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Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Tuesday Book Club - Misquoting Jesus Part 2
This is the second installment of the Emerging Women's August book discussion of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus. This week we will look at Ehrman's basic premises and some of his examples. Next week we will look closer at how these ideas apply to women in the Bible and church history and then we will conclude the month by discussing the criticisms of the book. In the Q&A section included in the paperback version of the book, Ehrman outlines the main ideas present in the book -
  • We do not have the original manuscripts of any of the books in the New Testament, but only copies - over 5000 copies, just in the Greek language in which these books were originally written.

  • Most of these copies are centuries removed from the originals.

  • All of these copies contain mistakes both great and small, as scribes either inadvertently or intentionally altered the text.

  • The vast majority of these changes are insignificant, immaterial, and of no importance for the meaning of the passages in which they are found.

  • Other, however, are quite significant. sometimes the meaning of a verse, a passage, or an entire book depends on which textual variants the scholar decides are "original."

  • As a result, there are many passages of the New Testament where scholars continue to debate the original wording. And there are some in which we will probably never know what the authors originally wrote.

Ehrman explores the reasons for these mistakes and alterations. Some of the mistakes are accidental - scribes miswrote words or skipped lines. These mistakes were then copied by other scribes which led to series of manuscripts that differed from others. Some mistakes changed the meaning of the text by creating nonsense or by altering meaning. (some manuscripts have John 5:39 saying that the scriptures are sinning against Jesus and other manuscripts say that they bear witness to Jesus). Other changes are more intentional. If a scribe came upon a verse that just didn't make sense to him, he might alter it to something more comfortable assuming that a mistake had already been made and that he was correcting it. Other intentional alterations involved using the scripture to promote one theological view over another. For example in order to combat the Docetic heresy (which claimed that Jesus only seemed to be human but really wasn't "fully man"), scripture was altered to stress the humanity of Jesus. Passages that didn't include strong statements of humanity had them added in - like the lines about Jesus "sweating blood" in Luke. Changes were also made to make the scriptures more acceptable and relevant to the surrounding cultures. To the Pagans who scorned a "Son of God" who was common, poor, and convicted as a criminal, certain verses were changed to portray Jesus in a less base manner (saying he was only a son of a carpenter and not a carpenter himself as the text originally had it.)

Example after example is given over debates over which manuscript has the more original meaning. Ehrman discusses the historical search for accurate manuscripts and the process which scholars use to determine which version is closest to the original (all the while admitting that we will never fully know what exactly the originals said.) I found it a fascinating process to see how the politics, bickerings, and human conditions produced such different texts of scripture. And while we at this point have very good manuscripts to make translations from, I am fully aware that there are still politics and debates that influence what words appear in our English translations. Living in a area full of publishing houses and bible translators, I have heard from those translators or staff the often painful stories of how we get our most popular translations. Stories of committees who were overruled in their translation by a powerful big name who had a differing interpretation. Or of translation houses who have board members who are very very outspoken against women which results in those translations including the restrictive translations of the passages involving women. As Ehrman writes, "Texts do not simply reveal their own meanings to honest inquirers. Texts are interpreted, and they are interpreted (just as they were written) by living, breathing human beings, who can make sense of the texts only by explaining them in light of their own knowledge, explicating their meaning, putting the words of the texts "in other words.""

So how do we respond? Did any of the examples given shock you or shake your assumed faith? Do the examples help you understand the Bible more or less? How do you feel about the Bible being altered to be relevant to discussions that mean little to most people these days? Does knowledge of textual criticism leave you wanting to learn more or does it overwhelm you?

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  • At 8/14/2007 06:09:00 PM, Anonymous jessica

    My name is Jessica and I've been following this blog for a few months from British Columbia, Canada. I've been really interested in many of your discussions so I'm finally joining in on one!

    I'm only about three-quarters of the way through this book, but I'm really enjoying it. I was already somewhat familiar with the topic, however more specifically in the Old Testament context. So getting the NT picture has been great.

