Okay, perhaps using "review" is a bit misleading. I have a page full of notes taken while I was reading the book that I'll be discussing. So first, the general review of what you can expect from this book in terms of tone and content and what I thought of it. Then, those who aren't interested can be dismissed, while the rest of us talk about specific bits I found interesting.
It seems like for the past few years, every time I saw a book that spoke to my interest on the early days of the Christian Church, or an analysis of the Bible, it was always written by Bart Ehrman. Finally, I threw in the towel and bought one. I didn't buy Misquoting Jesus the first time I saw it, but I did read the entire preface standing up at my local chain bookstore. Yes, that intriguing. (I bought it on my next trip through.)
The premise of the book is both simple and profound. The Bible, thought by many churches to be the absolute, inspired word of God, was written by human hands, preserved by human hands, and changed by human hands. Far from the divinely inspired message from God to his creations, the Bible chronicles the tumultuous days of the early church and a great deal about the men that helped found it.
The book is divided into intuitive sections and clearly written. It covers both intentional and unintentional changes in the Bible, and why they might have occurred. For example, a passage in the Bible might have been unintentionally changed by an incompetent or lazy scribe, or it may have been changed intentionally to make the divine nature of Jesus Christ more apparent. Or, it could even be a combination of the two. As Ehrman writes: ”Scholars typically differentiate today between changes that appear to have been made accidentally through scribal mistakes and those made intentionally, through some forethought. […] one can see how a scribe might inadvertently leave out a word when copying text (an accidental change), but it is hard to see how the last twelve verses of Mark could have been added by a slip of the pen. (p. 92)”
Ehrman’s style is down to earth, but immensely helpful. The love he has for his subject is evident in the enthusiastic writing. What really comes across in this book is that, while Ehrman believes the Bible to be changed from the original scriptures, he does not dismiss the changed version as worthless. Far from shaking his faith, his studies have in enriched it. If you’re a Christian and you were worried that this subject would be treated in a poor or irreverent manor, don’t be.
If, however, the Bible not being the unaltered, inspired word of God alarms you or makes you question your faith, you can either read it and stretch your faith a little, or give it a miss. If it brings you too much anxiety, then just don’t read the book.
A particularly telling quote:
What if the Bible doesn’t give a foolproof answer to the questions of the modern age – abortion, women’s rights, gay rights, religious supremacy, Western-style democracy, and the like? What if we have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting up the Bible as a false idol – or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with the Almighty? (p. 14)
This independent thought can be difficult – and threatening – to some. I find it exhilarating, though. Of course, I’m not a Christian any longer, but even when I was, I always had a lust for learning.
Okay, that’s all I can give you as a short(!) review. Beyond this point, I’m going to be quoting text and writing down what I thought about it. All those who are disinterested may leave. :)
Now that I’m left with just the interested (or my own thoughts, who knows?), here are some of the striking things that occurred to me while I was reading. (This is by no means all of it – simply what I remembered to note as I was reading through the text.)
p. 11 ”…it would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place.”
Gods help me, but this never even occurred to me. When I was younger and in church, I never believed that the Bible I was reading was the Bible that had been given to the writers through divine inspiration. I’m not sure that I was even taught that. But – I always thought that the Bible was divinely inspired, but that it had been corrupted over time. Even with the concept of an omnipotent God, I never thought that if He inspired it, He could preserve it.
p. 72 ”Until then, Christianity was a small, minority religion in the Roman Empire, often opposed, sometimes persecuted. But a cataclysmic change occurred when the emperor of Rome, Constantine, converted to the faith about 312 C.E. Suddenly Christianity shifted from being a religion of social outcasts, persecuted by local mobs and imperial authorities alike, to being a major player in the religious scene of the empire. Not only were persecutions halted, but favors began to pour out upon the church from the greatest power in the Western world. Massive conversions resulted, as it became a popular thing to be a follower of Christ in an age in which the emperor himself publicly proclaimed his allegiance to Christianity.”
The early church was made up of the poor, the infirm, and women. Small wonder that it was looked down upon by the wealthy, respected, intellectual members of the community – who still believed in the religions of their fathers. Try to imagine that world – the powerful elite, worshipping a polytheistic religion, while the poor and outcast found solace in the teachings of a messiah figure. For the Romans, that would be a bit of a stretch.
But once it became “popular” everything changed. Even today, it’s popular to be Christian, because our leaders are. How many Christians are there who are Christian in name only, giving lip service to a God they believe is out-of-date?
p. 82 ”They entered into the English stream of consciousness merely by chance of history, based on manuscripts that Erasmus just happened to have handy to him, and one that was manufactured for his benefit.”
This section of the book presents some of the ways in which the New Testament was flawed to begin with. Erasmus created the first printed edition of the New Testament from the few manuscripts he had available to him, which were not the best ones to be had, even in the 1500’s, and a Greek manuscript that was simply the Latin translated back into the Greek. His first edition became the version used in translating the King James Bible.
