Monday, January 2, 2012

Misquoting Jesus

by Bart D. Ehrman

There isn’t much I remember from junior high school, but one lesson has stayed with me.  In a rare moment of inspiration my Social Studies teacher, Mr. Fox, led the class in an experiment.  First, he sat us all in a circle on the floor.  Then he took one student aside, showed her a short message written on a piece of paper, and told her to whisper it into the ear of the student to her left.  The message travelled around the circle until it arrived at our teacher.  What started as “Tell your mother to go to the store and buy apples, potatoes, and bread” ended up as “Go to Giant and get breakfast”.  This exercise taught us about how messages change with repetition and over time.  Misquoting Jesus is an exploration of this phenomenon with profound implications for the most frequently cited book in the world.

The Bible, including the New and Old Testaments, is the sacred book of Christianity.  Many Christians devote countless hours to Bible study, seeking to understand the Word of God, and quote from their personal copy  as if it were the definitive version.   The Bible as we know it today, however, is quite different from the original texts on which it is based.  Approximately 3,500 years ago, according to tradition, Moses climbed to the summit of Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments -- the Word of God -- chiseled into a large stone tablet.  Archaeologists and historians have concluded that an ancient form of Hebrew is the original language used to record the commandments;  but we cannot know this for certain because the stone tablets no longer exist, if in fact they ever did.

We tend to think of The Bible as a single book, and few of us question its authenticity.  In a court of law, we swear on a Bible to tell the truth, even if we are not Christians.  That it is the single most important written document in western world, possibly the whole world, is a fact that few of us challenge.  And yet, most of us have no idea who wrote it down and when.  In his introduction to Misquoting Jesus author Bart D. Ehrman, a distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, describes himself as having been a “born again” Christian in his youth who enrolled in Moody Bible Institute after high school in order to give himself over completely to his faith.  At the Moody Bible Institute, Ehrman (like his professors and fellow students) had to sign a contract agreeing that “The Bible is the inerrant word of God.  It contains no mistakes.”  For a long time, Ehrman accepted this as an article of faith until he learned that no original texts for the Old and New Testaments exist and that the oldest known texts were copies (even copies of copies of copies…) made long after the originals were penned onto parchment. 

Dr. Ehrman’s classmates at Moody were not the least bothered by the lack of source documents, but it was a problem he couldn’t rationalize away.  So, Ehrman embarked on a quest to find the sources of the Christian Bible.  Before Moses, people believed in a multitude of gods and performed various rituals and sacrifices in order to win their favor (or avoid disfavor).   Moses and his Ten Commandments changed everything and the first five books of The Bible describe how that came about.   The Hebrew Bible, which was completed hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, includes the “Pentateuch” (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) which describes God’s evolving relationship and covenants with the Hebrew people, histories of Israel and Judah, and scriptures which were poems and writings by David, King Solomon, and others.  In addition, the Jewish Bible and some Christian Bibles often include a set of books not considered the Word of God, but important writings nonetheless, called “The Apocrypha”. 

It is in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah that the idea of redemption appears.  The first 39 chapters of Isaiah promise doom for any nation which opposes God.  The remaining chapters discuss a Messiah, or redeemer, who would unite the tribes of Israel into a glorious new nation of Godly people.  Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism arose when an extraordinary young man began teaching a way of life and spirituality which eschewed wealth and power in favor of humility, charity, and forgiveness.  Jesus of Nazareth apparently was precocious and charismatic and began attracting attention even as a child.  At the time, the Jews had been waiting for hundreds of years for their messiah and when Jesus began his ministry, some believed that he was The One. 

The Christian Bible began with a reinterpretation of the Old Testament in order to herald the coming of Jesus the savior.  Sometime after Jesus’ death, historians and early Christians began writing about the life, teachings, and crucifixion of Jesus.  By 150 AD, the twenty-seven books which include the Gospels, Acts and Letters of the Apostles, and Revelation had been completed, according to historical records.  In the days before the printing press, copies were made by scribes who often worked off copies which were circulated and further copied.  It is in this way that errors began appearing and multiplying.  Over time, the original parchments were lost or destroyed leaving no way to determine the veracity of texts which still exist.  For someone who had signed a statement that The Bible was the Word of God with no mistakes, this knowledge was a serious problem. 

Finding answers required Ehrman to read ancient manuscripts in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew which meant learning those languages first.  He enrolled at Wheaton College, a highly-regarded evangelical college where he majored in English Literature while studying Greek under the mentorship of Dr. Gerald Hawthorne.  Dr. Hawthorne, himself an evangelical Christian, was not afraid to question his faith and helped Ehrman to understand that pursuing the truth ,and being open to revising one’s beliefs based on knowledge attained through this pursuit , was a way of deepening his connection with God. 

The deeper Ehrman went into his study of ancient manuscripts the more he came to sense how much has been lost not only in transcription but also in translation.  Reading the oldest available versions of the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek gave him a completely different understanding of the Word of God.  In his introduction he asks “If the full meaning of the words of scripture can be grasped only by studying them in Greek (and Hebrew), doesn’t this mean that most Christians, who don’t read ancient languages, will never have complete access to what God wants them to know?” 

Misquoting Jesus makes a compelling case that what we take for granted as the Word of God, is far removed from its origins.  The examples Dr. Ehrman uses to make his case help us understand that The Bible as we think of it was never intended to be a single volume.  It contains books of history, literature, philosophy, law, and religion which were written long ago, and compiled, translated, transcribed, edited, and reinterpreted to serve a variety of purposes.  In short, it is a human creation possibly based on divine inspiration.

So where does that leave The Bible as the sacred book of Christianity?  Dr. Ehrman makes the point that to read the Bible is to change it, in that we interpret the words and phrases based on our unique life experiences and spiritual beliefs.  Some scribes changed manuscripts accidentally, and others deliberately.  Some deliberate changes reflected an individual scribe’s interpretation, and others were  revisions demanded by church officials.  Dr. Ehrman, who went on to study at Princeton University where he earned a master’s and doctorate in Divinity, clearly feels more connected to God now, having questioned the authenticity of The Bible and learned its story, than he did when adhering blindly to his faith.

At 180 pages, Misquoting Jesus is neither tedious nor ponderous.  It is a very thoughtful discussion of the history of the Bible and how all too often it is used to promote a political or philosophical agenda.  It would be fascinating to hear Jesus weigh in on this topic, and to find out what he thinks about how we treat each other.  If he were to reappear unannounced, I wonder if anyone would recognize him. 

Copyright 2011, Teresa Friedlander all rights reserved

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