Chapter One: The Beginnings of Christian Scripture review of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus

          Dr. Ehrman begins the chapter with establishing the fact that both Judaism and the subsequent Christianity with springs forth from it were “religions of sacred texts and books.”  He writes, “…they located sacred authority in sacred books.  Christianity at its beginning was a religion of the book.” (1)  The meaning of this statement is somewhat misguided.  Let me explain.  By saying that Christianity was a “religion of the book” Dr. Ehrman means that whole of the religion was rooted in written documents.  On the surface, this statement appears true.  However, I would like to point out that the mission of Jesus was never to write a book.  His mission has been to establish relationship with the humans that He created and loves dearly.  This is easily seen by what is written in these books.  As I stated previously, the totality of scripture can be summed up in two statements.  First, it records the God encounters that select humans have experienced.  Secondly, it consists of the instructions of godly men who lived in intimacy with Him.  Hence, Christianity, at its outset, was not primarily a religion of the sacred books, it was a religion of experiencing God and these experiences then became recorded as “sacred texts.”  Christianity, since its outset, is about making “the God encounter possible”, then it preserved these encounters into a text.  Scripture was always secondary to the experience of intimacy with the Creator of the universe.  We never hear from Jesus, “Verily, Verily, I say unto you, that I have come to produce inerrant and inspired autographs that will replace Me in the Trinity.”  Yet, this seems to be the position of many conservative evangelicals except their scholars as has been previously noted.  Unfortunately, it is this thinking that led Dr. Ehrman to view scripture as he currently does.  Again, it is not his fault; it is the faulty theology that exalts the Bible to the level of God.  Additionally, this seems to be the premise that Dr. Ehrman presents in first chapter to debunk scripture.  Mainly, that the autographs contained the original text and if they are lost forever then God must be unknowable because He didn’t preserve for us the record of the originals which made Him known to us.  This logic is simply not acceptable.  God is to be experienced in spiritual communion and the biblical text is not necessary for encounters with God.  Scripture is mainly the launching pad towards the experience but it is the relationship that is to be exalted.  And if, it is a relationship, then God must; therefore, be knowable.  Not through the text, but through the relationship.  For example, when I first started dating my wife, she wrote me a couple of letters and emails.  I didn’t come to know her through the letters and emails (although they were an instrument of getting to know here) I got to know her through the relationship.  To be specific, I got to know her by spending time with her.  It is the same way with God.  To get to know Him, we spend time with Him, in worship, prayer, meditation, fellowship with other believers, and yes, through the record of the biblical text.

     Misquoting Jesus is a wonderful and challenging book.  There are things that I read in it that I have never really heard before.  I guess I have heard of them but have never given them serious consideration.  This book challenges me to give them consideration.  One such example is this, “Scholars have long suspected that some of the letters found in the New Testament under Paul’s name were in fact written by his later followers pseudonymously.” (2) Dr. Ehrman doesn’t go into serious discussion of this topic so neither will I.  However, I do want to give a quote regarding his position because it is neither the main consensus of history nor of modern scholarly opinion.  Dr. Ehrman specifically mentions the pastoral letters of I and II Timothy and Titus as suspect.  The Nelson Study Bible writes:

     “The letter names Paul as its author, and the authors statements about his life are consistent with what is known of him.  The early church fathers Clement of Rome and Polycarp accepted the letters as one of Paul’s, as did Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria.  Early in the nineteenth century, some scholars began to question Paul’s authorship of the Pastoral Epistles.  Critics claimed that these letters were “pious forgeries” written in the second century.  They leveled four different attacks on the integrity and authenticity of these letters.  First is a historical problem.  Since the chronological references n these letters do not correspond with the book of Acts, critics assume that the letters were written at a much later time by an impostor.  However, the letters could have been written soon after the events described in the book of Acts.  Many scholars hold that Paul was acquitted and released from the imprisonment described n Acts 28, and then traveled for several years in Asia Minor and Macedonia.  During this time he wrote the disputed letters.  Eventually he was imprisoned in
Rome again, and then died in Nero’s persecution.  Second, critics argue that the Pastoral Epistles do not fit Paul writing style.  These letters contain a number of words that occur only here in the New Testament but are common in the writings of the second century.  This is taken as evidence that the letters are form the second century.  The weakness of this argument is that there is a limited body of literature form the second century form with to draw such a dogmatic conclusion.  The third point relates to the form of church leadership described in the Pastoral Epistles.  The structure of authority, including elders and deacons seems to represent a more developed, second-century church.  However, it is clear from Phil 1:1 that the offices of elder and deacon were already functioning during Paul’s ministry.  The fourth argument involves theology.  Critics claim that the heresy combated in the Pastoral Epistles is the full-grown Gnosticism for the second century.  While it is true that Gnosticism was not fully developed until the second century, it is also certain that the heresy began slowly and evolved before it became a complete theological system.  Paul dealt with similar false teachings in Colossae.  The heresy if First Timothy appears to e an early form of Gnostic teaching that combined elements of Judaism, Persian thought, and Christianity.  There is no reason therefore, to conclude that first and Second Timothy are not authentic Pauline Epistles.” (3)

