An Extensive and Scholarly Evaluation of Dr. Ehrman’s work:
“MISQUOTING JESUS: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why”, by Bart D. Ehrman, (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005, 242 pgs.)
Dr. Ehrman is a noted New Testament textual scholar. His accomplishments are extensive, and he comes to the table with incredible academic abilities and extensive knowledge. Yet, I was quite disappointed in Ehrman’s work. It was like hearing a series of punch lines first, from someone, who never gets around to telling the background stories–Ehrman never completes the deal. He raises a variety of issues, and comes to a number of radical conclusions, with little or no supporting evidence. There is nothing here except exaggerated opinion, unsubstantiated conjecture, & a propensity for putting every fact in the worst possible light. “Hey Mabel!, When is he going to get to the verses that ‘Misquote Jesus’?” –he never really delivers–only leaves us with the impression that there must be many.
I studied New Testament textual issues extensively in seminary, and came to some very different conclusions than what Prof. Ehrman offers in his book. At the time, Dr. Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton was the recognized expert on the NT text. He was the editor of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (RSV), and his major work: “The Text of The New Testament-Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration”, was the definitive textbook used and respected by conservative and liberal scholars alike. Dr. Metzger’s text presented the same history, textual problems and facts that Dr. Ehrman notes in his book, without all the bravado and speculation. Later, Bart Ehrman became his protege and now actually shares the byline in the lastest edition of his mentor’s work. This association gives Dr. Ehrman tremendous credibility.
Dr. Ehrman states in his introduction, that he graduated from Moody Bible Institute, which he says, at the time, was a proponent of the ‘fundamentalist’ scriptural view–in which every single word was literally given by God through–’verbal, plenary inspiration’. He notes that he was taught that ‘inerrancy’ involved the very words of the Bible–every single word being dictated to the authors–thus the Bible in this view, is not just the ‘Word of God’, or the inspired teaching of the Holy Spirit; but the very words themselves, are the ‘very words of God’ and not really the authors (Most Evangelical scholars believe that the words are ‘God-breathed’ and inspired, but recognize that the writings still reflect the style and language of the human authors. Many would also contend that the ‘verbal/plenary’ understanding of inspiration, goes somewhat beyond the historical orthodox Christian teaching on inerrancy). The ‘Textus Receptus’—the ‘Received Text’ (that is, the manuscript line that the KJV and NKJV is translated from) being the only trusted manuscript. Of coarse, this is the ’straw man’ that Bart Ehrman continues to slay, and it is the old view that he naturally rejects, after completing his education at Wheaton College, and later at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Dr. Ehrman proceeds in his book, to throw out the whole ‘baby Jesus’ with the bath water. After years of learning everyone of the essential languages, in-depth historical background study, study and analysis of everyone of the early Christian writings in the original languages, complete textual study and critical analysis of everyone of the NT manuscripts extant; Bart Ehrman ends up rejecting Christianity and becomes an agnostic. Then he proceeds to try and convince his readers that the NT text is really unreliable and not worthy as a guide for faith and for living. However, nearly all of the difficulties in the NT that he cites, are found in the T.R. (Textus Receptus), and nearly all of those major problems have already been resolved (or noted) by the editors of every modern version of the Bible–RSV (his mentor’s work), NIV, NASB, ESV, NLT, etc. Yet he leaves the impression that most of these problems are still distorting the text. See page 209, he cites only three passages which have not been resolved in the manner that he thinks that they should have–Mark 1:41, Luke 22:43-44, and Heb. 2:9. The fact is, his work is really only valid and effective as a critique of the KJV, the T.R., and his old fundamentalist views.
In one of his moments of genuine candor, Ehrman states on page 208:
It bears repeating that the decisions that have to be made are by no means obvious, and that competent, well-meaning, highly intelligent scholars often come to opposite conclusions when looking at the same evidence.
His own mentor (Metzger) made different decisions when editing the RSV than what Ehrman calls for in several instances. For example; all the scholars involved in the RSV, NIV, NASV, and ESV disagreed with him on the most reliable textual readings for Mark 1:41, Luke 22:43-44, and Heb. 2:9. Each one of these works had committees of 10 or more of the best scholars in the world working on these translations–all of them viewing the same textual evidence that Ehrman did. There is also no doubt that NT scholars at most evangelical schools have viewed the same evidence and have made quite different decisions about the reliability of the text. The point is that Dr. Ehrman is hardly the final word in this area of study; he seems to be a ‘contrarian’. In fact, I believe that his need to support his own rejection of his early fundamentalism and his ultimate rejection of Christianity as a whole (now an agnostic), has caused him to seek out the minority text–and to support the ’strange’ variant, all under the pretext of ‘good’ scholarship.
