A Response to Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus”: Does it matter if his conclusions are right?

This is not intended as a typical book review, which analyzes an author’s book chapter-by-chapter.  Nor is it a critique of the science of textual criticism (at one level, this book is meant to be a primer on textual criticism for the non-expert); I am a strong advocate of its importance.  It is rather an analysis of whether the implications Dr. Ehrman draws from his study of textual criticism are accurate.

Dr. Ehrman does a very good job at summarizing and explaining the discipline of textual criticism.  This is to be expected; he is indeed an expert in the field, and is very adept at simplifying difficult material for non-experts.  I have never had him as a professor, but I am confident that he is an excellent one.  For those who have not read his book and are unfamiliar with this discipline, textual criticism involves analyzing the various copies of a written work to attempt to “figure out” what the original work actually said.  This is of significant importance for the Bible, because no originals exist of any book of the Bible.

Dr. Ehrman does not believe we can know with any certainty what the original documents said.  He does, however, believe it is possible to “get back to the oldest and earliest stage of the manuscript tradition for each of the books of the New Testament.” (62)

Dr. Ehrman notes, and I do not dispute his numbers, that there are hundreds of thousands of variations (a difference in a verse contained in at least one of the 5700 Greek manuscripts which have survived until today).  He also acknowledges that most of the differences “are completely immaterial and insignificant”; many “simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today.” (10-11)  A much smaller number of passages, however, are significant.  That is, depending upon which variation is accepted, the meaning of a passage of Scripture may be changed.

While Dr. Ehrman clearly desires to accomplish several things with this book, it is this last point which, I believe, prompted him to write this book for a popular audience.  After all, had he only been dealing with spelling errors, or if he wasn’t dealing with the Bible, who would have really cared, except for a few specialists?  The reason why a publisher would want to publish this book, and the reason why a non-expert would want to read this book, is because Dr. Ehrman is claiming we don’t know what the Bible originally said, so we can’t trust it.  Instead, Dr. Ehrman insists, “the Bible, at the end of the day, is a very human book.” (12)

For me, the issue is not whether we can know the exact words contained within the original copies of the Bible, even though I believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.  Rather, it is: “Are there verses/passages in the Bible where our inability to know the exact words prevent us from learning what God wants us to know?  Are any teachings of Christianity changed?

To pursue this question, I will pursue the following methodology.  Each time Dr. Ehrman questions a certain verse/passage, instead of assessing whether his analysis is accurate, I will assume he is correct.  I will then ask: “So what?”  After all, Dr. Ehrman’s purpose is not to simply convince us that we cannot completely reconstruct what the original authors of Scripture wrote, but to argue that this means we cannot trust what Scripture teaches.   To use his own words, in response to the objection “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” that “just the opposite is the case.”

However, if it can be demonstrated that the problem passages identified by Dr. Ehrman do not affect any significant belief or practice of Christianity, then the importance of this book is greatly minimized.  And, as will be seen, even when an important belief or practice is at stake in a particular verse/passage of Scripture, this is not the only place where this teaching can be found.

In order to keep this blog post from becoming extremely long, I will do the following.  I will list the problem passages along with the page number(s) where it is discussed by Dr. Ehrman.  I will then demonstrate that, in every instance, no Christian belief is either lost or changed even if Dr. Ehrman’s preferred reading is accepted.

1.  Hebrews 1:3 (56) – did the original passage state that “Christ bears all things by the word of his power” or that “Christ manifests all things by the word of his power”?  Dr. Ehrman does not state which option he prefers.  He does, however, desire to claim that it is very significant which option is chosen: “Saying that Christ reveals all things by his word of power is quite different from saying that he keeps the universe together by his word!” The first option (bears all things) is taught elsewhere in Scripture; see Colossians 1:17 where it is written “in Him (Jesus) all things hold together.”  Christ revealing all things by his word of power does not appear elsewhere.  But is our view of Christ changed if this alternate reading is accepted?  The context of Heb 1:3 states that, whereas God had previously spoken “to our fathers by the prophets,” he is now speaking “to us by His son” (vv. 1-2).  So the idea that Jesus manifests/reveals all things by his word of power is not odd, as the passage has just stated that Jesus is speaking the word of God to us.

2.  John 7:53-8:12 (63-65) – did the original copy of John contain the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman?  Dr. Ehrman believes this passage was not in the original.   Yet this passage does not teach anything unique about Jesus, something not found in another passage in the Gospels.  So if it is not original, nothing in Christianity is changed or lost.

3.  Mark 16:9-20 (65-68) – were the final verses of Mark’s Gospel written by a scribe centuries later?  Dr. Ehrman believes they were not in the original.  Yet, with one exception, each subsection in this passage is taught elsewhere in the Gospels and/or Acts.

