I learned something really important on day two of the Greer-Heard Forum: fried fish and dark beer taste even better when you’re sitting around a bunch of theologues. Thoughts of blood barely trickling through my arteries were squeezed out by images of Martin Luther engaged in his famous "table talk" enjoying a catch from Katie’s fish pond and nursing a mug of her homemade brew. We didn’t have any famous scholars in our midst on Saturday night, but we were surrounded by great food and stimulating conversation about the theological controversies of our day. Indeed, the lectures we had heard just hours before provided plenty of grist for the mill.

Day two of the Forum featured Michael Holmes (Bethel University), Dale Martin (Yale University), David Parker (Birmingham University), and William Warren (New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary). Each man spoke for approximately 30 minutes, followed by 25 minutes of interaction with the keynotes, Ehrman and Wallace. In keeping with the spirit of the previous night’s dialog, Holmes and Warren took Wallace’s "side" while Martin and Parker were on Ehrman’s. Each lecture was quite different and made its own contribution, as I’ll try to briefly show below.

Michael Holmes
Holmes argued against three models of what the manuscripts would have looked like in the earliest period of copying—the models proposed by David Trobisch, William Peterson, and Kurt Aland. Trobisch suggests that by mid-second century there was controlled copying and that what was being copied was a canonical text somewhat different from the original text. There is no substantial evidence for this, and Wallace had already pointed out that this model fits the Qurâ’an better than the New Testament. Peterson has argued that the text had changed dramatically in the second century, but Holmes effectively debunked Peterson’s examples. Aland argued that every reading, both original and secondary, has been preserved somewhere in the manuscripts. However, Holmes showed that some readings were barely preserved, suggesting that there would be many that had not been.

Holmes’ basic point was that copying by its very nature is a conservative practice and that what the scribes would have done early on was good enough—good enough for preserving the essence of the original text and good enough for making clear what the original meant.

Ehrman responded that we can’t project back into the first century what happened in later centuries, but Holmes said that we have to go on the basis of evidence rather than conjecture. Wallace again brought up the relation of P75 to B and argued that we can see what some of the earliest copying practices would have looked like from those manuscripts. He also pointed out that the text of Mark that Luke and Matthew used is assumed to be almost identical to the original of Mark by virtually all redaction critics. Otherwise, they cannot make claims about Matthean motifs if such existed in Matthew’s previously corrupted copy of Mark. Ehrman continued to present himself as very skeptical about what we can know, while Wallace continued to take a moderating position: we cannot know for sure, but we need to base our views on what is most probable.

Dale Martin
Martin, who is one of Ehrman’s good friends (a point whose significance will soon be seen), was the only non-textual critic on the panel. He gave perhaps the liveliest lecture of the bunch. Although he was supposed to argue on behalf of Ehrman, he essentially ripped him for not having a theology of scripture, for leaving the faith with insufficient evidence to do so, and for ignoring interpretation and tradition too much. He especially picked on Ehrman’s spiritual journey. Though Martin unleashed a few curveballs, other aspects of his presentation were much less surprising. In addition to saying that scripture should be read for its narrative and not its theology, he declared that "the original text is a myth" and "there is no original text." Consequently, he argued that any work whose aim was to get back to the original (or the closest thing to it) was wrong-headed.

Ehrman responded first with the words, "Dale and I used to be friends"! He asked Martin why he thought it was appropriate to bring up Ehrman’s personal spiritual journey. Martin simply replied, "You made it public. You put it in your books." Indeed, Martin pointed out the fact that Ehrman chose to make his own spiritual journey the first chapter in two of his popular books, and thus set the tone for the whole of each book with his opening gambit. Ehrman’s spiritual journey was in print, in the very same books where he makes his most radical pontifications. So, according to Martin, it was fair game. Frankly, what Martin said about Ehrman made Wallace’s demonstration of Ehrman’s contradictions seem like a compliment by comparison! I think this clearly shows that Wallace was in no way using an ad hominem argument when he addressed Ehrman’s published views, especially since Wallace specifically said that he didn’t know what Ehrman’s views really are.

The exchange between Martin and Ehrman got a little heated at times. This made for an interesting scene, since Martin was on the right, Ehrman was on the left, and Wallace was stuck in the middle. Wallace was quiet for a long time, appearing to enjoy watching the volleys being tossed over his head. Finally, when the moderator asked if he’d like to say anything, Wallace asked, "Why should I? I’m having too much fun just observing" ! Wallace did, however, speak for a few minutes once the dust settled. He agreed with Martin that many evangelicals flirt with bibliolatry, that they often ignore both tradition and interpretation, and that they also can pour a later theology into the New Testament. But he criticized Martin’s argument about the myth of an original text: "Just because we don’t have one today doesn’t mean it didn’t exist at some point; the scribes were copying something."He also picked up on Martin’s narrative approach and asked that if it didn’t matter which manuscript was being read, then how could Martin explain that there are two more fairly lengthy narratives (John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20) in the later manuscripts than in the earlier ones? Wallace followed that up by asking whether translators should simply not care which text they’re translating, suggesting that such a scenario would take us back to the days of Erasmus. Martin didn’t have enough time to respond to Wallace’s questions, but he acknowledged that they were significant and said he thought he could handle them all.