Let’s take Mark 1:41 for an example. Dr. Ehrman makes a big case out of this passage, citing it several times in his book, and presents his case in both radio interviews (that I listened to), that an ‘angry’ Jesus healed the leper, not out of ‘compassion’ like every single version of the Bible says. He wrote the major reference supporting this view, and his mentor Dr. Metzger says that the ‘angry’ text is a good possibility, but did not include it in the RSV. The committees overseeing every modern version have opted for the ‘compassion’ reading—and with good reason. The Codex Bezae is the only Greek manuscript with the ‘angry’ Jesus text, all the rest support the ‘compassion’ of Jesus. Codices Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, all have the ‘compassion’ reading. The Codex Bezae is notorious for having hundreds of different and ’strange’ variants. Most scholars will not take a Bazae variant as a reliable reading if not supported by at least one other early source. Either one of the 2nd or 3rd century manuscripts, or one of the other major Codices, or a reference in one of the Early Church Fathers, early 2nd to 4th century preferably.
I did some research and looked through the manuscript evidence extant prior to 300 AD, unfortunately none had this passage. I also did a search through the Early Church Fathers. There were only two quotes of the passage, and two other possible references, but none had verse 41. Ehrman would probably claim that the absence might demonstrate their discomfiture with the ‘angry’ reading–but that would be an argument from silence. There were several early Latin texts which support the Bazae reading, but The Vulgate has ‘compassion’ instead. This is important, because Jerome took the very best Greek and Latin manuscripts of his day to produce The Vulgate. The point is that support for Ehrman’s ‘angry’ Jesus is quite small, while the ‘compassion’ reading is far more attested to. One can readily see why the Bible committees (RSV, NIV, NASV, ESV, NLT) chose the ‘compassion’ reading.
Let’s look at Luke 22:43-44. The passage refers to Jesus sweating blood with an angel showing up while he prays in the garden. The modern versions all include it, while the RSV,and ESV do note that “some manuscripts omit these verses.” I found and read 12 different references to these verses in the Early Church Fathers. One reference–Hilary of Pointier (300-353 AD) somewhat supported Dr. Ehrman by mentioning that some manuscripts available to him omit the verses, however, he accepts the verses as genuine (Trinity Book 10:41). Ehrman mentions that Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus (all early 2nd century) all quote the verses, and he makes it sound like a bad thing–incredible! (Pg. 165) He does not however mention that Tatian’s “Diatessaron” contains the verses. This was an early ‘harmony’ of the gospels from the mid 2nd century (150 AD appox.). These 2nd century references are important because they pre-date the earliest manuscripts and Codices that are available. Nevertheless, Ehrman holds his own conjectures to be more credible? Neither does he mention the quotes by Augustine, Chysostom, Eusebius, Hilary, or the Nsibene Hymns. We are asked to accept that he knows better! I don’t think so and neither did any of the modern Bible committees.
Hebrew 2:9 is the final passage that Dr. Ehrman lists as a remaining ‘problem’ in the modern versions. However, in this verse the evidence is quite even. Did Jesus die “apart from God” (xwpis theou) as Ehrman prefers, or did Jesus taste of death by the “Grace of God” (xapiti theou)—as the 10-40 ‘world-class’ scholars on the several Bible committees have chosen. Only the RSV notes the alternate reading. There are early Ms sources for each, and the quotes among the Early Church Fathers are closely divided. I looked up and read 4 references, all direct quotes from the 4th century. Ambrose (340-397 AD), an early Latin Bishop, supports the ‘apart from God” variant, while Athanasius of Alexandria (297-373 AD), Chrysostom of Constantinople (345-407), and Cyril of Alexandria (370-444 AD) all support the ‘Grace of God’ reading. After reading these different references, I could use either variant with some confidence. Origen, Eusebius, Theodorot, and Jerome are also said to support the ‘apart’ variant. Major textual critics of the past, seem to be divided equally over the issue–Bengal, Zuntz, Harnack, Tasker, and Tischendorf support ‘apart’ as the original. However, the choice of ‘grace’ by the Bible committees cannot be discounted. I am sort of ambivalent over the issue, either reading can be easily explained theologically. However, my favorite Bible scholar–FF Bruce (NIV and editor of the NICNT comm. series-now deceased) picks ‘grace’ in his NICNT commentary on Hebrews (See, page 32), after nearly a page of defining the issue. That settles it for me, his scholarship was respected by all–liberals and evangelicals alike.
