Misquoting Jesus (Book Review)

Misquoting JesusBart Ehrman, chairman of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, has authored this book as both an introduction to the field of New Testament Textual Criticism and a critique of ancient scribal practices. In this book, Ehrman has provided the reader with a brief and handy overview of the history of textual transmission and the development of critical methodology in the attempt of reconstructing the original text. Ehrman has not only provided the reader with an objective view of the scholarly field of Text Criticism, but also produced a record of his personal journey out of evangelical faith to place of agnostic belief.

In the introduction, Ehrman explains that Textual Criticism is a technical term for the science of restoring the original words of a text (5). Ehrman, then chronicles his faith journey during his time at Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and finally during his doctoral studies at Princeton. While becoming acquainted with the Greek of the New Testament his faith in biblical authority began to wane. The notions of inerrancey and inspiration were under hostile siege as he began to allow himself permission to view the biblical authors in a human light. How could Mark, the evangelist, say some of the things he did if he did not simply make a mistake? His conclusion: “The Bible, at the end of the day, is a very human book” (12). He, thus, seems to indicate that his main objective for writing this book was to make assessable to a lay audience the subject of Text Criticism in hopes that the naïveté of inerrancy would be duly dispelled (15).

Ehrman notes that early Christianity was unique in the fact that it was comprised of people that lived by the book. But, the irony was that 85-90 percent of the population were unable to read or write (37-38). Hence, the illiterate had to enlist the services of the literate (41). So it is not difficult to surmise, claims Ehrman, that appropriate controls for preserving the text were defunct from the very first days. These first centuries of the church was a period in which Ehrman claims that a multitude of errors infiltrated the textual tradition such that any talk of recovering an “original” text must be, in intellectual honesty, abandoned. What does it even mean to talk of an original text? At what point was it original? And Ehrman postulates several stages of compilation for a final form of the text that further complicates the notion (57-62).

A new era dawned at the ascendency of Constantine. With extensive favor and funding professional scribes were secured and this provided a modicum of stability for the text, at least within each text family (72-73). The next major advance in stability eventually came with the age of printing. Ehrman then takes the reader through a fascinating 350 year historical journey of the process of standardizing an eclectic text, equipped with critical apparatus, beginning with the emergence of the Textus Receptus on through to the time of Wescott and Hort (78-125).

All of this history brings the reader up to speed sufficiently to now understand Ehrman’s main thesis. Beginning with page 133, Ehrman offers three examples of variants that were specifically the design of deliberate scribal alteration. (Mark 1:41; Luke 22:43-44; and Heb. 2:9). There were unintentional mistakes in textual transmission, but these three and many others were, says Ehrman, attempts to realign texts to say what the scribes believed they should be and/or desired them to be. In Mark 1:41 scribes did not like the sound of an angry Jesus so they changed his demeanor to be that of compassion. And Ehrman points out that Mark does consistently portray (2 other times) the anger of Jesus through his gospel. Then Ehrman shows how the verses of Luke 22:43-44 were inserted into the text to give Jesus a more human appeal in regards to suffering. But again, Luke does not attempt to portray a Jesus who suffers, but one who is relatively calm and without passion. Finally in Hebrews 2:9, Ehrman shows how scribes have altered the text yet again by changing manuscripts from saying Jesus died for all the people “apart from God” to “by the grace of God.” This was a deliberate modification, says Ehrman, to save Jesus from being forsaken by the Father because such would seem inconceivable to the faithful.

In chapters 6 and 7 Ehrman continues to postulate his theories of scribal alteration. In chapter 6 the motivations were theologically driven, whereas in chapter 7 they are socially charged. The Proto-orthodox was the suspect party in Ehrman’s opinion of co-opting the text to read differently from the adoptionistic, docetic, and separationist Christological views they found there. The same party is held responsible for altering readings that they considered to be out of bounds in regards to their views on women, Jews, and pagans.

In his conclusion, Ehrman reiterates his remarks from the introduction in regards to his belief that the Bible is purely a human book (211). Why talk of inspiration if we cannot speak of a preserved text? Words matter and if we do not have the words then we cannot have inspiration. Rather, we posses in the New Testament a collection of diverse interpretations of the Jesus narrative. And not only were the writers diverse in their accounts, but the readers will be diverse in their interpretation. It is here that Ehrman cites his fundamental view regarding hermeneutics: “Meaning is not inherent and texts do not speak for themselves… So to read is, necessarily, to change a text” (216-217). So in the end, Ehrman concedes, we should be less judgmental toward the scribes who changed text – for they were only doing what a serious reader would do: interpret Scripture.