    One of the examples that really gave me pause for thought was the translation of Jesus' emotion in Mark 1. Most Bibles read that he felt "compassion" for the leper and healed him, but Ehrmann argues that some of the oldest documents actually read that Jesus was "angry" at the leper and then healed him. I found it intriguing that this is a problem for so many of us. Jesus getting angry at those defiling the Temple is perfectly acceptable to us, but him being angry at a defenseless leper is less palatable. Yet, if we are to believe that Jesus was fully human as well as fully God (depending on what you do believe in that area), then we have to accept that the full range of human emotion was open to Jesus and that he experienced the frustration, irritation and annoyance that we do. This idea definitely shakes the image of Christ I was taught as a child. I rather like it though. I like that Jesus was human enough to be annoyed or frustrated, yet still performed a positive action, he still healed the leper.

    Something I am still working towards is understanding the role of the Bible in my faith. Having grown up in a evangelical Christian missionary family the Bible was/is very much central to any discussion of faith within my family and faith very much consists of reading the Bible and praying every day (among other worship practices). However, in the last several years I have become increasingly aware of my own lack of knowledge regarding the history, context and origins of the Bible. This makes it difficult for me to know to incorporate it into my faith, to divine what its purpose and relevancy actually is to my pursuit of Christ, considering there is so much that I can never fully understand or know. Books like Ehrmann's help me understand the Bible better, but also help me understand how futile it is to say that I find answers in it. The ultimate answer is there… the grace of love, but take even one step further and immediately there are opposing opinions on who receives that grace and how. It is difficult to know whether to give it value based on the literary and historical masterpiece it is or as a sacred book meant to guide my spiritual journey.

    Learning about textual criticism definitely leaves me yearning for more, if only to be able to discuss knowledgeably and gently with people I disagree with.

  • At 8/15/2007 02:41:00 AM, Blogger Michele L

    I just loved this book. Not that it was always the easiest to read, but for how it changed my view of the Bible. Coming from a tradition that believes "God breathed" or "inspiration" is hand held dictation, I was absolutely thrilled at what I learned reading this book.

    I read it a few months back, and I had borrowed it, so I don't have it in front of me to quote. One thing that came to mind (and forgive me that I can't quote exact passages) was the discussion of the "resurrection" time frames, and how the Gospels differed in their stories. I know at one point a reference was made to "40" days after his death being resurrected (or I am hoping I am using the right wording). I remembered thinking at that moment..."hmmm...I don't remember ever reading anything like that??" I was fascinated. So, I broke out the 3 versions I had in my night stand, and "read" for myself. One of the versions (the most not accepted in my family) had the "40" days, the other two, only stated "period" of time. I think at that moment I realized how complex Bible reading and scholarship can be, and how "way over simplified" it can be in faith communities. My guess is that there are so many people out there (myself included) that have never realized or understood all that went into the Bible, the context, the history etc.

    Since reading this book, I have also read others, and watched many lectures by Bart Erhman. I continue to be amazed at what I learn. It seems silly sometimes to me, how much I have missed. For instance, the thought of reading similar gospel stories side by side, and comparing the similarities if not the differences...wow what a concept. I am beginning to really see how we in our faith communities have enmeshed stories together so much that we miss all the little differences or elements that can make quite a difference.

    Like Jessica said, I am at a place where I am trying to figure out how this plays in my life at this point. I have gone fairly extreme (to most people) in what I believe or should I say don't believe. I am reading another great book "Jesus for the Non Religious" by John Shelby Spong (the ever controversial). What I am hoping to find on my way is how to pull Jesus and a connection with God out of an ancient culture's beliefs, interpretation, understanding, along with history factors, traditions etc. and be true to the knowledge and understanding available.

    What I have taken away from this is the understanding "no wonder there are so many differing thoughts to Christianity!" this process is not Black and White, and to be honest, I have heard the extremes to the debates and both sides can make fairly convincing cases.

    I have learned that we each "choose" what opinion to hold to. Some of us are always willing to learn and are open to opinions. Many times others are not. What we understand 2000 years later is based on interpretations, opinions, translations, history, culture etc. If we don't keep that in mind, we miss many crucial things.

