The following transcript is from an Apologetics 315 interview with Daniel B. Wallace. Original audio here. Transcript index here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello. This is Brian Auten of Apologetics 315. Today, I’m speaking with Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and an authority on Koine Greek grammar and New Testament textual criticism. He also influences students across the country through his textbook on intermediate Greek grammar, and it’s used in more than two-thirds of the nation’s schools that teach that subject. Dr. Wallace served as senior New Testament editor for the NET Bible and has founded The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM). The purpose of the CSNTM is to preserve the Greek text of the New Testament by taking digital photographs of all extant Greek New Testament manuscripts and that is found at CSNTM.org.
The purpose of our interview today is to find out more about Dr. Wallace’s work, his debates with Bart Ehrman, the reliability of the New Testament, and his advice for Christian defenders. Thanks so much for joining me today, Dr. Wallace.
DW: Thank you. I’m glad to be on the show, Brian.
BA: Well, first, would you mind telling our listeners just a bit more about yourself and the work you’re involved with The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.
DW: I’m a professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas, and I have been teaching there about 27 years. I teach New Testament Greek.
I started The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts nine years ago for the initial purpose of photographing all Greek New Testament manuscripts in the world—that’s our initial goal—and then when we get that task accomplished, the next task is to try to evaluate these manuscripts, which we are doing right now—to try to analyze them and evaluate them to help us get back to recovering the wording of the original New Testament as much as humanly possible.
BA: Well, it sounds like quite an involved process, I can imagine. Can you talk just a bit about how you go about photographing these manuscripts and the flow from looking at something to photographing it and cataloging it and then working with it?
DW: Yeah, it is a complex process, but we’ve got a lot of good helps from folks in Münster, Germany who are kind of the official keepers of the catalog numbers for New Testament manuscripts, and what happens is they’ve got a list that came out in 1994, all in German, but it tells us where all the New Testament manuscripts are known to be in the world, at least as of ‘94. We go to those sites and almost always we find more New Testament manuscripts that Münster was not aware of, and so we write to these sites ahead of time and ask permission to come to photograph manuscripts. Sometimes we’d get an immediate response; sometimes it takes years. One place that we’ll be going to later this year, it took us nine years of correspondence before they finally said yes. We’re very, very excited about getting into it. It’s one of the major sites in the world.
We get to these places and then the first thing we do is while the cameras are being set up, we have two people who are prepping the manuscripts for photography. That is usually a two- to three-hour process. We start with smaller manuscripts, so that the photographers can get in on their work as soon as possible. But to prepare a manuscript for photography means to examine it, most importantly to count every single leaf, and to write all the data down, so that when the photographers are shooting it—if they shoot 247 pictures and the prep dock says there’s 250 images on the, you know, right side pages and then left pages, we do that afterwards, then they know they’d missed something. So they have to be very careful and go through this process very carefully to make sure that we count every page and that the photographers know when the page count is different from what’s actually in the manuscript. A lot of the manuscripts are actually numbered in pencil, and I’d say about 80% of the time they get it wrong somewhere along the line, so we have to follow this […] to help them think through the issues.
And then we hand over the manuscript to the photographers, and they do their work. It takes about one day to photograph the average Greek New Testament manuscript. The average size is about 500 pages or 250 leaves. We’ll shoot all the right sides first, and we flip the manuscript around, shoot the left side. We do it in what’s called a copy stand, especially designed in Austria for photographing manuscripts, so that you cannot open the manuscript more than 105 degrees. It protects the binding. These are old, old documents. Just a few weeks ago, we photographed a manuscript that was 1800 years old. A lot of them are young puppies, only a thousand years old. We’re talking about some old documents, and we need to protect them at all costs. So we through and photograph those, and then the post-production requires us to go through the images, proof them to make sure that they are square in focus and we have all four edges of each page completely photographed and the lighting is right, they look similar to each other, and altogether, it costs about four dollars to photograph a single page of a Greek New Testament manuscript.
So it’s a long and involved process and very exciting work, because we’re preserving the Word of God for generations to come digitally, so that anybody can have access to these images on the Internet at a worksite.
BA: Now the latest figure I heard was that we have like over 5700 Greek New Testament manuscripts, and I’m wondering if that’s still the case, what the current count is, are there more, and of those, how many of those have you photographed?
DW: The count requires a little bit of explanation. The official count now is something like 5,809. It may be just a little bit higher. CSNTM keeps finding manuscripts and Münster keeps cataloguing them and giving them numbers, so I’m not always up-to-date with which manuscripts of ours they have recorded yet. We have found about 70 manuscripts in the last nine years, which is more than all the institutes and individuals combined of discovering in the same time period. The count, which you get from Münster, is one count. What we know that exists is a little bit more than that. The official count is somewhere over 5800.
Now, that should be reduced a little bit, because we have some manuscripts that—say a manuscript that has just Matthew and Mark in it was discovered in 1963, and later, another manuscript and that was, let’s say was discovered in Ireland, and in 1994, another manuscript that has just Luke and John in it, and it is discovered at Duke University in North Carolina. Well, those manuscripts, Munster goes through, and they give what’s called the Gregory-Aland number, that’s the official cataloging number that New Testament scholars know these manuscripts by, and they give that number to each one of these manuscripts. Well, maybe in the past, they did it in haste just a little bit, or they didn’t have photographs of these manuscripts, and what they didn’t realize is that the manuscript discovered in Ireland is actually a part of the manuscript that was discovered in North Carolina. They’re a part of the same manuscript. They may have actually different catalog numbers given to them, and so when we discovered later that they’re part of the same manuscript, we don’t change the catalog numbers. Otherwise, you have gaps in the catalog. We simply say for this particular manuscript, codex 2112, see also codex 1793, and that’s when you realize it’s part of the same.
