Book Review: Misquoting Jesus

Summary: An eye-opening look at just how much the text of the Bible has changed over the centuries. Not to be missed.

I’ve read two other books by Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted and God’s Problem, and while they were both competent, readable works explaining the principles of biblical textual criticism, neither one really floored me. But I circled back around to read some of his earlier books, and I’m glad I did. His 2005 book, Misquoting Jesus, is by far the best of Ehrman’s works that I’ve read so far.

For modern, English-speaking readers, the Bible often seems as if it’s a book whose content is set in stone. It’s right there in the title – The Bible – implying that the text which follows is single, immutable, and beyond dispute. Many Christian groups work their hardest to support this impression with doctrinal statements which proclaim the Bible to be divinely inspired and perfectly free of error. And while atheists challenge this claim by pointing to the numerous contradictions in the Bible, even relatively few of us dispute that the text we have is the text as it was originally written.

This is a line of argument that deserves more attention from us, because as Ehrman convincingly shows, what’s striking to a historical scholar is the fluidity of the Bible. There are thousands of conflicting manuscripts – in fact, as he colorfully puts the point, there are more variant manuscripts of the Bible than there are words in the Bible [p.90]. And while many of these variants arise from simple and obvious copyist errors, many others cannot be dismissed so simply. There are variant readings affecting important verses, which can only be explained as the result of deliberate alterations made by scribes and theologians who wanted to alter the text to support a particular point of view – and in most cases, it’s far from clear which was the original meaning and which the alteration. The Bible we have today, in its variant translations, is little more than a snapshot of this process of textual evolution, and many controversial passages are the product of judgment calls by modern scholars as to which variants to reject and which to accept.

Ehrman begins by briefly discussing the origins of Christianity and the formation of the canon. He describes some of the barriers to accurate copying of a text, including the extremely low rates of literacy in the ancient world. Even some so-called village scribes were illiterate and only knew how to copy the letters of their own name to sign a document. This would have been a particular problem for Christianity, which by all accounts began in the low, less-educated classes and only much later spread to the literate elites.

This leads into an important point: even when copying of Christian texts took off, the early copies were the sloppiest. This is because they weren’t written by professional scribes, for the most part, but by the relatively few literate Christians who recopied texts for their own use, before the religion became established. As you’d expect from amateur work, many copying errors and other mistakes slipped in. But more important than these unintentional changes were the deliberate ones, made by scribes who were bothered by difficult or theologically troubling verses and “corrected” them to something more palatable, or even more importantly, by apologists who wanted to reshape the text to more clearly teach a doctrine that they held (or more clearly condemn an opposing belief).

The following chapters give an introduction to the principles of textual criticism and how modern scholars tease out the original wordings. There are some basic guidelines: all else being equal, for example, the older manuscript is usually preferred to the younger. More difficult variant readings are usually preferred to simpler, easier ones, since a scribe would be likely to “correct” a difficult verse to an easy one, rarely vice versa. And verses that don’t fit with the language, theology or style of the rest of the book are more likely to be interpolations than ones that do fit in.

The last section of the book will be the most interesting to atheists: using these principles, Ehrman analyzes several passages from the Bible that are widely accepted to be later, theologically motivated alterations, and explains how we know that this is so. Many of the passages he cites contain key doctrinal statements or very well-known biblical tales – including all the post-resurrection appearances in Mark, the verse in Luke of Jesus’ sweat falling like drops of blood as he prayed in Gethsemane, John’s story of the adulterous woman, and the single clearest NT verse establishing the doctrine of the Trinity. All of these are likely to be interpolations. (I may dedicate future posts to expounding on Ehrman’s arguments in these cases.)

I’m always in favor of more books that make the case for nonbelief or that expound a positive view of atheism, but the books I value the most are the ones that I genuinely learn something from. Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle was one; Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt: A History was another. This one has more than earned its place on the list, and I highly recommend it to any atheist who wants to acquire a more detailed understanding of the origins and evolution of the biblical text.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    I’ve read several of Ehrman’s including Misquoting and the other two you cited. I agree that this was my favorite of the lot. I was torn over whether I should keep it or give it to a friend who has gone through some major belief changes in the past couple of years. I decided to give it away, so that she would have more material to think about as she works out her questions about Christianity.

