Review and Essay: Misquoting Jesus
“The bible must be seen in a cultural context. It didn’t just happen. These stories are retreads. But, tell a Christian that — No, No! What makes it doubly sad is that they hardly know the book, much less its origins.” -Isaac Asimov
Asimov brings up a point that Bart Ehrman makes in his own autobiographical introduction to Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why: Most Christians, especially fundamentalists and biblical literalists, don’t know the origins of the bible they read and revere. Ehrman started off as a born again evangelical, so serious about his religion that he wanted to become a bible scholar. His story led him down a path toward reasoning freely as his independent scholarship threw off the shackles of authority (the evangelical preachers and bible study leaders of his childhood) and let him reconstruct the bible himself. By his work, lay readers can skip the years of graduate education and see where the bible came from themselves.
Bart Ehrman, author of this surprising bestseller, is chair of the department of religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill. He’s not one of the New Atheists like Dawkins or Hitchins, and he has a lot of respect for the bible, having based his life’s work on it.
Liberal, educated Christians probably already have an idea that the bible we find in motel dresser drawers is different from what Christians were reading in the first several centuries after the time of Christ. The fact is, we don’t have any of the original works that are in today’s bible. We don’t have any works that were copies made in the time of Christ. We don’t have any copies from the first century. We have a few tattered copies of some of the books from the second century CE, mostly from the later half. The oldest piece of the bible we have is P52, a scrap of papyrus written in the first half of the second century. It contains parts of John 18. It wasn’t until the fourth century that the New Testament books, as we know them, were compiled into one canon, and even then, it was one of many competing ideas about what Christians though should be Christian orthodoxy.
The competing ideas about what should be Christian orthodoxy are one of many motives scribes had for changing the bible. In the first few centuries, the men and women who copied Christian scripture were amateur Christians — the ones who could write and who had the free time to make copies. Simple mistakes (misspellings, accidental omissions, word substitutions) were common, as were well-meaning “corrections” by scribes assuming the previous copyist got something wrong, and then there are the intentional alterations and additions. What Christianity meant was still settling out, and the texts were the core of what it was about, so when one group insisted that Christ was wholly human, they “clarified” passages that seemed to indicate otherwise. Scribes who thought women should have less of a role in the church, or Gentiles who blamed the Jews for the death of Christ also made “clarifications.” You’d be surprised by how much import a simple rewording can have. We’re talking about theology here, where meanings are very subjective and metaphorical to begin with. The meaning of theology, like poetry, is extremely fragile. Two words that mean the same thing when used in an essay or scientific paper have vastly different meanings in scripture. Ehrman gives some prominent examples of these changes in his book. Here’s just one (follow along at home: p183 of Misquoting Jesus): 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.
I tried to think of a freethinker angle on this book, and one finally came to me. Christopher Hitchins said that he was often criticized for showing the contradictions and inhumanity in the Bible by people telling him he had no right to do so when so many had put years and volumes into their exegesis and textual criticism. His typically flippant response was that you don’t have to be an expert on Italian fashion to recognize that the emperor has no clothes. But to anyone deciding for himself how reliable the Bible is, Ehrman’s book gives a working lay familiarity with “Italian fashion.”
That is, if you’re a Christian, you need to understand where your book came from and how (un)reliable it is. Don’t just take the ministry’s word for it. Before the printing press, there was no version of the bible available to the people other than St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. The printing of bibles in languages that most people could actually read rocked the world. Now, with the internet, we have hyperlinked bibles like the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible (linked above). With modern scholarship, we have annotated print bibles as well, like the Harper Collins Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version. (In the bonus content in my copy, Ehrman recommends this edition, because it has good translations and annotations, and considers a lot of the findings of textual criticism). And we even have some of the more reliable ancient texts available online, in case you can read Greek.
The freethinker angle, then, is that even if you wanted to accept the authority of the bible, that authority is in question because these words (especially the King James Version, which was translated from a Greek text that was cobbled together from some bad sources) are not the accurate line of textual tradition back to the original authors — and there is no way to know that tradition. And even the original authors changed the text! Luke read Mark, then changed his words! Luke (Matthew too) copies some parts of Mark word for word, and changes others to tell the story of Jesus with different words, deeds and character traits. You can read the Bible to select just the good parts for your own, personal, exegesis based on an understanding of the text as lower-case-“i” inspiration. Or you can read it and decide it’s a bunch of hooey. Whatever you want to get out of the bible, you should read it critically.
“Properly read, the bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived” — Isaac Asimov
Given how Ehrman’s personal autobiography ends, I think “properly read” means to read with a critical eye and a broad understanding of the history of the documents that became the Bible — to reason freely, informed by facts, not the opinions of others. If you find yourself arguing a position against an author while you read a text, you probably aren’t reasoning freely. My technique is to take breaks from reading and think or write about the book, but while I’m looking at the page, I try to follow the author’s argument and understand it as presented. All the better to tear it apart, if it’s poorly formed, because then I can dissect the author’s point, rather than what I mistakenly believe to be the author’s point.
Minchin’s spoken word says, “Faith is the denial of observation so that Belief can be preserved.” Keep that in mind when you’re reading the bible: If you observe something that doesn’t make sense, don’t just deny it by writing it off or assuming you’ve read something dark into it that shouldn’t be there. Understand that the original authors (or at least their mysterious copyists) probably meant it. If it sounds fucked up, it probably is. Unless you literally cut out the bad parts, this is your religion. Take it or leave it.
(See Ehrman’s book on the problem of evil, or read the bonus material in the new edition of Misquoting if you want the spoiler ending to his autobiography, by the way. He doesn’t tell in the original text of Misquoting, and it really doesn’t matter.)