Wallace and Ehrman Debate: On Probability

*Posted by Barry Creamer

CSNTM (the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts) recently hosted a debate between Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace on whether the text of the New Testament is trustworthy. Both are world class scholars in textual criticism. Both studied as believers at Wheaton and have served and been ordained in the ministry [Creamer edit: Oops. Actually, Wallace attended Biola.] .

While Wallace has maintained his faith and become a central figure in defense of the trustworthiness of the manuscripts of the New Testament, Ehrman has become a notable skeptic regarding traditional Christianity.

Interestingly, in the debate itself Ehrman and Wallace agreed on almost all things text-critical in nature. Except for a very minor dispute on how to characterize the size of the corpus of Second and Third Century manuscripts, their agreement on technical issues pervaded the debate. Even during audience interaction, one debater would normally reply to the audience inquiry, followed only by the acquiescence of the other.

However, there is a great divide between Ehrman and Wallace. Some observers will have undoubtedly left the debate concluding that different people can make of data whatever they want. That assessment would be completely unfair. The objective and real content of the data (in this case, the texts used to derive claims about original or initial manuscripts) is actually nowhere more apparent than in the agreement about it between a skeptic like Ehrman and a believer like Wallace. That is, the gap between the two debaters cannot be given as evidence that all interpretation is subjective. Their agreement on what the evidence is includes objective, interpretive conclusions.

Rather, the gap between Ehrman and Wallace happens to be at a level studied in great detail by philosophers of religion—that is, at the crossroads of faith and reason.

Over a hundred years ago the mathematician William Clifford offered a now well-known argument for why it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. In “The Ethics of Belief” he claims that a shipowner should not release his vessel to sea without sufficient evidence it will not sink with its passengers. Faith on his part, no matter how strongly held, cannot justify such a risk to the lives of others. The metaphor expands automatically from there.

Ehrman made exactly the same case, but about a train and bridge, in his closing arguments for the debate. To be clear: to justify his skepticism, he does not make a case about shoddy textual criticism, or about recently falsified text hoaxes, or about new documents contradicting previous texts. He flatly states that there is no new data which caused him to change his mind, leave his faith, and become a skeptic. Rather, he argues that the gap between the first documents which actually exist and the presumed original manuscripts (which no one has) is unknowable. It is impossible, he asserts, to know how accurately or inaccurately the current texts relate to the unknown originals. His approach is the traditional (Clifford-like) skeptic’s approach. There is no certainty; and no one should risk believing what might be false, and therefore end up being wrong. The greatest danger, according to Ehrman’s view, would be making a mistake—believing and being wrong.

Wallace’s approach is just the opposite, but not without evidence.

William James actually responds quite directly to William Clifford’s case by refining and revisiting Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s Wager makes the simple case that because the stakes are so great (eternal life or eternal condemnation), and because the issue may not be settled by evidence, and because a person must make a choice since life demands either faith or rejection of it, than a person ought to believe in God and become a disciple. Most people familiar with the Wager recognize the four possibilities of belief and God’s existence, non-belief and God’s existence, belief and God’s non-existence, and non-belief and God’s non-existence. The fact that the only possibilities including eternal consequences involve God’s existence means that a person ought to believe in God’s existence. The calculation is obvious to Pascal. James adds several significant layers to Pascal’s argument, but concludes in the same way, pointing out especially for Clifford’s sake that it is not the case that it would be worse to believe something false than to reject something true. So James ends up with man facing a forced, momentous, and living choice, to which the best response is “The Will to Believe.”

Wallace, while having exercised the will to believe, did not make his closing statement parallel to James’ response to Clifford, although he could have with aplomb. It would have been a perfect resolution to the issue of faith and reason raised by Ehrman. But Wallace’s argument was successful (IMHO!). He argued inductively, without getting lost in jargon (as I tend to do), that the relationships between texts that do exist provide sufficient data to extrapolate to texts whose existence is only inferred, including back to the original manuscripts.

Most notably, Wallace appealed repeatedly to the importance of a middle way (neither off the cliff nor into oncoming traffic on a mountain road), characterized by the use of probabilities leading to confidence in a fair amount of certainty regarding some elements of the original texts, and a reasonable amount of faith regarding the overall text of the originals. And by the end of the debate, Ehrman had adopted the language of living in probabilities, not absolute skepticism, in order to maintain his position. That fact is at least a nod toward the Wallace corner in an interesting exchange about which there is much more to say, hopefully in upcoming posts.

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4 Responses to Wallace and Ehrman Debate: On Probability

  1. grampawoody says:

    “While Wallace has maintained his faith and become a central figure in defense of the trustworthiness of the manuscripts of the New Testament, Ehrman has become a notable skeptic regarding traditional Christianity.”
    My personal view is that there will always be controversy over the validity of the books of the Bible and the lack of some sources in the New Testament. I can appreciate that missing works are at my disposal much the same as having the likes of Von Daniken.
    Those who labored over the collection of writings accepted as valid and approved for inclusion in a final format called the Bible did so in good faith even if that includes the Apocrypha. I think the effort was no less taxing than that to which the framers of the Constitution were exposed. Detractors on both sides of the fence, whether religious or secular, would like to make the Bible a living document even as they would likewise do with the Constitution. Controversy exists in all things as a matter of course; and I don’t wish to demean the process so long as no one comes to blows. Yet, while it may be no less thought that politics played a role in the selection process (as is the case in most debates) the final compilation cannot of itself be considered invalid simply because of later discoveries. It is more correct to consider the logic of that which has been accepted as admissible. We might be inclined to forbid the reading of anything contradictory to the accepted document for fear of losing one’s faith or misleading others. But, realistically, such exposure is often a road to understanding as well as a path to corruption.
    Now, it is often argued that the Bible was written by men the same as the Constitution and is, therefore, fallible and open to question. Cannot the same be said of all the discoveries lauded as significant revelations? However, the criteria are not whether the words are of men but by whom were they inspired. If we deny the existence of deity, then all writing is open to debate. If we believe in deity, the debate centers on the origin of thought. Was it of God or Satan of one’s own mind?
    It is apparent from the many denominations alone that controversy exists regarding the interpretation of the Bible itself. And, even if one lays claim to being a Christian, within his own denomination there is a disparity of views without throwing in extra manuscripts.
    While it may make sense to argue the validity of one source over another, one must always consider that many folks are easily influenced by those who are considered more knowledgeable than they. It is not always easy to explore the sources of controversy without being swayed. One must have a strong conviction as well as an open mind and be able to form logical conclusions. Sometimes, logic takes a back seat to personal presumptions.

  2. Zach Lee says:

    I enjoyed the debate. The issue for two New Testament profs actually boiled down to two philosophical issues. 1. On whom does the burden of proof lie (Ehrman to show why our earliest manuscripts were corrupt and Wallace to show why they were not) and 2. What do you mean by “can we trust the text of the New Testament?” Ehrman seems to define trust as “know with certainty” while Wallace seems to define it as “be highly probable.” Ironically I thought that Ehrman’s train burden of proof analogy actually went against him, not Wallace, because his statement was that the burden of proof was on the person who was taking the risk. And it seems more dangerous to not trust the Bible than to trust it.

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  4. barabbas says:

    Probability only goes so far depending on one’s approach. If we use Popper’s empirical falsification method toward the Bible – we may decide it’s totally unreliable based on only a few textual errors. If one takes the approach of inerrancy of scriptures – one would have to admit that no one actually has this inerrant text since there are so many textual variants among the old manuscripts.

    I think we all operate day to day based on probability. I’ve had to change my approach to the Bible based on facts that I didn’t know when I was younger, and the probability that the Bible is not inerrant. Still I have a firm belief in God and Jesus Christ – but I understand that my beliefs are based on faith and not probability.

    Paschal’s wager may have once worked as an argument for belief in God and Christian religion specifically – but today’s pluralistic society has rendered it less helpful for one trying to make a case for one’s particular belief. Rather it’s helpful in establishing a positive outlook on the universe and life in general. Does life have a purpose? Is life just vanity? Paschal would have us look at it positively. That’s a faith thing.

    Ehrman’s a good scholar and I do think he helps us think more critically about the text. Too many times Christians are looked upon as making points based on wishful thinking. Ehrman and people like him help us look at the our beliefs and re-evaluate them. I think that can be a good thing … but we still need to understand that faith underlies all our values and beliefs.

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