Debate: Textual Reliability of the New Testament
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Now that I'm back -- it's time for some post-event reflection. That'll start below after...

Original Announcement

Yes, you read right. I'm having a live debate Saturday, April 9, 2011, on the subject of the reliability of the transmission of the New Testament text, with the theme question, "Do we have what they had?" It starts at 5:00 PM (so eat dinner first) and is being held at the Amador Christian Center (link below) in Plymouth, California, which is just outside Sacramento. Richard Carrier will be taking the opposing side.

No, I haven't changed my mind about debates. See more on that at a TheologyWeb thread here, where we're also discussing the debate and why I accepted it. If you're a reader in the Sacramento area, drop me a line if you'd like to meet me there. A couple of long-time readers have said they'd like to attend and it'll be interesting for everyone to get together. I'll also be giving my presentation, "Apologetics: Cod Liver Oil for the Christian Soul" the next morning.

It'll be two short rounds plus a Q and A afterwards. Certain persons are advised that the church staff has been warned about threats of disruption by various means (such as off-topic questions) and are prepared to handle them -- as am I.

I'm setting aside this page as a place to initially publicize the event. After I return from the event and get back to work (it'll be a couple of days later) I'll use this to offer some reflective comments and analysis, as well as some resources for further study on the subject.


Here are my thoughts on he debate. The debate organizer, Cameron English, is posting his own thoughts on his blog, and I’ll link to that below. As of this typing, Carrier has not posted anything on his blog, but we’ll link to that at such time as anything appears.


I think it would be fair to say that both sides won this one – afterwards I suggested this to Carrier, and he agreed. We ended up talking past each other quite a bit, but we were both able to give a sound presentation of our points of view, which probably resulted in a much better educational experience for the audience than it would have had our positions been more directly engaged.

As I expected, the short length of the debate (2 rounds, 15 and 10 minutes) inhibited much substantial cross-engagement. I was also inhibited by some shortness of breath thanks to my accursed allergies, and purposely cut both of my rounds a little short because of that, but mostly I deleted accessory stuff and kept the main points I wanted to make intact.

The notes below represent as much as I can recall what I ended up actually using. I’m sure I’m not recalling perfectly though. The church did have a 16mm camera recording it, and we'll hopefully see that tape at some point, which will allow more substantial comment.

Round 1: My Notes

Until such time as some sort of audio or video version is released – and work is being done on that now – this will be the next best thing to having attended. I am including annotations to my corresponding PPT slides (see link below) so readers may follow along if they wish, as well as any comments I have on reflection.

Slide 1: Good evening. The question at hand is, regarding the New Testament, ”Do we have what they had?” To answer this question in the affirmative requires background.

Slide 2 I’ll start with some non-debatable matter set in three standard points for this subject. What you’re about to hear is very dull and is generally conceded as true by everyone…except maybe Dan Brown and people who think professional wrestling is real.

Slide 3 First: the New Testament ranks as superior to other documents in terms of available evidence. This refers first to number of available ancient manuscripts: When I checked last month, the number was about 5790 Greek manuscripts. That changes now and then as new discoveries are made.

It’s also standard to add as evidence, around 20,000 manuscripts in other languages, plus over a million quotes from early church writers from which it is said, we could reconstruct nearly the entire New Testament if all those manuscripts vanished down a hole.

Slide 4 Second: the gap between the earliest manuscripts and the time when the NT was composed is relatively small – on the order of 100-200 years. There are debates about the date of the earliest scrap of the NT, but it is undisputed that the earliest substantial manuscripts date to within 250-300 years of the NT’s date range of composition.

Both this point and the first one are used comparatively – that is, compared to other ancient works, we have a wealth of evidence to help us reconstruct the original NT text. Many ancient works have manuscript totals that can be counted on one hand – and come from, at earliest, hundreds or even a thousand years past the time of original composition. And so, the conclusion goes. We either accept that we can reconstruct the NT reliably, or else, we have to agree to not being able to reconstruct the text of any ancient document.

Slide 5 To set the stage for the third point, a few words are in order about the process of textual criticism – the science of using manuscript copies to arrive at a conclusion about the contents of the original text.

