Book Review: ‘Undisputed Truth’ by Mike Tyson

September 19, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Boxing, Reviews, Sport by pacejmiller

undisputed-truth-my-autobiography

Love him or loathe him, Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth is not just one of the best sports-themed books I’ve ever read. It’s not even just one of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read. It’s one of the best books I’ve read, period.

That’s a big call for a book written by a convicted rapist, notorious ear-biter and school drop-out with arguably the most renowned lisp in the world, but I’m sticking with it. Undisputed Truth is fascinating, it’s explosive, it’s horrifying and it’s downright hilarious. In fact, I’m fairly certain I have laughed out loud from reading this book more times than any other book I’ve ever read.

I don’t know if this is a comparison anyone has made, but Undisputed Truth reminds me of another one of my favourite books, Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries. Both are about the real-life wild and wacky adventures of athletes who love girls and drugs, told with an unflinching honesty and often veering into extremely dark territory.

However, while The Basketball Diaries is a short book traverses only a portion of Carroll’s adolescence, Undisputed Truth is a monster (but swift) 592 pages covering Tyson’s entire life up to last year. And while Carroll was a pretty good basketball player and womanizer, he was never the “baddest man alive” or a world class sex machine like Tyson (who would have given Wilt Chamberlain a run for his money as he was notoriously undiscriminating when it came to his partners).

So what makes Undisputed Truth an all-time read? Well for starters, Tyson does not hold back at all. He absolutely pours his heart out, infusing every page with his damaged soul. The unique voice is pure raw emotion and distinctively Tyson, and you can almost picture Tyson spewing the words out as they are recorded by his co-writer Larry Sloman (best known for Howard Stern’s Private Parts). The narrative is fluid, albeit occasionally rambling and often contradictory (for instance, Tyson goes on about turning into a devout Muslim, only to say on the next page that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife), but at the same time it is always coherent and sharp. Besides, Tyson is so messed up, even right now, that a little craziness is expected.

I don’t want to give away too many golden nuggets from the book, so I’ll just give a very brief overview to provide an idea of what’s in store. The autobiography begins with an introduction that describes one of the most pivotal moments in Tyson’s life — the sentencing for his rape charge — before taking readers right back to the beginning of his troubled and dysfunctional childhood in Brownsville, one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the Bronx. And it’s an unimaginable childhood for most of us, one completely devoid of love and hope. Those early portions of the book are difficult to swallow, but they are also essential to understanding the man Tyson would become.

tyson cus

Tyson and the man who changed his life, Cus D’Amato

Tyson’s life makes a dramatic turn when he meets Cus D’Amato, the hard-nosed trainer who would transform Tyson from a scared little punk kid into the heavyweight champion of the world. Cus was far from perfect, but Tyson loved him unlike anyone else he has loved in his entire life, and you can truly feel that love flow through the pages as Tyson describes their relationship and what the old man means to him. One can only imagine how Mike Tyson’s legacy would have turned out — both in and out of the ring — had D’Amato not died as Tyson zoned in on the heavyweight title.

Tyson’s rise through the ranks, from amateur to professional, is one of the most exciting aspects of the book. People tend to take his success for granted and attribute it to his natural gifts, but Tyson was one of the hardest, most obsessive workers I have ever seen in any sport, shadowboxing literally for hours, devouring classic fight tapes and reading everything he could get his hands on about the all-time greats.

I had not expected this, but Tyson literally describes every single one of his professional bouts (and many of his key amateur bouts too), including the lead-up, the fight itself and how it ended — and what was going through his mind the whole time. I loved this about the book and the insights it provided into the psyche of a Hall-of-Fame boxer, and it also shed light on a lot of Tyson’s performances because he admittedly wasn’t in shape or motivated for many of them, especially later in his career when all he wanted was another paycheck. For me, the best part about his detailed analysis of the bouts is being able to go straight to YouTube to watch the spectacular fights right after reading his take on them.

