Book Review: Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman

H/T: Pious Fabrications:
Review by David Withun

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman; ISBN: 0-06-073817-0

To be completely honest, reading this book was a waste of my time. I generally enjoy Ehrman’s work, in spite of his sensationalist style, but I was very disappointed with this one. Misquoting Jesus was filled with page after page of Ehrman’s typical version of “shock and awe,” none of which is very often shocking or awing, but with none of the redeeming information and interesting facts that his other books usually contain.

Rather than a scholarly and engaging look at the manuscript traditions of the New Testament and ensuing errors and alterations thereof which I assumed would be the content of this book, Ehrman spends the majority of the book speaking in the first person as a young, naive “‘born again’ Christian” being exposed for the first time to (what he believes are) the shocking facts that the King James Version isn’t the inerrant Word of God and that the Scriptures didn’t fall out of heaven one day. This reveals much less about the history and textual traditions of the New Testament than it does about Ehrman himself, who seems to live perpetually in that juvenile state and seems to honestly believe that every other self-professed Christian lives in the same state. This latter apparent view of Ehrman was revealed especially by the variety of inane statements throughout the book which seem to indicate his unfamiliarity with any form of Christianity outside of the evangelical “born again” version of his childhood (see below for an example of this). 

What scanty little real facts and information there were in this book were not only overshadowed by the above aspects of the book but were also basic enough that they could easily be gleaned by reading Wikipedia articles on the relevant topics (trust me, that’s an insult). I’ve done a little reading in the area, but I’m no expert to be sure, and yet aside from a few minor dates and interesting stories, I was familiar with almost everything covered in this book. 

In the end, I wouldn’t recommend this book at all. There’s too much great reading in early Christian history and even specifically in the manuscript traditions of the New Testament (such as Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible Is It? A Short History of the Scriptures, for instance) to waste your time reading such worthless trite. Rather than scholarship, you will receive a thinly-veiled attack on Ehrman’s own straw-man of Christianity (he does, after all, begin the book with the story of his own conversion from “‘born-again’ Christianity” to atheism), made all the more pitiful for not only being possibly the weakest criticism ever leveled at Christianity but for Ehrman’s halfhearted attempt to make his attack look like real scholarship.

For your reading pleasure, a few outstanding examples of Ehrman’s inanity in this book:

  1. “This is the account of 1 John 5:7-8, which scholars have called the Johannine Comma, found in the manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate but not in the vast majority of Greek manuscripts, a passage that had long been a favorite among Christian theologians, since it is the only passage in the entire Bible that explicitly delineates the doctrine of the Trinity, that there are three persons in the godhead, but that the three constitute just one God.”
  2. Really? A purported New Testament scholar who is unfamiliar with Matthew 28:19? How about Titus 3:4-6? Still nothing? Oh well, I give up… Just out of curiosity, though: who are these “Christian theologians” amongst whom the Johannine Comma “[has] long been a favorite”? You’d think things like this would need more than vague assertions and non-arguments; not in Ehrmanworld, I guess.

  3. “… or consider all the different Christian denominations, filled with intelligent and well-meaning people who base their views of how the church should be organized and function on the Bible, yet all of them coming to radically different conclusions (Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Appalachian snake-handlers, Greek Orthodox, and on and on).”
  4. You’d think it would be a good idea for somebody who “chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill” (as the author bio on the back flap of the book says) to know enough about the two largest groups of Christians in the world, Roman Catholics and Orthodox, that he would not make the ignorant statement that these two groups “base their views of how the church should be organized and function on the Bible.” Really? When did the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox pick up Sola Scriptura? And all this time I thought Tradition was the basis of our system of Church governance. In addition, there can’t be much reason aside from sheer ignorance why he insists on saying “Greek Orthodox” specifically (he says it twice in this book and I’ve noticed it in others as well, where he gives a list similar to this one for a similar reason) is beyond me, given that there are 26 other Orthodox jurisdictions in addition to the Greek and that the Greek jurisdiction is not even the largest of them. I can only hope that somebody in a position of power at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is reading this and thinking about hiring a chair for their Department of Religious Studies(!) who is actually familiar with … well … religious studies.

  5. And, of course, saving the best for last: “Put it this way: There are more variances among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”
  6. Thanks to True Free Thinker for saving me the work on this one:

    Considering that [Bart Ehrman’s] book Misquoting Jesus explored the issue of variant readings in New Testament manuscripts it may be surprising to some that Bart Ehrman’s book itself contains millions and millions of variants.

    Following are some examples of the variants:

    On p. 13 reference is made to “Timothy LeHaye and Philip Jenkins” as the authors of the Left Behind series of novels. However, the authors of the series are Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Thus, error 1. Tim has never published as “Timothy,” error 2. his last name is not LeHaye but LaHaye and error 3. Jenkins’s first name is not Philip but Jerry.

    On p. 110 error 4. “Timothy” is used as LaHaye’s last name.

    In the index Timothy’s name is error 5. again spelled as “LeHaye.”

    On p. 110 Hal Lindsey’s name is error 6. misspelled as “Hal Lindsay.”

    On p. 70 Desiderius Erasmus is error 7. misspelled as “Desiderus Erasmus.”

    …[snip]…

    Now, if you are paying attention—or are you like me and simply cannot afford to pay attention? :o)—you may be thinking 1) that is only 16 errors, 2) they are mostly merely misspellings, 3) they do not affect the contents of the text and certainly do not affect any major point which the book seeks to make.

    As for 2) and 3); thank you for noticing as this is precisely, word for word, how many of us feel about Bart Ehrman’s criticisms of the New Testament manuscripts.

    As for 1) how do 16 equal my assertion of there being millions and millions of variants? Well, let us learn some methodology, the sort that allows Ehrman claim, “Put it this way: There are more variances among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”

    I do not know how many copies Misquoting Jesus has sold but it is reported that “Within the first three months, more than 100,000 copies were sold.”

    The way it works is as simple as it is deceptive: you multiply the 16 variants by how many times they have been reproduced. As the 16 have been reproduced 100,000 (in three months alone) you multiply these and so the total of variants in Misquoting Jesus equals: 1,600,000.

    And that, boys and girls, is how Bart Ehrman manages to make sensational claims that gain him notoriety and quite a few shekels.

    I highly recommend giving the whole post a read. It’s a better than mine, I promise!

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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