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Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
Bart D. Ehrman
HarperOne, 2005
256 pp., 24.95

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Robert H. Gundry


Death by hardening of the categories.

The first thing to say about Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus is that it has little to do with misquoting Jesus.1 You'd think from the subtitle, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, that the main title signals an exposé of postbiblical changes of what Jesus actually said as recorded in the Bible. But not only does Ehrman disbelieve that the Bible always records what Jesus actually said. He also devotes most of his book to parts of the Bible that don't pretend to be quoting Jesus at all. None of his three parade examples of changes—from Jesus' "becoming angry" to "feeling compassion" in Mark 1:41, from nothing at all about Jesus' blood-like sweat to its later insertion in Luke 22:43–44, and from Jesus' tasting death "apart from God" to doing so "by the grace of God" in Hebrews 2:8–9—deals with what Jesus purportedly said.

Of Ehrman's 36 lesser examples of textual changes, 22 have nothing to do with the reported words of Jesus. Not even John 7:53–8:11 does; for although Jesus is quoted there ("Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more," he says to the woman taken in adultery, for example), Ehrman rightly excludes the whole passage from the canonical text but doesn't argue that Jesus is misquoted in the passage. (Regardless of one's opinion concerning historical value, denying canonicity doesn't equate with denying historicity.) Four of the lesser examples represent omissions rather than misquotations of Jesus' words, and ten—only ten—represent textual changes in which Jesus is misquoted. Of these ten, moreover, only one (in Luke 22:17–19) poses a serious question as to what the evangelist originally reported Jesus said, that is, whether he said his body was being given and his blood being shed for the disciples; and because of a partial parallel in 1 Corinthians 11:23–25, even this one hardly counts as a misquotation though Luke may not have recorded it. (Ehrman makes no argument that Paul misquoted Jesus.) Along with other textual critics, Ehrman seems certain of what the evangelists originally reported Jesus as saying in the nine remaining examples. So the misquoting of Jesus—which, I repeat, occupies only a small portion of Misquoting Jesus—has to do with textual changes by later copyists.

This is exactly Ehrman's point, though: later copyists changed the text of the New Testament—usually accidentally, sometimes deliberately and for theological reasons. In the latter case, for example, they changed texts to make them harmonize with other texts, to fortify texts against their use by those whom the copyists considered heretical, and to implement texts for use against the same. And so Ehrman has written Misquoting Jesus in part to introduce lay people to textual criticism of the New Testament, that is, to the ferreting out of copyists' changes.2

As an introduction to New Testament textual criticism for lay people, Misquoting Jesus is very informative and often entertaining. But for more than one reason, such people are liable to get a misimpression from the book. The blurbs on its dust jacket talk about "the multitude of mistakes and intentional alterations … made by earlier translators [sic, 'copyists']," "mistakes and changes" that Ehrman shows had "great impact … upon the Bible we use today," thus "making the original words difficult to reconstruct," so that "many of our cherished biblical stories and widely held beliefs concerning the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, and the divine origins of the Bible itself stem from both intentional and accidental alterations by scribes—alterations that dramatically affected all subsequent versions of the Bible." Horsefeathers! So what if John 1:18 originally read in reference to Jesus "the unique Son" rather than "the unique God"? "The Word," who'll be identified with "Jesus Christ" (1:17), has already been called "God" in 1:1; and doubting Thomas will call him "my Lord and my God" in John 20:28 (to make nothing of the fact that the King James Version, which "was based on corrupted and inferior manuscripts" [so the dust jacket], translates what Ehrman considers the original reading in 1:18). So what if "the Johannine Comma" in 1 John 5:7–8 ("the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one") represents a copyist's inference of the Trinity from authentic New Testament texts, not an authentic New Testament text itself? We have those authentic texts for our own inferring of the Trinity. And it's simply false that "for the first time Ehrman reveals where and why these changes were made" and that he "reveals" the inferiority of the manuscripts underlying the King James Version. We've known about this inferiority for a long, long time. It hasn't led to revolutions in church teaching, nor has it needed to. And though their text-critical judgments don't always match Ehrman's, the contemporary translations used nowadays by lay people don't depend on the inferior manuscripts. (I grant, however, that these translations deserve censure when they include—in any format whatever—Mark's long ending [16:9–20] and the story about the woman taken in adultery [John 7:53–8:11]; for those passages have poorer manuscript support than many readings completely overlooked in such translations.)

