Bart D. Ehrman
Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
Harper San Francisco, 2005
266 pages, trade paperback, $14.95
ISBN 978-0-06-085951-0
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2007 by Gary McGath

Biblical literalism is fatally flawed by the fact that no one knows exactly what the "original text" was. The texts which make up the standard Bible were, in many cases, adaptations of earlier sources, and they were in turn copied over and over by scribes who made intentional or accidental changes. Misquoting Jesus presents a readable history of how the New Testament developed as a selection from a much larger body of text, and how it changed many times afterwards, to the point that it's impossible to be certain what the original text was -- if, indeed, it makes sense to talk about a single "original Bible."

The authorship of many New Testament texts, Ehrman tells us, is in doubt. Peter didn't write the epistles with his name on them. Paul wrote many, but probably not all, of the ones attributed to him. The Gospels are derivative works, based on earlier, lost texts. Different Christian sects had greatly different Gospels; the official four reflect the results of long power struggles.

From there on the issues of copying come into play. In the years B.G. (Before Gutenberg), every copy of a text was made by hand, and almost every one had some differences from the text it was based on. Greek writing of the period had no spaces between words; this created ambiguities and made mistakes easier.

Most errors were simply accidents. A word could be misspelled or a line skipped. Some were intentional, with the goal of clarifying the meaning or avoiding a heretical interpretation. Still others were attempts to correct earlier errors, sometimes actually introducing errors instead. Until the fourth century copyists usually weren't professional scribes, but were simply any literate people who could be recruited.

Then comes the problem of translation. By the time the Latin Vulgate was produced, there were huge numbers of different Greek texts to choose from. Then the Latin text had to be copied by hand in turn.

Are the differences among the various texts significant? Ehrman argues that they are. He notes that several different views of Jesus competed in the early days of Christianity. Some held that he was both entirely human and entirely divine (the standard view of most churches today), but a strong competitor was the "adoptionist" view that he was originally simply a human until God adopted him as his Son. Some Biblical texts may have been changed to avoid any suggestion of adoptionist views. The strongest single verse supporting the doctrine of the Trinity -- the first epistle of John, 5:7 -- isn't found in the earliest copies. Mark originally stopped short of describing Jesus's appearance after his death; another writer added most of Chapter 16. The passage in 1 Corinthians prohibiting women from speaking in church may have been an addition by someone other than Paul.

Ehrman tells us that he started out as a fundamentalist, believing in the literal truth of the Bible, but that as he went deeper into his profession of Biblical scholarship, he kept finding more problems. He came to conclude:

If [God] wanted his people to have his words, surely he would have given them to them (and possibly even given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew). The fact that we don't have the words surely must show, I reasoned, that he did not preserve them for us. And if he didn't perform the miracle, there seemed to be no reason to think that he performed the earlier miracle of inspiring those words.

The Bible, therefore, is "a very human book." But this leads to an obvious question: If the Bible is simply a human product, what claim does Christianity have to credibility? If it wasn't divinely inspired, it has to be judged by the same standards as any other human writings; and claims of miracles and of knowledge about God's will need very strong support to be taken seriously.

Page 218 is followed by acknowledgments and notes, and Ehrman hasn't answered that question. But wait, there's more! In the trade paperback, after the index, there is a "Plus" section with various features. Concealing text in this way is ingenious; you could probably put military secrets after the "Notes" section of a book without fear of detection. (Ehrman knows this: In this hidden section, he says -- about the Bible -- "most people don't read the footnotes!") I only noticed that part after I'd written most of this review, while trying to find some references in the index.

In this section, he discusses his personal views and responses by the book's readers. He states that he is not a Christian but an agnostic. However, his basis for this isn't on the lack of solid foundations for Christianity, but on the problem of suffering. He comes close to saying, but never quite says plainly, that Christianity has no reliable foundation for its claims. But it's easy enough for the reader to arrive at that conclusion.

Last revised September 3, 2007

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