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Bart Ehrman's book Misquoting Jesus is a hit. Click here to read "Misunderstanding Christianity," a review of Ehrman's book by H.L.


Misunderstanding Christianity: Do Scribal Changes Really Matter and Why?

A Critical Review of Bart Ehrmans Misquoting Jesus: Who Changed the Bible and Why? By H. L. Nigro In Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman seems, on the surface, to present a convincing case for the lack of trustworthiness of the New Testament based on changes to the ancient manuscripts during the scribal copying process, particularly in the second and third centuries. Unfortunately, he is not always the objective scholar that he claims to be. This work, while providing an interes ting documentary on the discipline of textual criticism, only tells half the story. Although Ehrman acknowledges that the overwhelming majority of these scribal changes are those (such as spelling errors) that are, in his own words, "completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance" (p. 207), [1] he repeatedly breezes over this critical point and focuses instead on the much rarer intentional scribal additions or changes, most of which have already been removed in our modern translations or, even if preserved, have little or no impact on Christian doctrine.
In addition, Ehrman often misrepresents the body of modern scholarship as agreeing with him on controversial matters when, in fact, some of the most highly acclaimed New Testament scholars including Ehrmans own mentor, Bruce Metzger disagree with him. Although, at the end of the book, Ehrman admits that "competent highly intelligent scholars often come to opposite conclusions" (p. 208), until that point, he repeatedly uses the inclusive term "scholars" or "most scholars" to support his conclusions, even though this is rarely true. Particularly disturbing is when Ehrman speculates on issues of authenticity based on his own personal opinion or responses to the text rather than any historical evidence (for example, he views minor differences from one gospel to another as deliberate attempts to change the message and present a different view of history) then, later in the book, switches from calling these statements of speculation to statements of fact. Take, for example, his contention that Matthew and Luke deliberately deleted references to Jesus emotion (either compassion or anger, depending on the variant reading one chooses) in healing the leper in Mark 1:41. Because Ehrman prefers the rarer variant reading that Jesus was angry rather than compassionate, he argues that Matthew and Lukes

more sparse descriptions were deliberate attempts to hide what he believes would have been an embarrassing fact. Ehrmans contention ignores the glaring problem that, if the gospel writers had penchant for removing embarrassing references, they overlooked far more embarrassing ones, such as Peters rejection of Jesus, Thomas unbelief, and the fact that the empty tomb was discovered by women. If they left in these embarrassing details, why would they go out of their way to omit something as innocuous as this? More importantly, the contention that this is a deliberate omission (thus casting doubt on the motives of the writers) is a personal interpretation overlaid on the text and one completely baseless in fact.

Subjective Rejection Ironically, Ehrman uses his training in textual criticism as the basis for rejecting his Christian faith. And yet, even in Ehrmans own tacit admission, not one example given in the book touches the core teachings of Christianity.
Certainly, some scribal additions bolstered the New Testaments claims to Jesus divinity, for example, but there are a plethora of references, including Jesus own words, that are not under dispute. And not one of these discrepancies calls into question the heart of the Christian message, including the details concerning the atoning death, trial, and resurrection of Christ, which form the heart of the Christian faith. Not only this, but confirmation of key points of the gospel accounts can b e found in early, pre-Pauline creeds, which arose before the gospels or epistles were even written (the creed found in 1 Corinthians 15, for example, is commonly believed to have arisen within a few years of Christs death[2]), and early church writings, as well as in first and second century secular documents.

Ironically, Ehrman all but admits that what it boils down to is not the facts of the matter, but his very personal complaint (which is so important that he makes it in the first and last pages of the book) that if the Bible were truly inspired of God, then God would have preserved its orig inal words perfectly throughout history. No scribe would have made a single mistake or a single change at any point in time: for God to inspire the Bible would be so that his people would have his actual words; but if he really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he had miraculously inspired them in the first place. Given the circumstance that he didnt preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadnt gone to th e trouble of inspiring them. (p. 211)
This explains why, in Ehrmans mind, the smallest, most secondary discrepancies derailed his faith. Its not that the evidence truly points to New Testament documents as no longer reliably transmitting historical truth, but rather, because God didnt meet Ehrmans own personal standards.

Through the Lens of Offense This, at its core, is the lens through which Ehrman views his research. This is clear, not just in his conclusions, but in his theology. Many of Ehrmans claims that changes to the text are significant to Christian theology, for example, actually reflect w hat appears to be a superficial understanding of the text. In other places, his problems almost seem manufactured. Take his example of Jesus apparent error when He says, in Mark 4, that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds on the earth. Res ponding to the body of work on the harmonization of these passages, Ehrman writes, Maybe I dont need to come up with a fancy explanation for how the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds when I know full well it isnt (p. 10). Rather than conclude that Jesus made an embarrassing blunder, would it not be more reasonable to assume that Jesus wasnt making a scientific statement, but rather was using the common tool of exaggeration to make an important point a comparison of the size of the seed to the majesty of the full grown plant? For Ehrman to see this as an error rather than an obvious figure of speech suggests a strong bias through which he is interpreting the text.

