Friday, February 6, 2009

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

Subtitled: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

This book is a great book for anyone that's ever heard a story straight from a person as though it were their own, only to later find it on Snopes as an urban legend, and then wondered whether the stories about Jesus could have been related similarly. It is for the person who wonders how anyone they admire and respect can read the Bible literally and believe it to be 100% accurate and divinely inspired. It's for the person who has seen people hotly debate the exact wording used by Jesus in scripture, knowing full well that the author probably wasn't there, and if they were, they wrote about it decades later. It's for the inquisitive person who wonders who wrote the Bible (not for the faint-hearted), or for one who learns the 8th Article of Faith in the LDS church and learns that their prophet has created his own translation of the Bible. In other words, it was a very good book for me, and I expect it would be an important book for anyone that believes knowledge about Jesus and the Bible is relevant to himself/herself.

This book is for anyone who has wondered, "When Jesus prayed privately in the Garden of Gethsemane, and his apostles slept, who observed the sweat as though it were drops of blood?" or, "Who was the witness that observed Jesus when he went alone into the wilderness for 40 days, and yet we know he was tempted and resisted Satan three times?" Have you ever wondered what Jesus' last words were? If so, this book could explain the reasons behind the different answers you get to that question.

What Dr. Ehrman does in this book is explain how textual variations have wound up in our surviving manuscripts from various translations, geographical locations, and time periods (while an exact figure is approximate, there are more differences between the various texts than words in the New Testament). Obviously, the vast majority are inconsequential and merely show human error in a time when the illiterate populations far outnumbered the literate. In one fascinating example, a mark bled through from the other side of the scroll, changing a word dramatically. But Ehrman makes a case where in many instances passages of scripture were deliberately changed, for a variety of reasons, such as making a difficult passage more understandable, or to make the text align more closely with the copyist's views. People that have studied this history know that in the early days of the church, there were many different versions of Christianity, and many more books considered scripture (I can't resist sharing that link). These vying factions had their own interpretations of the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, faith/grace vs. works as the key to obtaining salvation, and of course, many other differences.

Probably the best aspect of Misquoting Jesus is the way it is written. It is not for the biblical scholar with an intimate knowledge of the debates over which text is the most correct. It is for people with the curiosity but not the background. Examples are clear, pacing is relatively fast, and in many ways, it is a practical overview of the subject. It explains the process involved in determining the most-likely correct version, a history of the various important manuscripts and key scholars, as well as why certain changes most likely took place. If nothing else, it should make one seriously consider the truth of the "inerrant word of God" that so many base their very lives around.

After all, in order for your Bible to be perfectly true:
1. Jesus would have to be real, and not a myth
2. There must be someone to record his life accurately (weren't the Apostles all admittedly unlearned, hence, not able to document Jesus' life? At best, then, they could have dictated it, and we can all agree they had an agenda) or else those who passed on the individual stories would have had to pass them on perfectly (remember Snopes) until they could be written down.
3. Copies would then have to be preserved exactly as they were spread from one rare literate person to another. According to Ehrman, there are no originals in our possession today, and Misquoting Jesus shows that errors did abound in many versions.
4. Translations would have to cross one or more languages, while retaining both the literal meaning of words and make sense exactly so the spirit or intent remains unchanged.
5. The correct books in their perfect form would have had to be selected, while leaving out all the incorrect ones (see "scripture" link above), a process which took place over centuries and gradually became the Bible as we know it today.
6. It would have to remain unchanged for another 1500+ years.

If it could meet those criteria, basically of being inspired and then preserved, I'd say the Bible really would be like God speaking directly to us. And of course, there wouldn't be any contradictions in it, either. That said, I don't see how people can be so sure (to the point of claiming knowledge and basing their entire lives around it) without having divine intervention. I'm still waiting on mine.