  • Verses 9-11 tell of Mary Magdalene’s discovery of the empty tomb.  This is also taught in Matt 28:1-7; Luke 23:10; John 20:1.
  • Verses 12-13 tell of Jesus’ appearance to two men walking on a road.  This brings to mind the account of Jesus’ appearing to two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)
  • Verse 14 tells of an appearance to the eleven, which also occurs in Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-29.
  • Verse 15 that they should preach the Gospel throughout the world. This is consistent with the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8.
  • Verses 16-18 tells of signs of Jesus’ coming.  One sign which is unique to this passage is that people will miraculously be cured of serpents and poison.  While this might not be a true sign of the end times, it is true that people can be cured by God of such things.  Paul, for example, was bitten by a viper and survived (Acts 28:3-8).  The concept of healing is certainly not contradicted by anything in Scripture.
  • Verses 19-20 tell of Jesus’ ascension into heaven.  This is also found in Luke 24:53 and Acts 1:9.

4.  1 John 5:7-8 (the Johannine comma: 81-82) – Dr. Ehrman argues that, following the Latin Vulgate’s reading, Erasmus added the phrase “the Father, the Word, and the Spirit” to the verse: “There are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one; and there are three that bear witness on earth, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.”  Dr. Ehrman does not believe this phrase was included in the original version of 1 John.  Yet the Christian doctrine of the Trinity does not rest upon this passage.  To give just two others, see Matthew 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:14.

5.  Mark 1:41 (133-139) – after a leper asked Jesus to heal him, did Jesus react with compassion or anger? Dr. Ehrman believes the latter.  While he acknowledges that it is difficult to know what Mark may have meant by Jesus being angry in this situation, he notes that Matthew and Luke omit the word entirely, suggesting they didn’t like it.  Dr. Ehrman further argues that “Matthew and Luke … never describe [Jesus] as angry.” (136)  Yet this is false.  Consider the severe chastisement of the scribes and Pharisees by Jesus in Matthew 23:13-36 or the cleansing of the temple in Matthew 22:12-16 and Luke 19:41-46. Are we to believe Jesus was completely dispassionate during these times?  That he wasn’t angry?  Yet how do we understand Jesus being angry at the leper?  Dr. Ehrman hypothesizes that Jesus is angry at being disturbed and/or at the leper seemingly doubting Jesus’ willingness to heal him (“If you are willing …”).  Yet the text does not actually say this.  If Mark did state that Jesus was angry, he is completely silent as to the reason for this anger.

6.  Luke 23:43-44 (139-144; 164-165) – in the Garden of Gethsemane, does Luke record that an angel strengthened Jesus and that Jesus, being in agony, prayed earnestly, with sweat like drops of blood falling to the ground?  Dr. Ehrman believes this was not in the original.  Yet the teaching that Jesus was troubled by the trial he was facing is also found in Matthew 26:37-44; Mark 14:33-39 (John does not include the scene with Jesus praying at Gethsemane).   Thus, even if Luke did not include Jesus struggling, Matthew and Mark make it clear that he did.  Nor would taking away this part of Luke’s account serve as a contradiction to Matthew and Mark; instead, Luke simply would not be describing Jesus’ emotions.  Consequently, nothing in Christian theology is lost by removing this passage in Luke.

7.  Hebrews 2:9 (144-148) – does the author of Hebrews state that Jesus tasted death for all by the grace of God or apart from God?  Dr. Ehrman believes the latter.  If the latter is accepted, it is unclear exactly what the author of Hebrews may have meant.   A strong possibility is that he is referring to Christ’s desolation on the cross (see Mark 15:34, quoting Psalm 22:1)  Paul Ellingsworth, in his commentary on Hebrews, notes that Psalm 22:22 is quoted three verses later (2:12) “and there are indications of the author’s interest in the psalm as a whole.” (156)  Regardless, there is no Christian belief that is lost or changed by this alternate reading of Heb 2:9.

8.  1 Timothy 3:16 (157) – does 1 Timothy state that “God was made manifest in the flesh” or that Christ was the one “who was made manifest in the flesh.”  If the former, Christ is clearly declared to be God in the passage.  If the latter, Christ is simply declared to have been born as a human being.  Dr. Ehrman believes the latter. Yet both views are consistent with Christian theology, and neither the deity nor humanity of Christ is dependent solely upon this single passage.  Thus, regardless of which option is chosen, no teaching of Christianity is lost or changed.

9.  Luke 2:33 (158) – did the original copy of Luke state that only Jesus’ mother marveled at what Simeon said, or that both Jesus’ father and mother did so?  Dr. Ehrman believes the latter.  The issue is whether the latter passage teaches that Joseph was truly Jesus’ father, or if God was his father.  This is one of the easier passages, as there is nothing problematic with referring to Joseph as the father of Jesus, just as there is nothing problematic when I refer to the adoptive father of an adopted child, even though he is not the child’s birth father.

