Misquoting Jesus

Fundamentalism is by no means a dead strand of Christianity. Still today there are many who believe that the Bible is the inerrant and unchanging word of god, the only book in history to be amazingly preserved in static and unaltered form for nearly 2,000 years. According to a 2006 Gallup poll, 28% of Americans think the Bible is the actual word of god, to be taken literally and word-for-word, while 49% believe it to be inspired, though not always literal, and a mere 19% recognize it as a combination of fables, historical tales, and moral precepts.1 Undoubtedly, a dissenting opinion will stir up this crowd of comfortable followers, but what does the evidence tell us about the nature of the biblical text?

Bart Ehrman is a New Testament scholar who received his Ph.D and Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studied under the eminent New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger. He is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has authored more than twenty books, most of which focus on textual criticism and the New Testament.

I. Why It Matters

There is no small number of books that attempt to prove how the Bible has been changed and altered through history. Where Dr. Ehrman’s book differs from many of these is in the wealth of knowledge brought to the table. The author is not some disgruntled ex-Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, or an atheist with an agenda of discrediting the Bible, he is a professor of New Testament studies, educated at a prestigious seminary. The subtitle to Ehrman’s book is, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, but it is not an attack on the value or importance of the New Testament, it is more like an explanation and history on the method of textual criticism applied to the Bible by most biblical scholars today. It is intended to give some insight to the layperson into the debates and issues raised in New Testament scholarship and how they are dealt with, as Ehrman himself states.2

In the introduction, Dr. Ehrman describes his journey into the New Testament and textual criticism. Having a religious experience as a high school sophomore, Ehrman began attending youth groups and took fondly to a young man named Bruce, whose depth of biblical knowledge was impressive and envious. Feeling challenged to devote further study to his faith, Ehrman enrolled in Moody Bible Institute, a highly conservative seminary in Chicago, and then proceeded to Wheaton College after graduation, and finally completed his education at Princeton Theological Seminary. During his college years, he was introduced to the doctrines of biblical inerrancy and inspiration.

Biblical inerrancy is the view that the Bible contains no mistakes, and to say that the Bible is inspired means that the authors of its books were guided by god, or the Holy Spirit, to record precisely the message that god intended to communicate to mankind. Subsequent translations may have errors, but the original texts are flawless. However, as Ehrman himself came to realize in his studies, the big problem with this view is that we don’t actually have the original documents of the New Testament (or any of the Bible, for that matter). Textual criticism then, as Ehrman explains, is “the technical term for the science of restoring the ‘original’ words of a text from manuscripts that have altered them” (p. 5). What makes him think that the New Testament manuscripts have been altered?

II. The History of the New Testament and its Changes

For the first three chapters, we are introduced to the history of Christian scripture, from the earliest writings to the scribes that copied those writings to the texts that were canonized into the Bible we are familiar with today. In the absence of the printing press, or any way to standardize texts, Ehrman argues that mistakes were inevitably made. The difficulties are discussed on the translation of Greek to other languages (p. 48), the troubling illiteracy rate of Jesus’ time that likely meant texts were produced simply by those believers literate enough and willing to write (p. 51), and the concerns among the early apologists and critics of Christianity over differences in the manuscripts that resulted (p. 52). Examples are provided, as well as a few photographs of the alterations and marginal notes made in some of the earliest manuscripts.

From the text itself, examples like the pericope adulterae and the ending of Mark are mentioned. Ehrman points out that the story of Jesus and the adulteress (John 7:53-8:12) is not found in the best and earliest manuscripts, and it includes a writing style and vocabulary that are unusual to the rest of John’s gospel (p.65). The ending of Mark (16:9-20), he says, is also not in the oldest and best manuscripts, the writing style and vocabulary differ from the rest of Mark, and the transition into the passage from 16:8 is hard to understand (p. 67). In fact, both of these examples are so problematic that they warrant attention in many modern Bibles. My own NIV translation features a break in the text that informs the reader that the passages are absent from “[t]he earliest manuscripts and many ancient witnesses”.

Professional scribes were not involved in copying the New Testament until the time of Constantine, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, no longer that of social outcasts persecuted for their beliefs (p. 72). It was Constantine who standardized Christian scripture in the 4th century by commissioning the bishop Eusebius to produce 50 Bibles for the churches of the empire. To do this, scriptoriums were created where professional scribes worked to make elegant copies of Christianity’s sacred texts. Up until the advent of moveable type, monks and scribes continued this meticulous method of copying the writings.

Dr. Ehrman then goes on to describe the production of the Latin Vulgate, the first editions of the Greek New Testament, and the variants found in those editions by John Mill, when he compared them to other manuscripts. These variations are discussed as both accidental changes and intentional changes. In summary of the situation, Ehrman tells us there are “more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament” (p. 90).

III. Finding the Original Text by Finding Changes

The remaining chapters in Misquoting Jesus turn to how Christian theologians have attempted to reconcile these variations, and how modern scholars continue to use textual criticism in consideration of the New Testament. Chapter five focuses on methods scholars use to determine what the original reading of a text may be and which readings are scribal additions. The reliability of the manuscripts themselves is taken into account, as well as the internal tone, theme, and style of each text. Ehrman illustrates this with a discussion of Mark 1:41, where he believes most English translations incorrectly state that Jesus “felt compassion” for a leper who begged for healing. Dr. Ehrman argues that the translation of a Greek word as “compassion” is a mistranslation, and should be translated instead as “anger”. He makes his case by referring to other parts of Mark where Jesus is called angry, and notes how Jesus actually rebukes the leper “severely” in the story, which seems more in keeping with a feeling of anger than a feeling of compassion.

