110 of 116 people found the following review helpful
on 16 October 2007
Ehrman's "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture" covers similar ground but seems addressed primarily to scholars. This popular presentation is not only considerably more readable for the lay reader but has a superb, open introduction by Ehrman in which he details his path from a born-again believer to the mature scholar he is today, who appreciates the Bible but sees it as the work of human beings who may "... have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting the Bible up as a false idol ..." Strong words indeed and a challenge to those who have not yet read this book or, having read it, remain unable to accept even the factual aspects of Ehrman's presentation.
Ehrman explains textual criticism for lay people with examples. He exposes the problem that the present versions of the Bible have: besides having been copied over centuries and translated, they are derived from multiple differing versions, such that even scholars don't know in places what the original words of the Bible were.
Ehrman, since his youth, has had a deep and authentic interest in how the Bible came down to us. You may disagree with him in part or even whole as to his speculations but he's made a gifted and sincere effort to share with you what he has learned. He's no salesman. If you read it with an open mind, you may never regard the Bible in the same way again.
48 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on 23 September 2007
Ehrman believes the history of our great stories matters. And his exploration of the New Testament's evolution is an enormous accomplishment. This is a work building on hundreds of years of research, for example, Stephanus's 1550 translation with marginal notes identifying variations between 14 different ancient Greek manuscripts. Or John Mill's 1707 comparison of over 100 Greek manuscripts to show 30,000 points of difference. And Ehrman's data base includes over 5,700 manuscripts in Greek alone, which yield a total of between 200,000 to 400,000 varients among them.
While comparing manuscripts, Ehrman gives us a parallel history of arguments and riposts among scholarly egos, making this a fascinating human story. We have, for example, the French Catholic scholar Richard Simon who in 1689 produced "A Critical History of the Text of the New Testament", giving a partisan blast at Protestant rejection of Church tradition in favor of reliance on scripture alone:
"The great changes that have taken place in the manuscripts of the Bible ... since the first originals were lost, completely destroy the principle of the Protestants ..., who consult only these same manuscripts of the Bible in the form they are today. If the truth of religion had not lived on in the Church, it would not be safe to look for it now in books that have been subjected to so many changes and that in so many matters were dependent on the will of the copyists."
Do all these differences among ancient hand-copied versions of the Bible make any difference? Ehrman shows thay do at many important points -- concerning Jesus, women, Jews, leadership, and more. And that's the really good part. I think this book is a big step forward in separating wheat from chaff in the scriptures.
--author of Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 20 October 2012
Despite the provocative title, this book is for the most part simply an easy to read introduction to the field of New Testament textual criticism. It provides a fascinating account of the history of the New Testament, including a detailed explanation of why there are variants between the ancient New Testament manuscripts, and the methods used by scholars today to determine which of these are the most likely to be the original text.
The introduction provides Ehrman's own story, of how he became a "born again" Christian at high school, and adopted the belief that the bible is the "inerrant word of God." Ehrman's study of textual criticism challenged this view, however, and his understanding of the bible and his beliefs have changed as a result.
Chapters 1 - 3 outline the broad history of the New Testament, and raise the primary problem this book is concerned with: that the scribes who made the earliest copies of the New Testament texts were usually untrained, and as a result they made numerous mistakes and alterations. As a result there are literally tens of thousands of variations that exist between the surviving manuscripts we have today.
Chapters 4-5 describe the effort of scholars, from the early 1700's onwards, to develop methods of reconstructing the original text of the New Testament. Today scholars consider a range of arguments to support the selection of one text over another, including both external evidence (evidence relating to the reliability of the manuscripts) and internal evidence (evidence relating to the variants themselves).
Chapters 6 and 7 focus on the relationship between the history of the early church, and the intentional changes made by scribes to the New Testament texts. Ehrman argues that the early scribes who copied the scriptures were intent on preserving the text accurately, but nevertheless occasional "corrections" were made for a variety of reasons relating to the apologetic concerns of the early church. Ehrman notes that these changes were usually very minor in nature, and that the scribes probably believed their changes were simply ensuring the text said what it was already believed to mean.
