I recently read Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. In some ways, Ehrman should be commended for this book. He took what is to many people the very boring subject of textual crticism and turned it into a New York Times bestseller. That is no easy task! Textual criticism is the science (or art) of trying to determine the most accurate and original form of the New Testament text based on the manuscripts that are available to us. How did this subject strike such a nerve with a popular audience?
Bart Ehrman is a very capable scholar and he does a good job of summarizing the history and methods of textual criticism. He gives important examples from the Bible and he keeps things entertaining with his sharp wit. He really does not say anything that shocking as scholars and informed students of the Bible have long known that certain parts of the Bible are not original, such as the ending of Mark, the woman caught in adultery from John and the trinitarian witness from 1 John. Much of what Ehrman presents here was already available in his teacher Bruce Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament.
So what is the big deal about this book? Ehrman’s purpose for this book is not just to give information about textual criticism but rather to demonstrate the unreliability of the Bible. While this is a reasonably good book when separated from the introduction and conclusion, it is in these chapters that we really see the agenda. Ehrman gives a moving testimony of his conversion in becoming a born again Christian, attending Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton and ultimately Princeton. At each of these stages, Ehrman’s confidence in the Bible continued to slip. While taught as a new Christian that the Bible was the perfect book, practically dropping out of heaven, his studies demonstrated that it was a very human book and that we do not even have the original text. In his conclusion, he suggests that textual criticism really calls into question the doctrines of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. Even if the Bible was originally inspired, we do not have that original text. We also have to wonder why if God inspired the authors, he did not inspire the scribes to copy the text accurately. He finds very little reason to trust in the Bible as the Word of God.
Part of Erhman’s problem is a very wooden idea of inspiration and inerrancy. I recommend Craig Evans’ comments in his book Fabricating Jesus. At the same time, Ehrman’s introduction should be mandatory reading for all seminary professors so that we are not teaching people false and unbiblical ideas of inspiration. In addition Ehrman’s book is self-refuting when it comes to our confidence in the text of the New Testament. Much of the body of the book is focused on using the tools available to demonstrate what he believes to be the original version of the text. Yet by doing that, he shows that there is hope in discovering the original text by practicing the very methods that he uses in his book. Other problems include his attempt to identify the motives of changes in the text. While some of his observations may be accurate, any conclusions are really only conjecture. Ehrman basically falls into the current popular trend of pointing toward conspiracy theories.
While Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus is an adequate introduction to textual criticism, it is in fact an apologetic for his rejection of the Christian faith. He shares his story and invites the reader to follow the “logical” conclusions of seeing the Bible as an error-ridden book. But the fact is: we have a tremendous amount of Greek manuscripts, including some very early texts. Compared to other ancient texts, we have a much better chance of discovering the original form of the texts. Any good modern Bible will give the generally accepeted form of the text and will identify the questionable readings. It is true that God allowed scribes to make mistakes. But perhaps that was so that we would not worship a perfect Bible as an idol as the Israelites ended up worshiping the Bronze Serpent. Misquoting Jesus asks some good questions but ends up giving the answers of one man who rejected the faith for other reasons.