The book “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed The Bible and Why” from Prof. Bart Ehrman can be described as an introduction to New Testament textual criticism for beginners, in which he explains the subject in the context of his own background, relating his journey from being an Evangelical Christian to becoming a world renowned New Testament scholar. Besides D. C. Parker’s “Living Text of the Gospels”, Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” seems to be the only book on textual criticism designed specifically for the non-expert readers.
In short, Ehrman explains the copying practises of the earliest period and how the texts of the New Testament writings were corrupted as they were copied and recopied. He begins by introducing the diverse writings produced by the early Christians, such as gospels, Acts, apocalypses, Church orders, apologies etc. Briefly, the formation of the canon is also discussed and we are informed about the literacy level among the early Christians. Thereafter we are introduced to the world of the copyists and Ehrman explains how the early scribes copied texts, the different types of errors that were made (intentional and unintentional) and the problems associated with the copying of texts.
It is quite interesting to learn that even pagan critics of Christianity, such as Celsus, were quite aware at an early date that the Christian writings were being corrupted by the scribes and even Origen had to complain about the numerous differences between the gospel manuscripts. Marcion, an early Christian, corrupted the text of certain New Testament writings available to him and Dionysius is quoted who complains that his own writings have been modified just as “the word of the Lord” had been tampered. Marcion, of course, accused other Christians of corrupting the texts. In an earlier writing, “The Orthodox Corruption of Scriptures”, Ehrman demonstrated in detail how proto-orthodox Christians corrupted the New Testament writings on occasions. It seems that the early Christians were quite aware that the writings in their possession had undergone corruption and were still being corrupted and they frequently accused each other of tampering with the texts.
I was amazed to learn how statistically small additions or deletions within texts could change the entire meaning of passages and even books. Ehrman discusses at length certain examples in this regard and shows that even unintentional changes can result in changes that alter the meaning of texts. To quote Ehrman (pp. 207-208):
“It would be wrong, however, to say – as people sometimes do – that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them. We have seen, in fact, that just the opposite is the case. In some instances, the very meaning is at stake depending on how one resolves a textual problem: Was Jesus an angry man? Was he completely distraught in the face of death? Did he tell his disciples that they could drink poison without being harmed? Did he let an adulteress off the hook with nothing but a mild warning? Is the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament? Is Jesus actually called the “unique God” there? Does the New Testament indicate that even the Son of God does not know when the end will come? The questions go on and on, and all of them are related to how one resolves difficulties in the manuscript tradition as it has come down to us.”
The above are just a few problems. Another interesting problem is whether the doctrine of the atonement is taught in the gospel according to Luke? Further, there are immense textual problems within passages such as the sayings on divorce and remarriage in the gospels1 and the Lord’s Prayer among others.
It is important to realize that Ehrman is not the first person to have discovered these textual problems. Instead, textual critics are quite familiar with them but seldom are these textual difficulties discussed in books aimed at the lay readers so that many people continue to adhere to the mistaken belief that there exist no significant textual problems within the New Testament effecting important theological matters. Clearly, shoddy apologists such as Giesler and Josh McDowell have done a lot to propagate a false image of the textual preservation of the gospel text – misleading countless around the globe. Ehrman sets the record straight. In another recent book, co-authored with Bruce Metzger, we read:
“Nor are these variant readings, taken as a whole, of little consequence. On the contrary, many prove to be critical for questions relating to the New Testament exegesis and theology.”2
Thus it would appear that scholars are now beginning to discuss the difficult issues more openly.
It seems clear that the Gospels are not so well textually preserved as some people would have us imagine and that there exist many variations which have profound effects and bearings upon the meaning of texts and theological issues. Some may refer to the “the oldest Christian manuscripts” and how these are “most reliable”, not realizing that Ehrman, and others, have pointed out numerous times that the earliest manuscripts are precisely the most problematic – revealing the most variations, which indicates that the texts of the gospels were in a state of flux in the earliest period of their transmission.
A detailed discussion of the manuscripts of the New Testament, based on writings of scholars such as Prof. Ehrman and others, is to be found here.
Moreover, the problem of the “original text” is also discussed by Ehrman and he states that many textual critics are now beginning to doubt even if there is such a thing as an “original” to be restored. He explains the problematic nature of the issue and why we cannot get back to the “original” text itself in light of the copying practises of the first three centuries. Therefore, we can only hope to recover early forms of the text, not the “originals,” and hope that these early forms are relatively close to the lost “originals”.
Besides the above issues, Ehrman provides a fascinating discussion of how the various New Testament editions were produced, particularly the one by Erasmus based on a handful of late manuscripts, and how Christians reacted when certain individuals here and there stumbled across variant readings. The story of the interpolation of 1 John 5:7 (the only clear formulation of the Trinity) is amazing ? the way it was inserted into the text and the reaction of some when it was removed. Moreover, Ehrman goes on to explain how he eventually came to the conclusion that the New Testament writings were not inspired based on his evaluation of the New Testament text and its transmission.
We would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn about the textual criticism and transmission of the New Testament writings. If the reader does not know anything about this complex subject, then this is where the reader should start. After going through “Misquoting Jesus,” it should be much easier for the reader to read books aimed at those who already know something about the subject.