Dr. Ehrman also makes a big deal out of ‘the woman caught in adultery’ passage (John 7:53-8:12) both in his book and especially in his radio interviews. He is somewhat disingenuous in his ‘flogging of this dead horse’ after the cows have long since left the barn! Check out any modern version and you will find that this passage is separated from the rest, and noted that it is not found in ‘the earliest and most reliable manuscripts’. Neither is it quoted by any of the Early Church Fathers. Scholars are in complete agreement on this passage, and yet he presents it as a problem? The same can be said of Mark 16:9-20, and the famous ‘Johnnine Comma’ (I John 5:7-8)–long since resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, except maybe a few T.R. enthusiasts of the ‘fundamentalist’ variety.
Let’s look at all of this from a different perspective- Fact:
1. There are over 200,000 variants in the manuscripts extant.
2. Over 99% involve spelling, word order, or dropped words and phrases.
3. All easily resolved by comparing the available manuscripts.
4. Only 1% have any significance.
5. Only .5% are disputed in any way.
6. There are 8,099 verses in the NT.
The job of textual criticism is to try to recover the ‘original’ text, and to define the most reliable reading. When a group of scholars are preparing a new version of the Bible, the work of modern textual critics, like Dr. Ehrman, is utilized. The Bible committees resolve the disputed verses by choosing the variants which have the strongest supporting evidence (Ms and early writing). There are a few verses which have alternate readings that are both strongly attested too. In these cases, the committees choose what they feel is the best variant, and usually cite the alternative reading in a footnote. Therefore, we can be quite sure of the reliability of 99.5% of the text used in our modern Bibles, and reasonably sure of most of the remaining .5%. This is an Evangelical perspective of coarse.
Then there are ‘contrarians’ like Dr. Ehrman who really would rather throw ‘monkey wrenches’ in the whole works, criticize other scholars, cast doubts and aspersions upon early Christians, and the reliability of the NT itself; and in the process, the very origins of Christianity in its entirety.
The real problem that I have with Ehrman, is his unsubstantiated conjectures about how the NT must have been transcribed and passed down during the first and early second century. One cannot but marvel in his understanding and knowledge of languages and early Ms. readings, even if one disagrees with some of his conclusions. Nevertheless, his overall scholarship is quite remarkable–that’s what makes him such a dangerous foe to the Faith. It is in his contentions that the text was intentionally changed by early scribes in order to fit their ‘proto-orthodox’ theological views. It is here, that he digresses from textual criticism and enters into the realm of prognostication. One can ask–did ‘proto-orthodox’ believers really change the text to reflect their views, or did they form their views based upon what they observed in the text? I believe that careful study of the Early Church Fathers actually proves the latter.
Remember, substantially the Ms evidence extant only goes back to the late 2nd century. The earlier manuscripts are mostly fragments. While Dr. Ehrman can speculate about some possible ‘motives’ for change in the existing variants; one must recognize that the ability of modern textual scholars to resolve most of the problem variants, leave one to proclaim–’no harm–no foul!’ However, when Ehrman speculates about possible motives and changes made by 1st and early 2nd century scribes, it is shear conjecture, and convenient at that; since there are really no manuscripts to consult except a few fragments. There are however, the writing of the Apostolic and Pre-nicene Fathers from this period, and it is remarkable how their quotes establish the reliability of the NT text as we know it. Dr. Ehrman paints a rather bleak picture of the ’scribe’ situation in the 1st and 2nd centuries. However, there are a number of scholars who believe that there were substantial numbers of Jewish Scribes and Pharisees of the 1st century, who converted to Christianity, and could have helped in the early transmission of the NT texts. Also speculation, but one which counters Ehrman.
Some facts to support the view that Jewish scribes may have helped in the early transmission of the NT text:
1. The over-all literacy of the Jews, was far greater than any other group in the Roman Empire
2. Early Christianity was dominated by Jewish leaders, in the 1st century.
3. The major centers of the early Church, were among the Jewish conclaves in Jerusalem, Antioch, and Damascus–all of which had a large community of Jewish scholars.
4. There were over 50,000 Jewish-Christians living in Judea when the Romans attacked in 70 AD.
5. Alexandria became a major center of the Church by the early 2nd century. Also a city with a large Jewish community of Greek speaking scholars. Note: The Septuagint was originally produced in Alexandria, and was widely used as the OT among early Christians.
6. The accuracy of Jewish Scribes in transmitting OT texts is unparalleled in antiquity. The Scrolls found at Qumran (The Dead Sea Scrolls) have demonstrated and proven their capabilities.