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Mike Tyson with Evander Holyfield, back in the day when both ears were in tact

Tyson’s later decline and bad losses may tarnish his legacy, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he was unbeatable in his prime if he was motivated and had his head on straight (two very big IFs). He was just so ferocious, so quick and so powerful that he often beat opponents psychologically even before stepping into the ring. But the loss of Cus to keep him in line and the introduction of Don King to his life, not to mention all the money and the women and the drugs, eventually took their toll on his mind and body, and he was simply never the same again.

It would be wrong, however, to be under the impression that Undisputed Truth is only about boxing. Many of my favourite parts of the book are about Tyson’s life outside of the ring. He was just an insane spender who had no idea what to do with the millions and millions of dollars he was raking in (and this excludes the millions and millions others ripped off  him without his knowledge). The fleets of luxury cars, sports cars, the custom-made bling and outfits, the entire house adorned with Versace, and even keeping real tigers as pets. He was literally giving away money to poor people left and right, and that’s not even taking into account all the real and bogus legal claims he has had to settle (often just random strangers coming up to his house with fake injuries or people off the street trying to bait him into a fight) and the millions he has spent on lawyer fees. It’s no surprise that despite all the money he has made in his career, Tyson still ended up being dead broke.

Tyson threw away all his money, sometimes literally

Tyson threw away all his money, sometimes literally

Tyson’s brushes with celebrities are also a highlight of the book. There are so many priceless celebrity anecdotes littered throughout the book, including classic stories about Naomi Campbell, Prince and Eddie Murphy as well as crazy brushes with guys like Rick James, Wesley Snipes, and of course, the infamous encounter with Brad Pitt. They tend to be short, but they are always pure gold, and reminds us just how famous Tyson was back in his heyday, and that shockingly, it wasn’t until his cameo in The Hangover that completely turned his life around. Funnily enough, despite working with a convicted rapist like Tyson, the cast and crew of the sequel collectively vetoed the decision to do the same with anti-Semite Mel Gibson.

Another inescapable part of Tyson’s life was the women. My god, the women. After not knowing how to even approach a girl as a teen, Tyson was propositioned by thousands and thousands of women after becoming rich and famous, and he never quite figured out how to say no. A lot of this stuff is extremely crude, but it’s also extremely funny because of how low Tyson would stoop. Oldies, fatties, uglies — it didn’t matter to him. He speaks of those days of debauchery with shame — including all the STDs he picked up along the way – but the way he describes his way of thinking and his actions at the time is gut-bustingly funny stuff. At one stage he even apologizes to his readers for having to put up with his antics.

When it comes to women and Tyson, however, it’s impossible not to mention two names — his first wife Robin Givens, who accused him of domestic violence, and beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington, whose allegations of rape sent Tyson to prison for three years. Tyson is a little coy when it comes to Givens, the actress he says he fell head over heels for but believed she was a manipulative gold digger along with her mother Ruth, whom he affectionately calls “Ruthless”. He never directly denies the domestic violence allegations but says multiple times that her claims are all BS. 

As for Washington, Tyson says he is prohibited from discussing his case in detail due to British laws, though he strongly insinuates that he is innocent and insists that he will maintain his innocence to his grave. Everyone will have their own views on this case, but based on my readings of Undisputed Truth and other sources I followed up on, I think there is no doubt Tyson got screwed in court.

Now, I’m not saying for one second that I believe Tyson is innocent — only he and Washington know what happened — but I do find it shocking that he was convicted based on the lacklustre evidence that was available and adduced at court. The truth is, if the accused was not someone as universally loathed as Mike Tyson, he probably would have walked away. But all the stars aligned at the wrong time for him: (1) Don King used his prudish tax lawyer to represent Tyson in a rape case, and the dimwit probably did the worst job imaginable, including not using the lack of physical evidence to their advantage; (2)  an admitted Tyson-hater somehow slipped through the cracks to not only get on the jury, but become the jury foreman; (3) rape shield laws prevented evidence of Washington’s earlier false rape allegation made against a former boyfriend and witnesses who could have shattered the innocent and naive image she created by detailing her sordid sexual past; and (4) the fact that she signed secret book and movie deals around the same time she made her accusations public was not enough to earn Tyson an appeal.

