Thursday, December 11, 2008

Misquoting Jesus

I’ve always heard that if you’re going to write, then you have to read. Reading, I guess keeps the mind engaged in story, ideas and communication. Maybe one reason I didn’t make a blog post in November was that I wasn’t reading (outside of sermon preparation).

Anyway, since Thanksgiving I’ve wedged in three books, a couple of “religious” books and a novel. And one of them I’d like to recommend, especially if you’re a Bible history nerd like me.

Bart Ehrman, in his 2005 book, Misquoting Jesus, does a scholarly, yet easily readable job, of explaining why it’s beyond our ability to determine what the “original text” actually said. He doesn’t do it to undermine the faith, but as part of a scholarly discipline to search for the truth, even if the truth is disconcerting. In the process he shows that faith is sustained not by a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, but by a relationship with the living Christ.

Ehrman grew up in Biblical literalism. A “born-again” convert of Campus Life Youth for Christ, he graduated from Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College –bastions of fundamentalism. His interest in textual criticism however took him to Princeton to study under one of the best in that area, Bruce Metzger. He understands both the desire for “the literal Word of God,” and the inconsistencies that show the Word is a human record of God’s revelations.

I especially liked the way he explains how the “written story” was passed along, first by untrained devoted followers making copies, and then by “professional” copiests. The number of textual variants resulting from unintentional, and intentional changes is overwhelming (estimated to be in the tens of thousands), but many of these are insignificant. Ehrman selects several major ones to cover in detail. It left me with a desire to know even more about the text, and a renewed appreciation of the work of the Spirit to make the text alive (inspired) in each generation.

Ehrman's book has been challenged by a host of conservative scholars who believe the Bible is the actual, literal Word of God. And I can see how his work can be used by those outside the faith to heap criticism on the Bible. But those of us who think of the Bible as a divinely inspired human record that contains or reveals the Word of God, his work helps us continue to search for the truth.


Craig L. Adams said...

I tend to agree with you in your assessment of this book. It's a basic primer on text criticism. People that don't know about this weren't paying attention at Seminary. Or: they need to know the basic information.

roadtripray said...

I'll have to put this on my "must read" list. It reminds me how on the way to church on Christmas Eve I saw a pickup truck parked at a store with a bumper sticker that read "If It Ain't King James, It Ain't The Bible." I wonder how many of those people who believe that actually know how the various versions of the Bible came about?