Creating Chicken Littles

This is old, but new to me. I came across this from reading a “cannibalized” version in another format. This paper was originally published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49 (2006): 327-49. The author is Daniel B. Wallace, Ph.D. If one has studied the Greek language in a seminary or a university here in the states, since two-thirds of such schools use his text-book there is a very good chance one learned their Greek with his help.

This paper is old and addresses Bart Ehrman’s book “Misquoting Jesus,” about which much ink has (or pixels manipulated) already been spilled. I post it here simply because Ehrman is still considered by many to have raised serious questions about the Bible, and thus the Christian faith. Really? There is no doubt he is a good textual critic/scholar, it is simply that even though he’s jumped from the “conservative” side to the “liberal” side, the black-and-white, narrow, and dogmatic sensibility still guides his understanding, so at the end of the day all we get is a liberal fundamentalist now. Ehrman is a former “conservative” fundamentalist who finally learned in graduate school what countless New Testament/Greek scholars in evangelical, mainline, and secular institutions have known all along: That we only have copies of the original manuscripts of what makes up the Bible and there are textual variants in those copies. To which, one should only ask: So what? It shook his faith only because he had a false view of the Bible to begin with. What is new here? Unless one holds to some sort of dictation theory, wherein God told certain people exactly what word and letter to write, there is nothing Ehrman has ever pointed out that should shake any Christian’s faith. Besides, what does Ehrman think Christians did before the Bible was even put together in the form we have now? Even though letters would circulate (copies), the great majority of Christians did not walk around with “Bibles” under their arms for centuries. Somehow they still managed to birth a completely new world—western civilization as we know it historically anyway.

So, the paper by Wallace is definitely worth reading and something to keep in mind whenever anyone trots Ehrman out as the last word on the New Testament as many still do.

Here is how Wallace finishes his paper:

In sum, “Misquoting Jesus” does not disappoint on the provocative scale. But it comes up short on genuine substance about Ehrman’s primary contention…unfortunately, the average layperson will leave “Misquoting Jesus” with far greater doubts about the wording and teachings of the NT than any textual critic would ever entertain…the irony is that “Misquoting Jesus” is supposed to be all about reason and evidence, but it has been creating almost as much panic and alarm as “The Da Vinci Code.” Is that really the pedagogical effect Ehrman was seeking? I have to assume that he knew what kind of a reaction he would get from this book, for he does not change the impression at all in his interviews. Being provocative, even at the risk of being misunderstood, seems to be more important to him than being honest even at the risk of being boring. But a good teacher does not create Chicken Littles.

And frankly, that is all Ehrman has really accomplished.

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7 Responses to Creating Chicken Littles

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    The basic issue, however is of inerrancy. Wallace shows the bible may be a bit less errant than Ehrman makes it out to be. So it is sort-of errant. If one's faith is based on inerrancy, than each would be a strong blow. If one is not into inerrancy, or Catholic, believing in ongoing revelation to the church, or believing in our own moral compass, then the whole question is moot.

    The fact is that text variants to point to many changes in meaning, making it impossible to capture the original meaning. Our ability to share in the early experiences of the Christ cult that you point to would seem to depend on having reliable texts of what happened. But it turns out that many of the texts were written later under false names, embelleshing details that came from who knows where (“inauthentic”, as Wallace delicately puts it), and the texts we do have disagree with each other in fine as well as not so fine points. It all points to a human tradition that many religionists have taken falsely to be solid and inerrant.

    Now Ehrman has turned from inerrancy and also from religion more generally. You call him a “liberal fundamentalist”, and what does that mean? It appears to mean that he disagrees with you, both about the accuracy of the bible, and about the rationality of religion in general, whether or not you are an inerrantist. It seems to mean that he is dogmatic about his belief, much as you are dogmatic in your religious belief.

    But his skepticism and your belief are quite different things- you believe in the Jesus story, complete with supernatural miracles and quasi-errant scriptural documentation, while Ehrman takes it all with a bigger grain of salt, and now with his eyes opened to the deficiencies of the biblical document, also doubts the probability of the other allied miracles supposed to have been recorded. One doubt logically follows from the other, making him something other than a fundamentalist … a reasoning person.

