Monday, December 24, 2007

Book Review: Misquoting Jesus

Author: Bart D. Ehrman
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-085951-0

  • Which form of the Lord’s Prayer did Jesus teach - the one in the gospel of Matthew or the one in the gospel of Luke?
  • Did the original letters of 1Timothy and 1 John teach that Jesus was divine?
  • Was Jesus calm on the night of his arrest or did he suffer intense mental anguish?
  • Why are there thousands of discrepancies between biblical manuscripts?
  • How does a reader determine whether the translation he or she holds in hand is textually accurate or has been translated to favor a particular theological slant?
These are the sorts of questions that textual critics strive to answer. As Bart Ehrman makes clear in this book, the answers to these questions have serious implications for the validity and reliability of numerous religious doctrines.

Ehrman takes his readers through a fascinating tour of the history of biblical transcription, translation, distribution and canonization. With regard to the latter, Ehrman discusses the various Christian ideologies that competed for supremacy in the Church’s first few centuries and the ways in which those conflicts were resolved. With regard to the former concerns, he notes various types of textual changes that have been made throughout 20 centuries of scriptural transmission. Some of these changes are accidental and include such items as punctuation errors, misspellings, transposed numerals and so on. Other changes are intentional, such as those in which scribes sought to ensure that the text adhered to what they believed were faithful interpretations, or to ensure that particular doctrinal and ideological positions were emphasized. Ehrman illustrates his points by examining closely several disputed texts. He also explains, as well as demonstrates, how several methods of textual criticism, such as comparisons with external contemporaneous documents, internal consistency throughout a gospel or epistle, and consideration of the authors’ (as well as scribes and translators’) purposes enable scholars to determine which manuscripts contain fewer or more flaws than others. The chapter on the social world in which biblical texts originated offers insights into how the scriptures were modified to address the roles of women within the church, and the changing relationships of the church to its Jewish heritage and its pagan context. Ehrman closes the book by noting that readers transform texts through interpretative behaviors of their own every time they read. Thus, there is a real sense in which no one ever gets back to the real, original meaning of any text. This is neither bad nor undesirable, it is a simply a process that all readers should take into consideration when they examine scriptures.

Readers who believe in the inerrancy (or the less rigid standard of infallibility) and divinely guided inspiration of scriptures may well find this book irreverent, perhaps even appalling. Readers who view the Bible as a compilation of literary texts composed by human beings likely will find Ehrman’s application of literary and textual methods of study to ancient texts insightful. I suspect that, whichever camp you fall into, once you’ve read Ehrman’s book, you will never read the Bible in quite the same way again.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Book Review: Distant Peaks

Author: Peter Len
Publisher: Millenial Mind Publishing
ISBN: 13: 978-1-58982-460-7; 10: 1-58982-460-1

Peter Len is a full-time American software engineer and sometime mountaineer who has scaled mountains in North America, Europe, Africa and South America. Distant Peaks, based upon journals he kept during those expeditions, is his account of those adventures.

Len’s first two climbs took place at Grand Teton, a magnificent mountain in the Rocky Mountain range in the United States. He was accompanied by his father, as well as other climbers and guides, on both of these occasions. Len was twenty years old during their first climb, which was, unfortunately, cut short because of bad weather. Len treasured the memory of that climb for many years, but was always disappointed that they had not successfully reached Teton’s summit. Thirteen years later, Len and his father decided to make another attempt to summit Grand Teton. This time, they both reached the peak successfully.

Three years after he reached the summit of Grand Teton, Len and a friend decided to try their hands at two famous European peaks: Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. A couple of years later, Len and his friend traveled to Africa to test themselves on the peaks of on to Mt. Kenya, their highest attempt to that point. Len’s most recent climbing adventure took him to three mountains in South America: Cayambe, Cotapaxi and Chimaborazo. He reached the summits of all of these mountains except for Chimborazo. Once again, weather conditions compelled the climbers to cut short their adventure.

Len emphasizes that he is an ordinary guy, not a super-jock or extreme sports enthusiast. His simple message is that mountain climbing is something for which average people can prepare and at which they can succeed. He also emphasizes that the challenges of preparing for and enduring the climbs had beneficial effects on his character. The lessons he learned about his own physical, mental, emotional and psychological limits, the natural world and the ways in which groups take care of their members are lessons that have carried over into his everyday suburban life.

Throughout the book, Len discusses such mundane issues as blisters, altitude sickness, climbing techniques, equipment maintenance and menu planning. He also emphasizes the wisdom of always working with professional guides and travel agencies to plan and complete expeditions. He includes interesting historical and cultural tidbits about the places he visited and several dozen photos taken during the expeditions. I found the chapters about Africa and South America much more engaging than the earlier ones about the USA and Europe. It’s possible that Len simply took better notes as time passed. My impression, however, is that the extra details may have been due to enhanced sensitivity to regions with which he was completely unfamiliar before his climbs. In contrast, he had spent much time in the USA (of course) and Europe apart from his climbing adventures. Possibly, this familiarity led him to pay less attention to their unique cultural features. This is not to say that his descriptions of the beauties and attractions of Wyoming and France are lackluster. But the records of his observations and impressions in those areas differ from, and are less intriguing than, his accounts of Africa and South America.

Overall, Distant Peaks is an enjoyable read that should appeal to enthusiasts of climbing and other outdoor adventures.