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Lost in Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus [Hardcover]

Nicholas Perrin


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Did Jesus really say it? Bart Ehrman, in his "New York Times" bestseller, "Misquoting Jesus", claims that the New Testament cannot wholly be trusted. Cutting and probing with the tools of text criticism, Ehrman suggests that many of its episodes are nothing but legend, fabricated by those who copied or collated its pages in the intervening centuries. The result is confusion and doubt. Can we truly trust what the New Testament says?Now, Wheaton College scholar Nicholas Perrin takes on Ehrman and others who claim that the text of the New Testament has been corrupted beyond recognition. Perrin, in an approachable, compelling style, gives us a layman's guide to textual criticism so that readers can understand the subtleties of Ehrman's critiques, and provides firm evidence to suggest that the New Testament can, indeed, be trusted.

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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A helpful critique of Ehrman 31 Mar 2008
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A helpful introduction to Ehrman and textual crticism. 14 April 2008
By Shaun Tabatt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Nicholas Perrin is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. His areas of research include the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus' identity as the temple, Paul and Jewish self-definition, and the Gospels. Two of his more recent publications are Thomas: The Other Gospel (London, SPCK; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007) and The Judas Gospel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

One can hardly watch or read the news without hearing about the latest research on the Gnostic gospels of Thomas or Judas and how Christianity as we know it will be shaken to its very core. It is a very unique time we live in, where the Gnostic gospels and New Testament textual criticism have gained such prominence in the popular media. The work of Bart Ehrman and others has ignited a heightened interest on these topics within the public square. This book engages and examines certain claims made by Ehrman in his widely popular book, Misquoting Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2007).

Based on the subject matter alone, you might expect this book to be highly technical, stuffy, and boring. It is not any of these things. The audience the author has in mind for this work is the uninformed non-Christian and the church. As such, it is written in a manner that makes it very accessible to the reader who has a limited background on this subject matter. The themes of the chapters are as follows:

1. Lost in Transmission?
2. Did Jesus Live?
3. History, Faith, and Certitude
4. Lord of the Ring
5. Jesus the Jew
6. Can You Hear Me Now?
7. The Evangelist's Hand
8. Gospel Truth or Gospel Truths?
9. Mistaking Matters
10. Misleading Pens
11. Translation Wars

With the intended audience in mind, the catchy, yet somewhat cliché chapter titles seem to be an attempt to keep a light-hearted feel within subject matter that is often anything but. Each chapter of the book has a specific three-part structure. First, there is a short excerpt from Ehrman's book Misquoting Jesus. Second, there is a related, personal story from the author. Third, the topic of the chapter is engaged and examined. Throughout the first eight chapters, Perrin engages Ehrman's points in an indirect manner. This trend changes in the final three chapters as Perrin's refutations become more passionate and direct. My conjecture is that this change can be attributed to the subject matter in chapters nine through eleven more closely aligning to Perrin's areas of expertise and personal interest.

All things considered, I found this to be an enjoyable book. It is a quick read at a mere 224 pages. Perrin does a good job of keeping the subject matter at the level of his intended audience. This work is by no means exhaustive nor is it overly technical. In light of this, it would make a great introduction for the layperson with little to no exposure to modern Jesus scholarship and New Testament textual criticism. The other real value in this book is found in the author's personal stories. I appreciated the honesty with which Perrin shared the many challenges and struggles he experienced on his journey to faith in Jesus Christ. Each reader will be able to find certain points of commonality between Perrin's faith journey and their own. As the reader sees him or herself in the author's story, their experience of reading this book will hopefully be more personal, meaningful, and ultimately beneficial both intellectually and spiritually.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding--a traditional scholar takes on "Misquoting Jesus" 19 Jan 2008
By Jeri Nevermind - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Know anyone who lost his faith over "Misquoting Jesus", in which Ehrman claims the bible we have now has been so corrupted, so changed by hundreds of scribes, that there is no way of knowing whether or not we have the original message of Jesus?

Perrin has written a response to that book. Perrin is a first class scholar, whose recent books dated the Gnostic "Gospel of Thomas" to after 170 AD, much to the chagrin of the Jesus Seminar.

"Lost in Transmission" is aimed at the general reader, however. You don't need any kind of background to read this book.

Perrin starts out by clearing up some common claims in popular anti-Christian books, starting with "The Jesus Mysteries" by Freke and Gandy. They claim Jesus never existed. Perrin chews their thesis to bits. Freke and Gandy are English teachers, not bible scholars, and it's a simple matter to run through all the ridiculous errors in their book. Perrin also takes on Gotthold Lessing, who wants tolerance to prevail, to the point of forbidding religion. What logic!

Then there are those that argue that all religions are essentially the same. No, from the start "Judaism...was different from the Eastern religions in that it took history seriously" (p 115). While much of the eastern religions say that "suffering is an illusion, both Judaism and Christianity take suffering seriously" (p 116).

