Bart Ehrman

‘Misquoting Jesus’ by Bart Ehrman (book review)

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I’m excited to write and publish this review of Misquoting Jesus, firstly because it is a fascinating book, and secondly because I believe I have some important responses to the book to bring to the table.

I first heard of Bart Ehrman while I was going through a phase of watching debates about Christianity on YouTube. I saw him discussing issues related to textual criticism of the Bible with James White, who is a ‘sola scriptura’ advocate and one of Ehrman’s integrity-of-the-Bible defending adversaries, representing the other side of the argument about whether or not we can trust the Christian Scriptures as a reliable guide in all matters related to Christian faith and doctrine.

Ehrman chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina (or at least he did at the time the ‘About the Author’ section in my Kindle edition of Misquoting Jesus was written). He is well known in textual critical circles and has written around 30 books, many related to criticism of the New Testament.

In this review, I will make some general points about Misquoting Jesus and the subject matter it covers. I will comment on some of the ways in which Ehrman formulates his arguments, and discuss whether or not I find his arguments convincing. Finally, I will go on to discuss Ehrman’s conclusion to the book at some length, as this section of the book is what is of most interest to me philosophically.

The focus of Misquoting Jesus is on the way the text of the Bible has been handed down to us since the early days of Christianity. In the book, Ehrman discusses many of the ‘textual variants’ that appear in different manuscripts that have survived to the present day. There are many thousands of these variants, but Ehrman’s book focuses, with many examples, on how important certain variants are to our understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith.

One thing that struck me is that many of Ehrman’s arguments appear to be conjecture. He says things like “it is conceivable that a scribe modified the text” (p197) and “The reason is not hard to postulate” (p198) or “the change may have been made to conform the text more closely” (p198) (emphasis added in all quotations). There is clearly a lack of certainty in relation to the way changes to the text have been made; it is not an exact science and the ambiguity of the words Ehrman uses that I have highlighted in bold demonstrates this.

I should point out that there appear to be quite a few inaccurate references in the book; I spotted three or four as I was looking up references (see, for example, the reference to Psalm 69:22 on p198, which—according to the ESV—should be Psalm 69:21). It’s possible that the variation in this instance, and maybe in other instances, could be due to different verse numbering used in different versions of the Bible, or some other similar reason, but I found this to be a little confusing.

Much of the power behind Ehrman’s arguments rests on the fact that it’s unlikely that many people will be able to explore the original manuscripts of the Christian Scriptures for themselves. While I understand that the Internet is making the task much easier in many ways, this is still a complex and specialist subject, and to become an expert in this field would take a lifetime of work for anyone.

For the reason given in the preceding paragraph, we must talk about faith; an issue which Ehrman doesn’t discuss directly in the book. It’s a crucial subject, because ultimately, faith is at the very heart of Christianity: being a Christian involves a personal decision about whether or not to embrace the person and work of Jesus. And yes, Ehrman’s arguments throughout the book are all relevant to the question of faith, and are very important, but it’s noticeable that the author doesn’t discuss the question of putting faith in the person of Jesus directly, which many Christians would argue is something at the heart of Christianity. Christianity is about personal encounters with the divine; it is not usually an academic process.

An associated issue is that nowhere in his book does Ehrman mention prayer in relation to the transmission of the texts of Scripture. Is it not the case that Christian scribes would have prayed to God to guide their work? This is a central point, for me, and I was disappointed that Ehrman didn’t discuss the subject at all in the book.

There is one part of the book that I found quite confusing, in that Ehrman repeatedly makes an argument that Jesus is presented in one of the Gospels as being angry, and that the text elsewhere has been modified to take out any language related to Jesus’ anger, because anger would seem to reflect Jesus having an imperfect character (see the section entitled ‘Mark and an Angry Jesus’, beginning at p129). The examples Ehrman gives which supposedly demonstrate Jesus’ anger do not to me appear to do this at all, and my feeling is that the argument could be a projection of Ehrman’s own emotions; perhaps the author wants to paint of picture of Jesus as imperfect, because this suits his purposes more theologically. I could be wrong about this, it’s just that I have never interpreted the scriptures in question as presenting an angry Jesus, and the examples which Ehrman gives which supposedly evidence Jesus’ anger do not do so, in my view.

Ehrman doesn’t present an overwhelming amount of evidence for the corruption of the Christian Scriptures in the book, and he says himself towards the end of the book that the Scriptures ‘occasionally came to be altered’. This is as far as Ehrman can go, because it seems that there isn’t a great amount of evidence for the corruption of the Scriptures, outside of well-intentioned mistakes by scribes that do little to alter the meaning of the text.

The book does shine the spotlight on the question of the divinity of Christ (see pp153-155), which is crucially important — indeed, I believe it is the key issue of theology. I say it is the key issue of theology because it is, for instance, the main area of disagreement between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Despite Ehrman’s best efforts to shine light on the subject, it remains a matter of faith, and a matter which we must seek God about, because there are clearly persuasive arguments on every side of the debate. There will certainly be an absolute truth to the matter — if it were possible to view a video recording of everything that happened in Jesus’ day, or if it were possible to morph into the person of Jesus and re-live his life, we would absolutely know for sure who he is and was, as we could witness all of the miracles, if they happened, with our very eyes. There is no doubt in my mind that there is one omniscient God, and that God knows absolutely who Jesus was and is. So it is to God we must look, in prayer, for guidance and answers to theological problems that are impossible to solve without His guiding hand.

