Review and Analysis: ‘Misquoting Jesus’ by Bart D Ehrman
Consider my mind blown.
After reading the polarizing Zealot by Reza Aslan (review and analysis here), I decided to to check out one of the books mentioned in it, the equally controversial Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Change the BIble and Why by professor Bart D Ehrman. Whereas Zealot was focused on who the “historical Jesus” was likely to have been through an examination of the Bible and other sources, Misquoting Jesus is entirely about the text of the Bible itself, with the central argument being that it is an unreliable document given the changes, both accidental and intentional, that have been made to it over the centuries.
While I suspected that this was the case, Misquoting Jesus is nonetheless an eye-opening read that points out problems with the Bible in precise, easy-to-understand terms. I’m not sure what Ehrman’s position is now as a Christian, but he was one since a young age and had been dedicated to studying the Bible and its history. The problem was, the more he studied it, the more problems and inconsistencies he found with it. Initially, he believed scepticism of the Bible was a sign of weakness, a lack of faith. But then he realised: “eventually I saw it as a real commitment to truth and as being willing to open oneself up to the possibility that one’s views need to be revised in light of further knowledge and life experience.” Accordingly, this book is the culmination of more than 30 years of Ehrman’s academic endeavours.
As he said towards the end of the book, the more he studied the Bible the more he doubted it was the inerrant Word of God:
The more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realized just how radically the text had been altered over the years at the hands of scribes, who were not only conserving scripture but also changing it.
He goes on to say that he eventually began seeing the New Testament as “a very human book”:
The New Testament as we have it, I knew, was the product of human hands, the hands of the scribes who transmitted it. Then I began to see that not just the scribal text but the original text itself was a very human book.
I had read similar assertions about the Bible before on many occasions, just as I have read defenses of the Bible by apologists who brush aside these so-called “human errors.” The main arguments put forward by the Bible defenders are:
– scribes who made copies of the Bible in ancient times were professionals who wanted to preserve the words as perfectly as possible
– authors of the Gospels tried their best to be truthful because it was important for them; they may have embellished or exaggerated or skewed things a little bit, but they did not make up the stories out of thin air
– any copying errors are minor and don’t affect the meaning of the text
– any translation errors are minor and don’t affect the meaning of the text, or that they have since been corrected in later versions
– variances in the different versions of the text are actually beneficial because it helps scholars determine which were later additions or changes
These arguments appear compelling on their own, and Misquoting Jesus is the first book I’ve read that tackles these “human errors” head on. As Ehrman points out, there are actually more differences among available Bible manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. While the vast majority of these are indeed inconsequential, there are enough problematic verses and sections to put not just many of the Bible’s most important teachings in doubt, but put the entire foundations of the Bible and Jesus’s divinity in jeopardy.
It’s a very compelling read I would recommend to anyone who has an interest in Christianity, the Bible, or religion in general, for I believe many of the issues pointed out by Ehrman probably apply to all ancient religions. The book is at its most fascinating when Ehrman goes directly to the heart of his thesis and points out specific passages and examples in the Bible where he claims significant changes were made. And more than just that, he explains why scholars are convinced these sections were changed, why people made the changes (whether accidental or intentional) and how it impacts the message of Christianity, both specifically in that particular instance and as a whole. It makes a lot of sense, and even if you question his conclusions it’s difficult to dismiss them outright.
Less interesting is the historical background, including a lengthy section on the various versions of the Bible throughout the ages. It gets a little dry at times, but it’s all relevant in painting the necessary background to understand the overall context of his arguments.
Anyway, I took down notes as I went through the book and I’ve boiled it down to a few key arguments:
1. The earliest copies of the Gospels are not the originals, meaning we don’t know how they have been changed
As Ehrman put it:
Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have the copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later — much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later.
For example, the first reasonably complete copy of Galatians is a papyrus called P46, which dates back to about 200CE, approximately 150 years after Paul wrote the letter.
