Bart D. Ehrman
Published: Nov 2, 2010
We don’t deal with politics on HeadButler.com --- it’s pointlessly divisive, and there are a gazillion sites where kicking political opponents is considered Good Fun --- but can we discuss religion? Or is that opening the same door to pointless and divisive, especially in a time when politics and religion are, for some, pretty much the same thing?
I’ve decided I’m okay with books about religion, as long as they’re not propaganda or vilification. So when Kit Flynn asked to review “Misquoting Jesus,” I immediately said yes. The author of the book is a distinguished professor. The book is an historical chronicle. And I had a chance to learn something here.
Who is Kit Flynn? A Wall Street wife and mother of four who moved to North Carolina in 1992 “on a whim.” After a stint in the Development office of the National Humanities Center, she took twenty-six graduate courses at Duke University, mostly in Late Antiquity and Medieval History. She now writes a monthly newsletter for the Durham Master Gardener. In short, a Renaissance talent, looking back here to the 4th Century….
I know it may be hard to believe, but in 2005 a professor from the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina wrote a book about the New Testament for laymen --- and it spent six weeks on the bestseller list. The Gospels as literal truth? Bart D. Ehrman --- who was, as a teenager, an evangelical Christian --- says it isn’t.
In "Misquoting Jesus," he tells the story of how the New Testament --- arguably the most important book of Western civilization --- came to be. This much we know for certain: The New Testament is a creation of the fourth century C.E., a century that saw the dominance of Christianity when Constantine converted in 312 C.E. Fifty years later, Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, determined which manuscripts should be compiled into the New Testament. Two decades after that, Jerome completed the Latin Vulgate.
All this sounds quite neat and tidy. One problem: neither Athanasius nor Jerome had the original Christian manuscripts and letters when they pulled together the New Testament. What they had at their disposal were copies --- many, many copies, all different. [To buy “Misquoting Jesus” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Early Christian literature consisted of letters its leaders wrote to handle the problems arising in various Christian communities --- unlike other religions in the Roman world, Christianity depended upon the written word to educate its followers. One problem: In the thirteen letters that Paul wrote, he refers to other letters that no longer exist. As far as we can tell, these letters effectively tied the Christian communities with one another, giving them a needed cohesion.
Which brings us to the paradox of early Christianity: it was a highly literate religion for illiterates. Early Christianity appealed to the poor at a time when it’s estimated that only 8-10% of the population was literate. The book of Acts tells us that the disciples Peter and John were illiterate, while Paul mentions in one of his letters that almost all members of his Corinthian congregation could not read or write. Because of this wide spread illiteracy, early Christian leaders read the letters and sacred writings to their congregations, making this both a bookish and aural religion.
This literate religion had to spread its word. And that required a dependence upon the written word. Scribes copied all the manuscripts—a long, arduous process, as mass production of books did not yet exist. With only a scattering of literacy in some cases, the early Christian scribes laboriously copied the text, painstakingly reproducing the Greek letters. Mistakes were so common that by the 3rd century the great Church father Origen complained about the differences among the many manuscripts.
Why were there so many mistakes? Sometimes the errors were honest ones, sometimes the scribes intentionally made them, sometimes there was confusion between homophones—words that sounded alike but had different meanings—and, inevitably, there were errors when scribes began copying errors made by previous scribes.
To correct these mistakes, we logically would revert back to the original manuscripts, except we don’t have the originals, any originals. Compounding the problem, the earliest copies show more corruption than later ones—in later years scribes became more professional.
Other problems arose with the translations. Greek was the original language of the books of the New Testament. When translators converted the Greek into Latin, the result was a myriad of Latin New Testaments, all different with diverse interpretations. Part of the problem lay in the ancient Greek, which had no spaces between its words. If we came across “Godisnowhere,” does that mean “God is now here” or “God is nowhere?” The correct interpretation makes a big difference. During the fourth century when these translations occurred, there were hundreds of Greek manuscripts, so it was difficult, if not impossible, to determine which were the ones closest to the originals.
Medieval monks painstakingly copied these earlier mistakes. Today we have more than 57,000 Greek manuscripts dating from the early second century stretching across to the sixteenth century. In addition there are 10,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, the version of the New Testament that Jerome compiled in the later half of the fourth century. As Ehrman states, “There are more variations among our manuscripts that there are words in the New Testament.”
Early Christians didn’t have a New Testament. They had writings that coaxed and instructed them along this new path of religion. Ehrman shows clearly how the New Testament slowly evolved into the book we know today.
Ehrman has managed to humanize the New Testament. His book should be fascinating reading for both agnostics and believers, for Christians and non-Christians. Whatever fresh debate it inspires, it is proof that occasionally mankind creates something admirable --- and very human.