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What I Do Argue in Misquoting Jesus

In my previous post I pointed out that lots of people — friends and foes — misconstrue what I say in Misquoting Jesus.   It’s a particular problem with people who want to attack my views, often without seeing what I actually say.  Sometimes when someone tells me what they object to in my book I ask them if they’ve read it.  “Well, no, but I heard about it.”   Sigh….

Even scholars — including scholars I’m friends with — have said things about my views that are absolutely not true (e.g., a common one, that I became an agnostic once I realized how many differences there were among the manuscripts of the NT.  Good grief.  Where do they get such ideas from??  I knew about massive differences in the manuscripts when I was a *fundamentalist*!!)

Anyway, what do I talk about in the book, and why have people found it objectionable?  Here are some reflections I had on the issues when I thought about them some years ago.

**********************************************

One of the most interesting things in the rather loud and vociferous denunciations of my book Misquoting Jesus by conservative Christian scholars is that rarely (I can’t remember a single instance, in fact – maybe someone else knows of some; if so, let me know!) did they dispute any of the facts I marshal in the book.  So far as I know, the facts are not in dispute.

There were several books written in response to my book, including one called Misquoting Truth; another called Misquotes in Misquoting Jesus; and another called Lost in Transmission.  These books were all written to assure people (mainly believers) that the changes of the New Testament in the surviving copies are not overly significant.

Before getting to the point of significance, let me say something about the facts that I marshal:

  • We have something like 5500 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, some of them tiny fragments; some of them entire, complete copies.
  • The earliest of these manuscripts date, probably, from the first part of the second century (some decades after the originals). These, however, are only fragmentary scraps.  We do not get anything like full pages of this that or the other NT writing until the early 3rd century, and we do not get full and complete manuscripts until the middle of the fourth century.
  • Of all our manuscripts, 94% date from the ninth century or later – that is, from 800 – 1400 years after the originals were put in circulation.
  • We don’t have any originals, or copies of the originals, or almost certainly copies of copies of the originals. Our copies are later generation copies.
  • We don’t know how many differences (scribal alterations) there are in these thousands of manuscripts, but there are lots. Some scholars say 300,000, some say 400,000.  Since I wrote the book a new scholarly article has appeared claiming that there are more likely about 500,000.
  • On the positive front, the vast majority of these differences in our manuscripts are unimportant, insignificant, and matter for nothing more than to show that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than students can today.
  • But some of the differences are important for the interpretation of a verse, a passage, or even an entire book.
  • Scholars continue to debate hundreds of places of variation in the text. In some places these debates will probably never cease.  There are some passages where we probably will never know what the author’s own copy said.

 

So those are the facts, and no one on the planet who knows what they’re talking about would ever deny any of them.  So if those are the facts, and that is what I talk about in Misquoting Jesus, what is there to object to?

My sense is that….

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[private\My sense is that most of my critics objected to my tone.  What they wanted was for me to assure readers that they can trust what they read in their New Testaments.  They think that by talking so much about what got changed by scribes I don’t stress enough that we have a very good idea what the authors originally wrote.  And that none of the changes in our manuscripts have a major effect on any important Christian doctrine.

I have several things to say in response to that.  The first is that I think sometimes my critics have not read my book very carefully.  I do indeed say explicitly (as I said above among my facts) that the vast majority of changes scribes made are completely insignificant.  Most of them have almost zero effect on the meaning of the text; a good many of them cannot even be represented in an English translation (that is, if you translate two of the different wordings, the translation in English would be exactly the same!).  I completely agree with that and have never said otherwise.

But the fear is that by focusing on changes that do matter I convey the wrong idea by making people think there are hundreds of thousands of places that radically affect what the text means.  To that I would say that if people do read me as saying that, they are not reading what I said, since I never said that and never have said that.

There are places where the changes matter, though, and matter a lot – even if there are not hundreds of thousands of such places.  One standard argument against my view (I’ve never seen how this is an argument against my view, actually, but people make it as an argument) is that no textual variant has any bearing on any major Christian doctrine.  The conclusion that is drawn is that therefore none of the variants matter much.  To this I have several responses:

