Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Book Review: Misquoting Jesus

Invariably, those that claim that evolution does not exist, that the Big Bang never happened and that a supernatural Creator is behind it all, have some sort of religious motivations for this. In many of those cases, this motivation is based on an assumption of biblical literalism and infallibility.

Any person in their right mind could tell you that a book that was copied for 2000 years by people with religious and political agendas won’t remain the same. But since I’m an astronomer and not a biblical scholar, I’ve never been familiar with exactly what changed, and how it made a difference. I was familiar with some minor changes that had been noted and corrected in modern editions of the bible, but couldn’t come up with any examples off the top of my head. So seeing a book on this topic while I was perusing Border’s religion section caught my attention.

In the introduction, author Bart Ehrman explains his history on the topic in which he first began investigating scripture with the view that it was inerrant since he became a born-again Christian. However, the more he investigated the history of the text, the more apparent it came that this was not the case. Not only are there minor changes to the words, but there are more major changes that are still present in modern editions that greatly affect the way scripture is interpreted.

The reason texts changed greatly, especially in the early history of Christianity is made clear when Ehrman explains the methods of transcription: texts were copied by people who were frequently barely literate and in some cases, illiterate. Changes could easily be made by accident, or in some other instances, intentionally to push a specific orthodoxy.

The latter chapters deal with the latter of those two situations. Ehrman explains that when Christianity first formed, there were many sects so different from what we today consider Christianity, we would scarcely recognize them. Some claimed that Jesus was completely human. Others, completely divine. Others that Jesus and Christ were two separate beings (the former being human and the latter a divine spirit that inhabited the former). Yet others that Jesus wasn’t God’s literal son, but “adopted.”

In order to ensure that it was clear that Jesus was in fact God’s literal son, instances in which Jesus’ parents were discussed were often changed. Luke 2:33 originally read “his father and mother were marveling at what was said to him”, but since emerging views held that Jesus was born of a virgin, this was changed to “Joseph and his mother”. Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:23, when the angel descends to tell Jesus that he is God’s only begotten son are also alterations. Many early texts have the angel telling Jesus “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” which lead to the adoptionist interpretation. To also emphasize that Jesus was human (and thus his suffering actually meant something since it wouldn’t really mean anything to a divine being), an additional account was added to Luke 22 which breaks from the inflappable portrait of Jesus that Luke paints and has him emotionally breaking down, praying, and sweating blood.

Ehrman also points out that in the early church, women played an important role and were even given duties of ministering. However, this also went against the orthodoxy view and texts were changed to oppose this as well. It is suspected that the famous passage from 1 Corinthians that women are to learn in silence and not speak without permission from their husbands is not original. Similar passages from 1 Timothy are also known to not be from Paul. Similarly, anti-Jewish sentiments were also introduced.

Dozens more examples are included in the book and I won’t go through all of them, but the point is clearly made: The bible greatly differs from what the original authors wrote and is most certainly not infalliable. In fact, it’s changed so greatly that an early study by John Mill uncovered thirty thousand places where there were textual differences between manuscripts available to him. And this was leaving out minor changes of things like word order. Today, more than 50 times as many manuscripts are available and even more variations are known. To put this in context Erhman says that there are more variations than there are words in the New Testament.

The appendix also contains a list of the top ten verses that weren't originally in the NT and include John 5:7, John 8:7, John 8:11, Luke 22:44, Luke 22:20, Mark 16:17, Mark 16:18, John 5:4, Luke 24:12, and Luke 24:51.

Again, I’m not going to go through every point (and there are lots), but this book makes it amazingly clear that the New Testament is not immutable. It has been modified accidentally as well as intentionally to push certain interpretations for theological and political purposes. As such, basing laws, morals, and worldviews on something even more full of holes than creationists pretend science is, is downright pathetic.


Anonymous said...

Not only are there minor changes to the words, but there are more major changes that are still present in modern editions that greatly affect the way scripture is interpreted.

Evolution anyone? Maybe not genetic, but certainly the same sort of phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

Ehrman is a blatant liar.

Check out some real sources.

He has an ax to grind, he grew up a fundamentalist and is still a fundamentalist, just on the other side.

Wayne said...

I'm not familiar with this book, but the concept is not new and it has been my understanding that many of these variations are well known and studied among Christian theologians. The fact that many fundamentalists are overly literalistic and have no understanding of the history of the text is certainly a problem, but not one that undermines the basic tenants of Christianity as you seem to imply. I just wish more religious experts were more vocal about this sort of thing with the rank-and-file Christians so that maybe we wouldn't have such misguided ideas as ID and YEC running around today.

Jon Voisey said...

Ehrman is a blatant liar.

I looked around the web to see if I could find anything discrediting him and suggesting what you said before I even picked up his book. However, I couldn't find anything. So feel free to back up your statements or I'll consider your comments as just another from a troll.

Forthekids said...

Dude....I assume you'll be reading his critics as well?

Misquoting Truth is a great book, btw. I've also read Ehrmans.

Here's another one to read that covers the same topics.

Carry on...

Jon Voisey said...

I assume you'll be reading his critics as well

Already on my reading list. Of course, that's a long list, so it might take awhile. Right now, however, I'm reading Brother Jed's autobiography and call to evangelism. One of the funniest books I've read in a long time!

TimothyPaulJones said...

Ehrman is a blatant liar?

I am a professor at a theological seminary. Although I deeply disagree with some of the conclusions that Ehrman derives from the manuscript variants, Ehrman is not a liar. He is---in some cases rightly---reacting against the over-rigid view of inerrancy and inspiration that he was taught. And he's a fine, respectable scholar whose work on apocalypticism in the Gospels and on the canon lists of Didymus the Blind is outstanding.

TimothyPaulJones said...

Where Ehrman errs is not "lying"; it is in deriving conclusions from the available data that go beyond those data---such as concluding that an imperfectly preserved text in the present necessitates a non-inspired text in the past. Still, I value his voice and enjoy his work---as should everyone.

viggen said...

Not only are there minor changes to the words, but there are more major changes that are still present in modern editions that greatly affect the way scripture is interpreted.

Evolution anyone? Maybe not genetic, but certainly the same sort of phenomenon.