Bart D. Ehrman v. James White Debate: Did the Bible Misquote Jesus?

Having just heard this debate I was impressed with Ehrman's passion and knowledge of this field, and I think he made his points well. You can get it here.

[What I wonder is if White is sharing the money earned from selling the debate with Ehrman. Far too often believers cut the skeptics they debate out from the proceeds of such things].

James White wasn't bad either. He too was knowledgeable. I can certainly see White's perspective, one that I shared with him for years. I'm sure believers will come away having their beliefs reinforced, which is what apologists like him attempt to do, so in that respect he did his job well. It's a job I could no longer do.

Ehrman was talking about the facts of what we know. We know there are as many differences in the manuscripts as there are words in the New Testament texts. White didn't disagree with him on the facts. His main point was that the differences didn't matter. Ehrman's point was that the differences do matter, some of them actually change the meaning of whole book (i.e. the meaning of Hebrews). While the topic was not about Ehrman's view of inspiration his question was that if God inspired the texts then why didn't God also preserve the original texts? In his book on this topic he said it looks like a human endeavor and I agree. This is something former contributor DagoodS argued.

One of the disputes between Ehrman and White had to do with the period of time before we find any manuscripts of the New Testament. They both acknowledged that between manuscripts there were many more variants in the earlier periods than in the later periods. From the 2nd century to the 4th century there were many more variants between texts than there were between the 4th century and the 9th century, for instance. Ehrman's argument is that since this is so then we have every reason to think there were even greater variants before we find our first manuscript copies. Among the earliest untrained and sometimes illiterate scribes we would expect even greater manuscript variants. Based on this trend Ehrman argued we just don't know what the original manuscripts said. James White argued instead that if indeed the earliest copies of the originals contained greater variants, then despite the trend we should see even greater variants among the actual manuscripts we have than we find in them. But we don't, he argued.

I think Ehrman answered White's counter-argument elsewhere when he spoke of the probability that an original text could be copied and never used to copy from again. In this scenario a 2nd generation copy was copied just a few times over but the 3rd generation copy was copied extensively from then on. So even though we may not have as wide a number of variants as we might expect among the earliest manuscripts we actually have if this trend extended to the earliest scibes, it says nothing to counter the trend going back in time. The fact is that the evidence strongly suggests there would've been more variants between the earliest manuscripts the farther back in time we go. It's just that we only have copies of copies of copies to go on and these copies may be all that survived. One can only wonder what the original texts said, Ehrman argues. We just don't know. I agree.

Only if Christians actually try to appreciate Ehrman’s points and try to understand them rather than be defensive will they be able to think about the New Testament transmission and how it affects what they believe. It should cause them to re-evaluate their faith. But Christians will always be able to say that James White stood in the gap. He's knowledgeable and so he must know what he's talking about. Shame really. White has an agenda. He's trying to explain away the facts. He stops short of the best explanation of the data because he's blinded by faith. And this is supposed to represent scholarship? Hardly.


Jon said...

I believe White often, or perhaps always, entirely pays all expenses for his opponents, and perhaps based on that he feels at liberty to collect proceeds from the sale of the debate.

It is kind of hard to square White's presuppositionalism with any pretense of scholarship. Scholarship is supposed to be always probing, perhaps refining paradigms to see if perhaps the facts can be better understood with a different understanding. White goes through the motions that a normal scholar would, but in his case it's one huge damage control operation intended to preserve the party line that he presupposed back when he was 8 years old or whatever. He'll never be interested in viewing the facts in a fundamentally new way.

Imagine a scholar on 1960's American history that completely is unwilling to even consider alternative understandings of what happened with Kennedy, only willing to espouse the government's version of the events, and shoehorning the facts into a paradigm that goes along with that. Is such a person a real scholar? I understand scholars to be open to new possibilities. As a presuppositionalist this isn't even in the cards for White.

Vinny said...

I find it hard to believe that Ehrman agreed to debate a hack like White. In his recap of the debate, White spent an awful lot of time criticizing Ehrman's refusal to talk about the textual corruption of Koran as if that proved some sort of bias. Of course, Ehrman is not an Islamic scholar and has no expertise in the Koran, but White insisted upon painting him as a liar and a hypocrite. I was so disgusted with White's crapola that I could not bring myself to pay $6 to listen to the whole debate.

