Saturday, February 11, 2012

A review of Bart Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus"

Professor Bart Ehrman was once a self-described born-again, Bible-believing Christian many years ago. He is now a self-proclaimed agnostic. After desiring to learn more about the scriptures in depth, and attaining a doctorate degree, he determined that the Bible was not the infallible Word of God. Due to the fact that we do not posses the originals, and the copies vary in some details, he believes that the Bible has been altered and changed from the original documents. Therefore, we cannot know what was written. He has written a New York Times Bestselling book titled, Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why to report his findings to a layperson audience. It seems reasonable to assume that Dr. Ehrman has a proverbial ax to grind when dealing with scripture. The intent of this specific paper is to refute the claims made in his book and show that the Bible is reliable and can be shown that we can know what the original autographs had to say.

Books played a significant part of early Christianity. In fact, Ehrman is correct when he states, “…the books that were of paramount importance in early Christianity were for the most part read out loud…so that the illiterate could hear, understand, and even study them.”[1] The books of the New Testament came to be thought of as the inspired Word of God to the early Christians. Ehrman states that the Bible is, “by all counts, the most significant book in the history of Western civilization.” [2] Given this claim, it has been deemed important—by both scholars and non-scholars alike—to study the New Testament material. In the first four chapters of his book, Ehrman sets out to give his audience his own personal journey and a basic understanding of textual criticism. This is the discipline for studying ancient documents in possession today—whose original writings are either unknown or destroyed—in order to determine what the original writings actually said. The undertaking, according to Ehrman isn’t an easy one. It requires careful and critical thought, study, comparisons with other scholars, and at times, “judgment calls have to be made.”[3]

As previously stated, Dr. Ehrman believes the Bible has been corrupted in such a way that we cannot know what the originals said. On the surface it appears that Ehrman makes a considerably strong case. He states that scholars will differ in the amount of variances within the New Testament, but those numbers can be estimated up to over 400,000. This means that there are more variances among the manuscripts than there are words in the entire New Testament,[4] which numbers to 138,000. For Ehrman, this is a serious problem. Be that as it may, he respectfully admits, “Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another…completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance…”[5]

In addition to the obvious spelling and grammatical discrepancies in the Bible, there are three other types of variances. They are listed as follows: (1) minor differences that do not affect translation or that involves synonyms (2) differences that affect the meaning of the text but are not viable and (3) differences that both affect the meaning of the text and are viable.[6] Given the lack of room for this paper, let’s look at what is the most critical type of variance—namely (3).

The meaningful and viable variants noticeably pose the greatest threats to the idea of Biblical inerrancy and supports Dr. Ehrman’s thesis that the Bible is a human book only. One example is Ehrman’s take on Mark 1:41 which modern translations read, “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.’” The focal point for Ehrman is the word, compassion. Most of the ancient manuscripts available today render the reading that Jesus felt compassion. However, Ehrman argues that Jesus may have been filled with an alternative emotion to compassion, namely anger.

He points out that in one of the oldest manuscripts, the Codex Bezae, the Greek word orgistheis (anger) is used instead of splangnistheis (compassion). The Codex Bezae is also supported by three ancient Latin manuscripts as well.[7] Although a majority of the texts may state compassion, it doesn’t mean that it’s faithful to the original documents. Further problems seemingly arise because textual critics (both believer and non-believer) acknowledge that in many cases the most difficult reading is usually the correct one. The reason is that many scribes and copyists would attempt to smooth over difficult readings as opposed to leaving it difficult to understand. Clearly the most difficult reading in this particular passage is that Jesus was angry and not compassionate upon healing this man.

What are we to make of Ehrman’s claim? Is this a serious concern? First, while making his claim Ehrman actually points out that compassion is also considered to be very ancient—and he even questions which one is actually the original.[8] He admits he doesn’t know but only assumes that anger is probably the more correct word used. On page 208, Ehrman states, “It bears repeating that the decisions that have to be made are by no means obvious, and that competent, well-meaning, highly intelligent scholars often come to opposite conclusions when looking at the same evidence.” Ehrman’s own mentor, and who the book is dedicated to, Bruce Metzger, did not include the word angry. Although Metzger does admit it is a possibility, he commented, “The…evidence in support of ὀργισθείς (anger) is less impressive than the diversity and character of evidence that supports σπλαγχνισθείς”[9] (compassion).

