Chapter 4: The Quest for Origins

     In chapter 4, Dr. Ehrman begins by describing the motivation behind a Catholic scholar named Richard Simon.  He writes regarding Simon, “Christian faith could not be based solely on the scripture (the Protestant Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura), since the text was unstable and unreliable.  Instead, according to this view, the Catholics must be right that faith required the apostolic tradition preserved in the Catholic Church.” (1)  Simon’s intent was to demonstrate the superiority of the Latin text.  In so doing, he could debunk the ancient Greek manuscripts that the Protestants relied upon.  Simon believed that Jerome had edited out many problem areas form the Greek and penned a sound Latin text.  Since the manuscripts Jerome used to correct the Greek were destroyed, we are only left with error-ridden copies.  He could also demonstrate the superiority of the Latin text.  His theological bias is clearly evident.  Even Ehrman doesn’t buy into it.  He writes, “As clever as the argument is, it has never won widespread support among textual critics.  In effect, it is simply a declaration that our oldest surviving manuscripts cannot be trusted, but the revision of those manuscripts can.  On what grounds, though, did Jerome revise his text?  On the grounds of earlier manuscripts.  Even he trusted the earlier record of the text.  For us not to do likewise would be a giant step backward—even given the diversity of the textual tradition in the early centuries.” (2) Within the historical context, Simon sets the stage for Richard Bentley.

     Richard Bentley was a classic scholar and Master of Trinity College, at Cambridge.  He set his mind to clarify the Greek text and vindicate the Protestant text.  Ehrman describes his activities as, “He had decided to collate (i.e. to compare in detail) the text of the most important Greek manuscript of the New Testament in England, the early-fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus with the oldest available copies of the Latin Vulgate.  What he found was a wide range of remarkable coincidences of readings, in which these manuscripts agreed time and again with each other but against the bulk of Greek manuscripts transcribed in the Middle Ages.  The agreements extended even to such matters as word order, where the various manuscripts differed.  Bentley was convinced, then, that he could edit both the Latin Vulgate and the Greek New testament  to arrive at the most ancient forms of the these texts, so that there would be scarcely any doubt concerning their earliest reading.  Mill’s thirty thousand places of variation would thereby become a near irrelevancy to those invested in the authority of the text.  The logic behind the method was simple:  if, in fact, Jerome used the best Greek manuscripts available for editing his text, then by comparing the oldest manuscripts of the Vulgate (to ascertain Jerome’s original text) with the oldest manuscripts of the Greek New Testament (to ascertain which were the ones used by Jerome), one could determine what the best texts of Jerome’s day had looked like—and skip over more than a thousand years of textual transmission in which  the text came to be repeatedly changed.  Moreover, since Jerome’s text would have been that of his predecessor Origen, one could rest assured that this was the very best text available in the earliest centuries of Christianity.” (3) As wonderful a theory as this was, Bentley efforts would ultimately fail to produce a manuscript.  However there was another protestant working in Germany.

   Johann Bengel was a Lutheran pastor and professor who was profoundly impacted by Mill’s work and the variants that he discovered.  Bengel was deeply challenged by this since his faith was rooted in scripture.  Bengel developed a process of textual criticism that “the more difficult reading is preferable to the easier one…preference should be given not to the reading that has corrected the mistake, harmonized an account, or improved its theology, but to just the opposite one, the reading that is ‘harder’ to explain.  In every case, the more difficult reading is to be preferred.” (4)  Bengel also set out to group manuscripts into families and published his text in 1734.  Ehrman staes that it is basically the Textus Receptus with the corrections that Bengel believed he had discovered.  However, Ehrman leaves out a crucial development that Bengel originated.  Ehrman knows about his because he describes it in his book, “The Text of the New Testament.”  He writes that Bengel, “After extended study, he came to the conclusions that the variant reading were fewer in number than might have been expected and that they did not shake any article of evangelic doctrine.” (5)  While Ehrman knows this, he didn’t write this in Misquoting Jesus. Why?  No one can be sure but it does appear that Dr. Ehrman attempts to control the flow of information to fit his own agenda for the book.  Mainly, that the original text cannot be recovered.   A belief that very few of the early textual critics held.