  • Reginald Selkirk
  • Reginald Selkirk

    Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt: A History

    I enjoyed and learned from that as well, but I must say the scholarship was not all of the highest quality. Hecht was the first to tell me about the ancient Indian school of atheism, Carvaka. But when I dug deeper, I found she had gotten much of it wrong.

  • Dave

    Since we have copies of the earliest Book of Morman, we can see how spelling errors creep in and are corrected, and how doctrinal changes have been made during its 150 year history. Google “book of morman changes”. There are a lot of websites dedicated to the thousands of changes since Joseph Smith wrote (uhh…translated) the first edition.

    Then there are the just plain strange things:

    from SaintsAlive

    1) Jacob 7:27: “and to the reader I bid farewell, hoping that many of my brethren may read my words. Brethren, adieu.” What is a French word doing in a document supposedly written by a Hebrew in America around 421 BC?

    Since the bible has been under construction for 2,000 years, its not surprising that it has accumulated man, many more errors, corrections and enhancements.

  • http://www.skepticaloccultism.com/ pendens proditor

    That’s the problem with being unable to verify who’s talking to God and who isn’t. Any old scribe can be under the belief that God is instructing him to tweak the text to fix someone else’s error and no one really has any grounds to argue with him.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Don’t forget typos and simple error- while punctuation isn’t always important, there are cases where it has been a point of contention between sects.

  • Dave

    Ebon, you must recognize that the hand of god is guiding the corrections and changes over the ages. He is perfecting his written word.

  • bassmanpete

    This brings to mind a conversation I had with a Christian acquaintance many years ago. He was excited about a book he’d just read that “proved mathematically that The Bible was written by God.” The book referred to the English language version and when I pointed out that The Bible wasn’t written in English he said something to the effect that God had guided the hand of the translator so the proof was still valid!

    It showed me that there seems to be no way of getting through to some people; they just won’t think about what they believe.

  • Abbie

    I’ve read a handful of books in biblical criticism. It’s a fascinating topic. I’ve read more about the OT than the NT, I’m particularly obsessed with the Documentary Hypothesis, which explains the Torah (and other parts of the OT)

    IIRC the basic gist is: J and E, two versions (One in the north, one in the south) of the same stories, were combined into one document… THIS was rewritten by P, and JE and P were then combined into one document and capped with Deutoronomy. There’s arguments that J was the most talented writer, and he also wrote a lot of the court history of David later in the Bible.

    I know less about the NT, but the presumed “Q Document” is fascinating.

    I own “The Bible with Sources Revealed”, which is Richard Friedman’s interpretation of the Bible’s sources, each given in different font. It’s fascinating reading. Much of JE and P can be read straight-through as independent stories. (Noah’s flood and Jacob’s adventures are great examples.)

    There other fascinating this is the degree of interpretative tradition that’s *needed* to make sense of the Bible. And hell, most of the Bible is interpretation of the Torah. The core- the basic stories that make up the Torah- are quite simply Jewish folk tales. The theology came later.

  • TommyP

    Well I guess this is the next book I’m buying. Been eying it for years, time to shell out the munnies. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

  • http://conversationalatheist.com Conversational Atheist

    I’m glad that you enjoyed Bart’s book as much as I did.

    I actually wrote an article the reproduced Bart’s Top 10 List: Bible: Later Additions. I wanted to have the reference handy for myself and anyone else.

  • Richie

    Just a note to the English readers here – when released here the book was retitled to *Whose Word Is It?* No idea why, but there we are.