Not only the dust jacket, but also Ehrman himself contributes to the misimpression lay readers will probably get to the effect that the text of the New Testament is largely uncertain. He begins and ends with a personal testimony according to which he turned away from evangelicalism to agnosticism because "we have only error-ridden copies" of the New Testament. "We don't even have … copies of the copies of the copies of the originals." (Oh? How would we know that an early manuscript isn't a third- or fourth-generation copy?) And "the vast majority of these ['error-ridden copies'] are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways." Indeed, "there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament," perhaps upwards of 400,000 differences. To be sure, Ehrman gets around to admitting that "most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant," that theologically significant ones appear only "occasionally," that "it is at least possible to get back to the oldest and earliest stages of the manuscript tradition," and that "this oldest form of the text is no doubt closely (very closely) related to what the author originally wrote" (italics original). But first impressions tend to be lasting, and Ehrman emphasizes what he self-contradictorily claims to be "lots of significant changes" by which the New Testament text has been "radically … altered" and the enormous number of these alterations ("variant readings"). Therefore lay people are preprogrammed to miss that Ehrman seems at odds with himself and to carry away the misimpression that they can hardly trust the New Testament to represent what its authors originally wrote. So the content as well as the title of Misquoting Jesus is almost bound to mislead the intended readers. I suspect that it's the deceptiveness of the title, especially the main title, that has vaulted the book onto the New York Times bestseller list.

To his credit, Ehrman recognizes textual corruption in other ancient texts. But he makes nothing of the contrast between the poverty of those texts as to number and chronological proximity to the originals in comparison with New Testament texts. Nor (as pointed out to me by Daniel B. Wallace) does he take account of the possibility, even probability, that multiple copies of the originals were made and that in the 2nd century the originals themselves were still available for checking (as mentioned in Christian literature of the period). Again to his credit, Ehrman relates the history of New Testament textual criticism to the history of early Christian literature in general, including books that didn't make it into the Bible. But he opines that earliest Christianity was a hodgepodge of competing views, so that orthodoxy, represented by the New Testament, came into being only later as the view that won the most adherents. This opinion neglects both the historical connections of New Testament books with Jesus' immediate disciples and their associates and the generally acknowledged earlier dates of New Testament books as compared with the noncanonical books of what Ehrman calls "lost Christianities." He appeals to Luke's "many" lost sources and to Paul's "many" lost letters but gives us no reason to suppose that any of them represented lost Christianities or to suppose that such Christianities were already existing and producing their own literature. (Luke describes his sources as many, but how does Ehrman know that Paul wrote more lost letters than the two or three he refers to in his extant letters?) Yet again to his credit, Ehrman relates the history of New Testament textual criticism to the history of the New Testament canon. But Ehrman's repeated insistence on the nonprofessionalism and incompetence of Christian copyists during the 2nd and 3rd centuries may be overdrawn, for those Christian copyists' use of abbreviations for sacred names and of codices instead of scrolls inclines toward more professionalism and competence than he allows.

Furthermore, do the miscopyings that Ehrman counts significant carry so much significance as he claims? Take his first parade example, Mark 1:41. Does a mistaken "feeling compassion"—even though it disagrees with Jesus' lack of explicitly stated compassion elsewhere in Mark—really demand overhauling our interpretation of the rest of Mark's Gospel ("the interpretation of an entire book of the New Testament," according to Ehrman)? I think not. Ehrman argues that a compassionate Jesus would clash with Mark's portrayal of him elsewhere as "a charismatic authority who doesn't like to be disturbed." But a compassionate Jesus in Mark 1:41 would clash with such a portrayal no more than does Mark 10:45, "For indeed the Son of Man has not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many," a statement that not only exudes compassion and expresses servitude rather than disturbance, annoyance, irascibility, or what-have-you but also, unlike 1:41, suffers no text-critical doubt and does quote Jesus (in reference to himself, of course). Would a mistaken reference to Jesus' being in such agony as to make his sweat like blooddrops (Luke 22:43–44) really demand overhauling our interpretation of the rest of Luke's Gospel? Or would it represent only a foreign body in a book that otherwise features a calm and collected Jesus? I think the latter. Besides, the Greek word that Ehrman treats as meaning "agony" can also (and perhaps better) be treated as meaning a contest or struggle in which by virtue of an angel's strengthening him, Jesus was able to pray "more fervently" (hence the bloodlike sweat) and thus overcome the temptation of avoiding the cross. Whether or not original, such a meaning would accord nicely with Luke's overall portrayal of him as a man of prayer and virtue. And would Jesus' tasting death "by the grace of God" rather than "apart from God" (Hebrews 2:8–9) demand overhauling our interpretation of the rest of Hebrews? I think not. For although the author several times writes that Jesus offered up himself to a sacrificial death that we might be forgiven, he also writes that Jesus did so to do God's will (10:9). It looks pretty gracious of God to will his Son's self-sacrifice for our sakes. These parade examples of Ehrman's suffice to make my point: the textual corruptions he sees don't have nearly the interpretive significance he attributes to them.

