Excellent book: Misquoting Jesus

3 04 2007

It’s rare that I have the opportunity (or motivation) to read an entire book in one day, but yesterday I sped through all 215+ pages of Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why and I now regard it as one of the most enlightening books I’ve yet read. While I wish Ehrman used some more detail in the book (sometimes he doesn’t tell us which texts that are being used for criticism came from where and from what time period), overall it raises some big, important questions about the Bible. As Ehrman suggests early on in a personal narrative, if we know the Bible has numerous mistakes, some even intentional, how can anyone call it the inerrant Word of God? If we know that the King James Bible, the text many creationists say is the Bible, was based on inaccurate and hastily put-together Greek translations done by Erasmus, how can we call such a book the preserved and accurate history of Christianity? I was most astonished to learn that the famous story of Jesus letting an adulteress off the hook likely doesn’t even belong in the Bible at all, but rather is a later addition (a verse that also adds to the confusion about the identity of Mary Magdalene and her image as a reformed prostitute).

While many Christians may find Ehrman’s findings contentious or counter to their doctrine (such motivations spurring changes to the Bible in the past, to defend it against pagans and non-orthodox early Christian sects), the facts are clear; no matter what Bible you may call your own, it is fraught with errors, both intentional and non-intentional. The fact is that the Bible has not been divinely preserved or dictated, but rather altered (and even written) to convey different human wants, needs, desires, ideas, etc. Indeed, the only way the text is truly “inspired” is in the sense that people of fervent faith wrote the stories to please God or tell the stories of Jesus; God did not dictate the entire thing or send it by fax.

What I perhaps appreciate most is that Ehrman largely presents the facts without telling the reader something disproves Christianity; being a former fundamentalist himself, Ehrman seems to appreciate that his book will be interpreted in different ways by different people, and the best way to have an impact is to simply let the facts stand. I distinctly get the impression that Ehrman is now at most a deist or agnostic, but this is never mentioned explicitly in the text and I’m sure many Christian readers would seize upon it if he included it (“See! He lost his faith so he can’t understand what he’s talking about.”). In any case, while it is not a perfect book, it is certainly an intriguing one, and the main message of reading the Bible for what it is (rather than what we wish it to be) is exceedingly important in our time.


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7 responses

3 04 2007
Cory Tucholski

I was determined to stay away from Ehrman’s book, but now that I’ve read your review of it, I’m definitely picking up a copy at the library next time I go.

While I wish Ehrman used some more detail in the book (sometimes he doesn’t tell us which texts that are being used for criticism came from where and from what time period), overall it raises some big, important questions about the Bible.

First, without having read the book, I should reserve comment on this, but offhand–did it occur to you that the reason he isn’t more specific is that it would ruin his case?

You’re right about one thing: the book should raise important questions about the Bible, and these are questions that any reasonably minded believer should be asking. If believers educated themselves about what folks like Ehrman are saying, then it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn many things like what you bring up next:

If we know that the King James Bible, the text many creationists say is the Bible, was based on inaccurate and hastily put-together Greek translations done by Erasmus, how can we call such a book the preserved and accurate history of Christianity?

First, this is exaggerated. Erasmus put his manuscript together in a hurry, but that doesn’t mean that it was done without reverence for the original text. Erasmus was working on a deadline and he put together the best manuscript he could from the sources available to him. Later research and discoveries have shown that these weren’t the most accurate manuscripts.

But to call an entire Bible filled with error just over Erasmus’s speedy work on the Textus Receptus is a bit of a leap. But I won’t deny what that there is a core of truth to the claim that you brought up.

Remember that the TR is only the New Testament. The Old Testament used by the KJV is still the same one we use today with no alterations: the Masoretic Text.

I was most astonished to learn that the famous story of Jesus letting an adulteress off the hook likely doesn’t even belong in the Bible at all, but rather is a later addition (a verse that also adds to the confusion about the identity of Mary Magdalene and her image as a reformed prostitute).

