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Misquoting Misquoting Jesus

Misquoting Jesus is my most widely read book.   And I continue to be a bit amazed and dismayed at how widely it is misunderstood.  The book was meant to deal with one very specific issue connected with the New Testament, and people who have read it – let alone the people who have not – often assume it’s about some *other* issue, or rather, some other very broad issue, normally something that it is decidedly not about.

One of the problems is that people who are specialists in a field make very fine distinctions that seem absolutely OBVIOUS to them, when the distinctions are very fuzzy indeed to anyone who is an outsider.   It’s true of every field of expertise.  When a scholar of medieval English literature whom I know very well is at a cocktail party with non-academics, she will frequently talk to people who, to keep the conversation going, ask about anything from the life of Charlemagne to, say, Beowulf, on the assumption that those are what her research is about.   Uh, no.   When last week I made the mistake of asking a friend of mine who is a condensed matter physicist a question about the Big Bang, she was slightly offended (I suspected) and politely told me that it would be like someone asking *me* about a particular aspect of Shinto in Japan.  OK, fair enough.

So, with respect to Misquoting Jesus, let me say this, just to make sure we are on the same page:  it is *not* about how the New Testament is full of contradictions, or about the Gospel writers living so many years after Jesus and basing their accounts on oral traditions that were often unreliable hearsay, or about how there are other Gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament, or about how doctrines Christians believe today cannot be found in the Bible.

These are all highly important issues.  And other books I’ve written do deal with them.  But each of these books (say, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium; or Jesus Interrupted; or How Jesus Became God; or Forged) also deal with specific issues, not the same issue.  Otherwise I’d just be writing the same book over and over again.  Some people seem to think I do, but, well, no.  These books are about different things.

OK, then.  So what *is* Misquoting Jesus about?  It is about…

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It is about how Christian scribes of the second to fourth Christian centuries copied the texts of New Testament, sometimes changing them (by accident or on purpose) so that they ended up saying something other than what they originally said.  As a result, there are passages that we read today that are not worded exactly as the authors wrote them.

Those points are COMPLETELY non-controversial among scholars (even though the book stirred up a hornet’s nest among conservative scholars, about which I’ll say something more below).  They are simply factually true.    What makes them *interesting* is that almost no one outside the realm of scholars seemed to have been aware of them.   And for a lot of people that ended up mattering.   How can we say that the Bible contains the very words of God if there are places where we don’t know what those words *are*?    Let me stress: that question is not an answer.  It is a question.  And it’s one that people have to figure out for themselves.  But to do so, they need to know the facts.

Facts do matter, even though a frightening number of people seem to disagree.  In these days, I think most people are realizing that, well, sometimes maybe it is important for people to get facts right.  If we get facts about viruses wrong, we are sunk.   But even when facts are not matters of life and death, they matter.  In the world of religion, they matter for what we believe, how we make sense of life, how we come to grips with death, how we conduct ourselves, how we want others to conduct themselves, and what kinds of social and political policies we support, endorse, and implement, affecting both our national lives and our international involvements, everything from reproductive rights, racial and sexual discrimination, climate change, immigration policy, international relations, etc. etc. etc

OK, that’s far afield from Misquoting Jesus.  Or is it?  The ultimate importance of my book is that it shows that deciding what to believe based on what the very words of what the Bible says – as fundamentalists do, and as politicians and drivers of social policy do when it happens to be convenient to them – is that we may not in some places actually have the actual words.

I am *not* saying that “we have no idea what the authors of the New Testament wrote.”  I’ve never said that.  The book doesn’t say that. The book is not attacking the Bible and it is not a wild claim that we have no clues about what Jesus and his followers and the later writers of the New Testament thought and said.  We do indeed have clues.  In most cases we have pretty good ideas.

So why does it matter, “for the bigger picture,”  if scribes changed their manuscripts?  Because it is one way out of many to show that the Bible people read and randomly cite by cherry picking verses here and there is not a perfect book handed to us by God.  In other words, it is one opening among many that was/is meant to take people down the path of critical inquiry into the Bible, to show that you can’t blindly “follow” the Bible.