In the conclusion Ehrman returns to his own story, of how he came to believe the bible is a very human book, and not inspired by God - since if God inspired the individual words, he should have "miraculously preserved those words, just as he miraculously inspired them in the first place." Ehrman came to see that each New Testament author also brought their own perspectives to their writings, and reinterpreted the oral and written traditions they had received - which is something we all do whenever we interpret something.
For the majority of Christians and non-believers alike, the contents of this book will hardly be a surprise. Even the most conservative translations today, such as the NIV, detail in their footnotes information on textual variants in the ancient manuscripts where these are deemed to be problematic. Those who believe the Bible to be "inerrant", however, may find this to be a challenging read, particularly if they have not thought through the details of how the text of the bible has been transmitted to us. This is no doubt one of the reasons why this book was written - to challenge a fundamentalist understanding of the bible. The idea of inspiration, for example, can mean many things without resorting to the literalistic view that God has given us the individual words of the bible - common sense should tell us that the bible contains the many different perspectives of the authors.
My main criticism is that by focussing solely on the variants between the manuscripts, this book may leave the reader with an impression of the New Testament as being less reliable than it actually is. In reality, considering these are ancient texts, the modern translations we have today are remarkably accurate due to the large number of ancient manuscripts we have, and the diligent work of numerous textual critics to determine which variants are likely to be original. I don't think this is necessarily intentional, as Ehrman himself notes on p.94: "In a remarkable number of instances - most of them, actually - scholars by and large agree" (which variants are most likely to be original).
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 9 October 2014
As a born again, Bible-believing Christian this has certainly given me food for thought. I see Ehrman is a scholar who has attempted (more or less) to deal honestly and scientifically with the text.
I have learned a great deal about the problems of textual criticism, and it was fun to read how early scribes may have altered the text in such a way that our modern reading has been affected by it. And how modern scholarship is attempting to recover the originals.
But it's the "more or less" that I have problems with. It is clear that Erhman has a slant, an agenda. I do not mean this in a derogatory fashion. We all have our slants and our agendas. And this has coloured his opinions. There were parts of the text where I really felt he was stretching it. It's hard to remember all of the areas i felt he was doing this, but just this morning I finished up the last chapter where he delves into the anti-Semitic reasons as to why early scribes may have changed the text. He speaks with such certainty, but like so much in this field his opinions are only conjecture. Perhaps very good and logical, but sitting there reading I was able to come up with other possible scenarios (using the principles he gives) as to why the text may have changed.
Ehrman tries to portray himself as a disinterested scholar, but it is clear he dislikes Christianity even though he has given his life to the study of it. That's fine. But one should be aware that this will affect the way one looks at the evidence and how one interprets it.
I believe Christianity is primarily about a relationship with Jesus Christ, which is why I am not too bothered by the idea that textual variants have appeared in the manuscripts. Fundamentalistic religion balks at the idea and squirms around it, but the Word is a Person, not ink on a page.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Bart Ehrman has written what many believe to be a thought-provoking analysis of the formation of The New Testament. I concur with this opinion, it is indeed intriguing.
The over-riding assumption according to Christian fundamentalist is that The New Testament is inerrant. And, in this state of perfection, there's a unified story amongst the authors on what appears to have happened in 1st century Palestine, the correction of Jewish philosophy and the way to eternal salvation.
These precepts have always been contested, by Jewish scholars, by Christian academics and, as Dr. Ehrman points out, by agnostics, atheists and polytheists of those eras. This book is an attempt to examine the environment in which the later writers (i.e., the scribes) who inherited these oftentimes contradictory stories.
I came to know of this book by way of PBS' The Diane Rhems Show. In that lively hour, Dr. Ehrman discussed his fundamentalist upbringing through his academic disillusionment years. There were many things discussed during that show that is not in the book.
The book spends a disproportionately long time discussing how the traditions were adapted by intentional "corrections", accidental, interpretive or just missing material.
