Friday, August 3, 2007

Misquoting Jesus

I just finished listening to the audio book version of Bart Ehrman's 'Misquoting Jesus.' Mr. Ehrman is a New Testament scholar and he writes at length about what textual criticism has revealed about the New Testament. What it reveals is often disturbing and just as often, absolutely thrilling.

I was familiar with textual criticism from my Education for Ministry course. It's at the core of how we approach the Hebrew Scriptures in year one and the NT in year two. I was somewhat aware of how scribes may have changed the texts of the epistles, gospels and so on but most of our focus was on Q source and the documentary hypothesis. I've been missing out.

'Miquoting Jesus' makes it plain that the versions of the New Testament most of us have today are likely affected by the mistakes, sometimes honest, sometimes not quite so honest, of scribes who copied the texts over the centuries before the advent of the printing press. Mr. Ehrman points out that these mistakes may have begun with the very first copies being made as those who did the work of scribes in that early christian community were not profesionals but often simply people who came close enough. They may have misread words, left things out or wrote not what was written but what they thought was meant.

Beyond honest mistakes were early christians who added words, stories or changed meanings to combat gnostics or other alternate views of christianity in the early and very diverse life of the religion. Also, to express anti-judaic feelings, lessen the role of women or make it clear that pagan criticisms of christianity were ill founded.

This is sad stuff in some respects. There's a strong case to be made by some that the great story of the adulterous woman from the Gospel of John ( 'He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her') may have been a later insertion. But there's thrilling stuff as well. There's a possible female apostle who is given a sex change in some texts of an epistle of Paul...And no, I don't mean Mary Magdalene.

One thing that struck me was how much tradition shaped the New Testament. I run into people who adhere to the idea of sola scriptura (atheists even!) and claim that because I give weight to tradition and reason, not simply accepting the divine authority of scripture, I'm somehow not a 'True Christian'. It's wonderful to have a book that shows that from the very beginning scripture was molded by pre-existing traditions and the sometimes reasoned decisions of those who copied the pieces of the New Testament. That Jesus was presented in a certain way in Luke not because it's an accurate account of his works and life but in that form he represented already formed ideas of a Lukan community.

Great book, a really exciting read and tremendously important in these days were those who would tell us what the bible means are attmpting to bully the rest of us.


christinemm said...

Thank you for blogging about this book. It sounds very interesting, I now want to read it. I am curious how much of the Bible has changed over the years due to translation issues and sometimes wonder if people practice things today based on a wrong interpretation, and how odd that would seem to the original author.

Dawn said...

I'm willing to bet you'd love the book! The author makes the case that the gospel of Mark for instance may have originally had a much angrier Jesus.

It left me thinking that our Jesus is much more a figure of legend than historical fact but I find that an exciting POV anyway.