Misquoting Jesus

DECEMBER 2008: REVIEW

Misquoting Jesus

by David Timmer

The title of this book is misleadingly provocative, conjuring up images of ecclesiastical skullduggery á la Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. But Ehrman, who in fact wrote one of the better books debunking Brown, actually has a much more modest and conventional aim in this book: to introduce the textual criticism of the New Testament–that is, the scholarly endeavor to determine the original text of the New Testament writings. This involves a basic recognition of the fact that the process of manual copying of biblical texts over fifteen centuries before the development of printing allowed for the introduction of thousands of “variant readings,” including some that are highly significant for interpreting the New Testament. Misquoting JesusOver the last five hundred years, scholars have gradually developed techniques for evaluating ancient biblical manuscripts in order to determine which readings of the text are most reliable. Ehrman tells this story engagingly, making sense for the lay reader out of the rather forbidding details of papyrus and parchment, majuscule and minuscule, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus.

An odd feature of his survey of this history is that, after following the story from the late fifteenth to the late nineteenth century, he leaves off the last 125 years. Textual criticism has advanced significantly since Westcott and Hort published their monumental edition of the Greek text in 1881, but one would not know it from this book. Even Ehrman’s own mentor in textual studies, Princeton’s Bruce M. Metzger, is mentioned only in footnotes. And although he acknowledges the broad consensus that text critics have achieved, he doesn’t introduce the reader to the results of that consensus, the widely accepted Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, which has served as a basis for almost all modern study and translation of the Bible.

In the later chapters, Ehrman focuses on instances where variant readings result not from carelessness or incompetence, but rather from theological or apologetic motives–that is, the desire to reinforce a particular (usually Christological) point or to remove a perceived embarrassment to the faith. He offers some interesting examples, including a few (every text critic has them) where his views depart from the scholarly consensus. But his neglect of the past century of textual criticism makes this discussion seem far more radical than it is. Theological and apologetic alterations to the text have been on the agenda of text critics for decades; and it would have been gracious for Ehrman at least to acknowledge his predecessors in this field.

Ehrman is candid about his own personal stake in textual criticism. Converted to fundamentalist Christianity in his teens, he initially adopted a rigidly inerrantist posture toward the Bible, or at least toward the “original manuscripts” thereof; but his studies persuaded him that since those original manuscripts did not exist, inerrancy was an empty concept. Eventually, he moved beyond that position to question the idea of inspiration itself. If the textual history of the Bible shows that it has always been shaped by its human cultural and social environment, he reasoned, doesn’t that shaping reach back to the writing of the texts themselves? When Matthew and Luke adapt Mark’s portrait of Jesus in order to create their own, are they not also “changing” the Bible? And don’t we change it as well, every time we read and interpret it from our own perspectives? What then happens to the “actual words” that God supposedly inspired? “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” (211).

The shattering of a brittle fundamentalist faith is audible here, as well as in the panicked reactions to the book from those quarters. If one begins with a kind of scriptural Docetism–viewing the Bible as so divinely inspired that it cannot also be fully human–then any evidence of its full humanity must refute its divine inspiration. This is sad, and unnecessary. But Christians of a less fundamentalist stripe can still learn from Ehrman to appreciate the Bible as God’s unchanging voice discerned and recognized amidst a chorus of ever-changeable human voices.

David Timmer is professor of religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa.