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Do the Gospel Manuscripts Misquote Jesus?

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, June 28, 2007

Today’s post, as well as several posts to come, are excerpts from my new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

At this point I should say a few words about Bart Ehrman’s currently popular book Misquoting Jesus. Even when this book has fallen from the best-seller lists, its ideas will still be floating around in the cultural stream like bits of post-hurricane flotsam in the sea

Ehrman’s book is a popular introduction to textual criticism. When he sticks to objective descriptions, Ehrman’s insights are both helpful and readable. For a scholar, he’s an unusually effective popular communicator. Unfortunately, however, this book was not written merely to introduce people to textual criticism but also to undermine their confidence in the New Testament itself. I’m not reading between the lines here. Ehrman is very clear about his intentions from the beginning.

One of the ironies of Ehrman’s book is the title, Misquoting Jesus. You would expect to find a book full of instances in which the sayings of Jesus found in the Gospels were corrupted by the scribes. In fact, however, very little of the book is actually about misquoting Jesus. As Craig L. Blomberg says in his trenchant review, “the title appears designed to attract attention and sell copies of the book rather than to represent its contents accurately.”

Another irony comes when Ehrman talks about the number of variants among the New Testament manuscripts. As just noted, he says, “there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” This startling sound bite appears to undermine the reliability of the manuscripts. But Ehrman also qualifies this observation. He writes:

To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, and of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.

The changes [the scribes] made—at least the intentional ones— were no doubt seen as improvements of the text, possibly made because the scribes were convinced that the copyists before them had themselves mistakenly altered the words of the text. For the most part, their intention was to conserve the tradition, not to change it.

One would expect to find these claims in a book touting the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. Ehrman, in spite of his bias, is too good a scholar not to tell the truth here.

The greatest irony in Misquoting Jesus lies at the heart of Ehrman’s argument against the trustworthiness of the manuscripts. The main point of his book is to undermine confidence in the New Testament on the ground that copyists changed the manuscripts, both intentionally and accidentally. One would expect Ehrman to put forth dozens of examples where we simply don’t have any idea what the autographs actually said. Such repeated uncertainty would lead to the conclusion that we can’t know with assurance what the New Testament writers, including the Gospel authors, actually wrote.

But, in fact, Ehrman’s book is filled with examples that prove the opposite point. He does indeed offer many cases of textual variants. In virtually every case, Ehrman confidently explains what the change was, what the earlier manuscript actually said, and what motivated the copyist. In other words, Ehrman’s book, though intending to weaken our certainty about the New Testament text, actually demonstrates how the abundance of manuscripts and the antiquity of manuscripts, when run through the mill of text-critical methodology, allow us to know with a very high level of probability what the evangelists and other New Testament authors wrote. This might explain why there are many textual critics who are committed Christians with an evangelical view of Scripture.

For a thorough critique of Ehrman’s view, see the fine new book, Miquoting Truth, by Timothy Paul Jones.

Topics: Can We Trust the Gospels? |

2 Responses to “Do the Gospel Manuscripts Misquote Jesus?”

  1. Craig Blomberg Says:
    June 28th, 2007 at 5:33 pm

    Thanks for your kind words and for your new book. Our bookstore manager gave me a complimentary copy of it just yesterday and I’ve already started it. Looks great–and at just the right level that will a lot of people who don’t tackle my writings will appreciate! Mark Strauss and Greg Boyd also have a book coming out on the topic later this year with Baker which I’ve read and endorsed. There’s not much excuse any longer for people who are genuinely seeking after truth to say they can find only the skeptics’ side of the story! Keep up the great work.

  2. D. P. Says:
    July 2nd, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    I’m just finishing “Misquoting Jesus” and was struck by exactly the same thing. I haven’t yet found an argument *against* the general ability of textual critics to identify the oldest available reading. It is, as of the end of chapter 4, full of great reasons we can trust our current Greek NT texts!


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