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Conservative Reactions to Misquoting Jesus

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.

If you were a member of the blog, you could read full blog posts five or six times a week!  For less than fifty cents!  So why not join?  You would get tons for your money and every dime goes to charity.

 

 


Do the Differences in Our Manuscripts Matter?
Misquoting Jesus and My Fundamentalist Faith

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Comments

  1. Jeff  February 1, 2018

    Thanks for having the courage to carry on despite the caution received by family and friends. I recall Paul Meijer (WMU historian) having a hissy fit over your book, too. Query: it is estimated that 81% of the Evangelical vote supported Donald Trump. Would you in general place your conservative critics within the same group? If so this might explain why their ideology over shadows objectivity in this matter, at least to me.

    Off topic:
    (Thanks again for spending time with MSU students last summer/fall. We could use your assistance in another capacity now.)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 2, 2018

      I’m afraid I don’t really know. But I guess there’s an 81% chance they are!

  2. jhague  February 1, 2018

    “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.”

    I think this has always been the situation. They have a fear that if people know the facts, they will stop going to church and more importantly, stop giving money. Is this what you have found to be the case?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 2, 2018

      I’m not sure if there’s a financial connection or not, but I kind of doubt it (at least with respect to my academic opponents)

      • jhague  February 2, 2018

        I was thinking of the pastors and church leaders of conservative congregations.

    • SidDhartha1953  February 3, 2018

      Knowledge, like money, is power. It’s ironic that the Catholic Church of a former age murdered William Tyndale (a hero of evangelicals who doubt the Bishops are Christian) for translating the New Testament into the language of the people. Now they verbally assassinate a scholar who tells the people what their pastors learned in seminary but think they don’t need to know.

  3. fishician  February 1, 2018

    A few years ago I had a fundamentalist friend tell me bluntly that he didn’t want to hear anything about textual criticism because it was a potential hazard to his faith. Around that time I heard a preacher warn that one of the church members had “studied his way” out of the faith. For me, I had mounting questions about what I was finding in the Bible, and when I ran across Misquoting Jesus it was like a breath of fresh air – you mean it’s possible to objectively study the Bible and the manuscripts and make intelligent analysis of it? Hallelujah! I don’t have to check my brain at the door! I now feel sorry for those who surrender their intelligence to dogma. It has been liberating for me.

    14
  4. talmoore
    talmoore  February 1, 2018

    Unfortunately, for most Christians, the Bible isn’t so much a book as it is a fetish. Notice that you don’t have to actually read the contents of a Bible to stop a vampire. You can simply hold it up.

    I can’t tell you how many times a self-avowed Christian has asked me if I “have even read” the Bible. And I reply, “Of course, I’ve read the Bible. All the way through. Several times. And even in the original languages. Have you done that?” Of course they haven’t done that. The vast majority of human beings on the planet have not actually read through the entire Bible, cover to cover, once, let alone more than once.

    For these people the Bible is just another sacred object, like a totem or a talisman. My first girlfriend came from a fundamentalist household, where she was told to leave a Bible open to a particular page while she slept. Why? Because it caused some sort of…magical power? How many stories have we heard about Bibles stopping bullets? Or Bibles surviving a fire? Or Bibles falling open to just the right page? The Bible isn’t really a book for these people, to be read and analyzed, like one would read and analyze Plato’s Republic. For these people, the Bible is more like a sacred artifact, a divining tool, a magical charm.

    Now, imagine telling all these people that their cherished fetish is flawed. They’re not going to react kindly. And that’s what they did you do, Dr. Ehrman.

    • dragonfly  February 2, 2018

      Have you ever been attacked by a vampire? There’s no time to read the contents of the bible! I’m glad you only have to hold it up. I think holy water works better, but there’s never a priest around when you need one…

      • talmoore
        talmoore  February 4, 2018

        Nope, can’t say I’ve been attacked by a vampire. Yet.

  5. John4
    John4  February 1, 2018

    Thanks, Bart.

    Did you get any reactions from conservative scholars that you *did* think were reasonably informed, insightful, and/or useful?

    Who?

    Many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  February 2, 2018

      They often have interesting things to say, but never (yet) anything that isn’t either fairly widely known or, in my opinion, wrong-headed. IN none of my debates have I heard something new.

