Thursday, December 5, 2013

"Misquoting Jesus" by Bart D. Ehrman

(cover image from

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005) by Bart D. Ehrman is an absolutely fascinating account of how little we really know about the New Testament.

We don't, after all, have the original copies of the books of the New Testament (which were, themselves, only a small selection of the gospels, letters, apologetics, apocalyptic stories, and other texts passed around, and believed, by early Christians). We don't even have copies of the copies of the originals.

We've got a large number of ancient manuscripts, but even the very earliest of them - just tiny papyrus fragments, not whole books - are copies made long after the events they supposedly describe. And all of the ancient manuscripts differ. In fact, as Ehrman points out, there are more variations in New Testament manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

Ehrman starts out by explaining why this was so important to him, as a born-again Christian who believed in every word of the Bible:
If one wants to insist that God inspired the very words of scripture, what would be the point if we don't have the very words of scripture? In some places, as we will see, we simply cannot be sure that we have reconstructed the original text accurately. It's a bit hard to know what the words of the Bible mean if we don't even know what the words are!

This became a problem for my view of inspiration, for I came to realize that it would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place. If he wanted his people to have his words, surely he would have given them to them (and possibly even given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew). The fact that we don't have the words surely must show, I reasoned, that he did not preserve them for us. And if he didn't perform that miracle, there seemed to be no reason to think that he performed the earlier miracle of inspiring those words. [p. 11]

This is a guy whose worldview is turned upside down by what he discovers, yet he's willing to follow the truth wherever it might lead. (Note: I do not know what his religious beliefs are now, but it's clear he no longer believes that "the Bible is the inerrant word of God," which he did believe, and which his professors at the Moody Bible Institute were required to believe as a condition of employment.)

As Ehrlich relates, early Christians were mostly from the illiterate lower classes, yet from the beginning, it was a very "bookish" religion. Christians were all supposed to believe the same things (which differed from the majority religions of the time, which were mostly based on actions - sacrifices and the like - which didn't require a uniformity of belief).

Of course, Christians didn't all believe the same things:
In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed that there was only one God, the Creator of all there is. Other people who called themselves Christian, however, insisted that there were two different gods - one of the Old Testament (a God of wrath) and one of the New Testament (a God of love and mercy). These were not simply two different facets of the same God: they were actually two different gods. Strikingly, the groups that made these claims... insisted that their views were the true teachings of Jesus and his apostles. Other groups, for example, of Gnostic Christians, insisted that there were not just two gods, but twelve. Others said thirty. Others still said 365. All these groups claimed to be Christian, insisting that their views were true and had been taught by Jesus and his followers.

Why didn't these other groups simply read their New Testaments to see that their views were wrong? It is because there was no New Testament. To be sure, all the books of the New Testament had been written by this time, but there were lots of other books as well, also claiming to be by Jesus's own apostles - other gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses having very different perspectives from those found in the books that eventually came to be called the New Testament. The New Testament itself emerged out of these conflicts over God (or the gods), as one group of believers acquired more converts than all the others and decided which books should be included in the canon of scripture. During the second and third centuries, however, there was no agreed-upon canon - and no agreed-upon theology. Instead, there was a wide range of diversity: diverse groups asserting diverse theologies based on diverse written texts, all claiming to be written by the apostles of Jesus. [p. 152-153]

Note that this isn't about those different texts. Eventually, one group gained political power and suppressed the others. Eventually, that group decided what was to be part of the New Testament and what wasn't. But what happened before then?

Christians were all supposed to believe the same thing, and their various leaders (who didn't all believe the same thing) tried hard to push their own particular views. One way they did this was through letters, stories, and other written text. Although the vast majority of Christians were illiterate, these things were commnly read to the congregation.

But remember that there was no publishing industry back then, so to distribute such texts required that they be copied by hand. Later in Christian history, this might be done by professional scribes or by monks in the Catholic Church. But not in the early centuries. Back then, it would be Christians themselves - amateur scribes at best, some barely literate themselves - who'd copy the manuscripts for their own use and/or the use of their own congregation.

And all of these people had their own particular beliefs. So it wasn't just accidental mistakes which changed the texts as they were copied over and over again, but deliberate changes - frequently to make the documents say what the copier thought they should say, or to make more clear the copyist's own interpretation of Christianity.

