Misquoting Jesus

The Thinker by Rodin

Some definitions for “faith”, from merriam-webster.com:

a  (1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God  (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b  (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof  (2): complete trust

America is rife with people of faith, and in my own strange way I consider myself one of them. America is particularly rife with Christians, particularly Christians who believe The Bible is a holy book, many of who sincerely believe that it is the inerrant and wholly consistent word of God. This faith in the accuracy of the Bible and for many that it is literally the word of God, forms the building blocks around which they orient their lives.

I for one am grateful that so many people have found divine wisdom in the Bible. While the Bible and Christianity have often been used for perverse ends, overall I think The Bible is a civilizing force. Regardless of whether you think it is divinely inspired or not, there is much wisdom in the Bible. Even though I have lived over half a century, I still cannot read The Sermon on the Mount without feeling profoundly moved and humbled by the power of Jesus’ words. And here I am, not even a Christian, but a Unitarian Universalist, which is a religion bereft of both a creed and a holy book.

I recently finished the book Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman. For the most part the revelations in the book, which concentrates on The New Testament and its evolution over the years, did not surprise me. Those who truly have faith that The Bible is the inerrant word of God, in the unlikely event they choose to read this book, will probably be unmoved by the revelations in this book (and I am not talking about The Book of Revelations). An absolute faith is impermeable to minor things like overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Underpinning this book is the wistfulness of its author, a recognized Biblical scholar and a premier “textual critic” of The New Testament. As Ehrman states in his introduction, he began his study of the Bible also believing that it was the inerrant word of God. He began his professional study of the Bible at The Moody Bible Institute, where to teach the professors had to sign in writing that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. After three years at the Moody Bible Institute, Ehrman moved on to Wheaton College, where he learned to translate ancient Greek, which is the original source language for much of The New Testament. This gave him the tool to examine many of the old Biblical books, scrolls and associated papers. Eventually the topic consumed him. He continued his education at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Today he teaches at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Reading his book it is hard to miss a note of melancholy from Ehrman as his once solid faith in the Bible simply could not hold as he examined and compared the ancient manuscripts that comprise The New Testament.

The book is a survey into why The New Testament is a testament to the failings of man. The failings were many. Mistranslations were common. In the days before the printing press, one had to depend on the accuracy of scribes who would attempt to copy previous generations of the work. For the first few hundred years, these scribes were not professionals, and their errors showed. Often they mistranslated in part because in ancient Greek words simply ran together, which meant their meanings were open to interpretation. There are numerous examples of scribes literally changing the meaning of the source they were copying. Our modern Bible is much like that childish game we used to play where we would whisper something quickly in the ear of one child, who would repeat it to another. The result is that the last message often suffered some major translation errors. As Ehrman shows repeatedly, the same is absolutely true of The New Testament.

For Jesus had the audacity to be born at a time when there were no microphones. If anyone was taking notes when he was wandering around Judea and Galilee they did not survive. In fact, not even a fragment of the original source material of any of the gospels or epistles exist. It all turned to dust millenniums ago. There are small sections of books of The New Testament in Greek from 200 to 300 A.D., but much of what survived is much more modern, as in generated from 1000 A.D. onward. There is simply no way to know how faithful the New Testament is to whatever its original authors wrote. What scholars like Ehrman can do is suggest that portions that are more likely to be closer to the original source than others.

If there is an accurate portrayal of Jesus, the closest would be the Gospel according to Mark, which scholars agree was written first. Indeed, as Ehrman points out it is clear that the other gospels rely heavily on Mark. Even so, Mark never met Jesus, so he was simply writing down the teachings that he heard or happened to believe personally. Mark’s perspective of Jesus, more than anything else, shapes the Jesus that Christians believe they know and revere.

However, I did find the book fascinating. In a way, it is amazing how much textual critics have been able to discern about the authenticity of various parts of The New Testament by comparing so many copies of copies of various translations and meticulously working their way backwards. Critics like Ehrman cannot reveal what is authentic, but they can say with some certainty which portions of The New Testament are not authentic. For example, the story of Jesus forgiving a woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11) is almost certainly incorrect. This is not to say it may not have actually happened, but by comparing older versions of documents with newer versions, the story mysteriously appears in newer versions.

Any honest critic of The New Testament simply must acknowledge parts that are inconsistent with other parts. This is a relatively straightforward process. You simply take each gospel, line up the story lines and compare the inconsistencies. The average reader of the Gospels of course does not take the time to do this. However, to assert that the Bible is the inerrant word of God is only possible if it unfolded in highly parallel universes that the authors conveniently traveled between. In that case, God does work in very mysterious ways indeed!

Perhaps one can judge The New Testament’s veracity on its impact, rather than the consistency of its story. One can certainly make a case for the Bible and The New Testament in particular as a civilizing and humanizing force, not to mention a source of great moral teaching. Of course, by being translated by fallible men, it was often used for evil purposes. What scholars like Erhman can assert is that based on scholarly study, the New Testament in particular is rife with errors, both inadvertent and deliberate. In addition, the Bible we revere today exists because over two millennium fallible humans have decided on which parts of it are holy and which were not.

Critics like Erhman challenge us, as the late advice columnist Ann Landers put it, to “Wake up and smell the coffee.” Perhaps those who assert that The Bible is the inerrant word of God should arise from their self-inflicted stupor and smell this coffee. They may find, like most of the rest of us, that while coffee has a bitter taste, is at least smells good.

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