When you get all that kind of data, what we have is just over 5600 manuscripts, but still an awful lot of manuscripts.
BA: How many of those have been photographed then?
DW: Well, about 90% of these, maybe 80% of these, have been photographed by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster on microfilm, and very, very poor quality microfilm from microfilm cameras that were used in the 1930s and ‘40s especially. They did it on a shoestring budget. We’re all grateful that they did it, but about a fourth of these microfilms are just completely illegible. These manuscripts are terribly difficult to read when you look at a microfilm image.
We are photographing with high-resolution digital cameras, and we have estimated that the quality of images are approximately 100 times better than the microfilm. It’s so much easier to read the digital image that it’s actually easier to read the digital image than it is to examine the the actual manuscript in the flesh. You could blow up these digital images to something like 5 feet by 8 feet without any pixelation, and that’s gonna be bigger than any page of a manuscript.
So what we have photographed is about 375 of these. It’s just a drop in the bucket so far, about 7%. Part of the reason is we have intentionally built our organization slowly so we have a good reputation, but now we are at the stage where we have more permissions than we have funding. We literally could photograph manuscripts for the next five years on the basis of the permissions we have, but it would cost us about a million dollars a year to do this, to be sending out teams to almost all the time to photograph these manuscripts.
BA: Well, I would definitely want to point out people to the website if they want to support it, so I’ll link to that on the blog post today.
DW: Thank you. I appreciate that.
BA: I’m also curious, of the manuscripts you’ve looked at, would you say that there’s a most important manuscript that you’ve ever examined?
DW: Absolutely. Now, we didn’t photograph this, because the institute that owns it has made some very high-quality photographs of it. It’s Codex Vaticanus, and this is housed, as the name implies, in the Vatican. I was there in 2001 and went to examine the manuscript. I was told ahead of time that no one gets into the Vatican manuscripts library. I went with a fellow named, Joe Fanton, who was, at the time, working on his doctorate in England. When we went to the kiosk at the Vatican to try to get permission—we had already gotten a written permission from the assistant librarian—we showed this letter to the kiosk fella and he said, “No, you can’t come in here.” He was just giving us a lot of grief, and then he saw our passports, and he saw Fanton’s passport. Well, he said, “Fantin! Fantin!” Fantin is a very prominent family in Rome. Fanton or Fantin is an Italian name, and so I quickly became Joe’s assistant, and he was the lead man, and they let us go right through, so we got in, and then we had the opportunity to actually examine Codex Vaticanus for a solid week, which was just one of the highlights of my life. It was a great privilege.
That manuscript was produced in the early to mid-fourth century. We’re not exactly sure where. It originally had the entire Old Testament and New Testament. Now it has most of the New Testament. It stops after Hebrews 9:13, but that manuscript has proven to be so good that even manuscripts that are a hundred to a hundred and fifty years earlier than it are not as good as this manuscript in terms of being a representative of what we think the original text said. Now that tells us, I think, an enormous amount of extremely important information, namely, this manuscript, even though it’s from the fourth century, has a text that goes back very early probably to the early second century and perhaps even to the first century in many cases.
BA: Well, that was one of your highlights there. I wonder what your most recent work has been involved with.
DW: Well, we went back to Italy in November and December. This is the first time that we have photographed in Italy. We were in Florence at the world-renowned Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, which is one of the libraries that the Medici family founded. This family was almost single-handedly responsible for the Renaissance, and it started in Florence, and this particular library was actually designed by Michelangelo, himself. It was a phenomenal place to be. They had a number of papyri, early majuscules—these are manuscripts written in capital letters through the first millenium, and then second millenium, generally speaking, you get these miniscule hands or cursive hand manuscripts. We photographed 25 manuscripts there, including nine papyri and majuscules, the earliest of which was from the third century—remarkably old manuscripts.
One of the manuscripts we photographed was a lectionary, or it had portions of Scripture that are read every Saturday and Sunday, about 10 to 15 verses from the Gospels especially. This Scripture was a thousand years old on beautiful white parchment, which had to be selected and prepared very, very carefully, and all the lettering was in gold ink. It’s a remarkable manuscript. Very rare to see that kind of a thing, and I just thought, “This is astounding.”
Another manuscript that we photographed had Paul’s letters after the Book of Revelation. It’s not unique, but I know of only one other manuscript in the world that has that, which we’ve also photographed. So it’s a very rare kind of a thing, and it causes you to wonder about what kind of priorities are given to these different portions of the New Testament and why did these scribes order them in certain ways. There’s been a lot of research done on it, but a lot more needs to be done.
BA: A lot of this work that you’re doing obviously is creating just this grand legacy, and I’m sure that you see the weight of the work that you’re involved in. I wonder also what got you interested in this field of textual criticism, and I’m curious about your own personal journey, in your Christian walk, and how that may have influenced you to choose that path.
DW: That’s a great question, and I think it’s an extremely important question, because this is not merely an academic exercise to me.
When I was a young man, when I was 16 years old, I made a radical commitment to Christ and decided from that day on—in fact, it’s on the very day that you and I are talking, January 6th. It was, I guess, that was 43 years ago, I made this commitment to the Lord—a commitment to full-time ministry. So from that point on, as a junior in high school on, I dedicated myself to preparing for Christian ministry.
