Book Review: Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

Posted August 21, 2012 by Kathy Davie in

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

on February 6, 2007 and has 266 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

A non-fictional account of how and why the Bible is NOT the direct word of God.

My Take

This was an excellent, very scholarly account using scientific and textual inquiry to present the manner in which people have for centuries been changing the words that make up the New Testament. The work involved in determining which copy is the more original was and is tremendous. It gives me a headache just thinking of how to keep track and organize the mass of material! I want a time machine!!

Ehrman explains the story in an easy-to-read manner with no blame applied. And it is a simple, basic human reaction to “fix” things. To make it more understandable. As well as a normal human reaction to want to slant the stories, the parables, the words to reflect one’s own beliefs. To use these words to pressure others into thinking your way.

It makes sense…although, I have to confess that I began to think of the New Testament as a compilation of fanfic. A modern term to sum up what’s been happening with the words of the Bible from the beginning. There were so many different writings out there and what we now know as the New Testament are simply those versions put out by the side with the most followers.

Ehrman describes the Bible as “a human book from beginning to end…written by different human authors at different times and in different places to address different needs”. Each with “their own perspectives, their own beliefs, their own views, their own needs, their own understandings, their own theologies”.

Some elements are little more than advertising hype. Who knew? Ehrman points out that the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds. The apostles can’t even agree on a number of points from when Jesus was crucified — after Passover or before; when Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth; when Paul went to Jerusalem after he was converted; the Adoptionists; the Separationists such as the Gnostics; and, literally thousands of other issues.

Ehrman also points out that neither the apostles nor the Church have had access to a vast majority of the original documents and instead have used copies of copies to recreate the apostles’ interpretations of Jesus’ words, of their own actions. “Mark did not say the same thing that Luke said because he didn’t mean the same thing as Luke. John is different from Matthew…Paul is different from Acts. And James is different from Paul”.

Which only makes sense. Consider the game one can play at a dinner table of starting a sentence and whispering it in the ear of the person next to you. And the garbled version that comes out at the other end. Whispering this one sentence to one person after another within ten minutes or less, one night, at a dinner table. And we expect the word of God to have survived completely intact in a world where so few people knew how to read or write? When the truth about most of those scribes who could write was simply that they could copy the forms of letters? But not actually be able to read them?

Ehrman provides several examples of authors complaining because the scribe they hired to make copies were changing their words!

Consider also that mistakes made in one document would then be copied faithfully by the next. Or changed so it would be more easily understood or to reflect the point of view of that scribe’s patron. Then there were the “slips of the pen, accidental omissions, misspelled words, etc.” The incompetent scribes or those who got hungry or sleepy, bored, or uninterested.

The overly scrupulous who thought that Paul’s words should agree with Mark’s instead of being their own individual viewpoints. It turns out that that whore, Mary Magdalene, whom I learned about in Sunday School is a story inserted by those more interested in keeping women out of any roles in the Church; tearing them from the “significant and publicly high profile roles” they played in the early Church. The truth is that Mary Magdalene played a large role and, technically, was one of Jesus’ apostles.

Even Paul corresponded and talked of women who had highly public roles although he did believe that women should cover their heads in church “to show they were under authority” and that they “should be content with the roles they had been given”. Even as Jesus proclaimed “that in the coming Kingdom there would be equality of men and women”. Hmmm, just not on earth, huh, where it would be inconvenient or too radical? Still, it wasn’t until after Paul that women started to be referred to as inferior and scribes began to change the text referring to women, even to the point of reversing the name order of husband and wife couples to show the husband in the primary position. How very petty!

I do like Ehrman’s point: “Wouldn’t you like to know what are the true words of the Bible?”

When you add in the different shorthands individuals used through the ages and how those abbreviations and codes were misinterpreted. The inks that faded rendering the text even more illegible. The people who tried to make the text more understandable, to fit in with how they thought or wanted people to think. I’m rather surprised it’s as readable as it is.

Consider also that witnesses to an event interpret it from their own perspective. Ask any cop!

Ehrman states that professional writers finally began to be used by the Church in the fourth century, in particular, when Constantine, the emperor of Rome, converted to Christianity in 312 C.E. An act which began to attract “more and more highly educated and trained persons”.

The Old Testament is the beginning of the Jewish Bible. A scripture unique in its origins which tells the history of the Jewish people and provides laws on how to worship and behave toward each other. In a time when rules, instructions, laws were not written down and “almost no ethical principles to be followed” were laid out for the followers of almost all the existing religions. This book, this Old Testament, was the beginning of the Christian Bible. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi and his followers were Jewish. The Torah was what they knew and set the backdrop for Christianity, the second book-oriented religion in the world.