mike tyson prison

Having said all that, my personal guess is that Tyson probably was guilty under the legal definition of rape, because no matter how much Washington pursued Tyson and bragged about spending his money as “Mrs Tyson”, all she had to do was say “No” at any time during the ordeal for consent to be taken away. It didn’t matter that she obviously lied about having no idea that Tyson wanted sex when he invited her up to his room in the middle of the night, or that she curiously went into the bathroom to remove a liner from her underwear before the incident took place. She may have initially wanted to go through with it and changed her mind at the last moment, but Tyson was too much of a reckless animal to hear or sense her terrified opposition.

If she did falsely accuse him, I believe the intent came not before but after, when she furiously realized that she was just another piece of meat that Tyson was tossing away after he was done with it. That’s why I also don’t doubt at all that Tyson honestly believes he is innocent, which is why he turned down an opportunity at an early release because he simply refused to apologize to her — just an apology, not even an admission of guilt. In any case, the rape case is a fascinating part of the book, and I would recommend everyone to read up about it as much as they can before making their own judgment.

That was heavy.

The book slows down towards the end and becomes more contemplative, as Tyson’s drug and alcohol abuse, sex addiction, accumulated boxing injuries and uncontrollable fury prevent him from having any semblance of a real life. In the end, it’s his love for his current wife and the loss of one of his children in a tragic accident that keep him from completely falling off the wagon, though as he concedes in the book’s postscript it’s still an ongoing battle he’s taking one day at a time. Just as I was finishing the book I read elsewhere about Tyson’s latest implosion on Canadian television during an interview, confirming that no matter how much therapy he receives his demons will likely follow him until the day he dies.

It’s strange, because despite wasting all his talent and hard work and throwing away all the fruits of his success, I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. On the other hand, even Tyson’s staunchest defenders would concede that he is a destructive individual with loathsome qualities — and that’s even if you believe he is innocent of rape. You can defend his actions to some extent because of his horrific upbringing, the toxic environment and people he grew up with, and the constant bullying and abuse he suffered as a child, but apologizing for Mike Tyson can only go so far because there are some things he has done — things he readily admits to in the book — that are simply inexcusable at any level of human decency.

Tyson understands this himself and appears genuinely remorseful at times (though at other times he remains defensive), attributing his insanity to the combustible combination of a massive ego and extremely low self-esteem. He was born in the gutter, and no matter how much success and money he achieved throughout his career, he still believed that he belonged in the gutter, which is why he could never put an end to his self-destructive tendencies.

That’s why I say you cannot treat Tyson like a real person if you want to truly enjoy this book. It’s a strange comparison, but I like to think of him as Homer Simpson — a character you find endearing in spite of, and maybe even because of, his anti-social qualities, but would hate if you knew such a person in real life. Everyone probably has an opinion on Tyson, both as a boxer and as a man, and neither might be flattering. But don’t let your prejudices get in the way of one of the best books you might ever read.

5/5

Orange is the New Black: Book vs TV Series

August 26, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

OTNB

They say the truth is stranger than fiction, but that’s not the case with Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, the inspiration for Netflix’s hit series of the same name.

Orange is the New Black, the TV show, was last year’s best new series, full of wonderful characters, witty humour and compelling drama. It was intriguing, exciting and dangerous, while at the same time making some insightful comments about society, human nature and the US prison system. The second season, which aired earlier this year, started off a little slow, but by the end of it I was convinced that it was just as good, if not better, than the first season.

