Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman
Reviewed by Doug Brown
Those who call the King James Version of the Bible the unerring word of God have a slight problem. The New Testament of the KJV (as the King James Version is usually referred) was translated into English from a version of the Greek New Testament that had been collected from twelfth-century copies by Erasmus. Where Erasmus couldn't find Greek manuscripts, he translated to Greek from the Latin Vulgate (which itself had been translated from Greek back in the fourth century). Here the problem splits into two problems. First, Jesus spoke Aramaic --- his actual words, never recorded, were only rendered in Greek in the original gospels. Thus, the KJV consists of Jesus' words twice refracted through the prism of translation. Second, Erasmus's Greek New Testament was based on handwritten copies of copies of copies of copies, etc., going back over a millennium, and today is considered one of the poorer Greek New Testaments. It is this second problem that Ehrman spends most time on in Misquoting Jesus, a fascinating account of New Testament textual criticism.
Many people have a vague notion that all the original biblical texts are preserved in vaults somewhere, and translators work from those original texts. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. The earliest surviving versions of the gospels are handwritten copies dating from centuries after the original texts were written. Also, we don't just have a single version of each gospel; we have many versions, and even more fragments. The trouble is, none of the versions agree with each other. As Ehrman puts it, there are more points of disagreement between manuscripts than there are words in the Gospels. So which one is right? How can one tell what the original authors intended?
One way is to try and establish which manuscript is the earliest, and call it closest to the author's intent. However, it may not be. Ehrman describes how the earliest copies of Christian texts were done by everyday folks, many of whom were barely literate; it is thus among the earliest copies that the greatest disagreements are found. In later times, professional scribes did most of the copying, resulting in fewer inter-copy disagreements. Also, we may have a document from the fourth century and one from the eighth; but the latter might have been copied from a second-century document, making it closer to the original. In general, though, if most early manuscripts have a given wording and later versions have another, scholars assume the early version is correct.
Another method of deciding which of two text versions is closer to the original is geographic comparison. If all the manuscripts from Alexandria have one version of text, but copies from everywhere else have another version, the Alexandria version is probably incorrect. Also, Ehrman controversially argues that if we have two passages, one with an easier interpretation and another with a harder, the latter is more likely correct. Scribes would often clean up passages that were hard to interpret, or that seemed to make Jesus hard to understand.
Then there is the issue of later scribes just plain adding in things that weren't there before. These additions often came from the verbal tradition of the early church, or to bring a given gospel in line with other gospels. One of the biggest apparent additions to the gospels is the last twelve verses of Mark (16:9-20). They are not present in early versions of the gospel, and include the famous passage that is the primary basis for Pentecostal and snake-handling churches, as well as for many a fly-by-night faith healer:
And these are the signs that will accompany those who believe: they will cast out demons in my name; they will speak in new tongues; and they will take up snakes in their hands; and if they drink any poison it will not harm them; they will place their hands upon the sick and heal them.
In addition to not being present in earlier versions, Ehrman states the writing style of these verses are different from the rest of Mark, and contain vocabulary not present in the rest of the gospel. Some later scribe possibly felt that the gospel ended too abruptly and added a more Messianic coda. And in doing so, condemned many an Appalachian pit viper to a life of abuse at the hands of people who think Jesus said something he likely didn't.
Alteration of texts by copyists was such a problem that many ancient scribes and authors would include warnings similar to today's anti-copying legal disclaimers. One figure in Misquoting Jesus is a page of a fourth-century manuscript on which a medieval scribe has scrawled a complaint in the margins about an earlier scribe altering the text: "Fool and knave, leave the old reading, don't change it." The book of Revelation contains one of the first copyright warnings, which Ehrman quotes: "I testify to everyone who hears to the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book; and if anyone removes any of the words of the book of this prophecy, God will remove his share from the tree of life...." The wording may have changed over the centuries, but the sentiment hasn't.
In many respects, the Bible was the world's first Wikipedia article. So many hands have altered and edited the now lost originals that we will never know for sure what those originals said. I find it amusing that the Christian Right in America spends its energy attacking evolution, arguing that teaching evolution is teaching atheism. For Ehrman, learning about the Bible is what caused his belief to change. He still believes in God, but no longer believes the Bible is an inerrant source of the Word. It would be interesting to know how many people became less religiously devout after learning science versus learning about Bible and church history. Instead of convincing believers not to read Dawkins and Darwin, the biblical literalists might better spend their energy keeping folks away from Ehrman (in fact, backlash books attacking Ehrman --- often personally --- and defending Biblical infallibility are already appearing). Ehrman isn't an atheist assaulting belief; he is just a scholarly believer saying he feels the evidence is clear that the gospels were written by men with personal agendas, and both accidentally and intentionally altered over the centuries by other men with agendas of their own. Then, from all the texts that existed, some other men with agendas selected the canon and deemed the other texts apocrypha. The main thrust of what Jesus said and did is undoubtedly in there, but that's all we can be sure of. For believer or atheist, I recommend Misquoting Jesus to anyone with an interest in where this ancient anthology that has helped shape our culture came from.