The Anti-Scholar

This afternoon I found myself debating with a Muslim polemicist online who was rubbishing the bible, and suggesting that we don’t even have the words of Jesus.  The polemicist dealt with my replies by ignoring them and simply making further claims, so our debate did not last long.  But in the process I was treated to a quotation, which struck me as quite extraordinary:

A good number of the books of the Bible are pseudonymous (for example, written in the name of an apostle by someone else), that in fact we don’t have the original copies of any of the biblical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered.

This daft claim, I was told, was by a certain Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them), Harper Collins (2010).

Of course one would never trust a polemic, so I went and looked.  To my astonishment the quotation, slightly abbreviated, was accurate, and may be found on pages 14-15 of the book.  A somewhat longer quoted is here.  The book itself is not a scholarly volume – so much must be allowed for -, but is an anti-Christian – and especially anti-bible – hit piece, complete with claims of “I was one of you once but then I learned better”.

It is always curious to hear claims that the transmitted authorship of “a good number” of the New Testament texts is now “known” to be false.  Such claims are invariably uttered with the utmost certainty.  But our knowledge of the authorship derives from precisely two sources, in exactly the same way as with every other ancient literary text.  The first source is the attributions in the manuscripts; in their tituli or colophons.  The other is the testimony of other ancient texts.  Neither justifies the claim made.  In reality this claim seems to be the product of something very like the “assured conclusions of modern scholarship”, or something of that sort.

But scholarship is not science.  There are few mechanisms to control partisan distortions.  On matters of controversy, of politics or religion, the consensus of scholarship in a time and place naturally tends to reflect the consensus of the non-scholars who control university appointments.

Anybody who delves into past controversies, long dead, can think of examples of this.  In patristics we have the arguments of the 19th century between “protestant” and “catholic” scholars, each in their university fortresses, over whether the longer or shorter forms of the treatises and letters of Cyprian should be accepted as genuine.  Today I think we would most accept that both are genuine, and the longer form was revised by the author in order to give support to Pope Stephen in his difficulties with the Novatianists.

An occurence of the same problem was demonstrated by N. Holzberg in his essay “Lucian and the Germans”, in A.C.Dionisotti, The Uses of Greek and Latin: Historical Essays, Strasbourg (1988), 199-209.  In Germany before 1945, Lucian was regarded as a second-rate Jewish author.  This consensus, Holzberg showed, derived from a single seminal article, which was verbally identical in passages with a non-scholarly rant, published in an anti-semitic magazine some months earlier, by Houston Stewart Chamberlain.  No doubt examples could be multiplied indefinitely.

None of this means that scholarship is not worth our time.  But it does mean that we need to exercise a critical intelligence towards claims which have a significant political or religious utility to the author or those who pay him.  This is true when we disagree with them and even more so when we do agree with them.  The greatest barrier to understanding the past is anachronism, and the greatest source of anachronism is our own opinions.

Biblical studies will never be anything other than a politicised discipline.  I suppose most of us know that the biblical scholars of the early 20th century were certain that John’s Gospel – which they elaborately called “The Fourth Gospel” – was composed around 170.  There was never any evidence for this at all, and all the evidence was against it.  In 1936 they were put right by the discovery of a papyrus fragment, dated before then.  But this was quite accidental.  They should never have got to that place in the first place.  Yet I see that some scholars still yearn for those days.

We need not spend any time on the claim that some of the NT texts are not by the transmitted author.  The data to support such a claim does not exist, the claim is useful to those who control the appointments of scholars in the USA, and the methods used seem entirely too reminiscent of the “Fourth Gospel” school of writing.

But Dr E. is supposed to be a professional textual critic, a man who earns his living by being paid to do textual criticism.  Does he actually mean what he says, when he tells his audience that “we don’t have the original copies of any of the biblical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered”, knowing that they will understand this to mean that we don’t actually have the text?

What is textual criticism about?  Let us have the words with which Paul Maas opens his handbook, Textual Criticism, Oxford (1958):

1. We have no autograph manuscripts of the Greek and Roman classical writers and no copies which have been collated with the originals; the manuscripts we possess derive from the originals through an unknown number of intermediate copies, and are consequently of questionable trustworthiness.

The business of textual criticism is to produce a text as close as possible to the original (constitutio textus).

An admirably economical and precise definition.

Textual criticism arises from the rediscovery of the classics during the renaissance, and the need to fix damage – mainly copyist errors.  It arose from love: love of the texts studied, of a desire to have them, to read them, to learn from them.  If I recall correctly, Petrarch was so excited when he discovered the letters of Cicero at Verona that he sat down and wrote a letter to Cicero, telling him how much they meant to him.