This bias shines through in the remainder of the paragraph as well, as Ehrman l ists a collection of contradictions, after each of which he states that, rather than accepting the harmonization, maybe there really is a difference. The obvious response is, and maybe there isnt. The examples that Ehrman gives are well-known to New Testament scholars, and most if not all are easily harmonized. So do we go with the easy solution? Or do we reject the most intuitive solution and focus instead on the least that Jesus, who is commonly cited, even by those who do not accept His divinity, as the wisest man who ever lived and who dwelled in a culture of farmers and cultivators, made a clumsy mistake about the size of a common seed?[3]
Ultimately, what this boils down to is Ehrman's lack of respect for the message of the New Testament. This is also clear in inaccuracies in his scriptural quotations. Occasionally, scriptural references are flat-out incorrect. In other cases, if one reads the passage Ehrman is referring to, it doesn't always say what he claims. Whether this is a result of his own sloppiness or his emotionally charged response to the text, it again raises a question about his objectivity. Whats Christianity Based on Anyway? All things considered, there is a tremendous irony here. I doubt any scholar would question Ehrman's discussion of the manuscripts themselves. The scribal changes are well known, and what f ew "major" changes have been made to the text are also well known even "ho, hum" to other New Testament scholars but despite the books stated

purpose as an introduction to textual criticism for laypeople, it is the conclusions that Ehrman draws that are really the message of the book. Those conclusions are highly subjective, and it is in his conclusions that many of the worlds greatest New Testament scholars part views with him. The greatest irony is that Ehrman rejected his faith in biblical Christianity based on what he sees as irreconcilable problems with the text; and yet, the Christian faith has never been based on the perfect preservation of the New Testament translations. It is based on eye-witness testimony of the risen Christ, which is one of the best-attested events in ancient history, with or without scribal changes, and even outside the Bible. Should all of the New Testament documents disappear, the historicity of the risen Christ, crucified for our sins and worshipped by early Christians as God, would remain intact. (See The Historical Jesus, by Gary Habermas.) A final irony is that, while Ehrman researched these texts and rejected his faith, many of the great intellects of our time have looked at this same evidence and actually strengthened their faith or become believers in the first place. I, myself, take something very different from Ehrmans evidence than Ehrman does, and I actually enjoyed the book and plan to add it to my apologetics library supporting the Christian faith much, I would suspect, to his chagrin.


[1] In his section on the texts of the New Testament, Ehrman summarizes the work by Daniel Whitby as concluding that the text of the New Testament is secure, since scarcely any variant cited by Mill [an opponent focusing on the textual variants] involves an a rticle of faith or question of conduct (p. 86). Ehrman leaves this assessment unchallenged, and a few lines later, adds, Whitbys defense might well have settled the issue, except for the additional publicity he brought to the variants, charging up his critics. Ironically, the power of the argument, at this point in the book, seems to rest with Whitby. Thus, on p. 89, when Ehrman points out that the number of variants could be 400,000 or more, the reader is left wondering about the relevance of this stat ement. If the variants are unsubstantial, as Ehrman admits, what does it matter? Whether there are 30,000 unsubstantial variants or 400,000, the additional volume doesnt make them more weighty, just more numerous. Compounding the problem, when Ehrman cont inues his documentation of the advances in the practice of textual criticism, he summarizes the work of Johann Wettstein as follows: Thus, variant readings may affect minor points in scripture, but the basic message remains intact no matter which readings one notices (p. 112). Again, Ehrman leaves this assessment unchallenged. At this point, the reader might wonder whether Ehrman was actually arguing for the reliability of the texts. Ultimately, Ehrman explains that his rejection of their authority is not based on what he can see, but what he cant see and the importance he

places on very secondary and, in his own admission, theologically minor issues. But for the discriminating reader, the unwritten message of the book is that, while Ehrman ultimately rejects the authority of the New Testament texts based on secondary issues, he clearly accepts their reliability on the critical, foundational issues of Christianity. [2] Perhaps the earliest of the Christian creeds, 1 Cor. 15:3 8, reads as follows: For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas [Peter], then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greate r part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. Gary Habermas, one of the foremost experts on the first and second century corroborating evidences for the New Testament manuscripts, notes that numerous theologians date this creed from three to eight years after Jesus crucifixion. For a list of theologians, as well as a variety of other pre -Pauline creeds, see Habermas The Historical Jesus, p. 144146, 154. [3] Additional examples can be found on p. 133 , in Ehrmans discussion of variant readings of Mark 1:41, in which Jesus is alternately said to be angry with the leper and compassionate with him. Despite the great sandstorm Ehrman attempts to create over the issue, I fail to see the relevance. Other th an Ehrmans offense that God has not preserved the text and has allowed variant readings in the first place, this is a non -issue. Whether Jesus was angry or compassionate, both emotions are justifiable. The same applies for Ehrmans detailed discussion on whether Jesus was distressed or imperturbable in the Garden of Gethsemane in Luke 22. Again, either emotion is justifiable. Moreover, is it not possible that Jesus felt both emotions? Still, it is based on this and a collection of other non-issues that Ehrman ultimately rejects his faith.