This gave me a bit of a hard time, actually. Of all the issues in this book, this was first that made me really have to stop and think. For, while I’m no longer a Christian, I was a very devout Mormon for much of my childhood, and I still hold many of those views as truth. 1 In the LDS church, one is taught that, yes, the Bible is flawed, but that the King James Version is the closest to truth. Here, I discover a theory that, not only is it not closest to the truth, it is, in fact, made up of equal parts shoddy research, slipshod editing, and even falsified source documents! Having only owned a KJV for a number of years, I suddenly find myself wishing I had an NIV or NAS Bible to compare them.
The faces of Jesus
Another facet that Ehrman presents are the differing ways in which each of the gospel writers portray the man that Jesus was, or his behavior here on earth. Particularly, he compares Mark and Luke. The two writers have very different versions of Jesus – Mark portrays him as charismatic, even angry, while Luke emphasizes his compassion and calmness.
p. 137 ”Jesus does not come off as the meek-and-mild, soft-featured, good shepherd of the stain-glassed window. Mark begins his Gospel by portraying Jesus as a physically and charismatically powerful authority figure who is not to be messed with. He is introduced by a wild-man prophet in the wilderness; he is cast out from society to do battle in the wilderness with Satan and the wild beasts; he returns to call for urgent repentance in the face of the imminent coming of God’s judgment; he rips his followers away from their families; he overwhelms his audiences with his authority; he rebukes and overpowers demonic forces that can completely subdue mere mortals; he refuses to accede to popular demand, ignoring people that plead for an audience with him.”
What a compelling image that is! And it rings true to me. Jesus was not the first man to proclaim himself the messiah, and the Christians were not the only messianic cult. But somehow, Jesus was a great enough figure that his legend has endured throughout the ages. Truly, he must have been a leader without equal. While I know many would say that his church endured because it was the true one, founded by the Son of God, that seems a simplistic answer. Truth is not necessarily popular or enduring.
Luke is the only writer to try to present the face of Jesus as always in control – the perfect calm of a martyr. In the other gospels a much more human vision of Jesus –terrified and in despair – is presented. And this was a bit of a problem for early Christians, as the orthodox view was that Jesus was divine and human both. In fact, the nature of Jesus was very much contended.
p. 149 ”I try to show how scribes who were not altogether satisfied with what the New Testament books said modified their words to make them more clearly support orthodox Christianity and more vigorously oppose heretics, women, Jews, and pagans.”
The section on changing the New Testament to fit in with orthodox Christianity were by far the most fascinating parts of the book for me. Was Jesus divine, human, or both? Was his death and resurrection really a sacrifice, or just a symbol? Was Jesus in anguish about his fate, or was he calm and in perfect accord with God’s will?
The nature of Jesus
There were three heretical views that Ehrman presents on the nature of Jesus:
- adoptionist: “Jesus was not divine but a full flesh-and-blood human being whom God had ‘adopted’ to be his son, usually at his baptism.” (p. 155)
- docetists: “Jesus was not a full flesh-and-blood human being. He was instead completely (and only) divine; he only ‘seemed’ or ‘appeared’ to be a human being, to feel hunger, thirst, and pain, to bleed, to die. Since Jesus was God, he could not really be a man. He simply came to earth in the ‘appearance’ of human flesh.” (p. 163)
- separationists: “Christ not only as human … and not only as divine … but as two beings, one completely human and one completely divine.” (p. 171)
I’d never heard of the adoptionist theory before reading this book, and I still find it hard to believe. It states that Jesus was the real son of Joseph and Mary, but that he was so righteous that God chose him to become the Savior. To me, it seems a little farfetched. I can’t really discuss it without more knowledge, but Ehrman states that the Bible was changed in places so that it never referred to Joseph as Jesus’ father, so the adoptionists would not be able to point at scripture to support their claims.
The separationists are familiar to me as the Gnostics. They believed that Jesus was the man and Christ was the spirit – or aeon – that possessed him. At the time of his crucifixion, the spirit of Christ left the body, leaving the man Jesus to suffer and die. The crucifixion loses all meaning at this point, since there was no sacrifice of the divine on behalf of the mortal. Rather, the Christ spirit goes on to teach humans the “divine knowledge,” which is the real key to salvation for the Gnostics.
I think the docetists survived in orthodox Christianity, however. Before I was a Mormon, I was taught a sort of Protestant hodgepodge of belief. And I got the impression that Jesus never really suffered. After all, he knew he was the Son of God, he knew that death would only return his to the right hand of the Father. What was there for him to worry about? (I’m not saying this is what I was taught – it’s just the image that formed in my mind.) I always thought it unfair that preachers would tell me that Jesus knew what I was going through because he suffered as we do. I never bought it. Jesus knew the truth; we have to guess. Jesus knows nothing of suffering in darkness.