This was an enjoyable book not because I agreed with the author’s conclusions (or shall I say presuppositions?), nor because I appreciated his tone, but because it made for a lively exchange. I enjoyed reading it, much like I enjoy a good spirited debate. Not that the whole experience was debate; some of the book (most of it actually) was good teaching. Ehrman is a gifted communicator. You have to be gifted to be able to distill a complex field such as Text Criticism for a pop level. If it were not for his acrimony and misrepresentation of the facts this would be a decent introduction to the field. Also problematic were the fundamental biases that bled all over its pages. As we have seen Ehrman is of the persuasion that the biblical text is a wholly human endeavor. So he favors diversity at every turn. If Luke contains a variant that agrees with Mark, let’s say, that is immediately to be taken as a scribal alteration. The “orthodox” party is made out to be the boogie man that is blamed for instigating every change in the text. And this theory lends itself to making mountains out of mole hills. For instance, two of the three main texts that he accuses as corrupt UBS readings (Mark 1:41; Luke 22:43-44; and Heb. 2:9) puts him at odds (self-admittedly) with most of the scholars in his field. He even has to refute the ratings of Bruce Metzger – to whom the book is dedicated – (without even a footnote, no less) in order to make his case! So, naturally, the work struck me as grasping at straws.

Ehrman’s logic, also, suffered from contradiction. But, it did so when the arguments seemed convenient for his purposes. As an example, from pages 57 to 62 Ehrman passionately argues against the thought of an original text. The goal, for the traditional text critic, has always been the enterprise of reconstructing an original text. But, why even talk of such a notion when, according to Ehrman, we do not know how to even get back to one, or what one would look like when we got there. Could it perhaps be what was dictated? And if multiple copies were sent out by Paul and his associates were they all free of error? What if a prologue and epilogue were added at a later time (as he suspects is the case for John’s gospel)? What then? The notion is so shot through with complexity that we should just quit speaking of such a thing. But, in the space of one small paragraph (page 63) he turns on a dime and argues from the basis of the original text that John 7:53-8:12 was never there. He continues to make his case for the absence of Mark 16:9-20 because, as he puts it, they “were not original to Mark” (67). How can he do that? How can he in one breath turn the concept of an original text into a vaporous cloud and in the next a terra firma in which to stand? Apparently, it was an opportunity to advance his cause, which is to cast the veracity of the biblical text into doubt.

Another glaring example of contradiction comes during his conclusion. After dragging the proto-orthodox party over the coals for perpetrating textual alterations (upon which, in my opinion, was dubious grounds) he lets up on them and admits – what else were they to do? And then he makes a surprising statement: “To read a text is, necessarily, to change a text.” What he means by this is that when a text is read any given interpreter brings their own set of presuppositions to the table, their own perspectives, their own desires, and needs. Surely these things will alter their understanding. He said, “Meaning is not inherent and texts do not speak for themselves” (216). But, the main thesis of the entire book rests upon the fact that “words matter” because to change words is to change the very meaning of the text (11, 69, 94, 111, 132, 149, 155)! The very methodology of textual criticism assumes that texts speak for themselves. How can we prefer the more difficult reading if there were not agreement regarding the meaning of the text and the motive of the scribe? His whole project has been flushed if this concluding statement were true. Yet he uses it at the very close of the book, seemingly, to leave his reader in a mist of generalized doubt regarding the very meaning of meaning. He traffics in meaning he needs to let his readership do the same. Convenient it seems for a man to deal in a currency that he does not disperse to his reader.

This book, no doubt, proved to be a stimulating read. Much of the body of the work made for a pretty good introduction to the field, but unfortunately the whole work is cast in the unflattering light of radical skepticism. I am sad to say that Bart Ehrman uses his knowledge in Misquoting Jesus to mislead and cause the less informed to doubt the veracity of the text. He provides half-truths and sleight of hands to achieve this desired effect. And for this reason, I believe the book is to be read by committed evangelical pastors and teachers. If we do not have answers to the type of questions Ehrman is conjuring up we sadly forsake the fold to the wolves that prowl in the night


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