What, I wonder, would Petrarch have thought of a man who said,

we don’t have the original copies of any of the biblical classical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered.

I suspect that he would have called him an ignoramus; or rather, he would have called him something very much worse.  He lived in a time when insult was an art.  E. is paid to do what Petrarch did, to make the texts transmitted to us free of errors.  He is not paid – at least in principle – to invent reasons to suppose those texts not worth the reading.  Poisoning the well is no trade for a scholar.  Yet here we are.

It is absurd to suggest that “all the copies have been altered”, of the 5,000 manuscripts of the Greek NT.  Nobody knows that, least of all Dr. E., who, like most people, has probably never looked at more than a handful.  It could more reasonably be said that all contain copyist errors, but of course this is merely saying that we live in an imperfect world.  Every book in the world is imperfect, in one respect or another.  No printed edition reflects the author’s manuscript, even without corrections in proof.  For how many books that we have on our shelves is the autograph preserved?

It is absurd to say that we have “only copies made centuries later”, when we have the Apocriticus of Macarius Magnes, extant only in a posthumous printed edition of 1876.  The unwary reader will naturally infer from the claim that the copies are so late that the text is unreliable; when in fact the bible text is far and away the best preserved text of its period, and one with the earliest witnesses, to within a couple of decades in some cases.

But for E., we only have “copies… all of which have been altered.”  Hardly worth our time, unless paid to do so – certainly not worth our trust.  Far better to trust whatever the man on TV says this week; that is what the reader is intended to hear.

There’s nothing much to be done about Dr E., and those who pay him to write this stuff.  It’s not scholarship.  It’s polemic, intended to demoralise his religious enemies. There are very many worse things recorded of academics down the years.  Especially by their enemies!

But it’s still annoying to those of us trying to get people to read old books.  That should be all of us, and especially it should be every text critic and every scholar.


22 thoughts on “The Anti-Scholar

  1. The idea that the Biblical text was not authentic gained momentum with the 11th century Iberian Muslim scholar Ibn Hazm, who in a lengthy work listed all the contradictions he found in the Bible. This scholar is widely read by Arabic speakers but unknown to Westerners, and so you have this vast gulf in understanding between Christians and Muslims. Ghulam Haider Aasi wrote that Ibn Hazm influenced the equally thorough 18th-century iconoclast Hermann Samuel Reimarus. Reimarus in turn influenced Albert Schweitzer and laid the foundation for the Historical Jesus movement, from which Bart Ehrman has emerged. Both Ibn Hazm and Reimarus were drastic in their rejection of the Bible and failed to recognize not only its spiritual truths but also its historical value.

  2. A lot of Muslim apologists (aka “dawa teams”) have been using Ehrman texts for years, and recently he was invited onto some high profile Muslim YouTube channels. At which point Ehrman did a lot of defending traditional Christian positions of a kind obnoxious to Muslims (such as Jesus having been historically crucified).

    I am not sure what to think of Ehrman. But there you go.

  3. I don’t remember the whole thing, but I think Mohammed Hijab was the Islamic vtuber.

    Apostate Prophet, an ex-Muslim atheist, and David Woods of Acts17 Apologetics, a Christian guy who is an Internet friend of Apostate Prophet, did some videos about the situation and also interviewed Ehrman.

  4. I think Muslim polemicists have drawn on anti-bible stuff for years, always attributing them in words like “Christian scholars admit that…” I vaguely remember that “The Myth of God Incarnate” book found a welcome in Malaysia, to the surprise of some of the contributors.

  5. Ghulam Haider Aasi introduces Reimarus on page 132 of “Muslim understanding of other religions: a study of Ibn Ḥazm’s Kitāb al-Faṣl fi al-Milal wa al- Ahwāʼ wa al-Niḥal”, which is based on his Ph.D. thesis. Then, on page 155 he drives home his point that Reimarus used Ibn Hazm’s words almost verbatim. Since Reimarus was a scholar of Oriental languages, it is plausible to think that he could have had Ibn Hazm’s works in his vast personal library.

    Reimarus is interesting in his own right. Perhaps out of concern for the safety of himself and his family, he refrained from publishing his most important work, “Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes,” during his lifetime. A friend of his published some fragments after his death, and then his son donated a copy to the Hamburg library. The complete work itself wasn’t published in German until 1972.

    Ibn Hazm’s Kitāb al-Faṣl should be required reading for any Westerner who wants to discuss the Bible with Muslims. The only translation to an Occidental language I know of is “Abenhazam de Cordoba y su Historia Critica de las Ideas Religiosas,” by Father Miguel Asin Palacios. Published almost 100 years ago, it is now out of print.

  6. The Palacios translation in 5 volumes is available second hand for around $400 (!). It must be out of copyright tho. Somebody should scan it.