I must say that it's an absolutely fascinating story, as Ehrlich gives examples of both accidental and deliberate changes. Keep in mind that these copies were done locally, so a change in one manuscript would be repeated every time that manuscript was copied, and every time a copy was copied,... along with any newer changes added along the way.

The middle of the book slows a bit, as Ehrlich gets into the history and the methods of textual criticism - not of especial interest to me - but then it picks right up again with his examples of accidental changes, which can happen for any number of different reasons, and deliberate revisions (especially when it came to the role of women in the church and Christian relationships with Jews and pagans).

Christians who believed that women should be completely subservient to men changed passages where women seemed to have a leadership role. Most early Christians were ex-pagans, many of whom were anti-Jewish. They tended to downplay the fact that Jesus was himself a Jew. And since the vast majority of their critics were pagan, too, texts could also be changed to counter specific pagan criticism.

The point is, all of these people - the ones who deliberately changed their copies - thought that they were fixing them. They were all Christians, and they all had faith. But they didn't necessarily believe the same things. So when one of them made a copy of a Christian text, it was always a temptation to fix up the text a bit, to make it read the way it should read, in their mind.

Bart Ehrman chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. To him, this is a fantastic mystery, trying to puzzle out what the original documents actually said. And yes, that's very interesting. I really enjoyed this book.

However, there are three additional points to keep in mind here. The first, which Ehrman himself emphasizes, is that we don't have the original copies, or even very early copies, of these texts. So we have no idea how much they might have changed in the first couple of centuries, where we simply have no surviving copies at all.

Second (which he does mention, but needs to be emphasized), the documents which ended up becoming the New Testament were selected by later Christians with their own particular beliefs. These people rejected many other documents, similar documents, which didn't match their own views. This was just a matter of political power. One group came out on top, that's all. In an alternate history, we might have quite different documents in the 'New Testament'.

And third, which Ehrman doesn't mention at all, even if these documents hadn't been altered at all, there's absolutely no reason to believe the claims made in them - certainly not the magical claims, the supernatural claims, the extraordinary claims. If you believe in the Bible, the changes he describes should certainly give you pause. But keep in mind that there's no real reason to believe it in the first place, errors or not.

Millions of people today believe that certain Indian gurus can duplicate the supernatural events described in the Bible, up to and including resurrection from the dead, but hardly anyone in the West pays any attention to that. Yet Christians readily believe the similar claims supposedly made by anonymous people, written down by different anonymous people, thousands of years ago, before modern science even existed.

So this book is just a small part of it. This is just about who changed the texts of the New Testament and why. It's a fascinating story. I highly recommend it. But it's only a small part of why we should be skeptical of Christian claims.

PS. Do you ever get one of those wacky right-wing emails, passed around from person to person, and check it out at Very frequently, you'll find that the basic story has been around for decades, but that it's been altered. Frequently, political names have been changed to make it seem more relevant today. Often, parts have been added to it by people who think it needs improving. And sometimes, it's been attributed (falsely) to a respected, or at least well-known, celebrity.

All of these changes have been made, deliberately, by true-believers who are trying to convince other people to see things the way they do. They're all lies, yes, but I doubt if the people who do this think of it that way. Instead, they're just trying to find the best tactic to convince other people of what they already believe, themselves, is true - and they're quite willing to lie to do that.

I kept thinking of that when I read this book. That's what these early Christians were doing - not the people who made accidental mistakes, but the people who deliberately changed the text they were copying. They just knew that they were right, and they wanted to convince everyone else of that, too. So they simply... fixed these texts, a bit. After all, it was in a good cause, right? :)


Jim Harris said...

See, I told you Ehrman was great. The more I read about early Christianity the more I see the same political tricks of today used in the past. We haven't changed in 2,000 years. Some people will do anything to make their point, and feel they are justified and right in their methods.

WCG said...

Yes, you were right, Jim. Thanks for the recommendation. I picked up his Forged book, too.

And no, human nature hasn't changed in 2,000 years. Human societies have changed. Our ideas of morality have changed. Our technology has certainly changed. But not human nature.