It was with such high expectations that I decided to read the book on which the series is based. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison details how Piper Kerman (Piper Chapman in the show) served 13 months of her 15-month drug trafficking sentence at FCI Danbury, a minimum security prison in Connecticut. I wanted to find out more behind-the-scenes stuff and learn about what the “real” Piper is like, but instead the book turned out to be a strange and disappointing read. There were familiar names and characters, and a few incidents here and there that I vaguely recognized, but for the most part the book and the show could not be more different.

To be honest, the book was a so much less interesting and boring than the show, which says two things: 1. Women’s prison in real life is nowhere near as dangerous or exciting as the show makes it out to be; and 2. The people who make the TV show are geniuses for creating such compelling television from this source material.

The book, published in 2010, is a fairly straightforward, mostly chronological memoir with 18 chapters for a total of 327 pages (paperback). It begins with some early details of Kerman’s life and how she got into a lesbian relationship with a drug smuggler, and how that dalliance came back to bite her a decade later when she was charged for her minor role in the drug ring. After making a plea bargain, she is sent to Danbury for 15 months, while her fiance Larry (played by Jason Biggs in the show) waits for her patiently on the outside.

The central narrative is Kerman’s individual experience, and each chapter deals with different aspects of minimum-security prison life, whether it is her fellow inmates, their families, strip searches, wardens, prison workshops, labour or meal time. Kerman is a fairly good writer and knew exactly what kind of book she wanted to write, and many of her observations are astute and reflective, especially those about how poorly the US justice and prison systems are run. There are dashes of humour, but most of the book is dedicated to documenting her journey of self-discovery, the people she met and how she came to accept responsibility for her actions, and in doing so became a stronger, better person.

Piper Kerman, right, with Taylor Schilling, the actress who portrays her in Orange is the New Black

Piper Kerman, right, with Taylor Schilling, the actress who portrays her

Fans of the TV show will recognise many of the names in the book (most of which were changed from their real life counterparts). Of course there’s Piper and Larry, but a lot of the other characters on the show are completely new inventions or a mish-mash of people from the book. Alex (played by Laura Prepon), for example, is Nora, and she never sets foot in Danbury. Characters with names like Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) exist, but they are different people, while Red (Kate Mulgrew) is known as Pop in the book (though there is another Red) and “Pornstache” (Pablo Schreiber) is known by the significantly less witty nickname of Gay Pornstar. Kerman’s relationship with each of these characters is also nothing like they are in the series. In other words, don’t read the book if you are looking to learn more about the series.

After two seasons and 26 episodes of around 50-60 minutes in length (and another season coming), the TV show has outgrown its source material. In the book, we only see things from Piper’s perspective, and even her closest friends in the prison are only given brief intros. As a result, we don’t get to know them as well as we do in the series, and we don’t care about them nearly as much. It’s not a knock on the book or Kerman’s writing, just an inevitable truth that comes with a more expansive and dynamic medium.

More importantly, the book sticks largely to the facts (as far as we know), whereas the TV series has been given free rein to exaggerate and embellish. This is why, after seeing how much conflict and danger and backstabbing and sex there is in the show, I got bored reading the extremely bland lifestyle in Danbury, where the most exciting thing for the inmates was wondering whether Martha Stewart would be sent there (she wasn’t). At Danbury, Kerman was rarely involved in any conflict with other inmates (if at all), and there were few suggestions that other inmates were in conflicts with one another. She was not starved, she was not beat up, she did not engage in a sexual relationship with anyone, and she certainly was never in danger of being stabbed or sent to the SHU. Good for her, but not so good for us readers expecting something more explosive and scandalous.

Ultimately, I found Orange is the New Black to be a solid read — nothing special but insightful enough to keep my attention. If you’re a big fan of the TV series like I am, however, it’s not a book I would recommend, especially if you think it might help you learn more about the characters or what might happen to them further down the track.

3/5

Book Review: ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ by John Green

August 14, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

The-Fault-In-Our-Stars

It’s almost always a dilemma for me when a film adaptation of a popular novel is released. Do I read the book first or watch the movie first? I’m pretty sure this is something I have posted about on this blog many moons ago, and I still don’t know the answer.