  6. Tony  February 1, 2018

    Only four conservative responses? I am counting three book responses to DJE from the much smaller mythical side. Unlike the sleepy conservatives the mythicists are truly pumped and ready to rock.

    Earl Doherty

    https://www.amazon.com/End-Illusion-Ehrmans-Jesus-Historical-ebook/dp/B00A2XN7EQ/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1517518035&sr=1-3&keywords=earl+doherty

    Raphael Lataster (responding in about one third of his book to DJE)

    https://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Did-Not-Exist-Atheists-ebook/dp/B017YB4D82/ref=pd_sim_351_4?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=22T7K9KQ746Z244CNBDE

    Richard Carrier et al

    https://www.amazon.com/Ehrman-Quest-Historical-Jesus-Nazareth-ebook/dp/B00C9N0WBI/ref=sr_1_4?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1517518035&sr=1-4&keywords=earl+doherty

    Of course, all of the above responses are well articulated and researched. In his academic, “On the Historicity of Jesus”, Carrier references your work extensively and in a highly professional manner only, never with any hostility.

  7. curioso7  February 1, 2018

    Hello Professor!
    I grew up a very non-committed catholic but still thought the bible was the word of God and probably perfect. Reading your book was tremendously enlightening for me, and in my case , made me question the existence of God, still do. Now, I understand is not really a reason to completely lose faith in the Bible, but I understand why conservative Christians don’t like teaching this to lay people. Ironically, I discovered your work thanks to a very conservative evangelical that I met at starbucks who referred to you as “very dangerous.” Of course I “googled” your name and ordered the book. Now I am more interested in reading and learning about the bible, I have become a secular bible thumper.

    10
  8. toejam  February 1, 2018

    Quick question: Do you recall if there are any examples in the writings of the infamous heresiologists (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Epiphanius, etc.) telling us why some sects did not accept the Gospel of Mark? In particular, is there any direct evidence that any of these alternate sects doubted its association with Mark / Peter, or that they considered it to have been authored by someone else?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 2, 2018

      Off hand I can’t think of any sect that was said to have intentionally and conscientiously *rejected* Mark; some may not have used it (much) but I don’t know of any polemic against it.

  9. rivercrowman  February 1, 2018

    I collected all four of the response books to Misquoting Jesus. I don’t encourage anyone else to do the same.

  10. ardeare  February 1, 2018

    For the world’s 16 million Mormons, “Misquoting Jesus” was nothing new. The scholarship blew everyone away but not the concept. From early childhood, every kid is taught that the bible was corrupted intentionally and unintentionally by man.The eighth article of faith reads, “We believe the bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” That’s probably the number one reason fundamentalist still refer to them as a cult.

    • dynamis878  February 2, 2018

      I think that most Mormons would be very uncomfortable with Dr Ehrman’s ideas.

    • Kirktrumb59  February 6, 2018

      In 1945, Fawn Brodie, a biographer of Jefferson and niece of a Mormon (LDS Church) president, published “No Man Knows my History,” a biography of Joseph Smith. The book’s rightly been criticized by unbiased scholars for several of Brodie’s speculations, some of which indeed have been proven incorrect. The book nonetheless portrays, accurately IMHO and in the opinion of non-biased scholars, Joseph Smith as the charlatan, conman and womanizer that he actually was. (Worth noting is the real reason Smith and his brother were lynched.) Years later, a Mormon scholar/apologist published a rebuttal pamphlet, “No, Ma’am, That’s Not History.” Sigh.

      • ardeare  February 7, 2018

        I’ve read Fawn Brodie’s book. She was the niece of President David O’ McKay. She married a Jewish man and had a very, very small wedding. Evidently, her fiancee’s relatives were no more excited to have a non-Jew in the family as hers were about having a non-Mormon. Joseph and his brother, Hyrum, were murdered by an angry mob of Protestants. Hyrum was shot in the face and Joseph several times in the back. They were slaughtered in jail while awaiting trial for the property damage of a printing press.

  11. gwayersdds  February 1, 2018

    I always worry about people who see everything as absolute black and white issue. To me it is nothing more than religious arrogance to think that what they believe is the only way to believe. I will always believe someone who allows for wiggle room on an issue over someone who is absolutely, totally convinced that they are in the right and everyone else is absolutely and totally wrong. I thank you for your willingness to acknowledge that you do not have all the answers and are willing to tolerate alternative ideas.

