Bart Ehrman and his Bible

Misquoting Jesus reviewed by Michael Marlowe
August, 2012

Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus was published seven years ago, but I have just now gotten around to reading it. I was already familiar with this author, because some years ago I read a book by him called The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (1993). I disagreed with much of his earlier book, and I doubt that most scholars will think his handling of text-critical questions is sufficiently sober and sound. Ehrman is a “character” and a bit of a “bad boy” in the field. He obviously enjoys being provocative. He loves far-fetched theological explanations for variants which other scholars explain much more plausibly in other ways. But Orthodox Corruption was not unscholarly, it was unusually interesting, and, in my opinion, it was worth reading. So I supposed that this new book would at least be worth a look.

This is a popular-level book, which purports to be a layman’s introduction to textual criticism: “written for people who know nothing about textual criticism but who might like to learn something about how scribes were changing scripture and how we can recognize where they did so” (p. 15). But it soon became obvious to me that the book is really just Ehrman’s attempt to popularize the most peculiar and questionable ideas that he labored to make a scholarly case for in his Orthodox Corruption book. As an introduction to the field it is very skewed and inadequate, and it simply ignores scholarly criticism of his views, and so I cannot recommend it as an introduction. It also includes discussions about his own personal problems with Christianity, and some theological ruminations, which may be found interesting to some laymen, but which are not relevant to the subject of textual criticism. The theological portions of the book, in which he wanders far from his rather narrow area of expertise, consist mostly of snarky rhetorical questions, which are apparently designed to justify (to an audience of confirmed atheists) his own personal rejection of Christianity. But his remarks on this subject do not amount to any substantial argument that would impress someone trained in theology. Ehrman thinks that the mere possibility of an error in copying destroys the whole idea of the Bible’s inspiration. He repeatedly urges this notion on the reader, as if it constituted an unanswerable argument. He seems to have little education in such theological questions. I did not expect Ehrman to be so theologically naive, intellectually shallow, and merely annoying, as he so often is in this book.

I hear that this book became a “best-seller,” after some journalists praised it to the skies. These journalists were not, of course, able to evaluate the scholarly pretensions of the book; but clearly they enjoyed the parts that any liberal smart aleck could have written. And so it came to pass that the book was bought by public libraries all over the country, and it has been thoroughly rubbed in the face of the American public. Several reviews of Misquoting Jesus written by competent scholars, and published online, have refuted various misleading statements of the book. But I have not found one that makes certain points that I think are important for an understanding of this book.

The main theological argument of the book is that the Christian teaching concerning the inspiration of the Bible is rendered practically meaningless by the very existence of variations in the manuscripts. But Ehrman does not adequately describe or interact with the traditional Christian teachings on this subject. He mentions only the jejune notion of inspiration that he was exposed to as a teenager at Moody Bible Institute between 1973 and 1976, and his argument relies upon the rhetorical effect that personal anecdotes will have on an audience of laymen.

In his Introduction, Ehrman describes the beginnings of his college education. After leaving Moody Bible Institute, he went to Wheaton College to get a Bachelor’s degree. It was there that he began to learn Greek. He says that learning to read the Greek Testament, and realizing that the English versions were not perfectly equivalent to it, is what first caused him to question the inspiration of the Bible:

Learning Greek was a thrilling experience for me. As it turned out, I was pretty good at the basics of the language and was always eager for more. On a deeper level, however, the experience of learning Greek became a bit troubling for me and my view of scripture. I came to see early on that the full meaning and nuance of the Greek text of the New Testament could be grasped only when it is read and studied in the original language (the same thing applies to the Old Testament, as I later learned when I acquired Hebrew). All the more reason, I thought, for learning the language thoroughly. At the same time, this started making me question my understanding of scripture as the verbally inspired word of God. If the full meaning of the words of scripture can be grasped only by studying them in Greek (and Hebrew), doesn’t this mean that most Christians, who don’t read ancient languages, will never have complete access to what God wants them to know? And doesn’t this make the doctrine of inspiration a doctrine only for the scholarly elite, who have the intellectual skills and leisure to learn the languages and study the texts by reading them in the original? What good does it do to say that the words are inspired by God if most people have absolutely no access to these words, but only to more or less clumsy renderings of these words into a language, such as English, that has nothing to do with the original words? (pp. 6-7.)

We notice here, how Ehrman seems to have no idea of what role teachers are supposed to play in the Church. In his view, the inspiration of the Bible is useless if not everyone has immediate and complete access to the original text, so that every interested person can read it for himself, and understand it perfectly, without any help from a “scholarly elite.” The argument makes sense only on the assumption that a radically individualistic and egalitarian method is the only legitimate one that God could have used to enlighten mankind. He continues:

My questions were complicated even more as I began to think increasingly about the manuscripts that conveyed the words. The more I studied Greek, the more I became interested in the manuscripts that preserve the New Testament for us, and in the science of textual criticism, which can supposedly help us reconstruct what the original words of the New Testament were. I kept reverting to my basic question: how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes—sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways. (p. 7)

Again, the assumption here is that God ought to give all people all of his words, without allowing any copyist to change one jot or tittle, or any fallible scholars to teach people what he wants them to know. Why did God not give, to all people without exception, the complete Bible by a perpetual miracle, without making use of ordinary human agents? There should have been no need for scribes, scholars, translators, and indeed no need for scripture writers, because in order for inspiration to do anyone any good, everyone in the world must receive every word of God immediately and individually. Presumably Ehrman would think that it is inconsistent with the whole idea of inspiration that Adam, for instance, did not have the opportunity to read Paul’s epistles. If Adam did not have such an opportunity, the epistles must not have been inspired, because it would serve no purpose. And so forth. He does not take under consideration the replies that any theologian might give to these remarks, and so his argument is not developed above the level of these rather silly objections. In the final chapter of the book Ehrman is still asking them:

