern would be to make clear that there are thousands of good and critical NT scholars of some faith or no faith who would disagree with his conclusions. The issue here is not faith vs. critical thinking, or devotional reading of the Bible vs. scholarly reading of the Bible. The issue is what sort of critical reading of early Christian history and its texts is warranted by the evidence, and indeed which view is more open minded about what counts as evidence, and what does not. In my view, Bart unnecessarily brackets out in advance too much of the data as ‘mythical’ or ‘miraculous’ which leads to skewed conclusions on various fronts. And this is sad, because Bart Ehrman is a fine writer, and lecturer and debater and an increasingly influential one. One can hope he will continue the conversation and his mind may change on some of these matters.

In the meantime, it is important to stress in conclusion that Bart Ehrman is not the voice of the critical consensus on the NT. He could be called the popular voice of one particular more liberal or radical interpretation of the data. BW3


knowtom said...

Only high certainty for 92%? Not absolute certainty on the vast majority of the NT's canon? :/

Exactly by how much has Ehrman's sphere grown recently. Is it because of recent evidence or is it a zeitgeist sort of situation?

Ben Witherington said...

There are a variety of contributing factors, not the least of which is the general and growing Biblical illiteracy of the culture. Zeitgeist is a minor phenomenon in America at least.


James said...

“Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:18-20

“We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Galatians 2:15

“The problem for Bart is a fundamental historical assumption that he has by no means demonstrated, namely that the diversity one finds in the second century and subsequent centuries of the church already existed in the first century A.D. even when it comes to radical theological and ethical diversity. ...So far as the first century church was concerned there was only two groups--- the proto-orthodox ones, and the heretics who had not yet become full-fledged movements like later Gnosticism.”

Ben Witherington said...

Sorry James but these two texts are not in the least at odds with one another. Jesus is talking about the fulfilling of the Mosaic law, which was accomplished by and in Him, particularly in his death on the cross. Thereafter, the Old covenant was obsolete as both Paul and the author of Hebrews say repeatedly. Paul in Gal. 2.15 about right standing with God which one now has through faith in the finished work of Christ, and not my means of works of the Mosaic law. Jesus would not have disagreed with this (see the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, especially its ending). Paul however also affirms that the new covenant involves 'law' involves obedience. He calls it the law of Christ (see Galatians 6.1ff.). What Paul says, he says because the new covenant has already begun. What Jesus says, he says because the Old Covenant has not yet been accomplished and fulfilled. These two men speak out of and into very different eschatological situations and to different audiences.



smijer said...

Ben, there are several other passages in Matthew along the same lines, and a few in the Epistle of James. Luther recognized it long before Ehrman did. Maybe Jesus would have identified with Pauline or Johannine soteriology. That doesn't mean Matthew did.

So far as the first century church was concerned there was only two groups--- the proto-orthodox ones, and the heretics who had not yet become full-fledged movements like later Gnosticism.Two groups - group# 1 and everyon who wasn't in group# 1. Pretty simple!

I see no reason, with the testimony of the second century proto-orthodox writings against various heresies, and the testimony of the first century epistles against heterodox preachers, not to find the roots of the former in the latter. It strains credulity to imagine that all first century schools died out except the proto-orthodox, and a whole new Christian menagerie sprang up fully formed in the second century. Just as much as to assume that the proto-orthodox do not find their roots with Paul and with churches who used the 4 canonical gospels.

Finally, as it pertains to interpolations - our mere ability to find each Doctrine elsewhere in scripture does not solve the problem of the true character of individual books that include theologically motivated interpolations. Has Mark been made less adoptionistic through interpolation? Does it matter if Mark was adoptionistic as long as we can find Matthew, Luke & John to agree on pre-existence?

Bethel said...

Dear Ben,

You pointed out: What Jesus says, he says because the Old Covenant has not yet been accomplished and fulfilled. These two men speak out of and into very different eschatological situations and to different audiences.