No one thinks textual criticism gives us 100% certainty that we have reconstructed the original text of a document. There can be a fair amount of inference and conjecture involved. But, with sufficient evidence, textual criticism has been regarded as being able to give us a sufficient degree of certainty about the substance, if not the exact words, of the original contents of a text, that it can be used as a historical source. And there are certain principles broadly used by textual critics to do their work.

Slide 6 Just to cite an example of the process, it is not as simple as counting manuscripts to decide which reading is correct. If we have 9000 mss., and 4000 say “Peter ate fish” while 5000 say “Peter ate liver”, the natural assumption is to say the winner is “Peter ate liver”. But:

Slide 7 If the 4000 manuscripts that say “Peter ate fish” date from 300-500 AD, while the 5000 that say “Peter ate liver” date from 800-1000 AD, then the “minority” reading may have the better chance of being the original. Number of manuscripts can be a factor in deciding when a reading is better, but the date of a reading is also an important consideration.

Slide 8 Another typical guideline is that if a reading is longer than another, the shorter one is given more consideration, because as a rule, when mistakes in copying happen, they tend to make a text longer, not shorter. So if we have two readings with otherwise equal value:

“Peter ate liver”

“Peter ate liver and onions”

The shorter one will tend to be given preference. That’s just a very small sample of how the process works, and we could spend hours discussing that process in detail. But instead, let’s get to our last point.

Slide 9 Among all those Greek manuscripts, there are a great number of variants, or differences. Those who copied the NT in those early days copied by hand, and that inevitably means mistakes. How many? No one has an exact count, but I have seen estimates range from 300,000 to over a million.

Big deal? The third standard point says, Not so much as we may think. All will agree that the vast majority of these variants involve simple matters like spelling, or what we might call “typos”. Another chunk of those variants involve things like uses of synonymous words, transpositions, and so on; another chunk includes variant readings that are so absurd or obscure that no one thinks they reflect what might have been original readings.

What is left are variants for which we have no certainty in terms of the original reading – and those amount to about 1% of those variants. This standard point is sealed with the provision that none of that 1% has to do with texts that in any way affect the nuts and bolts of the faith that concern the every-week churchgoer and how they live and believe. There’s plenty of arcana for textual scholars to be concerned with – but not the Christian on the street.

Slide 10 I’ve come to the close of the “non-debatable” data – and given that all of this is non-debatable, what can be said by those who would answer tonight’s question with either a “no” – or a “we don’t know”? We’ll hear about that soon enough, but let me give you an idea what is argued by some who hold this view.

Interlude: Let me say first of all that this last section represents one reason I dislike debates so much. Of course I knew this was non-debatable; and Carrier would hardly pull a Dan Brown and dispute any of it (and of course, he didn’t). Initially I wanted to just summarize all of this in a couple of sentences (except what’s in Slides 5-8, which represents nothing I would have used at all) and move on immediately to a much more detailed treatment of the issues that follow. But no, I was told by a more veteran debater that I ought to start with something more basic.

As it turned out, my original plan would have been better in light of what Carrier ended up offering in his first round.

Slide 11 Initially it may be pointed out that although the NT is superior to other ancient texts in terms of hard manuscript evidence, that gap of around 200 years does exist, and a lot COULD happen in that time. Not “DID,” since hard evidence is lacking in the form of actual texts from that period, but “could”.

Then it will be pointed out that there is evidence of purposeful tampering with the text in the manuscripts we do have. The conclusion is an extrapolation: Because Christian scribes were changing the text later, it is arguable that they were changing the text earlier – and thus, we have an justified uncertainty about the original contents of the NT.

That’s one way of putting it. And then, there is a somewhat more radical way of arguing this point, as in this extended quote:

“… the Gospels were written with an agenda, a deliberate aim to persuade, to turn people toward belief in Christ and the embrace of Christian morals. And we know that they were written long after Paul‘s Epistles by members of a fanatical cult who believed their dreams were communications from God, that their intuition was guided by the Holy Spirit, and that they could find information about Jesus secretly hidden in the Bible – and whose leaders regularly hallucinated, occasionally lied, and often fabricated documents. They also doctored them.”