Only sparsely does Mr. Ehrman actually deal with etymology. But, when he does it reveals much. I was also impressed with his addressing certain assumptions that the early Christian community was disproportionately discriminated against by the so-called unbelievers and the Roman community.
The book is very interesting and I recommend it only to those who've read other books that deal specifically with historicity.
49 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on 2 November 2008
There's a joke about a new monk at a scriptorium innocently asking an older monk about a particular word. The old monk has been happily copying from copies for years, but humours the novice by going into the cellar to check the original. Hours go by and nobody sees him. Eventually, they hear sobbing and descend to find the old monk slumped over the original text. They ask what's wrong, and in a choked voice he replies, "The word is celebrate."
Many Christians throughout history have believed that "the Bible is the inerrant word of God" and that it "contains no mistakes". Even if that were true, in the sense that the original words were inspired by God, the problem is, we no longer have those words. In this brilliant book, Bart Ehrman explains why - unlike in the joke - checking the Bible against the originals will forever remain a fantasy. He explores the many ways in which changes have been introduced, gives a crash course in textual criticism, and arrives at the startling conclusion that "the translations available to most English readers are based on the wrong text".
We are so used to the printed word and the reliability of modern mass manufacturing that we usually ignore the processes by which the spoken word or a writer's thoughts come to be recorded on the page. Occasionally, we may notice a typo, but that rarely interferes with meaning. Our strong impression is that, while we might not agree with the message, we can trust the medium. This trust, however, proves to be spectacularly misplaced when it comes to the ancient collection of texts known as the Bible.
Whatever you believe about the historical figure of Jesus and the existence of the Christian or any other god, someone, somewhere, wrote down for the first time the story of, say, the wedding at Cana. The manuscript thus produced was the autograph. Where is it now? Gone. Along with all the autographs for every other Bible passage! Oh dear. If you believe those were the words of God, that the production of those autographs was inspired by God, and that the truth of the stories contained within them is guaranteed by no less an authority than God, then failing to preserve them must come as quite a blow.
Thank goodness, therefore, someone made a copy. Some sensible person made a backup, and this is what we are reading, two thousand years later.
Alas, it's a little bit more complicated than that. Before computer hard drives, before printing presses, the only way things got copied was by hand. Ehrman puts it bluntly: "The more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realized just how radically the text had been altered over the years at the hands of scribes". Naturally, being human, scribes made mistakes, misspelling a word here, leaving out a line there, even bungling whole sentences. Surely, proofreading would pick up pretty much everything? Proofreading, however, implies the ability to read, and early on in the movement most Christians were "uneducated" and "illiterate". Not the scribes, surely? Sometimes, even the official local scribe - for example, Petaus, from the village of Karanis in Egypt - couldn't read "the simple words he was putting on the page."
Still, it was all sorted out "soon after the death of Jesus"? Hardly. It took until the year 367 for Athanasius to formulate the canon. That's over three centuries for an often amateur, illiterate, haphazard scribal tradition to transform the autographs into the "twenty-seven books" of our New Testament. Scribal competence is not the only issue, however. Scribes were not impartial robots; they sometimes modified the text deliberately, "for theological reasons." There was no orthodoxy, and many questions were being asked for the first time. Competing groups of Christians each claimed they possessed the truth about Christ. Appeal to scripture became crucial and what could be more tempting than for a partisan scribe to alter a text so that it supported his own position?
Does it matter, for example, that the Bible has "been altered in such a way as to oppose an adoptionistic Christology"? Does it matter that this change was made "to counter a claim that Jesus was fully human" or that scribes transformed another passage so that "Christ is not merely God's unique Son, he is the unique God himself!"? The possibility that the divinity of Jesus was a scribal invention ought to be of some interest to Christians, but how many pay the slightest attention to textual criticism?
