Bart Ehrman on Premier Christian Radio

Bart Ehrman recently turned up on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme, talking to Peter Williams, Warden of Tyndale House. You can listen to the programme on Premier’s site.

The subject of the programme was Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus (which, confusingly, is also available in the UK as Whose Word Is It?), a book which we’ve discussed here before. Williams has written about the book over at Bethinking.org (scroll to the bottom for more, including Williams interviewing Ehrman).

Ehrman the evangelical

What’s perhaps surprising is how much Williams and Ehrman agree on matters of fact, but disagree on interpretation. Williams describes himself as a “glass half full” person when it comes to the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. His most convincing argument is that an Ehrman-approved NT translation would differ very little from the ones used by most Christians, and, says Williams, would still be sufficient for God’s purposes. Ehrman himself says on the programme that, while some variants do alter the meaning of passages, he wouldn’t expect a theologian to change their mind as a result of those variants.

When robhu mentioned Ehrman a while back, we ended up concluding that Ehrman’s knowledge of the manuscript evidence is not so very different from that of evangelical scholars (see Article X and section E of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, for example). But Ehrman couldn’t carry on being an evangelical knowing what he did. So what’s going on here?

Obligatory dig at CICCU

At least part of it it seems to be bad communication from the evangelical scholars to evangelical flocks, as Williams says on his blog. Perhaps one of the evangelical churches or colleges Ehrman attended was unwise enough to ask him to assent to doctrinal statement which asserted “the divine inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given”, for example. Perhaps they were even silly enough to speak of verbal, plenary, inspiration, rather than of Williams’s ideas of the “immaterial text” which is encoded in the manuscripts as genes are in DNA (clearly one can’t say the word “meme” on a religious blog).

Making inerrancy pay rent

Ehrman questions just what Christians are claiming is inerrant, and how it got that way. He expected assertions of inerrancy to mean something definite about the Bible he was actually reading, both in terms of how it got into his hands and what it says. Manuscript errors and internal contradictions bothered him because they seem to cast doubt on the text in his hand, but the Section III, C of the Chicago Statement makes it clear that errors aren’t errors if they’re not things God meant to get right anyway, and any contradictions aren’t. Well, I’m convinced.

OK, so I’m taking the mickey, but there are some interesting bits of psychology in something like the Chicago Statement. According to this interesting article on the philosophy of science as it pertains to inerrancy (no, really), there’s a logical way to maintain any belief whatever evidence comes in. Simply calling inerrantists illogical or deluded won’t cut it, however tempting it may be. So, let’s say that Ehrman’s commitment was to a version of inerrancy which couldn’t fit in his web of belief alongside the problems he knew about. Williams’s version can fit, but is far less clear. Williams’s version pays less rent, that is, it’s closer to, if not the same as, saying nothing more than “The Bible has an attribute called ‘inerrancy'” (like saying “Wulky Wilkinsen is actually a ‘post-utopian'” in Eliezer’s example)

Evil

Next week on the programme, Ehrman is talking to Richard Swinburne about the Problem of Evil. I hope he’s learned something about Bayes Theorem by now, after the unfortunate events of his debate with William Lane Craig.

6 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman on Premier Christian Radio”

  1. Subject: Inerrancy
    Gosh, I’d never seen that Chicago thing. How wonderful. I rather liked We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy is grounded in the teaching of the Bible about inspiration. This appears to say that they know the bible is inerrant, because it says so. Errm.

    The Stoat.

    1. Subject: Re: Inerrancy
      Christians usually evade claims of circularity by saying that God told them they could trust the Bible, more or less. Not that they necessarily heard a voice from on high, or anything: when I was an inerrantist, I think I thought the Bible was inerrant because I just felt it was right (there’s an old newsgroup posting where I say that, more or less, but Google Groups has lost it: perhaps I’ll post my own archive at some point). This is what Christians refer to as the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. robhu and I discussed this the last time Ehrman came up here.

  2. Subject: Inerrancy
    Oh, and while I’m here: there must be a nice list of well-graded biblical inconsistencies somewhere, and I’m sure you know where.

    I’m pretty sure there are two, incompatible, genealogies of Jesus in there somewhere. I can’t quite see how the Chicago folk explain that away, but I’m sure they can, somehow.

    The Weasel.

    1. Subject: Re: Inerrancy
      The problem with many Internet lists of Biblical contradictions is that they end up taking the Bible more literally than even most evangelicals think they should, so evangelicals can brush them aside easily. For example, stuff about how the Bible implies pi = 3 is clearly just an example of rounding. In general even evangelicals don’t interpret single verses of the Bible as free-standing propositional statements (or they’re not supposed to, anyway, although some of them try it if they think no-one’s looking).

      That’s not to say there aren’t good examples. An old posting of mine got into some of them.

      The differing genealogies in Matthew and Luke represent an internal contradiction (the Bible contradicts itself) where the standard explanation (one of the genealogies is via Mary) doesn’t really hold up.

      The contradiction I mentioned in that posting is an external contradiction, if you like (the Bible contradicts reality). Pretty much everyone you ask who’s not an inerrantist (including Bart Ehrman, in his God’s Problem, but also more liberal Christians who aren’t committed to inerrancy) will tell you that the early Christians thought there’d be an apocalypse, in which Jesus would return, within their lifetimes. You can tell this from their earliest writings (for example Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which probably predates the gospels, as well as other letters by Paul).

      But if you’re an inerrantist, Paul can’t have written something that was wrong, so there are responses to this contradiction, too. When I was on Premier Christian Radio myself a while back, my opposite number came out with them: Paul’s “we who are still alive” is intended to encompass his readers centuries later; Paul’s “the time is short” means the time is shortened, in the sense that everyone since the time of Jesus has been living in the Last Days; Paul’s talk of a crisis, which means there’s not much point trying to change your job or marry (though you can if you really want to), refers to something local to his first readers, rather than the apocalypse.

      The author is quite literally dead, and as Richard, channeling Quine, says, inerrantists can certainly construct responses which aren’t internally contradictory, which allow them to keep inerrancy in the web of stuff they believe. The best argument against this stuff is that just admitting that Paul was wrong makes the interpreter’s job simpler, I think.

  3. What is an error?

    Luke says Jesus was ‘about 30’ Is that an error?

    Jesus was born in say 4BC and the earliest he could have started to preach was 27 AD.

    That makes him 31.

    So is ‘about 30’ in error?

    Obviously not.

    What about ‘about 31’?

    Still not an error.

    And ‘about 32’. Still no error.

    What about ‘about 33’? Obviously if Jesus was 31, then ‘about 33’ is hardly an error?

    If ‘about 33’ is inerrant, then ‘about 34’ can hardly be considered an error either.

    In general, if it is not an error to say Jesus was ‘about n’, then it is not an error to say Jesus was ‘about n + 1’.

    One quick bit of mathematical induction later, and we can show the Bible would still be inerrant if it said Jesus was ‘about 453’ when he began to preach.

    One reason the Bible is ‘inerrant’ is that human language is so imprecise and error can be hard to define.

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