17 July 2009

Misquoting Jesus

Misquoting Jesus - The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart D. Ehrman (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) is an outstanding book. It is a scholarly delineation of the history of the Bible as a book - who wrote it, how the books were compiled, how it was transcribed, and how variations were introduced into the text during the transcriptions and compilations.

This book is not targeted at the pious reader, nor is it targeted toward the religioius skeptic. The one group that will find the premise of the book reprehensible are those who believe in the textual inerrancy of the Bible - that the words of the Bible are precise, unchanging, and indisputable. Ehrman demonstrates to a degree beyond refutation that the text of the Bible has undergone an almost uncountable number of changes from the (unknown) original. But he's not trying to diminish the holiness of the Bible or its value as a religious text; if anything the knowledge of how the Bible evolved enhances the readers understanding of how various passages can be better understood.

Here are some of my notes, with page references:

Examples of internal contradictions within the Bible: In a passage in Mark 2, Jesus reminds the Pharisees of what King David did “when Abiathar was the high priest,” but when you look at the OT passage Jesus is citing (1 Sam 21:1-16), it turns out that Abiathar wasn’t the high priest – his father Ahimelech was.(9) Mark 14:12 and 15:25 say Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal was eaten, but John (19:14) says he died the day before it was eaten.(10) Luke (2:39) says Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth a month after they had come to Bethlehem, but Matthew (2:19-22) says they fled to Egypt.(10) Paul says (Gal 1:16-17) after he converted he did not go to Jerusalem, but Acts (9:26) says that was the first thing he did.(10)

“It is one thing to sayt that the originals were inspired, but the reality is that we don’t have the originals… Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later – much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places…” (10)

“Many Christians today may think that the canon of the NT simply appeared on the scene one day, soon after the death of Jesus, but nothing could be farther from the truth. As it turns out, we are able to pinpoint the first time that any Christian of record listed the twenty-seven books of our NT as the books of the NT – neither more nor fewer. Surprising as it may seem, this Christian was writing in the second half of the fourth century, nearly three hundred years after the books of the NT had themselves been written.” (36)

Scribes at the time the books of the NT were being copied were notoriously poorly literate. “Literacy” meant just being able to sign one’s name. Many scribes could not copy a piece of text repeatedly without making errors and then carrying them forward (39). Scribes and copyists tended to add to or modify texts they were copying. That’s why Rev 22:18-19 is a dire warning to copyists not to add or remove a single word. (54)

Consider Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Galatia wasn’t a single town – it was a region of Turkey. Did he write to one church or to many? Did one letter circulate, or were copies made? The letter was not written by Paul’s physical hand - Gal 6:11 shows that his handwriting was bigger. So, if dictated, did he dictate word for word or just the general ideas? If word for word, could the scribe have misunderstood some words? At its destination it will certainly be copied – how accurately? (58-9) The first reasonably complete copy we have of Galatians is a papyrus called P46, which dates to about 200 C.E. – 150 years after Paul wrote the letter.(60)

The famous story of the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53 – 8:12) “was not originally part of any of the Gospels. It was added by later scribes… scholars who work on the manuscript tradition have no doubts about this particular case.”(64) The last twelve verses of Mark were also added later.

The first professional scribes were not employed by churches to copy biblical books until the beginning of the fourth century (when Constantine converted to the faith about 312 C.E.)(72)

John Mill, fellow of Queens College, Oxford, spent 30 years collecting as many Greek manuscripts of the NT that he could find. He pubished a list of all “places of variation among all the surviving materials available to him [about 100 mss]. To the shock and dismay of many of his readers, Mill’s apparatus isolated some 30,000 places of variation among the surviving witnesses.” He actually found more than that but did not cite things like changes in word order. (84)

Example of errors: In 1Cor 12:13, Paul says Christians have all “drunk of one Spirit.” Spirit (Pneuma) was typically abbreviated as PMA (with a line over it to indicate an abbrevation). Some scribes “unabbreviated” it as “Poma” rather than “Pneuma” to say that all have “drunk of one drink.”(91)

Some scribes wrote from dictation so homophones were problematical. Rev 1:5 refers to “the one who released us from our sins.” “Lusanti” is the word for “released” and “Lousanti” is the word for “washed”, so some mss refer to the one “who washed us from our sins.”(93)

Some scribes changed text because it didn’t make sense to them. In Matt 24:36 Jesus says re end of the age that “concerning that day and hour, no one knows – not the angels in heaven, nor even the Son, but only the Father.” If Jesus is all-knowing, then he would have to know the day and hour. So some scribes just left out the phrase “not even the Son”. (95)