2. The 27 books of the New Testament were not put together until the second half of the fourth century, and were not considered scripture until hundreds of years after that
Contrary to the understanding of many people, even Christians, the canon of the New Testament did not simply appear one the scene one day soon after the death of Jesus. The 27 books of the New Testament was actually not listed together, under the advice of the bishop of Alexandria, until nearly 300 years after the books themselves had been written, and the debate about which books should be included and excluded continued for decades, even centuries.
This is salient for a couple of reasons. First of all, it highlights the fact that there were many other writings about Jesus that were excluded from the New Testament. Why is that the case, and why did the books that did end up making it get selected? More on this in the next point.
Secondly, it shows that there was no easy consensus on which books ought to form the New Testament and in fact there were many competing forces — based on a wide range of varying beliefs — at work (more on this in the next point). One side won out in the end, but it certainly demonstrated that a lot of people — even back then, just a few hundred years after Jesus’s death — did not agree with what the Bible of today says.
3. Different Christian factions manipulated the text of the Bible to suit their needs and beliefs
According to Erhman, the second and third centuries were “rich in theological diversity among the early Christians. In fact, the theological diversity was so extensive that groups calling themselves Christians adhered to beliefs and practices that most Christians today would insist were not Christian at all.”
This is something I always suspected, but it was good to see Ehrman take this on with some clear examples. For instance, there were the Gnostic Christians, who believed there were 12 gods, while other groups said 30 and another said 365! All of these groups — who had either adoptionistic, docetic and separatist views of the texts — claimed to be Christian and insisted their beliefs were true and had been taught by Jesus and his followers. They may not have manipulated the texts to the extent that they say something that wasn’t there before, at least in part, but they occasionally altered them to say what they already believed to be true.
One prominent example of how this affected the Bible is the case of Christian philosopher-teacher Marcion, who was later declared to be a “heretic” because his teachings were at odds with Christian philosophies taught today. Marcion actually produced an actual “canon” of scripture himself, and this scripture was based on the life and teachings of the apostle Paul.
Crucially, Marcion believed that the God of Jesus was not the same god as the God of the Old Testament (ie, the God of the Jews). The God of the Old Testament was the one who created the world and called Israel to be his people, while the God of Jesus sent him into the world to save people from the wrathful vengeance of the Jewish creator God. It makes sense to me, considering how brutal the Old Testament God is compared to the peaceful, loving Jesus.
As such, Marcion “corrected” the eleven books of his scripture, containing a form of what is now the Gospel of Luke plus 10 Epistles, by editing out references to the Old Testament God. At the same time, interestingly, Marcion accused others of copying his books and adding bits and pieces to them to accommodate beliefs contrary to his (ie, that the Jewish God and the God of Jesus were one and the same).
And this type of behaviour was not uncommon back in the day, says Ehrman:
…Marcion’s attempt to make his sacred texts conform more closely to his teaching by actually changing them was not unprecedented. Both before and after him, copyists of the early Christian literature occasionally changed their texts to make them say what they were already thought to mean.
Notably, Ehrman claims that scribes associated with orthodox Christianity also not infrequently changed their texts, “sometimes in order to eliminate the possibility of their ‘misuse’ by Christians affirming heretical beliefs and sometimes to make them more amenable to the doctrines being espoused by Christians of their own persuasion.”
For instance, to emphasize Jesus’s divinity and his mother Mary’s virginity, the passages referring to him as the son of “Joseph, the husband of Mary” were changed to read “Joseph, to whom being betrothed the virgin Marty gave birth to Jesus.” See how Joseph is no longer Jesus’s father and isn’t even married to Mary?
There are many other examples throughout the book, some of which are contained in the variances in the four Gospels alone (remember, parts of Matthew and Luke are believed to have copied straight from Mark). There’s the different accounts of Jesus’s reaction to a leper, where one account described him as “angry,” an emotion he’s not supposed to show in that situation; there ‘s the variances in Jesus’s demeanour before and after his arrest and during his crucifixion, with the earlier account describing his anguish and agony and later accounts depicting calm and peace.
