At least Bart Ehrman’s argument is exciting. The other textual critics tell boring stories.

19 Feb

Thought folks might like this essay by Dan Wallace on textual criticism and his peer/friend Bart Ehrman.  He points out that textual criticism is boring tedious work and not exciting to anyone except a few academics.  Been that way for hundreds of years.  It’s Bart Ehrman who gets invited to publish books and appear on tv and radio because the stories the other 25 or so textual critics tell is so boring.  It would essentially amount to this:  “Yeah, I just examined a new copy recently uncovered of a New Testament book; I think that’s number 6,502, if I’m counting correctly.  Changes weekly though.  No news really, it reads pretty much like the other 6500 copies we have 99% of the time.  When translated, it reads pretty much like any modern english translation of the New Testament you can buy at walmart or target.  Sorry I don’t have anything more juicy to add.  Just move along, nothing to see here, I guess.  But you might want to call Bart.  He makes a lot more out of the 1% than the rest of us do.”

Intro from Dan Wallace:

For most students of the NT, a book on textual criticism is a real yawn. The tedious details are not the stuff of a bestseller. But since its publication on November 1, 2005, Misquoting Jesus2 has been circling higher and higher toward the Amazon peak. And since Bart Ehrman, one of North America’s leading textual critics, appeared on two of NPR’s programs (the Diane Rehm Show and Fresh Air with Terry Gross)—both within the space of one week—it has been in the top fifty sellers at Amazon. Within three months, more than 100,000 copies were sold. When Neely Tucker’s interview of Ehrman in TheWashington Post appeared on March 5 of this year the sales of Ehrman’s book shot up still higher. Mr. Tucker spoke of Ehrman as a “fundamentalist scholar who peered so hard into the origins of Christianity that he lost his faith altogether.”3 Nine days later, Ehrman was the guest celebrity on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Stewart said that seeing the Bible as something that was deliberately corrupted by orthodox scribes made the Bible “more interesting…almost more godly in some respects.” Stewart concluded the interview by stating, “I really congratulate you. It’s a helluva book!” Within 48 hours, Misquoting Jesus was perched on top of Amazon, if only for a moment. Two months later and it’s still flying high, staying in the 25 or so books. It “has become one of the unlikeliest bestsellers of the year.”4 Not bad for an academic tome on a “boring” topic!

Why all the hoopla? Well, for one thing, Jesus sells. But not the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus that sells is the one that is palatable to postmodern man. And with a book entitled Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, a ready audience was created via the hope that there would be fresh evidence that the biblical Jesus is a figment. Ironically, almost none of the variants that Ehrman discusses involve sayings of Jesus. The book simply doesn’t deliver what the title promises. Ehrman preferred Lost in Transmission, but the publisher thought such a book might be perceived by the Barnes and Noble crowd as dealing with stock car racing! Even though Ehrman did not choose his resultant title, it has been a publishing coup.

More importantly, this book sells because it appeals to the skeptic who wants reasons not to believe, who considers the Bible a book of myths. It’s one thing to say that the stories in the Bible are legend; it’s quite another to say that many of them were added centuries later. Although Ehrman does not quite say this, he leaves the impression that the original form of the NT was rather different from what the manuscripts now read.

According to Ehrman, this is the first book written on NT textual criticism—a discipline that has been around for nearly 300 years—for a lay audience.5 Apparently he does not count the several books written by KJV Only advocates, or the books that interact with them. It seems that Ehrman means that his is the first book on the general discipline of NT textual criticism written by a bona fide textual critic for a lay readership. This is most likely true.

He goes on to introduce the reader to the science of textual criticism and the differences most textual critics have with Ehrman’s interpretation of the manuscript evidence.

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