Misquoting Jesus: A Critical Book Review
Idealistic and unprofessional scribes have so mishandled the words of Jesus, and the New Testament in general, that the resulting error-logged text is anything but what Christians believe it to be: reliable. The public has been duped; the church has been misled; Jesus has been misquoted – or so goes the story told by Bart Ehrman in Misquoting Jesus.

Just Who Is Bart Ehrman?

Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is one of the most well-known New Testament scholars and Textual Critics in the world today. A prolific author, he has published over thirty books both at the academic and popular level, with publishers ranging from Simon & Schuster and HarperOne, to the Society of Biblical Literature and Oxford University Press. Ehrman’s academic accomplishments are expectedly impressive: he completed his Bachelor’s degree at Wheaton College, and his M.Div. and Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. Through his popular-level work Ehrman has brought the niche of biblical criticism to the masses, laying claim to four New York Times Bestsellers; his books have been translated into twenty-seven languages. Yet Ehrman’s monopoly on the market is not solely due to the credence his academic achievements lend his name – a rarity among his peers in the guild of New Testament studies (though not alone), Ehrman has no faith commitment (he identifies as an agnostic), though he once did. The story of his skepticism makes him both enchanting and enigmatic to the public for two reasons:

  1. Ehrman became a skeptic during (and because of) the process of his academic biblical study (his full agnosticism is another story, having to do with the problem of evil), and this story of how as a young evangelical he was scandalized to learn that the New Testament was “error-ridden” and “very human,” and thus felt compelled to abandon his conservative views of the Bible, is a captivating tale indeed.
  2. Most uncritically accept the idea that a man who was on the inside has insider secrets to share, and a man who has left the inside and become agnostic must not have the bias which so often plagues the religious (or, for that matter, the radical skeptic); he’s found the keys to the kingdom in the academy, and is ready to open the doors for the world to see the chaos inside. [1]

Ehrman does not necessarily endorse such a perspective taken towards him, yet he does not clearly disavow it either. However, on balance, when one considers his personal story and his career achievements it should be readily admitted that he is uniquely poised to be in the happy circumstances he is in as an author and public intellectual – don’t hate on the guy for being successful in his craft.

Regardless of how one sees his story (and I could be wrong in some of this up-front analysis), his popularity alone says nothing of the veracity one should or should not attach to his claims – for that, his work must be analyzed.

Enter: Misquoting Jesus

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why is far and away Ehrman’s bestselling book. In it the threads of his personal journey out of faith and into the most hallowed halls of academia are artfully woven together through the medium, of all things, of New Testament textual criticism (textual criticism refers to the process of attempting to ascertain the original wording of a text – in this case, the New Testament). Provocative on nearly every page, this is the quintessential popular introduction to Ehrman and his criticisms of traditional Christian views of the reliability of the Bible. As goes its continued popularity, so goes its continued critique. In this review I will summarize the content of each chapter before critically engaging with their main and representative arguments.

The “Good” [2]

Chapter 1: Summary and Critique

Ehrman begins his first chapter by charting the development of Christianity out of Judaism. Specifically, he outlines the importance of written texts for the Jewish people, which became a feature of the Christian movement. The monotheistic Jewish people, unlike their polytheistic counterparts in the Ancient Near East, held to numerous doctrinal beliefs which “were written down in sacred books.” Ehrman presents Jesus as a Jewish rabbi who, like the rabbis of his day, maintained this belief in sacred texts as the location for discovering the will of God, and he presents Christianity from the first as “a religion of the book.” Ehrman upholds this “bookish” nature of Christianity even while he asserts that the vast majority of the Roman Empire (within which early Christians lived) was illiterate, and he illustrates the importance of texts for Christians in a number of ways.

He first introduces Paul, the author of some of our earliest New Testament writings, who writes that Christ’s resurrection is “in accordance with the scriptures,” and elsewhere indicates that his letters to the churches are to be “read to all the brothers and sisters” (1 Thess 5:26-27). These show the importance of writings for the earliest writer in the New Testament. Interestingly, Ehrman adds a statement about pseudonymity (writing under a false name), asserting that “scholars have long suspected that some of the letters found in the New Testament under Paul’s name were in fact written by his later followers, pseudonymously.” [3]  Ehrman’s logic in mentioning this here is that pseudonymity proves how important letter writing was to the early church – it mattered so much to them that they even made forgeries.

