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Can We Trust the Text of the New Testament?

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a debate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas entitled “Can We Trust the Text of the New Testament?: A Debate between Daniel B. Wallace and Bart D. Ehrman.” It was exciting to see how many people showed up with an interest in textual criticism! The place was packed with 1600 in attendance.

I intend to share rather briefly some of the thoughts/highlights that Wallace and Ehrman tossed around. Frankly though, if you are familiar with their works and textual criticism at large, what was discussed was nothing groundbreaking. It had a feel of a beginner’s introduction to the field, but (judging by some of the questions asked of the two by audience members) perhaps this is what was needed. What’s more, I found it exceptionally entertaining to see how these two scholars went about introducing textual criticism to us. They have vastly different takes (which most of you know), but there are similarities as well. I could only sit back and grin as they talked. I’m extremely glad I didn’t miss it!

Ok, so here is how the session was broken up. First, Ehrman had an opportunity to give opening remarks (about 30 min) followed by Wallace. Then there were two sets of responses (10 min each) followed by a Q&A session front the audience (I think about 30-40 min). We ended with closing remarks from the two of them (10 min each).

The opening remarks from each scholar were fairly straightforward introductions to the field as I mentioned before. Each of the scholars set out to establish an answer to the question in the title. Ultimately, Ehrman asked us, “Is the text of the New Testament reliable?” His answer: “There is no way to know.” Wallace however asked, “Is what we have now what they wrote then?” His response was that “it almost certainly is.”

Well, the response time was some of the most interesting. Both Ehrman and Wallace know how to talk to a crowd. They have such entertaining personalities, and it was here and the Q&A time that those personalities shown. Ehrman wanted to know how Wallace can know that our surviving manuscripts were copied from accurate copies of accurate copies (and so on). He also asked how many significant variants were created before our surviving manuscripts. Obviously, the answer to this is that we can’t know for certain. Wallace, however, stated that we have probability on our side. He returned a question to Ehrman asking how he knows that our earliest scribes are some of the worst (Ehrman had earlier stated that scribes reached a higher level of professionalism in the medieval world).

One more round of responses from the two were equally as fun to watch. Ehrman asked, “How do we know the earliest copies of Mark didn’t take out a verse or two that they didn’t like or added a verse or two that they wanted?” Wallace’s answer? We don’t have hard evidence, but we do have a great deal of soft evidence. For instance, the Alexandrian manuscripts do not greatly differ except in incidental errors.

After this they went into the Q&A time. It was mostly civil, but the questions being asked I didn’t bother to write down, nor their responses. Frankly, I don’t believe the great amount of questions would interest you (or perhaps they just didn’t interest me). In any case, Ehrman and Wallace treated each one with respect and answered at least what they thought was question that should’ve been asked.

By the time we got to closing remarks I’d forgotten to start taking more notes, so you’ll have to forgive me. They mainly restated their beliefs in the level of trust we can place in the text (as was stated above).

All in all, it was worth the time to go and was exceedingly fun. Drs. Ehrman and Wallace, thank you for taking the time to do this. I look forward to the next chance I have to see you speak!

Matt

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