Bart Ehrman’s Mainstream Scholarship in Textual Criticism

Do We Have the Original Words of the New Testament Writers?

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT


Many conservative Christians today would unceremoniously dismiss scholars who question the veracity of biblical texts and would expel and ostracise the voice that dares to question the inerrancy (The belief that scripture is free from errors, i.e., it is complete inspired in its every word – “verbal, plenary inspiration.) of the Bible. Many would think that this view has kicked its bucket and is now safely collecting dust on the shelf marked “Myths and Legend”. It is true that while many Christians in the west, after being exposed to works by textual critics, have embraced a more flexible view of scripture, i.e., the Bible is the Word of God but in it are also the thoughts of men and possibly even mistakes, there are still major pockets of Christian communities and churches that strongly uphold that the Bible(s) they have in their hands are absolutely God’s word, inspired and has no error. In a recent 2014 Gallup Poll showed that 28% of Christian Americans still strongly cling to this belief. This means that the belief is still quite alive and well among many practising Christians.

Whenever one discusses the topic of inspiration and biblical inerrancy, a name that popularly pops up is “Bart Ehrman” whose popularised, easy-to-access and easy-to-read introduction to the technical art of textual criticism brought a storm to not only America but the world over. His work has been described as monumental as it has given rise to great interest in higher criticism among laymen in a way that has never been seen before and the excitement that it has generated has not ebbed to this day.
Of course, to the conservative Christian who strongly believes in the inerrancy of scripture, Ehrman is just another upstart in a long line of deviants that no longer have the grace of God and destined to the pits of fire. Unbeknownst to these well-meaning Christians, the primary concern that Ehrman puts forward in his thesis and one of the reasons that he says helped peel away his faith in the inerrancy of scripture, finds great support in many a conservative scholar that preceded him.

Ehrman proclaims the following words that have irked so many a conservative, “What we have are copies of these writings, made years later – in most cases, many years later. Moreover, none of these copies is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in placed. All scribes did this. So rather than actually having the inspired words of the autographs (i.e., the originals) of the Bible, what we have are the error-ridden copies of the autographs.” [1]

Ehrman laments further:

“…Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have the copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later – much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places…Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” [2]

More than a century removed from Bart Ehrman, lived Christopher Wordsworth, nephew of the great poet William Wordsworth. Making a name for himself, he rose to prominence in the field of theology and biblical studies. Rev. Dr. Christopher Wordsworth was a man of the cloth and served as Bishop of Saint Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane. He graduated from Winchester and Trinity, Cambridge and quickly became a recognised man of letters, a scholar of the Bible. Echoing the words of Ehrman over 144 years ago, in his introductory notes to his commentary on the New Testament, Wordsworth unapologetically writes:

“It has not pleased Almighty God to preserve us the original autographs of the Gospels. Various Readings of the Sacred Text existed even in the second century. No Manuscript of the first or second century is now known to exist, and only four or five Manuscripts are still extant, that can be assigned to a date prior to the seventh century. After all the labours of Collators and Critics, we shall never be sure that we have the precise words of the Apostles and Evangelists in every minute particular.” [3]

*No doubt, until rather recently, scholars have discovered four fragments and part of manuscripts that can be dated to the second century such as p52 and p 90(first half of the 2nd century) and p32 and p46 (second half of the 2nd century). These were of course unavailable in the time of Wordsworth. These four scanty and hardly-legible fragments do not diminish Wordsworth’s point. His fundamental point is that even with the sophisticated apparatus of the textual critic, using all available resources of the day, to try and determine the original words of the authors of the New Testament, their work at the end of the day do not finally prove which word was spoken by whom in the NT.*

And dealing with only 500 extant manuscripts, the good professor candidly admits that the mistakes and discrepancies in them are so many that no one has been able to create an exhaustible list of those discrepancies, “These discepencies, being such as they are found to be, are of inestimable value.” [4]

We thus see from the above, proof positive that the view of Professor Ehrman belongs to mainstream Christian biblical scholarship. His feelings and doubts concerning the New Testament records are not a modern day deviant innovation. It is something that Christian scholars themselves have recognised, admitted and proclaimed long before Ehrman was even born.



[1] Ehrman, B. D. (2005). Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. pp. 4-5

[2] Ibid. p. 10

[3] Wordsworth, C. (1872). The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ In the Original Greek: With Introductions and Notes. London: Rivingtons. p. 22

[4] Ibid. p. 22

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