I picked up Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman because when I became Director of Christian Education at our church I ordered several of his lecture series on audio CD from The Teaching Company and listened to them many times over trying to get up to speed for my new position AND I was intrigued by the title. Now the book is on the New York Times best-seller list.
Bart Ehrman is the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ehrman studied at Princeton Theological Seminary under the renowned professor Bruce Metzger and is an authority on the history of the New Testament, Jesus, and the early church. Although he used to be an evangelical Christian, he is apparently now an agnostic--something I didn't pick up from listening to his Teaching Company tapes, but he discusses in this book.
Misquoting Jesus is a book about the ancient texts of the New Testament and the discrepancies that are found in them. Followers of the Dan Brown School of Church Conspiracy will be disappointed because there are no "blockbuster" revelations about these mistakes, ommissions, additions and changes in the book, the title notwithstanding. Ehrman admits in the book that because of the work of textual scholars these changes have been ferreted out and do not appear in the most commonly used modern English language translations: the NIV and the NRSV.
The first part of Ehrman's book explains the process used to evaluate competing editions of New Testament text. Although the subject can be pretty dry, the author is a good writer and manages to make this technical subject surprisingly interesting, at least to me.
Ehrman concludes that most textual alterations were human error, caused by fatigue, lack of attention, miscopying, etc. But he also noted what he described as theologically motivated alterations of the text. He says that most deliberate alterations were made in order to make the text say what the scribe already believed it to mean. Ehrman believes that this usually reflected their reaction to the theological disputes of the day.
In his book, Lost Christianities, Ehrman says that the Nag Hammadi texts and other Gnostic writings that did not make the canon show that early Christianity did not have a uniform belief system and that there were many competing forms of Christianity other than the "orthodox" view that ultimately prevailed. Therefore the emphasis in Misquoting Jesus that the deliberate "enhancements" of the texts by copyists were made in reaction to the views of their antagonists is consistent with his interpretation of the history of early Christianity.
I don't have enough background in the subject to evaluate the second part of this book, but I had some doubts about it. A lot of the second half is spent describing discrepancies that have NOT made their way into modern translations, thanks to the diligent work of textual scholars. Why spend so much energy on these red herrings? Isn't the logical conclusion that our modern translations are fairly reliable representations of the original texts?
While struggling to write this review I came across a link on the blog written by Michael Kruze to the review of Misquoting Jesus on Ben Witherington's blog. I commend it to you if you are interested; it answers many of the questions that this book raised for me. I have to agree that the author has an agenda which has unfortunately sidetracked the second part of the work. The first part of the book is a valuable introduction to the methods of textual criticism for the non-scholar.