District Supt. Harvey Burnett said...


Ehrman makes certain assumptions based on trends that he observes and concludes that those trends were greater (so far as variants are concerned)BEFORE any available evidence can confirm such a trend.

I believe that is the problem with his argument. Like White I agree that there were variants but Ehrman fails to make any convincing argument that the variants he hold forth were meaningful and inpacting on proper understanding or orthodoxy.

If you know one that is viable and impacts orthodoxy please list it, I'd like to see it, not as a critic of you, but to actually have the opportunity to examine it. Ehrman spends a lot of time talking about certain problems but the one's I've seen have been overstated but I may not have seen them all...I'm just trying to find out what's so "earthshaking" about this info.


Ivan said...

As if we're going to give those guys money. You could post it as a bittorrent.

Vinny said...

The trend in the available evidence is that the quantity of variants increases as we get earlier in the manuscript tradition. Ehrman believes that this observed trend would continue in the earliest period for which manuscript evidence is lacking.

There really is nothing "earth shaking" about what Ehrman says for any reasonable person who understands that we are less certain about ancient events and documents than we are about modern events and documents. It only becomes "earth shaking" for evangelical Christians who have spent every Sunday of the lives listening to ministers who preach as if the actual words of a first century itinerant preacher can be known with the same certainty as yesterday's football scores.

Luke said...

I didn't hear this debate, but I have a question:

Am I the only atheist who thinks that Ehrman's case in "Misquoting Jesus" is totally unconvincing, and that in fact it contradicts much of what he has written in his scholarly books?

Tony R said...

I've heard quite a few of White's debates and radio shows over the years. From what I understand he always gives a copy of any video and audio of the debate to his opponent, and expects it if they are recording the proceedings. They're then free to sell it if they wish, which I think is fair. Jon's first comment nails the problem with Dr.White though.

John W. Loftus said...

District, when is the last time you read a book, my friend? ;-)

I don't have time to help you out today. Maybe someone else does.


Harry McCall said...

I have mailed Bart Ehrman several times over the years and he seemed very cordial in his responses.

However, about four years ago he was giving a lecture at Furman University on the Gospel of Judas and the theological tendencies of the Gnostic codices.

After the lecture I walked up to shake hands and I wanted to ask why a major scholar like James M. Robinson had been left out of the group of scholars which help translate the Judas codex in the first place and interestingly, was not even mentioned once in his lecture.

This bothered me since Professor Robinson (A.B. (Summa cum Laude), Davidson College, 1945 (Classics); B.D. (Magna cum Laude), Columbia Theological Seminary, 1946; D.Theol. (Summa cum Laude), University of Basel, Switzerland, 1952 (in Contemporary Theology, supervisor Karl Barth); Th.D, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1955; D.Theol. (Honoris Causa), University of Mainz, Germany, 1971; D.Lett. (Honoris Causa), Davidson College, 1987; D.Hum. (Honoris Causa), Maimi University, 1990; D.Theol. (Honoris Causa), Laval University, Québéc, Canada, 2001; D. Theol. (Honoris Causa), University of Geneva, Switzerland, 2003) had given me my first formal introduction to the Gnostic library. Plus, Robinson had been the General Editor of The Coptic Gnostic Library Codices and serves as Permanent Secretary of the International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices of the Arab Republic of Egypt for The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi.

Dr. Ehrman seemed taken back and did not want to discuss the issue other than with a dismissal of a few words. I got the feeling from him like I was demanding more than just my general question reveled.
Maybe there is more, I don't know.

I do (as a fact) know in the world of Biblical scholarship, egos can loom large and any who has ever attended a national Society of Biblical Literature meeting can testify to that.

Anyway, Bart’s popular Oxford Press book Misquoting Jesus is geared for the popular Christian market, but it seems to have lost a lot of its appeal for me when he down sized it into simpler version from his Princeton dissertation published by Oxford Press as The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

I guess conservative Christians like James White fear a titles such a this and see Bart as s lighting rod to attack anytime when Protestant orthodoxy is at stake.

In the end, I think Christians supporting James White leave the debate the same way they came in: Maybe a little shaken, but knowing (deep down in their Jesus loving hearts) that a so-called agnostic scholar just can not be trusted.

dvd said...

