Sunday, April 30, 2006

Linguist Friend Reviews "Misquoting Jesus"

Everyone is aware of the hullaballoo about the announcement of the reconstruction of the text of the Coptic Gospel of Judas in recent weeks. It will be productive if it draws more attention to progress in knowledge of the early history of Christianity, although nothing I have seen so far about the text suggests that it contributes anything new to our understanding of the events surrounding the death of Jesus. It may indeed have obscured public awareness of an intriguing book that made the New York Times non-fiction best seller list for at least two weeks earlier this spring, Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). The "misquoting" of the title refers to the processes by which changes occurred in the Greek text of the New Testament on the way from the original autographs to the surviving Greek manuscripts, early translations, and patristic citations which constitute the evidence used to reconstruct an approximation to the original Greek texts.

Ehrman, the chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, is the prolific author of three series of books. The first series consists of basic research monographs in New Testament studies, the second series consists of textbook-type overviews for clergy and scholars in training or practice, and the third series is a set of books intended for a broad audience of readers who wish to obtain an orientation to the ways of thinking and results of the scholarly study of the New Testament, the origins of Christianity, and the Hellenistic Jewish world from which it came. The first series might be exemplified by Ehrman's monograph The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (1993), the second by his textbook The New Testament: A Historical Introduction (3rd ed. 2003), and the third by the present Misquoting Jesus, one of the few works which have aimed to present the methods and significance of the text-critical study of the Greek New Testament to a broad audience.

Imagine as the ordinary reader an elderly retired gentleman whom I encountered recently with his granddaughter in a bookstore. He asked me to help him find for her an edition of the Bible in French. Ideally, he said, it would be a translation based on the King James or Authorized Version, which was his standard of religious truth as well as of literary excellence. I was driven to respond partly because I realized that he lived his faith in the sense that much of his time was occupied by visiting those who spend their lives in prison in that country which has a larger proportion of its population behind bars than any other. After a confirming visit to the website of the American Bible Society, I was able to recommend a careful French translation of the Bible to him, which I knew personally because it is on my own bookshelf, but I had to inform him that it was not exactly what he had asked for, since the King James's Version was ultimately based on an edition of the Greek NT published in 1516, the text of which did not profit from the results of modern scholarship on either its text or its content. I doubt that I convinced him of this, however. How can one communicate the significance of textual research to such a broad audience?

Ehrman answers this question well on the whole. He begins the book with a self-revealing account of his own religious development which may cost him part of his potential readership, since it narrates his own start from an Episcopalian family background, his long swing through evangelical education (Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College), and then how in graduate study at Princeton Theological Seminary he encountered scholarship of a quality that forced a restructuring of his system of religious belief in a much more progressive direction. He now writes from a point of view that seems to me to have much in common with that of many Unitarians who cannot find themselves within a Christian church, but respect the importance of Christian traditions in the past and their contribution in the present. Like the popular writings of Elaine Pagels, his works for a broad audience are written to share the results of modern scholarship with a broad audience. But while Pagels has focussed on narrower problems against the general background of how discoveries such as the Nag Hammadi texts have made us reassess the breadth and variability of early Christianity, Ehrman has often written broader and more systematic overviews (e.g. his Lost Christianities, 2003). Ehrman states that Misquoting Jesus is the first work to popularize the significance of textual criticism for the study of the NT. A worthy and readable predecessor as popular writing that provides a much wider canvas for the study of the biblical text is F.F. Bruce's The Books and the Parchments (4th ed. 1984). Here Bruce gives only one chapter to the issues of the establishment of the Greek text of the NT, but they are placed within the framework of where the whole Bible came from, both testaments and the apocrypha, so that users of the English Bible can see the Bible, and the necessity of its critical study, in a broad historical context.

Ehrman provides in his first chapter a brief and readable survey of the early Greek Christian literature of the first centuries, the initial stages of Christian canon formation, and the nature of the readers and reading of such literature. In the second chapter, he describes the process of transmission of Greek NT texts during the first three centuries by manual copying by nonprofessional scribes, and the sorts of changes that could result, both accidental and intentional alterations of the text, with the resulting problem of how to determine what was the original text on the basis of the surviving evidence. Just less than half of this chapter is taken up by discussion of examples of NT passages in which such textual variations are found.

This is followed in the third chapter by a discussion of the subsequent development of a class of professional scribes of Greek Christian texts, who made the process of textual transmission more accurate and systematic. However, manuscripts of the Latin translations of the biblical texts held the field in Western Europe until the adoption of printing in Europe. An overview of the first printed editions of the Greek NT and the collection of textual variants found in thousand of passages of the Greek NT is followed by a sketch of the sorts of errors and divergences found in the manuscripts.

The fourth chapter treats a fascinating topic, the development of the logical methodology for reconstruction of the NT text, as seen in the work of selected researchers from the French Catholic scholar Richard Simon (1638-1712) to the classical methodological framework of the Anglican scholars B.F.Westcott and F.J.A.Hort, which was first published as part of their edition of the Greek NT in 1881. Ehrman does not make clear that this methodology is a special case of the deductive process found in such disciplines as formal and mathematical logic, computer programming, and formal linguistics. Thus it becomes more understandable that Westcott and Hort were both the products of not only theological but also extensive scientific training, Westcott in mathematics, and Hort in general science to the extent that he participated in the administration of the advanced scientific examinations of students at Cambridge University (the tripos) and was perhaps the first ecclesiastical supporter of Darwin in England.

