Can We Trust the New Testament?

On October 1, 2011, Dr. Daniel Wallace, professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, and Dr. Bart Ehrman, professor of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, had a debate over the trustworthiness of the New Testament. I watched the debate on DVD.

Both scholars agreed that the New Testament is the best attested historical document from ancient times. There are 5600 Greek manuscripts of the NT, 10,000+ copies in other languages, and enough NT quotes from the early “church fathers” to reconstruct the entire NT from their works alone. No other ancient book or writing comes close…nothing is even in the same ballpark.

But Dr. Ehrman has made a career out of attacking the historical reliability of the NT. Some of his books have even become NY Times best-sellers…for instance, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why and Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. Dr. Ehrman’s skepticism and scholarly sarcasm toward God and the Bible plays well in our current culture.

Dr. Ehrman’s argument against the reliability of the NT stands on two grounds: 1) all we have is copies of copies of copies of the NT and 2) there are countless variations between the Greek manuscripts that we do have.

Dr. Wallace’s response answered both issues. 1) Yes, we have copies of copies but the evidence of the reliability of these copies is overwhelming. There are copies from the early centuries after Christ, copies from various places in the ancient world, and so many copies that all the readings of the NT can be compared and analyzed to find the most accurate reading. No other ancient manuscript can even come close to this much data. 2) There are so many variations between the manuscripts quite simply because we have so many manuscripts to compare. And almost all Bible scholars agree (even Ehrman) that the overwhelming majority of these variations (~99%) are either spelling errors, word order differences (which is common in Greek), or mistakes like missing letters or duplicated words. Only ~1% could be classified as significant and none of these affect one essential belief in Christianity.

That evidence wasn’t enough in Ehrman’s opinion. When asked by an audience member what amount of evidence he would need to convince him that the NT manuscripts were reliable, Ehrman replied, “If someone found 12 manuscripts dated from within a week of the writing of the NT then I would say that was strong evidence.”

But even if such a treasure house of NT manuscripts were found, I am sure the skeptic in Ehrman would still find something conspiratorial or doubtful about them.

Ehrman demanded absolute certainty. Wallace provided compelling evidence. And Ehrman was not impressed.

Ehrman would say things like “Dr. Wallace still has not provided absolute proof that we can trust the New Testament. How do we know that someone didn’t make major changes in the earliest manuscripts? Quite simply, we don’t.”

Wallace would respond along these lines. “If that is Dr. Ehrman’s criteria, then we have to throw out all that we think we know of the ancient world…everything. All of it must go. When we are dealing with history, we have to deal in the area of evidence not absolute proof.”

In Ehrman’s closing statement, he used an analogy that summed up his argument. He said something like this:

When it comes to the issue of trust, the burden of proof lies on the one who says that you can trust something. If a train full of people approaches a bridge across a great chasm, the person who says that the bridge can hold the train is the one who has to prove it. If there isn’t absolute certainty, then the train shouldn’t cross the bridge.

It was a good analogy…and Dr. Wallace chose not to address it in his closing statement.

But I kept thinking about it later.

There was one key missing element in Ehrman’s analogy…the reason why the train was going to cross the bridge. If the people on the train were simply on a leisurely trip, then, yes, crossing a bridge with only say 95% certainty of the bridge’s reliability would be foolish. But if the train was filled with people who were dying or in great jeopardy and the bridge was the only means to a hospital or to safety, then actually the burden of proof would lie on the skeptic who was shouting by the side of the tracks, “Don’t cross that bridge! It is too unsafe!” And if, upon questioning, that person could only offer, “Well, no one knows with absolute certainty that that bridge will hold you,” then it would actually be foolish to not cross the bridge.

In other words, Ehrman assumes that trusting the New Testament is the dangerous proposition and that staying a skeptic and having no belief in the reliability of the Bible–and hence, no belief in God, Jesus, or the resurrection from the dead–is the only safe place to be.

I would see it the other way around.

If there is no real God, no reliable Bible, no Savior named Jesus or no resurrection from the dead, then who cares whether we cross the bridge or not. All of us are going to perish anyway. Might as well go out with one last hurrah trying to cross a bridge that looks like it might lead to safety.

BUT if there is evidence that Scripture is reliable…that God does exist…that there was a man named Jesus who walked this earth and rose from the dead….then continuously critiquing the bridge and mocking the people on the train trusting it for salvation is the work of a scoffer not a scholar.

Especially when you die by the edge of the tracks.

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2 Responses to Can We Trust the New Testament?

  1. Rebecca says:

    Ahhh thank you for this!
    In my religion class we had to post a discussion on whether having the “right” religion is important. I answered yes, because even though belief in God and the Bible is based on a LOT of faith, I’d rather believe it and find out it somehow isn’t true, than not believe and find out it is.

  2. John Sarris says:

    Dr. Ehrman must have considered that within 100 years of his passing there won't be any living witnesses to the reliability of his publications.  Although there may still be many existing "copies" of his publications in existance at that future time, they are only copies and not original manuscripts.  And at that, publications of an original that may have been penned by others with no "proof" Ehrman was the actual author of the thought published in his name.  What a twisted web . . . .

    Thank you, pastor.

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