Book Review: Misquoting Jesus

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (Plus)
by Bart D. Ehrman

Clear and respectful exposition of a hot topic

In spite of the provocative title, "Misquoting Jesus" is very respectful of Scriptures - so much so that it willing to tell the truth about them. Bart Ehrman does his typically great job of explaining a difficult topic -- in this case, the history, operation and findings of biblical textual criticism -- to a lay audience. Ehrman's journey as a textual critic has been a long and difficult one, and it seems to have knocked him off-balance, at least for a time. Starting as a fundamentalists of the fundamentalists (to paraphrase Paul) he decided to study scripture. His first epiphany was when he asked himself, if the Bible is God's word, then why do I have to learn Greek and Hebrew to understand it? This question led to others, culminating in a nuanced and complex understanding of the Bible and its history -- as told by the ways scribes have changed the Bible itself.

Ehrman discusses the history of the Bible's transmission through the centuries-- via scribes whose literacy was sometimes comprised only by their ability to copy the shape of letters from an old copy to a new, without understanding their meaning. This was eye-opening for me, but Ehrman supports his contentions with evidence that is sometimes funny and always persuasive. Ehrman helps us to understand the world from the scribe's point of view, as they miss and repeat words, misunderstand abbreviations and (as they listen to dictation) write down homonyms that sound the same but mean vastly different things.

Ehrman gives us a glimpse at the history of biblical textual criticism. We learn how we got the Vulgate, St. Jerome's 4th-century translation of scriptures into Latin, and about 16th-century scholar Erasmus's rush to be the first to print a Greek New Testament. Erasmus's slapdash work then became a basis for the King James Bible, a translation still considered sacrosanct and untouchable by many. Through Ehrman, we learn of the great men whose work lay the foundations for modern biblical scholarship. We also learn of the tens of thousands of variant readings of Scripture that exist. It is this variation that causes consternation for those who believe the Bible to be unblemished and inerrant, and prompts delight for scholars who use the variants to piece together the original words, and to determine the theological biases of the scribes who introduced the variants into the text.

Ehrman is not on a mission to destroy the sacredness, the authority of the Church or to downplay the teaching of Jesus. He seemed constantly poised to deliver a death blow to the basic authenticity of the Bible. But mostly, he delivered examples that show the conservatism of even the most interventionist of scribes. Most of the variants, Ehrman admits, are insignificant -- misspellings and such. Interestingly, the truly significant variants are mostly tentative add-ons to the text, where a scribe changed one unpalatable word, but left the rest of the text alone. Textual critics identify these "patches," note their mismatch with the surrounding text, and propose solutions that bring us closer to the originals. Ehrman shows how variants can tell us much about the struggle for ideas that was the history of the Church. Ehrman identifies texts that were used against heretics like Marcion, against Jews, against gnostics and against women. Difficult texts, says Ehrman -- those that contradict what we would like the Scriptures to say, may well be the most accurate. For instance, in Mark 1:40-45, Jesus encounters a leper hoping to be cleansed. Most translation say that Jesus, filled with compassion, touched and healed the man. But some variants say that Jesus grew *angry* before healing him. Which is correct, and why? Ehrman argues that the variant in which Jesus becomes angry fits better into Mark's overall presentation of Jesus, and may therefore be original.

Ehrman's greatest sin is the way he vastly overstates his case. Perhaps this is due to his extremely conservative starting point (one shared by his more vituperative critics and reviewers) which cannot tolerate even the suggestion of the hand of Man in the Bible. Perhaps Ehrman's seeming overreaction (and the consequent lack to deliver) is akin to the doctor who warns that a procedure will hurt, bringing relief to the patient when he delivers only a minor sting. More darkly, perhaps Ehrman really believes that his work brings the Bible into such disrepute that he has lost faith in its divine authorship. But one need not believe that God inspired the Scriptures by literally dictating his words to scribes. One need not believe, along with the simpleminded, that Jesus had scribblers in his entourage. There are solutions to the divine authorship of the Bible that don't require the unsupported belief in its inerrancy posited by the fundamentalists nor the utter rejection of atheists. Some sort of imperfect, mysterious divine-human cooperation is an alternative, supported by mainstream scholars, which Ehrman's work certainly supports.

"Misquoting Jesus" is a terrific primer to the obscure field of textual criticism, especially as applied to the Bible. Though it provides many examples to illustrate Ehrman's points, it is not an exhaustive study of the discipline, but ably and gently leads Bible lovers to a new level of understanding of their holy book. There is no question that Ehrman simplifies his presentation. For instance, he gives us little insight into which textual criticisms are generally accepted and which are hotly debated. Some might see this book as a way for Ehrman to rush his own opinions into print. But Erhman backs up each of his contentions with logic and plausible theories. At the very least, the reader gains enough knowledge to follow the argument.

Ehrman's book helps us to be more careful about selecting biblical translations, and helps us appreciate the work of the legion of scholars who try to parse out the real meaning in its many verses. It lets us see through the gauze of false piety to understand and appreciate the differing worldviews and intentions of the Bible's writers and scribes, letting them speak for themselves. Above all, "Misquoting Jesus" helps us to see that the Bible cannot be read apart from the personalities and world-views of those who wrote it, those who copied it, those who translated it or those who read it. As such, it is a living document.

Which when you think of it, may have been its Inspirer's idea all along.