In turning to the question of canon (the books accepted as genuine which make up our bible), Ehrman first shows how some authors quoted other writings as scripture (1 Tim 5:18 quoting Lk 10:7, 2 Pet 3:16 referencing Paul’s letters) indicating that these were becoming authoritatively accepted scriptures. He then goes on to consider early church father’s quotations of various letters and texts they regarded as scripture, such as Polycarp considering Ephesians scripture. Yet Ehrman claims that the main driver behind the eventual formation of what is now considered the orthodox canon (first fully listed in 367 A.D. by Athanasius of Alexandria) was Marcion’s radical Paulinism, and his advocacy of a narrow canon comprised only of a truncated Pauline corpus and Luke’s gospel. [4]

In finally answering the apparent paradox as to how a religious movement can be so “bookish,” so steeped in literary emphasis and tradition, but so illiterate, Ehrman indicates simply that the illiterate relied on the literate to handle and read to them the letters which were so vital to their Christian faith.

While this chapter and the next three are less controversial and more of an objective historical introduction to textual criticism they still warrant some critique. It is not the high-level points of some of Ehrman’s statements per se which are controversial in this chapter, but the way in which they are presented. Take for example Ehrman’s passing insertion of the concept of pseudonymity. During his discussion of the importance of texts in the early church, Ehrman casually drops a bombshell of an idea in pseudonymity, presented as a more-or-less matter-of-fact scholarly position regarding some of the Pauline epistles. He then points readers to an end note where his own introduction to the New Testament is referenced, within which he expands the argument.

The problem here is that while many do consider some of the New Testament letters to be pseudonymous or pseudepigraphical (false letters), the issue is highly complex, involving both lower and higher criticism as well as theological exegesis – both affected by bias and presupposition on either side. His logic in raising the issue, stated above, is that this proves how important letter writing was to the early Christians. This is only reasonable logic if Ehrman dismisses the question raised in anyone’s mind when they hear something so contradictory at face value:

“why would a community who respects these texts as divine forge and corrupt them?”

Curiously, Ehrman does not conceive of this as a common problem a reader might have with his assertion, and does not even hint at it as a possible rebuttal. This isn’t because the truth of it is clear if someone knows the ancient world as he does (with him here simply writing out of that knowledge), but is verging on disingenuous.

The face-value question above, however, is a good question, which is why arguments against a radical view of pseudepigraphy unfold along these very lines. The general argument against it is that forgery undermines a respect for religious letter writing, and the early church roundly condemned letters they believed to be pseudepigraphical as dishonest, with even Paul writing to the Thessalonians to reject letters supposedly written by the apostolic band (2 Thess 2:2), and the Latin father Tertullian’s removal of a presbyter from his position for writing a pseudonymous letter under Paul’s name. [5]  This is not to say that pseudepigraphy was not a real phenomenon, or that there aren’t “problem” letters in the New Testament, or that Ehrman is expected to dwell on every possible point of contention, but that such a huge topic is hardly nuanced at all; there is not so much as a disjunctive confer in an end-note pointing to scholarship to the contrary, which there should be. [6]

While the first four chapters are in general a very good historical introduction to the field, Ehrman, by design or simply by an effusion of his own learned skepticism, is already circling the various tenets of biblical reliability with red ink here in the first. Couched as they are amidst the more objective historical portion of the book, passing unqualified statements such as these are particularly pernicious. The lesson here to the uninitiated reader is not to accept new things uncritically (wherever they come from), and realize there is always another argument – one that may even be better.

Chapter 2: Summary and Critique

Similar to the first chapter, there is much to admire about Ehrman’s continued introduction to the field of textual criticism in the second chapter. Picking up the threads of the previous chapter in which he indicated that the early church was committed to reading letters, Ehrman here answers the question as to how they got their hands on these various letters – copying.

Ehrman begins with the obvious but nonetheless important fact that ancient manuscript copying could never produce the sorts of carbon copies we are able to today, adding that in many instances copies could be quite inaccurate and quite different form the originals. Here he cites the Roman philosopher Seneca who stated that some manuscripts were so bad they should be hurled or torn up. Christian copying was not exempt from such corruption, Ehrman claims, and was arguably worse than the Roman culture at large – because unlike their Roman counterparts the earliest Christian scribes were not professional. In addition he calls attention to both Origen and his opponent Celsus, leveraging their complaints at errors in texts to negate the idea that early Christian copyists had any general reliability – the subtle yet powerful implication: the corrupt nature of these manuscripts is a fact so incontrovertible that even enemies can agree on it.

