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Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
by Bart D. Ehrman
(242 pages, $24.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Denny Burk
What hath John Stewart to do with John the Apostle? Stewart is just one of the many figures in the popular media who lined up to interview Bart Ehrman about his controversial book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. I would wager that the book’s heady subject matter (text criticism) normally receives very little airtime on Comedy Central.
Bart Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina and a popular lecturer for the Teaching Company, combines a knack for provocative writing that appeals to a broad audience with a unique ability to simplify complicated subjects for readers who are not specialists. In Misquoting Jesus, he aims to introduce the layman to the discipline of text criticism, which he defines as the science of restoring the “original” words of the biblical text from manuscripts that have altered them.
Though Misquoting Jesus is written for a popular audience, its conclusions are based on serious scholarship, especially Ehrman’s 1993 book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.
The first two-thirds of the book comprise an introduction to the discipline of text criticism, including an overview of how texts were copied in the ancient world in general and in the Christian communities in particular, a survey of some important ancient manuscripts and published editions of the New Testament, a history of the discipline, and a summary of its modern methods that applies its insights to three texts having to do with Jesus (Mark 1:41; Luke 22:43–44; Hebrews 2:8–9).
In the final two chapters before the conclusion, Ehrman argues that early Christian scribes changed the texts they copied in order to make the biblical text conform to their own theological and social agendas. He argues that the changes favor the orthodox tradition and that scribes who were not satisfied with the words of the New Testament changed those words to make them more forcefully oppose women, Jews, and pagans.
One of the reasons Misquoting Jesus is such a compelling read is that Ehrman frames his entire argument with the story of his own journey of faith—a journey that moves from passionate Evangelical conviction to settled unbelief. Moving from his days as a newly minted born-again Christian, to his studies at Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, to his doctoral degree at Princeton, Ehrman explains how text criticism provides the “key” to his own story.
He wants to convince readers that “there are clear reasons for thinking that, in fact, the Bible is not this kind of inerrant guide to our lives.” In his own life, the undoing of inerrancy resulted in the undoing of his Christianity, and it appears that he wants to convince his readers to follow him down the path of skepticism.
Unfortunately, Ehrman’s polemical goal of discrediting inerrancy overshadows his stated goal of introducing the discipline of text criticism to a lay audience. His presentation manipulates the unsuspecting reader into thinking that the very existence of imperfect copies of Scripture necessarily implies that the originals are not inspired. He argues that a person cannot credibly believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture unless it can be proved that the copying of the Bible through the centuries was without error.
Ehrman writes, “The only reason . . . for God to inspire the Bible would be so that his people would have his actual words; but if he really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he had miraculously inspired them in the first place. Given the circumstance that he didn’t preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn’t gone to the trouble of inspiring them.”
A Special Case
If this criterion were applied consistently to any other work of antiquity, I daresay we would have no reliable information about the ancient past. Before the invention of the printing press, variation in copies of ancient texts was considered a natural consequence of having to publish and disseminate books by means of hand copying.
We do not regard these variations as an a priori basis for rejecting the integrity of the originals they represent. But Ehrman does not mind treating the New Testament as a special case.
It is not surprising, therefore, that his description of “errors” in the copies of the New Testament is overblown. He says, for example, that the ancient copies of the New Testament reveal as many as 400,000 or more variant readings. Yet what he does not tell the reader is that these variants are spread over 5,735 extant Greek manuscripts. A high number of variants exists precisely because the surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament are so numerous.
As the great New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger has written, “The textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of material” he has to work with when reconstructing the original text. Ehrman’s readers would have been better served if he had told them that many scholars consider this mountain of evidence to be a testimony to the integrity of the New Testament, not a polemic against it.
Ehrman cites exceptional scribal additions to passages like Mark 16:9–20, John 7:53—8:12, and 1 John 5:7–8, giving the impression that this kind of manipulation of the copies was common fare among the early scribes. But the fact is that the vast majority of textual variants in the New Testament are mundane or unintentional errors that are easily resolved by a comparison of the existing copies.
The number of variants that affect the meaning of the text in any significant way is actually very small, and none of the variants bring into dispute any of the key doctrines of the Christian faith. But the reader would be unaware of these facts if his only exposure to text criticism came from reading Misquoting Jesus.
It does not follow from variations in the textual tradition of the New Testament that the Bible we have is an unreliable document. Sometimes Ehrman speaks as if Evangelicals have never heard of these variants and that if they only knew the truth they would join him in his skepticism. This particular aspect of the book is ironic, given that he admits that his Evangelical teachers at Moody Bible Institute were the very ones who alerted him to the existence of such variations.
Ehrman the Scribe
One of Ehrman’s more controversial claims suggests a manipulation of the manuscript tradition of the New Testament that would require a conspiracy of Da Vinci Code proportions to pull off . As noted above, Ehrman believes that many scribes in the orthodox tradition of Christianity were actively trying to change the Scriptures so as to make them more hostile towards women, Jews, and pagans.
For example, whereas Jesus affirmed the equality of the sexes, the scribes promoted misogyny and were consciously changing the text to make it fit their view. In this way, Ehrman is able to rescue the egalitarian Jesus from the patriarchal scribes who copied the New Testament.
He offers a similar argument with respect to 1 Corinthians 14:34–35. He adopts the view that these verses do not belong to Paul’s original text but were added by a later scribe “who was concerned to emphasize that women should have no public role in the church, that they should be silent and subservient to their husbands.”
Never mind the possibility, one a scholar should take seriously, that such an opinion might actually have been Paul’s view. And never mind the fact that all of our best and most ancient manuscripts contain these verses. Against the hard external evidence, these verses would be dropped from our Bibles altogether if Ehrman had his way. In this case, it appears that Ehrman is the one making theologically motivated changes to the text, not the early scribes.
A Helpful Read?
Misquoting Jesus contains a decent introduction to the discipline of text criticism, a subject that has heretofore been almost exclusively the domain of specialists. Ehrman proves he is adept at communicating difficult material to a lay audience, and, provocateur that he is, he engages the reader in his topic. Nevertheless, his polemical goal muddles his presentation at numerous points.
In advocating the view that the Bible is not inerrant, he overstates the link between variations in the copies and the Evangelical doctrine of inspiration. For this reason, even the careful reader will find it difficult to distinguish the substance from the advocacy. The value of this book is diminished significantly by the omnipresent need to sift the evidentiary wheat from the tendentious chaff.
Denny Burk is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Criswell College in Dallas, Texas, and the author of Articular Infinitives in the Greek of the New Testament (Sheffield Phoenix Press). His weblog can be found at www.dennyburk.com. Currently he is co-sponsoring an effort to amend the doctrinal basis of the Evangelical Theological Society (www.AmendETS.com).