Book Review: Misquoting Jesus

Book Review: Misquoting Jesus July 6, 2009

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.

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