It’s been a couple of weeks since you all heard from me, largely because I was preparing for the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum, which took place the first weekend of April at New Orleans Baptist Seminary. The topic for the fourth annual Forum was the reliability of the NT manuscripts. The topic was not specified more than that. Bart Ehrman and I were the main speakers in this dialogue. I understand that CDs and MP3s of the conference will be available next week; the cost will be about $20. Also, Fortress Press is scheduled to produce a book that includes all the lectures (by six speakers), as well as the responses and Q&A.
My major concern in the conference was to address the confidence that we can have that the manuscripts are generally reliable regarding the essential teaching of the NT. This was of utmost importance to me because of how many have read Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: there has been a lot of wholesale skepticism about what the NT originally said, an impression that readers both have of his book and one that has been reinforced many times by interviews with Ehrman on the radio, TV, and in print.
The skepticism that he has promoted about the text in his popular writing doesn’t match what he has said to professional colleagues. This was a major issue that I pointed out; I was very interested to learn what his real views were.
I’m not sure that I did. But one thing I did learn: Ehrman conceded that no essential belief of the NT was compromised by the textual variants. That’s the main thing that I wanted to press for at the Greer-Heard.
This is an important point that should not be missed: Many Muslims, atheists, and anti-Christian groups have seen Ehrman as a champion for their views. But regardless of how much doubt he may have about the wording of the original text, or how much doubt those who believe they are following his lead have, no one can claim Ehrman as an advocate of an original text that did not speak of the deity of Christ or his bodily resurrection.
To be sure, there were several other issues that we disagreed on, and Ehrman was right to raise the question about these important matters. In particular, the interpretation of various passages depends on the variant readings that an exegete adopts. Ehrman thought that I was only concerned about the theological issues, but that is hardly the case. I was most concerned about that issue largely because of how Ehrman’s writings have been interpreted by some people, and how he made it an issue in Misquoting Jesus. Further, it’s an issue in which heaven or hell hang in the balance, so I do think that it’s far more important than mere interpretive issues. Even though of course the interpretation of the text is exceedingly important, it pales by comparison with the theological issues at stake. I think the reason that Ehrman did not consider the latter such to be a big issue anymore is because of where he has come in his theological thinking: if there is no heaven or hell, if there is no afterlife, then of course the essential Christian beliefs are irrelevant.
A good half dozen people came up to me during the conference, mentioning that this conference would determine whether they would continue to have confidence in the Bible or not. Some had come from hundreds of miles away, even thousands. All of them said that because of the conference their confidence that we had today essentially the word of God was bolstered. To be sure, we do not know whether we have recovered the exact wording of the original, and we may never know. At the same time, we are getting closer and closer. And no essential belief is affected by any viable variants.