Seneca reprimands a sloppy scribe… tsk, tsk.

Climactically, Ehrman states that evidence for such editing being a problem has made it into the canon of scripture itself, in Rev 22:18-19, where a curse is apparently written over the potential scribe who would wrongly edit the words of that manuscript.

In speaking of actual changes in the text of the New Testament, Ehrman acknowledges the presence of small, inconsequential mistakes with an example from Heb 1:3 where there is a variant between the Greek words pheron (“to bear”) and phaneron (“to reveal”), and assures his readers that “all kinds of changes were made in manuscripts by the scribes who copied them.” [7]  To demonstrate this Ehrman employs an extended thought experiment which interestingly does not illustrate textual criticism, but redaction and form criticism (part of the discipline of higher criticism). For example, Ehrman tells us that it is obvious that John 1:1-18 is more likely a later editorial interpolation than an original part of the gospel, as its genre is apparently different from the rest of the gospel; there is no text-critical evidence in support of this. Ehrman does however conclude the chapter with solid text-critical discussion of two of the most well-known problem passages in the New Testament: the beloved pericope adulterae (John 7:53-8:11), and the longer ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-19).

A few brief critical comments. While the question of literacy and scribal ability is a virtually insurmountable question in its details case-by-case, Ehrman is not wrong to emphasize illiteracy; he should however be more cautious in assuming a logical connection between the unprofessional nature of Christian scribes and the expectation that they would make more mistakes or could not be reliable. It is firstly not evident that the literate Christians who were scribes were as-a-rule unprofessional (especially when one assumes converts from the religious Jewish class), and it is secondly not evident that non-professional scribes would necessarily make more mistakes. It is surely not insignificant that many of these scribes immensely cared about what they copied – as opposed to uninterested scribes who contracted tiresome work for money; this is especially true if Ehrman’s interpretation of Rev 22:17-18 is correct: these early Christian scribes would have believed that God himself cared about the accuracy of their task (whether one thinks they are right in that belief or not is irrelevant). It is not that mistakes were not made, as they clearly were, nor is it that Christian scribes did not tend to be unprofessional, as most likely were – it is the lack of nuance and counter-suppositions alongside Ehrman’s sweeping statements. For example, the citations of Seneca, Origen, and Celsus, while proving that copying error was a real phenomenon, also prove that it was recognized and loathed problem – to the point that poor copies were torn up, discarded denounced. This sort of consumer-capitalism would theoretically demand more and more accurate copies. His claims about the Gospel of John (and Galatians) are an imaginative thought experiment in higher criticism, but do not carry the scientific force which textual criticism does when properly used.

The challenge with sifting through this chapter is that Ehrman rightly raises the textually questionable pericope adulterae, and the hotly debated ending of Mark as exemplary problems. However, these are apparent to any Christian who reads any modern bible not based on the Textus Receptus, which clearly brackets and notes the textually dubious nature of such passages and multiple others. Again, Ehrman mingles bluster and overstatement with good historical data.

Chapters 3 and 4: Summary and Critique

The third and fourth chapter may be considered together as they constitute perhaps the most objective portion of the book, both largely focusing on the modern history of the text of the New Testament.

In the third chapter Ehrman describes the historical development of the New Testament. He begins with the emergence of widespread professional Christian scribes under Constantine and traces the New Testament’s development through such figures as Jerome and his Latin Vulgate, Erasmus and the first Greek New Testament, and ultimately Mill’s publication of the first full textual apparatus – along with its effects in the biblical scholarship of the sixteenth century. Here Ehrman unveils perhaps the most stupefying fact which has emerged from New Testament Textual Criticism in recent decades as he emphatically notes that textual variants may number as high as 400,000. If that is not shocking enough, his illustration is: “there are more variants in among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament” (checkmate, believers; pack it in; go home) – the stuff headlines are made of. Note: he’s not wrong.

Of what sort are these variants? While Ehrman does acknowledge minor changes due to similarly spelled words, word order, and the phenomena of homoeteleuton together with parablepsis (big words, simple meaning: an accidental eye-skip to another line with the same words and copying from there), the bulk of the changes he considers in the chapter are “intentional,” yet each are inconsequential.

