Misquoting Jesus. Bart D. Ehrman

First, I’d like to thank my friend Patrick for sending this to me as a Chrstmas present. I had read a review of it in the local paper, but probably would not have read it on my own without receiving it as a gift. But now that I’ve read it I am glad that I did. Thanks Patrick!

Second, let me quote 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

More on that in a bit.

The book is sort of a layman’s introduction to textual criticism. Though I’m no expert, I have studied this a little in a New Testament class in college many years ago. Dr. Ehrman is considered one of the worlds experts in this field at this point. It’s funny, as Kelly is pretty sure he taught her New Testament class many years ago at UNC, where Dr. Ehrman is a professor. And I have the Teaching Company’s New Testament course on CD, which is taught by Dr. Ehrman. In that, he argues that Jesus was an Apocalyptic Prophet (and not the son of God).

I would venture to say that many Christians would find this book offensive. I, however, found it very good. While I have known that there are some descrepancies between the manuscripts of the New Testament in existence, I had never really dug into some of the more interesting ones. Overall the book does a great job of discussing the types of changes made and why they were changed. At one end is those minor accidental changes such as a misspelled word, while on the other are changes made for theological reasons.

I won’t go into any specific examples here, even though I had dog-eared several pages of them. But in the conclusion one thing I found quite interesting is how he shows that Luke and Matthew, which most scholars agree are based on Mark, actually changed Mark for their own purposes. The evidence here is compelling. And the opinion of Ehrman strikes me as the correct one to have:

The point is that Luke changed the tradition he inherited. Readers completely misinterpret Luke if they fail to realize this — as happens, for example, when they assume that Mark and Luke are saying the same thing about Jesus. If they are not saying the same thing, it is not legitmate to assume they are — for example, by taking what Mark says, and taking what Luke says, then taking what Matthew and John say, and then melding them all together, so that Jesus says and does all the things that each of the Gospel writers indicates. Anyone who interprets the Gospels this way is not letting each author have his own say…

There are a couple other items I want to quote here. I should not that Dr. Ehrman became a born again Christian in his high school years, and then went on to study further, 1st (in his own words) to a very fundamentalist school (Moody), and later a more liberal school (Wheaton), and then to an even more liberal school (Princeton), and eventually he “lost” his faith. That context may be useful in some of these quotes:

[on one of his professors] But he was not afraid of asking questions of his faith. At the time, I took it as a sign of weakness…; eventually, I saw it as a real committment to truth and as being willing to open oneself up to the possibility that one’s views need to be revised in light of further knowledge and life experience.

I suppose when I started my studies I had a rather unsophisticated view of reading: that the point of reading a text is simply to let the text “speak for itself,” to uncover the meaning inherent in its words. The reality, I came to see, is that meaning is not inherent and texts do not speak for themselves. If texts could speak for themselves, then everyone honestly and openly reading a text would agree on what the text says. But interpretations of texts abound, and people in fact do not agree on what the texts mean.

Now, back to 2 Timothy 3:16… Dr. Ehrman tells us that he came to the conclusion that the Bible is a very human book, and has been from the very beginning. He decided that it could not be the inerrant word of God, and that it could not be God “inspired” (God breathed). I think he actually does a nice job of not trying to shove this view down his readers throats. While there are a few places in the book where I felt he was being a bit flippant to others with a more hard-line view of scripture as the inerrant word of God, overall he kept the bias out of it pretty well, and just presented evidence that there have indeed been changes by humans, especially early on before professional scribes got involved, and that some of those changes do have theological implications.

(One example of this — perhaps flippant is not the right word here — is the title “Misquoting Jesus.” That’s a title that was chosen, in my mind, to create a stir and therefore generate more sales. Maybe that was the publishser’s decision. 🙂 )

I’d like to add one more note. In “The Case for Christ,” Lee Strobel has a chapter on this very subject. At one point there is a statement that the New Testament has survived 99.5% in tact, which of course doesn’t really jibe with this book which talks of hundreds of thousands of differences. (And in fact, in the Case for Christ, there is mention of hundreds of thousands of differences as well. However, it goes on to argue that the majority are minor and I’m supposing that’s where this percentage comes from, though that is not 100% clear.)

Granted, Ehrman does say that the majority are non-consequential, but he does point out some that do have theological implicaitons. Strobel, in the form of an interview of expert Bruce Metzger, says that none of the changes put any doctrine in jeoprody. (It’s interesting that Ehrman studied under Metger at Princeton.) At any rate, here are two experts that seem to be disagreeing. Ehrman shows some examples that do have theological implications; Metzger says no doctrines are in jeoprody.

While I’m no expert, I lean toward’s Metzger’s interpretation. In none of the examples Ehrman gives did I feel my faith being challenged by any of the textual differences, even though they were profound. However, I think that Ehrman has made the decision that because we don’t have the inerrant word of God, that he can not believe Jesus is the son of God. He has not lost belief that Jesus existed or was an important figure, as he argues in the New Testament CD course I have.

So, finally, do I recommend this? I can say that if you are a Christian with a strong belief that the Bible is inerrant, this book will probably frustrate you. However, if you are an atheist that likes to keep abreast of such things, or an agnostic who is not sure, or a Christian with a more open mind about this subject, then you certainly should read it.

I have come out stronger in my faith with a deeper understanding of the book that guides my beliefs.

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