Review: Misquoting Jesus - Bart D. Ehrman  

Monday, February 23, 2009

When I was young and I asked my parents questions about religion they encouraged me to study Biblical history. I've always been fascinated with it, even no when I no longer believe, maybe especially after I no longer believe.

My first doubts about religion stemmed from learning how the books of the Bible came to be the accepted text. I don't understand how the logic makes sense to so many, but basically the books of the Bible came to be the accepted text because they validated each other. Books that did not validate the selected books were discarded, sometimes completely destroyed.

You'll hear apologists that say otherwise:

The canon of Scripture was NOT formed by the declaration of a church council any more than Isaac Newton created the law of gravity. Rather, as written revelation came from God through God's chosen writers, the people of God recognized God's voice and affirmed that the writing was indeed the word of God.
Right, just as people hear conflicting words from that same source today.

But it was that exact circular reasoning that first caused me to doubt. And as I came to doubt the Bible I came to doubt the entire belief system. If Christianity was based on the Bible then the Bible had to be a solid text, otherwise how could I believe? It never lost faith on that one thought, but the crack persisted and no amount of shoring up could erase it.

Another myth I was told throughout my childhood that the Bible was 100% accurate. All translations had shown that the book was painstakingly translated, by miracle, from one text to another completely intact. The Dead Sea scrolls were a miracle in themselves, validating that the translations were inerrant.

And even though I had doubts about the selections and origins of the text, I had no problem swallowing the myth of a text copied over the millennium without one character changed.

And that's why, even now as a non-believer, I find Ehrman enlightening. I no longer believed the text was miraculously unchanged from ancient times, but I didn't know anything about textual criticism.

In Misquoting Jesus Ehrman outlines the ways in which the text was changed. Many scholars argue that the text was changed only in small, unimportant ways, but Ehrman shows how large changes to core beliefs of Christianity (change of text to support the trinity and additions of text to support a resurrection) can be inferred by examining differences in early editions.

He even goes so far to say that we will never know what the original authors wrote, because all of the original editions are lost.
Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that the scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today (and they didn't even have dictionaries, let alone spell check). Even so, what is one to make of all these differences? If one wants to insist that God inspired the very words of scripture, what would be the point if we don't have the very words of scripture? In some places, as we will see, we simply cannot be sure that we have reconstructed the original text accurately. It's a bit hard to know what the words of the Bible mean if we don't even know what the words are!

So if we don't know what the original text is and if we can only trust the text to validate itself, then what are we left with?
The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied, and changed, the texts of the scripture, so too had human authors originally written the texts of scripture. This was a human book from beginning to end. It was written by different human authors at different times and in different places to address different needs. Many of these authors no doubt felt they were inspired by God to say what they did, but they had their own perspectives, their own beliefs, their own views, their own needs, their own desires, their own understandings, their own theologies; and these perspectives, beliefs, views, needs, desires, understandings, and theologies informed everything they said. In all these ways they differed from one another.


Many Christians, of course, have never held this literalistic view of the Bible in the first place, and for them such a view might seem completely one-sided and unnuanced (not to mention bizarre and unrelated to matters of faith). There are, however, plenty of people around who still see the Bible this way. Occasionally I see a bumper sticker that reads: "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it." My response is always, What if God didn't say it? What if they book you take as giving you god's words instead contains human words? What if the Bible doesn't give a foolproof answer to the questions of the modern age - abortion, women's rights, gay rights, religious supremacy, Western-style democracy, and the like? What if we have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting up the Bible as a false idol - or an oracle that gives us reasons to for thinking that, in fact, the Bible is not the kind of inerrant guide to our lives: among other things, as I've been pointing out, in many places we (as scholars, or just regular readers) don't even know what the original words of the Bible actually were.

My dad called the other day and we were talking about school. For someone who's so big on education, it startles me how much little he knows about the origin and history of the Bible. And as we talked about the reasons why both of us enjoyed learning he said, "That's one thing they can never take away from you - knowledge." I felt like shouting a hearty Hallelujah!

And I have to say a thanks to Ehrman for sharing another piece of knowledge.

Vinny also has a good review of the book at You Call This Culture?

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7 comments: to “ Review: Misquoting Jesus - Bart D. Ehrman

  • Mamacita Chilena
    Monday, February 23, 2009 at 5:20:00 PM CST  

    Absolutely fascinating post O.G.

    I think the best point is probably the last quoted paragraph when he points out that no matter how "Godly" these authors may have been their perspectives are shaped by THEIR lives. I've had that argument many a time with my Christian friends trying to tell them, I could sort of kind of see your reasoning in accepting the Bible as a general guideline kind of thing...but as an absolute be-all, end-all rule way.

    Also, even just take the King James version of the Bible. I know that's the one that was most widely used when I was a kid...and that Bible had things in it that were reworded to better fit King James' idea of life. I mean, he was royalty...of COURSE he was going to make the Bible conveniently follow the rules he wanted people to obey.

  • Anonymous
    Monday, February 23, 2009 at 6:18:00 PM CST  

    Good review. Ehrman explains things very clearly. When I read his book, I already knew a bit about textual criticism. Still, I learned a lot about the whole enterprise from him. If you haven't read Ehrman's Lost Christianites yet, you may want to do so. He explains a lot about the rivalries between the early Christian sects without falling into the trap of presenting the "orthodox" view as the right ones and all the competing views as heresies that clearly needed to be purged.

  • Symptomy
    Monday, February 23, 2009 at 6:37:00 PM CST  

    I like that part about scribes, it kinda reminds one that we all put our panties on one leg @ a time.

    I think it would be a scary thought to any religion would be the revelation that faith is based on lie. I've seen firsthand what that means on a personal level, but imagine a large scale realization. I think armageddon could become self prophecy if that were to happen.

    Personally I'm beginning to wonder if that's what it would take to see real change.

  • Anonymous
    Monday, February 23, 2009 at 11:08:00 PM CST  

    Lost Christianities ... I knew Ehrman's name was familiar.

    I can identify a lot with this post: historically believing that the Bible's existence was as miraculous and divine as the accounts therein, then suddenly waking up to the reality that it was written by a bunch of men and canonized for political reasons.

    I haven't read either the aforementioned Ehrman books, but I hope to get to Lost Christianities someday.

    Good post OG

  • Ordinary Girl
    Wednesday, February 25, 2009 at 10:24:00 AM CST  

    Mamacita: Good point on the King James version.

    Chappy: I'll have to look up the Lost Christianites.

    Symptomy: Yes, especially the early untrained scribes.

    Davo: Thanks!

  • Scotty
    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 1:23:00 AM CST  

    Interesting point about validation, OG - I once heard that given as a reason for why the Apocrypha were excluded from the Bible, that and the fact that one of those books was written by a woman.

  • Anders
    Saturday, September 19, 2009 at 12:39:00 PM CDT  

    "My first doubts about religion stemmed from learning how the books of the "

    Indeed the Christian Bible are redacted....

    The Jewish Bible is not... The MSS of the Jewish Bible found shows very few differences (some scribal errors).

    A proof for the existence of an Intelligent Creator and His purpose is found at the blog (left menu).


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