     Dr. Ehrman levels a similar charge at the letters written by Peter.  Similar arguments could be listed here but for sake of brevity, and also because Dr. Ehrman doesn’t fully develop his thought, we shall not either.  Suffice it to say, that there is just as much scholarship and history to state that Peter was the author. (4)  Additionally, Dr. Ehrman takes a cheap shot at Jesus teaching on divorce.  He writes, “On some occasions these authoritative interpretations of scripture appear, in effect, to countermand the laws of scripture themselves.  For example, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘Whomever divorces his wife should give her a certificate of divorce’ [a command found in Deut. 24:1], but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife for reason other than sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”  It is hard to see how one can follow Moses’ command to give a certificate of divorce, if in fact divorce is not an option.” (5)  I call this a “cheap shot” because it is the same argument that the Pharisees of old put to Jesus in the gospel of Mark.  It reads, “The Pharisees came and asked Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ testing Him.  And he answered and said to them, ‘What did Moses’ command you?’  They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and to dismiss her.’  And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote this precept.  But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh, so then , they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore, what God has joined together let not man separate.”   In the house His disciples also asked Him again about the same matter.  So he said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her.  And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:2-10)  One of the expectations of Messiah was that He would fully explain and develop the Torah.  This is exactly what Jesus is doing here.  Dr. Ehrman doesn’t fully develop the argument which is why I call it a “cheap shot.”  But, Jesus clearly answers Dr. Ehrman’s question as He did with the Pharisees.

       In the end, Dr. Ehrman makes three profound points about early Christian writing.  First, the society that produced them was largely illiterate.  Second, the utensils used for writing were very crude which lead to problems with preservation and lead to mistakes with writing.  Thirdly, the scribes themselves oftentimes made intentional and unintentional mistakes.  These are facts and no one can dispute them.  However, the conclusions that one can draw from this data becomes the issue.  I take issue with Dr. Ehrman’s conclusion of the data.  He points at the data and determines that it is evidence of the un-inspiration of scripture.  In my estimations, he has it backwards.   What Dr. Ehrman doesn’t tell us is that despite the issues, every major tenet of Christian doctrine is preserved to the present day.  I point at this data and conclude:  Who else but God could preserve the heart of Christianity despite the fact that the society was illiterate, the writing materials and mediums were crude, and theologically biased and sloppy scribes would make mistakes.  I point at this and say God must be behind it!  This is a point that Dr. Timothy Paul Jones makes in his book which refutes Dr. Ehrman.  He writes, “Where Ehrman errs is in his assumption that these manuscript differences somehow demonstrate that the New Testament does not represent God’s inerrant Word.  The problem with this line of reasoning is that the inspired truth of Scripture does not depend on word-for-word agreement among all biblical manuscripts or between parallel accounts of the same event…Yet, when someone asks, Does everything in Scripture and in the biblical manuscripts agree word-for-word?  That person is asking the wrong question.  The answer to that question will always be a resounding no.  Instead, the question should be, though they may have been imperfectly copied at times and though different writers may have described the same events in different ways, do the biblical texts that are available to us provide a sufficient testimony for us to understand God’s inspired truth?” (6)  To this question, we must answer with a resounding, yes!

    The real question about the beginnings of the scripture we have not addressed in this review.  For example, who were the authors, when did they write, what did they write, and how do we know that what we have today carries the same central themes?  These questions are involved and lengthy and I will try to answer them in a subsequent posts.

    Endnotes

  1.  Ehrman, Bart, Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Harper Collins Pub, New York, NY, 2005, page 20.
  2. Ibid, page 23.
  3. Radmacher Earl D. (General Editor), The Nelson Study Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN, page:  2039.
  4. Also see the Nelson Study Bible on pages 2128 and 2113.
  5. Ehrman, page 30-31.
  6. Jones, Timothy Paul, Misquoting Truth, a Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus.” Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2007, page 31-32.
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