Two criticisms are important here.

First, the “intentional” changes Ehrman musters fall far short of the rhetorical force with which they are raised:

  1. The word-order question in Matt 17:12-13 is not even worth mentioning as there is no sufficient textual evidence to even warrant comment in the standard text by Metzger (Ehrman’s esteemed Doktorvater), A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament;
  2. The “old wineskin” elimination (a variant from a text in Lk 5:28-29) claimed by Ehrman is a well-known variant that has no bearing on modern translations which reject it.

The only two “substantial” variants are the “and fasting” addition in Mark 9:29 (which again, modern translations leave out) and the potential interpolation of a section of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew onto the shorter parallel passage in Luke, which is found in some witnesses. Yet, these are not controversial claims, and neither of these variants are included in most modern translations. The point is that Ehrman is stating what the most conservative of translation committees readily accept in their methodology – that textual criticism works and helps to recover the most accurate reading. To this end, Ehrman unfortunately does not discuss the major manuscripts and methods of interpretation of readings, such that Metzger’s commentary and other apparatuses for understanding our modern Greek New Testaments are not mentioned or explained. A Christian without this knowledge however should be encouraged to realize their modern translation likely comports with all of these changes.

Second, the jarring 400,000 is not a number a scholar of Ehrman’s pedigree should drop on the unsuspecting general population without full qualification. To qualify, Daniel Wallace has expertly illustrated how this seemingly obscene number maps on to the New Testament in such a way that diffuses its potential explosiveness (trigger warning: there is real Greek here – but you don’t need to know it to understand his argument). About the 400,000 number, he says:

We can illustrate things this way. There are approximately 138,000 words in the Greek NT. The variants in the manuscripts, versions, and Fathers constitute almost three times this number. At first blush, that is a striking amount. But in light of the possibilities, it actually is rather trivial. For example, consider the ways in which Greek can say “Jesus loves Paul”:

1. Ιησους αγαπα Παυλον
2. Ιησους αγαπα τον Παυλον
3. Ό Ιησους αγαπα Παυλον
4. Ό Ιησους αγαπα τον Παυλον
5. Παυλον Ιησους αγαπα
6. Τον Παυλον Ιησους αγαπα
7. Παυλον ό Ιησους αγαπα
8. Τον Παυλον ό Ιησους αγαπα
9. Αγαπα Ιησους Παυλον
10. Αγαπα Ιησους τον Παυλον
11. Αγαπα ό Ιησους Παυλον
12. Αγαπα Ιησους τον Παυλον
13. Αγαπα Παυλον Ιησους
14. Αγαπα τον Παυλον Ιησους
15. Αγαπα Παυλον ό Ιησους
16. Αγαπα τον Παυλον ό Ιησους

These variations only represent a small fraction of the possibilities. If the sentence used φιλει instead of αγαπα, for example, or if it began with a conjunction such as δε, και, or μεν, the potential variations would grow exponentially. Factor in synonyms (such as κυριος for Ιησους), spelling differences, and additional words (such as χριστος, or αγιος with Παυλος) and the list of potential variants that do not affect the essence of the statement increases to the hundreds. If such a simple sentence as “Jesus loves Paul” could have so many insignificant variations, a mere 400,000 variants among the NT manuscripts seems like an almost negligible amount. [8]

(It should also be noted that every copy of the same variant counts as a new variant, exponentially increasing the number.) Again, sometimes there’s a better explanation.

Daniel Wallace
Daniel Wallace is a kind and happy Hawaiian-shirt-wearing man with whom everyone should be acquainted. He’s also brilliant.

Ehrman’s fourth chapter may be the best chapter in the book, as it is the most objective in its historical overview of the modern history of New Testament textual criticism. While there may be subtle criticisms of this chapter, they are irrelevant for the purposes of this review. From Richard Simon through to Tischendorf, Wescott, and Hort, this is a great historical introduction. If you’d like a primer on the subject, read it.

The “Bad and the Ugly” [9]

Chapters 5 through 7: Summary and Critique

Chapters five through seven are the skeptical buffet of Misquoting Jesus. Here Ehrman moves away from primarily historical description, to text critical analysis and application.