These could just be different interpretations of the language, or they could be a desire to “harmonize” the text — but either way they demonstrate diverting views about who Jesus really was.
4. Historical factors which led to changes and affected interpretations
Apart from theological differences, there were also plenty of social conflicts that affected the way the Bible was changed and interpreted. Ehrman goes into these in some detail, but I’ll just point them out briefly: the role of women in early Christian churches, the Christian opposition to Jews, and the Christian defense against attacks by pagan opponents.
For example, there are later documents associated with Paul’s churches, after his death, that there were disputes about the role women should play, and Ehrman argues that eventually there was an effort to suppress the role of women in churches altogether.
5. The scribes who made copies of the books of the Bible, at least in the early centuries, were far from professionals
According to Ehrman, the available evidence suggests that the earliest Christians copying the texts were doing so either for personal and/or communal use and were not, as some apologists suggest, “professionals” who did this kind of work for a living. These were simply “literate” people in their community who wanted to do so, and even the term “literate” was used liberally as it appeared some of them could barely read.
To be fair, Bible texts started being copied by professional scribes near the beginning of the fourth century, but for quite some time they were copied by non-professional scribes much more prone to making mistakes.
6. Copying mistakes were much more common than one would think
Apologist defenses claim that, even if there are copying mistakes, they are not so major that they would change the meaning of the text. I mean, how many mistakes can someone make when copying a text word for word, even if they’re not a professional? According to Ehrman, a lot.
Copying mistakes back then were much more common than people realize, and it’s not as simple as just missing a character or word here or there. Some characters look similar to other characters, but getting it wrong means a completely different word, and a completely different word can mean a completely different sentence. And that doesn’t even take into account that the boredom and fatigue of copying a lengthy and squashy text with tiny writing can occasionally mean missing complete lines or sections.
One new thing I learned was that ancient texts were written in what is called “scriptuo continua”, which is a form of writing with no punctuation, no distinction between upper and lower case, and no spaces to separate words. That’s insane to modern readers, but just imagine trying to decipher this post, for instance, with no spaces and no punctuation. To highlight the problem with scriptuo continua, Ehrman uses the example of “godisnowhere”. Now, is that “god is now here” or “god is nowhere?”
7. It’s virtually impossible to ascertain the words of the “original” text
You would think, with all the copies and partial copies of the Bible available today, that it would be easy to figure out what parts of the text were later additions and what parts were original. That’s at least the argument that has been made by Christian apologists. To some extent, that is true, but there is still no way to figure out what the original text was, even if we ignore the fact that no originals are even available.
For starters, there are just too many variances to reconcile. Ehrman notes that scholar John Mill from Oxford invested 30 years to access more than 100 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and found some 30,000 places of variation, not including minor ones such as those involving changes of word order.
But even if one were to go through all the available copies it is still impossible to determine what is original and what is added. I used to think all they had to do was find the oldest copy or whichever version that had the most copies, but it’s far from being that simple.
As Ehrman illustrates, just because there is more of one copy does not mean it is more reliable. If say a text was copied twice, into a superior Copy A and a crappy Copy B, but only Copy B would go on to be copied an additional 50 times. And if the original text is lost, we can’t simple assume that just because there is only one of Copy A and 51 of Copy B that the latter is the more accurate one.
And while the age of the manuscript does matter, it is not an absolute criterion. If there were two manuscripts, one from the 5th century and one for the 8th century, we cannot automatically assume the 5th century one is superior, because the 8th century one could have been copied from an even earlier version, say fro the 4th century. Further, “the earliest period of textual transmission was also the least controlled”, when the non-professional scribes were making lots of mistakes.
Another consideration is geographical range because different localities developed different kinds of textual traditions. There might be a thousand copies of one particular type of reading but all of the copies might have come from a single area where the same mistake kept being passed down, and so forth.