The Bible is, by all counts, the most significant book in the history of Western civilization. And how do you think we have access to the Bible? Hardly any of us actually read it in the original language, and even among those of us who do, there are very few who ever look at a manuscript—let alone a group of manuscripts. How then do we know what was originally in the Bible? A few people have gone to the trouble of learning the ancient languages (Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, etc.) and have spent their professional lives examining our manuscripts, deciding what the authors of the New Testament actually wrote. In other words, someone has gone to the trouble of doing textual criticism, reconstructing the "original" text based on the wide array of manuscripts that differ from one another in thousands of places. Then someone else has taken that reconstructed Greek text, in which textual decisions have been made (what was the original form of Mark 1:2? of Matt. 24:36? of John 1:18? of Luke 22:43-44? and so on), and translated it into English. What you read is that English translation—and not just you, but millions of people like you. How do these millions of people know what is in the New Testament? They "know" because scholars with unknown names, identities, backgrounds, qualifications, predilections, theologies, and personal opinions have told them what is in the New Testament. But what if the translators have translated the wrong text?  (pp. 208-9.)

In short, he expects his readers to be scandalized by the fact that education is necessary. In matters of religion, this seems inadmissible to him, because it implies an inequality of knowledge. It means that some people will have a more perfect knowledge of certain details of the original text, and that no one’s knowledge will be indisputably perfect. We might wonder where Ehrman ever got the impression that Christianity requires everyone to get a perfect knowledge of Scripture, and to get it without the guidance of teachers. Perhaps the idea was prompted by extravagant attitudes displayed by certain people at the Moody Bible Institute.

There is an element of truth in Ehrman’s account which must be admitted. I mean in the account he gives of how he, as a newcomer to these studies, was disturbed by the sight of all the variants, and saw them as a threat to any faith in the existence of an inspired and reliable text. This is a common reaction among earnest young students who are first coming to the subject, especially those who have not yet acquired proficiency in the language. But the attitude here described is not at all typical of those who have gained an adequate knowledge of Greek, have familiarized themselves with the manuscripts, and have studied much of the literature of text-critical scholarship. Those who are educated in these matters do not typically end up wringing their hands and despairing over the data. They can see for themselves how trivial nearly all the variants are, and how to evaluate the ones that make a difference. Most of the men who have risen to prominence in this field, men of real learning and ability, have been firm believers in the inspiration of the Bible. In the nineteenth century no one could claim to know the subject better than Tischendorf, Tregelles, and Westcott. But these men were believers. They did not share Ehrman’s view. Bruce Metzger, to whom Ehrman dedicates this book, was one of the more conservative scholars at Princeton while Ehrman was a student there, and he did not share Ehrman’s views. And we have good reason to think that Ehrman himself does not believe that the original text is unknowable, because he is surely one of the most opinionated scholars now living. He rarely expresses any uncertainty about the original reading of any text that he brings under discussion. He evidently believes that he knows what the original text said, with few exceptions, even where other scholars strongly disagree with him. The real problem is, he does not accept the truth of the words that he knows to be authentic. His failure to believe them has really nothing to do with any uncertainty about the original words.

No one who has really studied the history of biblical interpretation in any detail will be much impressed with the differences of interpretation that depend upon textual variants. These are all quite trivial in comparison to the differences of interpretation that arise from various interpretations of identical texts. Even where the same version is used as the basis of teaching, we see some very different interpretations. In ancient times almost everyone who knew Greek used the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, a version produced by Alexandrian Jews before the birth of Christ. The use of a common version did not prevent serious disagreements. It was used by all parties to support their opinions. More recently, for nearly three hundred years, almost everyone in the English-speaking world used the King James Version; and yet during that time there was an enormous proliferation of sects, each of them led by teachers who found their distinctive doctrines in the King James Version. It was used by Episcopalians, Baptists, Calvinists, Arminians, Campbellites, and Mormons. In England and America even the Jews used the King James Version of the Old Testament during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And today, the differences one finds between English versions of the New Testament are usually much more significant than any differences between the Greek manuscripts in the same place. As one who has studied Greek, and has acquired the ability to read the Greek New Testament, I can assure my readers that it is a great relief to be delivered from the confusion of modern English versions, and that nothing like this confusion of English versions is produced by the information given in the text-critical apparatus of the Nestle-Aland edition. The number of variants that are both viable and meaningful enough to cause any serious difficulty for a competent interpreter is certainly not in the “thousands,” as Ehrman would have his readers think. I would say they amount to less than a hundred. And not one of them is half as interesting as many possibilities of interpretation that have nothing to do with verbal variations of the manuscripts.

Bart Ehrman has grossly exaggerated the importance of his own opinions, and of his own field of study. The Church does require the help of men who are learned in these matters, and, as part of the ministry of the Word, God himself calls certain gifted men to this work. But the mere existence of the various readings has no such embarrassing implications for the traditional Christian doctrine of inspiration as Ehrman alleges. His argument to this effect is contrived as an excuse for despising God’s words, after he lost his faith in God for other reasons.

Michael Marlowe
August 2012