Examples given include: “We know Mark did not write verses 16:9-20…those were ‘snuck in’ later by dishonest Christians.” Another example, said of John 7:53-8:11: “That’s now known to be a forgery, too; it was deceitfully inserted after the fact.” And so on, with the conclusion, related specifically at first to the book of Acts: “…we have no way of knowing what got added to the version we now have in the Bible, or indeed any of the other Gospels or Epistles (or what was changed or taken away, for that matter.)” That, as offered in The Christian Delusion by Richard Carrier.

The emphasis on fanaticism and deceit involves a number of propositions about the origins of the New Testament and Christianity that could be debated over several hours. Tonight the question at hand would be whether these documents being copied by reputedly fanatical, deceitful, and so on people is sufficient to say that all the manuscript evidence and textual criticism are of little use for getting back to an original, no rebuttal possible.

However the matter is argued, however, it amounts to charging early Christian copyists with running a forgery ring. So, using the legal understanding of forgery as a basis, I will ask three questions.

Interlude: As I saw it, Carrier could have shown up with either a more academic presentation, or else one that represented something more like this last quote. He ended up with something more academic, though not as much derived from Bart Ehrman’s material as I might have expected. And either way, my questions following would still be applicable.

Slide 12 First, were the changes pervasive? This is the “ring” part of “forgery ring” – multiple participants. A case for tampering extending back into the unknown textual period requires the establishment of a pattern which is significant enough to extrapolate from later to earlier. For the case to go beyond what amounts to fallacious profiling of Christian scribes, it must be shown that the practice of scribal activity within Christendom was fundamentally oriented and institutionalized towards tampering with the text – for hundreds of years.

Second, were the changes malicious? At the heart of a forgery charge is intention to deceive. Were scribes trying to fool readers into thinking that the original text said something it did not? Was the intention indeed to deceive?

Third: Were the changes meaningful? Of course, there can be a number of discussions about what exactly a “meaningful” change is, and that can take hours to debate in and of itself.

Slide 13It remains to be seen what we’ll hear in opposition tonight, but it is worth pointing out what was said by Bart Ehrman, in response to questions about the extent and results of his findings. In his popular work Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman was asked, “Why do you believe these core tenets of Christian orthodoxy to be in jeopardy based on the scribal errors you discovered?” In this question, comparison was made to the stance of Ehrman’s mentor, the textual scholar Bruce Metzger, who had always said on these matters what we said earlier: Nothing in any of these variants changes or threatens the “nuts and bolts” of the Christian faith.

To this Ehrman answered, that when it came to the state of the original text, he and Metzger, if they had to hammer out a consensus on what the original text “probably looked like,” would have “very few points of disagreement” – maybe 1-2 dozen places out of 1000s. Ehrman also indicates that his stance “does not actually stand at odds” with Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition” of the NT.

Slide 14 To sum up: There is a significant burden to fulfill if a case is to be made for unknown, unattested, malicious and meaningful tampering with the NT in the centuries for which we have no hard manuscript evidence. To answer the central question: Do we have what they had? My answer is: We can have a very high certainly that the substance has been accurately related to us, and that we can identify what was originally in the NT; somewhat less but still great confidence on the particulars of the words. I place the burden on those who would say otherwise to show otherwise.

Round 1: Carrier

On his blog, Carrier announced that he planned to not use notes, but would speak extemporaneously. Ironically, I had wanted to take notes of what he said, but couldn’t find my pen! So all I’m left with is a few memories of what he said, plus what his PPT slides had on them (I was able to look at those again later). For that reason, I make no claim that what I offer below represents the fullness of what he had to say. I'll update this at such time as I can view the tape.

Carrier initially stressed the hypothetical nature of textual reconstruction, and lack of agreement among textual scholars. He also raised questions about the judgments of scholars and the accuracy of modern translations.

Next, he noted the paucity of manuscript data from the earliest period. He then appealed to the rate of error in the known manuscripts as reason to suspect more error during the unknown period, and also referred to certain tendencies and habits of scribes that he argued were indications of unreliable transmission. This included some examples.

Again, this is only a summary; I obviously cannot reproduce what Carrier said to the same level of detail as I did for my own round. Readers may find it useful to consult the debate organizer’s notes, and perhaps Carrier will produce his own as well, and if so, I can say more.