An additional layer of complexity comes when you throw in internal evidence such as the premise that scribes are more likely to correct what they take to be mistakes to harmonize passages they regard as contradictory. But as Ehrman states:+
There is no guarantee…that a scribe who tries to correct a mistake corrects it correctly. That is, by changing what he thinks is an error, he may in fact change it incorrectly, so now there are three forms of the text: the original, the error, and the incomplete attempt to resolve the error. Mistakes multiply and get repeated; sometimes they get corrected and sometimes they get compounded. And so it goes. For centuries.
The culmination of all these issues is summarised quite nicely below:
These mistake-ridden copies get copied; and the mistake-ridden copies of the copies get copied; and so on, down the line. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, the original copy (or each of the original copies) ends up getting lost, or worn out, or destroyed. At some point, it is no longer possible to compare a copy with the original to make sure it is “correct”, even if someone has the bright idea of doing so…
8. Key sections or teachings of the Bible were added in by later scribes
In the book, Ehrman points out just two of “thousands of places” in which the manuscripts of the New Testament came to be changed by scribes. But boy, they are big changes.
(a) The woman taken in adultery
This is one of the best known stories, in which a woman who has committed adultery is brought before Jesus to test him, as the Law of Moses demands that she be stoned to death, contrary to Jesus’s preaching of love and forgiveness. And of course, Jesus silences them all by saying, “Let the one who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.”
As it turned out, this story was not originally in the Gospel of John and was in fact not originally part of any of the Gospels. Well, at least scholars think so because it was not in the oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John, the writing style is very different to the rest of the text and includes words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel.
(b) The last 12 verses of Mark
This is one of the most controversial additions. Mark’s account is said to end with Mary Magdalene and two other women who arrive at Jesus’s tomb to find that the stone blocking the entrance has been rolled away, and are told by a man in a white robe to instruct the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. But the women are afraid and don’t tell anyone (which begs the question of how anyone knew about it in the first place).
The Gospel is supposed to end there, on a cliffhanger, but then someone else later adds, in another 12 verses, that Jesus actually appeared to Mary Magdalene and later to the other disciples. He upbraids them for failing to believe and then commissions them to proclaim his gospel “to the whole creation”, adding that those who “believe” will be “saved”, while those who do not “will be condemned.” Jesus is then taken up into heaven and seated at the right hand of God.
According to Ehrman, the reasons for suspecting that the last 12 verses are an addition are “solid, almost indisputable”, having been absent from the oldest and best manuscripts, being of a different style, and using words and phrases not found elsewhere. Now, it is possible, as some scholars suggest, that the original ending of Mark was lost and “reformulated” later
To me, that allegation is just crazy. Ehrman is saying that the whole section about people seeing a resurrected Jesus in Mark was not part of the original text and was added in later. And it’s not just that, but also the popular image of Jesus seated at the right hand of God, and, you know, the whole thing about “believing” in Jesus for salvation and condemnation for everyone else. Isn’t that the whole foundation of Christianity?
There were some other major changes highlighted throughout the book:
(c) The “Trinity” doctrine
The book points to a “consolidated” edition of the Bible compiled by Erasmus in 1515, which is considered one of the most important versions of the Bible that was heavily relied on by later editions. Apart from the fact that this edition only relied on a handful of manuscripts that were produced relatively late in the medieval period, there was originally one crucial section missing: the so-called Johannine Comma (1 John 5: 7-8) — “there are three that bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one” — the only passage in the entire Bible that delineates the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
However, Erasmus did not find this passage in his Greek manuscripts, which simply read: “There are three that bear witness: the spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.” There’s no mention of the Father, the Word and the Spirit. Apparently, Erasmus was berated by the theologians of his day, who accused him of trying to eliminate the Trinity doctrine, but Erasmus said he would only include the verse if they could find a Greek manuscript with it. Well, they did “find” one, made to order by copying a Latin text and translating it into Greek, which is why the Johannine Comma ended up still making it in the end.