I grew up in Southern California in Newport Beach. I was a surf bum. It was a great background and an unlikely place for somebody who started his own Center for the Study of the New Testament Manuscripts to come from. But I would drive up and down Coast Highway and pick up hitchhikers, and I would buy New Testaments, the Today’s English Version, for twenty five cents a piece, and I’d buy ‘em by the box load, put ‘em in the back of my Volkswagen Beetle, pick up hitchhikers, share the Gospels with these guys, and then give them a New Testament, and about three weeks or so I would run out of New Testaments, and I go back and buy another box load from a fella in Southern California.
Well, this guy who sold them to me at a discount rate, happened to be an Arian, someone who did not believe in the deity of Christ, and he challenged my faith in some pretty rigorous ways. He said, look what it says in this verse. Look what it says in this verse. It concerned me. It rattled me, and I thought, I have got to learn Greek, because if I’m gonna commit my life to Jesus Christ, I absolutely have to know that it’s worth committing my life to Him. I have to know if he’s worthy of my trust and my worship. Is He truly God in the flesh?
So I went on to Biola University and I minored in Greek. I had four years of Greek there, then I majored in New Testament at Dallas Seminary, and then I got my doctorate as well in the New Testament. The driving motive of all this was the deity of Christ, and the person of Christ, and the trustworthiness of the Scriptures in terms of what it says about Him.
There have been two primary focus points of my academic career, which have been on Christology or the doctrine of Christ, the person of Christ, and the text of the New Testament—textual criticism and Christology. The route that I have gone through to affirm a high Christology has been through Greek grammar and textual criticism. So I’ve written a standard book on Greek grammar that’s used in seminaries and Bible colleges throughout the English-speaking world today because of my motivation over Christology. That’s been what really has motivated me to get into the the Greek text of the New Testament and these manuscripts, and frankly, to put it simply, my love for Jesus Christ.
BA: Well, that’s excellent, and thank you so much for sharing that journey. I wonder also, you know, thinking of some of our listeners, they’re going to be wondering: How can they better defend the reliability of the BIble? They’ll be passionate about the work that you’ve done especially. And so, I’m curious, from your point of view now as a noted authority in textual criticism, do you find the Bible trustworthy? From your perspective and your experience, what reasons persuade you that it may be, if that’s the case?
DW: I think that the question can be asked in a couple of different ways: One of them is, is the Bible trustworthy in the sense that we can have a good grasp on what it originally said? Are the manuscripts trustworthy in the sense that they are trustworthy witnesses to what the original text actually said? Do we have a good sense of: Yes, this is what the Bible says. In that respect, I can be very strongly affirmative and say, yes, we have an extraordinarily reliable Bible.
The Bible that we have in our hands today is, in all essential respects, what was written back in the first century by the Apostles and their associates and long before that by the prophets and others. And so yes, I’d say, in that respect, we have a very reliable Bible. Not a single cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith is jeopardized by any of these viable textual variants, and that’s extraordinarily important for Christians to know that that’s not affected. Their salvation is very clear. It’s very trustworthy in the sense that that we know that the Bible teaches unequivocally that Jesus died on a Roman cross right outside of Jerusalem, that He was raised from the dead bodily, that He is, in fact, the God-man who saves us from our sins and that when we put our faith in Him, that’s when we are, in fact, saved. Those kinds of things—primary doctrines, essential truths of the Christian faith—are simply not tampered with by these textual variants. That’s very important.
Now the other way of answering the question is, is the Bible historically true? Is the Bible true in what it says about God? Assuming that the manuscripts that we have today are excellent representatives, that still doesn’t tell us whether the Bible is telling the truth. And that’s a different kind of a question, and it’s one that needs to be examined on the basis of history and some other issues. But I recall what Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, who was a professor at Princeton Seminary at the turn of the century, between the 19th to 20th century, and quite a bit into the 20th. What he said: He said if these Apostles and their associates are trustworthy guides in the matters of history and geography—and we have a great deal of evidence to show that they are imminently trustworthy in those matters—then we also need to trust them when they speak about theology, even when they speak about the theology of the Scriptures itself.
Warfield made a huge impression on me as a young man. I think that was a very helpful point for me to begin to start with. When I look at the Bible, I start from the position that more than likely, what is being told here is trustworthy. Let me examine it and see if I understand it correctly. I need to interpret it in light of the genre, but I should not come to the Scriptures with the attitude: I’m gonna to find mistakes in it, because if you start with that attitude, then you are gonna start with an attitude of not being sympathetic about the Scriptures. This is an attitude that guys like Bart Ehrman and others hold to.
Radical skeptics, when they come to the Scripture, they start with a position of really a black-and-white mentality, and that is, either the Bible is true in this sense or it is not true in this sense. They don’t even nuance their questions, and so when you look at for example, differences between Matthew’s and Mark’s account on all sorts of stories, one of the questions that comes up is: Are both of them telling the truth? Some of the skeptics would say, no, they can’t be possible be, because they are using different words here. Well, that’s not being sympathetic at all towards the Scriptures, and what we need to do is understand them in light of their genre, in light of their intentions and their purposes. Consequently, when we have that attitude, and come to the Scripture, understanding its genre, understanding that these texts were written by ancients in their world, communicating to people of their time, that’s when we can begin to say, this text is trustworthy; this text is reliable. But when we set it up for a 21st century standard, we’re bound to find all sorts of mistakes in the Bible that it was never intended to address.
BA: Can you talk a bit about textual variants? Assuming you’re speaking to those who may not be familiar with that term that, how would you introduce that? And can you talk about what variants actually affect when you’re working with the text
DW: A textual variant needs to be defined very carefully. Here’s what it essentially is: It’s any place where at least two manuscripts disagree on the wording of what goes on in a particular passage. When we say at least two manuscripts, you could have a thousand manuscripts on one side that all say exactly the same thing and only one manuscript, maybe from the 15th century, that has one letter difference, that’s a textual variant. Now, you define it that way in terms of you count the number of differences and that gives you the number of textual variants we have.