     After this is glossed over, Ehrman describes the spiritual journey of a scholar named J.J. Wettstein.  His inclusion of this story relates closely to Ehrman’s own spiritual journey.  Wettstein loses faith and becomes an agnostic when he discovers a variant reading of I Timothy 3:16 which he believed detracted from the divinity of Jesus.  The passage read “God made manifest in the flesh.” But the variant reading (because of nomina sacra a system of abbreviating the sacred names of the text) reads, “who was manifested in the flesh.  Wettstein believed the absence of God detracted from the divinity of Jesus.  It doesn’t have to in the context of the passage; nevertheless, this is how Wettstein interpreted it.  At the end of the day, not even Ehrman appreciates Wettstein’s work.  He writes, “Despite the enormous value of Wettstein’s edition, the textual theory lying behind it is usually seen as completely retrograde.  Wettstein ignored the advances in method made by Bentley and Bengel and maintained that the ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament could not be trusted because, in his view, they had all been altered in conformity with the Latin witnesses.  There is no evidence of this having happened, however, and the end result of using it as a major criterion of evaluation is that when one is deciding on a textual variant, the best procedure purportedly is not to see what the oldest witnesses say, but to see what the more recent ones say.  No leading scholar of the text subscribes to this bizarre theory.” (6) I have to ask the question here.  Why put it in the book, if his conclusions don’t jive with the majority of scholarly opinion?  Perhaps, Ehrman wanted to demonstrate an example from history of his own spiritual journey.  Ehrman’s evaluation of the next scholar is particularly similar to Bengel.

     Lobegott Tischendorf is considered one of the most industrious and remarkable textual critics of all time.  It was he who discovered Codex Siniaticus at the monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  He also produces a successful transmission of the Codex Ephremi Rescriptus.  However, Ehrman doesn’t paint the full picture for us.  As Daniel Wallace observes,”Tischendorf is widely acknowledged as the most industrious NT textual critic of all time.  And what motivated him was a desire to recover the earliest form of the text—a text which he believed would vindicate orthodox Christianity against the Hegelian skepticism of F. C Baur and his followers.” (7)  Dr. Ehrman never mentions any of this in Misquoting Jesus.

     Dr. Ehrman closes the chapter by discussing the work of B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort.  Their joint 23 year effort produced a Greek Manuscript that they believed were, “The New testament in the Original Greek” in 1881.  Westcott and Hort picked up on Bengel’s “family” groupings and took to a new level.  Their idea was, “Identity of reading implies identity of origin.”  Meaning, that “if two manuscripts have the same working of a verse, it must be because the two manuscripts ultimately go back to the same source—either the original manuscript or a copy of it.” (8)They developed four major families of witnesses and used as their leading texts, the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus.  Westcott and Hort believed that these two represented what they called the, Neutral text.  Their manuscript was a real breakthrough and has challenged the textus receptus as the accepted text.  However, I must also point out that, again, Westcott and Hort, believed they had actually discovered the “original” text.  Again, this is glossed over in Misquoting Jesus.




  1. 1.      Ehrman, Bart, Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Harper Collins Pub, New York, NY, 2005, page 102.
  2. 2.      Ibid, page 103.
  3. 3.      Ibid, page 107-107.
  4. 4.      Ibid, page 111.
  5. 5.      Metzger, Bruce, Ehrman, Bart, The Text of the New Testament, Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2005, page 158.
  6. 6.      Ehrman, page 115-116.
  7. 7.      Wallace, Daniel, “The Gospel According to Bart” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, June 06, page 2.
  8. 8.      Ehrman, page 124.