Ehrman explains the Bible’s evolution and it is fascinating. The apostles would, individually, convert people in a particular locale and then stay in touch, preach or untangle problems by letters which would be read to the people. We know these letters as, for example, Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians; the communities of converts as Corinthians, Galatians. Some of these letters would be written by an apostle’s followers in his name.

The Gospels were stories about “the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of their Lord” and “recorded the traditions associated with” Jesus’ life; memoirs of the apostles. Some Gospels were lost, others were compiled from research done by their original and subsequent authors. Some are based on an apostle’s interpretation “in light of the Jewish scriptures…which were in wide use among Christians”. Which makes sense as these were the books which were known to these new Christians. Books that provided a basis for study and reflection.

The Acts are stories about the apostles. The Christian Apocalypses were stories written theorizing about the approaching apocalypse. It was fascinating to read about “Church Orders” as the need for people to be in charge became apparent and rules were formulated. Ehrman mentions the Christian Apologies and Martyrologies as well as the antiheretical tractates which is about the early disagreements about how God should be worshipped with the Christian religion and the commentaries.

Ehrman also discusses early Christians who created their own version of how things should be based on their own interpretations. Men like Marcion; Irenaeus, a bishop of Lyons; Athaneasius, a bishop of Alexandria in 367 C.E. who is the first recorded instance proclaiming the current New Testament as the authority; Dionysius, a bishop of Corinth; and, others.

He also makes an interesting point about literacy rates in the ancient world. That even in civilized Rome in the early Christian centuries or Greece in the classical period, only 10-15 percent of the population could read and write. Or, as Ehrman drives his point home…85-90 percent of the people were illiterate. I suspect preaching came about simply because most of the people couldn’t read, so they came to a central location where someone would read to them.

Ehrman also notes the origins of the different Bibles we know about such as the Latin Vulgate (Jerome’s translation was a Bible for the Western church and he tried very hard to reconcile the variations; I think he’s a saint simply for managing to produce the Vulgate!), the Greek New Testament (the first printed polyglot Bible produced by a Spanish cardinal, Ximenes de Cisneros) — Erasmus published a flawed Greek New Testament as he wanted to be the first out of the blocks!; and, the seventeenth century King James which uses great chunks of Erasmus’ flawed publication.

The problem of textual variation wasn’t readily recognized until 1707 when John Mill created an annotated version of the Greek New Testament pointing out “some thirty thousand places” where the text disagreed amongst the surviving materials. These were only the ones he pointed out in the published edition; they were not all the variations he found. These revelations really screwed things up for the Protestants and their sola scriptura!

Oh, man. Then there’s Ehrman’s point about how the conflict arose between Jews and Christians. It makes sense. Perfect sense. How often do we as individuals try to rewrite our personal history (think résumés!) to make ourselves look better! Here the Christians are promoting Jesus as the Messiah and the Jews are, quite rightly, pointing out that Jesus was essentially an itinerant preacher who got on the wrong side of the law and was crucified as a low-life criminal. This, at a time, when a Messiah was seen as a “powerful warrior or a heavenly judge”. To counter this “truth”, the Christians resorted to mudslinging. One that continues to this day in our bigotry.

Ehrman raises an even more interesting point, historically anyway, about Christian persecution by pagans. It’s not one that I learned when I was pursuing my history minor and I must always keep in mind to read a variety of sources from different viewpoints if I want to find the truth. Or at least something close! Still, Ehrman’s point makes sense. Considering the huge numbers of religions practiced in that time period and the beliefs of the people then, why wouldn’t the vast majority see the Christians as shirking their duty? Endangering the health of society? Being antisocial!

Reading a text, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, means you are interpreting these words in light of your own experiences. When you try to explain it to someone else, you are using your words.

The Bible is a flawed book of history and stories — it’s the victors who write the history. It is not the literal word of God, but it is a collection of concepts that encourages faith. Not a faith that requires a literal interpretation of the words. It is a faith in the basic message.

The Cover and Title

The cover has a deep cream background with taupe Greek writing — one of the original languages of the Bible. The author’s name and title are in a red used in the scholar’s robe in the graphic image that takes up half the cover’s front to which the eye is drawn to a medieval depiction of that scholar. He’s working, writing on a scroll covering a sharply angled support atop his desk. There are shelves in the background filled with boxes, books, and more shelves..

The title is honest. Scribes and scholars have been changing the text found in the Bible from the beginning. They have been Misquoting Jesus.