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The Truth About Misquoting Jesus

Critique by John Sexton

Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus was a well-timed exploitation of the American zeitgeist. It arrived in bookstores in 2005, just two years after the 40 million selling The DaVinci Code made questions about the historical reliability of the Bible a topic of water-cooler conversations. Even better, the film version of The DaVinci Code debuted in 2006 shortly after its publication. The hype leading up to the film was extraordinary and Ehrman benefited. A simple Google search shows that his book is frequently mentioned in articles published about Dan Brown’s novel that swarmed the media in 2006. [1]

The two books share more in common than their subject matter. Both Dan Brown and Bart Ehrman are agnostic/atheists whose intention is to rock the boat of Christian orthodoxy. Whereas Dan Brown wrote a thriller, the outcome of which was the complete undermining of the Gospels, Ehrman wrote a lay introduction to textual criticism which attempts to accomplish the same seeding of doubt in a non-fiction context. He even includes word puzzles of a kind, albeit mostly in Greek. But perhaps the most important connection the two books share is their essential dishonesty. Where Dan Brown relied on faulty history to shore up his contentions about the Catholic Church, Ehrman consistently overstates the significance of his particulars and understates or ignores evidence which might mitigate his arguments.

It is impossible to demonstrate Ehrman’s failings without looking at a number of the arguments he makes about particular passages; however, before getting into the trees it is worth a moment to make some observations about the forest.

Misquoting Jesus is a relatively short book written for the lay reader. The first half of the book is devoted to a discussion of the basics of textual criticism. In fact, even critics of his work have labeled this section “Textual Criticism 101.”[2] In the latter half of the book, chapters 5-7 plus the conclusion, Ehrman gets into more controversial territory (or in some cases implies he is doing so even though little actual controversy exists).

A close reading of the first half of the book reveals the care with which Ehrman attempts to lay the groundwork for the latter half. He is very fond of making sweeping statements in an authoritative voice, as if the material he is presenting is simply beyond question. For instance, in describing authority within the early church he writes:

[A]s the expectation of an imminent end of the world began to fade, it became clear that there needed to be a more rigid church structure…Churches…started appointing leaders who would be in charge and make decisions…concerning how the community was to live together…[3]

Notice that Ehrman is, first of all, subtly sowing doubt about Jesus in this passage. It was only because Jesus did not return that the Church was in such a sad state. But nowhere in this passage or elsewhere does Ehrman defend his view of eschatology or suggest any possible alternative to the view he proposes. It is as if he has arrived at this conclusion via a whole chain of reasoning which he does not bother to share with his readers.

More significantly, the argument Ehrman makes in the above passage seems to be plainly contradicted by the Bible itself. Paul was already defending his authority as an Apostle both explicitly and implicitly, for instance in 1 Corinthians 1-2. Ehrman himself makes note of Paul’s explicit authority just three pages earlier(page 22) where he discusses Paul’s insistence that his letters be read among the churches. How is one to reconcile what Ehrman claimed about authority within the church on page 22 with what he claims on page twenty-five?

Furthermore, in Acts chapter six we get an inside view of the day to day life of the new church. The Apostles devote themselves to teaching. As the acknowledged leaders of the community, they appoint others within the congregation to handle issues such as the disbursement of food to widows. So, contrary to Ehrman’s brief portrayal, the early church was not without leaders. In fact the office of Bishop and Deacon are both explicitly set forth in the New Testament. Therefore the church which followed (in the second century) did not invent the idea out of some sort of desperation.

Over and over Ehrman makes sweeping statements like this without even a hint that his viewpoint is driving his explanation. On page 28, Ehrman gives this vague description of Gnostic gospels:

[T]he group that established once and for all what Christians were to believe…are sometimes polemicized against by Christians who take the position eventually decreed as false. This we have learned by relatively recent discoveries of “heretical” literature, in which the so-called heretics maintain that their views are correct and those of the “orthodox” church leaders are false.[4]

Not to belabor the point, but the idea that there was a group which decided “once and for all what Christians were to believe…” is straight from the pages of Dan Brown. The DaVinci Code offered readers a fictional historian (played by Ian McKellen in the film) who informed the novel’s characters that the real truth of Christianity was effectively expunged in a close vote at the Council of Nicaea. Of course this is a complete fabrication as both Dan Brown and Bart Ehrman surely know. Yet here, Ehrman’s description seems to invite this same kind of speculation. Did a cabal of theology doctors meet in a dark room and come out with orthodoxy?

