John on May 4, 2009 at 10:52 am
I had to choose a book on scriptural reliability to read for one of my classes. The only guideline was that it should be relatively recent and that it must take a view of the Bible that is hostile to (or at least dubious of) Christian orthodoxy. I chose to read Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus.
I chose the book for two reasons. First, I already had a copy which my mother had sent me a couple years back. I’d been meaning to read it but hadn’t gotten to it. Second, it’s only about 220 pages long, which makes it a perfect choice when you’ve already gone through about 7-12 other books in a semester.
Ehrman aims the book at lay readers. He is explicit about this. The book jacket, the title, the introduction and the conclusion all make some pretty grand claims about what the book demonstrates, i.e. that these variant texts of New Testament manuscripts change our understanding of the faith and Jesus in particular. In truth, not so much.
Personally, I did not find the book nearly as challenging as I anticipated. Contrary to the breathless copy on the dust jacket, I found I could accept all of the variant readings Ehrman offers without hesitation. In the end, I think what he offers is interesting and even helpful, but not terribly significant. It doesn’t fulfill its title, much less its promise to revolutionize our understanding of the New Testament. In fact, Jesus’ words are only discussed once or twice. I came away thinking the packaging was all a rather skillful marketing ploy on someone’s part.
What did surprise me was the way Ehrman handled the factual material. I made notes based upon my own knowledge of history and theology as I was reading and was surprised how often Ehrman seemed to be trying to slip things past the reader. Specifically, he seemed to be assuming that his reader would not be equipped to object as he made some sweeping but unsupported statement. Indeed, Ehrman makes sure the reader is not so equipped, which is probably the worst one can say about the work of any popularizer.
Granted, authors are allowed to present their opinions, but an introduction to textual criticism for a lay audience ought to offer readers enough information to make an informed judgment for themselves. Over and over, Ehrman leaves out significant information — information he clearly knows himself — because it would hurt his thesis. In reading some other critiques of the book afterwards I found that I had only scratched the surface on this problem. I don’t know Ehrman and haven’t read any of his other work, but Misquoting Jesus is the work of an agenda-driven partisan disguised as an introduction to the field by a disinterested scholar. It’s a very cynical bit of work indeed when an expert relies on the ignorance of lay-reader to score points.
Those are really just my conclusions. If you’re interested in reading the paper I wrote critiquing the book in more detail, it has been posted in the VSources section of the site. You can check it out here.