Saturday, April 01, 2006

Misquoting Jesus

After reading through Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus yesterday, I came away with a new appreciation for Ehrman's grasp of textual criticism. I had initially dismissed Ehrman's book as a liberal religion professor's stabs at Christianity. After looking at his credentials a little more thoroughly, I realize now that the book is a well-marketed and lay-level version of Ehrman's other books, especially his most serious scholarly work, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. It seems that ever since Ehrman produced Orthodox, he has been rewriting the topic in various forms up until now in the highly personal volume of Misquoting Jesus. (See his list of titles at Wikipedia.) Thus, while Misquoting Jesus certainly does not fall into the category of biblical scholarship, it does come from a man who is very capable in that arena.

Misquoting (Misrepresenting) the Numbers
One of the initial points that stuck out to me in Ehrman's book is the way he deals with the Greek manuscripts and the numbers involved concerning their existence and the textual variants. As the Washington Post quotes, "There are some 5,700 ancient Greek manuscripts that are the basis of the modern versions of the New Testament, and scholars have uncovered more than 200,000 differences in those texts." Ehrman's analysis of the evidence is completely contrary to his mentor's analysis – Bruce Metzger is one of the, if not the, foremost experts on the topic today and he renders much interpretation the opposite direction. Even his chapter in Lee Strobel's book, The Case for Christ, leans strongly in favor of the accuracy of our New Testament.

An Expert Analysis
Daniel Wallace offers a brief review of Misquoting Jesus at Ben Witherington's blog. As a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who teaches classes in textual criticism, I will leave the finer points of breaking down the problems of Ehrman's book to Wallace (though this review is meant to be brief - notice that both Wallace and Witherington carry on the dialogue in the comments at Witherington's blog.) One of the interesting points that Wallace makes is that he believes it is wrong for an expert on a topic, such as Ehrman is, to write and market his findings for the general population who are not equipped to make judgments on the book.

Ehrman's Motivation

The part that disturbs me most about Ehrman's book is similar to one of Wallace's points. Ehrman has believed this position for over a decade, at least. He has published nearly 20 other books, most of which are marketed at least for the arena of religious studies along with his more scholarly works intended for those in academic study. It would seem (based on Ehrman's introduction in Misquoting Jesus as well as the historical track of his writings) that he is now seeking to step outside the realm of scholarship and into the pop culture which has so embraced The Da Vinci Code. As Wallace also points out, there have been many challenges brought against Ehrman's Orthodox Corruption of Scritpure (which is the chief basis for his other books), and Ehrman does not address these challenges but rather has moved to a different arena to display his findings. Might this be akin to a scientist as NASA who comes up with a "brilliant" theory and finds his theory does not convince many of his colleagues? Then he moves outside the arena of scientific research and publishes his findings in Time Magazine rather than in the leading scientific journals in his field.

Dangerous?
Yes. I would find Ehrman's arguments very convincing if I were approaching the topic with no other information. This book is currently a bestseller and is bound to make an impact in our society.

One Final Point
Any person who does not believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God must provide an explanation for their unbelief. Thus, it is not surprising that any person would seek to undermine the Bible as the way that God has revealed truth to mankind. A person who is aware of the Bible's claims (the Bible certainly claims that there is no other name by which men may spared eternal judgment) must either ignore what the Bible states or attempt to discredit it. Most people just ignore it. Some people work hard to demonstrate that the Bible cannot be taken seriously, because if the Bible is to be taken seriously then each person must recognize where they stand in God's sight: either in their own condition of imperfection that will result in eternal judgment and eternal torment, or in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ that grants us, by grace, eternal life by trusting in him. This teaching is admittedly a hard one to accept, and we are tempted at many points to try to explain it away.

3 comments:

Barney Longacre said...

Thank you very much for your comments on this book, thank you very much indeed. I am grieved by this current trend to undermine the work of God. Perhaps the devil has saved some of his best lies for these times. I love what you said about Bart not answering the arguments from his peers. The NASA scientist ha ... nice analogy.

May I say, God Bless You
Sincerely,
Barney Longacre
Missoula MT

JKG said...

I agree with you that it is important to be cautious about what we read. It is important to read on both sides of an issue in order to better understand and form our own opinions.

"One of the interesting points that Wallace makes is that he believes it is wrong for an expert on a topic, such as Ehrman is, to write and market his findings for the general population who are not equipped to make judgments on the book."

I am a lay person who is interested in things like this in a variety of fields. Am I to be censored from learning about textual criticism until I have my doctorate in the field? And how can I begin to learn to make my own judgments if doctorate-level education is required in order to read the material?

"As Wallace also points out, there have been many challenges brought against Ehrman's Orthodox Corruption of Scritpure (which is the chief basis for his other books), and Ehrman does not address these challenges but rather has moved to a different arena to display his findings."

I don't think much of this book discusses material in which there is at least broad acceptance in his field, even if not general consensus. He is not for instance bringing a mysticist perspective that Jesus never existed.

Anybody in a field where their work is reviewed by their peers is going to have challenges brought against them. That is the nature of academic study. Again, is the general population to be denied access to learning about academic study until such time there is unanimity of opinion in the field? We do not typically expect this.

Colby Willen said...

JKG, your assessment is a good one. I'll admit that part of my objection to seeing such books on the front of shelves in the bookstore is that the other side of the argument is usually buried out of sight -- if it is even available at most mainstream stores. With such wonderful, front row publicity, the game is lopsided in favor of a view which undermines the Bible.

I do not think it is wrong for a lay person to take an interest in textual criticism, but even figuring out who the experts are in the field and what they have written on the topic can be a daunting exercise. Additionally, I think that the individual who pursues answers beyond a cursory glance at Ehrman's book is the exception.

On another thought...I wonder if pastors of a liberal slant who would embrace Ehrman's book would even feel the need to make arguments against comparable conservative works. Wouldn't that be "closed minded"?

Thanks for your comments.