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Quote of the Day: Why So Many New Testament Textual Critics are Evangelicals

bart ehrman

Here’s a good question about why so many New Testament textual critics (those who study the manuscripts of the New Testament) are evangelical Christians.


The interesting thing about the discipline is precisely what this questioner is suggesting. Evangelical Christians who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God down to its very words make up the majority of New Testament textual critics. By a (very) large margin. And so the question is why?


So why do evangelicals so frequently go that route?  I would say that, as a rule, it is for one of three reasons.

First: theology.  It is precisely because of their theological convictions that many evangelicals want to devote their lives to knowing what the NT authors originally wrote.  If the original words of the Bible were inspired by God, then it is important to know what those words were.  Scribes occasionally (OK, often) changed the words.  But who cares what some anonymous scribe thought or wanted to say?  We want to know what GOD wanted to say!  And so we have to figure out which words come from scribal changes and which from God.  We can throw out the former and will revere the latter.  Any time a verse is worded in different ways, only one of those ways is original (assuming the original itself wasn’t lost along the way, so that *all* we have are various kinds of changes); we need to figure out which one it is.  For me, personally, this was THE MAIN REASON I wanted to become a textual critic.

Second: apologeticsThe term “apologetics comes, as you might suspect, from the word “apology,” which in this context decidedly does not mean saying you’re sorry.   Apology in its technical sense refers to a “reasoned defense” of a view  – say an ideological perspective, a philosophical position, or a religious claim.  Christian apologists make, or try to make, intellectual arguments for their religious views, trying to show, for example, what the actual evidence is that Jesus was really born of a virgin or raised from the dead, or that the human race was created not evolved, or that the Bible is the word of God without mistake.  In some periods of Christian intellectual history – including right now, as we speak – one reason often adduced for doubting that the Bible is the inspired word of God is that it doesn’t seem to be all that important, or even plausible, that God inspired the words of the Bible if we don’t’ know what the words are.  Evangelicals who go into textual criticism often do so in order to be able to show that we know the original words and that therefore there is no reason for doubt: we have the very Word of God.

Third: professional career.  Graduate students in New Testament studies, just like graduate students in any academic discipline, almost always do a PhD because they want to have high-level credentials and respect from colleagues in what they do.  There are very few disciplines in which a person’s theological views create real and serious difficulties.  If you are a Mormon, or Buddhist, or observant Jew – nothing about your personal religious views should have much bearing on your ability to do a PhD in physics, or anthropology, or French literature.  Your views do not prevent you from accepting the widely held premises of your discipline.


The problem is especially intense, though, in the (much smaller) field of New Testament studies. There are certain assumptions, views, ideas, approaches, methods that simply do not work well with conservative evangelical understandings of the Bible.  If you think the Bible is without mistake of any kind, it is very difficult to engage in the kind of critical study of the New Testament that is promoted in research universities and non-Christian colleges (whether Princeton or Florida State or Appalachian State University, or Swarthmore, or Kenyon College or … or pick your secular school….) – work that admits that Paul may not have written Colossians, or that John may not be historically accurate, or that Luke has a different view of salvation from Mark, or that many of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels are based on oral traditions that were altered over the years.   And that makes it difficult for evangelicals to get a PhD in many areas within New Testament studies.  But not all.


A problem arises only when this kind of work gets turned on its head into some kind of “apology” for evangelical causes, as if showing what an author probably wrote originally has anything to do with whether what he wrote is true or not.  Textual criticism cannot say a single thing about the truth claims of an author’s text, about whether he was right or wrong.  It can only (try to) show what the author originally wrote.  People who claim that knowing what an author wrote somehow shows that what the author wrote is right (even if these people have have PhD’s in the field) are simply being duplicitous or stupid (or both).

And unfortunately, there are some of those out there, at least among the evangelical crowd, who sometimes say such crazy things as “we can trust the New Testament because we have more manuscripts than for any other ancient document.”  Good grief.   Our decision to trust an author is never based on the number of copies of his book.

— Dr. Bart Ehrman, Why Do Are So Many Textual Critics Evangelicals? July 26, 2020


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    MJ Lisbeth

    “Our decision to trust an author is never based on the number of copies of his book.” Of course! That is why nobody uses Barbara Cartland or Danielle Steele or PD James as guidebooks to our love lives. (At least, that’s what I hope!)

    “Textual criticism cannot say a single thing about the truth claims of an author’s text, about whether he was right or wrong.” Anyone who has studied llterature–or other areas, like history, in which textual criticism or analysis are widely used–understands as much. What that means, of course, is that the New Testament scholars Ehrman describes are doing the exact opposite of what is done by critics and scholars in any other field!

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      I saw a funny Facebook exchange this week. An evangelical posted a Bible verse about obeying our leaders, and her atheist friend countered that the Bible condones slavery in the OT and NT with a link to an atheist site explaining that. The evangelical stated that she doesn’t get her Bible info from atheists, and her friend stated that she should because more atheists are experts on the Bible than Christians are.

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    Bob and I have watched some video debates with Ehrman. Very good, even though the opponents are unable to be objective due to their “apologetics.”

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    I recall a statistic that found that of academic bible scholars, of those unaffiliated to a bible college or other religious learning institution, over 90% are atheists. In other words, bible study is, and should be, a secular activity if it is studied properly. It also adds to the sentiment that whilst Christians buy bibles, it’s atheists that read them!

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    Brian Vanderlip

    Evangelicalism necessitates the need for a ‘true’ conclusion in any argument because the truth has already been believed (chosen) by the person and this unproven supposition is then used as proof for itself. Jesus is Lord is just such a supposition taken to heart as a true belief. All arguments, even those that are partially valid are rendered unsound at the conclusion because at least one premise (in this case belief that Jesus is Lord, is unproven. All kinds of error in reason follow from evangelialism. One often heard is that we can have no way to act decently among one another without God, without Jesus because we have no compass. The assumption of truth that Jesus is Lord makes this statement in its conclusion simply unsound. It completely denies the validity of morality and ethical living except for those who have the ticket. So it is that I have great difficulty in taking the the Biblical scholars who are believers as capable of valid argument, though in fact often certain points made are indeed in themselves valid. But when it comes to conclusions, I just find them unsound.
    When I believed in Jesus, my belief was the firm (‘sic’) foundation, the rock I chose to stand on. What I had to give up to stand there was my Reason, my gut sensibility. My Reasoning is often faulty and my sensibilities too. But they are me, truly and honestly. I will not lie any more about that because I have learned after many years of error, that embracing falsehood makes me sick. It is unhealthy to choose to lie to ourselves. The body itself rebels.

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    Catherine A Kirk

    Thank you for suggesting Bart Ehrman to your readers and for featuring him in some of your posts. Reading some of his books and listening to him lecture and debate is what got me over the hump of giving up my IFB indoctrination.

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Bruce Gerencser