Second, even if his argument is correct, what exactly has he proved? Timothy Paul Jones comments that Jesus was apparently teaching and healed the man in the synagogue. This is where the Jews would go to hear the Word of God. “Apparently Jesus was in a synagogue (Mark 1:39) where the Jews of the town had gathered to hear God’s Word. If so, this man’s presence could have rendered an entire Jewish community unclean! Although Jesus challenged the traditions that had been added to the Law of Moses, he consistently called his people to live by the laws that God had graciously given them through Moses (see Mark 1:44). According to these laws, the leprous man was supposed to have sequestered himself away from his fellow Jews (Leviticus 13). Instead, he placed an entire Jewish community in danger of ceremonial uncleanness. Is it any wonder that Jesus became angry? And still, Jesus healed him. So was Jesus angry or was he compassionate? [The answer is] Yes.[10]

Also, Jesus is said to have been angry at different points in Scripture. Consider Mark 3:5 where Jesus is said to be angry because the Jews’ hearts were hardened due to Him healing on the Sabbath. Scholars readily admit that the wording in this verse is original text. It is reasonable to conclude that even if the text was changed from angry to compassionate; this does not change the theology of the gospel according to Mark. Jesus was also angry in Matthew 21:12 when He drove the people out of the Temple for turning it into a marketplace. Furthermore Jesus severely criticized the Pharisees in Matthew 23:15 when he calls the Pharisees, “…sons of Hell.” If that isn’t enough He tells Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).

When Ehrman states, “At what would Jesus be is one struck by the portrayal of Jesus [being angry]…we have to admit that Jesus does not come off as the meek-and-mild, soft-featured, good shepherd of the stain-glassed window.”[11] It appears that he wants to portray a different type of Jesus than contemporary Christianity believes Him to be. In response, the Bible never tries to deny the human emotions of Jesus—even anger. If this was the case, each passage would have surely been changed to present Jesus as a lowly, gentle pacifist human. This was hardly the case. Early Christians believed that Jesus was both human and divine. If anything, this portrays both the humanity and divinity of Jesus.

Speaking of the divine and human aspect of Jesus, Ehrman believes Jesus is portrayed first as a human messiah, and then alterations were made to the scriptures in order to depict Jesus as divine. He claims that there were many Christian groups in the early centuries that had different views regarding Jesus. Some thought He was human, but not divine. Others thought He was divine, but not human. Still others claimed Jesus was both man and God. Furthermore within these groups, some held that Jesus’ death obtained salvation for mankind while other groups thought that He either (1) didn’t die, or (2) his death was not for salvation.[12]

Ehrman believes that given all the debates and discussions between these groups, only one group “won out.” This group was known as the “orthodox” or those who claimed to have the “right belief.” Ehrman states this was determined in the early 4th century and that the scribes altered scripture in order to establish their own views of Christ. In a humorous and at the same time a serious interview with Stephen Colbert, Ehrman said, “This [Jesus is a divine being] isn’t found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke for example that Jesus is a divine being…in John Jesus is clearly divine…He’s not God in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, only John.”[13]

Given the context of the culture in ancient Israel, there were certainly, obvious reasons for not proclaiming Jesus as divine. If anyone had a reason, it was the original followers of Jesus and/or the authors of the scriptures. They knew they would be put to death for proclaiming such a statement. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is depicted as divine in the beginning! Mark 1:1 says, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In the last part of the book, the Roman soldier says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39).

In Mark 14:62-64 Jesus identified Himself as the Son of Man and that he would be sitting on the right hand of the Father. Daniel chapter 7 explicitly states that the Son of Man was more than a human being and would ride upon the clouds. He would also have all authority—even to forgive sins. In Mark 2:5 Jesus heals a man and says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Two verses later (Mark 2:7) the religious leaders around said, “…Who can forgive sins but God alone?” In light of this information, one can only conclude that Mark portrays Jesus as divine.

In the book of Matthew, the gospel begins with meaning of Jesus’ name, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Just as in Mark’s gospel, at the end of Matthew (28:20), Jesus says, “I am with you always, till the end of the age.” The logic subsequently follows: If God is with Jesus, and Jesus is with the apostles, then God is with the apostles.[14]

Surprisingly, Ehrman does not address the verses in Mark and Matthew which clearly define the divinity of Jesus. Could he just be selective? He does however address a verse in Luke 1:35. This verse includes, “Son of God.” Although Ehrman doesn’t deny the inclusion of the “Son of God”, he does question when the Son of God actually became divine. He alludes to a problem found between Luke 1:35 and Acts 10:37-38. In Acts 10:37-38 it says, “…after the baptism which John proclaimed. (38) You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power…for God was with Him.”

Ehrman seems to miss the point. The baptism of Jesus was at the point in which His ministry was to begin—not to become divine. Jesus even stated in John 5 that He could do nothing by Himself. Therefore God had to be with Him from the beginning. Luke had already stated divinity in 1:35. Also in Luke 22:69-70, those who accused Jesus of blasphemy said, “Are you the son of God, then? [Jesus] said, “You are right in saying I am.” Ehrman moreover avoids this passage in Misquoting Jesus as well.

Even though Ehrman declared that the Gospel of John presents Jesus as divine—how could he not when John 20:28 says, “My Lord and my God!”—he still attempts to point out possible issues within John’s gospel regarding the divinity of Jesus. One example that Ehrman gives is the “possible” problem with John 1:18. Here’s how Ehrman’s hypothesis works: in verse 18 it says, “No one has seen God at any time, but the unique Son/the unique God who is in the bosom of the Father, that one has made him known.” Ehrman asks, “Is he [Jesus] to be identified as the ‘unique God in the bosom of the Father’ or as the “unique Son in the bosom of the Father’”? [15] Furthermore, he argues that the unique Son is in the oldest manuscripts, which textual critics more times than not consider them to be the best. “Unique” in the Greek means “one of a kind”[16] therefore Ehrman believes that only God can be one of a kind, not Jesus. This leads him to believe that there was an alteration in the text to make Jesus appear to be God in human flesh.