7. NT fragments were found in a jar, in Cave 7 at Qumran, dating from 50-70 AD. The fragments are so small (the largest are 6? x 1? and 4? x 2? approx.) that Jewish and liberal Christian scholars ignore their existence and oppose their NT identity. The methods used to identify the fragments were long recognized in identifying OT and Pseudepigrapha fragments. However, it became controversial when the fragments were identified 1971, as coming from the NT books of Mark, Acts, Romans, I Timothy, 2Peter, and James. Work on the fragments was suspended as a result. However, I believe that this example does demonstrate that Jewish scribes were more that likely involved in the early transmission of NT texts.
The real textual problems started escalating as Christianity spread across the whole Roman Empire. The new Christian communities needed copies of the NT writings and had to increasingly depend upon local scribes. These problems are demonstrated in the Ms of the 2nd and 3rd century which we do have, and which critics can examine and ‘correct’.
In conclusion, I believe that Professor Ehrman wrote this book because he has a vested interest in challenging the accuracy of the NT. First of all, he has written several books that champion early diverse ‘heretical’ Christian groups and writings that were ‘left out’ of the NT (”Lost Christianities: the battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew”; and “Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament”). Secondly, he has become a proclaimed ‘agnostic’ and has rejected the claims of Christianity as a whole. Finally, I believe that he wrote a ‘popular’ book on this subject (that is- a book for popular use rather than a scholarly work) to combat the influence of the Bible in the lives of millions of Christians and in everyday decisions made by believers–including political choices. Why do I say That?:
1. The title of the book–”Misquoting Jesus”, was obviously chosen to create attention and controversy–also with the hope that curious Christians would pick it up.
2. A major promotion of the book–major publisher, major book stores, major media exposure, radio and TV interviews, plus major print media reviews–all with an unstated underlying liberal hope of finally getting at those darn ‘red state’–’Bible Belt’ evangelical conservative Christians.
3. Political issues are noted in the introduction and the conclusion of the book. (Page 14- “…abortion, women’s rights, gay rights, religious supremacy, Western-style democracy, and the like?”; page 217- “..homosexuality, women in the church, abortion, divorce, and even American foreign policy…”). Ehrman seems to imply that our ‘fundamentalist’ belief in the Bible texts, cause us to make unfortunate conservative decisions.
4. References to current political issues during radio interviews. Including one misleading reference to how Christians misquote the Bible in opposition to Homosexuality–claiming that the context was different. Heck yes, the context was different! Fact; Homosexuality was rampant and largely accepted in the Greek and Roman culture when Christianity arrived upon the scene. Fact: It was condemned among Jewish communities because of OT teaching. Fact: It later went into the ‘closet’ of Western civilization after Christianity became the dominate religion.
5. Finally, he discounts the use of the Bible as a guide for living. On page 13, he mentions his change of thinking in this matter:
It is a radical shift from reading the Bible as an inerrant blueprint for our faith, life, and future to seeing it as a very human book, with very human points of view, many of which differ from one another and none of which provides the inerrant guide to how we should live. This is the shift in my own thinking that I ended up making, and to which I am now fully committed.
Then again he says on page 14:
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? There are clear reasons for thinking that, in fact, the Bible is not this kind of inerrant guide to our lives…
There in his own words you have the ‘real’ purpose of the book–to persuade others that the Bible is an unreliable source of Faith and direction. I can just hear some of his liberal academic buddies encouraging him to write this book in the first place—”Can’t you do something about these darn Evangelical Christians?”. After all, North Carolina (where he teaches) is right on the border of the ‘Bible Belt’.
Final Note: If you think about it, it is really absurd to believe that nearly 2,000 years of Christian history can be overturned by pointing out a couple of dozen ‘problems’ in the NT text. After all, the first generation of Christians did not even have the NT in its entirety, and yet they spread the Gospel across the entire Roman world.
What if every manuscript and every Bible was destroyed or outlawed, would Christianity cease to exist? (actually this was attempted several times in history) No, Never! There is a supernatural reality to Christianity that goes beyond the written page. This is not to say that the Bible is unimportant—the Bible is of primary and essential importance, but there is more to our faith. It also goes way beyond any academic argument or philosophical proposition. There is a real God and Savior, and a real holy Spirit that can be really experienced! Today, when Christians read the Bible, they too can have an encounter with God. Sometimes the words just fly off the page and enter into ones very soul–the very Spirit of God who inspired the NT writers, is still around today inspiring those who read it. As Paul wrote in I Cor. 2:4-10; our faith really does not depend upon wise and persuasive arguments, or the academic wisdom of this age, but upon God’s power.
Michael G. Davis, D.Min.
Also see the following excellent review: