On Textual Criticism


During a brief lull in my day I peroused the news wires and found an op-ed piece by Bart Ehrman on the Huffington Post concerning biblical authorship.

Ehrman follows the academic tradition of viewing the biblical texts through the lens of textual and historical criticism.  That is to say, he doesn’t take anything the bible says at face value.  While I studied biblical criticism in seminary, I can’t say that I understand it completely.  However what I can say is that even what I do understand doens’t make sense all the time, at least to my logic and reasoning.

Textual criticism holds that most of the bible is at best a “pious fraud” or at worst, according to Ehrman, outright lies.  In his article Ehrman focuses in on the idea that only “the most rabid fundamentalists among us” still regard the bible as literally true and free from error, and goes on to say that significant parts of the scriptures are outright fabrications.  He focuses in on the latter half of the NT primarily, namely 1 & 2 Peter, and Paul’s letters.

Without going in to much detail as to why these letters are regarded as inauthentic (Ehrman doesn’t either), here’s the thinking: if you compare letters to each other there should be more similarities than differences.  Some letters are pretty certain to have come from Paul, others not so much.  So if we compare those that we aren’t sure about to those that we are sure about, they should be similar in style and composition.  If not, one is probably inauthentic.  Note that this is a very cheap-and-dirty version of the hypothesis here.  Letters like 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus are probably not Pauline because they are so different from his other letters in form, thought, and theology so he couldn’t have written them.

However, here’s my own thinking on the matter.

Take a paper that I wrote in the beginning of my Systematic Theology class and compare it to one that I wrote (or maybe I did) at the end.  Will they be similar?  Yes, but how much so?  Thinking, wordage, form and maybe even structure will all be different.  There may even be inconsistencies from one to another.  Why?  Because I was a different person at point A than I was at point B.  That, I think, is a huge problem with this theory of criticism: it requires that people be consistent over sometimes long periods of time based on a very small sample size.  It seems like a lot to hang on a big assumption, and I don’t find the assumption to be necessarily valid.

Also, if the texts are not authentic, why are details like Paul’s urging Timothy to stay in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3) and to bring him a cloak that he left in Troas (2 Tim 4:13) included?  If I’m writing a pseudonymous letter, I would want to avoid such details as much as possible, because they can easily be refuted (I can see Timothy arriving in Troas – “A cloak? Paul who?”).

Are there problems in scripture?  Sure.  But I, along with the majority of my non-rabid Evangelical friends and comrades would suggest that these problems negate the message.  If Mark wasn’t written by Mark, does that mean it’s a complete lie?

Again, I’m not even trying to make this a complete refutation of textual criticism, Ehrman, or anything else.  This is more just me talking out loud than anything.  Take it at face value.  Who knows – maybe I didn’t even write this!

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