And once you start taking that path, if you are sincere and honest and truth-seeking – there is no turning back.   Only after you start going down it do you start to realize that there are *other* even more significant problems with the Bible.  Only when you look into these *other* problems do you start to realize that in fact it has contradictions, all over the map; and historical mistakes; and geographical errors; and legends; and myths.   You start to realize that we don’t have eyewitness accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus’ (let alone of Moses’!) life and that the accounts we are at odds with each other.  And that our sources for Jesus are decades after the fact and are not always reliable.

I stress: those are NOT views I try do demonstrate, or actually even deal with, in Misquoting Jesus!  Seriously.   Not at all.

In other words, I meant for the book to be an *entry-way* into asking questions about the New Testament.  But instead people – both fans and critics – have often taken it as a description of the *outcome* of taking the path, a kind of statement that we can now throw the Bible away.  It is not that.  The book deals with one very specific issue of a much bigger picture: how did scribes who copied the texts of the New Testament in the centuries after it was written change it?

That seems like a terribly uninteresting question to pursue.  Who *cares* what later scribes did when they were copying the Gospel of Mark?  Aren’t we more interested in the Gospel of Mark? Or rather, with whether it gives us solid information on what Jesus said and did?   Yes, most people are more interested in that.  I know I myself am!  And the fact that the question of how reliable the *copies* of Mark are seems so much less interesting explains why no one ever bothered to write a book like this for layfolk before (though books like that for scholars have been around for over three centuries).  And why I was reluctant to write the book in the first place.

But I’ve always thought that even though it’s not THE most important issue in the study of the New Testament, it really is important.  And people should see why.  So I wrote the book trying to explain why it matters.  I really didn’t think anything I said in the book was particularly controversial.   Here’s a strange phenomenon: as I said earlier, the book stirred up a hornet’s nest in some circles.  There were four books written directly to oppose it (four that I know of; all by fundamentalists or conservative evangelical Christians) and lots more books that deal with it at length in the context of other attempts to “defend the faith.”  Yet, so far as I know, among all the critics I’ve had, none of them has ever pointed to a single statement in the book that was actually *wrong*.  Why doesn’t that give people pause?

More on that in the next post, where I will summarize what the book actually says – information that may indeed be controversial among people who have never heard such things before, but really are, so far as I know, simply factual information.

 


What I Do Argue in Misquoting Jesus
Did Paul Really Have *That* Exalted a View of Jesus?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  April 26, 2020

    That may be the danger ( not really “ danger”) in writing books for public consumption that only a few have great knowledge of.
    You couldn’t sell very many books or go very high on any best seller lists if you restricted book sales to academics who understand already exactly what your talking about.
    I’m personally glad that you are writing these books and reaching out to we dumbbells who do other things but have always had these questions in the back of our minds..
    Your latest book is my favorite and I’m careful never to quote you or cite your writings in my own opinions with whacko relatives ( my brother in law told me yesterday that giants once roamed the earth and their fossils have been found, my wonderful sister told me yesterday that she’s seen pictures of chariots at the bottom of the Red Sea)
    They vote for politicians who believe that stuff to make public policy for them..
    I need your books if for nothing else a dose of sanity.
    Thanks!!! And keep up the great work.

    Long distance runner

    • Avatar
      emsmith725@verizon.net  May 20, 2020

      Dr. Ehrman, do think “Misquoting Truth” was generally fair or unfair to “Misquoting Jesus”?

      • Bart
        Bart  May 22, 2020

        I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about whether it was fair or not. I simply thought (rather forcefully) that it wasn’t well-informed, written by someone who is not knowledgeable about the field.

  2. Avatar
    SamEdwards420  April 26, 2020

    They can’t handle the truth is there problem.

  3. Avatar
    WhenBeliefDies  April 26, 2020

    People react out of fear, this could be at something they think someone has literally said or due to a void someone has created because of something they have said.

    I’m halfway through your Heaven & Hell book. It’s the first one I’ve read by you. I’ll be sure to pick this up soon.

    Thanks again for the free two months Bart! ✌️

  4. Avatar
    Pegill7  April 26, 2020

    A bit off topic but what is your opinion on Richard Valantasis’ book, “The New Q: A Fresh Translation With Commentary.” Should I buy it?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 27, 2020

      He’s a fine scholar; as to whether to buy it: it depends on what you’re interested in!

