Misquoting Jesus

As promised, I’ve finished Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman’s prelude to Jesus, Interrupted, which I’ve already blogged about in a previous post here.

What a fascinating read–a little drier than Jesus, Interrupted–but still, fascinating!  I won’t pretend to know the actual truth of Ehrman’s comments, because I do not know Greek and Hebrew (and Latin), which I’d have to study in order to delve into the older manuscripts of our New Testament.  Which raises this question by Ehrman (and me): “If the full meaning of the words of scripture can be grasped only by studying them in Greek (and Hebrew), doesn’t this mean that most Christians, who don’t read ancient languages, will never have complete access to what God wants them to know?  And doesn’t this make the doctrine of inspiration a doctrine only for the scholarly elite, who have the intellectual skills and leisure to learn the languages and study the texts by reading them in the original?  What good does it do to say that the words are inspired by God if most people have absolutely no access to these words, but only to more or less clumsy renderings of these words into a language, such as English, that has nothing to do with the original words?”

The fact of the matter is that people reading even the simplest of texts will never agree on what they’re saying.  Ehrman: “This is obviously true of the texts of scripture: simply look at the hundreds, or even thousands, of ways people interpret the book of Revelation, or consider all the different Christian denominations, filled with intelligent and well-meaning people who base their views of how the church should be organized and function on the Bible, yet all of them coming to radically different conclusions (Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Appalachian snake-handlers, Greek Orthodox, and on and on).”  So, who’s right?

In the first and second centuries after Jesus’s life and death, there were no circulating New Testaments.  People wrote letters and manuscripts, touting their views of Jesus, and gave them to others to pass along.  Since none of the four gospels are believed to have been written by the actual people whose names are posted as the name of the books (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), this means what’s written is not from eyewitnesses, but from people who heard from people who heard from people, and already, if you’re honest, you can see the problems this would cause.

In that time period, only 10% of people knew how to read and write, so the goal was to produce these documents to read to people in, usually, wealthy converts’ homes.  Since Christianity was so new (and so many factions existing), the chore of transcribing fell to the wealthy literate hosts, and since they were not trained in copying manuscripts, they made errors.  These letters and manuscripts were passed on as error-filled.  It wasn’t, really, until the high Middle Ages (and until Johannes Gutenberg in the 1400s invented the printing press), that professional scribes began copying the texts, more accurately preserving their message.

There were many hotly debatable topics during this time period: “Some of these Christian groups insisted that God had created this world; others maintained that the true God had not created this world (which is, after all, an evil place), but that it was the result of a cosmic disaster.  Some of these groups insisted that the Jewish scriptures were given by the one true God; others claimed that the Jewish scriptures belong to the inferior God of the Jews, who was not the one true God.  Some of these groups insisted that Jesus Christ was the one Son of God who was both completely human and completely divine; other groups insisted that Christ was completely human and not at all divine; others maintained that he was completely divine and not at all human; and yet others asserted that Jesus Christ was two things–a divine being (Christ) and a human being (Jesus).  Some of these groups believed that Christ’s death brought about the salvation of the world; others maintained that Christ’s death had nothing to do with the salvation of this world; yet other groups insisted that Christ had never actually died.  Each and every one of these viewpoints–and many others besides–were topics of constant discussion, dialogue, and debate in the early centuries of the church, while Christians of various persuasions tried to convince others of the truth of their own claims (italics mine).  Only one group eventually “won out” in these debates.  It was this group that decided what the Christian creeds would be: the creeds would affirm that there is only one God, the Creator; that Jesus his Son is both human and divine; and that salvation came by his death and resurrection.  This was also the group that decided which books would be included in the canon of scripture.”

Ehrman again: “At last count, more than fifty-seven hundred Greek manuscripts have been discovered and catalogued.  That’s fifty-seven times as many as Mill knew about in 1707….In addition to these Greek manuscripts, we know of about ten thousand manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, not to mention the manuscripts of other versions, such as the Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Old Georgian, Church Slavonic, and the like….With this abundance of evidence, what can we say about the total number of variants known today?  Scholars differ significantly in their estimates–some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more!  We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all.”