    • godspell  February 2, 2018

      I think some things are fairly black and white. Like slavery. And we fought a bloody war over that, and the right side won. Both sides claimed God supported them, of course. The side that lost didn’t admit their defeat proved God supported the other side, of course.

      Lincoln is supposed to have said his concern was not whether God was on his side, but rather that he was on God’s side.

      In private, he wasn’t a conventional Christian, probably believed Jesus had been a mortal man. But even skeptics need faith, sometimes. Without it, there’s just no way to stand straight under the burdens of life.

    • meohanlon  February 4, 2018

      Agreed. I think the mark of an educated mind is to consider all the alternative options without excluding any, until the long process of weighing the evidence (and sometimes gut instincts play into this) for one against one another has reached informed conclusions along the way; then proceeding with confidence, yet testing one’s ideas against the backdrop of lived experience itself, always allowing for a slight doubt – no matter how low-probability.

  12. nbraith1975  February 1, 2018

    Maybe if there was information in the text, other than simply general knowledge from the time period and culture, fundamentalists might have a stronger leg to stand on. For example, maybe Jesus could have mentioned something about biology or astronomy that was not known at the time. Or he could have spoken regarding general health concerns of the day and identified how germs and disease spread. Or he could have given some idea about the coming technology that would connect the world and even take a human to the moon and back. Or he could have explained how stars can’t literally fall from the sky or how the moon controls the tides. If Jesus had spoken to any of these issued I’m sure it would result in the NT writings being taken more seriously – regardless of any changes, additions or deletions to the texts. Unfortunately, Jesus never spoke to any of these facts, nor did any other god “inspired” prophets and writers of the day. This simply puts Jesus and his followers in the category of mere men – living their lives restricted to the culture and knowledge of their day – with textual corruption being the death-nail to the Christian religion.

    • fishician  February 2, 2018

      Yes, if Jesus had given significant insight into any of the areas you mention it would have been better evidence of a divine nature than all of the miracle stories and spotty manuscripts we were given.

    • Hormiga  February 2, 2018

      > For example, maybe Jesus could have mentioned something about biology or astronomy that was not known at the time.

      Yes, you could put a fairly decent description of the Solar System, complete with numbers, in a reasonable-sized paragraph. Or Kepler’s three laws in a couple of sentences. The audience of the time might have had little idea of what was being described, but making it part of Scripture would have preserved it for later generations. (Of course, Christians at the time apparently weren’t all that concerned with the problem of later generations.)

    • Pattylt  February 3, 2018

      Don’t extend that theory to Muslims! I have listened to several Muslims that insist that the Quran has scientific knowledge that was unknown at the time (example: Allah formed you from a clinging clot of blood as knowledge of conception). Unfortunately it requires a bit of exegesis to actually be scientific but they delight in pointing these “scientific” bits out to show the superiority of their faith. If the NT had anything similar, Christians would do likewise. I had a fundamentalist acquaintance that tried to claim that the Bible knew about pi but couldn’t include the decimals because they didn’t know how to write 3.1412 versus 3! Many Christians seem very insecure and anxious about their texts. Faith is hard when modern society has shifted to an evidence based mindset.

      • Hank_Z  February 9, 2018

        And if someone in the Bible wrote that pi equals 3.1412, that would have been as wrong as it is now. Close, but wrong.

    • meohanlon  February 4, 2018

      Even if he had made such prescient claims, they might’ve seemed, to Jesus’s audience, too incredible, too nonsensical even, to be included by a writer or vocal supporter wanting to persuade the larger community of his wisdom. Now if he’d been in India then, or Athens, some 400 years earlier, he might have found a more welcoming audience for such ideas.

  13. godspell  February 1, 2018

    In my experience, nothing is more outrageously controversial than stating the known facts to people who don’t want to hear them (even if they already know them).

    And really, you only have to read the comments section to any current front page news article to know that.