In the fifth chapter, Ehrman briefly summarizes the methods of scholarly textual reconstruction , and exemplifies them in three NT passages in which their application significantly affects our theological understanding of the NT. This chapter is clearly written and should speak to the general reader so that he will see the significance of text-critical scholarship.

In the sixth chapter, however, Ehrman has been unable to resist the temptation to inject into his book a special interest of his own, the study of theologically motivated alterations of the NT text. Primarily this section deals with textual changes which were motivated by the conflicting christologies current in the early church. This is a topic which Ehrman has considered in more detail in his monograph Orthodox Corruptions of Scripture (1993) noted above. It is an important topic, but its treatment in an introductory exposition should have been more conservative. While modern textual critics will agree with few reservations with the results of the methodology presented in the preceding chapters, there is much less agreement about some of the examples presented in detail in this chapter. Even after a second reading of the book, I was able to follow some of his points only by recourse to a critical edition of the Greek text, the United Bible Societies 4th edition, and Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament2

(both 1994), standard works which do not regard some of the positions he espouses in this chapter as at all certain. Ehrman is likely to lose many of his readers here, or they might even go away from their reading with incorrect conclusions about the consensus of scholarship on some passages in the NT.

In the last substantive chapter, Ehrman deals with examples of deliberate scribal alterations in the text of the Greek NT which reflect social issues in the early Christian communities: the place of women, attitudes towards unconverted Jews, and attitudes towards pagan opponents. Ehrman attributes this process of deliberate change of the NT text primarily to the nonprofessional scribes of the second and third centuries. The discussions of social history here are substantial and will be interesting for a broad readership.

In his conclusion, Ehrman returns to the persona of his early years as an evangelical student faced with the unsettling recognition of uncertainty when faced with the textual evidence on which the NT is based. Comprehension of the scholarly process and history underlying modern printed texts of the Greek NT should help the reader appreciate the complexity of the chain of evidence on which translations are based. Like Ehrman's introduction, this chapter expounds a moving and convincing argument, gently stated in a way which perhaps can be achieved best by someone who, like Ehrman, has himself had to go through the reassessment of his attitudes towards the biblical text that Ehrman advocates. This part of the book, like the introduction, is very eloquent. Ehrman's book will be useful, not only to a broad lay readership, but also to remind ministers of what they may have studied and forgotten (or not studied), and to help them in communicating to their members the systematic reassessment of evidence, and the loss of doctrinal dogmatism, which should come from understanding the nature of textual scholarship.


Also, Mary Russell, a feminist theological scholar in Laurie King's novel, "A Monstrous Regiment of Women" (sequal to the Beekeeper's Apprentice), is researching this very subject.


Joel Monka said...

"Ehrman's book will be useful, not only to a broad lay readership, but also to remind ministers of what they may have studied and forgotten (or not studied), and to help them in communicating to their members the systematic reassessment of evidence, and the loss of doctrinal dogmatism, which should come from understanding the nature of textual scholarship.

I don't believe that his book, no matter how good, will have any such effect at all. Those most concerned with the exact, word by word analysis of what the Bible says tend to be those who believe that the editors employed by King James were divinely inspired, and that their final product is the literal word of God regardless of the origin of any single or specific document that went into the slush pile. There is a kind of justification for this view; after all, they've done fairly well with the KJ Bible- how many billion Christians are there? Therefor, only those who were already reassessing and questioning their churches' dogma would be reading this book in the first place, let alone being affected by it.

LinguistFriend said...

It seems to me that this point of view denies the existence of the large proportion of theologically neutral scholarship which is found today, and has existed at least from the 19th century. Christianity is much too important in the world to be left entirely to the Christians, who tend in practice not to know very much about historical Christianity. The results of well- founded detailed scholarship
do not depend on whether the author is a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, or UU. Ehrman's autobiographical introduction to his book illustrates the liberalizing effect
on a young evangelical scholar of such study. Fortunately, the drive for honest scholarly inquiry is often found even among those with whom we differ theologically, and in the long run it is a liberalizing force.

Kim said...

Also, Mary Russell, a feminist theological scholar in Laurie King's novel, "A Monstrous Regiment of Women" (sequal to the Beekeeper's Apprentice), is researching this very subject.

Terry Pratchett has a book out called the Monstrous Regiment I think. What's the deal?

Chalicechick said...

The deal is that both titles come from something else. "Monstrous Regiment" is an abbreviation of the title of a misogynist 16th century tract by John Knox, the full title of which is, "The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women" (the women in question were Mary, Queen of Scots and Mary Tudor).

Laurie King's book (published some eight years before Pratchett's) involves a bunch of murders surrounding an early feminst organization between the first two world wars.

Either Pratchett's book has something to do with feminism, or he just liked the phrase.