In the fifth chapter, Ehrman begins by outlining the methodology by which text critical scholars have sought to recover the original form of the texts which make up the New Testament. Here he introduces external and internal evidence: external referring to the assessment of the age and quality of the physical manuscript evidence, and internal evidence referring to both intrinsic probabilities (what the author was most likely to have written) and transcriptional probability (what a scribe was most likely to have removed or added). On the basis of these evidences, scholars are able to determine which reading is most likely original. No problem.

Ehrman raises three variants in this chapter, which he chooses as they apparently have “significant bearing on how one understands the message of some of the New Testament authors.” [10] His primary example raised is Mk 1:41, in which the variant in question reads either that Jesus felt “compassion” (splanknistheis) or that he felt anger “anger” (orgistheis) when approached by the leper who said to him “if you are willing, you can make me clean” (Mk 1:40). Both readings are attested among the manuscript witnesses. Ehrman believes that the internal evidence dictates that Jesus being “angry” is the original reading, claiming that it is more likely that a scribe would change Jesus being angry into Jesus being compassionate, and not the other way around. Furthermore, Ehrman supposes that Luke’s and Matthew’s omission of the word altogether corroborate the original reading as Jesus being angry, because they would not have been likely to omit Jesus’ compassion given their overall portraits of Jesus. This does not, however, reflect the general consensus among the critical editions of the Greek New Testament. [11] Metzger summarizes the problem well and provides four reasons their committee was persuaded to go with the reading that Jesus was “compassionate” over his being “angry” (again, real Greek, same as above):

(1) The character of the external evidence in support of ὀργισθείς is less impressive than the diversity and character of evidence that supports σπλαγχνισθείς. (2) At least two other passages in Mark, which represent Jesus as angry (3:5) or indignant (10:14), have not prompted over-scrupulous copyists to make corrections. (3) It is possible that the reading ὀργισθείς either (a) was suggested by ἐμβριμησάμενος of ver. 43, or (b) arose from confusion between similar words in Aramaic (compare Syriac ethraham, “he had pity,” with ethra’em, “he was enraged”). [12]

However, it is not the case that Ehrman is alone in his reasoning, as this reading has support in the popular TNIV (Daniel Wallace also sees it as the original reading). The relevant question however is not whether these sorts of variants can be argued both ways, but the relative significance of the different readings. As Ehrman has previously suggested: if such variants are to be read as he is advocating, they have a “significant bearing” on our understanding of the New Testament.

This raises a critical question: if someone were to have read the gospel of Mark in, say, the English Standard Version, in which Mk 1:41 read that Jesus was filled with compassion, and they were at a later time to read Mark in the Today’s New International Version, in which Mk 1:41 read that Jesus was angry – would their picture of Jesus in Mark be “significantly” changed? I say no. Not if they had previously read the rest of Mark’s gospel carefully. Let me illustrate: Mk 3:5 reads “And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored,” and Mk 10:14 reads “when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.'” As Ehrman sees it, were readers to have the reading back in Mk 1:41 that Jesus was angry, they would then see the wider picture in Mark of an angry Jesus, and this would significantly change how they view Jesus in Mark’s gospel.

However even if Ehrman were right about the reading in Mk 1:41 (which may be dubious from a text critical perspective) it is not clear how this would change anything for the careful reader who ought to have noted Jesus’ anger in other verses in Mark which are not in dispute, such as the verses mentioned above. This does not mean the Jesus of Mark isn’t the Jesus of Matthew or Luke, but only that Mark may be emphasizing a certain feature to his audience through Jesus’ anger, such as the ignorance of those around him as to his true identity. Beyond this, the other gospels also present Jesus exhibiting a whole array of emotions (as does Mark) including zeal and anger (c.f. Matt 21:12-13, Lk 19:45-48, Jn 2:13-17).

Ehrman has again overstated his conclusions based on evidence that is not paradigm-shifting by any means. This same analysis holds true for the other two variants Ehrman raises in this chapter. While Ehrman does in some instances hold to the consensus opinion on a reading (e.g. his view of Lk 22:43-44 as being a later addition, a position strongly taken in Metzger’s commentary), and does not in others (e.g. the Mark passage above, or his minority view of Heb 2:9), his appropriation of their significance is invariably overblown. It is simply not the case in any of the variants Ehrman raises in this chapter that Jesus is portrayed in a way that significantly alters how we view a particular authors’ construction of him in the New Testament. Timothy Paul Jones summarizes Ehrman’s overstatements in this regard well: “different emphases do not amount to contradictory understandings of the same event.” [13] Indeed.