    ” … anyone with an understanding of the healthy patristic debates over the Godhead knows that the early church arrived at their understanding from an examination of the data in the NT”.

    Healthy? More like addled. You speak often of the “frame” by which, if one only changed one's frame of viewing the world, faith would make a great deal more sense. Well, the reverse is true as well, and Ehrman is an example of finding that, once one gives up a frame that shoehorns the church fathers and miscellaneous miracles, spirits, ghosts, etc into a biblical framework, the world suddenly makes a great deal more sense.

    The discussion of what “inauthentic” material goes into current bibles was quite interesting. Why is half of Paul still in there, when we know it is a load of post-Pauline patriarchial crap? Well, we really don't know for sure what is what, do we? That is the basic point, and it applies with far more force to the nether zone of the earliest recorded materials with their completely unknown provenance and accuracy than it does to the later additions. That is why the miracles make no sense, and why, once the acid of doubt leaches out some of the perfection of the scripture, it doesn't take long to leach out a good deal more.

    But Wallace is sentitive to the quality of a good story, even if it really isn't true. And isn' that in the end where the bible comes from … hook, line, and sinker?

    cont..

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  2. Burk Braun says:

    “Second, what I tell my students every year is that it is imperative that they pursue truth rather than protect their presuppositions. And they need to have a doctrinal taxonomy that distinguishes core beliefs from peripheral beliefs.”

    Excuse me.. not protect suppositions, but protect core beliefs? What if one's core beliefs are the presuppositions one is not supposed to protect? How about being a scholar with integrity? I wouldn't quibble with Wallace's critique of Ehrman's textual points, but the overall issue is one of whether to take the frame of belief seriously at all. If the human creation of the scriptures is quite obvious in its ragged composition and preservation, isn't it possible that the same origin is evident in its psychological fixations, cherished superstitions, and themes carried in from related cultural traditions far and wide?

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  3. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “The fact is that text variants to point to many changes in meaning, making it impossible to capture the original meaning.”

    I believe Wallace's points are that such is not true. No variant would lead any reasonable person to believe it changes the meaning of any core orthodox belief, the key word here being “reasonable.”

    Ehrman is a liberal fundamentalist for the very reasons pointed out by Wallace:

    “But from where I sit, it seems that Bart’s black and white mentality as a fundamentalist has hardly been affected as he slogged through the years and trials of life and learning, even when he came out on the other side of the theological spectrum. He still sees things without sufficient nuancing, he overstates his case, and he is entrenched in the security that his own views are right.”

    His skepticism is simply the other side of his faith–a faith which is in an equally false view of what it means if the Bible were not what he originally thought. He simply went from one false view to another.

    You articulation of “frame” is inaccurate. “Frame” doesn't make faith make more “sense.” Faith creates the frame. It creates Ehrman's, mine, and yours.

    “But Wallace is sensitive to the quality of a good story…”

    Wallace believes the story, just like you believe your naturalist story. I think he simply has better reasons and such are entirely unaffected by textual variants.

    Going back to the point, which completely lets the air out of Erhman's balloon, as you yourself note, “If one's faith is based on inerrancy, than each would be a strong blow…the whole question is moot.”

    Exactly, so unless one is a fundamentalist and already had a false view to begin with, Erhman’s work in this area is moot indeed.

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  4. Burk Braun says:

    “Faith creates the frame. It creates Ehrman's, mine, and yours.”

    If that is true, they why discuss anything? How can we evaluate anything if faith comes first, foremost, and hindmost? The answer is that it can be evaluated, because one can test positions outside one's frame, given some intellectual integrity and imagination.

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  5. Darrell says:

    “Faith creates the frame. It creates Ehrman's, mine, and yours.”

    “If that is true, they why discuss anything? How can we evaluate anything if faith comes first, foremost, and hindmost? The answer is that it can be evaluated, because one can test positions outside one's frame, given some intellectual integrity and imagination.”

