By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Caveat Emptor: A Highly Misleading Book on the Bible's Reliability

That highly misleading book--more a polemical tract than an informative, scholarly book--is the "popular" Misquoting Jesus by the anti-Christian writer Bart D. Ehrman. Prof. Ehrman is a biblical scholar who has squandered his undeniable talents by embracing the tawdry path of misleading the general public with his expertise. It is challenging to fight a catena, a chain, of tenuously linked misleading statements that end up deceiving the general reader.

Why is it challenging? It is challenging because of the tediously necessary task of exposing every single fallacious rhetorical sleight of hand used to create, what is in the end, a very big lie: the lie that the New Testament text is somehow an unreliable witness to Jesus. My friends, the New Testament text, especially the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is the most reliable source for the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Anyone seeking to divert anyone from that fact is playing with "smoke and mirrors," as we say in the courtroom. You may accept or reject the claims of the canonical Gospels--that is your God-given prerogative; but you cannot rewrite them capriciously to justify ex post facto (after the fact) your rejection. Be, at least, enough of an honest, mature adult to reject the claims of the canon without the smoke and mirrors that merely provide one with false, pseudo-intellectual comfort food.

I am not alone in having a very low view of this particular book by Ehrman. Let me quote from biblical scholar Craig L. Blomberg who concisely summarizes the Ehrman problem:

With Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005) we come to the most misleading title [of Ehrman's books] so far. Here Ehrman focuses primarily on the most extensive and interesting of the textual variants within the New Testament and, for the most part, suggests plausible motives for those changes. [Blogger's note: "Textual variants" are alternative readings of biblical verses based on differing manuscript evidence. For the record, I have yet to find or read about any textual variant that in any way fatally undermines any orthodox Christian doctrine, such as the divinity of Christ or the Resurrection of Jesus.]  What he [Ehrman] fails to do is to put these variants in perspective by informing his readers that only two variants anywhere affect more than a couple of verses, that only eleven involve even a full verse or two, that the consensus among textual critics is that in the modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament we have, either in the text itself or the footnotes upwards of 97% of what the original authors wrote reconstructed beyond a reasonable doubt, and that no doctrine of the Christian faith depends solely on one or more texually uncertain passages.

Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (IVP Academic, 2007), Appendix B, at p. 333 (emphasis added).

If your read Ehrman's book, you can even find him caught in self-contradiction as noted below.

1.) Ehrman in fact concedes the viability and usefulness of his own specialized area of study--textual criticism--in reconstructing the original text (see related Ehrman quote at the end of this blog post). In fact, any good edition of the Bible will alert its readers to textual variants where they may exist. No one is hiding anything from the general reader of the Bible. Sorry to disappoint, but there is no Da Vinci Code style conspiracy at work here.

Take a look at the newly published New Oxford Annotated Bible (fully revised 4th ed.; March 2010), whose footnotes disclose "divergent textual readings and alternate translations" ("The Editors' Preface," p. xiii). In fact, this particular edition of the Bible contains an essay on textual criticism which I recommend. The essay in the Oxford Bible states the facts without the highly polemical and misleading Ehrman touch. The editors of the New Oxford Annotated Bible wish to enlighten and educate, not to confuse the general reader into embracing a particular agenda.

The bottom line, as the Craig Blomberg quote affirms, is that the admirable work of specialists in biblical textual criticism gives us a very reliable biblical text worthy of our trust, especially when compared with other ancient documents.

2.) What is behind the Ehrman enterprise? Not surprisingly, what is behind his misleading crusade against the biblical text is, by his own admission in the introduction to his book, his personal disenchantment from an extreme form of biblical fundamentalism which views biblical inspiration as requiring some kind of exact divine dictation which is 100% precise when it comes to trivial matters that are immaterial to the theological message of the books of the Bible. That type of extreme fundamentalism has led many fundamentalist Christians to abandon the faith and to adopt a subsequent attitude of hostility to Christian doctrinal claims.

Well, Catholics and many other Christians have never shared that fundamentalism and find the logic of the Ehrman fundamentalist trauma quite unconvincing and, in fact, quite immature. The view of biblical inspiration at the root of Ehrman's personal departure from Christianity is a view more similar to that found in Islam than in mainstream, historic Christianity. The fundamentalist view of Scripture against which Ehrman reacts is for the majority of Christians worldwide (especially those who are Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican) an absurd straw man.

Let me end with this recommendation. Be aware of this book because it is misused by many, but do not rely upon its analyses or conclusions because they are simply smoke and mirrors unscrupulously trying to divert the general reader from sensible conclusions about the reliability of the biblical text.

Related quote by Ehrman:

"I continue to think that even if we cannot be 100 percent certain about what we can attain to, we can at least be certain that all the surviving manuscripts were copied from other manuscripts, which were themselves copied from other manuscripts, and that it is at least possible to get back to the oldest and earliest stage of the manuscript tradition for each of the books of the New Testament. . . . This oldest form of the text is no doubt closely (very closely) related to what the author originally wrote, and so it is the basis for our interpretation of his teaching."

Bart D. Ehrman, in Misquoting Jesus, Chapter 2  (Kindle locations 985-96; original italics).

What you see here, between the lines, is the truth: that the biblical text is reliable. What you also see is the implanting of certain seeds of unreasonable doubt based on a paranoid approach to the text. The origin of that paranoia is, in my opinion, Ehrman's personally traumatic experience with fundamentalism, a trauma that I and many others, thankfully, do not share. I am also sure that many others have recovered from fundamentalism without ending up in the Ehrman cul-de-sac.

In another book, Ehrman concedes the following points--what lawyers would call "admissions against interest" since these points undermine his whole thesis that the New Testament text, as we now have it in our modern translations, is somehow unreliable or corrupted:

“scholars have by and large succeeded in reconstructing the New Testament”

. . .

“we can be reasonably certain of what the New Testament authors actually said, just as we can be reasonably certain of what Plato and Euripides and Josephus and Suetonius all said.”

Bart D. Ehrman,  in
The New Testament: A Historical Introduction, 3rd ed. (Oxford Univ. Press,  2004), Ch. 29, p. 487.

Ehrman's is a strange case, but I fear not a unique case: he wants so badly to justify his rejection of Christianity that he can no longer see the facts clearly, the same facts that do not lead many other as or more qualified scholars to embrace his anti-Christian "spin." Too much polemical emotion damages the reliability of his scholarly vision. From what I have seen, his books seem to present a pattern: a kernel of facts surrounded by a fog of unjustified and tendentious spin.


If you want to see a reliable scholar, Dr. Craig Evans, expose the manipulative, misleading, and demagogic exaggerations and hyperbole used by Ehrman, see this YouTube link. The debate is worth watching in its entirety; but, if you lack the time, you can jump to the last part (Part 9) and at least view the closing remarks by Ehrman and Craig Evans.