Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

I first saw Bart D. Ehrman last March 14 when he was interviewed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Prior to that, he guested on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The cover of Ehrman’s book proclaims it a “New York Times Bestseller.” There’s even another book refuting his book called Misquotes in Misquoting Jesus: Why You Can Still Believe.

I gradually got the impression that Ehrman must have written something revolutionary, so I was surprised to buy Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why over the holidays and find that it is simply a clear and sober introduction to Biblical textual criticism 101. Never would I have imagined that the study of minute differences between hundreds of rare and rotting old Biblical manuscripts written in Greek could become a bestseller.

Don’t get me wrong. I love this sort of stuff myself, but despite all the popular devotion to the Bible and Jesus in modern day America, I don’t personally know anyone who can tell the difference between the J text and the E text in Genesis, the Gospels of Mark and John, or John Milton and John Nelson Darby. Most people seem content to either believe in,, or scoff at all of the stories at once, without being able to even tell them apart. It’s easy to understand how the Left Behind books sell millions, but it’s hard to believe there would be much of an audience for serious Biblical textual criticism.

Bart Ehrman’s book is even more amazing because he was “born-again” as a teenager in Lawrence, Kansas, and studied at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. Although it may seem like a background geared toward conformity and orthodoxy, he nevertheless followed his intellectual curiosity to Princeton Theological Seminary and one little error in Mark 2:26 — and from there to the 200,000 or 300,000 or 400,000 or more differences between the various texts from which our modern Bible has been reconstructed. As Ehrman puts it, “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”

Of course, this is about as old as old news can get, but in Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman does an outstanding job of summarizing the history of Biblical texts in simple language. He explains how scribes reporduced copies for the earliest Christians, how texts were distributed throughout the Roman Empire, and how Christianity’s eventual acceptance under Constantine affected what the Bible contained and excluded. He traces the Bible’s revision and adjustment through Jerome, Erasmus, John Mill, Richard Bentley and others — including the painstaking work of Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort. A couple of the stories Ehrman includes along the way are absolutely staggering.

Some modern Bible readers may be startled to see how certain familiar passages and ideas — the “cast the first stone” adultery story in John 7:53-8:12, the last twelve verses of Mark, the concept of the Trinity in 1 John 5:7-8 — were most likely not included in the scriptures when they were first written. Following along in my favorite translation, The New Jerusalem Bible, as Ehrman detailed these and many other variations, I was pleased to see that most of the discrepancies were at least footnoted in the NJB. Shocking or not, Misquoting Jesus does provide the kind of spark that can help you see old things in new ways. As Jon Stewart remarked, “I felt like that information doesn’t denigrate the Bible in any way, but brings it to life in a manner. It suddenly becomes a living document.” All this in an easy, 218-page read.

Misquoting Jesus is the best Bible examination I’ve read in a while. For those who are interested in the subject, I would also recommend Richard Elliott Friedman’s classic Who Wrote the Bible?, which concentrates on the Bible’s first five books (the Torah or Pentateuch) and introduces the basics of the Documentary Hypothesis in equally easy-to-read language.

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