Theology: The Challenge of Ehrman, part III

So what are some of the variants that Ehrman discussed in his book?

Will attempt to discuss some of them here with the following caveats:

(1) I'm not a textual critic scholar so I can only access their ideas to the extent that a lay person can do so.

(2) I'll be looking at the NIV Bible since that is probably the most commonly used English translation in churches here in the USA.

(3) I'll also be taking a look at the NET Bible which is a resource for the lay reader to have some access to textual critic scholar's notes on translations.

In chapter 5 of his book, Ehrman addressed three variants.

Mark 1:41

Filled with [compassion/anger], Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!"

Ehrman argued in favor of "anger" as the correct variant because it is more likely that subsequent scribes "softened" the story by swapping in compassion or deleting the word.

The NET text note for this verse also offered reasons why anger might be the original reading but also some ideas on how anger might have gotten swapped in for compassion. They acknowledge deciding between the two is difficult.

Jesus being angry here would probably bother people who have a view of Jesus as being a mild mannered milquetoast kind of nice guy. But those familiar with the Jesus of the Gospels know he can be a tough and challenging Jesus. Thus, in my mind, even if Ehrman is correct, I don't think it changes the picture of Jesus.

Luke 22:43-44

An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

Ehrman argues that this passages is an addition to Luke because it isn't found in some of the older manuscripts and in Luke, Jesus is always calm, and this doesn't fit in. In chapter 6, he argued further that it was an addition to bolster the "humanity of Christ" in theological debates.

The NIV includes the verses but in the text note says, "Some early manuscripts do not have verses 43 and 44."

The NET text notes discuss that possibility that there would be theological impulses to add as well as delete these verses. Additionally, it poses the possibility that these verses were literarily inauthentic but historically authentic and even cites one of Ehrman's scholar paper on the issue. They do go further than the NIV by putting these two verses in brackets.

On this variant, scholars are largely in agreement with Ehrman's view. But once again, does removing these verses change what Jesus did on the Cross? Does it change our view of Jesus? I think not.

Hebrews 2:9

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that [by the grace of God/apart from God] he might taste death for everyone.

Ehrman cited that the "apart from God" phrasing is found only in a couple of late manuscripts but was mentioned in the writings of some early church fathers which suggested an older pedigree.

The NET Bible includes no text notes discussing Ehrman's reading of this variant suggesting Ehrman's view on it might not be one that has gained much traction in the textual scholarly community.

Daniel Williams has an extensive discussion of this variant in his response to Ehrman. Much like Mark 1:41, there are some ideas on how the unusual reading might have arisen by accident.

Whether Ehrman's reading of the variant is correct, I don't know. But even if he is right on this one as well, what does it tell us?

When we say, Jesus died for our sins, what does this really mean to Jesus?

... by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone ...

... apart from God he might taste death for everyone ...

Perhaps the theological subtly escapes me but these two seem compatible with the Christian vision of the significance of Jesus death on the Cross.

Overall, in chapter five, I get the impression that Ehrman thinks the different portraits of Jesus in the various writings of the NT indicated the early believers were confused about who Jesus was.

I'm not sure that really washes. If one wrote a gospel with emphasis on Jesus as a great teacher, another one on the miracle working Jesus, a third booklet on Jesus' debates with the religious leaders of the day and a yet another collecting Jesus' one-on-one conversations, would you conclude that there were FOUR different Jesus?

In terms of the big theological picture of Jesus death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, the NT writings were pretty consistent.

Undoubtedly, variants did creep into manuscripts to "fix" things but text scholars like Ehrman can spot them and "clean" up the text to recover the most likely original reading. Ehrman stresses the number of the variants without equally stressing that most of them have been spotted and the original reading restored.

This does still leave a few handful of variants with some uncertainty which he discusses such as these three. The question then becomes what are the consequences of these options for the original reading.

As I see it, the variants Ehrman described can fall into three categories:
(1) Choosing one variant over another where Ehrman's choice maybe the better one.
Perhaps, Mark 1:41 falls into this category.
(2) Choosing one variant over another where Ehrman might be right or wrong.
Perhaps, Hebrews 2:9 is one of these.
(3) Choosing one variant over another where Ehrman and other scholars agree.
Luke 22:43-44 would be in this category.

Each has different implications for Ehrman's thesis of calling the NT into question. Variants in category #3 don't advance his thesis as these have been factored into the discussion already and are nothing new. Those in #2 may support his thesis but only if his view of the variant is actually correct. Situation #1 is where Ehrman might have traction which has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Thus far, even if one concedes his position on these three variants, I don't think it really changes anything.

In the next post, let's look at some of the variants he brings into the conversation in chapter 6 of his book.