Can We Trust the Text of the New Testament?

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 11/15/2011

Ed Komoszewski of Parchment and Pen reviewed the recent Bart Ehrman/Dan Wallace debate (“Can we trust the text of the New Testament?”), offering these six points (abridged below) to summarize Wallace’s argument:

(1) The New Testament has vastly more manuscripts than any other ancient author. In fact, it has more than one thousand times as many copies as the average classical author does.

(2) The New Testament has far more manuscripts in the early centuries than any other ancient author. It boasts more than 500 manuscripts within 800 years of its completion. Within 200 years of its completion, the New Testament has three times more manuscripts than the average classical author has in 2000 years!

(3) There are two attitudes that rational people will avoid: absolute certainty and radical skepticism. When examining historical data, we simply can’t be as certain as scientists are when their experiments are repeatable, controlled, and predictable. History doesn’t yield itself to such certainty. But it also does not warrant the rampant skepticism that is found among many postmodernists today.

(4) The New Testament copying was not like the telephone game…. Among [Wallace’s] points, he mentioned that researchers can go “up the line” to earlier witnesses to find out what they said, that there were multiple lines of transmission rather than a single line, that the copying was in written rather than oral form, and that there was no desire to botch the job (which is the whole point of the telephone game).

(5) The Alexandrian family had roots that almost surely went back to the first decades of the second century.

(6) Wallace’s coup de grâce was his listing of various titles of books that Ehrman had written. Wallace argued that if Ehrman was right that we simply have no idea what the original text said, then all of Ehrman’s books on the New Testament would be pointless!... Wallace showed that in Forged Ehrman assumed that he knew what the words were in Paul’s authentic letters…to the degree that he could pronounce judgment on the words in the Pastoral letters. It was a brilliant stroke: Forged was published earlier this year, and it simply reveals that Ehrman is massively inconsistent on what he thinks the original New Testament said.

Here’s the bottom line:

Wallace painted Ehrman as a radical skeptic. Is that picture true to form? One person from the audience asked Ehrman what it would take for him to be sure that we knew what the original of, say, the Gospel of Mark was. He said if we had ten first-generation copies, written within a week or so of the original, with “0.001% deviation” between them, then he could be relatively assured that we had Mark’s Gospel intact. Forget the fact that such requirements are not made for any other ancient literature, or that the New Testament is so rich in copies that scholars can get a very good sense of the original wording. Ehrman’s response to this question confirmed that Wallace had indeed framed things accurately.

A DVD of the debate is available for purchase from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, and you can listen to two recent lectures Wallace gave on this same subject for free here.