  • At 8/15/2007 05:06:00 PM, Anonymous Karen

    I am enjoying reading Bart's book. He is a very accessible writer. So far nothing he has said has really surprised me. Many of the examples he refers to (so far--I haven't read the whole book yet) such as the woman caught in adultery and the extra verses in Mark etc--these have been known about for a long time and are noted in most Bibles by a footnote or placed in brackets.

    Even though Bart focuses his book on errors, and that is what most people come away with after reading it--that the Bible is full of errors--he notes, "Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today" (p.11). That is, most of the discrepancies in scripture do not affect the overall "Big Picture" story that the Bible conveys.

    I don't find these discrepancies threatening at all. In fact, it only reinforces in me how amazing God is that he uses all the quirks and fallibility of humans in which to share his story. Scripture was not dictated to humans in a robotic or trance-like fashion. Rather God inspired it in the context of who we are and in our culture.

    I like what Jewish journalist Bruce Feiler quotes in his book “Walking the Bible." In interviewing a Bible and archeology scholar in Israel, the interviewee, Gabi, states: “I don’t care whether this or that detail is correct in the Bible. It doesn’t change my attitude toward the Bible, toward religion, toward God. Or, toward myself. But in America there was an idea that the Bible is a kind of machine; if you prove that two of the screws really existed, then the whole machine existed, and if you take out two of the screws the whole thing collapses. But the Bible is not a machine. It doesn’t have screws” (p.106).

    Bart builds his argument on inspiration based on a fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy. However, inspiration is not related to inerrancy. Many Christians throughout time have held to the belief in the inspiration of Scripture without any doctrine on inerrancy.

    The doctrine of inerrancy did not become much of an issue until after the Enlightenment when rationalism challenged all things supernatural. Suddenly inspiration had to be defended, and so apologists used the idea of inerrancy to try to prove inspiration. So the inerrancy argument is actually rather new (even if it was assumed by early Christians). One does not have to believe in inerrancy to believe the Bible is inspired.

    The Bible repeats the same main themes over and over and over. So, the main message of the Bible--the messianic themes, justice, righteousness, God's purposes for his people, etc really is not distorted by any copy errors--most of which are spelling related and can be pointed out.

    I think the questions come into play over interpretation over smaller scale issues.

    The more I study the Bible in-depth, including doing textual criticism (which I did in my Hebrew and Greek classes), the more I am enthralled with Scripture. There is a supernatual quality to it--a voice that speaks out from a spiritual dimension for those who are listening to hear it.

  • At 8/16/2007 03:32:00 PM, Blogger Lydia

    But in America there was an idea that the Bible is a kind of machine

    Funny, I was just about to say something similar to this (though not as eloquently as Bruce.) - that part of the problem is the way in which people in America view the bible.

    Taking it literally and inerrantly from cover to cover is much different from looking for and at the themes that you mentioned.

    The former leaves more room for it to be misapplied in abusive or oppresive ways (IMO) as individual verses or stories are more likely to be plucked out.

    Scripture was not dictated to humans in a robotic or trance-like fashion. Rather God inspired it in the context of who we are and in our culture.

    Have any of you ever read any books that have this approach to scripture and that then attempt to tell the story of what it might have been like had Jesus been sent to us at a different place and time?

    All of the books I've read in which Jesus appears at a different point in history* have a distinctly Evangelical and conservative flavour. The Jesus' in those books always sounded pretty Wasp-y to me.

    (Not that there's anything wrong with being a white, anglo-saxon protestant...I just really don't see God embracing any particular worldview that fully and without hesitation. :) )

    Let me know if you can think of any books that tackle this what-if well.

    Although maybe I should just attempt to write one myself. :)

    *All of the ones I can recall have been set in modern times and in the States.

  • At 8/16/2007 08:47:00 PM, Anonymous Karen

    I have a question for y'all. What do each of us mean by "literal"-- that is a word that is used often in this dicussion. "Do we take the Bible literally."

