Ehrman-Wallace Debate Wrap-Up

Thanks to those of you who were following my tweets from the debate. As promised, here are some further reflections on last night’s debate between Bart Ehrman and Dan Wallace. First of all, both men did a good job presenting their case and responding to each other’s questions. Bart Ehrman is a skilled debater and a very gifted communicator. He took charge of the debate from the very beginning, communicating clearly and directly. He also effectively anticipated many of Wallace’s arguments, especially regarding the number of Greek NT manuscripts.

When it was Wallace’s turn, he showed some good use of humor (playing off the UNC-Duke rivalry), and an impressive command of the field of textual criticism, but he spent way too much time (in my opinion) on listing all the manuscripts and the number of copies we have. That would have been good for a lecture, but was too tedious for a debate format. He showed that Bart Ehrman understated the number of early manuscripts we have, but did not satisfactorily engage him on the theoretical question as to how we can say we have the original text of the NT.

Probably Wallace’s strongest moment was when he quoted from Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus where Ehrman said that none of the variants affects a major NT doctrine. Wow! That’s a powerful point. If I’d been in Wallace’s place, I would have kept reiterating this point several times, especially since Ehrman never responded to it. Another golden opportunity missed on Wallace’s part, in my opinion, was that he never pressed Ehrman on his comment that there were several places in the NT where there were serious problems with the text. Amazingly, Ehrman just made this general statement in his opening presentation without giving even a single example. He should not have gotten away that easily with this unsubstantiated assertion.

Also, at times Wallace conceded too much, as when he acknowledged there were problems with the text of 2 Corinthians but maintained that 2 Corinthians was not representative of the rest of the NT. Some of the material on 2 Corinthians in our NT Intro, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown might have been helpful here. Also, when Ehrman claimed that the German scholar Gunther Zuntz’s theory of a Pauline letter collection reflects a scholarly consensus, I was waiting for Wallace to object (he did not). What about David Trobisch? And what about those who don’t think any such compiler modified the text of the letters he collected?

In my judgment, it may have been effective for Wallace to ask Ehrman early on what kind of proof he required to be persuaded that we have the original text of the NT. That would have brought out the fact that Ehrman sets the bar so unreasonably high that virtually nothing could ever satisfy him. Even though Wallace titillatingly dangled the prospect of a first-century MS of Mark in front of Ehrman’s nose (mysteriously hinting that he was sworn to secrecy), it was clear that even that discovery (if it checks out) is unlikely to sway Ehrman. Simply producing a few earlier MSS does not necessarily overturn Ehrman’s theoretical concerns.

Perhaps it might have been helpful at some point, without being unduly ad hominem, to bring out Ehrman’s agnosticism and overall skepticism toward the Christian faith. Ehrman certainly came across as very sensible and measured during the debate, but in some of his writings it is quite clear that he has taken a strongly adversarial stance toward Christianity (not least because of his concerns related to the problem of evil).

Finally, the closing statement cried out for an effort to transcend the stuffy academic issue that probably went over many people’s heads in the audience anyway. If I’d been Wallace, I might have said something like this in closing: “Friends, I think I’ve shown that for every skeptical argument Bart Ehrman advances, there is a reasonable response that shows the Bible to be more reliable than he makes it out to be. But in the end, how many of us believe in the Bible because of text criticism, or the number of manuscripts, or differences in the variants? The bigger questions, I submit to you, are these: Is Christianity true? Is Jesus divine? Did Jesus die on the cross for our sins? Did he rise from the dead? Is Jesus the only way? What is the gospel? Will you and I believe? There are many believers in this audience who have become convinced that the Bible is true and that Jesus is real. We’ll continue to advance arguments and counter-arguments on the minutiae of textual matters, and those matter, but let’s not forget the bigger picture. The Bible is trustworthy, and Christianity is true. Hopefully, we can all agree on that. Thank you very much.”

After the debate, I conducted an informal survey among those who had just witnessed the debate. I asked them who they thought won the debate. There seems to have been no clear winner. Some said Wallace, others Ehrman. It seems that those who were more conservative in the audience appreciated Wallace’s solid presentation of the textual MS evidence and felt confirmed in their belief in the reliability of the NT documents. Others, especially UNC students who have taken Ehrman’s classes or heard about him from others, were impressed with Ehrman’s debating skills and clarity of explaining complicated issues. Some seemed unsure why the issue even mattered. One girl told me that she believed there were errors in the Bible but that she believed in Jesus anyway. On the whole, Ehrman’s delivery was crisper and more lucid. Wallace had a lot of valuable information but wasn’t always able to drive home the relevance of the data he presented for the issue at hand. Perhaps he should contact Romney’s debate coach and get some tips?

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