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

by Bart D. Ehrman
HarperSanFrancisco, 2005

review by Mitch Finley

If the title of this book startles you even a tiny bit, that’s just what the publisher wanted. Nonetheless, the contents of this clearly written, competently fashioned tome constitute anything but a news flash. In fact, the historical-critical principles upon which it depends have been around for a good long time, and virtually everything between its covers is very old news, at best.

The readers most likely to be shocked by this book are biblical fundamentalists, but they are also the least likely to read it. So how did this book land on the best-seller list? Based on the runaway popularity of The Da Vinci Code, there’s no shortage of readers looking for a good conspiracy, especially one that questions the sources and content of the Bible.

Misquoting Jesus author Bart Ehrman chairs the Religious Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His earlier books run in the same vein as this one, namely, casting knowledge that biblical scholars have taken for granted for several generations now in such a way as to grab the attention of the person on the street. They include Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew and Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into the New Testament. While the curious reader may find Ehrman’s work helpful, anyone with knowledge of twentieth century Bible scholarship will be hard pressed to stifle a yawn.

Ehrman’s method in this book is to first explain the origins of the Christian scriptures, beginning with the use of the Hebrew scriptures by the first Christians. If this part of the book carries a particular weakness it would be the author’s failure to include any discussion of the connection between the early Christian writings and the faith experience of the early Christian communities—what Roman Catholic scholars refer to as Sacred Tradition. This is puzzling because, since the Oxford Movement in England, Catholic and mainline Protestant Bible scholars have been moving toward unanimous agreement on the importance of this connection. Ehrman’s failure to recognize it makes one wonder if he is doing serious disservice to the general reader.

Ehrman then discusses how the work of early copyists affected the manuscripts that have come down to us through more than twenty centuries. This section of the book passes along information that, again, uninformed readers will find interesting. Ditto for the section that discusses efforts during the Middle Ages to respond to textual differences between various scriptural manuscripts, and ditto for the chapter on methods scholars have used to decide which variant to use when translating the Bible. The fact that this book is a best seller clearly indicates that the Church could have done a better job of educating its own with regards to the Bible’s evolution. Perhaps more knowledge in the pews would have spilled out onto the sidewalk as well.

When the book discusses “theologically motivated alterations of the text,” the information doesn’t misinform or even mislead. But Ehrman neglects to point out that, in fact, the original writers of the New Testament documents were, themselves, “theologically motivated.” Indeed, each of the authors of the four Gospels had unique theological motives.

This is a point where, once again, a connection could have been made with a balanced theology of Sacred Tradition—but wasn’t. A more helpful tactic might have been to weave into this part of the book a responsible theology of divine inspiration and how it may interact even with the work of “theologically motivated” human New Testament writers–and copyists. Again, this capable, though secular educator is leaving the Church with some catch-up work to do.

Misquoting Jesus remains on solid ground when discussing the social and cultural impact on scribes who copied the scriptural documents. Ehrman rightly points out that copyists—like the first writers of the documents—were of their time and place, and this had an impact on how they approached their work. Hence some attitudes in some New Testament documents toward women, Jews, and pagans strike some today as unhelpful.

The author insists that differences—usually insignificant, sometimes significant—between various ancient New Testament manuscripts are “radical” in nature. Says Ehrman:

The more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realized just how radically the text had been altered over the years at the hands of scribes, who were not only conserving scripture but also changing it.

The “radical” questions Ehrman offers as examples of the significance of some textual variances have caused few if any ripples among mainline Protestant and Catholic New Testament scholars, and reasonably well-informed non-scholars. Yet for Ehrman, and presumably for his readers, they seem to constitute an alarming swell.

These are questions such as, “Was Jesus an angry man? Was he completely distraught in the face of death? Did he tell his disciples that they could drink poison without being harmed? Did he let an adulteress off the hook with nothing but a mild warning? Is the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament? Is Jesus actually called the ‘unique God’ there? Does the New Testament indicate that even the Son of God himself does not know when the end will come?”

Certainly these subjects have spawned debate, but for a person of faith, their most radical aspect is the level to which they are elevated. Questions such as these should be taken seriously because they are seen as such by the numerous readers uninformed and unaware of Christianity’s essential story and message. Thus Ehrman has done the Church a service. The status of his book illustrates in concrete terms that when the Church fails to explain its origins and core beliefs, it will be characterized and explained from the outside looking in.


Copyright ©2006 Mitch Finley

Misquoting Jesus
To purchase a copy of MISQUOTING JESUS, visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered users.



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