  • http://theinfinityprogram.com Kevin

    I, too, was blown away by this book. I think what convinced me to get it was a review by one of my favorite atheist commentators, Michael Wong of the Stardestroyer.NET BBS. For the sake of providing further insight to those thinking about purchasing Misquoting Jesus, I reprint the posts submitted by Mr. Wong about the book:

    Seriously, this book is amazing. It’s not just the subject matter, which is fairly provocative in and of itself. His writing style is very easy to read, very insightful, and very compelling. The introduction alone is fascinating, as a very concise quasi-autobiographical depiction of how a boy from a moderately religious family becomes a full-blown Bible-thumping fundie, and then finds his way back out again.

    I’ve seen stories like that before, but this one moves so quickly, is packaged so neatly that the Introduction section of this book could easily be quoted as a standalone article on how the mind of a fundie works, and how a fundie can climb out of that hole.

    I read this book about Christian scriptural inaccuracies and I just thought I’d relay my experience:

    Pros:
    - It does a good job of laying out the author’s intellectual journey from moderate Christian to hardcore fundamentalist, and then back again. That is probably the most compelling part of the book.
    - It does an excellent job of dispelling some of the myths about the accuracy of the Bible to the source material (and indeed, the idea that there was any single set of documents that you could call “the source material”).
    - It has a very illuminating description of the early days of the church.

    Cons:
    - It begins to seriously drag in its later chapters. The problem with the book is that it becomes very repetitive (much like the Bible itself). He starts by explaining a reason why scribes might alter the text, and then he shows examples. He then moves onto another reason why they might alter the text, and shows examples. And then another, and another, and another. Each time, he gives it the same detailed treatment, even though we’ve been through this several times before and he could skip a lot of the exposition.

    Overall: recommended. but you may get bored in the later chapters. He hits you with the really good stuff up-front.

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com chanson

    I’ve been wanting to read that book for a while — maybe I’ll get a copy. I’m actually even more curious about the origins of the O.T. Perhaps I’ll have a look at the one recommended by Abbie in #9. Unless someone here has one they like better…?

  • exrelayman

    There is some serious criticism of ‘Misquoting Jesus’ which you will find if you search for the title at common sense atheism. After the search, the article appears 3rd down from the top of the page. It is important for us to be meticulous and truthful in our efforts. The criticism is by an atheist expressing this concern.

    chanson,

    I am not familiar with the Freidman book, but am very much enthralled with an excellent book which correlates passages from both the old and new testaments to passages from antecedent pagan sources. This book is ‘The Origins of Christianity and the Bible’ by Andrew Benton. Amazon has it. It is meticulous and well documented.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I liked Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? for a good introductory work on the documentary hypothesis of Old Testament origins. Although publishers love to play tricks with titles, I believe that’s a different work than the one Abbie cited.

    exrelayman, I read the article you suggested. It points out that although there are a vast number of variant manuscripts, most of them are trivial errors of spelling or grammar. No one denies this, especially not Ehrman himself; I said as much in my review.

    But when it comes to some of the more important differences, I think this author fails to come to grips with the full force of Ehrman’s argument. For example:

    Now, about Mark 1:41. Most translations read, “Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing. Be clean!’” A few manuscripts read “Becoming angry, Jesus reached out his hand…” Ehrman argues that the second reading is correct, and that this changes the meaning of Mark’s whole gospel. But again, the earliest Greek manuscripts affirm the variant that appears in our English translations.

    This author appears to be using a more or less automatic approach to resolving textual discrepancies: the earliest manuscripts are the most trustworthy. That’s certainly an important criterion, but it’s not the only one. After all, it’s possible that a particular manuscript, though itself written late, is a direct copy of a far earlier manuscript that’s now lost; so even if it’s later in chronological terms, there are fewer “generations” of recopying that lie between it and the original text.

