Thursday, April 9, 2009
Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman
I saw this guy on The Daily Show a few years ago, and his book sounded like a really interesting idea - study the ways in which, over the last two thousand years, the text of the Bible has been altered. Sometimes it has been altered by mistake and sometimes on purpose, but it has been altered nonetheless.
Now this is a claim that angers a certain section of Christianity - often known as the Biblical Literalists - who believe that every word of the Bible is true, the revealed Word of God. Unfortunately for them, once the text is analyzed, once source texts and translations are looked at carefully, there are too many discrepancies for that to be true.
What makes this book interesting is the author's background, which he explains in detail in the introduction. Bart Ehrman is not an angry atheist, looking to tear down the New Testament. Quite the contrary - in his teens, Ehrman became Born Again, filling the void in his life with 100% Jesus. He threw his heart and soul into Bible study, convinced that the book was the inerrant, incontrovertible Word Of God. It was only when he began really studying the Bible that he started to get the feeling that something wasn't quite right.
And when I say "studying the Bible," I don't mean just reading a few passages before he went to bed at night. Ehrman is the kind of person who learned Latin and ancient Greek and Aramaic so that he could read the oldest known manuscripts for the Gospels and the Epistles. He immersed himself in Biblical history, arming himself with every tool he would need for textual criticism and a better understanding of the text that meant so much to him.
An explanation of textual criticism takes up a great deal of the book, since it's a branch of academia that most people aren't all that familiar with. Textual criticism is the analyses of ancient manuscripts in an attempt to determine what the original text was. This is done by comparing manuscripts. It attempts to determine what changes were made and when. It's very difficult, even worse so the older the work is, but it's a task that has absorbed Biblical scholars for centuries. This brings up two questions: why is that difficult to do, and why is it important?
As to the first, it's difficult because these manuscripts were, before the printing press got into full swing, copied by hand. By humans, to be specific and if you're a human - and there's a very good chance that you are - you know how hard it is for us to do things without making errors. A pen might slip, your eye might skip a line, or you just might be tired and misread a word. That error then gets around, and someone else copies it, probably adding their own errors as well. Many of the original copyists of the New Testament weren't professional scribes, and even some of the pros were barely capable of actually reading the text they were copying.
What's worse, there's no guarantee that the "correct" text is the one that gets the most exposure. You might have fifty copies of, say, the Gospel of Luke that say one thing and five that say something else, but those fifty copies might all be wrong. It's kind of counter-intuitive, but there you go. And age isn't always reliable either. You might think that an 8th century text is more "correct" than one from the 10th century, but not if that 10th century text had been copied from a 4th century manuscript. You can see how problems emerge.
Ehrman lays out, as simply as he can, the criteria by which textual critics judge a manuscript. It can't be called scientific, as there are a lot of judgment calls to be made, but within the field there are a lot of very good guidelines, and the peer review process is relentless.
The bigger question, then - why is it important? Well, the biggest reason is because there are over a billion people on the planet who live their lives, to one degree or another, by the words of the New Testament. They look at the Gospels and see the stories of Jesus and his miracles, they read the letters of John and his instructions to the newly-birthed churches of the first century to try and find out what Jesus would have wanted. And because Jesus himself never left us any notes, the words in the New Testament are all they have to go on. Isn't it vital, therefore, to know what the writers originally wrote? If you're basing your faith off of inaccurate writings, does that mean your faith is flawed? If you're living your life based on ideas that were not inspired by Jesus, but by a third-century scribe who, for example, had certain ideas about a woman's place in the church, does that mean you're living wrong?
And if you are one of those who believe that God transmitted His words to the writers of the New Testament, what does the fact that we no longer have those original words mean to your faith?
That's the big thing here - we don't have Paul's original letters to the early churches. We don't have the notes that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John used when they were writing their Gospels. We don't even have copies of copies of those notes. What we do have, and what Ehrman demonstrates in detail, are many manuscripts over many centuries that have thousands of points of divergence. Sometimes those differences are minor, but some of them affect the very foundations upon which Christianity is built.
Like the famous story of the adulteress, where Jesus gave his "Let he who is without sin" speech. It doesn't show up in the earliest and best texts, but gets wedged in a few centuries later. Or the bit in Luke where Jesus sweats blood? That, too, appears to have been a later addition to an otherwise well-constructed section of that Gospel. Even the famous King James Bible is not immune - it was based off a Greek New Testament that was written earlier, parts of which were constructed by a man named Erasmus, who did it not by using original Greek writings, but by translating later Latin translations back into Greek. Why? Because those original Greek writings were lost, but they had to have something....
Ehrman tries to look at the possible motivations for these changes, and they are necessarily speculative. The early Church was a turbulent and unstable entity, with many different groups pushing their rendition of who Jesus was and what he wanted of his followers.
Was Jesus an emotionally turbulent rabblerouser or was he a calm and serene figure of peace? Was he the begotten son of God or just adopted? Did he die with quiet dignity, willingly surrendering his spirit up to God, or did he die in torment, forsaken? Was he entirely human, entirely divine, both or neither? Christians of the early Church knew these to be vital questions - with a variety of answers. The New Testament we have today is the result of who had the most power to enforce their interpretations of Jesus' life, times and teachings.
This book covers a whole lot of ground in 218 pages - Biblical history, Christian history, textual criticism, politics, sociology.... The history of how the New Testament came to be the way it is today is a complicated and fascinating one, and Ehrman casts it in an interesting light.
You see, rather than spend 200 pages noting the history of alterations in the book, he doesn't say, "And that's why we should just throw it the hell out!" Rather, he encourages readers to look at the New Testament as an ornate human creation, a text (or, more accurately, a collection of texts) that has survived the millennia by being complex enough to survive interpretation after interpretation. The inerrant Word Of God? Sorry, but no. But it is still key to understanding human history in the last two thousand years, and is therefore worthy of study.
"What if God didn't say it? What if the book you take as giving you God's words instead contains human words? What if the Bible doesn't give a foolproof answer to the questions of the modern age - abortion, women's rights, gay rights, religious supremacy, Western-style democracy and the like? What if we have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting up the Bible as a false idol - or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with the Almighty?"
- Brad Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus
Misquoting Jesus at Wikipedia
Bart Ehrman at Wikipedia
Bart Ehrman's homepage
Textual criticism at Wikipedia