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Misquoting Jesus : Bart D. Ehrman

03/29/06

  11:00:01 am, by Nimble   , 956 words  
Categories: Reviews, Books, Religion

Misquoting Jesus : Bart D. Ehrman

Link: http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060738170//thecerealkill-20

The subtitle on this book: "The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why".

This is an extremely interesting book, all about the changes, intentional or otherwise, that occurred in the New Testament and in the source materials for the New Testament, how we know this, and how textual critics decide what's changed, why, and what may or may not have been in the "original".

The author himself had a pretty interesting journey to this point. Starting from a relatively "normal" Christian background, he joined the ranks of the "born again" as a high school sophomore. He was convinced by a charismatic fellow to take his Christianity to the "next level" and study at the Moody Bible Institute.

One thing about the "born again", which is exemplified at Moody, is to treat the Bible as the inerrant, inspired word of God. What distinguished Bart here is that he was disturbed by the fact that we don't have the originals, a question which did not interest his classmates in the slightest. When he decided to look into this further, he got wind of textual criticism, and wanted to take it up, but to be the highly religious emissary in this slightly more secular world.

Moving to Wheaton (where Billy Graham graduated from) and finding it awfully liberal (!), he moved on to Princeton Theological Seminary. There he learned to read the Gospel of Mark in the original Greek. His paper for this at the end was the cause of his first realization... well, it's best in his own words:

My argument was based on the meaning of the Greek words [relating to the contradiction of whether Abiathar or his father was the high priest] involved and was a bit convoluted. I was pretty sure Professor Story would appreciate the argument, since I knew him as a good Christian scholar who obviously (like me) would never think there could be anything like a genuine error in the Bible. But at the end of my paper he made a simple one-line comment that for some reason went straight through me. He wrote: "Maybe Mark just made a mistake."

...and so began the rest of his journey into textual criticism.

The book is a relatively fast read, but there's a lot to it. In it you learn a little of how the bible was put together in the first place, from a combination of gospels and letters (literally, letters to be read aloud to a congregation).

Of course, the printing press was not invented at the time, so things were copied by hand. Literacy rates at the time were pretty poor, on the order of 10-15%, and even the skill within that was variable. Christianity appealed to lower classes at the time, and did not attract intellectuals until later, so this was probably even lower. You didn't read - you attended a reading.

You find out that Judaism was one of the precious few religions that actually wrote down their religious laws, and how Christianity inherited this, but had fumbling starts (due to low literacy).

You find out that scribes often made errors, sometimes could not read or understand what they were copying, sometimes took notes and marginalia and incorporated them into the actual text (when this happens, you often find different versions with the 'verse' in two different places). Sometimes they were taking dictation, as you can tell from mistakes where the replaced word sounds identical or similar. Sometimes they read columns the wrong way.

Other times, scribes were motivated to actually change the text. What for? Sometimes to promote their point of view. For example, there was a group of Christians referred to modernly as "adoptionists", who believed that Jesus was at one time regular man born of a regular father and mother, and was "adopted" by God at his baptism. Revisions were made by the "proto-orthodox" group (the ones who came to win the battle of theology) to spots in the Bible that refer to Jesus' "father and mother" to just "mother". In the account of Jesus' baptism, the quote by God, "You are my Son, today I have begotten you" (which could be used by the adoptionists) was changed to "You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased"

Even one of the more cherished stories in the bible, about Jesus and the adulteress, with the quote "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" is found by textual criticism to have been added later.

You learn the general rules of how to distinguish what is mostly likely closer to the original. It's not by sheer number of manuscripts: often, one just became more popular and had many copies made. The age is taken into account, whether an alternative reading is less or more harmonious (less harmonious means more likely original, because many scribes attempted to harmonize texts between accounts in the Bible), whether the reading occurs across multiple family trees, and whether the style, words used or even theology matches that of the rest of the gospel or letter.


I must give apologies to the apostle Paul. I had taken him for a miserable misogynist, but it turns out that many of the words that aggrieve me the most were put in his mouth by the actual authors of 1 Timothy and others. It's amusing and sad that there was a woman apostle, Junia, in the text, and that very fact so scandalized later Christians that they changed Junia (which was a common female name at the time) into a man named Junias (which was a nonexistant male name at the time). (See some of the controversy here)

A thoroughly enjoyable book, which will undoubtedly be disturbing to some. I know I thoroughly enjoyed it :)

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