To see all posts in this series, please refer to its index.
Thomason’s “rebuttal” of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus1 continues, this time focusing on the end of chapter one as well as on chapter two. The post entitled “Does Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’ Give Reasons to Doubt the New Testament?”2 is more pop-apologetic tripe from the Queen of the Quotemine herself. I’ve had a couple of shots of whisky so I’m ready to dive in.
Thomason begins her post with a quotation from an edition of Misquoting Jesus that I do not possess. However, she was apparently able to “dig it up” and provides it for her readers. Yet something is amiss with what she provides. In the quotation she places in bold the following words from Ehrman.
If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement—maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands.
The position I argue for in Misquoting Jesus does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.3
But I found another apologetics website that also reproduces this quote from Ehrman and found that it too had placed all the words Thomason had placed in bold minus the words “maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands.”4 It appears yet again5 that Thomason is using other people’s material without providing proper attribution. This is par for the course.
The last paragraph of the quote (per Thomason) reads as follows:
From my point of view, the stakes are rather high: Does Luke’s Gospel teach a doctrine of atonement (that Christ’s death atones for sins)? Does John’s Gospel teach that Christ is the “unique God” himself? Is the doctrine of the Trinity ever explicitly stated in the New Testament? These and other key theological issues are at stake, depending on which textual variants you think are original and which you think are creations of early scribes who were modifying the text.
Thomason responds by writing that
the New Testament teaches the doctrine of atonement in a variety of passages (e.g., 1 John 2:2; John 3:16, 10:11; Hebrews 7:27; Romans 5:10, Galatians 3:13). John’s Gospel highlights Jesus’ divinity more than any of the Synoptics by emphasizing His miracles and the “I AM” statements. The Old and New Testaments offer support for the Trinity in a variety of passages. Click here for information concerning the Old Testament: https://christian-apologist.com/2018/09/26/is-the-holy-trinity-found-in-the-old-testament/
She has, of course, missed Ehrman’s point. He is referring to specific texts with specific textual variants. They are:
Whether or not it is the case that other New Testament texts teach these doctrines is beside the point. The question is, Why do these variants exist? Their addition or deletion likely came with motive given their importance. So why?
Before we move on, it should be noted that Thomason’s claim that the Old Testament offers support for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is entirely without merit.9 As Chris Hansen so aptly put it, “Ask any Rabbi on the planet, you know the people who have studied the OT longer than Christianity has ever existed.”10 I doubt she will.
Ehrman discusses the issue of literacy in the Greco-Roman world, stating that “under the best of conditions, 85-90 percent of the population could not read or write.”11 Well, that isn’t exactly what Ehrman said but that is certainly how Thomason presents him. Ehrman was referring specifically to Athens, relying on the work of William Harris.12 In the Roman Empire of the first century, Ehrman notes, “the literacy rates may well have been lower.”13 In Roman Palestine literacy rates could have been anywhere from a high of ten percent to a low of three percent.14 And there were specific occupations that required the ability to read and write like scribes, tax collectors, etc. It is doubtful fishermen would have learned to read and write Greek, a language that was not their native one.
In the book of Acts, Peter and John are described as “uneducated and ordinary men” (Acts 4:13). The term the Lukan author uses for “uneducated” is agrammatoi, a combination of the negative particle a and the noun grammatos which is itself related to the verb graphō (“I write”). In the New Testament agrammatoi is a hapax legomena but it is used in other Greek literature to refer to someone “without learning” or to one who is “unlettered” (i.e. illiterate).15 Yet Thomason suggests that agrammatoi might mean something other than, well, what it means.
Luke uses the Greek word “agrammatoi,” which can be translated as ignorant, commoner, layman, or ordinary person. The term does not necessarily suggest illiteracy, as Ehrman suggests. It could also mean that he was not well-educated in the finer points of the rabbinical interpretation of the Jewish Torah (Helyer, 2012, p. 19).
Heyler had written that
[t]he disparaging view of the Jerusalem religious leaders that Jesus’ disciples were “uneducated and ordinary men” (Acts 4:13) probably “means no more than that they were ignorant of the finer points of the rabbinical interpretation of the Jewish Torah.”16
But this is all wrong. The “disparaging view” is not one of the religious leaders but of the Lukan author himself. So it is the author describing them as “uneducated and ordinary,” not anyone in the narrative. Furthermore, the contrast between expectation and reality is set up by their realizing that Peter and John are illiterate nobodies but are able to speak quite eloquently. But how are they able to do so? The audience knows: “Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…” (Acts 4:8).
