“Misquoting Jesus”: A book review of Bart Ehrman’s bestseller

     I recently began reading, “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart Ehrman.  It made the New York Times Bestseller list and was written in 2005.  It tells the “Story behind who changed the Bible and Why.”  While Dr. Ehrman is a biblical scholar, he writes so that even the layman can understand.  In his introduction, Dr. Ehrman gives his testimony which begins with life in an Episcopalian church as a young man being raised in Kansas.  Then, he has a “born-again” experience and goes off to Moody Bible Institute to learn the Bible.  Additionally, he would study at Wheaton College and Princeton Seminary.  He raises two very poignant objections to beliefs that conservative evangelical Christians hold regarding the bible.  First, that it in inerrant (Meaning without error) in the originals and that scripture is inspired by God.  In regards to the former, he gives an almost heart wrenching account of how this belief was shattered through his deeper studies of the Biblical text.  He is correct, the Bible is not inerrant.  It does have errors.  It does have issues.  Dr. Ehrman concludes that, “at the end of the day, the Bible is a very human book.”  I’m not exactly sure what conclusion Dr. Ehrman will draw from this statement but I’d like to offer my own.  To begin with, by his own admission, the majority of the errors in scripture are fairly insignificant.  He writes, “Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant.”  Agreed, I’m not aware of any biblical error that changes any major tenet of Christianity.  Additionally, I have no real problem with saying that the Bible is a very human book.  And I don’t think that God would have a problem with it either.  God has always desired to co-labor with people.  Very rarely, does He ever act independently of His image-bearers.  So, there is no really question that scripture was written by humans.  I think God wanted it that way.  Let’s examine this closer.  What really is scripture?  Simply, it is a record of the experiences that humans have had with God and instruction that come from men who lived lives of intimacy with Him.  Scripture is not God and it is not the experience of God.  It is not Father, Son, and Holy Bible.  It is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

     There is a tremendous fallacy in modern western Christianity.  We exalt the Bible to the status of God and try to make it something that it is not.  As one pastor friend of mine told me, “I used to preach that God has exalted His Word above His Name and that if we were to go to the throne of God in heaven, we would see that right above the throne of God would be the King James Bible.”  I’m happy to report that he has since come to his senses.  I’ve also experienced this when I was studying Greek.  The Greek word for “Word” that John uses in chapter one to describe Jesus is the Greek word, “logos” pronounced “logos.”  The instructor point to his Bible and says, “This is the logos.”  To which I reply, “No it isn’t, Jesus is the logos.” We can’t make scripture something it is not. When we give it this supreme status and label it as infallible and inerrant we set up young men, like Dr. Ehrman, for failure.  Simply because, the deeper into scripture that these young men go, the faster this illusion will vanish and it will cause some trauma.  The bible is not inerrant.  Scripture is the launching pad for the God encounter.  God desires the relationship and the encounter.  The primary mission of Jesus Christ was not to write a book.  It was to redeem mankind so that the fellowship that was lost in the garden could be restored.  His mission was the redemption of mankind, not to write a sacred book.  Humans recorded what He did under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  But being under inspiration does not mean that they would be perfect.  I think God knew full well that they were going to make mistakes.  But the mistakes are not evidence of un-inspiration.  This is where Dr. Ehrman’s logic is difficult to follow.