    I have to say, though–I’m a bit disappointed in these people. They’re supposed to be Protestants, right? The whole idea of Reformation Protestantism, best as I can understand it, was “Get the texts into the hands of the people. Let them decide.” The Catholic side said the people weren’t ready for this, they needed experts to interpret the texts for them, and therefore, the Word of God should not be published in the vernacular.

    In retrospect, both sides had their points. But to see the spiritual descendants of Luther and Calvin arguing that knowledge of scripture should be kept away from the people–!!!

    I certainly hope you tacked a copy of Misquoting Jesus to the door of a church somewhere. 😉

    • meohanlon  February 4, 2018

      You’re right- any religious denomination seems to have ended up maintaining, in some way or another, the very opposite of what its founder had wanted to say or do.

  14. AnotherBart  February 1, 2018

    Dear Sir:

    Doubt, combined with a relentless pursuit of truth, is a good thing. And I commend you for your pursuit.

  15. doug  February 1, 2018

    It’s frustrating, bringing up evidence that contradicts cherished beliefs. You don’t want people to get mad at you, but sometimes you just can’t let untruths go unchallenged.

  16. Seeker1952  February 1, 2018

    Correct me if I’m not saying this quite right but I believe you’ve said rather often that in most times and places Christianity has not been mainly about the Bible, certainly not to the degree that current fundamentalists and evangelicals make it about the Bible. Christianity existed for a long time without the New Testament canon.

    I can see how the early (and later) Christians could think the Bible was divinely inspired–in a general way–and a very helpful guide to faith and practice. But how could people ever think the Bible is inerrant and literally true in every aspect? That’s such an enormous claim and consequently it’s so easy to find errors in the claim. And it must frequently contradict people’s sense of what’s real and practical and even possible in their day-to-day lives.

    I would think that the purpose/best use of the Bible would be to “point toward God” in conjunction with tradition, theology, worship and other practices, contemporary worldviews, practical living, ethics (in general and not only specifically Christian ethics), and simple common sense.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 2, 2018

      The modern notion of the “inerrancy” of the Bible started to appear at the end of the 19th century at the Niagara Conferences.

      • SidDhartha1953  February 3, 2018

        Headline: Reason Falls at Niagara.

      • Morphinius  February 3, 2018

        The modern notion of biblical “inerrancy” may have arisen at the end of the 19th century, but the idea does have roots that go back to the second century, if not earlier. The author of the First Epistle of Clement argued in favor of it:

        “Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit. Observe that nothing of an unjust or counterfeit character is written in them.”

        Several comments of Irenaeus and Augustine of Hippo appear to strongly agree with this point of view.

        The idea that the Bible was not the inerrant word of God was likely the minority view held by educated priests who did not pass on this potentially dangerous information to the laity.

      • meohanlon  February 4, 2018

        I’m surprised it was only that recently. I’d think there were some example fringe absolutist groups springing up in the 17th century, in response to the enlightenment’s emphasis on skeptical inquiry.

  17. Seeker1952  February 1, 2018

    I’ve heard Christian theologians say things to the effect that maybe we should think of resurrection, ascension, and pentecost as more of a single event than as separate events.

    I believe you think that, historically, the New Testament supports the notion that some of Jesus’s followers “believed” they had seen or somehow experienced a resurrected Jesus. Would you say that the New Testament, on historical grounds, also supports the notion that resurrection, ascension, and pentecost were all experienced as the same event, eg, that for those who had it there was one experience that led to all three ideas?

    I guess one alternative would be that ascension and pentecost were more strictly legendary elaborations that built up later around the belief in the original resurrection experience.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 2, 2018

      The problem is that most of the authors don’t say anything about either a bodily ascension or Pentecost. In fact, only one of them does, the author of Luke-Acts. And for him these were all separate events. Theologians are saying that the earliest Christains who did *not* say anything about them probably thought of them as all the same thing. I would agree on resurrection-ascension, but I don’t think most early Christains had any idea of a day of Pentecost.

  18. mikezamjara  February 2, 2018

    Your book and Dr Finkelstein’s rescued me from the matrix

  19. Tobit  February 2, 2018

    What was the strangest criticism you received for Misquoting Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 2, 2018

      I would rank Craig Evans’s right up there, that I became an agnostic once I realized there were textual variations in our manuscripts!

  20. kentvw  February 2, 2018

    This must really bother you, as you have mentioned it more than once.

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