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Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why Hardcover – November 1, 2005
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“Whichever side you sit on regarding Biblical inerrancy, this is a rewarding read.” -- Dallas Morning News
“One of the unlikeliest bestsellers of the year.” -- Washington Post
“Misquoting Jesus is a godsend.” -- Philadelphia Inquirer
- Publisher : HarperOne; First Edition (November 1, 2005)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 256 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0060738170
- ISBN-13 : 978-0060738174
- Item Weight : 1.1 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 0.89 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #75,503 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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The practical thesis can be summarized as: We do not possess any of the original writings of the New Testament, and the copies we have are riddled with negligent and/or intentional alterations. Therefore, the New Testament we read today, which is based upon numerous altered copies, is not very close to the original text. And if the original text is the Word of God, the Word of God is lost.
The abstract thesis can be summarized as: For any text, both the author's and the reader's subjective beliefs and experiences condition the meaning of the words, and therefore color the interpretation of the text. As a result, there is no such thing as an objectively true interpretation of a text. The search for the "correct" meaning is fruitless. Therefore, no one can claim to know the true meaning of the text of the New Testament.
The upshot? The New Testament we read today is of human, and not divine, origin (practical thesis), and, in any event, any claim to "the One True Interpretation" is in principle false (abstract thesis).
I will not take a stand on Ehrman's claims but hope I've faithfully outlined them for people deciding whether to purchase the book. I am familiar with but not well-versed in either the New Testament or textual criticism. Nonetheless, I found his arguments and analysis easy to track. The broad historical information was interesting, and the biblical passages he focuses on to illustrate his points are engaging instead of arcane. Some may consider this book anti-religious, but Ehrman's tone is respectful and honest, not polemical. For such a short, accessible book, the reader can gain a lot from reading it.
Ehrman quickly learns that there are no longer any "original texts" anywhere. The earliest texts found, more fragmented the farther back one goes, come from the 2nd century some 100 years after Jesus' death. None of the original Apostles, nor Paul are any longer alive at that point, and what early notes exist for geographically fragmented communities are already copies of lost originals. Even if the literal-original writing was "inspired by God" as fundamentalists claim, by the opening of the 2nd century the earliest copies of these writings have already passed through human hands and the real originals are no more. Except for the Christian community of Alexandria where professional scribes already existed, all of the early copies were made by amateur believers who, as it happened could read and write, and so copied texts for their congregations; sometimes well and sometimes poorly. It was not until late in the 4th century that more professional scribes assumed the copyist role.
Roughly the first half of the book is taken up with the history of textual criticism. Ehrman leads us through early (17th century) classification attempts and the techniques developed to determine which texts were "more original" than others. Ehrman notes that in many many cases even that matter cannot be decided with any finality. That the modern obsession with the text began after the Reformation is no accident. Protestant scholars were far more compulsive about the text than Catholics. Protestant theology and doctrine rests entirely on the text, while Catholicism has its priestly class for precisely the task of interpreting the text in what ever form it takes. By the 18th century, scholars had identified some 30,000 textual variations in the manuscripts that come together as the then relatively stabilized New Testament.
Most of these variations were simply mistakes made by non-professional copyists. Sometimes they left out a word or whole sentences. Sometimes what there were of literal originals were physically degraded even when first copied. Copyists sometimes had to "fill in the blanks", a smudged word, or a bleed-through from some earlier text on the page for example. So why not go back to the more professional Alexandrian texts and call those "closest to original"? Because while the vast majority of changes were copy errors, not all were merely that. Here and there changes were made for theological and socio-political reasons. In point of fact (something he does not mention) the Alexandrian scholars were among those who, by the early 5th Century, were considered among the heretical sects by the then solidifying Roman Church. Ehrman does not mention is the textual difference between the modern Western (Roman) and Eastern (Greek and Eastern European "Orthodox") churches. His aim is historical, and he does cover the early Greek texts whose alterations became mixed in with all of the others.
In the second half of the book Ehrman covers three types of changes made deliberately by one group of copyists or another so as to make the text easier to read and better line up with the various theological opinions and social controversies of the time, each propounded by groups of believers who were doing their own copying! In the end, Ehrman is forced to conclude that even the lost originals were probably not autodidacts (texts dictated by God) because if God had wanted Christians to have his un-corrupted words in perpetuity, He would have made sure the originals survived.