    It locates where the discussion needs to always start, which is why does one place his faith in one view of the world as opposed to another? Beyond that, you have a view of “faith” that is already prejudiced. You believe “faith” means belief regardless of evidence, facts, or any other consideration (correct me if I’m wrong). Therefore any talk of faith is lost if one has such a view. Further, faith is not something one sets aside and evaluates from some neutral, objective, position. Again, we are back to the modern/postmodern divide. The evaluation or interpretation of evidence, facts, and all other considerations is impossible without some sort of presuppositional framework, which is really just another set of terms for faith. This faith, this framework, is a result of our true loves and those conclusions we have arrived at that are a result of many intangibles all connected to a web of influences and experiences. One can evaluate his faith, but not by abstracting it out as if it were just something, an idea, or a construct, he had created. I am talking about something that is present at a more fundamental level.

    Since you are approaching this from a purely modern perspective, without seeming to recognize it as a perspective and one that has been called into question, such is what actually hinders the discussion. There is hardly any integrity or imagination in such a position—a position that relegates everyone else’s views to non-starters and privileges one’s own as based upon “fact” and “evidence.” Such a view is the true discussion stopper.

    But this conversation is for another post. Again, going back to the point of my post, Ehrman tells us nothing that should cause anyone to become skeptical of the Bible or Christianity, unless that person is a fundamentalist or unless that person was already looking for reasons to be skeptical.

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  6. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    “This faith, this framework, is a result of our true loves and those conclusions we have arrived at that are a result of many intangibles all connected to a web of influences and experiences. One can evaluate his faith, but not by abstracting it out as if it were just something, an idea, or a construct, he had created. I am talking about something that is present at a more fundamental level.”

    So? What does this lead to? Does it prohibit our talking about these conclusions and the nature of these “intangibles”? No, it certainly does not. I am trying to talk about them, and you appear to be trying to dance around them. Indeed, you seem to be retreating to “intangibles” as being the source and evidence for your position, which certainly seems like an avoidance rather than an engagement with the argument. I agree that one starts there, in an unphilosophical existence, but dealing with them consciously is the whole point of philosophy.

    It seems to me that we share most of the same faith suppositions, as you would have it. The world exists, all the normal parts of our day are analogous and conceived similarly. We even share the modern scientific corpus (mostly) of astronomy, geology, and other narratives that describe our position in the universe at large. You add an additional belief in an overarching something causing all the foregoing, which I don't share. That is pretty much the entire difference in our presuppostions. Even in morals, we are hardly very far apart, since we both decide what seems best to us- me from teachings of various sorts and traditions, you biassed towards selections from scripture.

    So, the differences are small, yet they get magnified since you would tend to put extreme importance and extreme reliability exactly where I would not. Does that describe the faith-world pretty well?

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  7. Darrell says:

    The “intangibles” are not the “evidence.” Our core beliefs, these intangibles, these deep presuppositions, our faith really, are what we view the world (the evidence) through. This is not an “unphilosophical” existence; it is the beginning of philosophy. What I mean regarding intangibles are our loves and desires—those mysterious longings that are more than just emotions, but rather are the very springs of our will and choosing.

    I’m simply repeating what many figures have pointed out before in more poetic forms:

    Anselm’s motto: “Faith seeking understanding.”
    Blaise Pascal: “The heart has it reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

    And to a certain extent:
    Shakespeare: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    Since your argument goes something like this, “I base my conclusions upon evidence, facts, reason, and science while you base yours upon fairy tales regardless…” it would appear then that you, indeed, are the one not trying to talk about the nature of these “intangibles.”

    “It seems to me that we share most of the same faith suppositions, as you would have it. The world exists, all the normal parts of our day are analogous and conceived similarly. We even share the modern scientific corpus (mostly) of astronomy, geology, and other narratives that describe our position in the universe at large.”

    Again, this misstates the issue. That the world exists, that we perceive the same physical reality, and that we both understand and agree regarding the “facts” derived from the scientific corpus, has nothing to do with faith presuppositions. This computer in front of me is not a faith presupposition. Rather, we view and interpret this world that exists, this physical reality with all its concomitant “facts” by and through those faith presuppositions. Such is what allows us to make sense of, and give meaning to, this world that exists. It is not that each of us “adds” anything to this mix; our faith presuppositions are there from the beginning, always and already making it possible to even talk and communicate regarding our shared perceptions—this world that indeed exists.

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