Friday, April 25, 2008

A Discussion of "Misquoting Jesus" by Bart Ehrman

For those of you who read my blog regularly, let me apologize in advance for the differing format for this blog. Most of my blog posts are written like essays, and I write most of them to be just that -- essays or articles. This post, however, is actually from a post I made on the Rush messageboard, so it's not going to have the normal style that you might be familiar with. I recently finished New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman's bestselling book on New Testament textual criticism called "Misquoting Jesus," and it a really good book. I posted about it on the messageboard, and wanted to share my thoughts here, too. So here it is...


On another thread, we got to talking about how the Bible has been changed and amended over the centuries by various scribes during the era when all copies were handwritten. I pointed out that I had been reading Bart Ehrman's best-seller "Misquoting Jesus", which discusses this topic in detail, and Jeremy commented that this is one of the reasons why he can't accept the "infallible Word of God" thing anymore. I wanted to talk a little more about this book, now that I'm done with it. As I said on the other thread, this is a book that every Christian needs to read.

I ended up reading this book in 4 days. I do read a lot more than the average person, but it still normally takes me 3 or 4 weeks to get through an entire non-fiction book. This one, however, was so captivating, and was so easy to follow, that I just breezed right through it. It's probably the first major publication on this topic (textual criticism) to be written for laypeople and casual readers, as opposed to scholars and graduate students. And Ehrman does a fantastic job of taking this otherwise complex subject and describing it in such a way that it is very easy to follow and understand. The book is just absolutely fantastic, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in how our modern Bibles came down to us from the original texts.

The thing that's interesting is that none of this is new material. Scholars and theologians have known literally since the very inception of Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries that textual variants existed and were widespread. It was actually a topic of a lot of concern for many of the early church fathers, writing in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Furthermore, the fact that the texts were frequently changed was a source of ammunition for many opponents of Christianity during those early years. For instance, as early as the 160's and 170's C.E. -- less than 100 years after many of the books were written -- the pagan philosopher Celsus -- who wrote an entire book condemning the Christian religion -- pointed out that one of the reasons Christianity was so suspect is because they frequently altered and amended their own holy texts to fit changing theologies and to counter "heretical" belief systems.

Ehrman points out again and again throughout the book that the vast majority of the variations among the texts are minor and completely insignificant to the meaning of the passage. The book itself is actually dedicate to Bruce Metzger, who is almost universally regarded as the pre-eminent textual scholar in the world, and yet Metzger is also a traditionally believing Christian. Most of the variations are simply scribal mistakes...accidentally omitting a word or phrase here or there, or mispelling a word, or using the wrong word because of similarities in spelling (sort of like mixing up "for" and "four", for instance). The early Greek texts were very difficult to copy. They didn't write in those days the way we write now. The texts were actually written in what we would call a stream of consciousness -- there were no capital letters and lower case letters, and there was no punctuation. Furthermore, the writers frequently didn't even put spaces between words and sentences. itliterallywouldreadlikethistothehumaneyeandtherewouldbenospacesbetweenonesenten

You can see how tedious the job of copying a manuscript would be. Not only would the eye quickly weaken, but it would be very easy to accidentally write the wrong word. For instance, consider this phrase: ilookedatthetableandsawabundancethere. Does that say that I saw a table with a lot of food on it, or does it say that I saw a table where a bun got up and started dancing? So you can see how mistakes would be common and wide-spread. Furthermore, in the earliest centuries, most of the scribes were not professionals, but were instead amatuers from various Christian communities who happened to know how to read and write, and so would be asked to make copies. For this reason, and against what might otherwise seem self-evident, our earliest sources are frequently the ones that have the most mistakes and variations. Those amatuer Christian scribes were also more likely to make intentional changes based on their own theological interpretations, as opposed to the later professional scribes who may not have been Christians at all, but were simply being paid to make copies.

But while most of the changes were simple mistakes, some of the changes were very obviously deliberate, and by using the scientific investigative method, one can make strong arguments for why a text may have been deliberately altered. Even in most of those cases, the alteration wasn't greatly significant, and in most cases, the scribe who changed it wasn't doing it because of some ulterior motive, but because he honestly thought he was making the text "correct" (for instance, he might have assumed the manuscript had an error in it, so he would change what he thought was an error, but was in fact changing something that was authentic).

However, there are a few cases here and there where deliberate changes singificantly altered the theology of the passage and sometimes even of the entire book. For instance, there is a passage in the book of John that in some early manuscripts refers to Jesus as "the unique God." This is a clear and obvious supportive statement for the concept of the Trinity and the doctrine that Jesus was God in the flesh. However, it is known to have been a scribal addition, not original to the text. The original text, in fact, called Jesus the "unique Son," not the "unique God," and the phraseology used was the exact same language that was used elsewhere in John. We know the phrase as "only begotten Son," but what it actually says is "the unique Son" (such as in the famous verse of John 3:16). Anyway, this is the same exact phrase used in the passage in question. But scribes later changed it to say "unique God," apparently attempting to insert language that would support their understanding of Jesus as God in the flesh. There are many other numerous examples of changes like this.