  • First, it’s not true that none of the variants are closely related to theology. Most are not vital, but some are, including one that is the only verse in the Bible that explicitly affirms the doctrine of the Trinity; one that is used by Appalachian snake handlers to justify their practices of … handling poisonous snakes; and one of direct relevance to the doctrines of forgiveness and redemption, where Jesus extends pardon to a woman caught committing adultery.
  • Second, if one wants say that no matter which manuscript of the NT a person chooses, she or he will have the same theology, I would completely agree. But that’s not because there are not lots of differences in our manuscripts.  It’s because people tend to hold their theological views by establishing them from an entire range of passages and perspectives (some of which don’t come from the Bible).  If anyone changes one passage, there are other passages (or arguments) to which appeal can be made.  My view is that hardly anyone ever changes their beliefs because of a passage (or even because of a whole bunch of passages).  Beliefs are very hard indeed to change.
  • Third, I think it is very odd indeed to think that the only reason textual differences could matter is if they affect major doctrines of the Christian faith. Are doctrines the only things that matter?  Look at it this way: suppose tomorrow morning we all woke up only to find that the Bibles everywhere in the world no longer contained the Gospel of Mark, the letter to the Colossians, and the epistle of 1 Peter?  Which of Christianity’s most cherished doctrines would be changed as a result?  Not a single one.  Does that mean that the loss of these three books would not be significant?  Of COURSE not.  It would be HUGELY significant.  But it wouldn’t affect doctrines.  Something can be significant for reasons other than cherished doctrines.  The variations in our manuscripts are significant for other reasons (e.g., they show us how this or that author is to be interpreted, to see what he is trying to say).

 

I should stress a point that people don’t hear me stress enough.  Since we do not have extensive early manuscripts, we cannot know for certain that the wording of the NT books that we have corresponds completely with what the authors wrote.  We just can’t know for sure.  Do I myself think that basically we know pretty much what Mark, or Paul, or James wrote?  Yes, I myself think it is reasonable to assume that we pretty much know.  Do I know that we are certain in every case?  No, in fact I don’t know.  And either can anyone else.  We proceed in our interpretations of these books on the assumption that we basically know, and I think it’s  a reasonably good assumption.  But if I have to say whether we know for sure, then I’d say absolutely, no, we do not and cannot.  For that we would need more evidence than what is currently available.[/private]


Life after Death in the Bible and Beyond: Webinar with Oxford Press
Misquoting Misquoting Jesus

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    rmallard  April 27, 2020

    Good post as usual. A friend of mine (devout Christian) and I (agnostic) were talking about this very point. I asked him why it bothered Christians he knew but not himself. He looked at me and smiled and said that he felt that these Christians were of weaker faith than they knew. “Their faith is absolutely tied to the inerrancy of Scripture. Their world would be rocked if they admitted flaws.” He had made a similar comment about these people’s abhorrence of the theory of evolution.

    He and I spent many an hour talking about your books. I hope that he reads your blog but sadly we lost touch.

  2. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  April 27, 2020

    300-500000 scribal alterations don’t change the meaning of a manuscript?
    That’s a lot of alterations!
    Fascinating post thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2020

      Well, when the majority of them are spelling differences, that’s important too! (As I say in the book.)

    • Avatar
      AstaKask  April 29, 2020

      Also, if I recall correctly, Greek has very free word order (unlike English, which is fairly tyrannical when it comes to word order). This is because in Greek, every word has markings that show what role it plays – so you can write Dog-SUBJ bites Man-OBJ and Man-OBJ bites Dog-SUBJ and they would mean the same thing.

  3. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  April 27, 2020

    In your research of the manuscripts, have you come across the Levi passage found in Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27-28, in any of the Gospel of Matthew manuscripts? I find it particularly strange that the Levi passage is not in the Gospel Matthew and that Matthew, the character, is named a tax collector and not in the Gospels of Mark or Luke.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2020

      The ancient view was that the man had two names and he preferred Matthew, so when he was writing his own Gospel he used his preferred name. That is, for most scholars, a bit of a stretch….

  4. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  April 28, 2020

    MJ is more than just a presentation of facts. You also explain your personal, Christian journey. Not having the original autographs was a problem for you and you questioned whether someone who couldn’t read the Bible in its original languages could truly understand what God wanted them to know. You also say that since God didn’t take care to preserve the original words, it was not inspired by God.

    The same setup is done for the Heaven and Hell book. One reviewer said he thought it was about yourself and how you changed your views regarding heaven and hell with the conclusion being there is none.

    At the end of the day, I feel that each person is responsible for formulating their own views; however, taking the reader step-by-step through your personal history could sway a reader’s opinion. Without your influence, a reader may come to different conclusions. Also, I do wonder why you chose to write MJ after becoming an atheist, rather than, when you were still a Christian. Wouldn’t it be more important to convey this information as a believer?