"Christianity from the outset was a bookish religion that stressed certain texts as authoritative scripture... however, we don't actually have these authoritative texts." In the end, "we can't interpret the words of the New Testament if we don't know what the words were." That, of course, hasn't stopped many Christians down the ages from reading the scripture and claiming to know God's will. Much suffering has resulted from their overconfidence. That medieval Christians did not know what we know is one thing, but every modern Christian has a duty to reflect upon Ehrman's simple, yet profound, question: when people quote the Bible, which Bible are they quoting? Not which modern edition, of course, but which manuscript lies at the root of the text? Faith has often found fertile soil in ignorance. Given what we now know about the origins of scripture, the assertion that the Bible is the unadulterated word of God can itself only survive as an article of faith.
237 of 268 people found the following review helpful
on 11 December 2005
Prof Ehrman's book can be described as an introduction to New Testament textual criticism for the beginners, in which he explains the subject in the context of his own background, relating his journey from being an Evangelical Christian to becoming a world renowned New Testament scholar. Besides D. C. Parker's "Living Text of the Gospels," Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus" seems to be the only book on textual criticism designed specifically for the non-expert readers.
In short, Ehrman explains the copying practises of the earliest period and how the texts of the New Testament writings were corrupted as they were copied and recopied. He begins by introducing the diverse writings produced by the early Christians, such as gospels, Acts, apocalypses, Church orders, apologies etc. Briefly, the formation of the canon is also discussed and we are informed about the literacy level among the early Christians. Thereafter we are introduced to the world of the copyists and Ehrman explains how the early scribes copied texts, the different types of errors that were made (intentional and unintentional) and the problems associated with the copying of texts.
It is quite interesting to learn that even pagan critics of Christianity, such as Celsus, were quite aware at an early date that the Christian writings were being corrupted by the scribes and even Origen had to complain about the numerous differences between the gospel manuscripts. Marcion, an early Christian, corrupted the text of certain New Testament writings available to him and Dionysius is quoted who complains that his own writings have been modified just as "the word of the Lord" had been tampered. Marcion, of course, accused other Christians of corrupting the texts. In an earlier writing, "The Orthodox Corruption of Scriptures", Ehrman demonstrated in detail how proto-orthodox Christians corrupted the New Testament writings on occasions. It seems that the early Christians were quite aware that the writings in their possession had undergone corruption and were still being corrupted and they frequently accused each other of tampering with the texts.
I was amazed to learn how statistically small additions or deletions within texts could change the entire meaning of passages and even books. Ehrman discusses at length certain examples in this regard and shows that even unintentional changes can result in changes that alter the meaning of texts. To quote Ehrman (pp. 207-208):
"It would be wrong, however, to say - as people sometimes do - that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them. We have seen, in fact, that just the opposite is the case. In some instances, the very meaning is at stake depending on how one resolves a textual problem: Was Jesus an angry man? Was he completely distraught in the face of death? Did he tell his disciples that they could drink poison without being harmed? Did he let an adulteress off the hook with nothing but a mild warning? Is the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament? Is Jesus actually called the "unique God" there? Does the New Testament indicate that even the Son of God does not know when the end will come? The questions go on and on, and all of them are related to how one resolves difficulties in the manuscript tradition as it has come down to us."
The above are just a few problems. Another interesting problem is whether the doctrine of the atonement is taught in the gospel according to Luke? Further, there are immense textual problems within passages such as the sayings on divorce and remarriage in the gospels (not discussed by Ehrman but addressed in detail in D. C. Parker's - The Living Text of the Gospels) and the Lord's Prayer among others.
It is important to realize that Ehrman is not the first person to have discovered these textual problems. Instead, textual critics are quite familiar with them but seldom are these textual difficulties discussed in books aimed at the lay readers so that many people continue to adhere to the mistaken belief that there exist no significant textual problems within the New Testament effecting important theological matters. Clearly, shoddy apologists such as Giesler and Josh McDowell have done a lot to propagate a false image of the textual preservation of the gospel text - misleading countless around the globe. Ehrman sets the record straight. In another recent book, co-authored with Bruce Metzger, we read:
"Nor are these variant readings, taken as a whole, of little consequence. On the contrary, many prove to be critical for questions relating to the New Testament exegesis and theology.52"
[Bruce M. Metzger, Bart D. Ehrman, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2005, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, p. 284]
Thus it would appear that scholars are now beginning to discuss the difficult issues more openly.