In fact, the arguments about orthodoxy were loud and frequent, as Ehrman himself notes elsewhere. And the decisions about what constituted heresy were rarely close calls, at least not by any reasonable standard. One need only read some of the “recently discovered” Gnostic texts which Ehrman references to realize that the Gnostic claim to the true faith was both fantastic and absurd. But rather than present any such material by which the reader might judge the matter, Ehrman simply implies that the two camps each had valid claims. That is very far from being a fact, it is a position about the data. Ehrman is once again presenting one side of a detailed argument without informing readers that this is what he is doing.

In the end, all Ehrman has really said in the above passage is that both sides saw the other as wrong. It is a long way from that rather banal statement to the conclusion that, in fact, we have no basis on which to judge who had the better claim. Uncertainly is arguably the thesis of Ehrman’s book, but he should know better than to assume the very thing he has set out to prove, i.e. that we can’t know who was right.

One final note on the first (uncontroversial) half of the book. Ehrman employees a technique throughout the book which quickly becomes tiresome, almost a rhetorical tic. He uses repetition to constantly suggest that we as readers of the New Testament are hopelessly removed from whatever it is Jesus and the Apostles may or may not have said. For instance, after a long description of the process by which errors are introduced into copies of the text, Ehrman writes:

The first reasonably complete copy we have of Galatians…dates to about 200 CE. That’s approximately 150 years after Paul wrote the letter. It had been in circulation…for fifteen decades…We cannot reconstruct the copy from which P46 was made. Was it an accurate copy?…It surely had mistakes…as did the copy from which it was copied, and the copy from which that copy was copied and so on.[5]

Here Ehrman is clearly trying to highlight the likelihood that P46 is a corrupt copy of a copy, ad infinitum. But how reasonable is this really? After all, the discussion starts from the fact that P46 itself survived 1800 years, from 200 AD when it was written to sometime in the 1930s when it appeared on the antiquities market in Cairo, to its prominent place in a private collection today. If one manuscript can survive 1800 years, why is it necessary to postulate a series of four or more copies to span 150 years? Is it not just as possible that the individual who made this copy was only one generation removed from the autograph?

Here is an alternate chain of possibility Ehrman fails to offer his readers: Galatians was written around 55AD. A single copy of the original (which went to Galatia) is made by the church there and sent to new churches in Egypt at some point in the late 1st or early 2nd century. This one copy would have been held on to by those churches and, as the number of churches grew, the need for more copies presented itself. So in 200 AD a copy is made combining most of Paul’s letters into one long manuscript which (by chance?) survives to this day as P46.

Of course there is no way to know for certain this is what took place. And that is precisely the point. Ehrman does not know either. His speculation about the history of this manuscript — with copy upon copy being made, each one adding errors — is based on supposition alone. He has no idea how many generations were involved. However, given the age of P46 and the way these texts were likely cherished by their communities, the answer could just as likely be one copy as many. A less partisan author conveying this information to a lay audience would have at least indicated that possibility as well.

