549 of 586 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2001
This book is about one group of Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries who, writing before the canon had been set, fought heatedly against sects of Christians it considered heretical. This group - the 'proto-orthodox' - modified its scriptures to avoid alternative interpretations of Jesus, and in so doing, ironically corrupted its own sacred texts.
'Corruption' sounds negative, but it's a technical term. It just means that the original text has been modified. Ehrman is not trying to make swiss cheese out of the New Testament. He states that "by far the vast majority of [textual variants] are 'accidental'." But some of them have too much relevance to the intense theological disputes of the pre-canonical period to be random error.
The 4 heretical positions discussed are 1) adoptionism, 2) separationism, 3) doceticism, and 4) Patripassianism.
Adoptionism is the belief that Jesus was a man who was 'adopted' by God to carry out one of his plans. When God adopted a man, the man became a 'Son' only at that moment to the Father. When an adult David was crowned king, he was adopted by God. When Jesus is declared 'Son of God' at his baptism - it did NOT mean he was himself divine, although he certainly had a special relationship to God. Jesus was not divine- just a great man in God's eyes, chosen for a task.
Separationism is a Gnostic view that Jesus was a man, and the Christ was a divine spirit - and that at Jesus' baptism (again!) the Christ entered him, empowered him to accomplish miracles, and then left him on the cross (helps make sense of Mark 15:34). Jesus the man was thus separable from the Christ, a divine spirit.
Docetism is the view that Jesus only appeared to have a real, fleshly human body, but being God, really did not. Jesus' body is more like a phantom or temporary body, a rental. This sounds strange - but surely Jesus couldn't have an erection, or defecate? The discomfort we might feel here shows the docetic in all of us. Gnostics were VERY big on docetism - since they thought that the material realm was tainted and evil.
Patripassianism is the belief that the trinity is false, that there is only ONE god. So this entails that Yahweh HIMSELF was crucified, arrested, beaten, etc.
Most of the corruptions are surprisingly subtle and minor in appearance - most of them are a change in one or two words in a single passage. For example, changing a reference from reading 'Jesus' to 'Jesus Christ' was born in a manger affirms that Jesus was divine from BIRTH, that he was UNIFIED in his being as well. This one corruption could be used by orthodoxy to maintain an interpretation that resists adoptionist or separationist attack. .
But the four heresies are, after all, pretty simple to grasp. For a book that can be meticulous and involved in its argument, the basic ideas are straightorward. In fact, there are only 6 chapters - an intro, a chapter for each heresy, and a conclusion. Very simple organization. Each chapter has substantial footnotes that can be very interesting to read themselves, as well as sources for further information.
Ehrman's book is not dry, but it is detailed and involved in parts. I don't know New Testament Greek, but he frequently quotes Greek phrases with a translation. However, there are numerous cases where he does NOT translate, and that gets a bit rough. I had to reread perhaps 5 of his passages several times to get the flow of his argument. Once he sets it up, most of the corruptions are easy to see coming. In fact, sometimes it gets a little tedious. He presents an argument for each corruption, some of them truly fascinating, though. Many of them are speculative in nature, and he acknowledges that.
The most crucial class of corruptions are the ones that Ehrman thinks have made it into the canon. These he argues very carefully, and the context he provides is terrific. Some examples are 1) the adoptionist hints in Luke 3:22 (baptism again!), Jesus' bloody sweat (Luke 22:43-44), Luke's version of the Last Supper (22:19-20), Peter's visit to the tomb in Luke 24:12, and the title 'Son of God' in Mark 1:1.
The vast majority, however, of the corruptions he lists have NOT made their way into the modern bible, at least not the NSRV Oxford bible that I own. He gives his reasons for each of these in full.
Importantly, none of the corruptions themselves were carried out in a systematic way - the orthodox church never seemed to have a policy of corruption. Ehrman is careful not to attribute any malicious intention to the orthodox scribes, as well. Rather, it comes off that a scribe here and there would see the potential misreading, and then insert his own modification to 'clarify' what (he) thought was obviously already there in the text.