Does this mean that Matt 5:21-48 is not applicable to the NT Church?

Thanks & blessings,
Keith Tan

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Bethel:

The short answer is no. What Jesus teaches his disciples in Mt. 5.21ff. is teaching for the followers of Jesus and still applicable. What Jesus says about the old covenant being fulfilled (notice he does not say obeyed, he is speaking eschatologically), is another matter.

Smijer I suspect the Ebionites do have first century roots, but they do not surface in the NT itself. As for Mark's Gospel, it is certainly not adoptionist. The quotation of Psalm 2 doesn't have to do with when Jesus became son of God. It has to do with when he began his ministry and assumed that role. The issue is not ontology but function, just as in the royal Psalm itself originally.

It would take too long here to show why Ehrman is wrong in his reading of both Matthew and James, not least because Paul also believes faith without works is dead, so I will simply refer you to my commentaries on those books.
Luther, as most scholars now recognize, was way over the line in his reading of James.



Quiddity said...

BW3 says that of the copyists: "They made numerous mistakes in copying, and sometimes they also made deliberate changes."

God shouldn't have allowed that to happen.

As to Ben's concern about bibliolatry, isn't that taking place right now in certain quarters of Christianity?

As to the issue of the Trinity, let me say this: In the Synoptics, some teachings are repeated again and again (e.g. contrasts w/ Pharisees) but the Trinity is hardly mentioned at all (BW3 cites Mt 28) and even then there is no structural definition of the Trinity (vis-a-vis substance, persons, etc). How strange then, that the core biography of Jesus has so little to say about the Trinity. Someone reading the Synoptics for the first time could be forgiven for missing, what to some people is very important, because of the paucity of exposition.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Quiddity: I would say if you read even the Markan baptism story which kicks things off, the Trinity is hard to miss-- the Father speaks, the Spirit who is not the Father descends and empowers Jesus, and Jesus the Son responds to both.

Why exactly should God not have allowed human beings to make mistakes? I don't believe in a God who treats human beings as mere puppets on a string, not least because if they are to truly love God, they must do so fully and freely of their own initiative. Such is the nature of real love--- freely given and freely received.


James said...

So when Jesus tells the leper to go to the priest and make an offering as specified in the law, (Lev. 14:2-9, Mark 1:40-44, cf. Mt 5:23-25) he does affirm the Temple, the priests, and the purity laws. As Sanders puts it, he “shows himself in agreement with and obedient to the sacrificial and purity laws.” But that affirmation, agreement, obedience were, as Jesus foresaw, to last only till he reached the cross, where the law was “fulfilled” and “accomplished”--rendered “obsolete.” Jesus was a law-abiding Jew--was a Jew--but he foresaw the cross and knew that there he would create a new religion, one where faith in Him displaced reliance upon the covenant and the law.

Ben Witherington said...

The man in question was not a disciple of Jesus, and lived within the Jewish law system. Jesus was a pretty radical critique of some aspects of the Jewish law (see e.g. Mark 7.15-19) but he also had compassion on people who lived within that system and would continue to do so.


James Garth said...

Hi Ben,

You should seriously consider publishing this as a mini-booklet (similar to McGrath's 'Dawkins Delusion') I think there's merit in it!


gary said...

Greetings Dr. Witherington.

This may be off topic, but I have long wondered what to make of Jesus' "radical critique" of Jewish law, particularly in Mathew 5.

I read in that chapter where Jesus kinda ups the ante (27-28) on some aspects of the law, but in others it seems as though he is overturning, maybe condemning it (38-39,43-44). I've heard it said that Jesus was overturning those parts of the law because they were morally abhorrent, etc. Is that the correct way to view those verses?

Ben Witherington said...

No Jesus is not overturning those parts of the law because they are abhorrent, he is overturning them as they will no longer apply in the new covenant he is inaugurating, the eschatological and final covenant.


Ari said...

Thanks for another great post. I find myself jumping ahead of you to find you came to the same conclusions.