A Non-Flattering Review of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus

One of my favorite New Testament scholars, Ben Witherington, has posted a review of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus on his blog. The review is by Dr. Dan Wallace of www.bible.org. Wallace has excellent online introductions to all of the New Testament books as well as many other informative articles.

Ehrman's main point seems to be that the New Testament manuscripts were so corrupted in their transmission that we cannot be sure about many of the core teachings of Christianity. Although most scholars will concede that there are some uncertainties in the manuscripts, those same scholars will also state that the discrepancies between some verses in the different manuscripts are relatively few and do not call into question any of the theological doctrines of traditional Christianity. Witherington quotes the preeminent textual scholar of our time, Bruce Metzger, as saying, "over 90% of the NT is rather well established in regard to its original text, and none of the remaining 10% provides us with data that could lead to any shocking revisions of the Christian credo or doctrine."

Ehrman, however, though apparently conceding the point about the minority status of disputed passages, claims that several important doctrines are called into question by discrepancies. As Wallace points out, however, there really is little doubt about the language of the original document in Ehrman's chief examples. Wallace concludes:

In other words, the idea that the variants in the NT manuscripts alter the theology of the NT is overstated at best. Unfortunately, as careful a scholar as Ehrman is, his treatment of major theological changes in the text of the NT tends to fall under one of two criticisms: Either his textual decisions are wrong, or his interpretation is wrong.

After quoting Wallace's review, Witherington enters the fray and expounds on the shortcomings of Ehrman's book. He reinforces Wallace's own conclusions and leaves the reader wondering just what Ehrman was thinking when he made such unsupportable arguments, some of which seem to border on misrepresentations. Witherington has an answer for that too, noting that according to the book, Ehrman's spiritual journey began as a conservative Protestant Christian but had departed significantly from that point of origin. Witherington concludes:

In his scholarship he is trying now to deconstruct orthodox Christianity which he once embraced, rather than do 'value-neutral' text criticism. In my own view, he has attempted this deconstruction on the basis of very flimsy evidence-- textual variants which do not prove what he wants them to prove.

On the plus side, both Wallace and Witherington believe that Ehrman's early chapters about textual criticism are well-written and informative. But so are other works about the same topic, including perhaps the leading treatise on the issue, Bruce Metzger's The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.


Steven Carr said…
A strange review in that it has not one quote from Ehrman.

It also does not try to refute any of Ehrman's arguments - it is just a pep talk telling people not to listen.

All we get by the way of refutation is a non sequitor 'Concerning the first text, a few ancient manuscripts speak of Jesus as being angry in Mark 1:41 while most others speak of him as having compassion. But in Mark 3:5 Jesus is said to be angry—wording that is indisputably in the original text of Mark. So it is hardly a revolutionary conclusion to see Jesus as angry elsewhere in this Gospel.'

Let us look at the two passages, putting 'anger' in both, and see if one is as uncontroversial as the other.

Mark 3

4 Then Jesus asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent.

5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.

Mark 1
40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean."

41 Filled with anger, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.

In one Jesus, is angry with the leper. In the other he is angry with those who are stubborn.

It is easy to see why some people would be troubled by Jesus being angry in one scene, when they would not be troubled by being angry in the other.

More importantly, Ehrman points out that Matthew and Luke both drop the word 'compassion' when they write the scene. (Wallace naturally ignores this argument of Ehrman's) Why would both drop a description of Jesus beig compassionate.

The obvious answer is that it originally really did read 'anger', and Matthew and Luke changed it for theological reasons.
Steven Carr said…
My apologies. Wallace does have one quote from Ehrman, and a couple more in his footnotes. Mea culpa.

I forgot to mention that when Wallace discusses Jesus being angry in the Bible, Ehrman does discuss the very verse Wallace uses as a 'refutation' - Mark 3:5.

Wallace , for some strange reason, doesn't let his readers know that Ehrman already knows about the verse and discusses it. Wallace talks as though Mark 3:5 is all new to Ehrman.

