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.


Fiske said...

Evie: I'm not sure if The God Delusion provided your introduction to Misquoting Jesus, as it did for me. I generally found the bibliography from GD more interesting than the book itself, and Bart Ehrman is one of the happy discoveries resulting from it. Actually, Dawkin's doesn't even provide an accurate title for the book (readers have to track that down), and he misrepresents the introduction from Misquoting as including a moving chronicle of Ehrman's loss of faith (which it doesn't :-) ). A forth-coming book from Ehrman does describe his loss of faith, which according to the author resulted from the problem of suffering.


Evie said...

I heard of Ehrman's work before reading TGD. It just took me awhile to get around to reading any of his book. I've got a couple more (I think one is Lost Christianities) awaiting their turns to be read.

Fiske said...

Evie: I have had a bit of luck turning Ehrman's books up at Half-Price stores and have a goodly stack of them in the TBR pile myself. :-) I just posted a review of The Dawkins Delusion by Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McrGrath on my own blog. If you are not familiar with the book, it might be of interest...