Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Literature: Misquoting Jesus - The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman

Misquoting Jesus - The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
Bart D. Ehrman
HarperSan Francisco, 2005
ISBN 10-06-073817-0

Dr. Bart Ehrman chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of many books including The Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (2003), Lost Scriptures : Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (2003), The New Testament : A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (2003), and Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code : A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine (2004). A central theme of Dr. Erhman's research into early Christian history has been analyzing exactly what words are recorded in the accepted Christian biblical canon. The short answer is no original text (contemporaneous with Jesus and the Apostles), only texts written 400 years after the fact are found in the Bible. In that intervening time, these texts were copied and changed, either by mistake or intentionally, tens of thousands of times between the Jesus' death and the invention of the printing press. In the introduction, Ehrman recounts his standard Midwestern Episcopal background and subsequent salvation in an evangelical church. Having decided to study the Bible, Ehrman enrolls in the Moody Bible Institute, where the only biblical perspective taught was one of scripture being the inerrant word of God, containing no mistakes. It is here that the budding theologian realized:

There was an obvious problem, however, with the claim that the Bible was verbally inspired--down to its very words. As we learned at Moody in one of the first courses in curriculum, we don't actually have the original writings of the New Testament. What we have are copies of these writings, made years later--in most cases, many years later. Moreover, none of these copies is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changes them in places. All scribes did this. So rather than actually having the inspired words of the autograph (i.e., the originals) of the Bible, what we have are error-ridden copies of the autographs. On of the most pressing tasks, therefore, was to ascertain what the originals of the bible said, given the circumstances that (1) they were inspired and (2) we don't have them.I must say that many of my friends at Moody did not consider this task to be all that significant or interesting. They were happy to rest on the claim that the autographs had been inspired, and to shrugg off, more or less, the problem that the autographs do not survive.

That was the mustard seed planted in Ehrman's psyche that grew into the giant bush that is his career quest. Ehrman uses the remainder of the book to brace his argument by giving an overview of the origins of Christian writing, manuscript copying practices, the different texts of the New Testament, methods used in textual critcism, the important "original' texts, and the social worlds of the text. Within thesse confines, Erhman details the types of changes made in manuscritp copying: errors, clarifications, theological alterations, political alterations, etc.

Ehrman provides several examples of changes made over time, but his piece de resistance was a comparison that we laymen could have made-- that of the Gospel of Mark against the Gospel of Luke. It is generally recognized that the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel written, between 66 and 80 C.E. Mark was closely associated with Peter, perhaps as a disciple or a scribe.
It is further thought that the synoptic Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as a source as the first three or gospels are closely related. By one count, of 662 verses, Mark has 406 in common with both Matthew and Luke, 145 with Matthew alone, 60 with Luke alone, and at most 51 unique its own. The similarities among the synoptic gospels surpasses the level of the same selection of stories about Jesus told and extrapolates to the use of many of the same words and phrases in their telling. The synoptic problem is an investigation into whether and how the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke used each other or common sources.

Most scholars believe that Mark was written first and employed by Matthew and Luke ("Markan priority"). A currently popular solution to the synoptic problem is theTwo-Source hypothesis that proposes the gospels of Matthew and Luke also drew liberally from a non-extant collection—called Q after German Quelle, meaning "source". Most supporters of the Two-Source hypothesis do not think there is a literary connection between Mark and Q, but a couple of active scholars have argued that Mark had some knowledge of Q.

The Gospel of Luke is thought to have been written between 60 and 100 C.E., though more recent scholarship places its writing after the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and well after the Gospel of Mark was composed. Believing the proposed resolution to the synoptic problem, sections of Luke differ substantially from that of Mark, particularly in the pre-Passion scenes. Compare the agony in the garden:

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death," he said to them. "Stay here and keep watch." Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Simon," he said to Peter, "are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him. Returning the third time, he said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!"

Mark 14:32-42 (NIV)

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, "Pray that you will not fall into temptation." He withdrew about a stone's throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. "Why are you sleeping?" he asked them. "Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation."

Luke 22:39-46 (NIV)

Mark depicts a distracted anxious Jesus not exactly interested in execution. He appeals to his Father three times that this cup pass from him. Luke's Jesus appears in complete control and while under great pressure, still maintains his Hemingway hero standing as the Son of God. Imperfect as the NIV translation is, the Mark Jesus does not equal the Luke Jesus. Mark's Jesus sounds very human, divinity is minimized. The opposite is true for the Luke Jesus. These two gospels continue to diverge during the death scene:

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Mark 15:34 (NIV)

It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last.

Luke 23:44-46 (NIV)

These are two very different people in these descriptions of the same scene. Because of these disparate descriptions from scripture, it begs the question, what was the author of Luke trying to accomplish with his or her revisionist history of Mark's account. Ehrman stops short of overstating himself in concluding his book:

It bears repeating that the decisions that have to be made are by no means obvious, and that competent, well-meaning, highly intelligent scholars often come to opposite conclusions when looking at the same evidence. These scholars are not just a group of odd, elderly, basically irrelevant academics holed up in a few libraries around the world; some of them are, and always have been, highly influential on society and culture. The Bible is, by all accounts, the most significant book in the history of Western civilization. And how do we think we have access to the Bible? Hardly any of us actually read it in the original language, and even those of us who do, there are very few who ever look at a manuscript — let alone a group of manuscripts. How then do we know what was originally in the Bible? A few people have gone to the trouble of doing textual criticism, reconstructing the “original” text based on the wide array of manuscripts that differ from one another in a thousand places. Then someone else has taken that reconstructed Greek text, in which textual decision have been made… and translated it into English. What you read is that English translation — and not just you, but millions of people like you. How do these millions of people know what is in the New Testament? The “Know because scholars with unknown names, identities, backgrounds, qualifications, predilections, theologies, and personal opinions have told them what is in the New Testament. But what if the translators have translated the wrong text? It has happened before. The King James Version is filled with places in which the translators rendered a Greek text derived from Erasmus’s edition, which is based on a single twelfth-century manuscript that is one of the worst of the manuscripts that we now have available to us! It’s no wonder that some Bible-believing Christians prefer to pretend there’s never been a problem, since God inspired the King James Bible instead of the original Greek! (As the old saw goes, If the King James was good enough for Saint Paul, it’s good enough for me).

Reality is never neat, however, and in this case we need to face up to the facts. The King James was not given by God but was a translation by a group of scholars in the early seventeenth century who based their rendition on a faulty Greek text…

While the author protests too much, his point is painfully clear. If taken to heart, this is a life-changing revelation rendered succinctly. for a majority of Christians, the Bible has for 1500 years been considered the inerrant Word of God - every word true. Every major Christian denomination believes this to one extent or another. Evangelical Christians discriminate because of it. But the joke is on us. As it turns out, the Bible is a very human book, in that has been subject to all of the human mistakes transmission can introduce and purposely altered for theological, spiritual, psychological, and, yes, political reasons. The Bible is the most significant political writing in history, infinitely greater than The Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital. The thoughtful reader, having read Eherman's finely-crafted book, should never see televangelists, or his or her own minister or priest in the same way again.

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2006