Review of "Misquoting Jesus" by Bart Ehrman

Textual Criticism is a method of determining the original wording of the text by combining wordings of variations of that text against each other and themselves. Misquoting Jesus is a history of textual criticism of the New Testament, and focuse on three main branches of New Testament textx: the Alexadrian, the Byzantine, and the Western. Written like an engaging text for a graduate class, Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus is an accessible introduction to this field of scholarship.

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Yet aptly written or not, Misquoting Jesus suffers from lapses of thought and questionable conclusions. Ultimately, it’s most likely to be a mystifying introduction to the world of the New Testament for most readers. If you must, you may buy Misquoting Jesus, but please read some other works first.

I purchased Misquoting Jesus because of the enjoyable introduction to criticism that I received from Thomas Cahill’s Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. While Cahill is no conservative, as is witnessed by his personal web page:

But the Republican Party in its current incarnation is racist (racism being the clear premise of its “Southern strategy,” pursued so single mindedly since the days of the ineffable Richard Nixon) and the enemy of the poor. To be these things — to be against the poor and the marginalized — is, in my reading of the New Testament, to be specifically anti-Christian

Cahill’s work is a masterpiece apologetic for a Catholic understanding of the Bible within the Divine Tradition. Matthew, Peter, Luke, John, Paul, and Mary are fleshed out as real characters with real emotions. Exclusively using New Testament texts, Cahill illuminates a world with differences of perspective that make people in the same place and time react and record very differently.

Misquoting Jesus is not that book. The conclusions of Desire of the Everlasting Hills are generally reinforced, but as lifeless shadows of themselves. For instance, to take one issue that was raised in a review by the Washington Post

Ehrman, 50, pounces on the anomalies: In this Gospel, Jesus isn’t born in Bethlehem, he doesn’t tell any parables, he never casts out a demon, there’s no last supper. The crucifixion stories are different: in Mark, Jesus is terrified on the cross; in John, he’s perfectly composed. Key dates are different. The resurrection stories are different. Ehrman reels them off, rapid-fire, shell bursts against the bulwark of tradition.

The difference is real. An interesting portion of Misquoting Jesus argues that a part commonly describing Jesus’s empathy should instead describe his anger.

Yet this isn’t a contradiction, but rather supporting evidence. The Gospel of Mark was written by Saint Mark on behalf of Saint Simon called Peter, who was unable to write or tell long, coherent stories. (The Gospel of Mark has many, many dates and places, indicating St. Mark had to piece together the chronology from the words of the IQ-challenged St. Peter). Simon-called-Peter was an illiterate fisherman, nicknamed Rocky, who is often described as a bungler unable to obey moderately complex demands over any length of time. Whether working under his father, his boss, or later Jesus, it appears that a unifying feature of Peter’s life was screwing up and having people frustrated with him.

The Gospel of Luke, by contrast, was written by an educated, modern thinker. Able to switch multiple perspectives (He can be as Hebraistic as the Septuagint, and as free from Hebraisms as Plutarch. . . He is Hebraistic in describing Hebrew society and Greek when describing Greek society”, Catholic Encyclopedia), the author of St. Luke wrote the longest of the Gospels. A physiciain (he used medical terminology commonly), Luke would have associated a calm, professional demeanor with authority. A unifying feature of Luke’s life would have been calm superiors surrounded by worried, anxious, if not hysterical inferiors.

So when it comes time for them to write, Peter describes the Ultimate Superior as analogous to the superiors of Peter’s life, while Luke describes Him as analogous to the superiors of Luke’s life. While Ehrman attempts to describe relational quality in his conclusion, his words are muddled, and Bart can’t get beyond the “contradictions.” You have to read Cahill to see the underlying similarity.

Another problem: one of the first examples Misquoting Jesus gives as a problem with New Testament text is the case of the adulteress: Ehrman finds “questions” with it

If this woman was caught in the act of adultery, for example, where is the man she was caught with? … Moreover, when Jesus wrote on the ground, what exactly was he writing? … And even if Jesus did teach a message of love, did he really think that the Law of God given by Moses was no longer in force and should not be obeyed?

To answer

  • Ehrman’s assumption that the Pharisees are not sexist hypocrites is striking
  • What Jesus wrote is neither known nor relevent to the veracity of the story
  • As Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Given that Ehrman elsewhere says that Jesus had his own interpretation of the Law, it’s striking Erhman now implies that only a literalist reading of the law is valid

In many ways, reminded me of Creativity by Robert Weisberg. Like Weisberg’s book, Misquoting Jesus continues interesting facts and some useful conclusions. But also like Creativity, Ehrman’s work is at best half-true, and is likely to be misleading without some prior readings.

Steer clear of this one.