I gave the book 5 stars not because the book's subject was of great interest to me, but because Dr. Ehrman does such a marvelous job of treating a scholarly subject (many many references are provided) with easy to read language aimed at non-scholars of the subject like myself.
Top reviews from other countries
I've never truly understood how it came to be, and why it seems to be a confused collection of separate works, as opposed to a clear dictation from the all mighty. This book not only explains the origins, but it also does so with clarity and ease, and that's greatly appreciated.
Let me say this was an excellent book. The author it seems is a brilliant teacher. Clear explanations and written in a style that is vivid and engaging especially for what could be a slightly dour and dusty subject if you're not specifically into the history of the biblical text. Which I'm not really in any meaning full way.
My mind is dancing with curiosity even more so after reading. Yes, this book clearly demonstrates the Bible isn't divinely inspired as such, with so many glaring sometimes embarrassing examples of openly human intervention. But it's more than just those examples or errors alone for me.
I now want to know more, the original traditions that the first authors used to craft this most important of books, where did they come from? More questions, I want to dive deeper, which is a good thing as the author has written several books on this, and i now crave more!
Bart D Ehrman has found a new fan in me, this being the first book of his I've read. I will already be deep into the next one following on from this, probably finished it, by the time you read this.
Misquoting Jesus is essential reading for Christians and anyone outside of that with evem a slight interest in religion. It's great.
I have learned a great deal about the problems of textual criticism, and it was fun to read how early scribes may have altered the text in such a way that our modern reading has been affected by it. And how modern scholarship is attempting to recover the originals.
But it's the "more or less" that I have problems with. It is clear that Erhman has a slant, an agenda. I do not mean this in a derogatory fashion. We all have our slants and our agendas. And this has coloured his opinions. There were parts of the text where I really felt he was stretching it. It's hard to remember all of the areas i felt he was doing this, but just this morning I finished up the last chapter where he delves into the anti-Semitic reasons as to why early scribes may have changed the text. He speaks with such certainty, but like so much in this field his opinions are only conjecture. Perhaps very good and logical, but sitting there reading I was able to come up with other possible scenarios (using the principles he gives) as to why the text may have changed.
Ehrman tries to portray himself as a disinterested scholar, but it is clear he dislikes Christianity even though he has given his life to the study of it. That's fine. But one should be aware that this will affect the way one looks at the evidence and how one interprets it.
I believe Christianity is primarily about a relationship with Jesus Christ, which is why I am not too bothered by the idea that textual variants have appeared in the manuscripts. Fundamentalistic religion balks at the idea and squirms around it, but the Word is a Person, not ink on a page.
Given that so many changes were made during the initial centuries following the writing of the original New Testament manuscripts, we can't know what those originals actually said. All we know is what later writers offer us ... and, as these later documents are so very different from each other, we've no idea which - if any - is more authentic. What's more, still later versions of the New Testament - such as the King James - are is various ways different from the earliest existing manuscripts. So further changes - throughout the second half of the first millennium, and during the first half of the second millennium - have been made. Sentences in the text have been altered; new sentences have been added!
What Ehrman does is provide us with a fascinating account on who changed the New Testament. This is a book written with a popular audience in mind, and it's straightforward to understand. I found it an enjoyable read ... But it is rather short (at some 218 pages), and it goes into little detail as regards what the alterations and changes actually are. Ehrman points out that such adaptations have been made, but says too little about their specifics. I would have enjoyed a more in-depth study. Fortunately, the author has written such a book - The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament .
I think it's fair to say it complements his other works but if you were starting out on the works of Bart Ehrman, I'd try some of his other writings first - particularly the recent "How Jesus Became God". Ehrman is much heavier going than Reza Aslan ("Zealot"), but ultimately more rewarding. He may lack Aslan's fast paced story telling ability, but the analysis is more rewarding and deeper. That's not to diminish Aslan who has clearly gone for a more populist approach.
What Ehrman forces Christians to face up to is a combination of amateur, blundering scribes in the first centuries, deliberate alterations and "improvements" to the texts and a total absence of copyright law in the ancient world. Thousands of changes have wormed their way into the New Testament including accounts of Jesus's life and works that were inserted into the gospels from other sources. Theological agendas have removed offending words from the original texts and mistranslations have been repeated and accepted.
A fascinating book.