Friday, December 28, 2012

Misquoting Jesus-Introduction

               Many times over the last several years, I have been asked about Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman is a credible scholar, head of the religion department at UNC Chapel Hill. He is a graduate of Wheaton and my own alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary, whose doctorvater was none other than 20th century New Testament scholar par excellence (is that enough foreign-language idioms for one sentence?), the late Bruce Manning Metzger. Ehrman’s book was a New York Times best seller, an unusual thing for a book which is essentially about scribal error in the transmission of ancient Greek texts.
                Ehrman pretty well surmises why the book caught on in his introduction. New Testament scholarship is a conversation had among people with PhDs in New Testament. If you look at the PhD program requirements for Harvard Divinity School, or other accredited New Testament programs, you’ll see that the bar is quite high. The applicant must have a bachelor’s degree (normally four years), and a master of divinity degree (at least three years, but four in some denominations) before applying to the PhD program (roughly 6 years, but sometimes longer, depending on your family commitments and difficulty in obtaining a steady supply of Adderall). Before you begin the PhD program, you must be fluent (with high GRE scores!) in English, and be able to read Koine Greek, and Hebrew. By the second year of the program, you must also be able to read German and French, for a minimum total of five languages. Many New Testament scholars also learn Syriac or Latin, if they have any interest in the way the early church used the New Testament. Within this whitest of ivory towers, the sort of effete individuals who would have the chutzpah to drop Latin, German, French and Yiddish in barely 300 words live out their days, having mildly animated debates at department meetings and at SBL, teaching future pastors or chaplains interesting tidbits, and publishing $100 textbooks on the bible that are inaccessible to most readers.
                Ehrman goes on the Colbert Report. He also writes 200 page paperbacks in English that cost $10.00 and can be purchased on the big tables by the checkout line at Barnes and Noble. In short, he writes for those outside the ivory tower, because “despite the fact that [textual criticism of the bible] has been a topic of sustained scholarship now for more than three hundred years, there is scarcely a single book about it written for a lay audience—that is, for those who know nothing about it, who don’t have the Greek and other languages necessary for the in-depth study of it do not even realize that there is a “problem” with the text, but who would be intrigued to learn both what the problems are and how scholars have set about dealing with them (15).”
                There’s the rub. Ehrman gets on the nerves of some scholars because he circumvents the typical academic debate and goes straight for the ear of the common person—with some seemingly alarming information. We might imagine these critics leveling a charge at Ehrman similar to the one Celsus is reported to have leveled at early Christians (40), that they eschew academic debates, preferring instead to cozen the unschooled into their way of thinking (Contra Celsum, III.44). For me, however, this isn’t the issue. Ehrman mentions in his introduction that “many Christians, of course, have never held this literalistic view of the Bible [verbal plenary inspiration] in the first place, and for them such a view might seem completely one-sided and unnuanced (not to mention bizarre and unrelated to matters of faith) (40).”
That’s me. Although I’m not of a persuasion to be rocked by this book after my formal training, and wasn’t even before that (unlike Ehrman), I am concerned that his presentation is a bit... exaggerated. While I understand his motivation—department chairs sometimes function on a publish-or-perish basis, and almost no other New Testament scholar can claim to see the bottom of the New York Times bestseller’s list from atop their highest book sale figures with a telescope—the fact that there was a vacuum in the literature in this area should, in my opinion, have inspired a scholar to choose dissemination of accurate and nuanced information over sensationalist repetition of “hundreds of years” and “thousands of errors.” Of course, nobody would buy “The thousands of meaningless haplographic and dittographic errors of Jesus.” Fortunately, I’m not in the book selling business, so I don't have the same impetus to stir the pot. over the next three weeks, I’m going to examine many of Ehrman’s claims in detail, complete with background information, links to English translations of ancient manuscripts, and suggested bibliography. In the process, readers of this blog will get a tour of how critical scholarship of the bible works (though Misquoting Jesus isn't the worst introduction in the world). The book is a provocative introduction to the discipline, and that can be good—few feelings motivate a reader to keep reading as much as disagreement. It is, after all, why I decided to tackle this book in the first place.

*All page numbers are taken from Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus. Harper Collins, New York, 2005.

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