Interlude Comment: First Round

In looking back, Carrier and I now and then said some of the same things, but with differing emphases. We both acknowledged the gap between the composition of the NT and the earliest substantial mss – but where Carrier posed this as a problem, I posed this as no big deal, since other ancient works are far worse off. We both also made light of the argument that known rate of error was used to argue for rate of error in the unknown period, but took different approaches to how meaningful this would be.

Round 2: My Notes

As it turned out, I used not much of what I had planned for Round 2 – partly for shortness of breath, and partly because Carrier went in a somewhat different direction that I expected. I had planned mostly to provide answers to my three questions, as given by – Bart Ehrman. As above I’ll intersperse notes. Again: These are my NOTES, not what I actually said. I may have used between 20-50% of what is below. I started with an observation that textual issues are frequently resolved not just with the text alone, but with respect to other contexts as well. Then I picked what seemed most relevant from what is below.

Pervasive: In terms of the tampering being pervasive, there are some pre-qualifications for what we mean. Out of the 7957 verses in the New Testament, Ehrman indicates that there were, “dozens of changes, perhaps hundreds, but not thousands.” Some changes are made in only a few manuscripts and would reflect isolated activity by a single scribe.

However, as Ehrman also points out, these “dozens of changes occur in significant portions of the New Testament books, in passages, that is, that historically proved to be important in Christological developments.” Unfortunately, beyond that, he does not quantify the extent of the changes and whether they would be regarded as “pervasive” within that context. As far as I can determine from his samples, however, they are not.

At the same time, the fact that the changes were limited to certain portions of the NT bespeaks a statistical lack of pervasiveness. We do not see evidence of widespread, wholesale alterations to the text in its entirety, which surely would have occurred had a “forgery ring” scenario been present.

Moreover, the corruptions Ehrman identifies happened within the context of specific controversies in the second and third century. The critic who tries to bring the idea of corruptions back into the first century has a burden to identify opponents against whom the text was corrupted – or offer some other valid motive, and evidence for it.

Note: In this regard, time may have prohibited Carrier from making the sort of case he might have wanted to make. His presentation didn’t make a venture at statistics to show there was a pervasive problem with textual alteration.

As part of his first round, he had presented a graph with a statistical curve showing that the textual transmission became more stable as time went on; and from this, I gather, an extrapolation was argued for greater amounts of error in earlier years. But as I briefly pointed out initially in Round 2, statistics are seldom so tidy. There are other factors at work here: There were far fewer scribes working on far fewer mss in that early period, so if we extrapolate consistently, there would also have had to have been far fewer errors/changes. I’ll add here that in the earliest stage, there would also have been the factor of access to the original documents, as well as to those to whom the documents had been written.

On the opposite side, one of Carrier’s slides noted that the work of scribes in that early period was less professional than that of later scribes. This is probably true, and probably did make the incidence of error higher pro rata (per scribe) than it would be later. But the fact that there were also far fewer scribes would make the total number of errors we’d be able to add much smaller.

Malicious: In terms of the changes being malicious: Ehrman notes that changes in the text “appear to be made at an early date for theological reasons, yet they occur randomly in various textual witnesses, not at all with the kind of consistency one might expect.” What we have, then, should not be construed as some sort of active conspiracy to change texts, as we would expect from a “forgery ring,” but changes made on the spur of the moment reflecting some immediate concern – and even then, not always with such concern that the job was done “properly”. For example, Ehrman notes three texts in Luke that refer to Jesus’ “parents” that were used by adoptionists to suggest that Joseph was Jesus’ true father: Luke 2:27, 2:41, and 2:43. Sometimes “parents” was changed to “Joseph and his mother”. But close as they are in the text, 2:43 is changed more frequently than 2:27 and 2:41. Is this the sort of activity that arises from scribes out to maliciously tamper with a text and change its meaning to something it is not? Ehrman certainly does not see this; rather, he says, “the majority of orthodox Christians, and presumably orthodox scribes, could live perfectly well with the text as originally written, interpreting it, that is, according to orthodox criteria and beliefs.”

