What Does The Future Hold In Bible Scholarship?

Bart Erhman is a New Testament scholar whose observations I have been writing about here.

Erhman’s subdiscipline is called “Textual Criticism”.  This field is one where researchers look for the origins of New Testament writing and the motives of its authors. It is not a critique of its theology.

Erhman said recently the volume of research in this field has “exploded” in the last 20 years.  Interest by the public must have exploded also as Erhman’s 2005 book, Misquoting Jesus; The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, was on the New York  Times Bestseller List.

Erhman talks of efforts by contemporary scholars to track threads of hand written Bibles by their differences.  There are several thousand surviving copies.  When a change is noticed, scholars try to follow how many times the change was recopied and in what region.

These changes are compared to other writing about philosophy and religion of the period and region to see if changes in the Bible texts follow or do not follow other writing of the time.

My guess is that while there must be photocopies of most of these hand written Bibles, I would doubt most of them have been recorded digitally as they surely will be.

This will result in an even greater explosion of Bible research.  Ancient writing will be recorded numberically so the ability to identify patterns of spelling, grammer, words and changes by statistical probability will enhanced far beyond where we are today.

Many current secrets about who wrote what and why may eventually be revealed.  Arguments between believers and their opponents will grow accordingly.

17 Responses

  1. eric haugen

    I will quote Gleason Archer (Harvard, Princeton, law school graduate): “AS I have dealt with one apparent discrepancy after another and have studied the alleged contradictions between the biblical record and the evidence of linguistics, archaeology, or science, my confidence in the trustworthiness of scripture has been repeatedly verified and strengthened by the discovery that almost every problem in scripture that has been ever discovered by man, from ancient times until now, has been dealt with in a completely satisfactory manner by the biblical text itself-or else by objective archeological information. The deductions that may be validly drawn from ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, or Akkadian documents all harmonize with the biblical record; and no properly trained evangelical scholar has anything to fear from the hostile arguments and challenges of humanistic rationalists or detractors of any and every persuasion”. There are over 5000 known Greek manuscripts of the new testament copied by hand from the second to the fifteenth centuries. If we include the latin vulgate and other languages we have almost 25,000 copies of the new testament. With all of these copies it is possible to reconstruct the original text with near complete accuracy. “To be skeptical of the resultant text of the new testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament” (John Warwick Montgomery).

    1. eric 2:33 re: Gleason Archer

      I see he retired from university life 25 years ago. I would guess he never read stuff by those now engaged in the field of critical review which exploded during the last 20 years. If he did read it, he would reject it out of hand because he was a stanch defender of inerrancy. Such folks have a right to their views, of course.

      I’m just saying the critical research has revealed why some changes happened during the centuries of recopying. Statistical analysis of many thousands more of the copies has the potential, it seems to me, to tell us a lot more about who the scribes were, what was going on around them and why changes in texts occurred.

      1. eric haugen

        Are you saying the words of someone who retired from academia more than 10 years ago should be ignored? (this is really a joke; I appreciate your posts and have learned a lot from them even though I disagree with many of them-not all)

      2. eric haugen

        To claim he would reject analysis based upon his biased belief in inerrancy is of course a biased statement in and of itself. What is your basis for this claim? He did not use the word inerrancy which in and of itself has connotations. Has his works been sited to be biased (I do not know answer to this)? What is your support for Ehrmans unbiased approach (a previous post on this book claimed its validity simply based upon credentials; Archers are just as strong) ? How do we know Erhman is not simply being provocative to increase book sales? Is your view unbiased? Have you ever rejected opinions and analysis simply because they are Christian? After reading your posts for quite some time I think I could make this case as well. Maybe after spending a career studying the material Professor Archer reached a conclusion of textual accuracy simply based upon the overwhelming evidence and not an internal bias. This is entirely possible but since I do not know the man I make no claims either way. I make the point that bias is a two way street and we all have to be careful about accusations and assumptions.

        1. entech

          It is certainly true that what is evidence viewed from one point of view could be seen as nonsense from another. If you have a belief in a supernatural aspect to the the world then the resurrection story is more than plausible, if you are a materialist then it is an impossible story.
          At the extremes for some nothing will be sufficient as evidence, certainly not enough to change fundamental beliefs: for others, anything will be sufficient evidence, the image of the virgin Mary on a piece of toast being sold on EBay for thousands of dollars comes to mind.

          Ehrman is professor of religious studies at an accredited institution. His academic credentials are impeccable and he never uses them in his discussions, unlike many he does not insist on Dr, … . Because his studies led him from an evangelical acceptance of the Bible as being without error to finding it full of error and becoming a non believer he is derided on this and any similar site.
          The likes of Lee Strobel who went from atheist to evangelical is a positive hero for many of his fellow believers even though his formal studies have been in Journalism and Law.

