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“Misquoting Jesus” by Bart D. Ehrman

This is a very readable introduction to textual criticism of the New Testament.  Ehrman begins with his background as a youth in an evangelical church, one which accepted the Bible as the unerring word of God.  As he studied more, however, he realized that we most definitely don’t have the original words of the New Testament in our Bibles today – so how can we claim that the Bible is the pure, unadulterated word of God?  Especially in the first few centuries after Christ, individual books were written, passed around among congregations, and copied – sometimes with unintentional mistakes; sometimes with intentional changes to “correct” what was read to better reflect the scribe’s own beliefs.

Textual criticism is the process of trying to figure out what the originals actually said, generally by examining as many ancient manuscripts as possible.  (The earliest known manuscript of what’s now in our New Testament is a short copy of a part of John 18 dated to the early second century.)  Scholars trace the origins of these manuscripts (ie. find out what versions they themselves are copies of) and examine the historical context of their authors to determine what version is “right” when there are differences.  And there are many differences – Ehrman says more differences than there are words in the New Testament.  But, he also acknowledges that the vast majority of these are fairly inconsequential.  The remainder, though, can really change how the whole story is interpreted…

Ehrman points out what are probably the most striking examples in our modern Bibles which are almost certainly different from the originals.  While most changes are a word or phrase, there are two rather large passages which don’t seem to be in the originals – one is the story of the woman taken in adultery – “he who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone”; the other is the “longer ending” of the end of the book of Mark.

Most divergence occurred in the first few centuries, when congregations were small and not yet formalized, the doctrine was in flux, and professional scribes were not always available.  These “errors” take on three forms:

  1. changes to support a particular doctrinal belief or agenda.  One interesting one of these was Marcion – his philosophy was that the God of the Old Testament was separate from the God of the New Testament, who sent Jesus to save us from the God of the OT.
  2. Simple transcription errors: there just weren’t that many literate people; some early scribes could only copy letters but not understand them.
  3. Recognizing errors due to 1 and 2 and attempting to correct, but without access to any better sources.

The whole question of scriptural validity was very important during the Protestant Reformation.  The basic Protestant premise was that authority could be obtained from following the Bible alone, whereas Catholics claimed a historical authority from the apostles in the form of pope and priesthood.  Pointing out changes to the scripture would seem to weaken the Protestant position.  In response to something called Mill’s Apparatus, which pointed out thousands of errors in the commonly accepted Greek Bible vs earlier sources, Daniel Whitby ceded that the Bible may not be original, but claimed that God would not allow text to be corrupted​ so much to not adequately achieve its divine purpose.

Interestingly, the Greek translation that was in common use in Mill’s day was largely a product of Erasmus, who produced a side-by-side printing in Greek and Latin.  It was something of a rushed effort.  In some cases, he lacked Greek sources so he translated from the Latin Vulgate (4th century, Jerome) back into Greek…not original at all!

In the book’s conclusion, Ehrman returns to his own biography.  Since God obviously didn’t somehow miraculously preserve the original words of the Bible, he reasoned, maybe they weren’t inspired in the first place at all?  But then he thought that even if we did have the original books of the Bible, they would still be different and focus on different details, maybe even be contradictory, simply because they are the product of (or at least were given as intermediary to) very human authors, with their own beliefs and “agenda” – just like the scribes who would later copy them.  As an example, he points out the passion stories in Mark and Luke — Mark portrays Jesus in despair and full of suffering, while Luke’s Christ is calm, in control, and accepting of his fate as necessary for the salvation of all.  While it is accepted that Luke used Mark as a major source when writing his own Gospel, he chose to focus on something completely different.

Ehrman: “Readers completely misinterpret Luke” when they “take what Mark says, and take what Luke says, then take what Matthew and John say and meld them all together, so that Jesus says and does all this things that each of the Gospel writers indicate.  Anyone who interprets the Gospels this way is not letting each author have his own say; anyone who does this is not reading what the author wrote in order to understand his message; anyone who does this is not reading the Gospels themselves – he is making up a new Gospel consisting of the four in the New Testament, a new Gospel that is not like any of the ones that have come down to us.”