Friday, December 20, 2019

The Gospel According to Bart

I have been nervous about reading Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed The New Testament and Why. This is not because I feared my faith in the New Testament would be weakened, thus weakening my faith in Jesus, but because I feared I would get in over my head but would want to bring up what I learned in some context and make a botch of it.  That may only mean I feared public humiliation when shooting off my mouth, but I like to think that my real reason is that putting a botched argument forward, only to see it destroyed, would be detrimental to anyone present whose faith might be weakened.  I wouldn't want to face God with that one. I thought I understood this but I didn't, and now Jack may have had his faith in scripture undermined. Entirely my fault.

I know that I know little about textual criticism, and so was likely to A) Misunderstand what Ehrman was writing, in ways great and small and B) Misunderstand what any of his critics were saying in answer, in ways great and small. Yet I was curious.  His book had come on the scene over a decade ago and got everyone all worked up.  I wanted to know what it was about, but not enough to learn basic textual criticism in preparation.  So the nervousness just sort of hovered in the background, wondering if a time would arise when I would find that I had missed a great deal of important thinking and would have to tackle the matter anyway, starting in a hole.

I needn't have worried.  I should have just jumped in.  According to Daniel B. Wallace's essay  The Gospel According to Bart,  over at, Ehrman's book includes a very good introduction to textual criticism in its first chapters.  Wallace criticises the book for slanting much of the discussion, mostly by omission of important contrary information, but he acknowledges that the introduction to the topic is generally well done. Actually, Wallace's essay in criticism gives a fair bit of introduction itself, enough to show me that I knew more than I thought.  Still not very much.  Let's not get carried away here.  But I knew already that the story of the Woman Taken In Adultery was most likely added well after the first documents, and probably did not happen at all.  Many Bibles include notes on disputed passages in the footnotes.

I recommend the essay for those who want to catch up on this. It isn't short, but at 12,000 words it is doable, and Wallace writes engagingly about what he admits most people find to be a boring topic. In short, his criticisms of Ehrman seem to be these: that Ehrman goes from fundamentalist to inverted fundamentalist in a flash, as if there is nothing between literalist acceptance of what grandpa was taught and complete suspicion of the entirety of the NT; that some of the major difficulties he relies on (such as the woman caught in adultery) have been long known and accepted without difficulty, even by evangelical scholars - that is, they don't change anything; that other variant readings which Ehrman insist on as certain are not generally accepted; that even where he thinks Bart Ehrman gets it right, and our usual translations are in error, and the impact on understanding that passage is substantial, it changes our understanding of the book in question very little, and our understanding of the NT even less.

For example, Wallace thinks Ehrman has a good case that in Mark 1:40-41, Jesus was angry rather than "moved with compassion" when the leper asked to be healed, and that we underemphasise Jesus's indignation at being doubted throughout Mark's gospel.  The translators at the NIV thought so too. Dr. Ehrman isn't bringing anything earth-shattering here, even though he keeps saying that it's earth-shattering.

Bart Ehrman is likely a smarter man than I am, and certainly more knowledgeable about the Bible.  But I think i handled my fundamentalist-shaking moment better than he did.  Some time in the late 70s or early 80s I heard a Christian speaker laugh that there are people who are so literalist, that they believe when Samson picks up the jawbone of an ass and slays a thousand in Judges 15, that has to be exact.  If archaeology at Rameth Lehi revealed the jawbone of a camel with 1001 nicks in it and the remains of 1001 soldiers, their faith would be in ruins.  Hahaha.  I remember thinking at the time.  Wait a minute.  I am sorta that guy. Over the next few hours I decided I didn't need to be that brittle about the scriptures.


sykes.1 said...

As a lapsed Catholic and a non believer, I have to point out that the Christian Bible was not finalized until the early 5th Century AD, and the version of the Old Testament endorsed was the Septuagint, which dates from the 3rd Century BC, and which predates the modern Jewish text, finalized some 300 + years afterwards. So much for Sola Scriptura. Tradition counts. Luther was a true heretic.

Beyond that, there are numerous dishonesties in English translations of the texts. The most obvious is LORD for any God name. There are, in fact, 60 different God names in the Old Testament. Half of these are YHWH plus an appellation; the rest are all sorts of other names. The priestly position (pretense?) is that they are synonyms. Really? In an Iron Age text? And there is the verse in Deuteronomy where Eli assigns the Jews to YHWH as his special care. There is a Names of God Bible that makes it all clear.

The King James and Duoay Rheims remain the most accurate English versions, even after 400 years. But those translations were made by believers who took the texts seriously as the revealed word of God. Nowadays the Orthodox Study Bible is my favorite. The footnotes are the real treasure, plus the anti-Catholic diatribe in the Introduction. The New Jerusalem Bible (Catholic) is another favorite. Yes, an agnostic reads the Bible. You cannot understand our culture without it.

The idea that the Bible can be understood by any normal man has given us 30,000 Protestant sects, each with a distinction interpretation of the texts that contradicts every other. Of course the Bible is full of contradictions, and one thing The Tradition provides is a consistent (if strained) reading.

Texan99 said...

I've known for decades that whatever view I took of the authority of Bible had to include both the idea that God Himself told us to pay attention to it, and that texts get corrupted in transmission. Honest exegeses of the Old Testament discover overwhelming evidence of errors and glosses and freedoms taken by editors. If we're not each to be taking dictation directly from God in dreams or the like, we're going to have to learn from each other, including from past generations, and we're not infallible. We can still believe that God arranges things so that we can be taught and directed.

james said...

The Mark leprosy incident stands out for some reason--how does this differ from the healings that went before? I've heard a suggestion that the leper was sent to Jesus as a test to see whether this new rabbi was kosher, but I don't see that in the context.

WRT the John passage--it doesn't seem out of character for Jesus, and I'm inclined to leave it be. After all, John lived long enough to come up with a second edition--although I'd expect more additions than simply one incident.