In Chapters 6 and 7, the full force of Ehrman’s application of potential variants is revealed. Here, Ehrman pulls no punches claiming that multiple changes were made by multiple authors to the texts of the New Testament in order to combat what were being considered heretical teachings by the early church. Channeling Walter Bauer’s hypothesis from a previous generation, Ehrman sees orthodoxy as nothing more than the view which won out amidst the various combating beliefs within the earliest centuries of the church, and so he sees the New Testament text as altered to conform to what would become orthodoxy. According to Ehrman, the text has been altered along “antiadoptionistic,” “antidocetic,” “antiseparationist,” anti-feminist, anti-Semitic, and anti-pagan lines. [14] Ehrman would have his readers believe that the New Testament was malleable clay in the hands of early, zealous scribes who were gaining the ideological high-ground in the early church.

It is not possible to deal with every such claim Ehrman makes in this review, yet it is important to note that the most significant variants he raises in the book have already been mentioned. Ehrman recapitulates on a number of the texts he has raised previously in the book, building on his earlier reasoning with some cultural commentary, seeing anti-separationist (Heb 2:9), anti-docetic (Luke 22:43-44) and other features behind these variants. Sometimes Ehrman’s reasoning comports with the general text-critical consensus (and is evidenced in the readings of many modern English translations), other times Ehrman’s views are idiosyncratic. While Ehrman has a valid scientific method behind many of his decisions, his personal theological and ideological applications of these data are time and again overstated, and simple yet powerful rebuttals are left ignored.

For example, the simple hypothesis in light of New Testament evidence that runs counter to Docetism, Adoptionism, etc., is not that these were earlier views later combated by a developing orthodoxy, but that orthodoxy from the first never held to such beliefs and so the text does not support them; this has been persuasively argued in a number of volumes. [15] Furthermore, should we really expect that an idealistic scribe actually had the ability to make such changes successfully? Frequently? This is a logical stretch; Craig Evans illustrates:

It would be impossible for a scribe to change the text… to portray Jesus differently… and then get away with it because [that scribe] would have to change hundreds of texts in different places and in different languages… and so the idea of somebody rigging the text and giving us a different Jesus and somehow that doesn’t get noticed and ends up widespread in all the manuscripts is simply impossible. [16]

The Ehrman Enigma and the Misquoting Jesus Phenomenon

I mentioned in the introduction that there is a factor other than textual criticism which has led to the popularity of Misquoting Jesus – Ehrman’s personal story. It is his story – his testimony of de-conversion from conservative evangelicalism – which is the real captivating scandal of the book. The introduction and conclusion bear this out as they are not so much an introduction and summary of the academic subject presented in the book, as they are of the man himself. Ehrman here presents himself as a man who has, over the journey of his adolescence and professional adulthood, become possessed by a singular purpose: truth about the New Testament. [17] A noble endeavour and one that I share, yet for Ehrman it was this very purpose which contributed to his eventual loss of faith. He summarizes, “In short, my study of the Greek New Testament, and my investigations into the manuscripts that contain it, led to a radical rethinking of my understanding of what the Bible is.” [18] This radical rethinking had retroactive effects in Ehrman’s life, and for the first time he saw the flaws of the hyper-fundamentalism within which he was raised (rightly so), as he illustrates in his scathing critique of the eschatology of the likes of Hal Lindsey (a critique I wholeheartedly share). Yet he could not distinguish this from a belief in the reliability of the Bible as a whole, casting the reliability of Hal Lyndsay and the reliability of the Bible as propositions with equal evidence; throwing the baby out with the bathwater does not begin do justice to such a brute conflation. The unsuspecting reader is influenced to see it the same way as the author, who is after all a true expert. Ehrman does do well at points to make efforts at balance, indicating the likes of Hawthorne, Metzger, and others as intelligent and genuine biblical scholars who are believers, but is in the end so lopsided towards skepticism that he makes such individuals seem like faith-blind anomalies. The sense is that for Ehrman, it is either hyper-fundamentalism or skepticism, and that with great biblical learning, comes great loss of faith. From that perspective, it is Ehrman who is the anomaly among his esteemed peers.

