Saturday, August 30, 2008

Misquoting Jesus - Book Review

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
By Bart Ehram

"The Bible"-its use in the singular can gloss over the fact that we do not have access to the original text, but only to manuscripts of a relatively late provenance produced at different times and places and containing among them thousands of variant wordings. An accomplished scholar of early Christianity, Ehrman (religious studies, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) ventures out of the ivory tower in this accessible lay introduction to New Testament textual criticism. He sketches the development of New Testament literature, the gradual accumulation of errors therein through the accidental or intentional revisions of copyists, and attempts (beginning with Erasmus in the 16th century) to reconstruct the original text. Since mainstream study editions of the Bible have long drawn attention to the existence of alternate readings, the reasonably well-informed reader will not find much revolutionary analysis here. But Ehrman convincingly argues that even some generally received passages are late additions, which is particularly interesting in the case of those verses with import for doctrinal issues such as women's ordination or the Atonement.
Ehrman's book can best be described as an introduction to New Testament textual criticism for the beginners, in which he explains the subject in the context of his own background, relating his journey from being an Evangelical Christian to becoming a world renowned New Testament scholar. Besides D. C. Parker's "Living Text of the Gospels," Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus" seems to be the only book on textual criticism designed specifically for the non-expert readers.

In short, Prof. Ehrman explains the copying practises of the earliest period and how the texts of the New Testament writings were corrupted as they were copied and recopied. He begins by introducing the diverse writings produced by the early Christians, such as gospels, Acts, apocalypses, Church orders, apologies etc. Briefly, the formation of the canon is also discussed and we are informed about the literacy level among the early Christians. Thereafter we are introduced to the world of the copyists and Ehrman explains how the early scribes copied texts and the problems associated with the copying of texts.

In a little over 200 pages, Ehrman gets to the point of how the New Testament came to be what it is today. No, it didn't just appear leather-bound, shiny, and new after Jesus' resurrection; rather, it was painstakingly cobbled together decades after Jesus' crucifixion from copies of copies of copies of (you get the point) the original writings of the New Testament authors, which were slowly altered over time by scribes that handed them down, sometimes by accident or othertimes intentionally by those meaning to "correct" things in the scriptures that didn't make sense.

Ehrman provides a clear presentation of how the New Testament from it's founding, transformations, and end result, today. The New Testament was copied, translated, edited, and altered, over centuries. He provides evidence of how many of the tenets of original Orthodox Christianity were lost, altered for political reasons, mis-translated, additions added, omissions removed.

For example, Ehrman tells us that NT manuscripts contain 200,000 to 400,000 "variations." Thanks to Amazon text statistics, we can learn that the NT has about 200,000 words. 1:1 or 2:1 is a pretty high rate of uncertainty!

Ehrman explains that the variations are due to accidental transcription errors, well-intentioned revisions, and revisions made to bolster doctrinal positions. The manuscripts that are probably closest to the lost original documents are papyri found in Egypt. There are 116 of them (Ch. 4, n. 24).

The much revered King James Version was based on a Greek version that was itself based primarily on a single 12th century manuscript (p. 79-83). Because of research conducted since the 1611 publication of the KJV, most manuscripts available today are better than the KJV source (p. 209).

He explains why so many discrepancies appear in what Christians consider to be the Word of God. Some are innocent enough: fatigue, a mishearing or misreading on the part of the scribe or the monk, and the not-so-minor problem created by a form of writing that included no punctuation and no spaces between words. Others, though, are more problematic: a monk forced to choose between two distinctly different meanings for the same word would likely be inclined to choose the meaning that best represented his own beliefs. Still others were blatant errors or additions that were introduced to alter the meaning of the text. Ehrman also offers clear and compelling examples of each kind of error, enough that even a skeptical reader would be hard-pressed to argue that what we have today is what was written in the first century.

One amusing graphic is a reproduction of a page from a fourth-century manuscript in which one scribe wrote this in the margin, apparently blasting a previous copyist: "Fool and knave, leave the old reading, don't change it!"

Another fascinating insights Ehrman offers is an explanation of the literacy rates at the time of Christ and later, particularly what it meant to be "literate" --- which sometimes meant little more than the ability to copy words. Yet, before the rise of monasticism, it often fell to a "literate" Christian in a given town to copy the gospels or the letters of Paul or other letters and writings of New Testament authors. Also important to note is that Jesus spoke "Aramaic" a language that has been a dead language for a long time. Many words from the Aramaic language cannot be transliterated nor translated to other languages.The potential for error was great, and that did not go unnoticed either within the church or without. Origen, a third-century church father, complained about the many mistakes he had found, while a pagan critic of Christianity wrote that Christian scribes had done their work "as though from a drinking bout."

My only gripe is that the book takes so long setting up preliminaries. I know that's necessary for readers without a familiarity with textual criticism and the particulars in the transmission of the English Bible. But it was a slow step through it and doubly so for the initiated. If I were re-reading this, I'd start in section three immediately.

This book was an eye-opener for me, because I had never considered that the scriptures we read today may not be the ones as originally written. The author presents an eloquent and persuasive case for that occurring. He shows quite convincingly how certain verses were changed, either accidentally or deliberately by the copiers of the earliest manuscripts. Many of the changes were incidental and neutral, but several were quite important and changed the whole message of that portion of the text. This is a book that everyone interested in New Testament studies should read.

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