    For example, the Bible has many different genres--Historical narrative, letters, poetry, apocalyptic, etc etc. Some of it is literal and supported by archeological findings and some is metaphorical.

    When the Bible says God loves the world--should we take that literally? When it says we should love our neighbor as ourselves--should we take that literally?

    I would be interested in hearing from you guys what that idea of "literal" means for all of you as it relates to the Bible and inerrancy. We throw the word around a lot, but don't really explain what we really mean by it and how it affects our relationship with the Bible.

  • At 8/16/2007 11:21:00 PM, Blogger Michele L

    In my "world" literal meant historically factual. Most of my life I was taught the Bible is basically a history book. Even if certain things didn't make sense, it didn't matter, God wrote it, we don't have to understand everything.

    I am just now beginning to understand the Bible in a much different way. I was just not given much other than we read it, live it, study it, and believe every word. (However the thought of Biblical scholarship or hearing other views, never entered into that picture)

  • At 8/17/2007 08:33:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    In my background "literal" meant that genres didn't exist and everything had to have historically happened in order to be true (well except for end times stuff...). So for the Bible to be true - Genesis had to literally have happened, same with the book of Job. No possibility there that those stories are myths that contain truths. David had to have written the Psalms and Moses the pentateuch in order for the whole thing to hold together. The parables were even read literally - those stories were not just illustrations, they actually happened. To even think about researching the cultural and social background of the Bible was unheard of - why was it needed? Our 20th century american uneducated literal reading of the text must be the exact same way it has been read by all people ever right?

  • At 8/17/2007 10:06:00 PM, Blogger Amy

    "Literal" interpretation means two different things in my experience. I earned a degree in Biblical Studies from a Christian Liberal Arts college. It was there that I learned about the importance of literary genres, historical context and other forms of biblical criticism. I'm currently getting ready to start seminary and as I start talking to professors and other students, I am again met by the recognition of these things as critical to understanding the text and thus applying it to life. In this context "literal" is much more open and means we have to work to understand in order to apply.

    The other side to that is life in a local church community. Historical context is given credence, but much past that is seen as making understanding the Bible much too difficult and therefore inaccessible. The thought is that in addition to being inspired and inerrant, the Bible should also be easy to understand.

    Karen, thanks for sharing your understanding of scripture. I very much agree. I recently heard someone say, "If one thing in the Bible is proven to be false, we should throw out the whole thing." I think that is completely missing the point. The Bible is not a technical manual created by precision-minded technical writers intended to provide detail instructions for the 21st century Western Christian. It is a work of art, inspired by Yahweh God, describing the work of reconciliation of amongst all of creation.

  • At 8/18/2007 09:08:00 PM, Blogger Michele L

    I agree Amy, I heard that comment over and over recently. It is so hard sometimes to get it across to someone, that it doesn't have to be 'literal' to be true and inspired. However, that comment has been taught over and over to people. I don't even think they realize how much that concept is pounded into their head, and it becomes some what robotic, because they don't have their own mind in these areas. They just repeat the "defenses" they have heard others use.

  • At 8/19/2007 12:05:00 PM, Anonymous Karen

    I am really enjoying reading the thoughts you guys expressed about what "literal" means. It sounds like most of us are understanding it in the sense that fundamentalists sometimes do not properly interpret scripture because they do not understand how to read certain genres. Or, do not take into account historical/cultural context. That is, misinterpretation related to basic reading principles. For example, if I do not understand how to read metaphor--I might think the "eyes of my heart are enlightened" means I actually have eyeballs on my heart.

    The only concern I have about the usage of the term "literal" is that I feel that sometimes people use it to say the Bible is myth--its not really literal (i.e. true)--its mythological. I have such a desire for people to grasp the incredible value of Scripture because it is not myth--it is this dynamic message from God that tells us how much he loves us, that we have purpose for our lives, that we have hope of life through Jesus, that we can be empowered by his Spirit, that we are forgiven, that there is a coming day when Jesus will rule the earth with justice and peace.

