Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Misquoting Jesus

The other day I found myself getting curious about the curious idea that the Bible is the inerrant word of "God." Not really so that I could debate any fundamentalists; I don't tend to hang out with fundies, and in any case they're impervious to rational debate. Maybe I just wanted to feel smug.

I want to recommend the book I found -- "Misquoting Jesus," by Bart D. Ehrman. It's scholarly but short and readable, and it explores in detail the question of textual alterations in the many copies of the New Testament.

It's no secret that the manuscripts that were eventually stamped with the official seal of approval and became what we know as the New Testament were hand-copied by scribes over the course of hundreds of years, leading inevitably to copying errors. What I didn't quite realize was that here and there, scribes deliberately altered certain passages in order to promote doctrines that they favored and get rid of bits that would appear to support competing doctrines.

Ehrman, by his own account, started out as a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist, but his intellectual curiosity and honesty eventually pulled him away from that position. His own current beliefs are kept scrupulously out of the book, but whatever he may think of Jesus, he makes it clear that the Gospels were written by human beings, who had the usual range of human motivations and failings.

It's a good book. Well worth reading if you're curious about this stuff.

9 comments:

Noophy said...

I am currently half way through the book, and am really enjoying it. Good to see I am not the only one:)

writerdd said...

Hmmm. I may take a look at that book. I do sometimes hang out with fundies (and ex fundies), and while sometimes they are impervious to rational debate, that is not always the case.

Saganist said...

I'll second the recommendation. I found the book very informative and very readable. The main question Ehrman seeks to address is, "What are the original words of the Bible, and how do we know?" Because if you believe the Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God, wouldn't it make sense to try to figure out what those inerrant, inspired words actually said? The Bible as it exists today is very different from the various manuscripts as they were originally written, and Ehrman gives detailed explanations as to how we know this is true.

Pseudonym said...

I agree that it's an excellent book, but it does overstate things by quite a wide margin.

This review by Dan Wallace is very much biassed in the other direction, so you will also want to read it with a grain of salt, but I think most people will find it useful in evaluating Ehrman's book with a skeptical mind.

writerdd said...

I read some of the 1 star comments on Amazon. I always find them enlightening and they usually convince me to buy the book in question! :-)

Justin said...

Ehrman's forward where he describes his journey from fundie to rational was spooky, it mirrored my own so much.

Great book!

writerdd said...

I'm almost more interested in reading his story about the journey from fundie to rational than I am about the (mis)translations and (mis)copying of the Bible.

the mad LOLscientist said...

I've never met an Ehrman book I didn't like. I may not agree with everything he says, and I think he overstates things to a degree sometimes, but but he's an excellent writer and scholar, and his books are always thought-provoking.

Shantonu Basu said...

It looks like good book. I've got a lot to read as it is though.

McGrath has a similar book, though he is a theist and a Christian. I'm sure he has a different perspective.