Thursday, May 08, 2008

Misquoting Jesus

I've been wanting to read Misquoting Jesus ever since I heard a great interview on NPR with the author, Bart Ehrman, on Fresh Air. Ehrman is a Biblical scholar, or textual critic, as he calls himself. He explains in the book (and the radio interview) how he used to be very religious - a "born-again" Christian, who, like many Christians, believed that the Bible was the inspired word of God, which was transmitted to the original writers of the New Testament and written down by them. Ehrman explains in the introduction his own sort of unravelling spiritual journey, where the more he learned about the Bible as a Christian scholar the less reliable a text he found it to be.

The main thesis of the Misquoting Jesus is that the Bible, as we know it, has gone through a fairly ridiculous number of changes since the original, which doesn't even exist any more. Ehrman figures the earliest copies available to us are something like copies of copies of copies of copies of copies, and even when comparing early copies, he and other textual critics have found vast discrepancies between copies. Whether purposefully or ignorantly, scribes of various books of the Bible have made mistakes as they copied, by hand. He illustrates the various reasons these mistakes might have been made, and their humorous or shocking results - for example - turns out that famous line and it's accompanying story, "He that's without sin should throw the first stone" is totally made up. Meaning, it's not in the early, reliable copies, and shows up out of nowhere in a later manuscript, and gets integrated into later versions.

I was quite interested to learn more about this early history of the Bible and how it was created, who read it, how people read, and how people wrote. I think for the most part Ehrman writes a clear history, although he doesn't really write about the history of the Old Testament at all, just the New, and, I should think anyone without a decent background in Christian theology might be sort of lost. In some areas, I wished he given a more thorough bibliography. A few of times I found myself wondering exactly which sources he was talking about, and where they were and who had access to them, for example. Another thing I found slightly annoying was that there were some really bad copies of images from early manuscripts. In my work at the Art Inst. I saw some amazing early manuscripts, and they're full of incredible colors and gilt - color illustrations would have been beautiful - the black and white was worthless.

It seems that Ehrman might have been trying to balance writing a widely appealing book and writing a scholarly book. Essentially he's writing a deconstructionist's analysis of the Bible with a fair amount of semiotics thrown in, without ever using the words "deconstruction" and "semiotics". Ultimately, Ehrman's point of view is that to read anything is to change it - because when you read something, you process it in your own mind, into your own understanding of language and your own world view, in a way that you can understand. Early scribes who changed the Bible for whatever reasons simply physically manifested this principle in their copy jobs. It's a principle that doesn't just apply to the Bible, but actually anything you read (or see or hear...)

Misquoting Jesus answered a lot of questions I had about the process the Bible went through in the early C.E.. I'm also from a background where the Bible is meant to be the unquestioned, inerrant word of God, and that was a frustrating, aggravating point of view for me, and it was somehow very satisfying to read a book that explained why there are so many inconsistencies and oddities in it.

To be clear, I don't think reading this book is going to turn you into an atheist, or necessarily radically alter your beliefs - but, it's sure to make all readers do some deep thinking, and what could be wrong with that?