This book is not intended to persuade anyone to disbelief. It seems to merely be meant to educate. Dr. Ehrman himself explains that while there are flaws, by and large the Bible is still very consistent, and he sees that most of the differences are the result of having differing viewpoints, and explaining things in ways that make sense to us. Just as the same truth will be told myriad ways by different observers, the Bible is a collection of differing viewpoints. But at the same time, to claim an inerrant Bible, without willingness to consider the truth of its history, is akin to celebrating ignorance. It is my hope that anyone considering reading Misquoting Jesus will not be afraid to consider the reality of the inerrant Bible, and will not be held back by a fear of challenging their faith. This book is easy to understand, makes its points concisely, and does not promote disbelief, only awareness. I recommend it to all.


Amanda said...

I tried reading the Bible recently, looking for kind of the same sorts of things you mention that Ehrman talks about or addresses, but found very little. Of course, I was reading the oldest books in the Bible, but all I found were contradictions and randomness. This sounds like it would be interesting to read.

Byron said...

Well, really you read the Bible as we have it today. Very different. What he's done is compare original manuscripts, from 200 AD or so and in the original Greek or Hebrew, and shown where one text says this and the other that, for the same passage of scripture.

You could say you were comparing horizontally and he is comparing vertically, of vice versa, if that makes sense.

Amanda said...

Exactly. I was sort of cataloguing contradictions, looking at the whole thing from an agnostic point of view. But then the project became to big for me, so I just started reading, and then I got bored and the whole thing seemed pointless and irritating. The more I read, the less I respected, you know? And I kept wishing i could read the original translations, in the original languages, or at least as close to original as exists.

Byron said...

Okay, so lets say you compared Genesis 1 and 2 and found creation accounts were slightly different. That's what you've done.

Ehrman is comparing two ancient version of Mark 1:41, for example, which differ in whether Jesus felt anger or compassion towards a leper which asked to be cleansed.

Byron said...

Many atheists insist that the best way for people to become nonbelievers is to actually read their Bibles all the way through and see what's there.

Amanda said...

Yeah, I get you, and I think it would be interesting to see his studies. Although right now I'm a bit burnt out on the bible and religion in general.

Amanda said...

I can see your point about what the atheists say. I went into my readings with an open mind, not believing or disbelieving, and by the time I got a few chapters in, I couldn't help but think it was all bunk. At least all those old stories, if they're interpreted literally. I sort of expected that. It seems weird to me to interpret fairy-tale like tales as actual events, but I expected at the same time to have some overarching messages of humanity. For the bible to say something about the human condition. From what I read, it hadn't - I mean, God is REWARDING the people who lie, steal, worship idols, have multiple wives, blackmail, etc. I suppose most of the humane messages come from the new testiment, but I didn't get that far.

Byron said...

Well, I'm sorry you burnt out (I was trying your God's Rainbow blog just yesterday, only to find it removed) but I'm glad you see my point and aren't offended.

I am deeply interested in this subject, and put a lot of thought into this review. I want it to mean something to someone else.

FYI, the next non-fiction book I'm reading is about Paul, a figure that IMO dramatically altered Christianity from what was intended. If Christinity is true, I have my suspicions that he could be the Anti-Christ prophecied about (I have issues how he takes works out of the picture of salvation, making it grace/faith only). So I will be learning more about him to see.

Amanda said...

That's interesting (the theory about Paul) - I'd never heard of that before.

My dad reads a lot of these types of books too, although I believe his tastes tend more towards religion and government. Last fall he gave me a huge pile of books about the founding fathers and their various religious (or non-religious) views, but I never made it through any of them. I have very limited patience for nonfiction of any kind, and usually only stick with memoires.

Amber said...

I've been looking for non-fiction books to read lately. This sounds like a winner.

I've steered away from non-fiction because I take such an un-godly (ha.) time to read them as opposed to fiction.

Thanks for the review and bringing this book to light.

Christopher said...

I took a class from this guy. He's pretty smart, but he admittedly hits the less publicized viewpoints more strongly.