It seems clear that the Gospels are not so well textually preserved as some people would have us imagine and that there exist many variations which have profound effects and bearings upon the meaning of texts and theological issues. A detailed discussion of the manuscripts of the New Testament, based on writings of scholars such as Prof. Ehrman and others, is to be found here:
Moreover, the problem of the "original text" is also discussed by Ehrman and he states that many textual critics are now beginning to doubt even if there is such a thing as an "original" to be restored. He explains the problematic nature of the issue and why we cannot get back to the "original" text itself in light of the copying practises of the first three centuries. Therefore, we can only hope to recover early forms of the text, not the "originals," and hope that these early forms are relatively close to the lost "originals".
Besides the above issues, Ehrman provides a fascinating discussion of how the various New Testament editions were produced, particularly the one by Erasmus based on a handful of late manuscripts, and how Christians reacted when certain individuals here and there stumbled across variant readings. The story of the interpolation of 1 John 5:7 (the only clear formulation of the Trinity) is amazing – the way it was inserted into the text and the reaction of some when it was removed. Moreover, Ehrman goes on to explain how he eventually came to the conclusion that the New Testament writings were not inspired based on his evaluation of the New Testament text and its transmission.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn about the textual criticism and transmission of the New Testament writings! If you know nothing about this complex subject, then this is where you should start. After going through "Misquoting Jesus," it should be much easier for you to read books aimed at those who already know something about the subject.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 27 May 2010
As a former-evangelical who's faith has cooled somewhat - much like Ehrman himself, though for different reasons - I thought this would be a useful book to get a more rounded view on why the Bible is a product of men rather than God. I finished feeling rather underwhelmed.
For one thing, Ehrman makes what I think is a chief error at the outset by labeling Christianity a "religion of the book". Having studied church history in some depth, I think this is highly incorrect; Christianity did not become a religion of the book until Martin Luther proclaimed "sola scriptura" as the final authority of faith. Until then, apostolic tradition was a co-equal force in determining orthodoxy, and was appealed to by the "proto-orthodox" writers at least as much as scripture.
Secondly, on a related note, Ehrman seems to think he's really pulling the rug out from under Christianity by highlighting textual variants in the manuscripts. Actually, the only faith that is having the rug pulled from under it is the kind of fundamentalist Christianity that tried to sift through the text with a fine-tooth comb and squeeze implausible amounts of significance out of specific wordings - the kind of Christianity that things we can know what the "middle verse of the Bible is". For most sensible brands of Christianity, Ehrman's revelations will scarcely be troubling; especially the Catholic and Orthodox churches which continue to recognise Tradition as a vehicle of revelation.
Thirdly, I must complain that Ehrman seems to repeat the fundamentals of his case infuriatingly often. Phrases like "on occassion the debates made an impact on the text being copied, as passages were changed to reflect the views of the scribes reproducing them" appear at the start of almost every chapter, and several times throughout. So often I found myself thinking "Yeah, you already said that, get on with it!"
Fourthly and finally, whilst Ehrman gives an excellent and accessible overview of the history of textual criticism and it's methods, I found myself wondering if modern scholarship assumes too much about the motives behind textual changes. Is it really reasonable to assume that the scribes producing the manuscripts were involved with the theological debates of their day? Can it really be said for certain that the change of a theta to an omicron in 1 Tim 3:16 - such as to render it "God made manifest" rather than "who was made manifest" was made to counter 'adoptionist' interpretations, when verses in the gospels in which Jesus says "the Father is greater than the Son" are left intact?
There are some pretty major points that come out of the book, such as the probable absence of some important Bible passages from the original autographs, but overall I think that Ehrman doesn't have as major a revelation as he thinks, and if he had originally found faith in a Catholic or Anglican theological college rather the Moody Bible Institute, I rather suspect his faith would never have been rocked by what he learned.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 15 March 2008
Bart Ehrman is one of the world's foremost textual critics of the New Testament (NT) and probably the most influential currently in the English-speaking world, having taken over this role from his previous tutor, the late Bruce Metzger.