          Is your view unbiased? Have you ever rejected opinions and analysis simply because they are Christian?
          I can’t speak for Jon but in this instance I think we would be of the same mind, we don’t reject simply because they are Christian, we would likely reject the same opinions and analysis because it was Jewish, Islamic or Baha’i , or anything else with a supernatural explanation. It is the underlying assumption (an uncreated creator as the cause of everything) that is the basis for the initial rejection, we would be prepared to listen but I do concede the explanation would be severely handicapped from the start.

          Nice to see you are happy to discuss from a Christian viewpoint, too many leap in and say why do you always pick on us – because you are there and you are the majority, if lots of Muslims or Hindus started writing I am sure they could be included in the skepticism.

        2. entech

          His defense of the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy by proposing harmonizations and exegesis regarding inconsistencies in the Bible made Archer a well known biblical inerrantist. He stated: “One cannot allow for error in history-science without also ending up with error in doctrine.” He was critical of the documentary hypothesis which denies the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.
          From the Wikipedia biographical entry on Gleason Archer Jr.

        3. eric 3:57 “..upon his biased belief in inerrancy is of course a biased statement in and of itself.”

          I should not have said or implied he could not be objective while personally holding inerrancy views. You are correct in this.

          The basic red flag about Archer is his statement (I hope I recall it accurately enough), “We know what the original texts said.” That is simply not true. It is his belief he himself knows what they said.

          It’s just that he is from an entirely different perspective. That is, he takes literally parts of the Bible and then says he is not a literalist. We’ve seen that approach on this board many times. The literal parts are: We are born sinners. Jesus died for our sins. There is a heaven, etc., etc. Thus, when he says the Bible copies are accurate reproductions he is talking of these “truths” that are based on his faith.

          The field Erhman is in has nothing to do with faith. There are those in that field who believe in a God. Erhman invited one such professor to post of his blog
          site a few weeks ago. The scholars in this field look for details in the hand written copies that are not merely spelling or gramatical errors, but subtle changes in what the text means. If the texts were changed in those copies which survived, then some might conclude we don’t really know what happened in those which did not. But, we don’t know exactly what was originally written.

        4. Jinx

          Dr. Bart’s methodology is outstanding and he thoroughly describes his process in several of his books. He is comfortable saying that he doesn’t know or cannot arrive at any conclusions since there is not enough evidence to support such conclusion. I find his process refreshing and highly credible. I am not familiar with Mr Archer.

  2. Michael Ross

    “Apart from the most rabid fundamentalists among us, nearly everyone admits that the Bible might contain errors — a faulty creation story here, a historical mistake there, a contradiction or two in some other place. But is it possible that the problem is worse than that — that the Bible actually contains lies? ”

    ~Bart Ehrman “Who Wrote the Bible and Why It Matters”

    Only the “most rabid fundamentalists” refuse to admit the Bible contains errors and even lies. All fundamentalists and many evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of the scriptures.

    Belief of biblical inerrancy in the U.S.:

    On 2007-MAY-25, Gallup reported the results of a national poll on Biblical inerrancy. Those polled were asked which of three statements comes closest to describing their personal views about the Bible. The average of polls taken during MAY of 2005, 2006 and 2007 were:

    31% believe that “The Bible is the actual word of God, and is to be taken literally, word for word.” This would imply acceptance of biblical inerrancy.
    47% believe that “The Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally.”
    19% believe that “The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.”
    3% were uncertain or didn’t answer.
    Margin of error was ±3 percentage points. 3

    By Ehrman’s definition 78% of Americans are “rabid fundamentalist.” I would include myself in the 47% but didn’t know I was a “rabid fundamentalist”. Oh well, labels are almost meaningless today.

    1. entech

      Rabid – zealous; fanatical; violent; raging
      Perhaps Bart is engaging in a little Hyperbole here. And, I would only expect the first two to be applicable. Add strident and you would have a Christian apologists definition of “The New Atheist”.

      All fundamentalists and many evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of the scriptures.
      Is this Bart’s statement or definition or is it yours? Hard to tell it comes after the direct quote but kind of tacked on to a restatement. Luskin and Dembski do this sought of stuff a lot.

      Perhaps people would like to read this for themselves. My reading has:

      May 25, 2007
      One-Third of Americans Believe the Bible Is Literally True
      High inverse correlation between education and belief in a literal Bible

      by Frank Newport

      About one-third of the American adult population believes the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally word for word. Never mind, sly jokes about education level, 33% ? 78%.

      In the section Biblical belief by Education.
      Actual word of God, to be taken literally:
      High School or less 42%
      College graduate 20%
      Post Graduate 11%
      This statistic proves that for the state of their eternal souls children should be denied education, or perhaps only allow fundamentalist evangelicals to teach.
      To be fair Even though those with postgraduate educations are much less likely to believe in a literal Bible, the majority of that group do believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, rather than solely a human creation.

      Survey methods: Results are based on a series of surveys based on telephone interviews with approximately 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted by Gallup. 1000 out of how many millions? the margin for error is only within that sample.

