Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review: Misquoting Jesus

Back in April, I wrote a two-part post entitled "Religion is Hard, Faith is Easy".  In these two posts I shared a bit of my own religious background and I discussed some of my views on religion, on faith, and on the differences between the two.  In the second part, I mentioned that I was currently reading Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman.  In this book, Ehrman introduces readers to the concept of textual criticism and discusses its application to the New Testament of the Bible.
I found Ehrman's tone in this book to be very lay-person accessible.  In other words, if you've never hear of textual criticism or ever looked at the Bible from a strictly historical viewpoint, his work is fairly easy to understand.  I don't mean to imply he completely forgoes the use of scholarly language--but he does explain in plain terms what he means as well.  Ehrman takes the reader through a history of textual criticism as it formed around and was applied to the New Testament, pointing out key occurrences that continue to impact the versions of the NT that is read today. 

Ehrman focuses primarily on the Gospels, but does delve into Acts and the Epistles as well.  He follows the history of the manuscripts that came to compose the New Testament, discussing exactly who the people were who were copying these manuscripts as the years went by.  He shows the many ways that scribes accidentally made mistakes in copying these manuscripts.  Ehrman also puts these scribes (both unprofessional and professional) in the context of the religious and social debates of their times, showing how these could have affected--subconsciously or not--the copier's reproduction of a manuscript.

I have read several "rebuttals" to Misquoting Jesus but have been left wondering if the authors to these rebuttals even bothered reading the book in its entirety.  I will respond briefly to the three I found to be the most common.

One rebuttal claims that Ehrman's sole purpose is to undermine Christianity.  While Ehrman does give readers an introductory description of his own religious journey--from observant Christian to "born again" to a more relaxed Christianity to agnosticism--I didn't find that he at all attempted to undermine Christianity.  He explores the history of Christianity and looks at the Bible as historical document, which admittedly would be intimidating to many Christians, but he himself (in the Q&A section in the back) tells readers that textual criticism was in no way the reason he decided he could no longer be a Christian (it was the problem of pain and evil).  So saying that this book is supposed to undermine Christianity when the author himself was still a Christian after delving into textual criticism doesn't make sense to me.

Another rebuttal claims that Ehrman misleads his readers, leaving them to think that all the changes made to the New Testament manuscripts were meaning-altering for entire books, when most changes were truly insignificant.  This rebuttal doesn't hold water either.  Ehrman acknowledges that the majority of the changes to the manuscripts were insignificant--misspellings, jumbling word order and the like.  However, as he points out, there were many changes that completely altered the original author's meaning, and while these changes were less numerous than the aforementioned changes, they greatly impacted how Christianity has developed.

A third rebuttal--and this I found to be the weakest of the most common--refutes Ehrman's claim that there is no way to know what the original manuscripts said.  Ehrman never claims that!  In fact, he states the exact opposite, although he does say that the difficulties in discovery were very great, perhaps insurmountable.  Even after saying this, however, he declares the importance of continuing to use textual criticism to try and figure out the original wording.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in studying the Bible (especially the New Testament) from an historical and literary viewpoint.  It was a very interesting read, and I learned a great deal about the journey and transformation of the manuscripts that have come to make up today's New Testament.  Of course, as Ehrman points out, textual criticism is still an ongoing process--it will be interesting to see what else is discovered over the coming years.

***For my personal reactions to this book, go to my Reflections post :-).***


  1. This sounds like an interesting book to read. Your review is really good. I took religion in college and had to read the bible which was really hard! But, I think this book would be a good read. Thanks for the review!

  2. You're welcome! It definitely is a good, informative read!
    Go you for having read the Bible! I tried to read the whole thing once...I almost made it, but not quite! Thanks for the comment :-D!



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