Ehrman also offers some points on what purpose these corruptions served. He acknowledges more than once that the purpose of these changes was “not so much to convert one’s opponents as to edify one’s constituency and thereby to minimize, perhaps, the number of defections.” [164] He adds, “one can scarcely imagine them expecting to convert Gnostic Christians” – and, we assume, any other opponent – “simply by altering a word here and there…” And so Ehrman says, we should see these changes not so much as a strategy of the debates, but a “by-product” of them.

This does raise a question: Who were these scribes trying to fool, if that is what we think they were doing? Most people of this time were illiterate. The main ones using texts were the scribes and church leaders themselves. Were they changing the texts to fool themselves? Or at best, just a handful of upper class literate readers? But if Ehrman is right, that wasn’t the intent at all.

Furthermore, Ehrman says, that "there is scarce need to posit any kind of ulterior motive for this kind of scribal activity."[279] He finds no evidence "to suggest that proto-orthodox scribes acted out of sheer malice or utter disregard for the constraints of the text -- that is, that they strove to make the text say precisely what they knew it did not say.” To use that example from Luke 2, it is certainly not false to say that “Joseph and his mother” rather than Jesus “parents” did this or that. Those passages never were intended to relate statements about Jesus’ paternity, so the changes are in so sense alter the message.

Finally, we should note that Ehrman was able to detect examples of corruption precisely because other or older manuscripts preserved what he took to be the better reading.

Meaningful: Finally, in terms of the changes being meaningful: In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman insists that knowing the exact words of Scripture matters because “the only way to understand what an author wants to say is to know what his words – all his words – actually were.” In support of this, he relates anecdotally the examples of “sermons preached on the basis of a single word in a text.”

But sermons of this sort are simply examples of bringing a far-too-litertalist mindset to the text, which is also what Ehrman does in principle if not in fact. Concern with the “very words” – as opposed to the broader meaning or message – is misplaced. Even Ehrman acknowledges this, as he says, “It was not until near the end of the second century that Christians began attributing canonical status to the Gospels and apostolic writings and insisting on their literal interpretation – sometimes called a ‘word for word’ interpretation.” He adds, moreover, that “the very process of transmitting texts was itself a radically conservative process. These scribes understood that they were conserving rather than creating tradition” [58]. And classical scholar Rosalind Thomas adds, “…to apply the concept of original and copy to ancient documents is anachronistic…we must abandon the modern concept of authenticity and the modern requirement of exact verbatim correspondence down to the very punctuation.” If this is so, then we need to look less at the transmission of words and more at the transmission of substance. And in that respect, Ehrman, as we have heard, readily acknowledges that the scribes did not attempt to make the text say precisely what they knew it did not say.

Nor does he say that the original readings of the text would have reflected anything but what he calls proto-orthodox theology, save by raising it as a question for discussion. While he does conclude that “we may never recognize the full extent” (32) to which orthodox scribes changed the text, he does not relate this conclusion in crisis terms, as though the original NT revealed would require a revolutionary revamping of Christian theology.

So it is that Bart Ehrman himself answers my three questions such that there is no “forgery ring” apparent in the practices of those who copied the NT.

I also had prepared certain secondary material on John 8 and Mark 16. I decided early on that I would not fall into the trap of engaging discussion of a whole lot of specific citations – these two would be it. There just wouldn’t be time to try to handle a whole lot of individual issues. I did use some of the material on John 8 but none on Mark 16. Here are my notes for John 8 and Mark 16:

John 8 (added maliciously): Nor does the evidence cohere with such a claim. Regarding John 8, this story was placed variably in the manuscripts. Some have it at the end of John. Some put it after our John 7:36; one puts it after 7:44. Some have it in Luke, after Luke 21:38. This doesn’t sound like deceit, but like scribes who think it is authentic, saying in effect, “where do we put this”?

And indeed, where is the evidence that these scribes knew this story was inauthentic? The authenticity of this story is beyond our scope here, but a case for deceit can only be made if it is shown that scribes KNEW the story was inauthentic and inserted it anyway. One could argue that they thought it was authentic and were mistaken, but then it doesn’t do anything to add to a case for a “forgery ring”.