Now, when we count those differences, it has to do with the wording. It does not have to do with capitalization or punctuation. There was no such thing in these ancient manuscripts. But it does have to do with the wording, the word order, spelling differences, this kind of a thing. The vast majority of our textual variants for the manuscripts are of the sort that can’t even be translated, they’re so trivial and minor.
But there has been an evangelical miscalculation going on ever since 1965 that has defined the textual variant in a way that is absolutely dead-wrong, and it has been found in textbook after textbook written by apologists, who have not gone back to sources and who have not read what it means. They have said, okay, these scholars say there’s somewhere between 150,000 to 400,000 textual variants, and then they will say—well, in John’s Gospel, for example, John 4:1, where it says “When Jesus knew” versus “When the Lord knew”, it starts out saying that in there, and you have a textual variant. Is it Jesus or is it the Lord? Which wording is authentic, and what these apologists have said since 1965 is if a thousand manuscripts have Jesus and and a thousand manuscript have Lord, then that counts as a thousand textual variants.
Their point is that, there’s only like 150 or 200 places where there’s differences in the wording, because you have a thousand manuscripts that may disagree. Well, that’s never been the way in which textual critics have counted variants. If we counted it that way, we would have about 10 million variants in the New Testament manuscripts. It’s an irresponsible and a wrong-headed way to count. You count the number of wording differences, not the number of manuscripts that support those wording differences.
We do have today somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 textual variants. But when you actually begin to examine them and say, what’s really at stake here? And you discover that a single late manuscript or even a thousand manuscripts could be wrong in a given place, but the reading is predictable. It’s kind of a change that doesn’t really affect anything. The vast majority of our textual problems affect absolutely nothing. Over 99% affect nothing. That now reduces the important variants to a much smaller number.
BA: I wanna kind of shift slightly, you mentioned how skeptics approach the text. They already have in mind to find issues with it, and they’re not gonna be sympathetic. But I wonder about alleged Bible contradictions, which is a whole different sort of element. I wonder, in the course of your studies, have any alleged Bible contradictions ever been a source of doubt or conflict for you, and I wonder how you would approach those.
DW: Yes, they have been a source of doubt for me and of kind of an existential crisis where I’ve had to wrestle through the material. What’s interesting is I’ve gone through two major periods in my life thinking about Scripture.
The first one was a period in which I felt as if I had to defend the Bible at all costs and that I already knew what the Truth was in every instance. That period was one that was, frankly, filled with fear. It was the time when I had a number of doubts, because I held all doctrines to be of equal value. If all doctrines are created equal, then you end up having what I call a domino view of of doctrine, that is, if one falls down, they all fall down. And I felt that if I could find an error in the Bible that it would affect my belief in the deity of Christ.
In 1987, while I was really wrestling with these issues in my own doctoral program, I changed in my views of the text of the New Testament. I was going through really a metamorphosis. I called my college professor, Harry Sturz, who had been really a main influence in my life in terms of just academic study of Scripture and textual criticism. He was a world-renowned textual critic, very competent. He was a good man to study under. Well, I called him. I spent over a hundred dollars in one month talking to him on the phone about how I had changed from his views. I was being apologetic, but what he said to me was extremely important. He said, young man, you have to follow the Truth at all costs, and if it takes you to a position that’s different from mine, so be it. I want you to be committed to the Truth, not committed to me. That was a decisive moment in my own Christian experience.
So I began to more honestly examine the data, and my view of how to treat our doctrines changed, so that I no longer had a domino view of doctrine. Rather what I had was what I call a concentric view—the core values are right in the center. The death and resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ, is absolutely the core of my theology, and then more peripheral doctrines keep coming out further and further.
Now, a high view of Scripture—which we might call infallibility or inerrancy, which is technically a little bit higher view of Scripture than infallibility—that would be a more peripheral doctrine. I’m not calling it a peripheral doctrine, I’m simply saying that it’s more peripheral than the person and work of Jesus Christ. As I began to work through those issues, then I began to open up myself to the question of genre. I looked at text one way before 1987, and then I saw them in a different way after 1987. Before 1987, I would come to the easiest solution that protected my view of inerrancy. After 1987, I said, I want to be genuinely honest in my pursuit of dealing with this.
So, for example, you got in Mark’s Gospel, the story of the hemorrhaging woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years, and it’s in the middle of a story about Jairus’s daughter. The two stories are put together. The only place we have a double healing in one story. Jairus was the president of the Synagogue. He sent some people ahead to ask Jesus to come back in the Synagogue to heal his daughter. Well, in Matthew’s Gospel, his daughter had already died, and in Mark’s Gospel, she was not yet dead, but then finally when He gets there, she is dead. And so you look at that on just a plain reading of the text, you’d say, “There’s a contradiction here! There’s something wrong with the Bible, I cannot accept it. I have to throw it out.” But when you actually start studying this stuff in terms of the genres, you begin to realize that what Matthew does over and over and over again is he ends up having a shorter version of a story than Mark does. He tends to telescope. Now, he has more material than Mark, not because his stories are bigger, but because he has more material. He has some five great sermons of Jesus and some other things in there that Mark just doesn’t have at all.
When it comes to what’s called pericopes or, you know, stories/narratives about the life of the Lord, Matthew tends to shorten them. What he has done is a legitimate telescoping of the events where you’ve got the woman interrupts Jesus and Jairus’s daughter is already dead in Matthew’s Gospel before He gets to Jairus’s house, whilst Mark, you get a little bit more of the fleshing out of the narrative. So you see the details of what’s going on.