David Parker
Parker is one of the best textual critics in the world and has his own institute at the University of Birmingham in England. He has in recent years argued against trying to get back to an original text, even arguing that an original is irrelevant or meaningless since the original documents could have been modified significantly by the author several times. In such a case, which is the original? In his lecture he spoke about the work of Muenster and Birmingham of trying to get back to the earliest form of the text by using genealogical studies and tools to do so. He showed a couple of fascinating (but way too detailed) slides on this front, noting that scholars working on the human genome project have basically been involved in textual criticism, too. But he also argued that we can’t get back to the original, that it wasn’t particularly relevant, and that our job should simply be to get back to the earliest form.

Ehrman asked Parker why the earliest form was so important if it didn’t accurately reflect what an author wrote. Wallace pitched in and said that if Parker’s views are right, then not only should intrinsic evidence be abandoned but so should all of exegesis! He noted that Parker’s views are too narrowly focused, thinking of textual criticism as an end in itself. Parker simply said that he was not an exegete, just a textual critic.

It sure was interesting to hear Ehrman’s two team members arguing against his views! After all, when it came to Parker’s claims, Ehrman and Wallace were actually on the same side. (It’s also significant that much of what Ehrman has done in textual criticism is to appeal to intrinsic evidence, which presupposes that he has a pretty fair idea of what an author wrote.)

Bill Warren
Warren’s lecture was basically Textual Criticism 101. It would have been better placed, in my opinion, as the first lecture on Saturday, but since it was the last, people had already heard the gist of it many times over. Warren actually argued for tentativeness about several things. When Ehrman responded, he said that he basically had no problem with what Warren was saying. Wallace, however, said that he thought we could move toward greater certainty by observing what Matthew and Luke did with Mark. He used Mark 1:41 as a test-case, and enlisted Ehrman’s treatment of this in his argument. Here the text either says that Jesus was compassionate or angry when he healed a leper. Wallace noted that Matthew and Luke don’t have either word, but since they drop references to Jesus’ anger elsewhere while maintaining statements about Jesus’ compassion, Mark almost surely said that Jesus was angry in this place. If he had said that Jesus was compassionate, Matthew and Luke would surely have mentioned it. To borrow a cliche, their silence was deafening. But Wallace showed that, by using one of Ehrman’s favorite examples, textual critics are presupposing that we can get back essentially to the author’s words in order to do both redaction and textual criticism. Even Ehrman assumed this! And the fact that Wallace used an example from Mark—which Ehrman underscored as a book that had very few early copies, and thus could have been changed radically before it was found in our extant copies—showed that Ehrman’s skepticism about Mark in particular was unfounded. Wallace even mentioned p. 135 of Misquoting Jesus, where Ehrman had argued that even though we don’t have any second century copies of Mark, we do have books written within twenty years of Mark that utilize Mark.

Given its nature and placement, Warren’s lecture was the least invigorating of the weekend. But it did give Wallace a chance to articulate further his argument about Matthew and Luke’s use of Mark as a way for us to measure how the earliest copying of the manuscripts would have looked.

Ehrman’s Wrap-Up
Ehrman admitted that no cardinal belief of Christianity is affected by any variants (one of the chief points that Wallace had been arguing the whole weekend!). But he also said that since the second century is shrouded in mystery, and since almost all of our variants come from that period, the study of these variants is important and open to interpretation (as to which are closer to the original, why some variants arose, how the scribes went about their work, etc.).

Wallace’s Wrap-Up
Wallace likewise said that we can’t know exactly what the original text said, but we can have a bit more certainty than some skeptics would claim. He also argued that a high Christology was not the basic drive for the orthodox scribes; rather, historicity or harmonization in the Gospels was. (He gave a great illustration of this that would take too long to discuss here; get the recording!) Finally, Wallace summed up why he thought the study of the variants was important: because the Bible is the Word of God. Wallace was unashamed of his evangelical position on this, but he quickly added that he followed a doctrinal taxonomy that answers four questions:

1. What beliefs are essential for the life of the church?
2. What beliefs are important for the health of the church?
3. What beliefs are important for the proper functioning of a local church?
4. What beliefs should not be fought over, are speculative, and unimportant?

He pointed out the fact that textual criticism belongs to the last three categories, but that the Forum was essentially about numbers 2 and 3.

The whole Forum concluded with some decent Q&A time. A couple of things really stuck out. First, a questioner asked Ehrman about his text-critical method, noting that Ehrman seemed to always find the least orthodox readings and argue that they were the original readings. What Ehrman said was, frankly, unbelievable. He basically said that he would find the reading that he liked, and then find the evidence to support it! This sure sounded as though he was starting from his conclusions rather than beginning with a question. Not surprisingly, some folks audibly gasped at this response.

Second, someone asked Wallace why he didn’t hold to a doctrine of preservation (which is something that he had mentioned earlier in the conference). He said that (1) the doctrine was recent, first articulated in the Westminster Confession; (2) the verses employed to support the doctrine don’t teach such a thing; and (3) the Old Testament text has not been completely preserved. There are, in fact, some places in which the Old Testament text requires some conjectures that have no manuscript basis whatsoever. Further, Wallace didn’t want to be a Marcionite, elevating the New Testament (in terms of inspiration) over the Old Testament. (In other words, he didn’t want to be bibliologically schizophrenic!) But, importantly, he added that although he had no doctrinal basis for believing in preservation, he has plenty of historical evidence that this is what God has essentially done.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    1 Response to "Louisiana Saturday Night: Day Two of the 2008 Greer-Heard Forum"

    • Mike Gantt

      After reading all the way through your account of the debate, I was feeling great…up until the end when Wallace laid out the four criteria of his doctrinal taxonomy. All four were about the church – none were about our risen Lord!

      We should be bearing witness to the Lord…not ourselves!

      How disappointing.

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