Ehrman is a brilliant New Testament historian and textual critic, and a highly skilled writer and communicator; in his best moments he is an admirable historian. His story is engaging and his persona is winsome to many who are generally disposed towards his views. Upsettingly, his claim-to-fame and the singular work which catapulted him into the stratosphere of popularity for a biblical scholar, Misquoting Jesus, largely disappoints in the very sections it so provocatively claims should change how readers view the bible. Ultimately I cannot say whether it is his personal story, the “scandal” of textual criticism, or some other factor (the immense popularity of the then recently published The Da Vinci Code perhaps?) which has accounted for the immense popularity of this book, but I can say that for all its claims, having been weighed in the balance – to this reviewer it is found wanting.



[1] This estimation of the Ehrman phenomenon is reasonably evident in his interviews, the latest of which, with renowned intellectual Sam Harris, continues to bear this out; see https://samharris.org/podcasts/what-is-christianity/.

[2] The first four chapters of this book are, in my estimation, pretty good and much better than the last three, but this doesn’t mean they have nothing to critique.

[3] Misquoting Jesus, 23.

[4] Marcion was a figure in the early church who rejected much of the scriptures accepted by his peers – notably rejecting the entire Old Testament.

[5] See Michael J. Kruger, “The Authenticity of 2 Peter,” JETS 42.4 (1999), 648.

[6] Stanley Porter’s defense of Pauline authorship of the so-called Pastoral Epistles is exemplary. Porter is not a fringe conservative by any means, but is one of the most highly revered Greek and New Testament scholars living today, publishing an unnervingly vast amount of literature almost exclusively among the most respected academic publications in the field. In Paul and Pseudepigraphy, a 2013 publication of which Porter is the editor and a contributing author, Porter indicates multiple earlier academic publications which would likely have been known, and definitely readily accessible to Ehrman at the time of his writing. Porter lists: George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992); William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, WBC 46 (Nashville: Nelson, 2000); Luke Timothy Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy AB 35A (New York: Doubleday, 2001) and his own Stanley E. Porter, “Pauline Authorship and the Pastoral Epistles: Implications for Canon,” BBR 5 (1995). See Stanley E. Porter, Paul and Pseudepigraphy, (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 65 n1, 66 n2. Ehrman can be critiqued along the same lines in his treatment of canonicity, where he rather conveniently chalks up a massively complex scholarly discussion to Marcionism, neglecting the very good research done by biblical scholars who defend the “concept” of canon being evident much earlier than Athanasius; see for example Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012).

[7] Ibid., 57.

[8] Wallace, “The Gospel According to Bart,” 331-332. There is also something known as the “moveable v” which is the Greek letter “n”, which sometimes appears and sometimes doesn’t on certain forms of certain words – but does not change the meaning.

[9] Ok, the “worse and the not so pretty.” I’m just trying to be provocative here

[10] Misquoting Jesus, 132.

[11] The critical-texts of the UBS 5, NA 28, and the new Cambridge Tyndale House Greek New Testament all read σπλαγχνισθεις.

[12] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 65.

[13] Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2007), 76.

[14] Ibid., 155-200.

[15] For example, Ehrman’s later book focusing on adoptionism, Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God : the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, (San-Francisco: HarperOne, 2013), a later defense of the view behind the antiadoptionist assertions in Misquoting Jesus, has been thoroughly dealt with in the response volume Michael F. Bird et al., How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).

[16] See “Fragments of Truth: An Interview with Dr. Craig Evans,” Apologetics Canada, https://www.apologeticscanada.com/2018/05/24/fragments-of-truth-an-interview-with-dr-craig-evans/, where Evans indicates these arguments were introduced to him by Simon Gathercole and Peter Williams. This is not to say that no changes made it into various text families, but that there is a warranted incredulity as to the type and scope of changes Ehrman claims.

[17] The first few paragraphs of the book capture how Ehrman sees his identity and the study of the New Testament as inseparable: “more than almost anything I’ve ever written about, the subject of this book has been on my mind for the past thirty years, since I was in my late teens and just beginning my study of the New Testament… Before explaining how and why the manuscripts of the New Testament have made a real difference to me emotionally and intellectually, to my understanding of myself, the world I live in, my views of God, and the Bible, I should give some personal background” Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 1.

[18] Ibid.

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