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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