Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

  • Bart D. Ehrman
  • Feb 1, 2006
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. $24.95. x + 242 pp. ISBN 0-06-073817-0.

It is uncanny how similar Bart Ehrman's and my backgrounds are. I had pieced some bits together from his other writings, but here he takes a fifteen-page introduction to tell his story. We both grew up in mainline Protestant churches in the Midwest (he was Episcopalian; I was Lutheran). We both had a conversion experience through the ministry of Campus Life / Youth for Christ in high school. We both graduated from high school in 1973. We both went on to small, private church-related undergraduate colleges in Illinois (he to Moody Bible Institue; I to Augustana College), then to Chicagoland evangelical schools (he to Wheaton; I to Trinity), and finally to internationally known university with prestigious divinity schools for Ph.D. work (he to Princeton; I to Aberdeen) in order to pursue careers as New Testament scholars and professors. Ehrman has taught for a considerable time now at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and become a prolific author of many widely selling books; I have done likewise here at Denver Seminary. I can also tell from his writings that Bart has a wonderful but slightly sick sense of humor that I suspect is very similar to mine!

Today, nevertheless, Ehrman has distinguished himself as someone who at both the scholarly and popular levels loves to poke fun at conservative Christianity. He has rejected his evangelicalism and whether he is writing on the history of the transmission of the biblical text, focusing on all the changes that scribes made over the centuries, or on the so-called "lost gospels" and "lost Christianities," trying to rehabilitate our appreciation for Gnosticism, it is clear that he has an axe to grind. It is, however, not nearly as sharp as was the one of the late Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar and ex-Southern fundamentalist, or of living scholars like Robert Price or Gerd Lüdemann. At times Ehrman wields it seemingly just playfully. Thus, in his book-length work on the historical Jesus published by no less than Oxford University Press, while illustrating how words change their meaning over time, he uses the example of "dude," which once meant a cowboy (or a "pretty boy"), then became the equivalent of "man," and now is just an exclamation at the beginning of a sentence. But he inserts into his discussion how he disgusted his son by explaining that the term was also once used for camels' gonads!

Most of Misquoting Jesus is actually a very readable, accurate distillation of many of the most important facts about the nature and history of textual criticism, presented in a lively and interesting narrative that will keep scholarly and lay interest alike. In this respect, the title appears designed to attract attention and sell copies of the book rather than to represent its contents accurately! Successive chapters treat, in brief, (1) the formation of the Hebrew and Christian canons, (2) the mechanics of copying a text in the ancient world and in the early transmission of the Christian Scriptures, (3) highlights in the history of the production of increasingly critical editions of a reconstructed Greek New Testament, along with the kinds of changes, both accidental and intentional, that scribes introduced into the thousands of manuscripts still in our possession, thus necessitating those reconstructions, (4) key post-Reformation textual critics involved with the production of the most well-known reconstructions, from Simon to Westcott and Hort, (5) modern methods of textual criticism, combining external and internal evidence, with several of the more interesting examples of significant changes in the New Testament, (6) more tantalizing examples of theologically motivated changes, and (7) similar examples where the social world of the scribes led them to introduce changes in the meanings of their exemplars. A brief conclusion returns to his personal story, reiterating how, in light of the numerous changes that preclude us from saying we either have the original texts or can perfectly reconstruct them, he finds it impossible to hold to biblical inerrancy or inspiration (or even less strict forms of evangelical Christian faith) and insinuates (without ever saying so in so many worlds) that reasonable persons should come to similar conclusions.

Thus a substantial majority of this book provides information already well-known and well-accessible in other sources, such as Bruce Metzger's works on the text and transmission of the New Testament (including one that Ehrman himself recently helped to revise), but in slightly more popular form that is likely to reach a wider audience. What most distinguishes the work are the spins Ehrman puts on some of the data at numerous junctures and his propensity for focusing on the most drastic of all the changes in the history of the text, leaving the uninitiated likely to think there are numerous additional examples of various phenomena he discusses when there are not. Thus his first extended examples of textual problems in the New Testament are the woman caught in adultery and the longer ending of Mark. After demonstrating how neither of these is likely to be part of the originals of either Gospel, Ehrman concedes that "most of the changes are not of this magnitude" (p. 69). But this sounds as if there are at least a few others that are of similar size, when in fact there are no other textual variants anywhere that are even one-fourth as long as these thirteen- and twelve-verse additions.

A second supposition necessary for Ehrman's case is that the non-professional scribes that he postulates did most of the copying of New Testament documents until the fourth-century, when Constantine became the first emperor to commission new copies of the Bible, did not do nearly as careful a job as the professional scribes that he postulates did most of the post-Constantinian copying. Not only are both of these postulates unprovable (though certainly possible), the actual textual evidence of the second and third centuries, though notably sparser than for later centuries, does not demonstrate the sufficiently greater fluidity in the textual tradition that would be necessary to actually support the hypothesis that we cannot reconstruct the most likely originals with an exceedingly high probability of accuracy, even if that probability remains in the high 90s rather than at 100 %.

