Monday, March 17, 2014

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D Ehrman

Misquoting Jesus:  The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D Ehrman is an exploration of how both the history of the Bible, in particular the New Testament, and the historical circumstances that affected the final text we now consider The Bible. 

At first, I found the book provocative and very interesting, as the author first explained his spiritual background, how he eventually came to study the oldest manuscripts in the original languages, and what he came to understand about the Bible through his long research.  The first few chapters become somewhat redundant as he explains how the scribes could make mistakes or even consciously change one manuscript.  He goes into great detail.  So much so that, when he finally shares a few specific examples, it’s a bit frustrating. 

I’m glad I didn’t give up on this book, in spite of my finding it occasionally boring.  With the introduction of the printing press, things changed although, in some ways, they also stayed the same.  Before the printing press, however, manuscripts were copied manually, resulting in incidental changes.  And apparently there are thousands of mistakes.  Given that the oldest manuscripts we have were written 200 years after the original, that there are only a very few that are even that old, one can only imagine how many times each was copied and how easily one or more mistakes could be inserted. 

My favorite parts of the book included specific examples, for instance with I Timothy 3:16 where the word who ΟΣ becomes God ΘΣ as the result of bleed through, ink fading in and changing one letter, thus changing the meaning of a single word which, in turn, changes the meaning of the text itself.  This is, of course, one of several examples and he concedes that most of them are not so overweighed with implication.  Still, he makes a strong argument for why it matters and it is not enough to say “but they all mean the same thing” when, the truth is, even the accidental changes complicate the text’s very meaning.

One odd observation I took away from reading the book is how essential it is for some people to insist on the veracity of God’s Word.  When your faith is rooted in sola scriptura, how could it not?  Every word must be inspired and correct or how can you believe?  This also put the Catholic attitude towards the Bible in a context that finally made sense to me because I did find it confusing that someone would be raised in a faith based on a particular book while still being unfamiliar with the text itself.  So literary criticism of the Bible is not a threat to the faith of some Christians.  However, long before I read this book, I did read a book that argued that literary criticism could not be used with Biblical texts because the Bible is above such scrutiny.

There are, naturally, those detractors who will not accept anything Ehrman has to say, will deny or refute what evidence he provides.  Those who must believe in the inerrant word, who hold the King James Version as the authoritative text, will likely not even open this book.  The title alone would turn those readers away.  Others will read to argue that he does not make a convincing argument or even accuse the author of attacking Christianity, undermining The Truth, and such. 

For me, the points he makes are often unsurprising.  The King James Version, it is commonly known although not universally accepted, relied on corrupted manuscripts.  Many more manuscripts have since been found in the centuries since then.  But the number of a particular manuscript variation doesn’t ensure a better version.  Ehrman explains that when one early manuscript was copied more frequently doesn’t imply it is the preferred or most precise. 

For instance, if there are three early Christian sects, and as we know there were many more than three, and each copied a version of Mark’s gospel, imagine if sect A had a scribe that made no mistakes, while sect B made one mistake and one “correction,” and sect C made several accidental changes.  Now, what if sect C is more successful in finding converts?  They are distributing a manuscript with more mistakes than either of the other sects.  More people will inevitably result in more copies of this manuscript.  And don’t forget that nearly every time a manuscript is copied, there is room for more mistakes to be introduced.   If sects A and B are eventually labeled as heretical and fade into non-existence, their few and far between manuscripts are harder to find.  So there isn’t any strength in numbers.

There are other insights like this that make this book a provocative and interesting read.  So much so, I am adding Ehrman’s other books to my Neverending-To-Be-Read-List.  I would definitely recommend this book to Christians who are not afraid to imagine the possibility that early Christians may have manipulated the manuscripts in response to certain historical circumstances.  This is by no means an exhaustive look at the subject but it is a good introduction and, if you commit to reading it in spite of its feeling sometimes redundant, it’s well worth the reading.

PS:  When I went to get the image and link for this blog post, I found these two books which argue that Ehrman is wrong, proving what I said above about how some people will want to refute his contentions.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...