Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

Is religious faith a journey of discovery for you rather then a destination? Does your religious experience feel like home rather then a prison so all are welcome? Is the following joke funny or in bad taste?

A man falls over the edge of a cliff. Hurtling down he manages to grasp a tree branch and whilst not religious, he shouts for God to give a helping hand. To his shock a voice from the heavens says ' I shall put out My hand to help thee. I shall hold thee securely. Just let go and trust in me' The man is silent, overwhelmed by the Voice and its message. Looking down, in a small voice he whispers, 'Is there anyone else up there?

If your answers are along the lines of ...Satin get behind me... then best not to read either this review or the book. Because you are about to deal with a detailed argument that the New Testament for example is not the inerrant word of God but a human document created by people trying to live and practice conflicting views of what Christianity meant over 350 years. Christianity in becoming the state religion leads to an Orthodoxy in the form of the Nicene creed and the final victory of one of the many Christian sects. The others are suppressed and their books burned, the Pagan temples are destroyed and anti-Semitism becomes part of popular culture. The diversity of the Christian voices lost is explored by Bart D. Ehrman in his book, Lost Christianities. Charles Freeman explores the impact of the Constantine Christian church in The Closing of the Western Mind.

Misquoting Jesus explores a more simple issue of Textual criticism and the attempt to find the original or more realistically the oldest copy. The challenge is that the written document gets changed as it is transmitted over time given changing medium and tools as much as these wider political and theological struggles. Bart D. Ehrman reveals why these issues shaped his personal journey from being a Christian that saw Billy Graham as a dangerous liberal. He was at university struggling to explain why the Mark reference of 1 SAM.21:2-6 was not wrong. Having written a very complex argument to show it was not a mistake, he gave the paper in and it was given back with the comment, "'maybe Mark just made a mistake'. This opened the floodgates for him to look at explaining the other mistakes and so re-framing what the Bible and his faith was.

The book explores the simple oddity that Christianity with the exception of Judaism was the only book based faith of the period yet 97% more of early Christians were illiterate. Any books and writings were copied from church to church by amateur scribes barely literature themselves. It took most of the 350 years for an agreed cannon to emerge so again hit and miss what versions survived( Virtually most of the complete documents only go back to the 4th century with fragments going back to the 2nd century. These complete older copies themselves did not get rediscovered until 200 odd years after the bible and the King James version was printed based on incomplete and inaccurate manuscripts).

What got copied over the medieval period was more accurate because of professional scribes but textual critics can trace whole families of texts where the same mistakes are transmitted. Bart D. Ehrman explores the tricks of the trade of how texts get judged as accurate. The primary rule appears to be the harder the reading the more likely to be accurate. By this he means that scribes tended to simplify and harmonise texts that appear to be at odds to "common sense" or with what ever theology was dominate at the time.

The issue of textural accuracy began to become a serious political and theological issue as the Bible was translated into local languages as part of the growth of Protestantism. John Mill in 1707 brought the issue out in to the open by showing that 30, 000 variant readings(to day this is known to be 200,000 mostly spelling mistakes, slip of the pen , missed words etc buts its the theological editing and missed/added key sections that Bart D. Ehrman concentrates in in the book) This caused and in some way still causes a major problem for Protestants. If your faith is based in the authority of the Bible as the word of God then it not being accurate undermines that authority as the Catholics were eager to point out. They preferred the justification for authority being based on the church and Pope. Protestants reacted by either denying the existence of mistakes or accepted that the Bible was substantially accurate but seeking for originals or older more accurate versions would not do any harm.

Another reaction older then the textual criticism discussed is associated with Christian groups such as Quakers. Here the issue is that the Bible is not a closed revelation but a living and dynamic one based on a personal relationship's with God and that experience leading to convincement and changes in the world. John Wolman for example, guided Quakers to oppose slavery although the Bible accepts slavery as normal, the issue being how to treat them.

After discussing the mechanics of how the text get altered Bart D. Ehrman explores the complex theological battles of the early days that affected the text. For example those Christians who saw Jesus as Human only, those that saw him as human but adopted by God, those that saw him as divine only etc. The other battle was with the role of woman who had a powerful presence in the early church and the texts reflected the battle to suppress them. A third battle was with Pagans and Jews which he shows how they left their mark on the texts

In these chapters, he also explores the wider issues of who wrote what for what theological purpose. Mark written for the early more Jewish Christians who favoured Jesus as human whist John written with the more sophisticated pagan criticism in mind that Jesus as God would not show human emotions. These ideas and that the New Testament is not a literal history but a series of meditations in line with a liturgical timetable is explored further in Rescuing the bible from Fundamentalism by John Shelby Spong.

As you can see lots of big issues but the book is simple and clear and you can come to it fresh or experienced and still learn. I strongly recommend it. You faith may be changed or challenged but

recognise and accept that there is another dimension to life than that what is obvious to us. Live with obstacles, doubt and paradox, knowing, that God is always present in the world.

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