Earlier, I mentioned Ehrman's purpose "in part" to introduce lay readers to New Testament textual criticism. He makes quite clear his further and ultimate purpose to dysangelize them—in other words, to proclaim New Testament textual criticism as bad news to all who believe the Bible to be God's word. Thus Ehrman's leading question to such believers: "What if the book you take as giving you God's words instead contains human words?" There's the rub: Ehrman has so hardened the categories of humanity and divinity that since the Bible is "a very human book," for him it can't also be divinely inspired. The human authors' writing out of their "needs, beliefs, worldviews, opinions, loves, hates, longings, desires, situations, problems" somehow excludes the Holy Spirit's using those needs, beliefs, worldviews, and so on to convey divine revelation. As though God could have communicated in a vacuum, apart from such concomitants!

Ehrman also hardens the categories of literary genre, quotation, and copying to such a degree that he seems to think divine inspiration of the Bible would necessarily have produced historicity without admixture of unhistorical elements, quotations that always conform to originally intended meanings, and errorless copying. There's no room for nuance, free play, or ambiguity. For scriptural inspiration to have worked, everything would have to have been cut and dried. As Ehrman says, "Given the circumstance that [God] didn't preserve the words [which have 'been changed and, in some cases, lost'], the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn't gone to the trouble of inspiring them."

If you take that line of reasoning further, divine inspiration would also have required errorless translations of the Bible or—since there's always some slippage of meaning in translation from one language into another—different Bibles, all equally inspired, in every human language; and also again—since one and the same language is in a continuous state of flux—a newly inspired Bible for all human languages every passing moment (compare Ehrman's statement that "if [God] wanted his people to have his words," he would "possibly even have given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew"). And since Ehrman one-sidedly avers that "meaning is not inherent and texts don't speak for themselves" and that therefore readers "can make sense of the texts only by explaining them in light of their other knowledge," to understand God's word would require inerrantly inspired interpretation as well as inerrantly inspired writing, copying, translation, and updating. No wonder, then, that Ehrman's "journey" from evangelicalism came to what he calls "a dead end." His evangelical faith died by way of a hardening of the categories; and his self-reported post-mortem stands as a warning to evangelicals, from whom he inherited some of that hardening of categories.

Postscript: Despite the foregoing criticisms, my sympathies often lie with Ehrman. The rigidity of the fundamentalism in which I grew up far exceeded anything he has described concerning his own experience. His inveighing against homogenizing the distinctive messages of biblical authors for the sake of historical harmony strikes in me a resonant chord. And at an early stage of my doctoral research on Matthew's use of the Old Testament, what increasingly seemed to count as misquotations—the usual suspects: reversing Micah's description of Bethlehem as small into a strong denial of that description (2:5–6), quoting Hosea's reference to Israel's exodus from Egypt as though it predicted the Messiah's stay in Egypt and exit from there (2:15), and so on—led me at one point to say aloud in the privacy of my study, "God, it's not looking good for you and your book." So why didn't I arrive at Ehrman's "dead end"? I have no explanation except to say that "by the grace of God" (the phrase Ehrman judges a textual corruption in Hebrews 2:8–9) I was spared a hardening of the categories through which Scripture is perceived. Or since they were already hard—unreasonably hard—I should rather say that the Spirit of God softened my categories so as to give them an elasticity that accommodates the human features of Scripture without excluding its ultimately divine origin. I pray that Ehrman and all others like him may enjoy such a softening.

1. During a session at the 2005 meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature, Ehrman publicly reproached his publisher for giving his book this title. But the average reader has no way of knowing that, nor did I when writing this review.

2. To a considerable extent, this book popularizes his earlier, scholarly book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford Univ. Press, 1993).

Robert H. Gundry is a scholar-in-residence and professor emeritus at Westmont College and the author most recently of The Old Is Better: New Testament Essays in Support of Traditional Interpretations (Mohr Siebeck).

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