19 October 2011
Nika Spaulding and Robert D. Marcello
Saturday, October 1, 2011, at the McFarlin Auditorium on the SMU campus, stately columns reminiscent of the Grecian architecture of old greeted the nearly 1500 guests eager to watch the debate. The sheer numbers guaranteed that this debate would be the largest such event in history. Both the building and attendees—scholars, Christians, seekers, skeptics, atheists, Muslims, Mormons—suggested the magnitude of the subject matter: the reliability of the text of the New Testament. Expectations soared for the two scholars debating—our own Dr. Daniel B. Wallace and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman—and neither would disappoint.
The moderator, Dr. Mark Chancey, a former student of Ehrman’s and chairman of the Religious Studies Department at SMU, did an outstanding job introducing the speakers, fielding the questions, and keeping the audience on track. He was quite neutral, as his reputation had suggested he would be. Dr. Ehrman throughout the evening posited that the text of the New Testament was corrupted beyond repair. His main argument stems from the absence of New Testament manuscripts from the first 200 years after the writing of the New Testament. This “silence” he argued could have resulted in chaos from the scribes; thus, it follows that the text is no longer trustworthy. Conversely, Dr. Wallace asserted that much evidence exists which affirms the reliability of the text—including from the first 200 years: nearly 80 Greek MSS from that period! He compared the New Testament manuscripts to that of even the best Greco-Roman authors. To say the New Testament exceeds this literature in quality and quantity of manuscripts would be a gross understatement. Thus it follows, on the grounds of textual reliability, the New Testament far exceeds other literature of its kind.
Ehrman demanded absolute proof that the New Testament had not been corrupted, as though such proof was to be applied in all areas of life. But he was making unrealistic demands on the text, and demanding absolute certainty for historical materials. Wallace pointed out that skepticism of this sort would mean that we would need to be a thousand times more skeptical about the average Greco-Roman author, and that our knowledge of the ancient world would have to be surrendered, putting us right back in the Dark Ages.
Wallace took a more moderating position, arguing that we can have relative certainty that we can get back to the wording of the autographs.
In Wallace’s final point he argued that every one of Ehrman’s books on the New Testament presupposed that he knew what the autographic text said—even his latest book, Forged , written earlier this year. Wallace mentioned that Ehrman’s belief that Paul did not write the Pastorals depended on a vocabulary argument in which Ehrman knew what the “authentic” Pauline letters said and what the Pastorals said—in virtually every place. Ehrman never could have written that book unless he knew, almost in every detail, what the original text of Paul’s letters said.
Between the scholarly dialogue and lively, even humorous rhetoric of the two men, attendees enjoyed an evening that focused on a significant subject matter. DVDs of the historic debate will be on sale soon. More information about the upcoming DVD can be found on www.CSNTM.org in the coming weeks. An interesting sidenote: When Dr. Ehrman asked the audience how many were Bible-believing Christians, only about 60% of the hands went up. There was a healthy number of atheists, skeptics, Muslims, and Mormons—all fans of Ehrman—at the debate. The professional film crew interviewed several attendees after the debate. They sought out those with “ATHEIST” emblazoned in white on their black T-shirts, and others who were evidently not Christians. But no one who thought that Ehrman had won the debate was willing to be filmed.
Announced at the debate was Dr. Wallace’s brand new book (released on the day of the debate!): Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Text and Canon of the New Testament) (Kregel), a book he edited and contributed to, along with five former interns of his. This is an outstanding work that offers a significant critique on Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. Autographed copies of Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament are available at www.CSNTM.org for $30. In the first three weeks, the book has already sold more than 1000 copies!