Turning now to the latter half of the book, Ehrman offers the reader a series of disputed passages which he claims are significant in our understanding of scripture. In fact, it is best to begin from his conclusions and work backwards in order to properly evaluate the gap that exists between his actual arguments and the broad conclusions he draws from them. On page 208 he writes:

It would be wrong…to say – as people sometimes do – that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean. We have seen, in fact, that just the opposite is the case. In some cases, the very meaning of a text is at stake…Was Jesus an angry man?…Is the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament?…Does the New Testament indicate that even the Son of God himself does not know when the end will come?…The questions go on and on…

Starting with the last sentence first, here is that rhetorical tic again. The questions (like the copies of manuscripts) do not really go on and on. In fact, it is striking how few examples Ehrman offers in the entire book. Two of the examples he uses in the first half of the book he returns to in the second half. Overall, he describes around 10-15 disputed passages, at least three of which are marked as dubious or removed from most modern Bibles. The remaining passages may indeed be news to non-specialists but, even accepting every disputed reading Ehrman offers, not a single doctrine would be altered by the change. In fact, the only doctrine which is ever really at stake in Ehrman’s book is a an extreme view of inerrancy which it’s not clear that any actual evangelical scholar holds. Indeed, if such a scholar exists Ehrman never bothers to mention him by name.

Looking at the remainder of the above passage, there are three textual variants Ehrman mentions which deserve a closer look. In all of the following analysis I am relying in part on the excellent response to Ehrman’s book written by Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, a portion of which will be quoted in the conclusion.

In chapter five of Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman says there are some manuscript changes which are “matters of major importance, matters that affect the interpretation of an entire book of the New Testament.” This is quite a stunning claim. He follows this statement with three examples, the first of which is a variant that appears in Mark chapter one. Here most modern Bibles describe Jesus as reacting with “compassion” as he reaches out to heal a leper who begs for his help. Ehrman argues that the true reading of the passage should be that Jesus reacted “with anger” rather than compassion. He makes a persuasive case that this is a plausible original reading of the autograph. But does our understanding of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel really hinge on this one word? Perhaps it is best to let Bart Ehrman counter that assertion himself:

There are, in fact other occasions on which Jesus becomes angry in Mark…In Mark 3:5 Jesus looks around “with anger” at those in the synagogue…Similarly in Mark 10:14 Jesus is aggravated at his disciples…for not allowing people to bring their children to be blessed…whereas Matthew and Luke have difficulty ascribing anger to Jesus, Mark has no problem doing so.[6]

Either the idea that Jesus was angry changes the way we read Mark’s Gospel or it does not. Somehow, Ehrman seems to be arguing on both sides of the proposition simultaneously. On the one hand this is Exhibit A in his case that textual changes can change our view of Jesus, on the other hand, this variant is plausible precisely because it fits so well with the description of Jesus found throughout the remainder of Mark’s Gospel. In sum, even if the variant Ehrman argues for is the correct one, Ehrman himself makes a strong case that it should have little effect on our picture of Jesus.

The second variant highlighted in the excerpt of Ehrman’s conclusion comes from 1 John 5:7-8, the so-called Johannine Comma. Essentially this is a variant passage found in Latin texts but not in any Greek texts. It’s significance it that it is the only verse which explicitly states the doctrine of the trinity. Ehrman says of it:

Without this verse, the doctrine of the Trinity must be inferred from a range of passages combined to show that Christ is God, as is the Spirit and the Father, and that there is, nonetheless, only one God.[7]

But as Dr. Wallace notes, the Johannine Comma has been known to be a false addition to the text for over 400 years and does not even appear in the vast majority of modern Bible translations.[8] If anything, this is an example of how false variants can be effectively removed from the text to reveal the original reading. Yet somehow none of this context makes it into Ehrman’s description of the passage.

What is most disingenuous about Ehrman’s discussion of this variant is the absurd suggestion that without this verse the doctrine of the trinity is a mish-mash of haphazard collation. In fact, there are multiple verses which clearly support the trinity, several of which combine all three persons into a single verse (one that is not a contested variant). One of the most obvious is the Great Commission found in Matthew 28, but there are a dozen others which could be cited.[9] The suggestion that the loss of the Johannine Comma presents any challenge to the trinity is absurd. Ehrman surely knows this, and yet he has chosen to present the matter to the lay-reader in such a way that it suggests the matter may be in doubt.

Finally, let us consider Ehrman’s handling of the Olivet discourse, another passage whose meaning he claims is significantly altered by a variant. In Matthew 24:36 Jesus says no one knows the day or the hour of the Son’s return. Most modern Bibles include “nor the son” in the list of those who do not know, but Ehrman points out that some scribes – apparently eager to protect Jesus’ status as “fully God” — removed this admission of ignorance.

