Can the Bible be trusted? This is the question that Bart Ehrman deals with in his provocative and popular book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Daniel Wallace offers an exceptional review of this book. Wallace’s critique of the book reveals that it is Ehrman’s treatment of the textual issues, not the text of the Bible itself, which can’t be trusted.
Why is the book so popular? As Wallace points out, “Why all the hoopla? Well, for one thing, Jesus sells. But not the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus that sells is the one that is palatable to postmodern man. And with a book entitled Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, a ready audience was created via the hope that there would be fresh evidence that the biblical Jesus is a figment.” In my estimation, this book is yet another means of undermining the credibility of the biblical witness in an effort to suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).
Why is the book relevant? Ehrman has made the effort in this book to make issues of textual criticism accessible to the masses. Wallace notes that, “According to Ehrman, this is the first book written on NT textual criticism—a discipline that has been around for nearly 300 years—for a lay audience.” More importantly, the book is relevant for our consideration because it puts the credibility of scripture on the line.
In the book, Ehrman discloses a sort of personal testimony in which he chronicles the experiences that brought him to the point of his current views which are evidenced in the book. Wallace summarizes this process, “In the introduction, Ehrman speaks of his evangelical background (three years at Moody Bible Institute, two years at Wheaton College where he first learned Greek), followed by an M.Div. and Ph.D. at Princeton Seminary. It was at Princeton that Ehrman began to reject some of his evangelical upbringing, especially as he wrestled with the details of the text of the NT.” In other words, this book is not the product of an overnight conversion. Instead, it is the next step in a long process of moving further left on the orthodox continuum.
The book basically functions as a popular introduction to the field of textual criticism. Wallace explains that it is focused on answering one key question, “how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes—sometimes correctly and sometimes (many times!) incorrectly?” While the question seems initially reasonable, it is actually rooted in a false dichotomy. In other words, just because ‘we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired’, it does not necessarily require that the words we do have are not inerrant.
One of the primary provocative aspects of Ehrman’s presentation is that it is deceptive. Wallace notes, “In essence, he paints a very bleak picture of scribal activity, leaving the unwary reader to assume that we have no chance of recovering the original wording of the NT.” Ehrman is a walking encyclopedia of textual criticism knowledge. Yet, he selectively omits pivotal information in an effort to paint a worst-case scenario. The common reader has no ability to verify his claims and so they are left to take everything he says as unadulterated truth.
What is the theological agenda of the book? Wallace observes “two fundamental theological points being stressed in Misquoting Jesus: first, as we mentioned previously, it is irrelevant to speak of the Bible’s inerrancy because we no longer have the original documents; second, the variants in the manuscripts change the basic theology of the NT.” In essence, Ehrman sets out to convince the masses that what we have is not the true word of God. More importantly, he suggests that what we would have would reshape what we believe. These are audacious claims which Wallace does an excellent job of refuting in his review.
What key theological issues does the book raise? Wallace identifies the questions Ehrman brings up and the passages that he disputes:
Was Jesus an angry man [Mark 1.41]? Was he completely distraught in the face of death [Heb 2.8–9]? Did he tell his disciples that they could drink poison without being harmed [Mark 16.9–20]? Did he let an adulteress off the hook with nothing but a mild warning [John 7.53–8.11]? Is the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament [1 John 5.7–8]? Is Jesus actually called “the unique God” there [John 1.18]? Does the New Testament indicate that even the Son of God himself does not know when the end will come [Matt 24.36]? The questions go on and on, and all of them are related to how one resolves difficulties in the manuscript tradition as it has come down to us.
Wallace’s review offers an insightful analysis of the book. Furthermore, it offers some great food for thought. Here are a few personal reflections based on the comments contained in his review:
First, be consistent. Ehrman rightly points out the way that many ministers inconsistently handle disputed passages. Wallace describes the common pastoral error made when pastors preach John 8 (the woman caught in adultery) as canonical yet reject the end of the book of Mark, “in terms of popularity between these two texts, John 8 is the overwhelming favorite, yet its external credentials are significantly worse than Mark 16’s. The same preacher who declares the Markan passage to be inauthentic extols the virtues of John 8. This inconsistency is appalling.” If nothing else, Wallace makes it clear that consistency is key. However we choose to handle disputed texts, we need to apply the same principles in each situation instead of arbitrarily favoring some texts over others.
Second, be transparent. In other words, don’t hide the hard truths but be willing to educate people. As Wallace notes, “One lesson we must learn from Misquoting Jesus is that those in ministry need to close the gap between the church and the academy. We have to educate believers. Instead of trying to isolate laypeople from critical scholarship, we need to insulate them.” The reason Wallace advocates for this transparency is because not educating people opens the door for them to be deceived by scholarship like Ehrman’s that exposes them to this new knowledge in a deceptive manner. Transparency will lead to maturity.
Third, be holistic. It was very helpful to watch Wallace repeatedly demonstrate how none of the textual variants exposed by Ehrman actually have a significant impact on Christian theology. In other words, holistically viewing the variant in light of the whole teaching of scripture confirms that it does not alter credibility of the doctrine.
Fourth, be balanced. When analyzing textual variants, it is most helpful to balance our consideration of the text with both internal and external evidence. Sometimes, internal evidence within the context of the passage will reveal the right understanding. Other times, external facts will provide clarity. Effective textual criticism must balance both aspects.
Fifth, be caring. Wallace provides an insightful closing comment, “First is my plea to all biblical scholars to take seriously their responsibility in caring for God’s people. Scholars bear a sacred duty not to alarm lay readers on issues that they have little understanding of…. A good teacher doesn’t hold back on telling his students what’s what, but he also knows how to package the material so they don’t let emotion get in the way of reason.” By Wallace’s estimation, Ehrman abuses his knowledge of the subject by provocatively misleading his audience. Those of us who have the opportunity for in-depth scholarship should use it shepherd our people instead of misleading them.
Sixth, be truth driven. I really appreciate Wallace’s advice to his students, “what I tell my students every year is that it is imperative that they pursue truth rather than protect their presuppositions. And they need to have a doctrinal taxonomy that distinguishes core beliefs from peripheral beliefs. When they place more peripheral doctrines such as inerrancy and verbal inspiration at the core, then when belief in these doctrines starts to erode, it creates a domino effect: One falls down, they all fall down.” So, the key is having an approach to scholarship that is willing to submit to truth while implementing a theological triage that distinguishes between first and second order issues.
Can the Bible be trusted? Dr. Wallace’s review certainly reaffirms this fact. Though Misquoting Jesus will come and go from the bestseller charts, it is just another example of the pattern of suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. People will continue to develop belief systems like these to justify their sinful lifestyle choices. Wallace’s review should serve as a great reminder of the importance of having a working knowledge of textual criticism so that we can effectively engage the issue and educate our people about the reliability of scripture.