It is common today to question not only what we know about Jesus, but how we know about Jesus. The critics and sceptics argue that we can't really know the real Jesus, because whatever he said and did has been lost in translation. The early followers of Jesus have so corrupted the original words and deeds that they are beyond knowing.
Many have been taking this line of late. One who has had a New York Times best seller in this regard is Bart Ehrman. His 2005 volume, Misquoting Jesus, has sought to argue that we are left with only doubt and uncertainty about the real Jesus.
Perrin, a lecturer in New Testament at Wheaton College, and former research assistant to N.T. Wright, takes on Ehrman in particular and the sceptics in general in this useful volume. He does so by offering an easy to read account of various themes: history, theology, hermeneutics and textual criticism.
Perrin notes that his journey of faith is the opposite of Ehrman. Perrin started off an agnostic but eventually became an evangelical Christian. Ehrman began as an evangelical but is now an agnostic. Perrin describes his spiritual journey, and along the way shows how most of the major themes of Ehrman and the sceptics are simply mistaken.
Consider the nature of the four Gospels. Are they selective accounts of the life of Jesus? Yes. Does that mean they are therefore unreliable? No. Perrin reminds us that all historians are selective, and therefore interpretive. There is no such thing as purely objective history. But being interpretative does not equate to being fast and loose with the facts of history.
The Gospel writers clearly wrote with a theological purpose in mind. But they also wrote with a high view of history. Theological and historical purposes can combine in the Gospel accounts, with no loss of factual accuracy.
Ehrman tries to make a false dichotomy between seeing the Gospel writings as either the words of God or the words of men. But Christians have always held that they are both. The biblical understanding of inspiration contains both elements, just as does our understanding of the person of Jesus as being both fully human and fully divine.
Perrin also looks briefly at the claims of some radicals who doubt that Jesus even existed. These claims are quickly dismissed. First, no serious New Testament scholar anywhere denies the existence of Jesus. Second, the claim of critics that Christianity simply borrowed from other pagan mystery religions is fraught with danger.
Borrowing always takes place to some degree, but that does not minimise the truth claims of Christianity or imply bare dependency. If Christianity is in fact true, we would expect the faith to "resonate with the deepest longings of humanity," says Perrin, "using some of the very same imagery that humanity has latched unto in order to express those longings". Third, the similarities are at best superficial, not deep-seated.
So too are the supposed similarities between the various Gnostic gospels and our canonical Gospels. The biblical Gospels were all penned within the first century, just decades after the life of Christ. The Gnostic gospels were primarily second and third century documents.
The Gnostics taught that the body was bad, and the spirit had to be liberated from it. The Christian Gospels teach the importance of the body, and the fact that God became flesh (the Incarnation). Gnosticism teaches salvation by special knowledge and ideas. Christianity says salvation comes by God coming in the flesh, and living among us, dying and rising again.
Perrin argues that Ehrman not only exaggerates the frequency of textual corruptions, but the implications of those as well. For example, we have serious questions about less than one percent of what Jesus said in the Gospel of Mark. And textual criticism is helping us to continue to get a better handle on the original texts. The transmission of the words of Jesus may not be perfect, but it is certainly adequate.
In sum, the journey from the words of Jesus to the Bibles we have today is undeniably a long and complex one. But we can still argue that the words and deeds of Jesus are for the most part faithfully contained in the New Testament writings. There is some static between what Jesus originally said and what we read today. But, as Perrin demonstrates, "Jesus' voice is preserved in the transmission".
This is not a detailed rebuttal of the Ehrman book. For that one should consult Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's `Misquoting Jesus' (IVP, 2007). Instead it offers a much broader look at the issues involved. It is a helpful volume both for believers and unbelievers. Although brief (just under 200 pages), it gives both groups some solid material to use in considering what Jesus is like and what he said, and how we can know that with a high degree of confidence.