  5. Avatar
    forthfading  April 26, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    The fundamentalists responses to Misquoting Jesus is how I even learned of you and your scholarship. I was a fundamentalist Christian fresh out of Bible school with a degree in biblical studies and I was ready to take on the liberal scholarly agenda. Because of the enormous response to your book I was introduced to the actual arguments and over the course of many months I began to realize that I agreed with your arguments much more than what the fundamentalist were offering. In the end, the fundamentalist agenda backfired on them concerning myself because I ended up leaving the whole fundamental/evangelical belief. I’ve been a huge fan of your scholarship ever since and I completely give you credit for helping to see the truth.

    Are you still being attacked for Misquoting Jesus?

    Thanks, Jay

  6. Avatar
    doug  April 26, 2020

    When I believed the Bible was inerrant, I refused to even consider the “evil human knowledge” that questioned my beliefs. But between:

    – Having a questioning mind

    – And seeing people who cared for people and did not believe in Biblical inerrancy

    I slowly evolved into the secular humanist I am today.

  7. Avatar
    Jeff  April 26, 2020

    You know I still get those suspicious looks from conservative Christian friends whenever I speak of the Bible. Even when I try my hardest to be fair and even there’s that look of doubt at times. I probably need better friends but until that time I’m staying on the academic straight and narrow. Bart, I’ve heard criticisms from two academics about you during the Misquoting Jesus era which I thought were somewhat entertaining, at least to me. Both were religiously conservative scholars who I believe have difficulty separating their faith from commonly accepted historical research. Without sounding too paranoid do you think you still get pegged in that apostate category which may be the factor leading to the misconceptions you spoke of?

  8. Avatar
    coloradohowarth@gmail.com  April 26, 2020

    Having been raised as a fundamentalist conservative Christian, I had never know the historical facts about how the bible came to be. I am grateful beyond words for this book that enlightened me and helped me realize that the bible is NOT in any way inspired by any god. This book put the nail in the coffin of Christianity for me, and I couldn’t be happier! I do wonder, and maybe you can answer having gone to such conservative Christian colleges, is this information intentionally hidden from the masses in such circles? I was raised to believe the bible very literally (which I had stopped doing years ago), so all of the facts how the gospels were not written by eye-witnesses, rath oral traditions and decades after Jesus was on earth was quite a wakeup call for me. Actually, I was done with any belief after the first chapters about how illiterate the early Christians were, how many mistakes both accidental and intentional were made in copying manuscripts repeatedly. Thank you so much Mr. Ehrman for your work and for these books that are written so any non-scholar can understand them and have the truth!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 27, 2020

      My sense is that professors in conservative Christian colleges do not think that it is a “fact” that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses; on the contrary, they believe they were. (Well, Matthew and John were; in their view Mark got his accounts from Peter; Luke is the exception, bu tin their view he got his stories from eyewitnesses.) So no, I don’t think they are being intentionally deceitful.

      • Avatar
        coloradohowarth@gmail.com  April 27, 2020

        Thanks very much for replying and answering that question! My dad is a retired fundamentalist Baptist preacher (82 years old now) and I honestly believe he doesn’t know the history of the writing of the gospels. Or if he does, he never preached nor spoke about it. He’s still to this day, holds a KJV-only literalist view of the bible. Thanks again for the reply!

  9. Avatar
    Isaac  April 26, 2020

    You have stated that the words spoken by Jesus in the fourth gospel was put in his mouth by the writer, and was not his own. Could you kindly let me know where there is evidence for this. Geza Vermes also states the same in his writings but again I can find no evidence for this. Would be most greatful for your elucidation.
    Reading your blogs is one of the highlights of the day in these unusual times.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 27, 2020

      Lots and lots of evidence. For starters, you may want to read any of my books about Jesus and/or the Gospels? I’ve also number of posts devoted to it — e.g., near the end of September and beginning of October of 2017. Check them out!

      • Avatar
        Jrgebert  April 28, 2020

        How do you find these articles? Member content mainly only includes latest articles (2019 and 2020).