It should be noted also that the Lukan author shows a great deal of familiarity with both Greek and Septuagintal literature. Can Thomason pin point anywhere in either Greek literature or the LXX where her suggested meanings are attested? The Lukan author refers to Peter and John as agrammatoi as well as idiōtai, an adjective from which we get the English word “idiot” (though the English word conveys a different meaning than the Greek). Idiōtēs is used in Greek literature to refer to someone who is a plebian or who is a layman as opposed to a professional.17 The apostle Paul employs it when discussing those who do not have the gift of tongues (1 Corinthians 14:16, 23, 24), i.e. they are ordinary people since most do not have such a gift. Paul also uses it in describing his lack of rhetorical skill (2 Corinthians 11:6). The fact that the Lukan author couples agrammatoi with idiōtai says that he is trying to communicate just how much of an underdog Peter and John were. And yet the Spirit made them so much more.
Thomason concludes this section with the following:
Of these assertions, one must note that (1) education levels of Christians were not claimed to be significantly less than those of their Roman or Greek pagan counterparts; (2) unlike the pagan tradition, the Christian and Jewish traditions were book-based; and (3) the prescience of the Judeo-Christian tradition in backing their belief systems in written Scriptures should be highlighted. Despite the fact that only ten to fifteen percent of early Christians could read, they understood the importance of retaining written evidence.
On (1) this is true but wholly irrelevant. On (2), this is an oversimplification. The “pagan tradition” (whatever that means) included many works of great literature. It is true that as far as religious views are concerned both the Jewish and Christian traditions were book-based but I fail to see the importance of noting this. On (3), I have no idea what Thomason is talking about. What does “the prescience of the Judeo-Christian tradition” even mean? Furthermore, the fact that there is “written evidence” doesn’t mean that what those texts record are true.18
A Mountain of Manuscripts
Thomason moves on to the subject the number of New Testament manuscripts we possess as well as the number of textual variants about which we know. There is very little actual interaction with Ehrman at this point and Thomason instead relies heavily on pop-apologists Josh and Sean McDowell. She writes,
Ehrman claims we have around 400,000 textual variants in our copies of biblical manuscripts, but despite what seems like a large number, they (1) do not substantively modify the meaning of the text (which I will detail below), and (2) are not significant relative to the extraordinary number of historical manuscripts we have retained from ancient times.
Ehrman notes in Misquoting Jesus that there is some debate on the number of textual variants in the extant manuscripts ranging from 200,000 all the way to 400,000.
We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all. Perhaps, as I indicated earlier, it is best simply to leave the matter in comparative terms. There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.19
This is impressive but Thomason is correct in noting that these variants “do not substantively modify the meaning of the text.” A lot of these variants are things like whether the Greek conjunction kai belongs or whether there is an extra letter in a noun and the like. But Thomason is not correct that these variants are insignificant “relative to the extraordinary number of historical manuscripts we have retained from ancient times.”
In what follows, Thomason lays out a case for the reliability of the New Testament based upon the available Greek manuscripts. As is often noted by apologists, we have well over 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, a large amount when compared to other ancient literature. But the problem with this argument is that the number really isn’t all that impressive for a couple of reasons.20
First, the overwhelming majority of New Testament manuscripts do not date to the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, or even eighth centuries CE. They mostly date to the ninth century or later! So yes, we have thousands of manuscripts but most of them aren’t all that early.
Second, the large-scale representation of Christian texts relative to non-Christian is the result of the intentional focus medieval Christian scribes had upon biblical texts. The consequence of this is that texts like Homer’s Iliad or Herodotus’ Histories were neglected and copied less frequently. Do the math.
We should also note that the presence of many manuscripts does not equate to their validity in recording actual events. As Matthew Ferguson writes,
Put simply: accurate textual transmission can preserve the historical accuracy of a work that was originally historically reliable, but it can do nothing to improve or save the historical accuracy of a work that was originally based on ahistorical legends.21
This cannot be stressed enough, especially since it is a common apologetic trope.