What sets this book apart, I think, in addition to its readability, is the fact that unlike most every other scholarly book I have read, this book deals largely in objective, indisputable facts, rather than the gathering of evidence and the assertion of a reasoned argument based on that evidence. There is some of that in this book, particularly when it comes deciding which particular text represents the variation, and which text represents the original. Often times it's easy to figure out which text has the change, and which text has the original, but other times it's not so easy.

But by and large, this book deals with objective facts rather than subjective analysis. People may not like knowing that the New Testament texts have been changed and altered, and that in some cases we simply cannot know with certainty what the original text said, but whether they like it or not, they cannot argue that the variations don't exist. We have the manuscripts, and we know they don't match up. This objective, indisputable fact alone should cause anyone to think twice before asserting that the Bible is the infallible inerrant word of God.

Even if one presupposes that the original texts were the infallible inerrant word of God, it's a rather meaningles proposition, because we don't have the originals, and we don't have copies of copies of copies of the originals, and in many cases we cannot be certain what the original actually said. Therefore, it seems that if God was going to take the trouble to inspire the originals, he should have also taken the trouble to ensure that the originals were transmitted perfectly down the ages to us. He didn't do this, however, which leads to the obvious conclusion that he probably didn't inspire the originals either.

This recognition on the part of Ehrman was what first caused him, as an evangelical Christian graduate student, to begin realizing that what he thought was the inspired infallible word of God was, in fact, nothing of the sort. The Bible as we know it today, was not only written by eminently human people, but has since been corrupted by human people too.

None of this, of course, means that nothing in the New Testament can be trusted as original material. As Ehrman points out numerous times, most of the variations are insignificant, and even with hundreds of thousands of variations, there are still plenty of places where just about every text agrees. The variations, then, don't negate the entirety of the texts, but they simply put into perspective that much of what we know as "Biblical truths" are not necessarily based on original material.

One really eye-opening change is the famous passage in John where Jesus is presented with a woman caught in adultery. The Pharisees are trying to trap him by asking whether she should be stoned, as the law of Moses commands. If he says yes, then he is contradicting his own message of love and mercy, but if he says no, then he is blaspheming and contradicting God's law. Instead of answering, Jesus is depicted as stooping to the ground and writing in the sand. What he writes is not revealed to us. After a few minutes, he looks up and makes one of his most famous statements: "You who is without sin should cast the first stone." The Pharisees walk away in shame, and then Jesus, once he is alone with the woman, tells her that if the others will not judge her, then neither will he, and he commands her to go in peace and sin no more.

This passage, as I said, is one of the most famous stories of Jesus known to Christians. "You who is without sin should cast the first stone" is an oft-repeated phrase that has been the source of countless sermons and teachings. I would think that there are very few Christians who are not familiar with this phrase. The passage has also been used by apologists to show that Jesus -- who is believed by most scholars to have been illiterate like most every other 1st century Jew in his social class -- actually could read and write, because he is depicted in this passage as writing in the sand.

The problem is, the story is not original, and this is known almost to the point of being universally accepted by scholars of all theological persuasions. It does not appear in any of our earliest manuscripts, and despite its current widespread popularity, it is never mentioned by any early Church fathers in their writings. In fact, it does not begin to appear in our manuscripts until the 5th and 6th centuries. And when it does first begin to appear, it is frequently inserted in different spots. Some of these manuscripts have it in chapter 7, some in chapter 15, some in chapter 21, etc. There is even one manuscript that puts it not in John at all, but in Luke! Clearly it was added at some late date by a scribe who was probably familiar with the story from oral tradition, or possibly from another text that is no longer in existence, and he decided it was important enough to be added into the Bible's Gospel tradition. It may very well represent an early oral memory of a scene involving Jesus, and in that sense, it may be a perfectly valid story about Jesus that simply, for whatever reason, was never originally included in any of our Gospels. But the fact remains that it was not original to the Gospel of John, and was instead added much later by an anonymous scribe from an anonymous source. It's also important to point out, on the issue of possibly being an early oral tradition, that it not only doesn't appear in any original texts of the Gospels, but it also isn't found in any of the non-biblical writings like the Gnostic gospels and the Gospel of Thomas and other early Christian accounts. This, then, would imply that whatever its origins are, it probably wasn't early.

Well, I've written way more than I intended. But if you have read everything I wrote, and find it as interesting and fascinating as I do, then you will love this book, because that's what the entire book is about. I can't recommend this book enough to Christians and others with an interest in this topic.

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