      Statistics and polling can give just about any result you want but that does not mean very much.
      A sample taken from volunteers among the readers of “The Southern Baptist Review” and from the readers of “The Atheist Weekly” would necessarily show vastly different results on almost any question – you may get some consensus on the best tasting type of apple.
      The size and demographic of the sample compared to the country as whole is also significant.
      Didn’t you have polls that said Obama would lose in a landslide?

      1. Michael Ross

        You are confusing literal and inerrancy. Because I don’t believe all the Bible can taken literally does not mean I believe it contains errors. Scripture uses much symbolism. Revelations talks of a seven headed beast coming out of the sea. I am not looking for some freak monster. The beast is symbolic of something which is open to interpretation. Bible symbols have a literal meaning and only one correct interpretation.

        In the section Biblical belief by Education. Actual word of God, to be taken literally: High School or less 42% College graduate 20% Post Graduate 11%

        In many cases a secular education is a brainwashing.

        1. Michael 4:40 “You are confusing literal and inerrancy.”

          As discussed before, this is where it is hard to defend use of the Bible as evidence. We start with being unable to determine who acutally wrote the Bible. Then, we have no actual copies of what was written origianlly. Now, inerrancy introduces another variable that allows wide latitude as to what the faith really stands for, the license to decide on the basis of one opinion or thousands of opinions which parts are to be taken literally and which metaphor. There are so many arbitrary choices the line between the source of the faith and just making things up is very fuzzy.

          I don’t see how we can say the seven headed beast is any more metaphor than the virgin birth or ascention up to heaven. The most defendable conclusion is it is all metaphor.

        2. entech

          literal adjective
          : involving the ordinary or usual meaning of a word
          : giving the meaning of each individual word
          : completely true and accurate : not exaggerated

          inerrant adjective
          : free from error


          There does not seem to be a great deal of difference between completely true and accurate and free from error.
          Genesis is thought to be metaphor for many right from very early times, Philo of Alexandra, Augustine of Hippo.
          Augustine even said about the literal interpretation:
          It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are.
          To take a literal creation and Adam less than 10,000 years ago is above and beyond literal, to believe that is really to say that not only is the Bible without error but the individual interpreter is without error when he “selects” which part is literally true and which part is metaphorically true.

          In this usage I can’t see much difference between metaphor and symbolism, 7 headed beasties as symbol open to interpretation, or metaphor for something with the meaning of the metaphor open to interpretation ?

          1. entech 9:22 “To take a literal creation and Adam less than 10,000 years ago…really is to say that not only is the Bible without error but the individual interpreter is with error when he ‘selects’ which part is literally true and which part is metaphorically true.”

            Wonderful summary. I think we can help the inerrancy group. What they should do is simply say Adam, the virgin birth, the dead back to life in three days, walking on water (or whichevery of the unbelievible events are the facts instead of metaphor) and call them “factual miracles”. This would distinguish them from just being miracles or from the ten headed dragons.

      2. eric haugen

        To expand a little bit on the whole issue of statistics and polling. If I were to go out on the street and asked random people to explain natural selection or give a current understanding of the big bang, how accurate do you think this would be portrayed? No matter what percent are wrong vs correct, is the final percentage a reflection of the theory itself or of the education? In addition, if I asked a group of high school kids in a physics class, vs college physics majors vs grad students in physics to explain quantum mechanics would we not likely see a maturation of understanding? Is this somehow an indictment of the theory? I would not think so. Many atheists are actually more knowledgable about these biblical inerrancy issues than Christians. It is not an area well addressed in Christian education. It also needs to be kept in mind that within the biblical text you have poetry, historical narrative, prophetic text, metaphor, satire, parable, allegory. Inerrancy has to be considered within the genre of the text. The author and audience need to be kept in mind and no text can be pulled out the context of the entire bible and interpreted on its own. There is room for some disagreement on various issues but there are no fatal flaws.

  3. Michael Ross

    “I don’t see how we can say the seven headed beast is any more metaphor than the virgin birth or ascension up to heaven. The most dependable conclusion is it is all metaphor. ”

    I believe the 7-headed beast were/are the great world empires that dominated God’s people Israel in ancient times and the church today. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome and the current empire, revived Rome or the New World Order. What is metaphor and what is literal is a matter of discernment. I have it, you don’t . . .Just kidding.

    1. entech

      discernment noun
      : the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure.

      Taking just one of the definitions I would have to agree 🙂

      What, when, why a certain incomprehensible, to me, bit of writing is true and when etc. it is symbolic is certainly beyond me, it is all obscure, or hidden or perhaps something occult. Like all the arguments for a creator how do you determine that it is your creator, when it comes to determining which bits to accept as literally true and historically accurate and which to treat as metaphorical goes beyond discernment and into the realm of preference.

      Thinking about it you would need a certain special knowledge to know which was which a certain gnosis you could almost say you would need to be Gnostic instead of agnostic.

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