Saturday, 30 November 2013

Misquoting Jesus

Bart Ehrman is that most valuable type of person, a serious scholar who loves to explain his complex field in plain English for non-specialists.  He has an extremely fancy academic title - the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina.  He is an expert on early Christian texts, including the New Testament and various other early writings that were not included in the canon of scripture.

His spiritual journey is like that of so many sceptical Biblical scholars and writers.  He started on the path of Christian fundamentalism, heading off to Moody Bible Institute straight from high school to study scripture, then wending his way through the slightly less conservative Wheaton College before finally heading for the quite sceptical faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary.  Along the way he became adept at Greek and Hebrew and developed a passion for analysing original texts of ancient documents.

I've been reading his 2005 book on that very subject, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.  Potential readers shouldn't be put off by the sensational title.  The actual content is much more modest and sober than the title suggests.  If the facts he points out are unpleasant to face, they are nonetheless factual.

He starts the book with the tale of his own journey into biblical criticism, and in particular his assignment on the text of Mark 2, where Jesus is quoted as referring to David taking show-bread from the temple during the high priesthood of Abiathar.  The problem for this passage, at least for a Moody-trained inerrantist like the young Ehrman, is that the original of this story in 1 Samuel 21 takes place when Ahimelech is high priest.  Ehrman accordingly developed a complex and convoluted argument intended to demonstrate that Mark didn't mean quite what he said, only for his teacher to comment, "Maybe Mark just made a mistake".

This may seem a trivial problem (in fact, it is a trivial problem) but as I have pointed out previously, the notion of inerrancy sets the bar incredibly high.  A single error, however trivial, can bring the entire house of cards tumbling down because an inerrant Bible must be completely so. 

The problem is not simply that the New Testament sometimes misquotes the Old, or that there are discrepancies between different New Testament accounts of the same event.  The more fundamental problem, and the subject of this book, is that it is not clear exactly what the words of the New Testament are.  The various New Testament books were originally written by hand, on parchment or papyrus, by their original authors or their authors' secretaries in the first century CE.  None of the original manuscripts survive, but the books were copied and re-copied down the years as they circulated more and more widely.  We now have thousands of manuscripts (hand-written copies) of these books, but our earliest copies are from centuries after their original composition.

The problem is, not all these manuscripts are identical.  It is easy to understand why - they were copied by many different hands.   The earliest copyists would not have been professional scribes, just ordinary literate church members.  Copying a manuscript by hand is a difficult, time-consuming job and the copyists made mistakes.  Later copyists copied these mistakes, but also made further mistakes of their own.  The result is that the thousands of surviving manuscripts contain over a hundred thousand discrepancies.

The vast majority of these are trivial - missing words or lines, spelling errors, jumbled sentences, substitution of synonymous words.  We are all familiar with these types of mistakes - it is rare to find a book that does not contain a few - but before the invention of the printing press such errors were much more common because manuscripts must be produced by hand, one at a time, so each one will contain its own unique set of mistakes.

More significant is the fact that some of the differences between manuscripts seem deliberate and purposeful.  These are not simple mistakes, but subtle alterations which bolster a particular theological point which was in dispute at the time the copy was made.  Ehrman cites a number of passages to show what he means. 

For example, there was a strong minority view in the second and third century that Jesus was "adopted" as God's son, probably at the time of his baptism by John, rather than the "eternal Son of God" of orthodox theology.  To make the orthodox view clearer, copyists made changes to certain passages which could have been to support adoptionism. 

Some of these are very simple and would almost slip under the radar.  For instance in Luke 2, after Simeon has blessed the infant Jesus, early manuscripts say "his father and mother were marvelling at what was said to him".  The notion that Jesus had a human father could easily be used as an argument in favour of adoptionism, so a large number of manuscripts instead read "Joseph and his mother...". 

Other differences are more blatant.  For instance, in the story of Jesus' baptism in Luke 3 a voice from heaven makes a declaration about Jesus.  In most manuscripts the wording of this declaration is the same as in the counterpart story in Mark - "You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased".  However, some early manuscripts say "You are my son, today I have begotten you" - a statement which appears to support an adoptionistic view.

Ehrman argues, based on what he and other scholars regard as strong textual grounds, that the potentially adoptionistic readings are in fact the older ones, and that they were edited during the controversy to make them more orthodox.  It is of course possible to argue the reverse - that the orthodox readings are the originals.  This, however, doesn't change the core point - that the text is not immutable, that there are a number of different versions and not all the differences are inconsequential.

How much does this matter?  Well of course, if you are a fundamentalist it matters a lot, because you will have a lot invested in the precise words of scripture.  How does this work, if we are not sure what these words are?  However, this is not exclusively a fundamentalist problem and historically in the church there have been two main responses to it.

The Catholic response, also held in a slightly different form by the Eastern Orthodox church, is that the use and interpretation of scripture is determined by the church through its official doctrinal statements.  Hence, in a sense, scripture is only part of the story and goes hand in hand with church tradition and the authority of the church hierarchy.  Indeed, the canon of scripture is itself a product of this tradition.

This solution, however, is problematic for us Protestants because we have rejected this authority and, along with it, many elements of historical Catholic teaching.  Implicit in the doctrine and ecclesiology of the various Protestant churches, and explicit in their history, is the notion that the Catholic Church has corrupted the gospel of Christ and therefore can't be trusted to have interpreted scripture correctly.

Hence the preferred Protestant solution to this problem is to attempt to work out, through detailed textual and historical analysis, the "correct" text of the original New Testament.  This project is, as you might say, "ongoing".  It involves decisions and judgements based on technical grounds that very few scholars, never mind working pastors or lay church members, really fully understand.  It seems to me that the chances of a final solution are relatively slim.  What are the chances of modern scholars being inerrant?

How much this bothers you will depend on how much you have invested in the question.  For me, it just seems part of the marvellous and fascinating variety of human belief.  Perhaps we will find out the final solution in heaven.  Perhaps not.  In the meantime, our uncertainty should at least keep us humble and open to learning.


Andrew said...

I remember one of my pastors, attempting to defend the bible, said that the bible, unlike many other ancient texts, has thousands of manuscripts available.

Of course he never mentioned the differences... I now look back and wonder if he knew... or the quantity just sounded like a good argument, but that was as far as his knowledge went.

Many believers won't touch this book because Bart is an Atheist... I am wondering if there is a Christian author who addresses these same issues?

Jon Eastgate said...

Ehrman says there isn't and I haven't seen one. In my youth I read FF Bruce's "The New Testament Documents - Are They Reliable?". I still have my copy. It pretty much skates over the issue in the way your pastor did - talking about the date and number of manuscripts and the evidence for their authorship but downplaying the differences between them. It was written in 1943 and he was responding to ideas common at that time, like the "Tubingen school" which claimed that everything in the New Testament was actually written in the 2nd Century, not upheld now even by quite sceptical scholars.

Its a shame Christians won't read this, because whatever Ehrman's own belief is this is not an atheist book. It is simply a book about textual scholarship and he doesn't advocate any position for or against belief.

However, it's a shame about the title - if I didn't already know who Ehrman is, I would have assumed it was one of those "Jesus conspiracy" books.

Hermit said...

Stop it, you're hurting me!!