    There’s another criterion which Ehrman discusses but the CSA author neglects, and I think it’s a fairly persuasive one: given two variant readings, the more “difficult” one – the one that seems to make less sense, that’s harder to square with orthodox Christian theology – is likely to be the original. This is because it’s highly likely that a scribe would change a disconcerting or unorthodox reading to one that was easier to understand or more orthodox; it’s much less likely that the reverse would occur. This is the criterion Ehrman uses in Mark 1:41 to argue that the “becoming angry” variant was the original. The CSA author doesn’t address this argument, instead simply declaring “older, therefore original”. Textual criticism is not so open-and-shut a process as that.

  • exrelayman

    Ebon,

    I did not see Luke using “older, therefore original”. I saw him say this is one of many criteria to consider. I thought his presentation was sufficiently meticulous. Sorry to be in a bit of disagreement with you, as you and your site are certainly among my favorites. But maybe our wee spat will encourage others to look also and form their own opinions. What is accurate is more important to both of us than being right, right? But on an atheist site, how could I resist being the devils advocate?

    It doesn’t get said enough – thanks for having a very interesting and informative site. And for caring enough about my remark to check it’s reference out for yourself.

  • http://deleted Thumpalumpacus

    Yup, it’s one helluva book.

  • imissbubby

    “Now, about Mark 1:41. Most translations read, “Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing. Be clean!’”

    “A few manuscripts read “Becoming angry, Jesus reached out his hand…” Ehrman argues that the second reading is correct, and that this changes the meaning of Mark’s whole gospel. But again, the earliest Greek manuscripts affirm the variant that appears in our English translations.

    CHANGES THE MEANING OF MARK’S WHOLE EYE WITNESS ACCOUNT?
    The Bible has been translated once. From the greek/hebrew to English. From the greek/hebrew to German, etc. And guess what they all say? The same thing.

    If you read this story in full context in the synoptic gospels, it reads like this (paraphrased): Jesus looked around at the hardness of men’s hearts and it made him angry. Then he reached out and healed the man.

    Guess who Jesus was frustrated with?
    The people that didn’t care about the hurting man.

  • imissbubby

    All the manuscripts will bring you to the same conclusions.
    It is the most reliable historical document on the planet.
    Over 20,000 original manuscripts.
    It puts any other historical document to shame.
    And it was written within 20 years of Jesus death. Unlike biographies of Alexander the great which were written between 400-800 years after his death.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    The Bible has been translated once. From the greek/hebrew to English. From the greek/hebrew to German, etc. And guess what they all say? The same thing.

    This is not the point surely. It’s the discrepancy in the early text that’s at issue, not the modern language it’s translated into.
    All the manuscripts will bring you to the same conclusions.
    It is the most reliable historical document on the planet.
    Over 20,000 original manuscripts.
    It puts any other historical document to shame.
    And it was written within 20 years of Jesus death.Strange that so should be so certain about this when so many scholars are divided

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Sorry, seems I’ not the only one who can get their tags wrong this week… should be:

    All the manuscripts will bring you to the same conclusions.
    It is the most reliable historical document on the planet.
    Over 20,000 original manuscripts.
    It puts any other historical document to shame.
    And it was written within 20 years of Jesus death.

    Strange that so should be so certain about this when so many scholars are divided

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Over 20,000 original manuscripts.

    That says it all, I reckon.

  • Scotlyn

    imissbubbly –

    All the manuscripts will bring you to the same conclusions.
    It is the most reliable historical document on the planet.
    Over 20,000 original manuscripts.
    It puts any other historical document to shame.
    And it was written within 20 years of Jesus death.

    Clearly, imissbubbly, the world is your cloister…

  • lpetrich

    The large majority of those manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, several centuries away from the originals. And they are full of typos and sometimes bigger errors.

    Mark originally ended with JC’s followers finding his tomb to be empty. That bit about handling snakes and drinking anything dangerous was added later. 1 John 5:7-8, the only New Testament support for the Trinity, is a later addition. The story of Jesus Christ and the woman caught for adultery had moved around in some early manuscripts. Etc.

    About Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, in Mark, he seems rather defeated and says at the end “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” While in Luke, he gives people instructions as if in control of the situation, and at the end, says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”

    Seems to me like they made it up as they went along.

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