But the orthodox church really did try to stamp out this idea. Ehrman says: “[the unknown author of Hebrews] repeatedly emphasizes that Jesus died a fully human, shameful death, totally removed from the realm whence he came, the realm of God; his sacrifice , as a result, was accepted as the perfect expiation for sin. Moreover, God did not intervene in Jesus’s passion and did nothing to minimize his pain. (p. 148)”
Also, “Thus, for example, the early Christian apologist Justin, after observing that ‘his sweat fell down like drops of blood while he was praying,’ claims that this showed ‘that the Father wished his Son really to undergo such suffering for our sakes,’ so that we ‘may not say that he, being the Son of God, did not feel what was happeneing to him and inflicted on him.’ (p. 165).”
This follows a discussion on a Bible verse that may say that Jesus died “apart from God.” If Jesus died “apart from” God, that accounts for one of my chief problems, namely that Jesus still knew he was the Son of God. But if Heavenly Father truly, completely withdrew, then Jesus died completely alone – a much more worthwhile sacrifice. And then, Jesus would know what I was going through.
But how much anguish and agony did Jesus really experience?
The agony in the garden
As a Protestant, I was taught what most Christians are: Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sins. The death is the significant part of this – the fact that he died, nailed to a cross, for me.
But the gospel of Luke presents a different view: “For it is a striking figure of Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’s death – this may sounds strange at first – that he never, anywhere else, indicates that the death itself is what brings salvation from sin. Nowhere in Luke’s entire two-volume work (Luke and Acts), is Jesus’s death said to be ‘for you.’ […] Jesus’s death for Luke, in other words, drives people to repentance, and it is this repentance that brings salvation. (p. 166-167)”
As a Mormon, I was taught something different. I was taught that the true agony, the true salvation, happened when Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. While he prayed, Jesus literally bled from every pore in his body, experiencing every pain of every sin that would ever be committed. Imagine the kind of trial that must have been! The reason for this is that Heavenly Father demands a blood price for sin. Jesus didn’t make him change his mind – he simply paid it all, all at once, for everyone. That is the true salvation.
BUT – for this to be true, the agony in the garden has to happen. And the only place that Jesus drips blood is in Luke – the same gospel in which Jesus is always in control and never, ever anguished or angry. Except here. Ehrman states: “”It appears that the account of Jesus’s “bloody sweat,” not found in our earliest and best manuscripts, is not original to Luke but is a scribal addition to the Gospels. (p. 144)”
So it may be that this idea of blood sweat is a late edition – to show those that believed (as I did) that Jesus was divine but not human that Jesus really felt pain.
Does that invalidate the Mormon view? I’m not sure on that yet. I have a lot of study and thinking to do before I can answer that. I do know that the other gospels present Jesus in agony, so he may very well have experienced the pain. Whether or not he did it in exactly that fashion … Well, that’s one unresolved question I have from the book. I imagine that will provide me with food for thought for years to come.
And, really, isn’t questioning a good thing? Obviously, Misquoting Jesus presented me with plenty to think (and write) about!
The role of women
p. 181 ”At best, then, this can be seen as an ambivalent attitude toward to role of women: they were equal in Christ and were allowed to participate in the life of the community, but as women, not as men (they were, for example, not to remove their veils and so appear as men, without an “authority” on their head). This ambivalence on Paul’s part had an interesting effect on the role of women in the churches after his day. In some churches it was the equality in Christ that was emphasized; in others it was the need for women to remain subservient to men. And so in some churches women played very important leadership roles; in others, their roles were diminished and their voices quieted.”
Ehrman goes on to show a few places in the text where the language was altered to diminish the role of women – in some places, a woman’s name was even changed to a man’s, to “prevent confusion.”
The nature of Jews and Pagans
You know what? I’m running out of steam here. And I suspect I was when I wrote my notes, too, because I didn’t underline anything in these sections of the book. Ehrman talks about how several Bible passages were changed to put the Jews at fault for the death of Jesus, instead of the Romans. Those verses would come back to haunt us when they were used for justification by anti-Semites around the era of WWII.
The part of the book devoted to changing information to thwart pagans should have been interesting to me, right? Not so much. Principally, Ehrman points to Luke’s calm, in control Jesus as a refutation of his humanity. That is, the pagans were given Luke as an example of the godlike behavior of Jesus. Which really, seems a bit odd. Most gods are NOT calm, collected, and imperturbable. Quite the opposite, rather. So I’m confused as to what the orthodox Christians were trying to accomplish. To me, the otherwordly calm of Luke’s Jesus seems very ungodlike.
Time to wrap things up before the behemoth gets even bigger. One final quote, in parting.
“The more I reflected on these matters, the more I began to see that the authors of the New Testament were very much like the scribes who would later transmit those authors’ writings. The authors too were human beings with needs, beliefs, worldviews, opinions, loves, hates, longings, desires, situations, problems – and surely all these things affected what they wrote. (p. 211)”
1 It’s complicated, I know. To sum up briefly where I’m coming from here: I believe Jesus was the Son of God, I believe the only way to go to heaven is to believe that we are saved by his grace and sacrifice. But I’m not on that path, going to that destination. I’m on another of infinite paths available to truth.