Ehrman points out that Luke 6:6-11, when using Mark 3:5, drops the word 'angry'. (Wallace keeps his readers in the dark about this parallel passage.)

Why would Luke not say that Jesus was angry in his account, when Wallace claims that depicting Jesus as angry was hardly revolutionary?

Ehrman has already answered the points Wallace raised.
Layman said…

Funny that you complain about no quoting the author in a review of his work when in two out of three of your own amazon reviews you don't quote the work reviewed either. I reviewed a number of my own 56 amazon reviews and noted that I sometimes don't quote the work explicitly and many times quote it once or twice. This hardly seems a point of note.

I see no great issue here with Jesus' anger.

Mark 3:4-5 has Jesus angry at some of his theological opponents. Since Matthew and Luke have Jesus calling some of his opponents a "brood of vipers," this really is unsurprising.

You try and make this a point by claiming that in Mark 1:41 Jesus "is angry with the leper." That does not seem to be the case. Jesus is actually showing great compassion against the traditional rules of cleanliness. Notably, in an ironic bit of distortion, you CUT OFF the part where Jesus heals the leper. Specifically, the actual text of verse 41 says, "and said to him, "I am willing; be cleansed." V. 42 states, "Mark 1:42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed."

Why leave this out, Steven? Perhaps because it indicates that Jesus' anger was not targeted at the leper himself, but at his condition and perhaps the social rules that margianalized him?

In fact, Jesus' anger does not seem to be targetted at the leper:

"Anger may not be as offensive as it first appears if once recalls that in Judg. 10"16, "[God] became indignant over the miesary of Israel (RSV), much as Jesus does here. If 'anger' was the original reading, it must clearly mean that Jesus was indignant at the misery of the leper (so John 11:33-38), for Jesus willingly healed him. As though the leprosy were dispelled by holy wrath, Mark declares, 'immdiately the leprosy left him and he was cured.'"

James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, page 70.

So if this was original, which seems likely to me, it does not portray Jesus as angry with the leper.

And you grossly oversimplify Mark 3:4-5 by claiming that Jesus was simply angery at "those who are stubborn." In fact, he was angry with those who were stubborn who were more interested in trapping Jesus in a violation of the law than in the healing of a man with a withered hand.

But you ask why Matthew and Luke drop the term "compassion" and then say that the original must read "anger" and that "Matthew and Luke changed it for theological reasons."

It seems likely to me that Matthew and Luke changed it because they were concerned that people like your, or perhaps more well-intentioned people, would misunderstand or distort Mark here. It's not the best written way of explainig Jesus' indignation at the man's condition rather than at the man's request for healing, so they remove the reference and remove the problem.

BTW, those scribes that added "compassion" likely thought they were clarifying Mark here too, as Jesus anger was motivated by his compassion -- clearly shown by Jesus' healing.

So again, we don't seem to have altering here that affects any central tenant of Christianity. Instead, we have Mark and Matthew removign the phrase to avoid confusion and some scribes who might have changed it for theological reasons but also may have changed it to -- in their misguided minds -- to clarify the meaning.
Anonymous said…
I'm finishing "Misquoting Jesus" right now, and although I already knew Ehrman's personal beliefs on Christianity, I don't find the book to be slanted in the least.

Rather, it comes off to me as a history of the evolution of book that is now read and called the New Testament.

Also, although many literalists want to find fault with his writing, they can't dispute the copious documentation that supports the chronology that he presents in the book.

Popular posts from this blog

How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?

Where did Jesus say "It is better to give than receive?"

A Non-Biblical Historian Accepts the Key "Minimum Facts" Supporting Jesus' Resurrection

The Bogus Gandhi Quote

Exodus 22:18 - Are Followers of God to Kill Witches?

Jewish writings and a change in the Temple at the time of the Death of Jesus

Discussing Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Revamping and New Articles at the CADRE Site

Asherah: Not God's Wife

A Textual Critical Analysis Of Mark 16:9-20