This time, when faced with the agonizing decision between movie or novel version of The Fault in Our Stars by award-winning young adult writer John Green, I went with the novel first, partly out of necessity because I didn’t have enough time to watch movies not named Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (I’m serious).

I’m not much of a romance reader and I’m rarely emotionally gripped by a novel, but I admit The Fault in Our Stars got to me. Not right away, but slowly and gradually, and by the end of it all I was a bit of a mess. I can usually see through when I’m being manipulated by the author, so I thought I would be able to handle the book’s cancer-ridden themes, though in this case Green’s writing was so crafty that by the time I realized what was happening it was already too late.

The story itself is not groundbreaking in any way. Sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster is a thyroid cancer patient who is already living on borrowed time after being miraculously but temporarily spared from death. She begrudgingly attends support group, where she meets young amputee Augustus Waters. And so begins a courtship of two teenagers, one that’s strangely normal, typically awkward, but also incredibly sweet. A notable aspect of the tale is their shared love for a (fictional) novel called An Imperial Affliction, which sparks a search for the book’s reclusive writer halfway around the world.

So what is it that makes the fault in our stars a good read? Well, for starters, Hazel and Augustus are really likable people. They’re smart, they’re genuine and they have a great sense of humor. There are other — arguably more important — reasons too: Hazel supposedly looks like a young Natalie Portman, while Augustus is a former basketball star who happens to have an Indiana Pacers Rik Smits jersey. And if you have any idea how I feel about Natalie, Rik and the Pacers, you’ll understand why I enjoyed their company so much, and why I was perhaps a little biased.

The legend himself

The legend himself

Far from the beautiful, flawless protagonists from Twilight, Hazel carries around an oxygen tank with her at all times and is rarely seen without a tube under her nose, and Augustus of course has a prosthetic leg. They make a great couple.

And it’s not just them either. The minor characters, while generally in the background, are also well developed, especially the parents and the fellow cancer patients down at the support group. My favourite has to be Augustus’s best friend, Isaac, who is about to lose his eyesight and has the same wry humour as our star-crossed lovers.

What really surprised me about The Fault in Our Stars is that, as a book about cancer and death, it has a distinct lack of sappy melodrama. The way Green goes about the story is candid, realistic, with no trite sense of self pity (though even the most stoic of cancer sufferers have their moments). His prose is full of wit, just like his main characters, who, despite being teenagers, are incredibly level-headed and self-aware.

This is not to say Green makes light of cancer or cancer sufferers. But here, they are not heroes or warriors, nor are they weaklings — they are just ordinary people cursed with something they can’t control, doing whatever they can to cope. As a result, there is a subtle charm about this book that creeps up on you. I didn’t start off thinking, “Wow, what a great book, what great writing!” I actually recall early on thinking that it was pretty good, though I didn’t get what the fuss was all about. But at some stage I began to realize that I was emotionally involved in these characters’ lives, and I badly wanted them to make it against the odds.

I thought this was going to be quite a simple love story. On some levels, it is, but there are also many thought-provoking themes that will make you question what life is all about, what it means to be alive, and the legacies — whether big or small — that each of us leave behind when we die.

I was deeply touched by The Fault in Our Stars. I laughed, I (nearly) cried, and I thought about it a lot, even long after turning the last page. It’s a book I would recommend not only to young adults, but all readers.

4.5/5

PS: Can’t wait to see the movie.

‘Dreams from My Father’ & ‘The Audacity of Hope’ by Barack Obama

August 5, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Dreams_from_my_father

My plan to read a lot of books this year was derailed by Barack Obama. I started tackling his first book, Dreams from My Father (published way back in 1995), in early June, and I didn’t finish his second book, The Audacity of Hope (published 2006), until this week.

