“Everyone loves a conspiracy theory” was one of the more sensible statements in The Dan Vinci Code. And I suppose the love of conspiracy theories is a key reason for the popularity of that book, and also that of the popular works of Bart Ehrman.
Ehrman, it will be recalled, has travelled a road from fundamentalism to scepticism, and so has become something of a patron saint of ex-Christians. He is a recognised authority on the textual criticism of the New Testament, and his scholarly credentials are not in doubt. But knowledge is not the same as wisdom, and intellectual brilliance does not always go hand in hand with sound judgement. Misquoting Jesus has been around for a few years now (since 2005), but it’s still worth reflecting on some of the misconceptions promoted by it.
The following is based on comments by Ben Witherington and Dan Wallace:-
1. Much of Ehrman’s book is simply an introduction to New Testament textual criticism, and, as such, uncontentious.
2. Where the book packs a punch is in those chapters where Ehrman writes about the implications of the many textual variants between the various ancient manuscripts of the New Testament.
3. The title is misleading, since hardly any of the variants discussed by Ehrman involved sayings of Jesus.
4. Ehrman maintains that, contrary to what is popularly thought, the variants do have a bearing on the meaning of the text and on the theological conclusions we draw from the text.
5. Here are some of the examples cited by Ehrman as being most significant:
(a) Mark 1:41 – a few ancient manscripts speak of Jesus as being ‘angry’, whereas most speak of him as having compassion. An angry Jesus – a revolutionary conception? No: just two chapters later, in Mark 3:5, Jesus is said to be angry, and there is no dispute about that text.
(b) Mt 24:36 – many ancient manuscripts have, ‘But as for that day and hour no one knows it—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son—except the Father alone’, but a few omit the words, ‘nor the Son’. So, did Jesus speak of his own prophetic ignorance or not? Yes, because in the parallel text, Mark 13:32, the wording is, guess what? —“But as for that day or hour no one knows it—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son—except the Father.”
(c) 1 Jn 5:7-8 – an explicit statement about the Trinity. However, only a few very late manuscripts have this passage, and it is omitted from almost every modern translation of the Bible. So, once again, there is no real dispute. The doctrine of the Trinity was affirmed by the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 – a thousand years before this text surfaced!
6. It may well be true that some later scribes did revise the text in order to highlight certain doctrines that they thought were important. But, says Witherington,
This is really quite irrelevant because when one strips away the later accretions one still has a portrayal of Jesus that involves: 1) the virginal conception; 2) the atoning death of Jesus; 3) the bodily resurrection of Jesus; 4) the raw stuff of Trinitarian thinking, and we could go on. Ehrman’s so-called evidence that these are later ideas imposed on the text by scribal corrupters is frankly false– historically false, text critically false, theologically false.