Book Plunge: Misquoting Jesus

What do I think of Ehrman’s work? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Misquoting Jesus is an accomplishment and a shame to the Christian church both. It is not a problem in that nothing here can be answered. Indeed, it can be and has been. It is not an accomplishment in that new ground has been broken in textual criticism. There is nothing new in here about textual criticism.

It is an accomplishment in that it is the first book on textual criticism to stay for so long on bestseller lists, in fact, as far as I know, to even make it on the bestseller lists. It is a shame in that the church should have been writing such works that would have been liked by the popular audience and bought by them.

Of course, Ehrman knows that controversy sells very well. One could easily imagine a book hitting the bestseller list with the title of “The sex life of Jesus” or something of that sorts. Books that attempt to bring something “new” to the discussion of Jesus, like the Da Vinci Code or today, Zealot, are all the rage in the public sphere.

Unfortunately, these new works have something in common amongst all of them. There is nothing new in them. They are simply old ideas that are being repackaged for new people who have never heard of them. Those who read Zealot will not normally read someone like Craig Evans in response. Those who read Dan Brown will not likely read Ben Witherington in response. Those who read Misquoting Jesus will not likely read Daniel Wallace in response.

To that, it must be said the Christian church should be doing better. It is a shame we have Rachel Held Evans, Joyce Meyer, and Joel Osteen being household names in the Christian community, but we don’t have people like Dan Wallace, Ben Witherington, and Craig Evans being household names. This is because of a lack of reading and real study on the part of the Christian church where we are just interested in making “good” people.

So to get to Ehrman’s book on textual criticism, we have the natural start at the beginning of most Ehrman books where he shares his personal testimony of his deconversion and how it started with a Damascus Road experience in his studies where he was told that maybe Mark made a mistake.

As Evans has pointed out in Fabricating Jesus, Ehrman’s response seems out of proportion to what happened, unless one considers that perhaps Ehrman had put too many of his eggs in the Inerrancy basket. (And some of you wonder why I make it a case to tell people not to marry Inerrancy to their Christianity.) Unfortunately, his understanding of Inerrancy was also a modern western style that would have been foreign to the biblical authors. It would be amusing to see if we could somehow get the reactions to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John today to what we say are contradictions amongst their gospels.

In Ehrman’s story, he had written a paper defending the claim of Jesus about who the high priest was in the time of David in Mark 2. His professor wrote on his paper “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” That it had a lasting impact on Ehrman is easily shown in that it is mentioned in so many works of his. Yet this initial charge is invalid. See Daniel Wallace being interviewed by Lee Strobel in “The Case for the Real Jesus.” More on that here.

Still, to be fair, Ehrman does present much information in this book that is highly valuable. For instance, on page 18, Ehrman points out that books played virtually no role in polytheistic religions. The Christians were different. They were people of books, as were the Jews who preceded them.

On page 29, Ehrman gives a contrast on how central books were to the lives of the Christians. While Ehrman doesn’t say it, the reason is the NT books were to be those that had apostolicity, antiquity, and authority. Of course, with antiquity, in this case, one means within the lifetime of the apostles.

Ehrman also points out on page 59 that a writer could dictate word for word to a scribe or simply give the main ideas to a scribe or some combination thereof. Both would have been used in antiquity. Unfortunately, this is the kind of idea that also works against Ehrman’s claim in Forged (See here also) that some Pauline epistles were not by Paul since he could just as easily have used a secretary, just as he did in Romans, a letter that is not disputed to be Pauline at all. In fact, a footnote indicates he knows of a leading work on this, that of E. Randolph Richards, one that is not heavily interacted with in Forged.

Ehrman’s thesis is that sometimes when scribes copied texts, mistakes were made. No one would dispute this. The most conservative NT textual critic would recognize and affirm this. The question is, were those mistakes really monumental ones that threaten doctrine? The answer is no. Let’s give some basic examples.

For instance in Mark 1 where we are told that Jesus was either moved with compassion or moved with anger in response to a leper. If anger, does this change our view of Jesus? Not really. Jesus had already had anger in Mark 3 and if Jesus is the embodiment of the OT God, the Jews would have no problem with that since they had in their history experience the anger of God.

But why would Jesus be angry at a leper wanting to be healed?

Probably because the leper chose an inopportune time. Jesus was speaking and healing was a private affair that could have been done later and not drawn attention to Jesus. Instead, the leper came forward while Jesus is speaking before an audience. Result? Jesus heals the man, but now his doing a healing causes people to come after him for that reason rather than for the message itself.

Another example given is Matthew 24:36 where there is a listing of who knows the time of the coming of Christ and we are told that no man knows, not the angels, nor the Son, but only the Father. Some manuscripts we are told omit “nor the Son.”

It is a puzzle why this should be problematic. If it is only the Father who knows and the Son is not the Father, then it follows that the Son did not know. Not only that, if this was wanting to be omitted because it’s embarrassing, why not omit it also in Mark?

Of course, we can bring in discussion on such topics as the long ending of Mark and the story of the woman caught in adultery. That these passages catch some people off guard is a testimony to the fact that we are failing in educating our church. This gets even more problematic with 1 John 5:7 where someone will be prone to use this to deal with Jehovah’s Witnesses only to be caught into the world of textual criticism that they never even knew existed.

Ehrman’s case is nothing new. The problem with his case is as in many cases, he has really only given one side of the argument, and that is the side that is meant to frighten his audience. That a book like Ehrman’s will spark concern among readers is problematic. That we did not educate our church enough to avoid it sparking concern, is an indictment on us. We must do better.

In Christ,
Nick Peters


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