    Why not let the facts speak for themselves and take yourself out of it?

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  April 28, 2020

      Sorry if this comes across as overly harsh, but these questions deserve an answer, and it’s important that people don’t conflate your views for their own.

    • Avatar
      Kavsor  April 29, 2020

      a)People enjoy sushi and write a book about it or get dumped by the girlfriend and write a song about it. The amzing personal Journey of dr. Ehrman is definitely worth a few pages of his book and it actually made the content of the book so very interesting, tangible and relevant from the get-go.
      Did it make the book more influential and thought-provoking? good. However the facts presented in the book were in noway contingent on his personal journey.
      b) I find dr. Ehrman’s arguments convincing not because I like him( I do) or not because he is an excellent scholar(he is). I accept his conclusions ( although tentatively) because no matter how many Christian apologists I listen to I still can’t refute or defeat Ehrman’s arguements.
      c)Why didn’t dr. Ehrman write misquoting Jesus earlier ?By the same token you might as well ask Motzart what took him so long to compose ” Le nozze di Figaro”? all the notes and musical instruments he needed were there in front him all the time or why it took long time for Einstein to develope his therory of relativity? gravity, space and time were there in front him all the time.

    • Avatar
      turbopro  April 30, 2020

      >> Why not let the facts speak for themselves and take yourself out of it?

      If I may please: I believe our goodly host presents the facts inasmuch as one may present facts about the past.

      Free is the reader, with those facts, to do as s/he pleases.

      And, methinks it a good thing that the presenter of facts is transparent about her/his opinions.

  5. Avatar
    timcfix  April 28, 2020

    “Misquoting Jesus” actually changed my prospective on life, religion, and religious thought. I realized that if I was taught wrong I did not have to teach wrong.

  6. Avatar
    forthfading  April 28, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I can say with confidence exactly what the issue is that fundamentalist have with your book. It is the thing that myself and countless others we’re so upset about, and it’s the simple fact that you talked about it! It really is that simple. I spent years at a conservative Bible College getting a degree in the Bible, and it never once came up! We never talked about any of the issues you raise. The best comparison to me is magic. Anyone who takes the time to study illusion knows the basic concepts a performing magic (i.e., slight of hand, misdirection). Anyone watching a magician perform should know that it’s really an illusion but the fun is in thinking it’s real magic . Conservative Christians feel like you are stopping the show and saying, ” it’s not real”! I know this comparisons is silly but I promise this is how many of us felt when we read your book.

    In the end, I realized that the truth really does matter! In your own journey did you ever harbor resentment towards the church for not being more straightforward?

    Thanks

  7. Avatar
    thaumkid  April 28, 2020

    [private\ should probably be [private].

  8. Avatar
    WhenBeliefDies  April 28, 2020

    It’s fantastic to be getting this level of detail and engagement day in and day out.

    Thank you.

  9. Avatar
    anvikshiki  April 28, 2020

    It seems at present that the tiny P52 fragments are, though copies, as close as we can get to the earnest texts. Still kind of tantalisingly close (even allowing for the range of P52’s possible dates) to the earliest versions of John if John was written at the very end of the first century. I’ve always found it a kind of beautiful irony that a complete text of one side of P52 would include the words of Pilate’s question: “what is truth?”.

    People get all worked up about manuscript differences in ancient texts of the Bible, I suppose, because they (wrongly) think so much is at stake in faithful transmission for them. But for anybody working in any field involving ancient texts, manuscript differences are the most normal thing in the world. The differences make the ancient variants more interesting, not less!

    Unrelated question. What do you think of Mark Goodacre’s arguments against the existence of Q? I’m no specialist, but I find the debate about the text interesting. If you’ve written about this in detail elsewhere, or can point me to a good response to his arguments, I’d appreciate it!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2020

      Not sure how closely you’ve looked at P52, but it’s a tiny scrap. It doesn’t have any bearing on whether the manuscripts of the New Testaent have lots of differences in them. But I agree, the only reason it matters for *most* people is because there is this special sense that the NT is different from all other books.

      I lay out the basic arguments for Q in my book The New Testament: A Historial Introduction…. Mark makes the best arguments that one can make, but I don’t find them convincing. Most scholars find Q the more convincing hypothesis.

      • Avatar
        anvikshiki  April 29, 2020

        Thanks for the reply on Q. For the rest, I was just making some very general comments. I’ll stay on-topic next time.

