Sunday, November 18, 2007

Book Review: Bart Ehrmann, Misquoting Jesus.

Early last week, I finished Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, a book which attempts both to popularize a discussion of textual criticism of the Bible and, I think, to raise serious questions about how we read the Bible in today's world. Generally, it was well-written, but that was all the more exhausting because I really felt I had to watch Ehrman all the time or he'd perform a pretty slight-of-hand on his audience without anyone really realizing.

The first warning to watch was in the introduction as Ehrman describes his own personal journey of faith and how it interacted with his studies in the Bible and textual criticism. Ehrman's early faith journey was spent in fundamentalist and evangelical circles in the course of the 60s and 70s. This meant his vision of the Bible was to emphasize its inerrancy and its verbal plenary inspiration. That meant that every single word, letter and punctuation mark had to be both absolutely correct and inspired. The problem was that, as he continued his studies in the Bible at the Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College and Princeton, he discovered that there were many, many textual issues with the New Testament, so he started wondering how this inerrancy could work. Not a bad question in its own way, but deeply problematic for Ehrman.

Before I read even this far, I realized that Ehrman hadn't so much changed his mind about inerrancy and verbal plenary inspiration, but rather he has switched polarity. Since his former conception of Biblical authority couldn't work in the face of what he had learned, he rejects any possibility that the Bible could be authoritative, but rejects it as a merely human document no different from those ancient documents of Jesus' era and after. He is every much a literalist as he was in his Moody days, he has just rejected what that literalism teaches.

This should raise cautions about how we read this book, not because he's wrong about there being real textual issues with the Bible, but because his tendency is to oppose traditional readings or theology. As far as the textual criticism, he's right quite often, but there are times where I wonder about his argument. Here are just a few of my concerns.

One of the things that bother me is Ehrman's repeated contention that Christian scribes before Constantine were likely distinctly sub-standard. He bases this on a discussion in which he describes the dubious literacy of two scribes in Egypt and concludes that, since documentary evidence suggests that Christians were distinctly lower class as a rule and, according to Celsus (a prominent pagan opponent) under-educated (p.38-41). He, then, uses this contention to tar early Christian readings at several points throughout his book. Yet, this contention needs an examination. Celsus' evidence is suspect because he is hardly going to favour Christians; both given his enmity to Christians and his privileged cultural status which might engender intellectual elitism. Furthermore, we have to remember that literacy wasn't necessarily impossible even among slaves. What is more, given that copying was a technical skill (moderately lucrative, but not outrageously so-roughly 2 drachmas for a letter in the reign of Claudius), it is entirely possible to see freedmen involved in this activity, possibly at a high level. I know of no studies to back me up, but I suspect that the degree of literacy may not be entirely class-bound.

A second concern occurs in his passage dealing with theological 'corrections' to the text, Ehrman consistently argues against the majority, traditional reading of Scripture as fixing passages which might seem to back heretical interpretations. He employs the well-known rule of following the lectio difficilior on the principle that a scribe is unlikely to fix something which makes perfect sense. I don't want to say this principle is incorrect, but I see no a priori reason why it has to apply here. It is just as possible that some of these passages which support these heretical positions were inserted into the text by heretics and simply recognized as erroneous in the majority of our manuscripts. I see no reason to assume orthodox correction in the majority of cases. This doesn't apply to those cases in which a gloss may have crept into the text.

What worries me about Ehrman's book is that it feeds into the tendency in our culture to want to see the Bible's authoritativeness weakened. This tendency can be seen even in Christian circles and it worries me. You don't have to be a fundamentalist to believe that Bible is authoritative in Christian discourse; the standard to which we check our theological positions against. This naturally leads to a discussion on authority in the Bible which is rather another discussion. The task of textual criticism in this conception is not to tear apart our reading of the Scriptures, but, rather, to try to establish the text as clearly as possible. One of the things that Ehrman doesn't emphasize is that the job of the textual critic of the Bible is made easier by the sheer number of manuscripts. A classicist would kill for the textual tradition of the Bible. This isn't to say that there aren't an awful lot of errors in that tradition, but sheer number of errors doesn't signify much. They just prove humans copied it.



mike aubrey said...

as one who just graduated from Moody in May, i thought i would tell you that Moody doesn't hold the literalist view (at least anymore) that Ehrman has switched polarities on.

Jim said...

Hi Phil,

I lost my last effort to comment.

I have tried to read Ehrmann. I kept wanting to stop and say, 'yes but!' and so I gave up. I agree with your polar image.

I have found literalism is a tool in the hands of young "neo-pagans." They tend to be rejecting Christianity of the same sort Ehrmann has in his background.

Fundamentalism / literalism is the tool of the anti-Christian in my experience.


Phil Snider said...


Thanks for your comments. I had heard the same thing, but really was just reacting to Ehrman's take on Moody, which, given the time, makes sense.

Jim. Well, it is certainly true that literalism/fundamentalism comes in both liberal and conservative varieties. That is a real pity because both varieties are really selling themselves and the Bible short. The truth is that reading the Bible needs more thinking and prayer than they think.

Jim said...


I don't think of it as either liberal or conservative. Rather, I see young people who are running away from the fudamentalist view using their often extensive knowlege of the text to attack it. A classic is the idea that men had sexual encounters with giants.

Literalism can lead the Bible to look silly, and ridicule is the weapon of the young.