(d) Jesus’s divinity
One biblical scholar from the 17th and 18th centuries, Johann Wettstein, initially argued that “variant readings” of the Bible “can have no weakening effect on the trustworthiness or integrity of the scriptures” because it is a book bestowed upon by God. But later through his investigations Wettstein had a big change of heart when discovered that passages typically used to affirm Jesus’s divinity represented textual problems, and when these were resolved Jesus’s divinity was taken away. Examples include the aforementioned Johannine Comma and the reference to the “Church of God” in Acts 20:28, which was actually supposed to be “the Church of the Lord.” For Wettstein, the texts were altered for the purpose of incorporating Jesus’s divinity and he believed that the original wordings did not support the notion that Jesus was divine.
Other examples highlighted by Ehrman include Hebrew 2:9, in which most modern readings say that Jesus died “by the grace of God,” but the original text actually said he died “apart from God.” There are just so many of these little bits and pieces that, when added up, paint a rather compelling picture.
In fact, there was one group of Christians, the Ebionites, who believed that Jesus was not born of a virgin and was not himself divine, but was rather a “special, righteous man, whom God had chosen and placed in a special relationship to himself.”
(e) Jesus’s resurrection
Here are a couple of passages which cast doubt on the story of Jesus’s resurrection and subsequent return to heaven.
This passage depicts events that occurred just after Jesus was raised from the dead, in which Peter runs to the tomb and sees Jesus’s linen cloths. For similar reasons — the style and word use — scholars believe this was a later addition.
This passage says, in our current Bibles, that while Jesus was blessing his followers he “left them and was taken up into heaven.” According to earliest versions of the text, however, it never mentions heaven and simply says “he was removed from them.” That, in my opinion, is a pretty huge difference.
As you can see from this lengthy post, I was mesmerized by what Ehran had to say about the Bible in Misquoting Jesus. It’s a very different book to Zealot, but just as, if not more, compelling, largely because it contains more concrete arguments and less speculation. Together, the two books make some very powerful arguments about the nature of the Bible and even religion in general.
Neither book claims outright that the central arguments of the Bible are entirely false, but they do raise a lot of questions and doubts. And those doubts are not about what a wonderful person Jesus was, but rather, about the reliability of the Bible and the people who wrote it.
If anything, the very least Misquoting Jesus does is shatter the notion that the BIble is an inerrant book or the literal “Word of God.” Given the staggering number of errors, inconsistencies and uncertainties that have plagued the Bible for nearly two millennia, even suggestions that the Bible was “inspired” by God or “guided” by the Holy Spirit become untenable.
Moreover, I came to think that my earlier views of inspiration were not only irrelevant, they were probably wrong. For the reason (I came to think) for God to inspire the Bible would be so that his people would have his actual words; but if he really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he had miraculously inspired them in the first place. Given the circumstance that he didn’t preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn’t gone to the trouble of inspiring them.
You could still make the argument that God has perhaps been giving a guiding hand all this time to ensure that we eventually get his message right, but that’s stretching it a little far. Besides, according Ehrman every version of the Bible we have available today is still affected by many of the problems he points out in the book.
To his credit, Ehrman points out that the conclusions he has reached are by no means definitive, noting that “competent, well-meaning, highly intelligent scholars often come to opposite conclusions when looking at the same evidence.” This means that he could be wrong about some of his interpretations and assumptions (and I’m sure he has critics who argue so), but even if a fraction of them are right they still have a massive impact what the Bible says.
This was a human book from beginning to end. It was written by different human authors at different times and in different places to address different needs. Many of these authors no doubt felt they were inspired by God to say what they did, but they had their own perspectives, their own beliefs, their own views, their own needs, their own desires, their own understandings, their own theologies…
He would conclude by saying that he came to realise that what the Bible scribes were doing was “not all that different from what each of us does every time we read a text.” I couldn’t agree more. Christian or otherwise, anyone who can keep an open mind should check out this book. It might change your mind, it might not; what’s important is that you ask yourself questions about your beliefs and the foundations upon which they are based.