Ehrman himself [MJ 65] says there are many theories for how this story was added to John, but that “most scholars” think it was a circulating oral tradition about Jesus that was originally added as a margin note to a manuscript, and then was incorporated by a scribe who thought that meant it was supposed to be part of the text. In other words, a gloss. Not deceit.

In Forged, Ehrman does not change this view. He does say he thinks the story was originally a fabrication, and that it “was added by a scribe”. But he says nothing about the scribe’s motives in adding it.

Mark 16 (added maliciously): Regarding Mark 16, a case for deceit is just as difficult. Although some may have regarded it as authentic, there is plenty of evidence to show that Christians were aware that it wasn’t original to Mark. Two important early Christian, Eusebius and Jerome, indicate that is lacking in many manuscripts. And according to various commentaries on Mark, some manuscripts indicate by a note or other marks that it is not authentic.

Additionally, there are other endings of Mark besides this one. This does not sound consistent enough to be a planned effort at deceit. Ehrman suggests that the reason the ending was added was because the end of Mark as is seemed too abrupt. [67] It was added, then, for reasons of style and perhaps for liturgical purposes – not with the intent to get others to think it was the authentic words of Mark. In Forged, he does not alter his assessment.

In this I should add that we should never assume on an ancient text the modern idea that the exact words are inviolable. Bart Ehrman acknowledges this, as he says in OCOS that, “It was not until near the end of the second century that Christians began attributing canonical status to the Gospels and apostolic writings and insisting on their literal interpretation – sometimes called a ‘word for word’ interpretation.” And classical scholar Rosalind Thomas adds, “…to apply the concept of original and copy to ancient documents is anachronistic…we must abandon the modern concept of authenticity and the modern requirement of exact verbatim correspondence down to the very punctuation.” If what was in Mark 16:9-20 was regarded as accurately relating what followed, then as long as no one presented these as actual words of Mark before they inserted it into the copies, there is no basis to charge deceit. It can be considered no more deceitful than modern footnotes added to a translation, for that was essentially its function.

As meaningful:

John 8 is a very nice story, but it adds no doctrine, and is really just another version of Jesus’ “render unto Caesar” teaching.

Mark 16 is frequently acknowledged to report nothing of importance that is not found already in the NT elsewhere. Sorry, snake handlers, that’s not important! It may be said that it aids an apologetic for the Resurrection, but that assumes that the early scribes were anticipating a future case for Markan priority and did not think the rest of the NT sufficient testimony for the same events.

So in the end, I do not find my three questions sufficiently answered, and think the burden of proving a “forgery ring” remains unfulfilled.

And for fun, here’s my closing statement for Round 2:

There are many in this room tonight who worship Jesus, some who worship no god, but at this moment, unfortunately, I have to pay obeisance to Chronos, the Greek god of time. So to tie up any loose ends I’ll be preparing a supplemental page at this address with comments, a listing of resources, and any other pertinent information. Thank you, and good night.

Round 2: Carrier

By this time I was short enough of breath that I found it hard to pay attention -- and figured, I wouldn’t be able to respond anyway, so there wasn’t much motive to do so; I’d be able to review it all on tape later. So that’s what I’ll do, though I’ll close out for now with some comments on what I observed on Carrier’s slides, which I got to see during the debate and also later on. (For now, if you want a Round 2 summary, check the organizer’s blog.)

Aside from my point re statistics above, I think a major point is that Carrier’s arguments rely a great deal on the assumption of the necessity of a “word for word” transmission model. The data shows that transmission of “substance” was of far greater concern; for that reason, such things as harmonizations between Gospels are not really useful as arguments against transmission of “what they had”. I don’t think Carrier really addressed this point, and I don’t think he did enough to validate his statistical case.

On the other hand, Carrier raised a lot of individual “cases” of textual corruption, and as noted above, I only touched on John 8, which means I left nearly all of his case-claims unanswered. I did not expect to be able to do otherwise: With only 10 minutes, there was no way I’d ever be able to properly discuss so many cases, so my pre-planned strategy was to stick to general principles and save specific case discussion for this resource page (other than John 8 and maybe Mark 16).

This was the only practicable solution, because each case Carrier raised would have required a different explanation from me – and in many cases, ones that would take a while to explain. I’ll just raise one example here as a demonstration.