Ehrman's discussion of Erasmus and the famous Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7-8) is both lucid and entertaining. But, again, what is lacking is any acknowledgment that there is no other known example in all of the history of textual criticism of a similar insertion to a critical Greek text being made on the basis of only one, most likely altered, late medieval manuscript. Moreover, Ehrman writes as if the doctrine of the Trinity stands or falls with this spurious addition, which ignores the numerous other Trinitarian references in the New Testament.

One of the most valuable and least duplicated parts of the book comes in the chapters that discuss theologically and sociologically motivated changes. Ehrman's revision to Metzger's standard textbook introduces several of these as well, though more briefly, but most primers on the discipline largely ignore them. It is very helpful to understand how Mark's probable reference to Jesus' anger in Mark 1:41 (rather than compassion) fits his overall presentation of Jesus, just as Luke's original "omission" of Jesus sweating great drops of blood in the garden in Luke 24:43-44 reflects his picture of a more "imperturbable" Christ. Ehrman's suggestion that Hebrews 2:9 originally read that Christ tasted death "apart from God" rather than "by the grace of God" seemingly founders on the sheer paucity of external evidence for the reading. But if Origen was right that the reading stood in the majority of manuscripts of his day, then perhaps it was original. No unorthodox theology results (recall the cry of dereliction in the Gospels), but one can see why the vast majority of scribess would have adopted the reading that is far better known today.

Perhaps the only example in these chapters that is altogether unconvincing, notwithstanding evangelical scholar Gordon Fee's having championed it, is the idea that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 was missing from Paul's original text, simply because a few very late manuscripts have moved the verses to the end of the chapter (where they flow much more naturally), and because a few older manuscripts include marginal signs that might point to some kind of textual question (but even this could be adequately accounted for by doubts about the location of the verses). Few textual critics of any theological stripe (including Fee) elsewhere accept as probable suggestions that the originals of any New Testament book read differently from all known copies, because of the sheer number and antiquity of the copies that we have, until a passage becomes too awkward for their overall theological systems (and even then most seek some other resolution of the tension than textual emendation).

One surprising factual error occurs when Ehrman insists that Acts 4:13 means that Peter and John were illiterate (the term agrammatos "unlettered" in this context means not educated beyond the elementary education accessible to most first-century Jewish boys). But otherwise, the most disappointing feature of the volume is Ehrman's apparent unawareness of (or else his unwillingness to discuss) the difference between inductive and deductive approaches to Scripture. The classic evangelical formulations of inspiration and inerrancy have never claimed that these are doctrines that arise from the examination of the data of the existing texts. They are theological corollaries that follow naturally from the conviction that God is the author of the texts (itself suggested by 2 Tim. 3:16, Jesus' own high view of Scripture and his conviction that the Spirit had yet more truth to inspire his followers to record). But if the texts are "God-breathed," and if God cannot err, then they must be inspired and inerrant.

Ehrman offers no supporting arguments for his claims that if God inspired the originals, he both could have and should have inerrantly preserved them in all subsequent copies. It would have been a far greater miracle to supernaturally guide every copyist and translator throughout history than to inspire one set of original authors, and in the process it probably would have violated the delicate balance between the humanity and divinity of the Bible analogous to the humanity and divinity of Christ. All that is necessary is for us to have reason to believe that we can reconstruct something remarkably close to the originals, and we have evidence for that in abundance. No central tenet of Christianity hangs on any textually uncertain passage; this observation alone means that Christian textual critics may examine the variants that do exist dispassionately and without worrying that their faith is somehow threatened in the ways that Ehrman came to believe.

So what was the biggest difference between Bart's and my religious and educational experiences? It would appear that it was our undergraduate tutelage. I went to a liberal Lutheran liberal arts college that was rapidly changing its approach to religious studies to try to conform to the secular university model, despite its Christian heritage, yet my studies demonstrated to me that it was needlessly running too fast too far. Ehrman went to Moody, which one of my profs at Augustana in the 1970s called the "control group" for a longitudinal study of the teaching of religious studies at Illinois colleges and universities in which I participated as a college senior. Only slightly tongue in cheek, he called it the one school that had not changed any of its views since the nineteenth century. Ehrman recognized the overly conservative and insufficiently accurate positions that he was at times taught there, and he too rebelled against unnecessarily narrow and dogmatic professors, only on the right side of the theological spectrum rather than on the left. Yet I can still hear my eighth grade history teacher, herself once a local Republican politician, repeating again and again, "The far left and the far right: avoid them both, like the plague!" I'd like to think I've done a slightly better job of that than Ehrman has.

Our entire family, however, can thank Bart for one wonderful illustration of the occasional problem of word-division that confronts interpreters of manuscripts that print words together without spaces -- "lastnightatdinnerIsawabundanceonthetable" (p. 48). This illustration will now go down in Blomberg family lore because of certain forms of dancing our girls have invented when I showed the word cluster to them. And who knows? Perhaps Bart was thinking only of a piece of bread!

Craig L. Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
February 2006

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