     First, Dr. Ehrman makes an assumption.  The assumption is that if scripture has errors, it must not be inspired.  Also, he makes the assumption that only the originals were inspired because the copies have issues.  He writes, “If he wanted his people to have his words surely he would have given them to them (and possibly even given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew).  The fact that we don’t have the word s surely must show, I reasoned, that he did not preserve them for us.  And if he didn’t perform that miracle, there seemed to be no reason to think that he performed the earlier miracle of inspiring those words.”  This is a huge assumption to make.   Mainly, that we dictate the terms of what the inspiration of the Holy Spirit must look like.  He assumes that it must be perfect and that it must have remained intact over time.  Perhaps this is not the case at all.  Perhaps what we have, this jumbled up mess of language, manuscripts, and mistakes is exactly what God wanted us to have.  And if this is so, then what we do have is inspired.  What we do have has withstood some pretty impressive test.  As I have already alluded to, God co-labors with humans and He expects us to make mistakes.  Not to mention that there is a spiritual war going on where the Devil and his demonic hordes would love to destroy the recorded encounters of God with humans.  No wonder there are issues.  If there are issues with the text, we should probably not hang that on God but on the enemy that seeks to destroy all that is good about God.  Perhaps, logic like Dr. Ehrman’s plays right into the hands of the enemy, unbeknownst, I’m sure, to Dr. Ehrman.  Be that as it may, God expects us to make mistakes and this is what grace is all about.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that since God co-labors with humans and He expects us to make mistakes that perhaps what we have in scripture today is what he intended for us to have?  Or, doesn’t it stand to reason that an enemy has been seeking to destroy what has been recorded of God to blind the remainder of humanity but what has been preserved is every major doctrinal piece of Christianity and the errors are of small significance?  Wouldn’t that point to some inspiration?  I think so.  I believe that what we do have, mess and all, is inspired.

     I’m not writing this as a “bash-Bart” review.  I simply want to hear what the man has to say.  He makes some valid points.  My heart goes out to him as I too came through the fog of finding out that the bible is not inerrant.  It was painful and it shook me.  But, I soon realized exactly what I have stated earlier.  It is my hope, that Dr. Ehrman may find this realization.  I appreciate his scholarship and his viewpoints, and I, like he, am searching for facts.  However, when those facts are discovered they will be interpreted by scholars through their own worldview.  “Misquoting Jesus” is coming from Dr. Ehrman worldview that scripture is not inspired and not inerrant.  Hence, the conclusion that he will draw will be tainted toward this direction.  Nevertheless, we will press on and continue the book.  Iron does indeed sharpen iron.

Inerrancy versus Inspiration

     Before leaving this topic, perhaps some points from the evangelical conservatives are in order.  Up to here, their voice has not been heard in either Dr. Ehrman’s work or in my own.(although there are echoes of it in both)  Hence, I will attempt to summarize their arguments on inerrancy and inspiration.  My dear and beloved friend Patrick Pegues wrote his master’s thesis with the underlying premise that, “He who defines the terms, wins!”  Absolutely!  The point is this.  Once a scholar defines the terms of his argument, he can simply construct his arguments around this point to validate the definition.  This seems to be very appropriate in the case of inerrancy and inspiration of scripture.  We have already discussed my own and Dr. Ehrman’s views on this issue, so let’s allow the conservative evangelicals to weigh in with their voice.

     Charles Caldwell Ryrie wrote in his book, What You Should Know About Inerrancy, ironically published by the Moody press, states that, “inerrancy is from Latin, in ‘not” + errancy “in a state of error.” The inerrancy of the Bible means simply that the bible tells the truth.  Truth can and does include approximations, free quotations, language of appearances, and different accounts of the same event as long as those do not contradict.”  It should be noted that not even all conservative evangelicals agree on the definition of inerrancy and inspiration, but the quote from Ryrie gives the synopsis. 

   The doctrine of inspiration is much more complicated.  The following is a quote from “EVANGELICAL DEFINITIONS OF INSPIRATION:CRITIQUES AND A SUGGESTED DEFINITION” and the author attempts to define for us the term.  He writes, “Spirit’s taking possession of the personality and processes of the human authors so that the otherwise impenetrable wisdom of God is made known through that which is written.” (1) He will cite a number of biblical passages where God instructs different authors to write what they wrote, or prophets that dictated to scribes, or the apostles who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  He gives us five characteristics of inspiration.  First, “those evangelicals do not worship the Bible.  Rather, it is the authoritative instrument inerrant in the original manuscripts that God uses to make known his truth to his people in the present age.”  Secondly, “that inspiration is limited to a small company of messengers whom God specifically choose to use in communication of his Word to mankind.  It is not a universally shared experience but one that is phenomenoligcally distinctive.”  Hence, it does not continue to the present day. “The canon was completed with the appearance of the final book written within the apostolic circle.”  Thirdly, ) The uniqueness of inspiration rules out the possibility of either a partial inspiration of Scripture

or degrees of inspiration. All of Scripture is equally inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Fourthly, differences in Biblical genre, which must be recognized, mean that the relation between the divine and human participation is not always the same. For this reason a distinction has been