When I start reading the Bible in that light, in light of the genre of what these authors are trying to communicate, then I no longer am afraid to pursue the Truth at all costs. I’m no longer afraid to pursue the Truth at all costs when I put Christ at the absolute center of my theological convictions and very little else at the center. And then I begin to examine the Bible historically, and I say, you know, these guys have a difference in presentation. There’s a lot of differences, but I would not treat those differences as errors. I would treat them as a different kind of an emphasis. The Word of God, I came to realize, had a human face, and that actually makes it relate to me far better than just being just a divine book. Now that’s an extended answer, but I hope that helps a little bit.
BA: Well, that’s an excellent answer. It’s very, very insightful. I wanna ask you about Bart Ehrman, who’s also a textual critic. He’s become a popular author, obviously, and taking a highly critical and an agnostic position. He’s had his serious doubts, it would seem, about the reliability of the New Testament. His books include Misquoting Jesus, Jesus Interrupted, Forged, and some others.
Can you tell us a bit about your dialogs and the debates that you’ve had with Ehrman as you’ve gone up with him head to head.
DW: Bart Ehrman is really a fascinating character and a very likable guy. I have known him for more than 29 years. I met him in his first year of the doctoral program at Princeton Seminary when he was still an evangelical, and over the years, I’ve seen him change to becoming non-evangelical but still considered a Christian, then non-Christian then agnostic then an agnostic who is hostile to the Christian faith even to the point where he says even if there is a God, it certainly is not the God of the Bible because that’s a Nazi deity. Now he is writing books that I would consider to be hostile to the Christian faith. His book, Forged, really was slamming the gauntlet down against Christians in terms of their view of the canon, what books are in the New Testament and why, and was it really authored by these people?
What Bart and I have done is we’ve had two debates so far. One was in New Orleans at the Fourth Annual Greer-Heard Forum at New Orleans Baptist Seminary.That was in 2008. Our second debate was on October first last year, 2011, at Southern Methodist University (SMU). By the way, if I can mention this to your audience, that debate was videotaped by a professional film crew and professionally edited. The one at SMU is available as a DVD at CSNTM.org. Somebody might want to get that so they can see the whole debate. It’s about two hours long, a little bit more than two hours, and I think it’s historically important, the debate. We had nearly 1500 people there, the largest debate ever over the text of the New Testament. Very significant.
Well, on our first debate, we were focusing on whether Orthodox scribes corrupted the text by making it more Orthodox than it really was originally. We both agreed that the early Orthodox scribes tended to make things clearer and move in a direction that supported Orthodoxy, but did they change the actual meaning of the text and how significant were those changes that they made? This is where Bart and I would part company strongly. In the end, he had to concede that not a single cardinal doctrine that is taught in the original New Testament has been jeopardized by any of these textual variants. And that was really all I wanted to accomplish. In the very end, he said, yes, I have to agree with that. I think that I succeeded in my objectives in the debate to show that even Bart Ehrman is not so skeptical as to think that these things have changed.
In the second debate, which was again last October at SMU, we wrestled with whether we can recover the text of the original New Testament. Ehrman has become hyper-skeptical about that saying we just don’t know if what we have goes back to the original or not. I concluded by citing several of his other writings, including his most recent book, Forged, and showing that that kind of hyper-skepticism about us not knowing is really not at all in line with what Ehrman has written any other book he’s ever written on the New Testament. And then I mentioned Forged how he says we know that Paul did not write 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, and the reason we know that is because the vocabulary in those three letters is not like the vocabulary in the undisputed Pauline letters. Well, what I raised was, how do you know what the vocabulary of those undisputed Pauline letters is? How do know what the vocabulary is of the Pastoral epistles unless you know what the original text says? Consequently, you can’t maintain that view in Forged and here tonight argue that we don’t know what the original text said. You can’t have it both ways. I wanted to accomplish the goal saying even Ehrman is not as skeptical as he comes across, and I think I was able to succeed in that point.
We’re gonna be debating again within a month at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill where he teaches. This is coming up on February first. That’ll be our third debate over the text of the New Testament.
BA: Well, excellent. So we’ve got the Greer-Heard Forum, and we’ve got the SMU debate , and now we’ve got the Chapel Hill debate coming up—a nice trilogy there so far.
BA: You know, when Ehrman reaches his conclusion that the Bible’s been changed and it simply can’t be trusted, and he’s as far as a persuasive communicator, he speaks well, but I wonder what sort of errors that you see in his approach or if he has particular contradictions and how he may approach the subject with one audience versus another.
DW: Yeah, there are a lot of things that Ehrman does differently in two different audiences, and it’s frustrating to see this. I drew attention to those internal contradictions in our first debate, and he asked me not to bring those kinds of things up in our second debate, and so I left that out of the debate. But in his scholarly writings and at the Society of Biblical Literature, where he lectures frequently, what he has said is that our understanding of the text of the original New Testament is so good that we’re at a virtual mopping up the place right now. There’s very little left to do.
Well then in popular circles, he says we just don’t know what the original text is. I don’t think those two are the same thing, and so I asked, you know, who’s the real Bart Ehrman and what does he really believe? And he got quite offensive in our first debate. In fact, when he got up, he said, I thought this was supposed to be a debate over the text of the New Testament, not over the reliability of Bart Ehrman? And so, you know, he obviously is caught in a difficult situation, and it’s difficult for him to explain. I’ll let people figure out on their own why he says different things in popular writing than in scholarly, but surely, if he said those things in scholarly writings, he’s not gonna sell nearly as many books. It’s not gonna be nearly as titillating as what he is saying in his popular books, so I’ll let people figure that out on their own.
