No matter what else is happening in the world, chances are you will still be able to find me with a book. For the past two weeks, that book has been Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. I had been meaning to read this book next for several months, but I kept putting it off. Now that I’ve finally read it, I wish I had earlier. It was incredible!
This wasn’t my first time reading Bart Ehrman; in December I read Did Jesus Exist? and I remember saying that Ehrman seemed to have a great reluctance in writing that book, and that it had a negative effect on the overall tone. I said then that it seemed likely that his other books (like this one) would be more exciting, and I was right. Misquoting Jesus contained a lot of surprises that I had never heard about the New Testament. Even if it is a bit slow in the first half, it really starts to pick up speed later on. Here are the chapters:
1. The Beginnings of Christian Scripture
2. The Copyists of the Early Christian Writings
3. Texts of the Early New Testament
4. The Quest for Origins
5. Originals that Matter
6. Theologically Motivated Alterations of the Text
7. The Social Worlds of the Text
The book begins with the story of Ehrman’s deconversion from the fundamentalist Christianity of his high school years and how textual criticism of the New Testament started him on a path away from that and instead to wherever the evidence led him. Ehrman is now agnostic, but he doesn’t say so in this book. The closest he gets to implying that he has dismissed God altogether is the point that
“…it would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place. If he wanted his people to have his words, surely he would have given them to them. The fact that we don’t have the words surely must show, I reasoned, that he did not preserve them for us. And if he didn’t perform that miracle, there seemed to be no reason to think that he had performed the earlier miracle of inspiring those words.”
He only mentions this in the introduction and conclusion, which are the main times when he ever gives his personal opinions on the implications for the truth of Christianity. His point here was that the New Testament shows all the signs of being a thoroughly human book, written, copied, and translated by imperfect people and prone to all of the error that comes with them. But as a fellow non-Christian, as I read I couldn’t help but to agree with his conclusion, that there is no reason to think that any of this was divinely inspired. As Ehrman says, even if God did inspire the writings of, say, Paul, good luck knowing certainly what Paul wrote anyway. It’s a lot harder than most Christians probably know.
The first half of the book explains why this is so hard. Ehrman shows why we have reason to believe that Paul didn’t write his letters to congregations himself, but rather he dictated them to scribes. Already you have a possibility for error of someone mishearing, daydreaming, not keeping up, paraphrasing, misspelling, having messy handwriting, and the list goes on. And this is only the beginning.
From there, copyists copied these manuscripts by hand, and for centuries copyists made copies, who made copies, who made copies (Ehrman explained it painstakingly like this to prove his point as well), ad nauseum. This continued on for centuries, and we don’t have any of these copies. Most of the earliest available manuscripts from the New Testament are from hundreds of years after they were first dictated or written. We can only imagine what kinds of changes were made then, and we will never have any evidence of what they even were.
It makes sense, then, that a lot of the earliest manuscripts that we do have all contain differences from each other. Most of the changes, Ehrman assures us, are small things like misspellings or slight changes in word order, but occasionally there will be a change that can give us reason to doubt something as significant as whether or not the gospel writers believed Jesus was God at all.
Something I will never understand is the confidence that Christian apologists have in themselves when they brag about how many copies of the New Testament exist compared to other ancient writings. So? I’ve always thought. The more copies you have, the harder it is to know which one contains the original text that the author wrote. This is made embarrassingly clear when Ehrman tells us New Testament novices about Mill’s Apparatus, an edition of the Greek New Testament made by John Mill in 1707. Mill had taken an already existing 1550 edition of the text, compared it against about 100 other Greek manuscripts and other sources, and found that there were (at least) “some thirty thousand places of variation among the surviving witnesses.” Keep in mind that this was 300 years ago, and we now know of 5,700 Greek New Testament manuscripts. The discrepancies must be growing exponentially!
The feeling of “Why did they never teach me this in Sunday school?” only deepens from there. As the book progresses, Ehrman gets into more specific examples of gospel stories that most likely didn’t originally say what bibles today would have them say. For example, the author of Luke probably did not describe Jesus as “sweating drops of blood” in Chapter 22 of his gospel like modern bibles will tell you.
Even more striking for me was learning that what I had recited in church during communion for decades probably wan’t even written in the original gospel of Luke: “‘This is my body, which has been given for you; do this in remembrance of me’; And the cup likewise after supper, saying ‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you.'” We have reason to doubt everything except for “This is my body,” and reason to believe that this was added by scribes who wanted to emphasize that salvation comes specifically from Jesus’ death and resurrection.
There were dozens of other changes that Ehrman explains and gives reasoned arguments for, but I will leave that to him. I will just tell you now that I highly recommend this book, foremost to any and all Christians, and secondly to anyone who thinks they know what the bible says. It’s a pretty short and quick read, and I could tell it was aimed towards beginners who don’t know much about this yet (which was exactly what I was and am!). When I recommend it to Christians, it is because I think they ought to be educated about what they believe and not in an attempt to deconvert them. Most of the main players who you meet throughout the book are Christians trying to learn what their own holy book says. To this day, many skeptically scrutinizing textual critics are Christians. Of course, it’s different for everyone, and this could make you question the very basis of your faith. But hey, if that’s where the evidence leads, then who are we to deny history?