I don’t think I was prepared for the reaction that my book Misquoting Jesus elicited, especially among conservative evangelical Christians.  I was suddenly transformed from being a competent scholar with whom others might disagree here or there to being a Major Public Enemy.

Conservative scholars said all sorts of bizarre things about me in the wake of the book.  My long-time acquaintance and occasional debate opponent, Craig Evans, wrote, in a book, that I had become an agnostic as soon as I realized that there were lots of textual differences among our manuscripts, and he pointed out how absurd that was.

It was indeed absurd – but not because this was why I became an agnostic but because Craig assumed (and informed his readers) that it was.   My realizing that there are differences among our manuscripts had precisely NOTHING to do with my becoming an agnostic, and Craig should have known that.  If he didn’t know it, he could have asked me.  But instead he made this outrageous claim to his conservative readers, eager to see a “liberal” scholar taken down by one of their own.

Where did Craig get his information from on this one?  He made it up.   To his credit, he probably didn’t know that he made it up, but he certainly didn’t get it from anything I wrote or said, or from anything that anyone knows me wrote or said.

The conservative reaction to my book can be gauged from the fact that there were four – count them, four – response books written to it, books meant to set the record straight by showing that I didn’t know what I was talking about.  The best-selling (and surely the best, even though it’s not very good) was by Tim Jones, Misquoting Truth (which, I have to say, has a *fantastic* cover, even if the contents inside the cover are not very informed, insightful, or useful)

In general, conservative scholars had four reactions to the book, and its claims that there are hundreds of thousands of differences among our surviving manuscripts (more differences than there are words in the NT), the vast majority of which are insignificant and immaterial, but some of which matter a lot for understanding the meaning of the New Testament.  The first two were especially intriguing, especially when they were asserted, vigorously, by one-and-the-same person:  1) I was saying nothing new and 2) I was being outrageously controversial.

I have never understood how both things can be true at the same time.   With respect to the first “charge,” the whole point of my book was to introduce non-scholars to what scholars had long been saying about a topic that they – the non-scholars – would be highly interested in but have never been told about.   The book is not a work of scholarship for my colleagues in the field of textual criticism (although I have to say, since most New Testament scholars don’t know much of anything about textual criticism, other New Testament scholars would almost certainly have learned a good bit they don’t know from it).   So I’m not sure why that is a criticism, exactly.  It wasn’t written to advance scholarship.

But on the other hand, if the book simply points out information that textual scholars already know, why is it outrageously controversial?  My sense is that conservative textual critics simply don’t want lay people to realize what the situation is when it comes to our surviving manuscripts of the New Testament.  So when I state the facts baldly, they get upset about it.

This, in fact, is just about the most interesting thing about the conservative reactions to the book – whether seen in the reaction books, or in the public debates I’ve had on the matter (e.g. with Dan Wallace, professor of New Testament at the very conservative Dallas Theological Seminary), or in the other writings directed against me and the book (for example Craig Evans’s claims cited above): to my knowledge none of these criticisms or critics has mentioned a single fact – any single fact – that I got wrong in the book.  No one says: HEY!  He’s not right about that!   He gets wrong how many manuscripts we have!  He gets wrong how many textual variants there are!  He is wrong that some of these variants matter!  He is wrong that there are lots of places where textual experts disagree on what the text says!  He is wrong that there are some places where we will never be able to know for sure what the text said!

Now, having said that,. I should say as well that I understand that my critics think not that I”ve gotten any information wrong, but that lay people reading the book may MISINTERPRET what I have to say.   And that much I can agree on.  Some readers have indeed misinterpreted me, thinking that I was saying that it’s all hopeless and we can never have a fairly good sense of what the authors of the New Testament wrote.

I have lots I could say about *that*, but here I’ll simply stress the two points I repeatedly have made over the years:

  • I do I think it’s true that we can never be 100% confident that we have the actual words of any of the books of the New Testament. We simply don’t have the kinds of evidence we would need for complete assurance at any point at all.    That’s not a problem for lots of readers.  It *is* a problem for people who think that the Bible is 100% God’s words given by divine revelation for his people.  If it *has* to be that, and we don’t certainly *have* that… well, it’s a problem.
  • But on the practical level, I live my life – or at least my professional life – with the assumption that in the vast majority of places we have a pretty good idea what the authors probably wrote. Note all my hedges: “practical level,” “assumption,” “majority of places,” “pretty good idea,” and “probably wrote.”  The reality is that we will never know for sure, and can’t know for sure.  Any more than we can know for sure what words were always written by Homer, Plato, Euripides, Cicero, or Plutarch.  With these other authors (and virtually all the authors from antiquity) that’s not a big deal for most people; but for the Bible – well that matters, especially if you think that the Bible is 100% absolutely certainly the word and words of God.

There are two other conservative criticisms of Misquoting Jesus that I’ll deal with in the next post.

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