Interestingly, some of the corruptions themselves cause further problems! A corruption that helps emphasize Jesus' humanity, and thereby removes a docetic threat - can also open the text up to adoptionist readings. One can't help see the tighrope walk involved for the orthodox - and Ehrman hints that this refusal to yield to either side's heresy forced the orthodox sect to embrace that paradoxical understanding of Jesus' nature - all God AND all human, one god BUT three 'aspects.' (This helped explain to me, at least, the bizarre Trinity. It's always seemed like a construct - trying to have one's theological cake and eat it too.) Learning to spot those ancient heresies helped me read the bible more carefully. Far from being a unified, flawless block of dead doctrine, the New Testament now brims with the tensions and questions of its overlapping and also competing Christological perspectives. The bible is a complex collection of writings - Ehrman's book helped the New Testament become much more of a living book to me.
207 of 226 people found the following review helpful
on March 15, 2001
The author argues that the parties which triumphed in defining Christianity at Nicea and Chalcedon (the proto-orthodox) "improved" the not-yet-stabilized canon of the New Testament in the second and third centuries A.D. to counter those Christians whom they considered heretics. Using the proto-orthodox views of Separationist, Docetic, Adoptionist and Patripassianist beliefs, the author studies the earliest existing copies of what became the New Testament for clues to the controversies and their effect on what was actually written in these copies.
Christology is the center of this study. What the heretics believed in opposition to what the proto-orthodox believed about the nature of Christ are the only parts of the developing canon which are scrutinized. Scrutinized is perhaps too broad a word. The author puts the various extant texts under an electron microscope of scholarly inquiry. Textual variants, external attestations, transcriptional probabilities, and intrinsic probabilities of what parts were "original" and what parts are "improvements" are culled with a fine toothed comb. Have a good Greek grammar handy because many of the arguments hinge on a verb tense, word substitutions, genders, possessives and antecedents. I have no Greek so many of the proofs of these arguments were beyond me.
Did second and third century scribes change what became the New Testament as a result of Christological controversies within the early Church? It would appear so based on the evidence presented in this book. The author is throughout charitable to these individual scholars of long ago, recognizing that he can only guess at the motivations of these anonymous men of the pen. The evidence that they made what was written in the developing canon "say" what they already knew the words to "mean" is compelling. Besides giving insight into how these texts were transmitted to us, the book also provides a potted history of the various heretical controversies of these early centuries. I found it to be a hard read on a fascinating topic.
119 of 131 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2003
Ehrman goes on a investigative journey into the heart of the biblical texts to unearth evidence of quite extensive manipulation of the original text of the New Testament. Although much of this work is very detailed argumentation and goes far beyond the textual knowledge of the typical layperson it remains accessible. It's a compelling account of the textual history.
The finest chapter is that which deals with the initial environment of Christianity, the diversity of faiths present, and the struggle over an emerging orthodoxy not solidified until the fourth century. Explicating this, Ehrman provides an informative account of a particular portion of the early history of the church. He reviews the various church fathers, their writings, and their polemical attacks against their opponents. It should come as no surprise that the evidence of who these opponents actually were does not agree with the orthodox interpretation of them as sensual, deviant deceivers and idolaters. In many cases, there were honest differences of opinion and each group sought its own way of accommodating the writings of the new church and the Old Testament.
Each succeeding chapter deals with a different controversy. The lengthiest discussion is related to orthodox changes made to scripture regarding whether Jesus was the adopted Son of God, a very righteous man or the pre-existent image of God. A straight reading of the earliest gospel of Mark leads to the adoptionist conclusion. Especially troublesome was John's baptism of Jesus and the subsequent arrival of the spirit of God in bodily form and God's pronouncement of Jesus' son-ship. Besides this appearing in all three synoptic gospels, with the addition of Matthew's clever manipulation to ensure proper interpretation of the event, there are many instances where the mention of Jesus' earthly father Joseph has been changed to align with more orthodox beliefs. Ehrman provides an extensive discussion and defense of his conclusion that Luke's baptism pericope originally had the voice of God state "today I have begotten you", not simply "whom I have begotten" as currently appears in all bibles.
The remaining chapters deal with separationist, docetic, and patripassianist heresies. Separationists believe that Jesus and the Christ were separate beings, docetists that Jesus lacked a material body, and patripassianists that Jesus was the Father God Himself who had suffered, died, and risen. All are very interesting.
This may not be a good book for a layperson, unless you are highly interested in the textual history of the New Testament. For some, this may be too much parsing, and textual analysis. But, if you can get through it, it is extremely helpful and interesting knowledge.
