Monday, March 20, 2006

Misquoting Jesus-- A Misleading Title

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.


LutheranChik said...

With the disclaimer that I am not a fundamentalist -- I am a fundamentalist's worst nightmare -- and that I do appreciate the intellectual rigor within my own tradition's biblical scholarship -- I get awfully tired of scholars who approach Scripture with the assumption, "Well, this can't possibly be right." I know people who are as fundamentalist in their deconstructionism as Jerry Falwell is in the other direction.

SpookyRach said...

Very interesting.

reverendmother said...

We used his New Testament textbook in seminary. It definitely was hard on a lot of people. I find textual criticism interesting and not a threat to my faith--in fact I left the experience with an even deeper reverence for the fact that the Christian tradition has survived so well.

But I also think it can be taken to absurd levels. Haven't checked out the new one yet.

Classical Presbyterian said...

It sounds like Ehrman is using the classic mistake of modern scholarship about the Bible---he leaves out the Holy Spirit!

To scholars of the humanist bent, like Ehrman, there is really no possibility that a "supernatural" force or personality might actually be behind the writing of Scripture. For them it's just a matter of human authors with personal agendas.

But for Christians and Jews, the particular writings of Scrip[ture that we each hold to be authoritative, are the inspired message/revelation of God to humankind. No humanistic scholar would touch that idea with a ten-foot academic pole!

Calvin saw it rightly (taken from Paul, of course)---that the natural 'unregenrate' human mind can only sense the reality of the Bible as God's Word through the inward speaking of the same Holy Spirit who inspired the writers of the text! The Holy Spirit is the link between the human author and the human reader. No Spirit, No Scripture.

Good discussion!

cheesehead said...

I'm a bit of a textual criticism nerd myself, especially the Greek texts.

I saw this guy on The Daily Show, (starring my tv husband Job Stewart). I think the book is one I would like to read eventually. I like to see many sides of an issue.

cheesehead said...

Did I really call him "Job" Stewart?

It's Jon, of course!

Dustin said...

My brother Kevin R. James wrote a textual criticism book titled "THE CORRUPTION OF THE WORD: The Failure of Modern New Testament Scholarship". He has a web site at and sells his self-published book via snail mail and online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I was really impressed by the thought and time he put into the project. He printed the original copies on a dot matrix printer from an old Commodore computer if I recall correctly. In his book he points out the errors that were likely made by transcribers but also how later versions of the Bible differ from the King James version.

Quotidian Grace said...

Dustin, I checked out your brother's website. Wow! Like you, I'm very impressed with the work he did and especially since he is not a Biblical scholar. I'm awed by it, in fact.

Ehrman's book also points out that the King James version is less reliable than current English translations because the work of scholars found errors in the sources used by the King James translators.

John said...

Lutheranchik wrote:

With the disclaimer that I am not a fundamentalist -- I am a fundamentalist's worst nightmare -- and that I do appreciate the intellectual rigor within my own tradition's biblical scholarship -- I get awfully tired of scholars who approach Scripture with the assumption, "Well, this can't possibly be right." I know people who are as fundamentalist in their deconstructionism as Jerry Falwell is in the other direction.

Yes! For so many Biblical 'scholars', the default assumption is that the text is false.

Especially in the domain of authorship. A common line of reasoning is "Well, it sounds like Paul, the text identifies the author is Paul, and the early church fathers thought that it was written by Paul, so it couldn't possibly be written by Paul." I studied medieval and Roman history in college, including documents in the original Latin, and there was never a knee-jerk assumption that the text is false.

There are far too many Biblical scholars who seem to take a perverse delight in proving the Bible false.

Anonymous said...

Wow, just happened to come across this site! My dad is Kevin R. James and I can definitely say that even though he is not a "biblical" scholar per se, he still knew his stuff when he wrote "Corruption of the Word". I remember him teaching himself Greek, Hebrew, Latin...and more, all so he could read the original manuscripts and actually see how the KJV and other translations fared against them. He was not content on relying on what others said, he wanted to find out himself.