On pages 63-68 of Misquoting Jesus Ehrman discusses textual variants involving the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:12) and the long ending of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). Thomason in her discussion includes 1 John 5:7 but I cannot find where Ehrman addresses that text in that section of Misquoting Jesus. Thankfully she acknowledges that Ehrman’s view on these texts are “accurate,” a breath of fresh air as far as I’m concerned. But she misses the point on why these texts exist at all. Why did someone feel the need to include a longer ending to Mark’s Gospel? Were they uncomfortable with the way 16:8 ended with no resurrection appearances? Why did a later scribe create the Trinitarian formulation of 1 John 5:7? Was he cued in by references in context to other threes? These are the kinds of questions textual critics seek to answer. But not Thomason. She writes,
If these passages do not directly impact your belief that Jesus was crucified, died and buried – and on the third day He rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures, it is unlikely their inclusion in the New Testament based on later additions will make any difference to you. They do not impact Christianity’s core tenets concerning Jesus’ resurrection and the salvation we are offered for accepting Him as our Lord and Savior.
She’s right. There are other places where particular texts teach particular doctrines such that we do not need these variants. But again, the issue is why they exist in the first place.
Thomason finishes her piece with the following.
Given market demands for accurate information and the availability of a multitude of ancient evidence that has been used to reconstruct our original New Testament books, it seems exceedingly unlikely that any substantive errors are present today. Thank you for your time.
The gaping hole in Thomason’s logic is that we do not have an “original” New Testament with which to see if there are any substantive errors or not. We do know that there are many variants but we simply do not know with certainty what the New Testament originally said. That isn’t to say that what we have represents the complete opposite of what was written. I think it is safe to say that we have most the puzzle pieces. But Thomason is using this as evidence for the New Testament’s historical accuracy and in so doing she goes beyond what the evidence allows.
In truth, her interaction with Ehrman’s work was minimal and her claims are standard pop-apologetic nonsense that has been repeated so often by people like Frank Turek, J. Warner Wallace, and the rest that they’ve become boring. Devoid of context, their arguments are impressive. Add some context and you’ve effectively dismantled their positions.
Context is apologist Kryptonite.
1 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why(HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).
2 S.J. Thomason, “Does Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’ give Christians Reasons to Doubt the New Testament?” (2.11.19), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 11 February 2019.
3 See the screenshot of Thomason’s website below (taken 2.11.19).
4 “The Elusive Ehrman Quote” (2.12.18), christianapologetics.org. Accessed 11 February 2019. Screenshot reproduced below (taken 2.11.19).
5 See also my posts “SJ Thomason Gets It Wrong (As Usual)” (7.19.18) and “Preaching to the Choir: On Pop-Apologists and Their Craft” (10.28.18), amateurexegete.com.
6 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 165-167. See also Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (German Bible Society, 1994), 148-150.
7 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 161-162. See also Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 169-170.
8 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 81-83. See also Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 647-649.
9 See my post “Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason, the Tabernacle, and the Trinity in the Old Testament” (9.30.18), amateurexegete.com. See also D.M. Spence’s post “The Trinity Is NOT Found in the Old Testament” (10.8.18), dmspence.com. Accessed 12 February 2019.
10 Chris Hansen, “SJ Thomason: And How Apologists Are Generally Wrong” (2.11.19), cmepshansen.wixsite.com. Accessed 12 February 2019. Hansen also points out Thomason’s heavy reliance upon the work of pop-apologist J. Warner Wallace, a sign that Thomason is unwilling (and perhaps unable) to engage with serious biblical scholarship.
11 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 37-38.
12 William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Harvard University Press, 1989).
13 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 38.
14 L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010), 95.
15 H. G. Liddell, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon Founded Upon the Seventh Edition of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (OUP, 1889), 8.
16 Larry R. Helyer, The Life and Witness of Peter (Intervarsity Press, 2012), 19. Helyer cites an entry by Ralph Martin that I have not had opportunity to track down but which does not require commentary for my point. Martin’s (and Helyer’s) view is also that of John R. W. Stott in his commentary on Acts entitled The Message of Acts (Intervarsity Press, 1990), 98, as well as F. F. Bruce in The Book of Acts, NICNT (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), 102.
17 Liddell, 375.
18 It is doubtful that given literacy rates that these texts were intended for evangelistic purposes either. By and large, the Gospels spread through word of mouth where neighbors spoke to neighbors and people travelled the Empire speaking of Jesus to those they encountered. William Harris writes, “The illusion that Christianity was spread mainly by means of the written word is possible only for those who exaggerate the literacy of the high Empire” (Ancient Literacy, 299).
19 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 89-90.
20 See Matthew W. Ferguson, “Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context” (10.26.12), celsus.blog. Accessed 12 February 2019.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.