  10. tduvally
    tduvally  April 28, 2020

    I find it interesting (and frustrating) that you seem to have to remake (re-post, reaffirm?) this response every couple years. It’s not like you’ve ever changed position on these things.

    I will disagree with your 2nd response, though. I think variants can make a big difference in theology. Christians have been picking and choosing passages to suit their personal needs since they started codifying them. Stumbling on a variant that gives them fuel to advance some new cause and they will scour the rest of the text to find other passages to support this new position. Theology changes to suit the cause just as often as causes are shaped by theology.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2020

      You need to remember that the readership of this blog is not at all what it was four years ago.

  11. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 28, 2020

    Let’s say there was a new manuscript found tomorrow, by Paul (and scholars agree that it was from Paul – it has his writing style and his theology) – do you think it would be added to the Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2020

      Absolutely not. Would never happen. The Bible is the book, for Christians, that God handed over as his Scripture. It’s not a book that is meant to contain everything any apostle ever wrote.

  12. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  April 28, 2020

    I suppose I could mischievously argue that, were it not for some of the textual alterations Dr Ehrman highlights, Christianity would/could today be more docetic or adoptionist or gnostic than it otherwise is. And therefore doctrine has been affected but then it is also arguable that the major Church Councils during the first Christian centuries have had the most significant effect on doctrine.

  13. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  April 28, 2020

    I find it surprising that “literalists” do not even bother to consider that after Jesus said and did things, there must be someone who had to write it down. and since there were no scribes among the followers, nor did they hire any, the manuscripts had to be written after Jesus said it, even when he was alone praying ,,,, in Aramaic. That was probably long after what he said and did ,,, even after his death ,,,, and even long after that. THEN ,,,,,, long after this ,,, the Europeans, who were hostile to the Jews, their ancient tradition,interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and culture, appeared and translated the texts into a completely different language (Greek), and probably a different conceptual framework of understanding.

    When the often hateful Romans / Greeks took the stories from a source we do not have,,, VERY long after Jesus said and did what is written ,,,, the question is not only if it was quoted correctly ,,,,,,,, but another equally interesting question is whether we Europeans really understood the meaning completely when we took over the stories.

    It is really hard to understand the controversy over your book.

  14. Avatar
    veritas  April 28, 2020

    We cannot know for sure( certainty) I agree. But how do we separate facts from certainty ? For example, you are a non believer and yet believe Jesus existed. There are many, in particular Dan Barker, who like yourself, went through a de-conversion and believes only 10-20 % probability Jesus existed and concludes for himself he * did not exist*. How could you and him reconcile your differences ? It becomes personal opinion. Nietzsche said, ” There are no facts, only interpretations”.

    • Avatar
      veritas  April 29, 2020

      Just wondering if you feel my comment not worth responding or controversial or missed?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2020

      It is very, very rare for someone, even a non-believer, to think Jesus did not exist; and it’s not a matter of “personal opinion.” Like every historical question, it is a matter of evidence. Surely no one would say that it’s a matter of personal opinion if Lincoln, Charlamagne, or Pope Gregory existed!

  15. Avatar
    JLoSLo  April 28, 2020

    When I was a fundamentalist one of my constantly nagging anxieties was the disparity between the Bible as the inerrant word of God and its inconsistencies. I think many of my fellow Christians simply decided to look at it as an expensive Scottish sweater… the irregularities in the garment are not to be taken as defects but rather add to the value of the item. And that was that. The Lord works in mysterious ways and inspiring a text which did not fit together was one of those mysteries you just accept. I eventually couldn’t accept it anymore. But I’ve never met a fundamentalist who was shaken by it. Bart, not that you’re trying to make people rethink their faith, but do you run across Christians who’ve read your books and admit serious doubt about their belief?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2020

      All the time! There are many, many people like this — not just with respect to my books, but generally throughout society.

    • sschullery
      sschullery  May 8, 2020

      I mentioned this to Bart some time ago, but I’ll repeat it here as it bears on what’s bothering JLoSlo.There was some research published in Science several yeaers ago looking for other psychological differences between conservative and liberal personalities with respect to changing their minds when presented with irrefutable facts that contradicted their firmly held beliefs. All personalities were impervious to changing their minds, but conservatives were distingusihed by digging in their heels even more.

