Misquoting Jesus, by Bart D. Ehrman (LentBook #3)

Along with books that inspire me, I usually try to rig my Lenten reading list to include some books that will challenge and maybe even disturb me as well. The title and the buzz I’d heard around Misquoting Jesus made it seem like a book that might challenge my conservative approach to Biblical inspiration and reveal disturbing new insights into the process of transcribing and translating the New Testament.

In fact, this wasn’t that book at all. Misquoting Jesus does talk about scribal changes, intentional and unintentional, in the New Testament. However, there’s not one thing in the book that would be unfamiliar to anyone who uses a Bible transation with footnotes — for example, the “shocking fact” that the story of Jesus forgiving the adulterous woman is not in the oldest manuscripts of John 8 and may not be an original part of the gospels at all. Does anyone not know that? (My favourite non-scholarly argument on that passage comes from Thomas Cahills’ Desire of the Everlasting Hills: he believes the story originally belonged in Luke, because Cahill likes this story and likes Luke’s portrayal of Jesus, whereas he thinks John’s Jesus is big jerk who wouldn’t have done something nice like this.)

Most of Ehrman’s “revelations” are exactly of this calibre: an analysis of textual variations that are normally footnoted in most modern translations of the New Testament. What Erhman adds that’s new and useful — and he does it very well — is a good overview of what textual criticism is and how it works, intended for the intelligent but non-scholarly reader (i.e., me). As a general reader who has read tons of books which refer to and rely on textual criticism, I found it really useful to read about how the process actually works and some of the history behind it.

However, a book with a title like An Overview of Textual Criticism for the General Reader would probably sell 37 copies in a university bookstore somewhere, whereas a book called Misquoting Jesus is, in these post-DaVinci Code days, almost certainly to be a bestseller. The suggestion that Ehrman has new and controversial truths to unfold will no doubt cause people to buy the book, but the only people who will be shocked or shaken up by its contents will be people who hold to a very narrow view of verbal inspiration. The rest of us have pretty much taken on board the fact that the Bible is a human document (whether divinely inspired or not) and that both the original text and the subsequent scribal copies are open to human error. There’s certainly nothing here that’s going to shake up my faith in Scripture.

Since it’s a popular rather than a scholarly book, Ehrman takes the liberty — inappropriately, I think — of presenting a lot of his own speculations as firm conclusions rather than possibilities. Assumptions about why a text was changed, which in a scholarly article would have to be hedged about with fences of “it may be” and “a possible explanation” are here presented as fact, which may be a disservice to naive readers who tend to believe things just because the author sounds authoritative and scholarly. I would be happier with Ehrman if he had flagged the fact that his own speculations are simply that — one possible understanding of the text — and had questioned some of his own underlying assumptions and biases, thus drawing attention to the fact that he is just as fallible as the Biblical scribes whose work he’s critiquing.

Bottom line: There’s some useful stuff here, and I would have gotten the book out of the library even if had been called An Overview of Textual Criticism for the General Reader. I’m not impressed with the decision of either Ehrman or his publisher to give the book a “hot,” controversial title that doesn’t really reflect the book’s contents, but that’s the way the business works. In fact, I’m kind of wishing my publisher had chosen to call my novel (The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson) something more attention-grabbing — like Sex with Swift, maybe? Whatever sells copies!!

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7 Comments

Filed under Nonfiction -- general

7 responses to “Misquoting Jesus, by Bart D. Ehrman (LentBook #3)

  1. Tina Chaulk

    Sex with Swift! I like it. This book (Misquoting Jesus, not Sex with Swirft) sounds right up my alley. I’ll have to check it out.

  2. Tina Chaulk

    Well, I bet An Overview of Textual Criticism for the General Reader, wouldn’t get him on the Colbert Report.

  3. Tompaul

    The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson is one of the best titles I’ve seen lately. Now if I could just come up with a great, or even just good, title for my next book . . .

  4. Tompaul

    Um, my original attempt at commenting said “most intriguing” rather than “best.” Not that the latter doesn’t apply as well . . .

  5. Catherine

    I’ve read through all the current reviews on your page and, while you do an excellent job at giving us, your blog readers, a good idea of what these books are about… the good/bad/misleading/etc., I’m most amazed at HOW MANY you’ve read. 80 in one year??? I’m lucky if I can read twelve in a year. Sad. Just sad.

  6. TrudyJ

    So cool … this is the first time I’ve ever gotten so many comments on my book blog … except for one single review which for some reason keeps attracting spam….

    Tina, the public library will have its copy of Misquoting Jesus back next week, so you can get get it there if you’re interested!

    Tompaul, watch this space … a review of your book (which I like the title for just fine!) is coming!

    Catherine, there’s a reason I call it “Compulsive Overreader!” Reading is definitely my main obsession — I’m a fast reader, but not very retentive. Later I’ll often think, “Did I read that book? Can’t remember anything about it!” which is why I started blogging about the books I’d read.

  7. Bob Rigsby

    Trudy:
    What about Kathleen Norris? Does she “fit” in this category from your viewpoint? I’ve found her really fascinating; honest, real, very contemplative and worshipful…

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