I don’t know enough about this to comment, except that I would point out that He didn’t exactly let her off the hook. She came to Him, broken and asking for forgiveness. He forgave her, and told her to “Go, and sin no more. This still fits the overall mode of the Bible.

the facts are clear; no matter what Bible you may call your own, it is fraught with errors, both intentional and non-intentional.

To an extent, this is true. But remember that textual variants can and do exist because we are humans, we make mistakes, especially when the work is long, tedious, and there are no convenient word processors lying around. Hand copying is fraught with mistakes, especially when the early copyists would have been Average Joe believer with no professional training.

It would be like us switching blogs for a week. I can’t post on biology or evolution because I don’t know enough about it to sustain an interesting blog.

Any way you slice it, the almost 6,000 manuscripts that we possess of the New Testament, thousands of quotations from early church fathers and vocal church opponents, and new manuscript evidence surfacing in archaeological digs attests to the overall reliability and excellent transmission of the text on the whole. The fact that the manuscript evidence comes from diverse geographic locations with no easy connections to one another in the days there were written testify to a very reliable text.

What those early manuscripts have done for the New Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls have done for the Old Testament. The Old Testament was transmitted by professional scribes, and we have found only a few variations in letters (not even whole words) in the MSS that have been found in the Dead Sea Caves.

In any case, while it is not a perfect book, it is certainly an intriguing one, and the main message of reading the Bible for what it is (rather than what we wish it to be) is exceedingly important in our time.

I disagree. The demotion of Scripture to “an interesting book” is what has led to the numerous problems that the church is experiencing today. I won’t go into that here, that’s for my blog.

Questions like these are important for the Christian to ask. No one should go blindly into their faith without having a reason to believe what they do. I believe in the accuracy and reliability of the Bible, and I’m very aware of most of Ehrman’s arguments because I’ve seen them before in my short time as a Christian apologist.

Thank you for helping me to decide to read this book. And keep up the blog, here. I’m dying to learn more about evolution, since I’m in one of the red states (Ohio) and I want to understand more about the scientific aspects of the theory before I try to dismantle it.

Atheist mindset, evolutionary theory… I don’t study the stuff a typical Christian does, do I? 🙂

3 04 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the long and detailed reply Cory. Although it might not seem like it from much of much of what I write, but I am a Christian as well, although I am undergoing a bit of a crisis of faith and am becoming more agnostic I suppose.

As for my initial comment about more detail, I don’t think it would undermine Ehrman’s case. What I was primarily asking for was almost a step-by-step look at how texts are determined more “original” than others with a given example. He does this to come extent, but not with all the cases, so it seems he stops short of getting technical so that the book is accessible (but of course, minds like mine want to know).

As for the King James version of the Bible compiled by Erasmus, I wasn’t suggesting it was done without reverence and that that entire version is wrong, but it definitely was a jump in terms of alterations (if you make a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy…). What I was thinking of when I wrote this is how many creationists have chosen the King James version as THE Bible, despite the higher chance for errors. While the overall important messages may not have changed, it still is a “mutation” of sorts.

As for the encounter with Jesus and the woman in adultery, the author describes it better than I can, but he does make the case that while it might fit in thematically it seems to be a later addition. I’m not suggesting that it is inconsistant with doctrine, but if Ehrman is right and it is a later addition, this is very interesting (he also goes into the last 12 verses of Mark in detail).

As for my “fraught with error” comment, I’m not saying that the Bible as a whole needs to be thrown out, but there seem to be significant changes made, particularly involving Christ’s death and resurrection. I’m not suggesting that the whole thing is a work of fiction or should be written-off as unreliable, but that Ehrman does make the important (and often-overlooked) point that the book has been altered for different reasons by different people, and if God did not preserve exactly what was meant somehow, this can have startling implications for how we look at the Bible; is it really God-breathed or is it (as Ehrman states) a more “human” book?