  16. Avatar
    Matt2239  April 28, 2020

    You conclude by saying we’d need more evidence than is “currently available.” Are you aware of evidence that is currently unavailable, such as the conspiracy theory that the Vatican is hiding the New Testament books found in the Dead Sea Scrolls? The Dead Sea Scrolls are remarkable for confirming the accuracy of the Old Testament. The OT today matches closely the OT from thousands of years ago. Those copies were made about 20 miles from where Jesus of Nazareth preached and at about the same time. Could there have been New Testament books also found but that were secreted away, while modern popular culture attempts to decipher the Da Vinci Code and identify the holy grail?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2020

      Oh yes, I’m well aware of unfounded conspiracy theories. But no, the Vatican is not hiding NT books any more than it is hiding aliens. If anyone thinks they *are* hiding aliens, well, I can’t help them there…. The Dead Sea Scrolls also confirm the *inaccuracy* of the OT. The form of the book of Jeremiah from the Scrolls is 15% shorter than the Hebrew text that gets translated today.

  17. Avatar
    fishician  April 28, 2020

    In your debates, or personal discussions, which argument is more common: a) the original documents were perfect but people’s free will allowed them to introduce insignificant changes over time, or b) the current versions are still perfect, but “apparent” contradictions are just that: “apparent” not real, and can be reconciled with God-given wisdom? Or, some other explanation for the discrepancies and textual variants?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2020

      Both! But with one proviso: rarely does anyone actually argue current versions are “perfect,” except fundies who prefer the King James. Normally everyone admits there might be manuscript problems, but that mnost of the so-called discrepancies actually aren’t there.

  18. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  April 28, 2020

    Second, if one wants say that no matter which manuscript of the NT a person chooses, she or he will have the same theology, I would completely agree. But that’s not because there are not lots of differences in our manuscripts. It’s because people tend to hold their theological views by establishing them from an entire range of passages and perspectives (some of which don’t come from the Bible).

    This is EXACTLY the point that needs to be made. The TEXTS, that is, SCRIPTURE, was NEVER to sole authority of what the Truth is. Rather, it is both Scripture and the Lived Tradition of the faith within the Community. THIS is what determined the orthodox Christian beliefs that became traditional Christianity. It is those, mostly Protestant, erring teachers who try to assert the non-historical view that it is only Scripture. And, it is why so many people with that almost magical view of Scripture either hold onto their faith by shutting down their critical thinking faculties or lose their faith altogether. It is a sad way to approach embracing the Living God and rarely works in the long run.

  19. Avatar
    JordonWright  April 28, 2020

    You mentioned a new scholarly article since you wrote Misquoting Jesus that says there are 500,000 variants. I’m curious, who is the scholar you’re referencing here?

    On a personal note, I’m a recovering fundamentalist Christian who attended an evangelical seminary and I wanted to say how much I appreciate your work and the blog posts. I recently reread Misquoting Jesus and it was a much different experience than when I read it as a fundamentalist Christian. It’s almost as if they poisoned the well before I actually read the book.

  20. Avatar
    Osuaggiefan  April 28, 2020

    What about Textus Receptus? is it safe to say most scholars dont seriously consider it as even remotely close to what an autograph of anything was? is there any evidence stuff like the disputed passage in 1 john 5 about the trinity, or the ending of mark, or the woman taken in the act in John 8 or my personal favorite the Matt 24:36 omission of “nor the son”… is there ANY evidence for any of that early?

    in the forward of jesus interrupted you said something to the effect that christians are ignorant of what the bible says, and completely clueless about what is being taught in theological semiaries over the last couple hundred years… man thats so true. people i talk to cant get their heads around the idea that the KJV is a NEW document from the NT text perspective and the others are the old ones lol.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2020

      Oh, it’s remotely close — not RADICALLY different. But the nuances matter a lot. Each of the problems you mention have different forms of attestation, but there is almost universal agreement among critical scholars about these passages.

      • Avatar
        Osuaggiefan  May 26, 2020

        I came across a couple terms I’m not real familiar with: Byzantine text vs Alexandrian text. Is this more or less TR vs Nestle Aland respectively? The argument was that somehow Origen was essentially the father of the Alexandrian text to support some of his heretical views. Can you clarify it a bit?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 26, 2020

          My Master’s thesis was on the Byzantine text and my PhD dissertation on the Alexandrian. Yes, VERY ROUGHLY speaking the Byzantine text is closely related to the Textus Receptus and the Alexandrian to the modern reconstructed text of Nestle Aland. But no, Origen had nothing to do with it (despite what some scholars of the 19th century and earlier claimed); and it doe not support any of his heretical views. And in fact his views were not *considered* heretical until long after his death.

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