    I also wonder if sometimes people use the idea of "literal" to toss out certain things in Scripture that they do not want to abide by (e.g.--well I don't have to follow that guideline because its just archaic and shouldn't be taken literally). Certainly, there are some practices in Scripture that were culturally driven, but many that are timeless and beyond culture.

    I guess that is where the Spirit comes in--where we surrender ourselves completely to God--seeking his wisdom to follow him fully and apply the Word to our lives accurately.

  • At 8/19/2007 04:04:00 PM, Blogger Amy

    Karen, I think how we understand "literal" is very important and it can go many different ways. I know some people who do believe the Bible is largely myth. Some throw the teachings out entirely and others believe even the mythology was inspired by God and is meant for us today as well.

    I read the book "Slaves, Women & Homosexuals" a while back. I really liked an understanding of scripture that Webb put forth. He talked about a ladder. He said there are overall themes in scripture and that some of scripture is application of those themes within a particular culture. For instance, the instructions to Corinthians for women to cover their head while praying and prophesying. Most of us consider that unnecessary today. But, we don't just throw out the text. Instead, we go from the particulars at the bottom of the ladder, up to the general assumptions/theme behind the particulars and then reapply that in our culture today. This is how I understand scripture. I very much believe scripture is inspired. I am not threatened by mistakes by scribes or by geneologies that don't line up, or that the gospels have different orders of events.

    I am sometimes intimidated by application. I can theologically grasp the big pictures, but I will be honest in that I struggle with the particulars. I think this is often where a fundamental understanding of Scripture comes up. It is easier to read specific instruction and make that universal in application because then it is easy to point to the Bible and say, "See, it's right there in the Bible." Whereas, the ongoing dance of interpreting scripture in light of history, literature, and the various forms of biblical criticism leaves a lot of gray. In my experience, fundamental Christianity, is not comfortable with dancing.

  • At 8/20/2007 11:35:00 AM, Anonymous Karen

    Amy, I loved the book by Webb--"Slaves, Women and Homosexuals." It was excellent and very intellectually stimulating. I really liked his thoughts on the upward trajectory that is apparent in Scripture as it relates to women and slaves

  • At 8/20/2007 05:38:00 PM, Anonymous Kristen

    That was a really good discussion on Misquoting Jesus. Thank you. I just read a good book that addresses Ehrman's arguments, I think, very well. Can We Trust the Gospels? by Mark D. Roberts

  • At 8/21/2007 01:06:00 AM, Blogger Michele L

    Thanks for the recommendation Kristen.

  • At 8/21/2007 11:08:00 AM, Blogger Julie

    Karen - i think some of the issues with the term 'myth' arise from a misunderstanding of that term. Many people hear that world and assume that it just refers to falsehood and fiction. They think a myth cannot hold truth. But they fail to realise that there are different types of truth.

    Things can be historically true - in that they happened. But they can also be spiritually true in that they teach us truths about God. So the parables of Jesus may not be historically true (they may be fictional stories) but they hold spiritual truths. Same thing may be the case with other parts of scripture. If Genesis sounds a lot like the creation myths of ancient near-eastern cultures and so some people assume that it isn't historically true, that does not make the spiritual truths it teaches about God any less true.

  • At 8/21/2007 12:24:00 PM, Anonymous Karen

    That is a good point Julie. I think that is why its so important to define terms in a discussion because people can be saying entirely different things. I think many people think of the term "myth"--as in fairy tales--like the Easter bunny--something that is not really meant to be taken seriously and does not contain fact.

    But, its true there is the sense of "myth" in terms of parable or story that is used to convey truth. The Bible is very much a theology book--using stories to drive home a certain point--some historically factual and some metaphorical.

    I do not have to believe the earth was created in 6 literal days to understand that Genesis is conveying the truth that God is Creator and created the earth (in whatever mysterious way that came about).

    I honestly don't know all the details of how the earth was created--only that I believe God did so. Its interesting that so many Ancient Near Eastern cultures have the similar creation "myth". This actually could be an indication of a common source of humanity. An oral tradition that was passed down over the years that traces way back to an original group of people before they grew and expanded out into different tribes/nations.


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