Suggested between the prophetic mode (e.g. Jeremiah) and the scribal mode (e.g. Luke) that is similar to the distinction made by Aquinas between the speculative judgment and the practical judgment exercised by the authors of Scripture.  Behind many texts there is the possibility of a

Complex contributory process, which includes the relating of historical incidents (Job, Ruth), the selection and collection of hymns wisdom (Psalms, Proverbs), observation and reflection (Ecclesiastes), or the critical study and use of many sources (Luke). Lastly, the mode of inspiration involves a great mystery. Scripture does not provide a full explanation

of the way in which the divine and human authors interact in the production of the sacred books. Therefore no theologian can pen the absolute and final word on the subject.” (2)

     Having now given them voice on the subject, here is how they answer Ehrman.  Michael Kruger writes in the Journal of Evangelical Theological Society a book review on Misquoting Jesus.  He writes, “Ehrman declares in his conclusion, ‘If God really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he miraculously inspired them in the first place.’  In other words, if God really inspired the New Testament there would be no scribal variations at all.  It is this shocking admission by Ehrman that reveals the core problem with Misquoting Jesus.  Ehrman is working with his own self-appointed definition of inspiration which sets up an arbitrary and irrational standard that could never be met.  Does inspiration really require that once the books of the Bible were written that God would miraculously guarantee that no one would ever write it down incorrectly?  Are we to believe that inspiration demands that no adult, no child, no scribe, no scholar, not anyone would ever write down a passage of scripture where a word was left out—for the entire course of human history?  Would Ehrman have been more pleased if the New Testament were delivered from heaven on gold tablets, and not through normal historical processes?  I imagine he would then object to the act the New Testament does not bear the ‘marks of history.’  It seems clear that Ehrman has investigated the New Testament documents with a priori conviction that inspiration requires zero scribal variations—a standard that could never be met in the real historical world of the first century.  Ironically, as much as Ehrman claims to be about real history, his private view of inspiration, by definition, prevents there from ever being a New Testament from God that would have anything to do with real history.” (3)

     Daniel Wallace, also writing for the Journal of Evangelical Theological Society, has this to say.  “Inspiration relates to the wording of the Bible, while inerrancy relates to the truth of a statement…Regardless of what one thinks about the doctrine of inerrancy, the argument against it on the basis of the unknown autographs is logically fallacious. This is so for two reasons. First, we have the text of the New Testament somewhere in the manuscripts.  There is no need for conjecture, except perhaps in one or two places.  Second, the text we have in any viable variants is no more a problem for inerrancy than other problems where the text is secure.  Now, to be sure, there are some challenges in the textual variants to inerrancy.  This is not denied.  But there are simply bigger fish to fry when ti comes to issues that inerrancy faces.  Thus, if conjectural emendation is unnecessary, and if no viable variant register much of a blip on the radar called ‘problems for inerrancy,’ then not having the originals is a moot point for this doctrine” (4) 

      Having heard all viewpoints, let us press on to chapter one.

 Endnotes

  1.  Hodges, Louis, “EVANGELICAL DEFINITIONS OF INSPIRATION:CRITIQUES AND A SUGGESTED DEFINITION” journal of the evangelical theological society, June 94, viewed on line at http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/37/37-1/JETS_37-1_099-114_Hodges.pdf.
  2. Ibid, page 102-103.
  3. Kruger, Micheal, “Review of Misquoting Jesus:  The Story of Who Changed the Bible and Why.”  Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, 2006 page 4.
  4. Wallace, Daniel, “The Gospel According to Bart” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, June 06, page

     

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