Ehrman's errors and exagarations are many. Certainly he never explains the care the ancient Jews took with copying their scriptures. He points out that "we have roughly 5,500 manuscript witnesses to the New Testament. There is no other book and no other set of books that can even come close to comparing with this level of attestation" (p 142). In fact, Ehrman's book ultimately "promises far more than it delivers" (p 144).
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Do We Know What Jesus Said? 2 April 2009
By Trevin Wax - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In recent years, I have noticed that many of the twenty and thirty-somethings in my circle ask very pointed questions about the accuracy of the biblical text. Some of the questioners are devoted Christians; others are outside the faith, challenging the foundation of our belief system. Regardless of their background, they are familiar with History Channel documentaries about the Gnostic or Lost Gospels and they have seen movies like The Da Vinci Code.

C.S. Lewis famously argued that Jesus must be either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. There are no other legitimate options. Despite the brilliance of Lewis' trilemma, his apologetic falls apart if one disposes with the historical data of Jesus given to us in the Gospels. The Jesus of the canonical Gospels must be either liar, lunatic, or Lord. But once you question the historicity of the biblical picture of Jesus, his identity is once again in dispute.

Enter Nick Perrin, former research assistant to N.T. Wright and now the Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. Perrin's book Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus takes on the recent critics of the Gospels' reliability in a winsome and readable manner for laypeople.

The impetus for Lost in Transmission is the recent work of Bart Ehrman. Ehrman has made the argument at the popular level that the words of Jesus have been corrupted beyond recovery - intentionally tampered with by the scribes who handed down the words of Jesus.

Readers of Ehrman are struck by the personal nature of his writings. Ehrman cannot reconcile the existence of a good God and the existence of horrifying, unspeakable evils. Perrin's response is just as personal. He recounts his own spiritual journey as he dismantles the illogical theses of Ehrman.

Writes Perrin:

"This book is for different kinds of people. It is for the countless people out there who, though interested in Jesus, are afraid to believe because they think that we cannot know anything about him or his words. It is also for Christians who are afraid to think because they believe we cannot know anything about Jesus. And it is for Christians who, being unafraid to believe or think, have dared to ascend the intellectual climbing wall of their faith, but who, having been harnessed into the Enlightenment understanding of historical evidence, are unaware of the fragility of that harness." (x)

Perrin believes that evangelicals need to do business with historical research. We dare not ignore the historical challenges to our faith:

"When people succumb to that temptation of ignoring challenges to their faith, they are in the end demonstrating that they are more committed to the feeling of having a lock on truth than they are to truth itself." (xxi)

In other words, Perrin sees our refusal to engage in the historical debate as a backhanded denial of the truths at the very heart of Christianity. We must never suppress the historical truths surrounding the life of Jesus Christ presented in the Gospels. For Perrin, history and Christianity are inseparable because of the nature of the resurrection.

"I do claim that for historical reasons we can have a great deal of confidence in the scriptural record of Jesus' words - and for that matter, his deeds as well. My own confidence may initially be born of biblical faith, but it is not a faith willfully oblivious to historical realities. Nor is biblical faith to be afraid of historical inquiry; rather, it seeks out such inquiry. If faith and history collide, it might make a pretty mess for a time. But the only worse mess is a stillborn faith that insists on fleeing history and, ultimately, the world in which we live. Never let it be said that the self-revelation of Jesus Christ demands blind acquiescence. Rather, it demands we ask questions when we've come to realize, once again, that we don't yet fully understand the implications of that revelation." (42)

The above passage forms the heart of Lost in Transmission. Perrin's book attempts to demonstrate the need for us to do business with historical inquiry and to answer historical questions correctly.

I benefited from Perrin's focus on the Jewish-ness of Jesus. Failing to take into account Jesus' Judaism leads to a failure to understand his words and deeds in the appropriate context.

Likewise, I enjoyed Perrin's unmasking of the arrogance and exclusivity of Enlightenment liberalism. Perrin ably demonstrates the closed-mindedness of the Enlightenment perspective, even as it parades under the guise of openness. He writes:

"It is hard, if not impossible, to take Jesus' Judaism seriously and make him into a poster child for Western liberalism." (62)

I also appreciated Perrin's desire to not over-harmonize the Gospel accounts when he runs into apparent discrepancies. He recognizes the danger of the extreme harmonizing tendency to flatten out the different picture each Gospel author desired to present to the readers.

Perrin says we should let the Gospels be the Gospels:

"Luke's Jesus has to be understood for what he has to say without Matthew's Jesus interrupting. The problem with sending one evangelist in to rescue another is that this becomes an easy way to get the Gospels to say what we want to hear. To me, this is just manipulating the Gospels as a magician might manipulate a stack of cards." (123)

Perrin's critique of the Enlightenment does not lead him to make statements of utter certainty. He proposes what seems to be a chastened postmodern sensibility that accepts our lack of understanding regarding certain aspects of the Gospels.

Do not expect Lost in Transmission to solve every textual problem you have as you study the Gospels. Instead, enjoy the reflections of a scholar whose work will increase your confidence in the reliability and accuracy of the biblical text.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great rebuttal to Misquoting Jesus 20 Mar 2009
By Kevin Norman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Great book by Nicholas Perrin that addresses Ehrman's writing, especially Misquoting Jesus. I appreciate his humble and easy going style, but he really knows his material.
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