The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
Hard Cover, 272 pages
Author: Bart D. Ehrman
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
I had heard great things about this book, even from those who disagree with the author, and so finding it at my local library, I picked it up. And am glad I did. I enjoyed the book throughout!
Misquoting Jesus is a great introduction into the field of textual criticism, by someone with a lot of expertise in the field. Ehrman intends to show the reader that the New Testament books have a multiplicity of alterations that have accumulated over time, and illustrate briefly the tools that scholars and others use to try to get back – as close as possible – to the “original” content. Ehrman offers a gripping narrative, and his retelling of history is often insightful and well-orchestrated. Whether discussing theologically-motivated changes to the text, or just misspellings and other accidental alterations, Ehrman shows a great love and respect for the value of the Bible; if not as a religiously authoritative book, at least pivotal in the making of Western culture.
Ehrman’s style is friendly and polite, which is very much appreciated in a work of this nature. He offers a lot of questions, and though rhetorical, or soon answered, this gives the book a feel of conversation, rather than just prolonged diatribe. Though intending to show that scribes did in fact alter the text, both accidentally and purposefully at times, he shows great compassion for the labors of scribes – especially those of the second and third centuries – those who did the work as amateurs, in his view, not as professionals. Sometimes, Ehrman’s sentences don’t flow nicely, seeming jumpy, lacking a good flow. But even in these instances, it is because he is trying to be diplomatic and lead his reader, rather than just make an assertion and move on.
Though I enjoyed Ehrman’s style and wealth of information, I did not always agree with either his assumptions/assertions, or his conclusions. Much of the information he shares I see no reason to disagree with, but I don’t feel compelled to go along with all of the conclusions reached. But he provided a truly great amount of information that can be reviewed and studied by those who are truly interested and willing to dig deeper. His passion and awareness of the mystery and adventure – the detective work of the textual critic – is likely to inspire many readers to look more deeply at the Scripture they read – even if they find they cannot agree with Ehrman at times. I know I have a number of things to look at more deeply, questions or topics that Ehrman brought to my attention (such as the original wording of Hebrews 1:3).
I did find some amount of inconsistency at times: one particular instance that stands out is the multiple times he refers to 1 Timothy 3:16 and its textual variants. The first time it is introduced, it is described as an accidental alteration, used to describe the use of nomina sacra and exemplary of bleed-through of the page. The second time, however, it is a theologically-motivated alteration. I was left wondering what to make of this clash of thoughts.
Also, Ehrman seems unwilling to treat New Testament usage of Old Testament, and its effects – good or bad – on the art and science of textual criticism. A number of times he simply ignores the ramifications that a review of Old Testament usage and form would have had on the understanding or alteration of a specific passage, even when it would have supported his argument. (e.g. the discussion of “Today I have begotten you” and its relationship to anti-adoptionism on pages 159-160)
Overall, I give this book ★★★☆☆. It is a very readable introduction to the history of New Testament textual criticism, and is sure to provide food for thought for the mindful reader.