Here he presents for the lay-reader some of the thorny issues that textual critics examine in their attempts to get back to earlier and earlier texts and readings of the NT. To those who are familiar and up-to-date with NT textual criticism, little here is particularly startling, although Ehrman's rehabilitation of particular readings (e.g. Luke 23:34, "father forgive them for they know not what they are doing") may come as a surprise to UBS4 aficionados. In some of the examples he gives, he is undoubtedly combining his expertise in early Christian history (he follows on from, and develops, the ideas of Walter Bauer) with his enormous proficiency in textual criticism.
He annoys the conservatives, because he sets the record straight about how unreliable the text of the NT is, and he clearly shows how fabricated statistics of 95%-99% textual reliability are demonstrably false. What a breath of fresh air and honesty!
Ehrman writes in his very accessible style, which has made this book a hit with a wide public. For a more technical treatment, Bruce Metzger's The Text of the New Testament would be recommended reading. In fact Ehrman has edited the latest edition of this standard work.
A few mistakes have crept into the edition I read; most embarrassingly the manuscript on the cover is reproduced upside down! This particular mistake will undoubtedly be a fault of the publisher rather than Ehrman. I hope this and a few others are corrected in future editions; but the current situation has lead to me dropping a star.
70 of 80 people found the following review helpful
Ehrman's fascinating book lifts the lid off the process by which the world has inherited the Bible in its current form, or forms. In very readable and often amusing style he explains the difficulties inherent in translating from source texts which have been written down without the convenience of punctuation or even spaces between words, texts which are themselves copies several generations removed from the originals and therefore rife with transcription errors. He also explains the way in which modern translators go about inferring where the errors are, thereby enabling revisions which may return us more closely to the original.
In addition to transcription errors, the ancient scribes apparently imposed their own logic on the texts, "correcting" words or passages which did not comply with their own view of how the stories should go. There are also instances where analysis of the vocabulary indicates certain passages have been supplemented by additional narrative in order to tidy it up a little.
En route the author gives a short history of textual criticism and the people who have been instrumental in developing the methodologies now available to modern translators, and the disputes between them. Similarly, he describes the different streams of thought and schisms in Christianity which have contributed to the various interpretations available. Interestingly he comments that the current orthodoxy is likely down to those with the most powerful blocs, rather than any inherent correctness. This gives us not only current translations, but also the current inclusions in the Bible - the early power struggles in the Christian church established monotheism over various forms of polytheism, for example, therefore eliminating certain texts from the canon.
Two very interesting further observations emerge.
First, that in order really to get at the essence of the Bible, it needs to be read in the original language, whether that be Hebrew or Greek. This parallels the Islamist view that the Q'uran is best read in Arabic.
Second, that the Bible is, in opposition to the orthodox view of direct divine inspiration, a thoroughly human construct. Coupled with the observation regarding power blocs, this makes the Bible an essentially political construct - the outcome of the triumph of might over right, perhaps.
His corollary may have been the extension of Christianity's hegemony within western society as a whole - which US Presidential candidate would dare declare atheism? It is not that there are no atheists in the US - there are plenty - but that Christians wield a frightening and disproportionate amount of power in that country, enough to be able to destroy the career of any non-religious candidate.
If there is a criticism to be made (of substance, rather than opinion) it is that some of the examples are flogged to death as one-size-fits-all illustrations. There may be good reason for that, but if there is one it's not given.
This is a book for several audiences: intellectually curious rationalists will be able to gain sufficient value from this volume to justify the time to read it; the faithful will be able at least to get a feel for how their faith has been handed down to them, and aspiring textual criticism practitioners have an excellent primer.
Finally, it's worth persevering beyond the index and reading the appendices, in which Ehrman quite touchingly relates how his life's work has affected his own faith. Richard Dawkins, in writing The God Delusion, demonstrated no little courage. But Ehrman demonstrates possibly greater bravery in challenging the tenets of Christianity from his academic seat in the US Bible Belt.