Text was also changed as the church changed its view re women. 1Tim 2:11-15 says “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent…” Very different from Paul’s view that “in Christ there is… not male and female." Text was often changed to limit the role of women and to minimize their importance to the Christian movement. (182) Because of these changes Paul seems to contradict himself in 1Corinthians. At 11:2-16 he says when they pray and prophesy they are to be sure to wear veils on their heads. But by chapter 14 he is forbidding them from speaking at all. Doesn’t make sense as currently written. (184)

Text also changed to emphasize or de-emphasize Judaism, esp re crucifixion. Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified, or Pilate hands Jesus to them [Jews] to be crucified. Jesus will save “his people” (Jews) or will save “the world.” Salvation comes from Jesus (a Jew) or from “Judea.” etc. (194)

Text was also changed to delete the phrases referring to Jesus as a “carpenter” – considered unworthy for a son of God. (202-3)

The author’s view: The NT is a very human book, the product of human hands. Even if God inspired the original words, we don’t have the original words. If he did inspire the Bible because he wanted people to have his exact words, then he would have preserved his words. Both the authors and the scribes “were human beings with needs, beliefs, worldviews, opinions, loves, hates, longings, desires, situations, problems – and surely all these things affected what they wrote.”(211)


  1. Ssshhh! The historical fact that "God" didn't "write" the English version of the Bible is one of the best kept "secrets" of modern times. If this gets out, who knows what might happen to the certitude possessed by so many.

    Just ordered a copy. Thanks for the review.

  2. A really excellent book. Bart Ehrman said in interviews that he was raised an Episcopalian, converted to evangelism in college, and is now pretty much an agnostic, as a result of researching this book. Even if we had the originals, any English Bible would still be a translation, and translations can never exactly represent the original language.

    I'm so glad you reviewed this book.

  3. I've always been amused how frequently fundamentalist Christians will quote the Old (non-Christian) Testament to bolster their hardcore Christian beliefs.

  4. Thanks so much for this review - I've always wondered about this topic and had not heard of this book until I read your blog. I'm now looking forward to the book's arrival!

    And I'm most curious, is the photo on your top page Skogafoss?

  5. thanks for this, very interesting.

  6. Thanks for the header photo link. Highly recommend a visit there if such travel interests you! Maybe 1000' from this photo is http://www.hotelskogar.is/ - a nice starting point.

  7. I'm a Christian myself and your blog post was very interesting to read. I'm trying to find the book now. Good find. :)

  8. I'm also a Christian, and I find it facinating.

  9. These facts were examined, taught or understood by Biblical scholars when I did my (Anglican) theological training fifty years ago.

  10. ML, the author doesn't claim primacy in these observations; he freely cites studies going back for generations. The information has not, unfortunately, been disseminated widely to the public, so what he's writing is a sort of "layman's guide to Biblical scholarship."

  11. I know of the errancy of transcriptions of the bible through the centuries. Just as different witnesses to an event will tell the story in different ways from differing perspectives. We all have our own story, right? And as that story is passed on through the ages, through different language interpretations, errors of detail can not only be expected but counted on simply because of the errancy of human nature. Yet even today we can still be convicted in courts of law if the witnesses agree on the essence of the matter, despite differences of detail.

    As the cliché goes, "Can't see the forest for the trees". I have walked through the forest and noted the trees. Many spend a lot of time debating the shapes, colors sizes, death and life of the trees of the forest in endless detail and never come to see the forest. I see the forest.

    And still, while the peripheral stories, recitations, transcriptions of teachings may contain human caused errors of detail, the essence of the matter, the spirit and truth of the messages through the ages remain that Jesus is our means to salvation. Faith is deeper than human frailty.

  12. It seems the author has done a lot of study in what he has written. and a lot of facts are presented which are not really the "TRUTH".
    For example you give an example of an "error" made in Mark chapter 2. Really there was no error there. David did eat from the house of the LORD in the "days of Abiathar the high Priest". The scriptures did not say in Mark 2, that Abiathar gave David the bread, but it just highlights that the event happened in the lifetime/"days" of "Abiathar the High Priest". Neither does it say in Mark 2 that Abiathar was high Priest at that time, but Jesus referred to Him as High Priest so that the Pharisees would know who he was speaking of. Remember there were less High Priests than Priests.

    The Bible means exactly as it reads. When you assume and try to interpret it, thats when confusion happens.
    If you read the Bible from an intellectual standpoint, you will probabbly find a lot of errors because you are useing human logic and intellectual sense. But the Bible is not just an ordinary book it takes the Holy Spirit to reveal its contents.


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