In his scholarly work, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, which precedes, Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman asserts that the proper grammatical Greek text should read—if Jesus is to be God in human flesh, “the unique one who is also, God who is in the bosom of the Father.”[17] Dan Wallace responds to Ehrman’s assertions and points out there are several verses in the Bible in which take the same grammatical form as is read in John 1:18. Furthermore, Wallace points out that Ehrman’s grammatical argument “won’t cut it”, and the “…evidence is strong that the meaning of this phrase [John 1:18] is “the unique one, himself God.”[18]

Dr. Ehrman also believes that Matthew 24:36 is another example which could display that Jesus is not divine. The verse reads, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” He points out that several manuscripts leave out the section of the verse, “nor the Son”, in order to preserve the belief that Jesus was God in human flesh.

At first glance this seems to be a significant issue. However, even if the part “nor the Son” is omitted it doesn’t change anything. The verse still states that only the Father knows. Also, Mark 13:32 states, “But as for that day or hour no one knows it—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son—except the Father.” If the scribes were trying to alter the meaning of Matthew 24:36, why did they not do so in Mark? Apparently this was not a problem for the early church, which displays no thought of a doctrinal concern. If so, then Ehrman needs to argue on a different field of play.

Ehrman conveniently leaves out the passage of Mark, yet refers to Matthew 24:36 around six times. The question is, “Why”? Dan Wallace comments, “The importance of this textual variant for the thesis of Misquoting Jesus is difficult to assess, however. Ehrman alludes to Matt 24.36 in his conclusion, apparently to underscore his argument that textual variants alter basic doctrines. His initial discussion of this passage certainly leaves this impression as well. But if he does not mean this, then he is writing more provocatively than is necessary, misleading his readers. And if he does mean it, he has overstated his case.”[19]

Given the fact that there are solid answers to Ehrman’s claims, one may reasonably ask, Why isn’t Jesus unequivocally called “God” more? Perhaps this would shut down critics such as Bart Ehrman. R.T. France, former principle of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University said, “…explicit use of God-language about Jesus is infrequent in the New Testament and is concentrated in the later writings…It was such shocking language that, even when the beliefs underlying it were firmly established, it was easier, and perhaps more politic, to express these beliefs in less direct terms. The wonder is not that the New Testament so seldom describes Jesus as God, but that in [a radically monotheistic] milieu it does so at all.[20]

The gospels truly portray Jesus as divine. Jesus’ divinity was settled days after His crucifixion. It was not made up by those who “won the debate” in the fourth century. Paul’s epistles overtly portray Jesus as divine, especially in 1st Corinthians 15. This writing is well known to be the first writings of the New Testament, and was being taught and preached within five years of the crucifixion. Many scholars believed Paul received this teaching directly from the disciples themselves.

Although questions do arise about the reliability of the New Testament, we can be confident that we have the unyielding doctrines and teachings of Jesus and His apostles. Most New Testament scholars will admit to it. Of course there were times when scribes smoothed things over, but it never affected the purity of the text. And there were occasions where a word or phrase may have been added, but that only adds up to 2% over a 1400-year period. Furthermore out of 138,000 words, only two at the most have no manuscript support. This is amazing given the other documents of antiquity we possess today.[21]

Textual critics are confident that only 1% of the Bible conforms to meaningful variants. This leaves 99% of the variants that can effectively and easily be ‘resolved’.[22] Dan Wallace & company ask of the skeptics, “…one has to wonder what drives their dogmatic skepticism, because it certainly isn’t the evidence.”[23] It appears that even Ehrman agrees when he admits that his agnosticism had nothing to do with the Bible, “…but with pain and suffering in the world.”[24]

[1] Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (New York, NY, Harper Collins 2005) p. 42

[2] Ibid p. 208

[3] Ibid p. 132

[4] Ibid p. 89-90

[5] Ibid p. 55, 207

[6]J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, Dan B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus (Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI 2006) p. 56

[7]Ehrman, p. 134

[8] Ehrman, p.133

[10] Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007), p.73-74; as quoted

[11] Ehrman, p. 136-137

[12] Ehrman, p. 153

[14] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, Dan B. Wallace, p.173

[15] Ibid p.161

[16] Ibid. p.162

[17]J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, Dan B. Wallace, p. 290 n.24

[18] Ibid p.292

[19] Daniel B. Wallace, The Gospel According to Bart,

[20] R.T. France, The Worship of Jesus: A Neglected Factor in Christological Debate? (Vox Evangelica 12; 1981) p. 25 as quoted in J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, Dan B. Wallace, p.174

[21] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, Dan B. Wallace, p.109

[22] Ibid p.60, 96.

[23] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, Dan B. Wallace, p.109

[24] Ehrman, 248