        • Bart
          Bart  April 28, 2020

          Members have access to all archives going back to 2012. It is easiest to search for key words using the search function (several ways to do it, e.g., click teh magnifying glass icon on the upper right corner). So search for whatever key words might take you to what you are interested in.

  10. Paul94d
    Paul94d  April 26, 2020

    Yes, well…”Misquoting Jesus” is one and “Forged” it’s another one. Some people may get it wrong because of some examples you give, but you deal with that problem fully in a different book Professor as you say it yourself in your books. (P.S. The more books i read about the Bible, the more i saw how many different ways you can debate a subject, story… you known, i don’t know how to say that, English is not my native language).

  11. sschullery
    sschullery  April 26, 2020

    So, are we done with the Gospel According to John?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 27, 2020

      In a couple of days I’m heading to teh Epistles of John, and then Hugo Mendez will be posting on the question of the Johannine Community, over a series of posts.

  12. Avatar
    veritas  April 26, 2020

    This is obviously concerning you. I want to be as * concise * as my finite mind will allow me to be understood. First, I must stress that I am an agnostic, as to give me an identity with others in the blog, but also do not deny if a God
    exists. I * don’t know * is a safe assertion for now and I can * comfortably * live with all kinds of folks, believer/unbelievers alike. Thirdly, I truly admire your research and have followed you, even to that point of meeting you during a debate, knowing the actual subject matter would be unresolved, sort of speak, in the process. Now I want to stress some points in my findings as I traverse this difficult resolve of understanding. 1) Controversy is more acceptable by most but also more refuted, 2) common sense means something different for everyone,3) belief is different than knowledge,4)conviction is difficult to change,5) there are more believers than non believers in this world, and chances are good that speaking about God will resonate with many versus the other way. There are others,but for word limits this will do. What you laid out……

  13. Avatar
    veritas  April 26, 2020

    ….is coherent with how most people interpret readings. Sometimes reading may raise or lessen or fabricate the author’s intent. The Bible has been interpreted this way a long time with everyone claiming to have the * correct * meaning. Who Knows? What strikes me about you is this. Sometimes I am not sure if you have completely given up on God personally? Your blogs at times seem vague, especially your spiritual moments, asking myself if you really are an unbeliever ? Chris Hedges is a wonderful writer, like yourself, when I am reading some of his work, I swear he sounds like he is appealing to Atheists. As I continue to read his works, his meanings become more clear. Some may get it instantly, but like a movie, most of us see things through our personal understanding. I refer to your debate with Dinesh. He believes and yet does * not * go around to prove his point asserting his position. Your last paragraph suggests otherwise. Opponents are rebuking, not the book’s claim, rather you denouncing a belief system. Just like me, there are those dear to us who pray fervently for our return.

  14. Avatar
    brenmcg  April 26, 2020

    In the Oliver Discourse Jesus is asked, Matthew 24:3 “when will this be and what will be the sign of your coming and of the completion (συντελείας) of the age?”
    The noun form of “completion” matching the question in Daniel 12(LXX) “When therefore the completion (συντέλεια) of the wonder you have told me and the purification of these?”

    Mark and Luke’s alternate version of this question differ by one word from each other.

    Mark 13:4 “when will these things happen and what will be the sign that they are all about to be completed (συντελεῖσθαι)?”
    Luke 21:7 “when will these things happen and what will be the sign that they are all about to take place (γίνεσθαι)?”

    Isn’t it more likely that Luke independently wrote his own version of the question and Mark edited it slightly to have a link to the Daniel/Matthew version rather than Luke editing out the one important word which Mark has in common to Daniel/Matthew?
    Can we say Luke was perfectly happy with Mark’s version, except for the one word he has in common to Matthew/Daniel? Or, how does Mark end up with the verb form of the word? Because he’s inserting it into Luke’s template which contains a verb form.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 27, 2020

      Most people think the answer is decidedly no, that’s not the more likely scenareo.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  April 28, 2020

        Most people might think that taken as a whole the evidence points to markan priority. But on this specific point, taken independently of other considerations, shouldnt most people think it indicates mark editing luke?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 28, 2020

          As with most individual examples, it seems it could pretty easily go either way. That’s why one needs a cumulative argument.

