Bart D. Ehrman: Misquoting Jesus


Ehrman published this book back in 2005, and I’ve been meaning to read it but never did so until this weekend, when I downloaded it from iBooks and read it on the iPad over two evenings.

I’ve made half-hearted attempts to work my way through The Origin of Species and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but this was the first  real sustained reading I’ve done on the iPad. And it was a far better experience than I expected.The book cost $11 and change and downloaded in seconds. And there’s even a free “Free Books” app that allows you to download (for free) thousands of books  which are now in the public domain.

iBooks allows you to tweak backlighting, font, font size, search the text, leave bookmarks, insert notes, highlight, copy text, find definitions for any word  and even to use that word  as a Web or Wikipedia search term. Footnote marks hyperlink to the footnotes themselves and a handy link takes you back to the last page left. There’s even a useful night mode (white text on black ground) which allows to read while not disturbing your sleeping partner.

Still, despite its admirable booklike interface, iBook is not a book. It doesn’t have the same feel and it’s not as easy to make marginal notes. An iBooks purchase can’t be loaned (sans iPad) and I wouldn’t take the tablet anywhere too hot, cold, sandy, wet or too distant from an electrical outlet. But it remains to be seen whether my preference for print volumes really reflects  their intrinsic merits or whether it’s simply the product (habit? addiction?) brought on by my fifty year love of reading in the only way that was possible. We’ll see.

So, on to Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman’s  thesis goes as follows:

  1. Early Christians didn’t in fact read the New Testament, because most of them were illiterate, and because there was no canonical set of books accepted until the late fourth century (e.g., the 29 books we now call the NT). Instead, churches simply used some set of readings or other which church leaders read aloud to other church members.
  2. There was a tremendous amount of doctrinal division between early Christians. For centuries, there was no consensus on whether Jesus was wholly human, wholly divine, both, or whether he was comprised of two personages, a human Jesus and a divine Christ. There were also deep divides between believers as to whether the God of the NT was identical with the the God of the OT and on a host of other theological questions. In addition, early Christians were engaged in fierce theological disputes with Jews and pagans. All of these disputes prodded early copiers to add or subtract passages to suit their doctrinal views.
  3. The four Gospels we now read (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) likely originate from two very early Greek sources, Mark and “Q”. And note that these sources are written in Greek, not Aramaic, the language Jesus actually spoke. But we don’t have the originals of these. Nor copies of them. Nor copies of the copies. What we do have are thousands of fragments of early Greek documents, all of which  are copies of earlier documents. According to Ehrman, there are more points of variation between these documents than there are words in the NT.
  4. There are several reasons why so much variation exists. In the first place, early  scribes were likely amateurs, concerned only to make copies for local church use. And they inevitably made errors, as even trained scribes were wont to do. In some places, Ehrman surmises, scribes deliberately changed the text to correct what they saw as earlier errors. In other, and even more egregious cases, they changed the text, added words or entire passages, or deleted entire passages, either to create a document they could use against theological opponents or to prevent those opponents from using the text themselves.
  5. After the canonization of the NT in the fourth century, many believers forgot about the original Greek sources of the NT. In fact, some Catholic theologians considered the Latin Vulgate superior to the Greek texts whence it was derived (an obvious absurdity).
  6. And when Christians did make mention of the Greek sources, they imagined that the Vulgate was derived  from a single and reliable Greek text: the Textus Receptus. But no such single canonical source exists.
  7. This all changed in the 19th century, when critical biblical scholarship really took off. Scholars discovered  thousands of early Greek copies of the NT books and quickly discovered, to their horror, that the number of variations between them outnumbered the words in the NT.
  8. Biblical scholars have devised tools to deduce (with varying degrees of certainty) what the earliest copies of the NT would have looked like. (And in many respects, the King James Bible is not an attractive candidate.) Ehrman says biblical scholarship is divided between those who think this project is possible and those who don’t.
  9. Erhman’s most critical conclusion is that the degree of variation between Greek texts, and the difficulty of recovering the originals, renders it implausible the the NT was divinely inspired. After all, he reasons, why would God  inspire an infallible original if He knew it would be lost and subsequent copies would be so badly copied as to be unreliable?

This book has won  Ehrman few friends in the fundamentalist movement, and there are scads of critical reviews suggesting that he is wrong  on particular details of translation and interpretation (Biblical scholars are forced by their occupation to be nitpickers), that the general  outlines of the Gospels are not in doubt, and so on. I have no real competence to  offer an opinion  on these questions.

But one criticism merits consideration. James Arlandson writing in The American Thinker, considers Erman’s skepticism about the Bible’s inerrancy misplaced. To this effect, he cites C. S. Lewis:

The moment [the newcomer, the miracle] enters [Nature’s] realm, it obeys her laws. Miraculous wine will intoxicate, miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy, inspired books will suffer all the ordinary processes of textual corruption, miraculous bread will be digested. (Miracles: A Preliminary Study, p. 81)

So, if God’s miracles are susceptible to natural laws and processes, he couldn’t create a burning bush that wasn’t consumed by fire after all. But theological implausibility aside, what is the point of Arlandson’s objection? To absolve God of blame fro the textual deterioration of early NT texts? But that’s beside the point, since Ehrman isn’t pointing fingers at God. The deeper problem is that, if Lewis is right, and since God knows infallibly that even an inspired original will be copied  inaccurately and the original lost, it would simply be pointless for him to have divinely inspired the original in the first place.

All in all, however. Misquoting Jesus is well worth  reading by both the theist who may  naively belive that she is reading the actual words of Jesus and by the atheist who may usefully learn something about one of the founding documents of Western civilization.


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