Misquoting Jesus

Misquoting JesusI just read a remarkable book, Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. It tells the story of the centuries long effort to reconstruct the New Testament. Along the way, he provides a lot of information about the early Christians. I find this stuff fascinating, because when I was growing up, the Bible was such a dogmatic thing. It was what it was and, if you were a believer, it was the word of God and no one should brook any disagreement. Thankfully, biblical scholars have shown this not to be true.

Ehrman is an interesting specimen—the kind of scholar I tend to respect. He started off as a Born Again Christian, but his work caused him to become an agnostic. I didn’t know this before I read the book, but his spiritual journey is implicit in the book. And after I finished it, I looked him up on Wikipedia. It impresses me when facts cause anyone to change their opinions, because this so rarely happens.

Misquoting Jesus discusses the various old copies of the New Testament. These include those in the original Greek, as well as translations into Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. Although there are fragments of the New Testament dating back to the first half of the second century, our only complete books date from the end of the third century. Thus, the vast majority of what we know of the original New Testament is taken from copies—probably many generations of copies—of the originals.

These copies were not exact. Before movable type, books had to be copied by hand. As such, they are riddled with errors. Most of these errors are simple and understandable: misspellings, missed words, repeated words. In total, there are at least 200,000 disagreements between the various versions of the New Testament—and it could be as high as 500,000. This is a lot when you consider that the New Testament has only 138,020 words in it. But not all the differences are trivial.

Ehrman lists three major errors in the New Testament, but it is clear that these are just the shining examples. One is a story that liberals love to quote. It is the story of The Woman Taken in Adultery in John 7-8. Jesus is at the temple and a group of Pharisees come up to him and present a woman who they caught in the act of adultery. (Where was the man?) They think they’ve got Jesus because he’s in a double bind. If he says she should be forgiven, he is breaking the Law of Moses. But if he says she should be stoned to death, he shows himself not to be the merciful guy he pretends to be. Jesus thinks for a moment and then says, “Let the one who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.” One by one the Pharisees leave having been defeated. Jesus says, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one who condemns you?” She replies, “No one, Lord.” So he says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

That’s a totally cool story. Unfortunately, it is a later addition to John. It isn’t in the earliest and best versions of John. The style is unlike the rest of John. It uses words that are not used anywhere else. Ehrman claims that pretty much all scholars accept that the story was a later addition.

How then did it come to be added? There are numerous theories about that. Most scholars think that it was probably a well-known story circulating in the oral tradition about Jesus, which at some point was added in the margin of a manuscript. From there some scribe or other thought that the marginal note was meant to be part of the text and so inserted it immediately after the account that ends in John 7:52. It is noteworthy that other scribes inserted the account in different locations in the New Testament—some of them after John 21:25, for example, and others interestingly enough, after Luke 21:38. In any event, whoever wrote the account, it was not John.

Misquoting Jesus is filled with many such rich discussions of the New Testament and its history. He goes on to discuss major publications of the New Testament, how changes come to be made, and most important of all, why those changes where made. In particular, he talks about theological battles between the proto-orthodox Christians (those whose followers became Christians as we know them today) and three competing groups: Adoptionists, Docetists, and Separationists. Adoptionists believed that Jesus was all human and was adopted by God when Jesus was baptized. Docetists believed that Jesus was all God, and often believed he was a different God from the one in the Old Testament. Separationists believed that God lived inside of Jesus and thus allowed him to perform miracles and so on, but that God left before the crucifiction.

Ehrman lays his case on the line: if you are a Christian who wants to get his theology directly from the Bible, you have a lot of work to do:

The King James was not given by God but was a translation by a group of scholars in the early seventeenth century who based their rendition on a faulty Greek text. Later translators based their translations on Greek texts that were better, but not perfect. Even the translation you hold in your hands is affected by these textual problems we have been discussing, whether you are a reader of the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Version, the New King James, the Jerusalem Bible, the Good News Bible, or something else. They are all based on texts that have been changed in places. And there are some places in which modern translations continue to transmit what is probably not the original text.

Misquoting Jesus is an enlightening and fun read. I learned a great deal. But I can see why such knowledge would turn Ehrman into an agnostic. The book has to be difficult for Christians, although I can think of a number of ways one could accept the book and still move forward. Regardless, from an intellectual standpoint, this knowledge is exciting and mind opening.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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