  15. Avatar
    Dabar  April 26, 2020

    Following Dr Bart for some time now – and decided to join his Blog (well taking advantage of two months free offer). I have not read this book yet – but I did read The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World and just bought Heaven and Hell. Really interesting read. Especially when you think that if even hell exist – then maybe is empty. Will definitely buy Misquoting Jesus… Always loved the discussions about religions – studied theology in one of university in Poland – and even though now working in completely different field always curious about finding the TRUTH… Let the journey begins… again…

  16. Avatar
    Stephen  April 26, 2020

    Apologies if this annoys or exasperates you but William Lane Craig is still at it after all these years. A five minute clip from a Q&A session about your comments on the conflicting details of the gospel resurrection accounts.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN9oMvu9VEE

    I find his comments about “secondary details” of the stories odd since a narrative consists of its details. HIs viewpoint is question begging because he assumes that there is a historical core behind the conflicting narratives and that of course is the question being raised.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 27, 2020

      Sigh…. On the other hand, he can’t give it up, since his entire life and ministry is rooted in his being right!

  17. Avatar
    Poohbear  April 26, 2020

    Hannibal is a good metaphor
    I have real issues with the account of General Hannibal. I suggest this man didn’t exist but rather was invented as Roman fiction to consolidate Roman power over Carthage and the Mediterranean, and to imbue the warrior spirit in the Roman empire through cautionary tales of the “enemy at the gates.”

    Furthermore we have no idea how much later translators have redacted this fantastic story of an African taking elephants over the Alps and invading Rome itself. Polybius wrote his account 50 years afterward the supposed event. Livy wrote during Augustus times and Appian wrote in the Second Century AD (!)

    Seven authors wrote the NT. Some claimed eye-witness status. Three wrote about Hannibal, long after the “event” and their accounts do not agree. This is never discussed in “scholarship.” Why?

    If the NT is pious fiction, why do we accept Hannibal, Cleopatra, Caesar etc as “historic”? Maybe, as Henry Ford said, “History is bunk.” And to prove the point, Ford didn’t actually say that.

  18. Avatar
    JoeWallack  April 26, 2020

    “It is about how Christian scribes of the second to fourth Christian centuries copied the texts of New Testament, sometimes changing them (by accident or on purpose) so that they ended up saying something other than what they originally said. As a result, there are passages that we read today that are not worded exactly as the authors wrote them.”

    Well that seems clear enough and so does the title “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture”. Yet your other words, here and elsewhere, sometimes sound like you are saying something less. No surprise then that the more conservative Christian Bible scholars take offense. You are accusing Patristics/Scribes of dishonesty and incompetence to some extent (and by extension them).

    I assume you have heard of:

    http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/

    Their criticisms of you are likewise bestsellers (among their readership). One of the more active is Tommy Wasserman who certainly thinks he has taken you Head on with:

    https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/Wasserman/FMfcgxwHMZRzfnJkqNlDVrBKcgtbPmpl [Misquoting Manuscripts? The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture Revisited]

    Wasserman has his problems, English is not his first language (sounds like Deja Jew all over again), and fer instance, he thinks “son of God” is original to 1:1 because the early Greek Patristics that omitted it were abbreviating. So Bar apolotite.

  19. Avatar
    HawksJ  April 27, 2020

    “But I’ve always thought that even though it’s not THE most important issue in the study of the New Testament”

    So, what is?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2020

      Lots are more important, I would say, such as the historical accuracy of the narratives and the interpretation of its texts.

  20. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  April 27, 2020

    Yes, I probably didn’t fully appreciate the point of ‘Misquoting Jesus’ when I first started to read it a few years ago, and then, when I did get the point, I found it quite shocking (in a good way). It remains one of my all time favourite books. I had previously read non scholarly books that for some reason or other claimed that the New Testament had been secretly edited. A classic example was the Da Vinci code genre of books that asserted that Mary Magdalene was a far more prominent character in the Gospels but the misogynistic church had later removed as many references to her as it could. But yours was the first book that I had read that provided scholarly and sensible evidence that some tinkering with the text (not on a vast scale of course) may actually have happened.

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