Thursday, January 19, 2012

Misquoting Jesus

I've continued finding more time for reading, and was impressed with Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, which is one of the ten books recommended by Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation. Kelly and I both read the book, and enjoyed discussing it over a period of days.

The book focuses on the scribes whose job it has been to pass on the texts of the New Testament for nearly two thousand years. Ehman reveals what is likely not surprising to many, that scribal error has resulted in modern Bibles being based on inferior texts that often don't represent the meaning of the original texts. You know the story about Jesus and the woman taken into adultery? Yeah, that doesn't belong in any of the original Gospels, but was added by later scribes. (Ehrman 64.)

Ehrman first dedicated his life's work to studying ancient manuscripts of the New Testament and their many differences when he was a young, devout evangelical Christian, as he began to question, "What good does it do to say that the words are inspired by God if most people have absolutely no access to these words, but only to more or less clumsy renderings of these words into a language, such as English, that has nothing to do with the original words?" (Ehrman 7.) As Ehrman continued his studies, he found that there are "more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament." (Ehrman 10.)

There seem to be two basic views of the New Testament by Christians: one is that the Bible reveals the unerring words of God, and the other is that the Bible is "inspired" by God. I dismiss the first claim as completely ridiculous, as my ten year old can point out errors in the Bible. As to the second claim, Ehrman says, "even if God had inspired the original words, we don't have the original words." (Ehrman 211.) Spoiler alert: Ehrman is no longer an evangelical Christian.

I enjoyed this book, and though the errors and contradictions of various Biblical texts didn't surprise me, it was nice to see specific examples. When are we going to let this Bronze Age text remain the interesting piece of literature that it is, and stop looking to it for our morality? School boards across the country are trying to base curricula on this bunk, and politicians are campaigning with policies based on their Biblical understands of the world. I for one don't want our leaders making environmental policies, for example, based on their own interpretation of an incorrect copy of a copy of copy of the books of Revelations. (Or a correct copy, if such a thing existed.) If you think the world is going to end in our lifetime, please go hole up somewhere and enjoy your final days with your family, and feel free to laugh at me when you are right and I am wrong (which doesn't seem very Christian of you but won't happen at any rate.) Don't ruin the world for those of us who plan on having generations of descendants here!

And to my progressive Christian friends who roll their eyes along with me at the fundamentalists: read this book, and read Sam Harris's book. You are good, moral people, not because of your belief in a God, but because you are good, moral people. You are already using your own code of morality, not that described in the Bible, when you don't put your disobeying child to death, when you don't advocate for stoning adulterers, and when you read accounts of slavery with disgust.


  1. I absolutely loved that book. Very educational and thought provoking. Every Christian should read it and be educated about the history of their book. My two favorite passages:

    p.10, (on the quality of biblical source documents):
    "Not only do we not have the originals, we don't have the first copies of the originals. We don't even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later - much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places."

    And p.211
    "...if he really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved them, just as he had miraculously inspired them in the first place. Given the circumstance that he didn't preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn't gone to the trouble of inspiring them."

  2. Two great passages, Jen! I agree that Christians should read it and many others and learn to view the Bible critically. I cringe thinking of the atrocities and unethical behaviors justified in different translations/interpretations of what is so obviously a human book.