Harry McCall

To be fair to James White:

He actually was saying many of these things that Bart brought up way back in the '90's. He wants Christians to see this stuff, and thinks the case for the manuscript evidence is very strong. When you hear someone like Dan Wallace explain it, things came be see in a totally different light and the mystery behind this and the fear is gone.

I thought the debate between Bart and James showed that both could score points but at the end of the day, I was convinced that James White has nothing to hide and actually enjoy's people knowing about this stuff.

Harry McCall said...

I’m very surprised that a man of Bart Ehrman’s position and credentials would debate some one like James White.

At first, James White’s academic credentials look impressive:

B.A. Bible (Major in Biology, minor in Greek), Grand Canyon College, 1985.
M.A. Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1989
Th.M. Apologetics, Faraston Seminary, 1995
Th.D., Apologetics, Columbia Evangelical Seminary, 1998D.
Min, Apologetics, Columbia Evangelical Seminary, 2002

But, other then his degrees from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Az. and his MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, White’s Th.M; Th.D; and D.Min. are all from the same place: Columbia Evangelical Seminary (with Faraston being the original name of C.E.S.).

Fact is, Columbia Evangelical Seminary labels itself as a seminary which only offers a Distance Learning program or, in common language; it’s a correspondence school whose website states: “All course work may be accomplished entirely by Mentorship Study and through the extension mode. Thus, there are no residency requirements whatsoever.

Anyone who feels impressed with Dr. White’s fancy website and degrees just might want to chick here and here!

Tony R said...

Regarding Harry McCall's comment, James White has spoken about Columbia before: I don't agree with Dr.White but in his interaction in debates and interactions with Catholics, Mormons and KJV-onlyists he's received a staggering amount of personal and ad-hominem attacks. Focusing just on the points and arguments made makes it harder for him and those who follow his work to dimiss them.

HikoBills said...

Does anyone who is being critical here realize that you can call in toll free to the show called the Dividing Line and actually voice your complaints.

But that would only be if you think your complaints are valid.

Harry McCall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harry McCall said...

If you can’t beat them; join them!

I’m planning to get my ThD from Columbia Evangelical Seminary too. Doctor of Think-ology. (This is the same ThD degree that the Wizard of the Land of Oz gave the brainless scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz).

Harry McCall, ThD (Has a nice ring doesn’t it?)

If some of you people will mentor me; I just might get four or five doctorates while I’m at it!
(Well, after I get my second CES doctorate, I'll just mentor myself!)

Vinny said...

Does anyone who is being critical here realize that you can call in toll free to the show called the Dividing Line and actually voice your complaints.

I could also call Rush Limbaugh to argue with him, but the fact that I don't isn't relevant to the validity of my criticisms of him either.

dvd said...

Harry McCall

James White has proven himself though, as some of his work has been of a higher order. Some scholars have All the Credentials and have very poor scholarship.

James White worked as a consultant on the New American Standard, and his King James Only book is superb.

The said...

Why Was James So Offensive Towards Ehrman on the point of Quran??
Hey Guys!!
We are debating New Testament not Quran and both speakers are not Muslims,
So Why So Much fuss about Quran??
I think that showed how desperate James was in the debate

So spricht der HERR said...

Good post... though, in defense of White I feel I must say something about the "Muslim" comment:

1. Vinny, he did NOT spend "an awful lot of time" talking about the Quran, or anything REMOTELY close to that amount of time for that matter.

2. Bart Ehrman is Professor of "RELIGIOUS" studies. I hope he would have something to say about the Quran.

3. The debate was not about the Quran, true. But was James White making it about the Quran or was he trying to reveal a possible bias in Dr. Ehrman?

I'd also like to say 'kudos' to the author of this article. I don't agree with everything said but I'm impressed. As demonstrated by some who posted a response to this entry, it is certainly rare these days to find skeptics who can:

A. Respectfully disagree
B. Do so knowledgably
C. make arguments and not mere assertions

Thank you,


jeeijoe said...