57 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 1999
Ehrman lays out with admirable clarity and directness his thesis: that scribes of the faction of early Christianity which eventually became the dominant one (which has in hindsight been dubbed "orthodox") in the course of its conflicts with the other factions (now called the "heretics") massaged particular scriptural passages as they copied them to either: 1) provide proof-texts for orthodox Christology; or 2) neutralize potential proof-texts for the heretics. My acquaintance with the mechanics of "textual criticism" was only slight before reading this book, but the reasoning and method are so lucid that I've had no difficulty learning a great deal simply by watching Ehrman work. I've found it a surprisingly enjoyable read. It's probably a bit dry for most people's taste -- but if you didn't enjoy "dry" you probably wouldn't be looking at a book with this title anyway, would you?
45 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on May 11, 2005
I haven't seen the scribes' copies of the New Testament which were compared for this book. I don't read Greek anyway. So that puts me at a severe disadvantage when it comes to judging Ehrman's findings. I trust to Bible scholars to verify Ehrman's accuracy. As to his selection, it seems he has presented a great many examples of changes in the texts that seem made during early Christianty to rule out heretical interpretations. It seems he has done an incredible amount of reading and comparing of these early texts.
There's a lot of scholarly details. Ehrman is sensitive to that: he recommends in the introduction that non-scholars may want to just read the beginning and conclusion of the four chapters that are very detailed. However, a lay reader could profit from reading everything.
Ehrman selected four significant heresies to focus on. Each has a chapter. Each of those chapters presents textual changes that would make sense if scribes were trying to avoid the heresy covered in that chapter. There is also a introductory chapter and a concluding chapter. I was surprised how many textual changes Ehrman was able to present in each chapter. Sometimes it wasn't clear to me how the change led to text less likely to support a heretical view, but many of the changes seem quite plausible. I didn't feel that Ehrman was pushing convenient interpretations on me; it seemed that the textual changes spoke for themselves. But I did appreciate the historical background Ehrman provides. He seems to have a good understanding of the various Gnostic Christian beliefs present during early Christianity.
Elaine Pagel's "The Gnostic Gospels" is a top down look at Christian Gnosticism, with a lot of her conclusions and some selected reference to details. Ehrman's book is instead a bottom up look, that presents a huge amount of details and a brief conclusion. Although it was more work for me to read Ehrman, it felt like I was participating in the process that led him to his conclusions rather than just hearing afterward of the conclusions he had arrived at. I like having so much exposed of what led an author to his/her conclusions, so I value Ehrman for his approach.
Being from an age of print and electronics, I'd never considered that the New Testament texts wouldn't match the originals, but often not quite exact copies made by scribes who may have taken small, but significant, liberties with the text. Because the meanings appear to differ (even if subtly) in most if not all of the examples Ehrman provided, it makes one wonder how literal an interpretation of a modern New Testament can be, as it depended not only on passages changed in the Greek but also translated.
Like translators, scribes have some power indeed.
59 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on August 21, 2005
This work illuminates the intrigue behind the transmission of New Testament scripture during the early centuries of Christianity. Over five thousand extant manuscripts from the second to the sixteenth century contain probably hundreds of thousands of corruptions. Most are accidental and easily corrected by Greek scholars. However, intentional alterations serve to advance the theological agenda of one school of thought or another. Some of these corruptions emerged from the pre-Nicene Christological debate.
The task of the textual critic is to ferret out the corruptions and unveil what is true to the autographs. Ehrman seeks to identify these intentional corruptions and explain them in terms of the Christological agenda of various factions. Eventually, those ideas which prevailed in the debate became codified in the creeds of the church. Ehrman calls those who held them "proto-orthodox." Proto-orthodox scribes are responsible for some of those corruptions. The average lay Christian may find it unsettling that the transmission of the New Testament has been tainted with errors which have not all been resolved even today. Nevertheless, it is important for one to know about the complexities involved in the history of its transmission and preservation. It is my favorite reference source in my personal library. I recommend it highly to all Christians who wish to have a deeper understanding of the history and intrigue behind the development of the New Testament as it is preserved for us today.
105 of 128 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 1999
Many books have been written about the search for the historical Jesus, and most attempt to use non-biblical data to cast doubt on the literal truth of the scriptures. Having thus established that the Bible is largely symbolic, the authors can then speculate about their own theories about who Jesus really was.
However, this approach is heavily criticized by the orthodoxy which claims that noncanonical works are inherently suspect as having been written by doubters wishing to subvert Jesus' claims.