On his slides (I can’t recall if he raised it in his talk), Carrier noted a textual variant in which the infamous “666” in Revelation was rendered as “616”. Now I don’t expect that Carrier is aware that I hold to an entirely different eschatological view than the majority of Christians. He likely expected that most of his Christian audience at the debate were standard dispensationalists who were scanning the horizon for a figure that used “666” conspicuously and was ready to tattoo it on their foreheads.

Well, I’m not one of those people. I think “the beast” was most likely Nero, and that nearly all of Revelation was fulfilled in the first century. As a result, for me “666” is probably either a numeric rendering of a Greek rendering of “Nero Caesar” transliterated into Hebrew (using an admittedly defective spelling), or perhaps a numeric rendering of the Hebrew word for “beast” (with the note that this word was sometimes used to describe Nero). The 616 variant would just come from a transliteration of the Latin form of Nero’s name into Hebrew – if it isn’t simply a “typo.” But whatever the case, this is just one aspect of my case for Nero as holding the position which so many modern dispensationalist identify with a future anti-Christ figure, and the “616” variant doesn’t really cause me any problem.

What would be a problem would be explaining all of this in such a short time – especially since I have yet more research to do on this subject (and remain open to other figures being connected to the number, though Nero looks like the best candidate so far). And then that would have been just ONE of the examples Carrier gave – by the time I finished just this example, I’ve already burned at least 1/10 of my time in the second round. That’s why I decided not to address too many case-examples.

Q and A

The Q and A was not a crossfire, but a chance for audience members to ask one or both of us questions. As it turned out, few or none of the questions had to do with the topic for the evening, and I haven’t kept much of it in my memory. One question was about claims that the Council of Nicaea had altered texts; we both agreed this was wrong, and I pointed out that the fact that we both agreed should tell everyone something! One questioner was the mayor of the city; he gave Carrier an accounting of a personal spiritual experience, and Carrier replied that he had had a similar experience in Taoist terms. After this I was looked to, no doubt being expected to relate some experience – but I have none to relate, unless, as I indicated, one wants to count experiences with foods rich in capsaicin!

A questioner asked me about the warning of forged letters in 2 Thessalonians. It was not clear what they were trying to get at, but I responded – twice – that this warning did not prove any particular document was a forgery. It was not until later that I found out the questioner was David Fitzgerald, a Christ-myther responsible for a book titled Nailed that I reviewed on my Ticker blog. Later than that he left a comment on the organizer’s blog which showed why he had asked the question – he wasn’t paying attention to what I had said. See my comment on the TheologyWeb thread.


If you attended the debate, you won’t learn much if it is all you look into on the subject. Here’s a listing of resources for further reading.

Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament -- still the classic text, even as it has been more recently re-issued edited by Bart Ehrman (Metzger’s student).

Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture -- yes, I recommend it. Especially instead of Ehrman’s popular Misquoting Jesus, which lacks many of the cautions and nuances Ehrman uses in his more scholarly writing like TOCOS.

Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church -- a classic work on how texts were produced. It’ll give insight into the mechanics of text production.

Daniel Wallace, J. Ed Komoszewski, and M. James Sawyer. Reinventing Jesus -- popular text (like Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus) from “the other side” which includes treatments of textual criticism.

Whitney Shiner, Proclaiming the Gospel

Jocelyn Small, Wax Tablets of the Mind

Neither of these is about textual criticism. So why are they here? Because they are about the basically oral nature of the NT world, and my points respecting the “substance” of texts as opposed to the “word for word” aspect of them will not be fully understandable without what’s in these books.

Daniel Wallace, “The Gospel According to Bart,” -- depth critique of Ehrman’s material.

TWeb thread -- in which the debate was announced and later discussed. The debate organizer is there (as “Benson Shays”) as is a TWeb member who attended (“Hamster”).

My PPT slides for Round 1—for Round 2, I used just two slides, one a repeat of a slide in this one, and one a reference to this article.

Relevant entries on my Forge blog

The organizer's blog

Organizer's post on Carrier's reflection on the debate (with my comment, too).

July 15, 2011: The organizer defeated some technical issues and got the debate on at YouTube here in 5 parts.