Skip to main content.
Misquoting Jesus Extended Book Review

Bart Ehrman

An early and confirmed Christian, a born-again Christian, Ehrmam has lived the gamut of Christianity—and beyond, if that is the right word. As a naturally-curious and thinking boy becoming a man, Ehrman was, like most of us, reared to believe, which he did with fervor. In the tenth grade he joined Campus Life Youth for Christ club. Its leader was a eager and charismatic 20 something who held meetings off campus at various club-member homes. Ehrman got to know Bruce, the leader, and was awakened to a new experience of happiness and salvation only a believer could know. In due course he became a born-again Christian.

Bruce motivated Ehrman to attend Moody Bible Institute after high school. He earned a standard three-year diploma. During his training at Moody, he was introduced to textual criticism while learning that even the best bible translations were based on translations written some two centuries after the Common Era began. While most of his classmates rationalized that information as still being the hand of God, Ehrman took it seriously, but not so seriously that it jolted his faith in any way. It piqued his natural curiosity and need-to-know.

From Moody, he went to Wheaton, a top-ranked Evangelical school, to complete his bachelor’s degree in English Literature. In his first semester, his Greek teacher, Gerald Hawthorne, soon became his mentor and friend. Hawthorne was a committed Evangelical, but not a blind one; he dared to question. That feature resonated with Ehrman. Hawthorne enabled Ehrman’s second career-turning point. He was now able to think in terms of questions that needed answers.

Upon entering Princeton Theological Seminary, Ehrman studied Hebrew and Greek exegesis, interpretation. Turning point three came during his second semester, in a course taught by Cullen Story, wherein he completed a term paper on Mark 2. Using somewhat convoluted reasoning Ehrman was able to show that Mark 2 was inerrant in its reference to 1 Samuel 21:1-6. Professor Cullen returned his term paper with a simple one-liner: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” Ehrman realized the truth of that possibility. He writes: “Once I made that admission [to himself], the floodgates opened. For if there could be a picayune mistake in Mark 2, maybe there could be mistakes in other places as well.”

The next 200 odd pages of Misquoting Jesus document his evolution from a Born Again through Protestant variants to the agnosticism he developed very near the end of the 20st Century. His story is as closely reasoned as it is fascinating. To his peers, he has nothing new to say, for they know as well as he that the Bible is a mass of contradictions that arise from simple errors in spelling and scribe clarifications, as well as from deliberate additions, alternations and/or omissions. In each such event, Ehrman lucidly explains how and why scholars conclude this or that change was made. All the while, he reminds his readers that the roots of the bible, stemming as they do from texts surviving from the second Century, may never be completely accurate. Early scribes were in fact amateurs with various levels of education and dedication. And many were obviously biased. Some were activists, changing certain texts in response to criticisms from pagans and other Christian sects during the formative period of Christianity. Another feature Ehrman came to appreciate is that the various authors of the New Testament were themselves people, people subject to bias and what today we would call projection, and these were reflected in the Gospels and stories they wrote.

Since everything biblical was in fact first written, then copied, mis-copied and revised by humans, the Bible can only be the work of humans. That does not, of course, alter the importance of the Bible in Western human history. The Bible stands today as the most influential book ever written. Misquoting Jesus was a New York Times best seller for nine weeks, and rightfully so. Ehrman is the consummate scholar and story teller.

Through it all, Ehrman maintained evangelical friends. He chairs the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina. He wrote this book for the likes of you and me, not his peers. He shies away from fancy words, does not grind any axe other than his search for original truth.

How does Misquoting Jesus fit into the rest of this website?
It is consilient with the works of Adorno, Milgram, Zimbardo, Altemeyer, Stout, and Frank in the psychological arena, with Dawkins, Ruse, and Wilson in the arena of natural history, and Dallaire, Power, Prunier, Umutesi, and Hitler in reference to genocide. Furthermore, the kinds of behaviors shown by Milgram, Zimbardo, Frank and Stout explain the histories of crusading popes, Witch Hunters, and terrorists as well. All through the last two millennia despots co-opted peaceful Christians, Jews, and Muslims to do their dirty work. Most people, religious or secular in make up, are Authoritarian personalities, eager to fall in line, do the bidding of the top dogs, and reinforce others as they are are reinforced by others to follow lock-step down the slippery roads of violence.

Furthermore, Ehrman’s own experience, in contrast with many of his conventional classmates, points out just how fragile belief systems can be. That feature parallels the very fragility of our behavior—violence and peacefulness all in the same body, male and female alike, the world over. See Milgram and Zimbardo, especially for more on that. The Authoritarian Personality walks all through the Bible. Meanwhile, authors and scribes endeavored to make the Bible the ultimate guide for living, all in good faith. Sociopaths also appear in the bible as does genocide.

Beginning with emperor Constantine in 312 C.E., Christianity included its first head of state. With Constantine’s endorsement, Christianity spearheaded the history shaking and violence still evident in our times.

True to our AP natures, certain leaders of each modern monotheism rationalize all their violence away by dehumanizing their enemies. Other clergy, troubled by the many inconsistencies in the bible, evolve toward more rational ways of looking at things. Some have formed a web site that is confidential and private where they can discuss their views openly. See: The Clergy Project


No comments yet

To be able to post comments, please register on the site.