Bart Ehrman takes the novel approach in this fine, dense work of taking the orthodoxy's own hallowed texts and pointing out, word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase, where those texts have been altered, edited, harmonized and elided with official sanction.
He makes a very powerful case that the bible was written by men--many men, and continuously revised by men--many men. This leaves the field open to content analysts who try to decypher what was originally meant, and what the later editors decided needed updating or elision. It is an exciting approach, one that is reviled to the point of apoplexy by the rigidly orthodox.
30 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2008
In earlier reviews of Ehrman's writings, I commented on his style as being light, and witty, but without sacrifice of meaning and content. It was an ideal style for a college text. This work, however, is written in echt akademisch. It's quite dense, and requires much re-reading of paragraphs and even sentences to grasp meaning. Although difficult, it is a compelling work of scholarship that has wide implications for those who cannot see scripture as anything but divinely inspired.
Ehrman's thesis, simply, is that during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, scribes and copyists altered the words of their sacred texts to ensure that these reflected and emphasized orthodox (rather proto-orthodox) thinking and that they could not be used as evidence or witness by those holding differing views. He does his analysis within the context of three Christological debates of the time. Adoptionism, the view that Christ was a man but not God; docetism, the view that He was God, and not a man; and, separationism, the view that the divine Christ was distinct from the human Jesus. In a shorter chapter he also examines variants of texts that oppose patripassianist Christologies, those that held that God the Father suffered on the cross.
To best explain his methodology, we might take the case of Luke 3:22, the baptism of Jesus by John. Many of the standard New Testaments essentially read, "You are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased." However, the earliest versions of this pericope--versions found in the works of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, authors of the Didascalia, and later in Lactantius and Augustine--read "You are my Son, today I have begotten you." The "today" probably stuck in the craw of those scribes who found it too redolent of an adoptionist view, and the pericope was improved. But the earlier version could not be easily discarded, as it comes directly from Psalm 2, which proclaims the Kingdom of the Son of God (David), so other manuscripts which found their way into scripture (the New Jerusalem Bible of 1985 has the "today" version) were left uncut.
Christianity of the 2nd and 3rd centuries was by no means monolithic. It's erroneous to think of an orthodox Church beset by heresies, although this is the picture provided by the great heresiologists. Rather there were a number of competing viewpoints, one of which was the proto-orthodox, or mainstream view that eventually dominated other arguments and in the 4th and 5th centuries, and became the prescribed orthodox dogma in both east and west. In this process of movement, "corruption" or redacting of texts to fit a prescribed view was probably commonplace. And the redacted texts and manuscripts eventually became canonical.
Heavily documented with an extensive bibliography of secondary sources. Not as much fun to read as his later books, but almost awe-inspiring in its erudition. Ehrman really made his bones with this work.
29 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on November 28, 2006
I read this book in January and was so encapsulated by it, I read it in one sitting. Ehrman's thesis is that proto-Orthodox scribes corrupted the text of the New Testament against proof-texts used by heretics. The various heresies such scribes attempted to protect their flavour of Christianity against including movements such as Modalism, where the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three modes (whence "Modalism") of the one person; Docetism (Jesus only appeared to have suffered) and adoptionalism (Jesus was not born the Son of God, but was adopted such).
I cannot recommend this text enough to those interested in a study of the New Testament. There are many people, predominately fundamentalists, who labour under the (false) a priori assumption that the text of the New Testament has been relatively unchanged since the composition of the originals. This text puts the lie to this, and reveals that many of the variants are of theological importance, contra apologists to this claim (e.g., Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe).
I have recommended this text to a number of people, and I strongly recommend it to those who read this review.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2013
Bart’s book does a very good job of presenting the evidence that scribes made many changes to later surviving copies of the New Testament books, particularly the Gospels and Acts. Of course, these alterations enhanced the orthodox view of scripture and these changes can be categorized by the various forms of Gnosticism that the changes were intended to refute.
DO NOT expect an easy read. In fact, the footnotes of several chapters are longer than the chapters themselves.
However, the underlying question of what orthodox changes exist in our earliest existent books from the actual first (non-surviving) editions (original manuscripts) is not and can never be answered. However, given the corrupting alterations made from earlier to later existing copies that have survived, it is safe to say that even our earliest known copies probably have similar corruptions and that the content of the pure, unaltered forms of New Testament manuscripts can only be conjectured. And, of course, even those could not have been free of corruptions of the oral tradition passed down decades after the actual events.