Like everyone fascinated with Obama’s rise to become America’s first black president, I had wanted to read both books for years, but I have to admit that I found parts of them, in particular Dreams, to be a little dry. Having said that, there are some marvellous insights and ideas in these books that help shed light on the type of man and leader Obama is, and the things that have shaped his political philosophies (which I admit I find myself aligned with regularly). And so I thought I’d tackle the reviews in a single post so I can compare and contrast them a little.

For starters, both books were written before Obama was first elected president in 2008. Dreams from My Father was offered to Obama because he had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and written at a time when he was just about to embark on a serious political career. It is first and foremost a memoir, a 442-page epic that traces his mixed-marriage birth, his unconventional upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii, as well as his African heritage.The latter portions of the book are about his foray into politics at the grassroots level, through community organizing and church groups.

It’s not entirely chronological and it’s also not a blow-by-blow account of Obama’s life, but you do get bits and pieces of information that paint a (somewhat incomplete) picture of his life. The subtitle of the book is A Story of Race and Inheritance, so naturally race is a central theme of the book that fuels much of the discussion he has with his readers.

Hope, on the other hand, at a leaner 363 pages, came about because Obama had become a US Senator and a rising star in the Democratic Party. It would be two years before he would rise to the presidency, but I assume at the time the book idea was tossed around it was envisioned that Obama would eventually run for president, with a solid chance of making history.

It’s a completely different book to Dreams in that it’s less about Obama’s life and upbringing and more about his political and spiritual beliefs as well as his views on different aspects of American culture. He doesn’t shy away from the controversial issues such as homosexuality, abortions and religion, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and he admits to taking drugs, including cocaine), though some readers may be frustrated because most of the time he simply outlines the complexities of the issues without expressing a clear cut view or providing concrete solutions (but let’s face it, who can?). The last chapter on family is really the only time in the book that Obama divulges sizable chunks of his personal life (only snippets before this), but it’s arguably the most honest and heartfelt chapter of both books.

True to their respective titles, Dreams is more more personal and centered around family, with a more contemplative, reflective tone, while Hope is more about his audacious vision for the country and filled with optimism about the future.

And so it was an interesting experience reading both books in the context of when and why they were written. It’s interesting because we know who this man will eventually become, and even in the decade or so between the two books were written we can see how much he has matured and evolved as a politician — from someone with grand ideals but apprehensions about a political career to someone who is all-in and much more aware of what compromises he has to make both in the office and at home to make it to the top. It also made me wonder what type of book Obama would pen now if had the opportunity, and whether he is now a lot more cynical and disillusioned with the whole thing.

But if Obama didn’t become the most powerful man in the world, would the books be just as interesting? Of course not. It’ll just be the life and opinions of another intelligent, articulate black man. It would still be insightful, but not nearly as exciting or compelling.

Obama’s writing is solid. He’s an excellent writer on a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level, but his ability to piece together a clear narrative thread is sometimes lacking, particularly in Dreams. He also tends to be, as he admits, verbose at times, meaning the experience could be lacking if you are stuck reading a topic you don’t have a real interest in. These are common issues for most writers, especially first-time writers, which is why I feel Hope is the superior book. Given that the subject matter is more defined and written more like a series of essays rather than themed-biographies (ie, more up Obama’s alley), the voice is much stronger and more confident. You can tell he is trying to craft the persona of a future president, and when I read his words I could almost picture Obama saying them to a crowded room.

So, Dreams could have been even more personal, insightful and captivating, while Hope could have been bolder and contained more innovative solutions, but on the whole they are solid reads I’d recommend to people anywhere along the political spectrum, and together they paint an illuminating picture of who Barack Obama is and what he stands for. You might not agree with what he says or believes in, but anything that encourages positive political debate and discussion can’t be a bad thing.

Ratings:

Dreams from My Father - 3/5

The Audacity of Hope – 3.75/5

Review and Analysis: ‘Misquoting Jesus’ by Bart D Ehrman

May 7, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Ehrman_Misquoting_Jesus_missions_scholarship

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.

Luke 24:12

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.

Luke 24:51

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.

Conclusion

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.

4/5

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