Also, I am not trying to demote the Bible to merely “an interesting book,” but I feel that too many Christians ferverently defend it as having no error or changes, ever. Perhaps it wouldn’t be “good” for the church, but if God truly does want us to seek the truth, would it not be dishonest to say that no one changed Scripture? Ehrman rightly points out letters (and even the end of Revelation) that flatly forbade changing texts from their original state, which suggests that this was a bit of a problem. How much needs to be changed before it has a significant impact on faith? I am not an expert and Ehrman goes into things in more detail than I ever could (which doesn’t mean that I automatically concur with everything in the book) but it seems apparent that the Bible may be accurate and reliable to a certain extent, but not to being 100% without error.

It has always been a bit bothersome to me that we don’t have the actual original texts or even a copy of the originals, and who knows what changes were made in transition. I’ve heard the apologetic argument that the game of telephone (where messages get changed through trasmission errors) doesn’t apply to the Bible because of the oral tradition of the time, but I don’t find this convincing as who knows what motives or ideas many scribes or church leaders had (especially early on when most Christians could not read or write). There are plenty of Christians today who aren’t particularly moral or ethical in their practices (Fred Phelps, Kent Hovind, etc.), so why should anyone think this was not true in earlier times?

And as far as evolution Cory, I’m glad you find my blog interesting and although I don’t believe you’ll succeed in dismantling evolution (theologians have been trying since before Darwin to stamp out the idea), I am glad that you want to learn more about it. The best advice I can give you is to read the popular and technical literature; get a subscription to Nature or Science, check out the works of Gould, Darwin, Dawkins, Mayr, George Gaylord Simpson, Huxley, etc. In the 11 months since I started getting seriously involved in the topic, I’ve read well over 100 texts on evolution alone and there’s still a lot to learn, but I’m glad you want to make the effort to understand the scientific basis for what is (to me at least) one of the most important ideas ever conceived.

In any case, I hope you find Ehrman’s book interesting as I feel it’s one everyone with even a passing interest in Christianity should read; a faith that goes unquestioned is blind.

4 04 2007
Sarda Sahney

If you’re not easily offended I sugget picking up Lamb: the gospel according to Biff by Christopher Moore. It is very funny!

4 04 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the suggestion Sarda; I’ll certainly check it out. I’m not easily offended at all, and I find religion-based humor especially poignant. One of my favorite Simpsons moments is when Bart and Milhouse are cleaning the pipe organ in church and Milhouse says “Come on Bart, every major religion says there’s a soul. What would they have to gain by lying?” Cut away to Rev. Lovejoy dumping the collection plate into a money sorter next to a pile of cash.

There’s a few books I have on my amazon wishlist of a more satirical nature as well, including A Field Guide to Evangelicals. Also, regardless of what my personal beliefs are on the subject, I think Christianity today is in major need of reform, and it seems to have forgotten that the most important message is (paraphrasing) “Love God, love others, the rest is details.” Anyway, thanks for the suggestion; I’ll definitely check it out!

6 04 2007
Cory Tucholski

Here is a review of Misquoting Jesus by Daniel Wallace, executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts with additional commentary by Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar who studied under the same teachers as Bart Ehrman himself. You may find this interesting.

6 04 2007
laelaps

Thank you for the link Cory. The reviews were interesting, but they seemed to be more in defense of Christian faith/about Ehrman’s lack of faith than whether we can regard Scripture as accurate. While some points may be quibbled over (i.e. whether Jesus refers to himself as divine elsewhere in the Bible) I still think Ehrman’s point rings true; how can we say the Bible is without error and God’s Word if we know it’s been changed for a variety of reasons? Is it really enough to say “Well, the meaning is the same,” and not ponder the theological implications of the Bible being changed both by accident and on purpose?

While I agree that Ehrman does seem to have something of an axe to grind at points (so too do the reviewers), I believe he sufficiently proved that the motives, wishes, desires, etc. of those involved with writing and transcribing the Bible had a much greater influence on what’s in the text than many people like to admit.

3 05 2007
Cory Tucholski

One last article regarding the book Misquoting Jesus: I haven’t had time to check this out yet, but I plan to really soon. I generally agree with James White’s analysis (exceptions exist, one of which will be detailed in an upcoming blog entry) so I trust that this is a well-written article and addresses points raised by Ehrman. Here’s the article. Enjoy!

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