10.  Luke 3:23 (159-160) – did Luke record the voice from heaven saying to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” or “You are my son, today I have begotten you”?  Dr. Ehrman believes the latter.  It should first be noted that Mark 1:11 contains the same passage, and follows the first option.  Dr. Ehrman correctly notes that, elsewhere in Luke’s writings, Jesus’ sonship is linked to an event other than his birth (his baptism in Acts 10:37-38; his resurrection in Acts 2:38).  Dr. Ehrman himself provides a good explanation for what Luke was thinking: “it was important [for Luke] to emphasize the key moments of Jesus’s existence, and to stress these as vital for Jesus’s identity.” (160)  In other words, Luke was making a theological point that Jesus’ Sonship was not only relevant to his birth, but to his baptism and resurrection as well.  Consequently, there is no theological difficulty with either reading of Luke 3:23.

11.  John 1:18 (161-162) – did John declare that Jesus was the “unique God” or the “unique Son”?  Dr. Ehrman believes the latter.  Traditional Christian doctrine argues that both of these are true; thus regardless of which option is accepted, no Christian belief is lost or changed.

12.  Luke 22:17-19 (165-167) – did Luke record Jesus at the Last Supper as saying that the bread and wine were “given for you; do this in remembrance of me”?  Dr. Ehrman believes these are later additions to the text.  Yet, as Dr. Ehrman himself notes, Paul uses a similar form when discussing the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23-25).  Dr. Ehrman emphasizes that Luke never “indicates that the death [of Jesus] is what brings salvation from sin.” (166)  But neither does Luke ever indicate that atonement for sins is not part of the death of Jesus.  Luke focuses upon a person recognizing his/her own guilt and asking for repentance, and then having his/her sins forgiven.  This is certainly a legitimate way of approaching the significance of the death of Christ, and in no way contradicts the atonement perspective.

13.  Luke 24:12 (168-169) – did Luke include Peter finding the empty tomb?  Dr. Ehrman believes he did not.  However, as Dr. Ehrman notes, Peter’s discovery of the empty tomb is also found in John 20:3-10.

14.  Mark 15:34 (172-173) – did Jesus say: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Or “… why have you mocked me?”  Dr. Ehrman, for the first time in his book (!), favors the first, traditional reading.

15.  1 John 4:2-3 (173-174) – does John write “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” or “every spirit that does not loose Jesus is not from God”?  Again, Dr. Ehrman favors the first, traditional reading.

16.  1 Corinthians 14:33-36 (183-184) – did Paul state that women should keep silent in his first letter to the Corinthians?  Dr. Ehrman believes he did not.  As Dr. Ehrman notes, a similar passage is found in 1 Timothy 2:11.  While he does not believe 1 Timothy was written by Paul, it is nevertheless the case that Scripture does teach this concept, however we might interpret and apply it.

17.  Acts 17:4 (185-186) – does Luke record that “a large number of prominent women” were saved or that “a large number of wives of prominent men” were saved.  Dr. Ehrman supports the traditional reading.  Either way, no belief of Christianity is affected one way or another.

18.  Luke 23:33-34 (191-193) – Did Luke include the prayer of Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”?  Dr. Ehrman believes that he did, following the traditional reading of the text.

19.  Mark 6:3 (201-203) – Does Mark record that Jesus was a carpenter or simply the son of a carpenter?  Dr. Ehrman is not clear which he prefers, though it seems as though he follows the first, more traditional, reading.  Once again, does this matter?  Is Jesus’ occupation relevant to any Christian belief about the significance, mission, crucifixion, resurrection, or ascension of Jesus?

20.  Matthew 24:36 (203-204) – Does Matthew record Jesus as saying that “not even the Son” knows the day or the hour of the end of the age?  It appears that Dr. Ehrman believes that he does, following the traditional reading.  Christian theology has long held that Jesus did not have this knowledge.  Even if the alternate reading is accepted, this simply means that Jesus may have known more than we thought.  How would this be a problem?

21.  Matthew 27:34 (204) – Does Matthew record that Jesus was given wine mixed with gall, or vinegar mixed with gall?  Dr. Ehrman follows the first, more traditional, reading.

22.  Mark 14:62 (204) – Did Jesus state at his trial that they would see the Son of Man “coming with the clouds of heaven”?  Dr. Ehrman believes that he did, following the traditional reading.  If he didn’t, how would this be a problem for Christian theology?

There it is.  22 problem passages.  And not one which indicates that a single teaching of Christianity is affected in any way by Dr. Ehrman’s analysis.  While I do not doubt that there are other passages which Dr. Ehrman believes should be discarded based on manuscript evidence, it is reasonable to assume that he has presented the most egregious cases.  And since, in every single instance, no Christian belief is lost or changed by Dr. Ehrman’s preferred readings, one should wonder why he believes this is such a sharp critique of Christianity.

In fact, it can be argued that the opposite is true.  Dr. Ehrman writes often about the hundreds of thousands of variants in the different manuscripts.  Yet this has not resulted in a single variant which teaches a different view of Christianity.  God has indeed preserved his truth in his Scriptures, because despite the many variants, no truth was lost or changed.



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