In response to Ehrman’s book we must consider the question of why Christianity grew to become the biggest religion on the planet and why is it the biggest religion of our day? If Jesus was a mere man, why has his legacy been so vast and astonishing, and why are people in our present day experiencing transformation in their lives when they read about him, and when they surrender to him and give their lives to him? Why did I witness a man’s body being completely healed of disease when we prayed for his healing in Jesus’ name? These are the important questions of theology, and Ehrman’s book barely touches upon them. Of course, Ehrman could argue that these issues were not the subject matter of his book, but they are certainly the central matters of the Christian faith.

Ehrman says in his conclusion, “It would be wrong, however, to say—as people sometimes do—that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them” (p200). After examining the evidence presented in Misquoting Jesus, I would have to agree with this; there are certainly some important matters related to Christian doctrine which Ehrman convincingly demonstrates are ambiguous and open to debate. The important question is whether or not this affects the legitimacy of the Gospel, and I’m not sure it does.

In my book God’s Grand Game, I describe the way God works in creation as ‘perfectly imperfect’ — though perfect Himself, God likes to give the illusion of imperfection in His creatures; certainly in the way humans behave. God has been in perfect control of every aspect of the process of textual transmission of the Christian Scriptures, and He has guided every single copying error, and every alteration of the text. This is all part of God’s grand game and the way God has chosen to work within the created universe; it is tied to the role He has for human beings — that we are designed to act imperfectly (perhaps to contrast God’s own perfection). The title of my blog, ‘Perfect Chaos’, is a reference to the same broad idea, which is that although existence is seemingly chaotic, in reality all events unfold in perfect accordance with the will of God. We are merely puppets in a grand theatrical puppet show, and this perspective is very relevant to the arguments Ehrman makes in Misquoting Jesus.

A related issue is that of hermeneutics; how texts are interpreted is just as important a matter as the markings on a page which are said to embody meaning. Interpretation is a work of God acting in the bodies and minds of readers, not something that can be attributed directly to a text. Perhaps Ehrman would agree with me, at least partially, for in his conclusion he says,

The reality, I came to see, is that meaning is not inherent and texts do not speak for themselves. If texts could speak for themselves, then everyone honestly and openly reading a text would agree on what the text says. But interpretations of texts abound, and people in fact do not agree on what the texts mean. This is obviously true of the texts of scripture: simply look at the hundreds, or even thousands, of ways people interpret the book of Revelation, or consider all the different Christian denominations, filled with intelligent and well-meaning people who base their views of how the church should be organized and function on the Bible, yet all of them coming to radically different conclusions (Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Appalachian snake-handlers, Greek Orthodox, and on and on).

Misquoting Jesus, pp208-209

I largely agree with Ehrman, though I would not leave God out of the argument — it is God who has created the wide variety of Christian denominations, as well as every other religion.

In terms of Ehrman’s hermeneutics, he also says:

The only way to make sense of a text is to read it, and the only way to read it is by putting it in other words, and the only way to put it in other words is by having other words to put it into, and the only way you have other words to put it into is that you have a life, and the only way to have a life is by being filled with desires, longings, needs, wants, beliefs, worldviews, opinions, likes, dislikes—and all the other things that make human beings human. And so to read a text is, necessarily, to change a text.

Misquoting Jesus, pp 209-210

Again, I would largely agree with Ehrman. But the interesting question for me, philosophically, is what it is that causes the words on a page to become ‘our words’ — to become meaningful to us and understandable to us. The process of interpretation, for me, occurs with the absolute involvement of God — He literally controls our interpretation, even as He controlled the gestures of the scribes and the original authors of the texts as they wrote. This view is in contrast to the views of many contemporary scientists, who believe understanding is a process brought about by the physical matter of our brains.

Let us look at one final quote in Ehrman’s conclusion:

For the only reason (I came to think) for God to inspire the Bible would be so that his people would have his actual words; but if he really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he had miraculously inspired them in the first place. Given the circumstance that he didn’t preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn’t gone to the trouble of inspiring them.

Misquoting Jesus, p204

In the paragraph quoted above, we get to the heart of Ehrman’s argument. Ehrman believes God didn’t ‘go to the trouble of inspiring’ the Christian Scriptures. Where my views differ from Ehrman, is that I believe God did inspire the Christian Scriptures, in just the same way as He inspired the Qur’an and every other sacred Scripture, as well as every non-religious text, from a mechanics manual to a romantic novel. God is in control of everything that happens, and the way to understand the transmission of the Scriptures is that, just as every hair on our head is numbered by God, every single word that has been written or altered in the Bible has been done so by God acting through human beings.

Whenever someone has an encounter with Jesus through reading the Bible, they are reading and reflecting in exactly the way God intends, because God is wholly in control of the unfolding of every aspect of every human life. Therefore, while Ehrman’s book is incredibly interesting and insightful in many ways, it fails to get to the heart of the matter, which is God’s sovereign control over the unfolding of all events.