Is anger really characteristic of Jesus though? In challenging the question, Ehrman sets up an important point about examining New Testament alterations. If a scribe changed a text, it is more likely that they changed it to harmonize with other passages or with a theological view, as opposed to intentionally favoring a more difficult or confusing translation. Such a question of whether anger is characteristic of Jesus may indeed be the thought that led a scribe to assume that a not-so-clear Greek word should be translated “compassion” (SPLANGNISTHEIS) and not “anger” (ORGISTHEIS). We cannot simply expect that a translation which makes the most sense to us is necessarily correct, and this is one of the problems textual critics face.

In chapter six, Dr. Ehrman describes some of the alterations of New Testament manuscripts that seem to have theological motivations behind them. Early Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd century was not as cohesive as some of us may think, but involved a great number of competing sects, all with startlingly different takes on Jesus’ message and identity. Theologians like Origen and Tertullian wrote several tractates denouncing these groups, and it seems that changes made in some New Testament documents were made with the intent of disallowing alternative interpretations that could serve to support the views of these ‘heretics’. To oppose some who considered Jesus only human, Ehrman claims that early manuscripts of 1 Timothy 3:16 read of Jesus, “who was made manifest in the flesh”, instead of being “God made manifest in the flesh” as translations testify today. Ehrman also notes in chapter four that the 18th century theologian J.J. Wettstein observed that the Greek word for “who” had been altered in a different ink in the Codex Alexandrinus to read as, “God” (p. 113).

Chapter seven covers alterations to the New Testament manuscripts that were motivated by social values of the time. Ehrman argues that passages railing against women and Jews were later additions. On pages 183-184, for example, he claims that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 was probably not in the original text because of its conflict with 1 Corinthians 11, the fact that it appears shuffled around in other manuscripts, and that it seems out of place in the surrounding context. While this may seem persuasive, Ehrman’s comments on anti-Semitic Bible verses are a little weak. He quotes 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15, but makes no attempt to chalk it up to interpolation, despite how it expressly lays blame for the death of Jesus entirely on the Jews. Even though Titus is not considered an authentic writing of Paul by most scholars, no discussion of the anti-Semitism in Titus 1:10-14 is offered at all.

Through all these methods, textual critics sift through the manuscripts of the New Testament to find signs of editing, to thereby gain some insight into what the original documents might have said. It’s not merely as simple as looking at the earliest copies, because even those may have become corrupted, and later copies may have actually been copied from even earlier sources. The job of the textual critic involves knowledge of theology, history, literary techniques, and so much more. The biblical literalism and inerrancy of fundamentalists only serves to harm Christianity and the search for truth. That the New Testament has been altered is easily apparent, and it is only by admitting this and seriously looking for and examining these alterations that we can have much of any hope to understand the message of the original, unedited text.

IV. An Accessible Read on New Testament Textual Criticism

You might think that a book dedicated to critiquing the New Testament and pointing out errors in it would have some negative things to say about the scribes who directly or indirectly caused these errors, but Misquoting Jesus is not about finding someone to blame. To read a text is to interpret it, as Dr. Ehrman explains, and many of the mistakes in the manuscripts were no doubt made by well meaning people, who may not have even been aware of their mistakes. The notion of Christian scripture being handed down from heaven by god, perfect and without error still today as it was in the first century, is a relatively recent myth. Even a cursory glance at history shows how freely the New Testament was translated time and time again with little desire for preserving the text exactly as the earliest manuscripts had it.

Bart Ehrman’s book is interesting not just to see some of the ways in which the New Testament has changed, but to understand just how much and how easily any text can change. It gives one a real appreciation of the men and women who spend their lives diving deep into these writings that have so shaped the course of human history for almost 2,000 years now. It is no easy task to uncover the original meaning of a text, especially one as susceptible to evoking controversy as the Bible. For that reason, this will certainly not be a book all will enjoy. Staunch fundamentalists have already written their own flagrant denouncements of it, like the early Christians of days long past once railed against their critics. However, I think there’s something for everyone here, whether they consider the Bible to be inerrant, inspired, or the work of fallible men like the rest of us. Chapters one through four, at least, provide fascinating details on the origins of Christian scripture, which I doubt most Christians would find fault with.

Misquoting Jesus was one book that I had a tough time putting down. Dr. Ehrman has quite a knack for translating complex theological issues and scholarly discussion into language that the layperson can understand and maintain an interest in. The chapters are brief enough to read at a comfortable pace and the illustrations with each chapter provide a nice further connection to the subject matter, when it can be easy to get mentally lost in a book like this. For anyone curious about the history of the New Testament, the changes that have been made to it, and the discipline of textual criticism, this comes highly recommended.


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1. (2006) Twenty-Eight Percent Believe Bible Is Actual Word Of God. Gallup.com. Retrieved Dec. 16, 2009.
2. Ehrman, B. (2005) Misquoting Jesus. HarperCollins: New York. p.14-15.

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