The other contradiction I’ve pointed out is what he said in all of his books that he speaks about the original text, he speaks about what Paul says, what Peter—well, not Peter; he doesn’t think Peter wrote 1 or 2 Peter—but what Paul says, and what John says, and some others. But what you have in those books that he’s written is different from what he has said recently about the text of the New Testament, namely, we don’t know. You can’t on one hand say, this is what an author says; and then on the other hand say, we don’t know what this author says. I don’t see how both of those statements can be true or at least be from the same perspective.
So he does have a lot of internal contradictions. I’m not sure what the next ones are gonna be, but they’re fascinating to see how he’s wrestling with things, but I don’t think he has a coherent picture of it all.
BA: He says something, like, we don’t have the originals. We can’t trust the Bible. What really does it mean to say that we don’t have the originals? Does that objection carry any weight? If so, how much, and is it on the wrong track?
DW: I have say that he has gone in the direction of such rampant skepticism that he really is far out there as far as scholarship is concerned.
When you start talking about, well, we don’t have the original manuscripts of the New Testament, how can we possibly tell what was said? What I like to do is apply that same question to other ancient literature. When you start looking at classical Greek or Latin literature and compare it to the New Testament, the first thing you will recognize is that the New Testament, far and away, has more manuscripts, more translations, more comments on its text than any other ancient writer in the Greco-Roman world and probably in the entire world.
Not only that, it not only has more materials, more manuscripts on it than any ancient writer—including Homer, who is the most popular author of the ancient world and had an 800-/900-year headstart on the New Testament—still we have, at least, ten times as many copies of the New Testament as we do of Homer. But not only that, the date of these copies is significantly different. We have manuscripts that are written within decades of the original New Testament. For the average classical Greek or Latin author, we are waiting half a millennium, 500 years, before we get any copies at all. And consequently, the differences are significant. That’s a comparison I made essentially with Homer, but then you start looking at some of the other authors, and you take the average classical Greek or Latin author and the differences are so unbelievable, it’s just earth-shaking.
We have approximately one thousand times more manuscripts for the New Testament than we do for the average classical Greek or Latin author. So if you’re gonna be skeptical about what the original New Testament says because we don’t have the original manuscripts, then we might as well just shove ourselves right into the Dark Ages again, because we don’t know what any of the ancients ever said about anything.
Consequently, that kind of skepticism—it’s a postmodern skepticism—that ultimately is self-destructive, and all the advances that we have made from the Reformation and the Renaissance on would have to be thrown out because we don’t have those original documents. What brought us out of the Dark Ages was looking at these ancient manuscripts and scholars saying, “Oh look at these. Look at what these mathematicians said, these physicians and historians and philosophers and theologians” and that brought us out of the Dark Ages. Now if we’re gonna go back into the Dark Ages, it’s because we would reject what these scholars had discovered, and we would assume that what they had discovered simply does not honestly, in any sense reflect those original writings, and that’s the kind of a position that Ehrman’s view ultimately is gonna bring us to.
BA: Some critics like to kind of emphasize that the Gospels was written by anonymous authors. We don’t know who wrote Mark. We don’t know who wrote Matthew. What is the case, and how do we know who wrote the Gospels?
DW: The Gospels were, in fact, anonymous to begin with. I think that’s a consensus of virtually all Biblical scholars. The question is when did the titles—the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—get added to the Gospels? Well, they must have been added as soon as two of these Gospels were known to exist in a given part of the Mediterranean world, and then, you’ve got the one that’s According to Matthew and one that’s According to Mark to distinguish them. In fact, the earliest form of that title didn’t even say “Gospel”. It said simply According to Mark, According to Matthew. There was no Gospel According to Mark or Matthew. It’s just “According to”. Consequently, what it’s really saying is, whatever this thing is gonna be called, we don’t know what we would call these yet, whatever it is though, we have this story as far as Mark is telling it, as far as Matthew is telling it, Luke, and John.
One of the interesting things is those titles was added very, very early on. I think Martin Hengel, who was a top-notch German scholar from Tübingen University, argued that they must’ve been added almost as soon as these manuscripts were penned, very shortly after that. He would put them in the last third of the first century when you have these titles added.
What’s interesting is Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—you begin to think about these guys. You say, okay, Matthew, he was one of the disciples but was he a prominent disciple? Well, who are the prominent disciples? Peter, John, and James. Those were the three of the inner circle of Jesus. Matthew is a tax collector. He was not a particularly prominent one, and so you get Philip and Nathaniel and some others that have speaking parts, but I don’t think Matthew ever has a speaking part. Thomas has a speaking part in the Gospels. You would expect if somebody’s gonna be coming up with just adding a name to give these Gospels some sort of authority, they would’ve picked somebody besides Matthew. Matthew’s Gospel is the most Jewish of the Gospels and yet he was a tax collector. Here’s the guy who’s gonna have a hard sell trying to convince fellow Jews that Jesus is the Messiah since he was in league with the Romans. And yet we don’t have any evidence, absolutely zero evidence, that these Gospels were given any other name than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
So if I were a pseudepigrapher, somebody who is fabricating a name and adding it to the Gospels, I would never have picked Matthew to be the most Jewish of the Gospels or even to be the author of one of the Gospels. I never would’ve picked Mark. He was not even one of the original Disciples. In fact, what most liberal scholars would say is, well, there’s a strong impulse of the church to add an Apostle’s name to work and that’s why we reject 1 Peter and 2 Peter and why we reject so many of the other letters—you know, James, Jude and things like this and six of Paul’s letters. Yes, there was a strong impulse but that was a strong impulse especially of heretical groups. The fact that the Gospels didn’t have the Gospel names added to them except later, not by the original authors, shows that it was an impulse that the original authors, themselves, did not feel compelled to follow. And it also shows that these names that were put on these Gospels were not all Apostles—two of them were, but one of them is kind of marginal in terms of the kind of influence we’d expect him to have. It shows that the early church is not creating these stuff.