In response to "So spricht der HERR":

1. Even if White spent a minute talking about the Quran, it revealed his desperation. The topic was the New Testament and not the Quran. Whether the Quran is allegedly corrupt or not has nothing to do with the subject. Someone asked above why White brought up the Quran? My guess is as follows: besides Ehrman, White's other hobby is Muslim bashing. While on his journey of duals with Muslims, he discovered that Muslims often use the writings of Ehrman. Therefore, White just wanted Ehrman to say something against the Quran so he could then say to his Muslim opponents: "hey look, Ehrman also says this and this against the Quran!" When Ehrman refused to indulge in this irrelevance, White got angry.

2. Professor of "religious" studies is not necessarily an expert on ALL religions on earth. Ehrman is an expert on New Testament studies only - as he has confessed many times - and happens to be the head of the religious studies department as well. It's as simple as that. Ehrman has confessed he knows nothing about the Quran. Get over it.

3. Why would Ehrman - an AGNOSTIC for crying out loud - be biased in favor towards the Quran? What sense does this make? Why is is excrutiatingly impossible for you to accept this simple confession of Ehrman: "I know nothing about the Quran"?

Lockheed said...

"Even if White spent a minute talking about the Quran, it revealed his desperation."

No, the point Dr. White was making was that Islam, who's proponents use Ehrman as a resource against Christianity, would suffer the same conclusions in Ehrman's system. The fact that Ehrman failed to acknowledge the problem shows that he has a bias against Christianity and is possibly fearful of Muslims.

That is, it is fashionable to publish books against Christianity, Christians rarely issue a fatwa for doing so. ;)

"Professor of "religious" studies is not necessarily an expert on ALL religions on earth. "

Dr. Ehrman's belief is that without the original manuscripts you cannot know what the authors actually intended... this must therefore apply to all religions and even secular sources as Dr. White noted elsewhere.

"Why would Ehrman - an AGNOSTIC for crying out loud - be biased in favor towards the Quran? "

This is the issue exactly. Ehrman was unwilling to consistently apply his bias toward other 'revealed' religions with lacking original manuscripts of their scriptures. He therefore showed either a bias against Christianity or a fear of Islam or both.

Don Boone said...

The point I was waiting to hear in the debate is that the early church fathers managed to quote the vast majority of the new testament, and by piecing this together we have more evidence of the veracity of the new testament. It has to be recognized that this goes a long way toward knowing the original wording of the manuscripts. Honestly, this is a tired issued that has been answered for centuries, but skeptics still think it’s the ultimate trump card.
Read more here:

Vinny said...


I think the reason that White didn't introduce that argument is that he knew that Ehrman could rip it to shreds. The early church fathers were not particularly careful in their quotations so while their writings might help to establish that a particular New Testament document was in existence at a particular time, for purposes of textual criticism, their writings introduce many more variants than they resolve.

Don Boone said...

Hi Vinny -
You’re telling me that the quotes from the early church fathers are really that far off base? I doubt it. You would have to show me some clear examples. But this does get back to White's main contention with Ehrman's criteria: Ehrman claims that we can't know the text because of variants, therefore how can Christianity claim that these "adulterated" books are the inspired Word of God? But when he was cornered, Ehrman admitted that the vast majority of variants were spelling and grammar errors, and the few remaining legitimate variants do not undermine the major doctrines of Christianity in the least. If the Bible still maintains it's doctrinal standards even with the many variants noted by scholars, then where's the beef? It's a bit of a smoke screen if you ask me. And given the turbulence of persecution under which the early manuscripts were copied – by amateurs on the run, not by monks in seclusion – the NT has stood up quite well. Far better than any other books in antiquity. It sounds to me like God has preserved His Word after all. But could it be that the skeptic simply does not want to believe that God has been personally involved in history, and he/she is willing to believe anything as long as it claims to discredit the claims of Christianity?

Vinny said...

I am relying on a talk that Professor Michael Holmes of Bethel University gave at the 2008 Greer-Heard Forums at NOBTS. I haven't found the exact quote but the gist was that textual critics don't find the writings of the early fathers useful for resolving variants because they took so many liberties when quoting. I don't recall whether he gave specific examples.

Robert V said...

Although I am a bit disheartened by Ehrman's agnosticism, I agree with alot of his arguments. He makes valid points regarding theological differences found in scripture. While in semenary I too discovered such differences. But unlike Ehrman I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bath water.