As noted, this is another variant in which most modern Bibles agree with Ehrman’s interpretation. Furthermore, while the variant in Matthew is disputed by scholars, the parallel passage in Mark contains the same admission and is not in question. [10] Why does Ehrman discuss the Matthew passage in Misquoting Jesus but fail to mention the parallel passage in Mark (which he has already said was a source for Matthew)? On what possible basis would a scholar omit this critical information?

Once again, it seems like an attempt to multiply errors before a lay audience that may not have the Biblical training to call to mind parallel passages. In fact, this is a prime example of a tactic that is repeated through Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman is sowing doubt in his reader’s mind even in cases where he knows none is really warranted. This un-scholarly approach is compounded when, in his conclusion, he refers back to this passage as a significant variant which changes our understanding of a passage and therefore of Jesus himself.

In conclusion, it is impossible for a Biblically and historically literate reader to get through Misquoting Jesus without noting a number of passages where Ehrman seems to intentionally cloud the issue in favor of his thesis. As demonstrated above, he does this even in cases where he certainly knows the conclusive rebuttal to his own argument. If one were to find one or two such examples, they could be dismissed as oversights, but Ehrman does not go ten pages without omitting significant, relevant information which might hurt his thesis. It is simply not possible that all of these omissions were oversights. This controversialist take on the material at hand may have helped him sell a lot of books, but it calls into question his honesty as a scholar.

Finally, a word on Ehrman from the perspective of verbal, plenary inerrancy. This is not a view I am currently comfortable with. In fact, a good argument can be made from Misquoting Jesus that an overemphasis on inerrancy may have played a part in Bart Ehrman’s own departure from the faith. Since I cannot improve upon it, here is the core of Dr. Wallace’s statement about the danger of making this peripheral article of faith too central:

[T]hose who frontload their critical investigation of the text of the Bible with bibliological presuppositions often speak of a ‘slippery slope’ on which all theological convictions are tied to inerrancy. Their view is that if inerrancy goes, everything else begins to erode. I would say rather that if inerrancy is elevated to the status of a prime doctrine, that’s when one gets on a slippery slope. But if a student views doctrines as concentric circles, with the cardinal doctrines occupying the center, then if the more peripheral doctrines are challenged, this does not have a significant impact on the core. [11]

Speaking for myself, I was ultimately comfortable reading Ehrman’s book precisely because I found I could (potentially) accept every variant he recommends and yet ask – in the final analysis – “So what?” None of these variants comes close to altering the core of Christianity. Given Ehrman’s partisanship and apparent desire to make controversial statements, it is safe to assume that if there were better examples to offer he would have offered them. In the end, this is a book which deserves shrugs rather than gasps.

Ehrman ends by saying he now sees the Bible as a very “human book.” If there is anything to be gained from his personal story, perhaps it is that he should have been introduced to this reality much earlier. His rejection of faith is especially unfortunate since this challenging notion — that something can be of man and of God simultaneously – is the genuine orthodox understanding of both Jesus and Scripture.

[1] Ironically, Ehrman published another book in 2006 titled Truth and Fiction in the DaVinci Code which was substantially critical of Dan Brown’s historical fidelity.

[2] Wallace, Daniel. “The Gospel According to Bart.” Available from Internet; accessed 2 May 2009.

[3] Ehrman, Bart. Misquoting Jesus. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005, p. 25.

[4] Ibid, p. 28.

[5] Ibid, p. 60.

[6] Ibid pgs. 135-136.

[7] Ibid. p. 81.

[8] Wallace, Daniel. “The Gospel According to Bart.” Available from Internet; accessed 2 May 2009.

[9] Some of the most explicit include 2 Cor. 13:14, Acts 7:55 and Hebrews 9:14.

[10] Bible, Mark 13:32.

[11] Wallace, Daniel. “The Gospel According to Bart.” Available from Internet; accessed 2 May 2009.

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