The Gospel of Mark in the ancient world almost universally—in fact, universally is viewed as Mark writing down what Peter had preached, and yet no one calls it the Gospel of Peter. So if you have this strong impulse to put an Apostle’s name on something, why didn’t the church do that to the Gospel of Mark. They didn’t do it to the Gospel of Mark because Peter did not write it. So there’s these strong impulses that ultimately are defeated by the fact that the church also wants to tell the truth.
Now when it comes to Luke, he was an associate of Paul’s, and what’s remarkable about Ehrman’s view on Luke and Acts is he holds what I would consider to be very much a minority view among Biblical scholars. Most scholars would say that yes Luke wrote both Luke and Acts, and even Ehrman says, no Luke didn’t write those. So, he’s got an extraordinarily skeptical position.
When it comes to John, yes, here’s somebody who’s a well-known Apostle, and yet he’s not the most well-known. He was second fiddle to James and to Peter. We see in the Book of Acts that Peter is the one who’s got the speaking part when Peter and John go around. What we see in the Gospels James and John, James is more prominent than John, and in the Book of Acts, James ends up being the leader of the early church, not John. So here’s this guy whose name is associated with John’s Gospel, and yet he’s not the most prominent Apostle. I think that’s very interesting that that would be the case.
What we do know about John is he seemed to be somebody who focused on individual discipleship and intimacy, getting to know people very, very well. We have that from the Apostolic Fathers, people who were directly discipled by John. That fits the pattern of what we see in the Gospel of John. It’s something written by a disciple of the Lord who wants to share intimate secrets with his readers—the kinds of things that don’t get relayed in the more historically-oriented Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
BA: Well, that’s certainly helpful. Let’s move on then, ‘cos that was an excellent answer. I wanna ask you a couple of questions along the lines of advice for those who are studying this sort of material especially those who wanna give a solid rational defense of Christianity and the trustworthiness of the Scripture.
As far as studying, what advice would you for students in their studies, maybe some keys that will help them master the essential material. What would be your advice?
DW: Well, I think there are some books that they should read that’ll help them to get into this. For example, if you dive into the deep end to start with, then you do have a problem because you do not understand all the issues, and it can get a little bit scary. There are three books that I would recommend for the person who wants to get into the whole area of the reliability of the New Testament to begin with, and these three are written about a 50-year period.
The first one would be F.F. Bruce’s little book, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? It’s a great read. F.F. Bruce was a professor at Manchester University in England, a solid evangelical, and did just a remarkable piece of work here, although it’s dated, but it’s a good place to start.
Then you’ve got Craig Blomberg’s book, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, first published in 1987 and revised about six years ago. It’s also an excellent read. It may be a little bit high-brow for some folks in that it’s a little bit more academic, but it’s still great. Blomberg is just one of the great Gospel scholars around today.
The third one which is more popularly written but it’s still a bit of a challenge to people. They wanna be motivated to read this. It’s Reinventing Jesus and that’s by Ed Komoszewski, James Sawyer, and myself. It deals with a lot of issues: Are the Gospels reliable? Is the text reliable? Did the ancient church get it right about the canon? Are the Creeds reliable when they speak about the deity of Christ? What about mystery religions and some other things. So that’s some of the direction that I would go.
Now when you ask about what I would suggest to someone who wants to get into apologetics and what are some keys that would help them. The first and foremost thing—and this is extremely important and it cannot be ignored—is they need to fall in-love with Jesus. If they try to defend the faith before they have fully embraced the Savior, then it’s going to end in disaster. The road to hell is paved with the bones of a number of apologists who have fallen away from the Lord. It’s a very sad thing, because if you start by wanting to defend the faith, you may not even know the Savior and that really describes a guy like Bart Ehrman. He started out being an apologist, and I just don’t think he ever really knew the Lord.
Secondly, and this is along the same lines, always keep a warm heart for the Lord in your studies. In fact, I tell my students at Dallas Seminary that they should consider their studies to be an act of worship; that is they should never divorce their minds from their hearts. When we study these materials—when we study Greek and Hebrew and other ancient languages, when we get into the data, it can be really burdensome and weigh us down unless we recognize that it is legitimate to use our minds in an act worship for the Lord. We use our minds and we use our hearts and our strength and everything else that we’ve got going to love the Lord.
Third, when they study these issues, I think they should try to learn from the best scholars, not just from other apologists. I alluded to a book written in 1965 written by an apologist that boogled up the whole issue of how many textual variants there are. This is one of the problems that we have in Christian apologetics—that apologists are frequently getting their data from other apologists, and they end up almost having some inbreeding where they get a lot of the facts wrong. It’s simply not at all healthy.
I think it’s good to learn from other apologists. It’s fine, but go to the sources. That’s the hallmark methodological battlecry of the Reformations—Ad fontes: back to the sources, and this is what anybody who wants to work in apologetics has to do as well. Find out who the scholars are that the best apologists are quoting from and read those guys directly themselves. Don’t be afraid to dive into the books that you’ll disagree with or books that you’ll find challenging to understand. Set a framework for it by reading some of the easier to understand books that deal with the issues and laid out for you in an understandable way and a clear evangelical way, but then dive into these deeper works and see what happens.
And the fourth thing I would suggest is to be sympathetic to all viewpoints as much as possible and challenge your own presuppositions. Before you can defend the truth, you have to know the truth. If we’re gonna be honest people who are ready to give an answer to those who have a question about our faith, we have got to be able to challenge our own presuppositions.
One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is, as I read a certain verse, I may say here’s a verse that I think affirms the deity of Christ. Well, because I’m so firmly committed to the deity of Christ, that can cloud my judgment as to the meaning of the text. It may be that what text is saying is irrelevant to the deity of Christ. It may be speaking about a different issue. If I’m first in there to defend the Bible, then I may not even see what the Bible is talking about.
Consequently, we need to be in pursuit of truth more than in defense of the truth. That has to be the backbone to the defense of the Truth—the pursuit of Truth. We should never ever let that go in our entire lives—always be pursuing Truth. At a certain point, we can begin to defend some Truths that we’re absolutely certain about, the core value kind of truths I mentioned earlier that are more important than the more peripheral doctrines.
BA: Well, that’s all excellent insight. I want to ask you just one more advice question, and that’s in making a case for the reliability of the Bible. I wonder from your perspective if there are some times where you hear someone defending the reliability of the Bible, and you think, “Oh no. Don’t do it that way.” Or maybe in your mind there are do’s and don’ts, and I wonder if you could share some perspectives on how you would go about defending the Scriptures.
DW: There are plenty of do’s and don’ts, and the biggest do’s and don’ts have to do with citing other apologists where you haven’t really studied or gotten your facts straight. I’m embarrassed to say that sometimes there are Muslim apologists who have done really decent research on the nature of the New Testament or on the transmission of the text or things along those lines, and they have cleared up kind of an apocryphal story that Christians believed in.
There was one example: a number of scholars have passed on saying someone had pointed out that in the first three centuries of Christianity, only eleven verses of the entire New Testament had not been able to be found in those Church Fathers’ writings. Well, that was a garbled story that went back to the early 1800s, and it was a third-hand story of a fellow by the name of David Dalrymple. He was the one who actually was doing the research, and somebody heard about this at a party and not directly from Dalrymple but from somebody else, and then put into a book, and it’s been stated for the last 200 years as though it was Gospel fact.
What Dalrymple actually said was in the first two centuries of the Christian faith through A.D. 300, that all but eleven verses of John’s Gospel had been found in the Church Fathers’ writings. He wasn’t talking about the whole New Testament, so this got communicated in such a way that said it was the whole New Testament that’s been found. That’s just irresponsible and not at all helpful. It was Muslim apologists who discovered the error, and it’s been quoted by apologists, even text critical scholars, and it was the Muslims who (……. 58:18) [did the] research and said sorry that’s not the case.
Well, I don’t like to see us getting embarrassed by that, and that’s why we need to be very serious students and never afraid to really ask the tough questions and get into the details. Besides that, I would give basically three responses to what are some of the do’s and don’ts:
(1) Don’t be satisfied with easy answers. Probe the issues deeply and formulate your own opinions after due diligence in reading extensively. If an answer is really an easy answer, it might be a wrong answer—maybe a right answer, but just don’t be satisfied with those kinds of answers. Too often, they’re incorrect.
(2) Don’t be arrogant. If Christians know the Truth, we should rejoice that God has been gracious to us when we didn’t deserve anything but hell. All too often, we have kind of a triumphalist spirit among our apologists who wanna get out there and say, “I can kick some agnostic butt here today,” that kind of a thing when really what we need to do is love the other person and still present some powerful arguments. It needs to be both. If you’re arrogant, you end up belittling the other guy, ridiculing the other person, using ad hominem. That’s simply never appropriate and is never Christian.
(3) You really need to love—really love the person that you’re speaking with. Be as concerned about them about as you are about the Gospel. I base that on what Paul says in Romans 9:3 when he says, “I wish I could pray that I would be accursed” that is, that I would go to hell if it would but save one of my fellow countrymen. He had a concern for his fellow-Jews that was every bit as profound as his concern for the truth of the Gospel. When we really do have that love for other people, rather than just a concern for the Truth, then I think we’re balanced, and that’s the kind of person that God’s really gonna use.
BA: Well, that’s powerful, and I really appreciate your input on those things, and I know that those who are listening are gonna greatly benefit from that.
Dr. Wallace, as we start to wrap up now, I wanna point people back to The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts and, as I mentioned before, some of our listeners maybe would like to help out financially or find out more about the work that you’re doing there. Would you mind directing them how they can do that online? We mentioned the website, but is there a means for them to support that work?
DW: Absolutely, and it’s an ongoing support need we have. Again, the name of the institute is The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, and our website is the initials, CSNTM.org. We’re a non-profit organization that has 501 (c)(3) status. In other words, if you give money to it, it’s tax-deductible. We have a place on our website that will take you right to make a donation.
This year alone, we need $125,000 just for two extraordinarily important expeditions that are going to the old Soviet Union Bloc countries. We’ve been working for nine years to open up one of these places that has just unbelievably important manuscripts. It’s our policy not to tell where we’re going ahead of time. We do that for a variety of reasons, but we will be going to Eastern Europe, and I can’t tell you how important this expedition is gonna be—two expeditions to the same site. They have 42 of the most important New Testament manuscripts in the world, and we need $125,000 to go there.
We are looking for people that want to invest in the future, and when you think about your investments for 2012, it’s hard to imagine an investment that’s gonna pay bigger dividends than one that is dedicated to preserving Scripture, God’s Word, for generations to come. We would welcome anyone’s support. Thank you.
BA: Well, very good. Dr. Wallace, I appreciate your vision and your faithful labor and your heart and for sharing with our listeners. It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you. Thanks for taking the time to do the interview.
DW: Thank you, Brian. It’s been a joy to be on the show.