    A useful link for Ibn Hazm, his life and works, is here. It’s in Spanish but google translate handles it admirably.

  7. Yes, Google Translate does well if the original has good grammar and punctuation. The article saves the best bibliographical entry for the last: C. Adang, M. Fierro y S. Schmidtke (eds.), Ibn Ḥazm of Cordoba: the life and works of a controversial thinker, Leiden, Brill, 2013. This is a doctorate-level overview of Ibn Hazm’s works, with commentary and some excerpts. If you want to get a feel for his amazing style and breadth of detail, I recommend Arberry’s superb translation, “The Ring of the Dove: A Treatise on the Art and Practice of Arab Love” (1997). The translator even rerhymes the Arabic poetry in English.

  8. Thank you! That’s well worth knowing about.

    Good English verse translations of other language verse are a pleasure. (I must read the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in Fitzgerald’s version one day.)

  9. There is a scan of Asín Palacio’s translation at Hathi Trust:
    Not available right now, but since the first volume was published in 1927 it will go into public domain next year, and so *may* be released on January 1st 2023. Or you may have to wait until the last volume is free (published 1932).

  10. Hi Roger,
    Ehrman is very much an ex-evangelical who rebelled against his upbringing when he started to study the text of the New Testament. (He is very much a NT scholar only). Much of what is says is designed to shock those who hold a ‘Verbal Inerrancy’ view of the Bible but is nothing surprising to anyone who knows anything about the textual history of the Bible.
    In fact, Ehrman is not an original thinker in the slightest and relies totally on the work of previous scholars. I find his writing style quite good and some of his other books are interesting. I highly recommend his ‘Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.’

    Finally, his use by Muslim polemics is double edged. He has never, ever claimed that prophecies about Muhammad were deleted from the Bible and has never, ever claimed that the accounts of the crucifixion aren’t original to the Gospel texts (something that Muslims would deny). Ehrman disputes words, phrases and sentences not huge chunks of texts (with the exceptions of the end of Mark and the Pericope De Adultera from John). Zealous Muslims read that he criticises the text of the Gospels and rush to claim it somehow agrees with them.

  11. Sorry to double dip Roger but a bit on Muslim attitudes to the Bible!
    At first Muslims couldn’t decide if Christians (and Jews) had altered the text or if they just misinterpreted it. However the charge that Christians changed the Bible is very old and pre-dates Ibn Hazm by many centuries.
    In the ‘Apology’ (781 AD) Timothy of Baghdad says the caliph al-Mahdi said ‘…in your books there had been numerous testimonies and proofs concerning Muhammad, peace be upon him, but you have corrupted and falsified the books.’ (trans. Alphonse Mingana, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 1928, p.191). (It contains the entire text of the Apology)
    At the same time Ibn Rabban wrote the ‘Book of Religion and Empire’ which just a collection of Bible extracts that prove Islam.
    There is an awesome book about the Islamic view of Scripture by Theodore Pulcini, Exegesis as Polemical Discouse, which I highly recommend. The majority of the book is on Ibn Hazm.
    Pulcini concludes that by the 11th century a consensus was reached and that Christians had indeed corrupted the Scriptures and the greatest exponent was Ibn Hazm. He had full access to the Bible in Arabic translation and made full use of it pointing out contradictions, absurdities and insults to God.
    Extracts from ibn Hazm’s polemic have appeared in various anthologies of Christian/Muslim relations but the bulk of his comments on the New Testament have recently been translated by Ahmad Nabil Amir under the title ‘ibn Hazm’s Critics of Christian Tradition’ (2021)

  12. The big problem, you would think, is that the Quran has Allah telling Christians and Jews to judge things by the Gospel and the Torah. So either Allah is not omniscient about this “corruption”, or…?

    However, Sharia law and Islamic scholars are supposed to be higher in the hierarchy of truth and law than the Quran or the hadiths, so all these questions can be ignored. (A fact that makes a lot of sense of otherwise puzzling occurrences in the Islamic world.)

  13. I think they would say “the original gospel”, meaning a supposed text before “Christian tampering”. But I don’t know enough about Islam to say.

  14. How does one address the synoptic problem if the gospels are written by their traditional authors?

  15. I’m not sure what this has to do with my post, but I think you refer to the fact that passages in Matthew and Luke are verbally identical to passages in Mark (I am opposed to jargon). The cause of this is unknown. No ancient source tells us.

    So we move into the realm of speculation. I don’t see this as a problem. Luke must be around 61 AD because of when Acts ends. There is nothing to stop us imagining Matthew, Mark and Luke sitting in a cafe in Rome in 61 AD and swapping notes. But we really do not know what lies behind the clear statement of the sources, how each composed his narrative.

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