Does this really matter?  Well, yes, it does if any of those scribes changed the meaning of the texts.  It doesn’t matter if those scribes did no harm to the texts.  “To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of the them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.  It would be wrong, however, to say–as people sometimes do–that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them (italics mine).  We have seen, in fact, that just the opposite is the case.  In some instances, the very meaning of the text is at stake, depending on how one resolves a textual problem….”

So the scribes did change texts–for political and personal and religious reasons–which Ehrman lays out in his book.  I cannot reiterate all of his points, but I’ll give a summary.  “The logic is this: when scribes changed their texts, they were more likely to try to improve them.  If they saw what they took to be a mistake, they corrected it; if they saw two accounts of the same story told differently, they harmonized them; if they encountered a text that stood at odds with their own theological opinions, they altered it.”  Later, “scribes who were not altogether satisfied with what the New Testament books said modified their words to make them more clearly support orthodox Christianity and more vigorously oppose heretics, women, Jews, and pagans.”

In trying to discover how these scribes change their texts, scholars have begun to group documents according to their similarities, and in this way, they begin to trace a sort of family tree.  “All the surviving documents, then, can be arranged in a kind of genealogical relationship, in which there are groups of documents that are more closely related to one another than they are to other documents.  This is useful to know, because in theory one could set up a kind of family tree and trace the lineage of documents back to their source.”

Here’s the kicker: we have none of the original documents.  Do you understand the significance of this?  In Ehrman’s words: “As I realized already in graduate school, even if God had inspired the original words, we don’t have the original words.  So the doctrine of inspiration was in a sense irrelevant to the Bible as we have it, since the words God reputedly inspired had been changed and, in some cases, lost.  Moreover, I came to think that my earlier views of inspiration were not only irrelevant, they were probably wrong.  For the only reason (I came to think) for God to inspire the Bible would be so that his people would have his actual words; but if he really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he had miraculously inspired them in the first place.  Given the circumstance that he didn’t preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn’t gone to the trouble of inspiring them.”

For example, Ehrman conducts a fascinating discussion of the major differences between Mark and Luke (Mark came first), which I won’t go into here, except to say that they portray a different Jesus.  Mark’s Jesus is a suffering, agonizing Jesus.  Luke’s Jesus is a calm, all-is-well Jesus.  Why did Luke change how Jesus came across?  Was it so that persecuted Christians in the early church have a role model for enduring pain?

Ehrman: “The idea that Luke changed the text before him–in this case the Gospel of Mark–does not put him in a unique situation among the early Christian authors.  This, in fact, is what all the writers of the New Testament did–along with all the writers of all the Christian literature outside the New Testament, indeed writers of every kind everywhere.  They modified their tradition and put the words of the tradition in their own words.”

After this brief monologue of mine, let’s say that you want nothing to do with this sort of doubt, even if you’ve done none of the research (the first part is not necessarily a crime; the second is–if you want to know truth).  Let’s say that you’re sitting there saying, “This really doesn’t affect me.  SO MANY people believe in the inspired word of God, so I will, too.”  Thing is: do you have the inspired word of God?

I’ll take it one step further.  If you have been stuck in a miserable marriage for twenty-five years, because you believe that divorce is forbidden in the Bible, what would you say if I told you that Jesus may have never said those words?  What if I told you that women had prominent speaking positions in the early church, and certain writers wanted to put them in their place, so added commands that women be silent?

Would that make you sit up and listen?  It would me.  Imagine.  I’ve lived my entire life by a certain set of rules and regulations that a bunch of ancient men have ordered as good or bad.  I don’t want their words; I want God’s.  And how do I go about getting God’s words?  They seem to be non-existent.

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