Misquoting Jesus: the Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

Bart Ehrman, HarperCollins, 2005

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Most of us assume that when we read the New Testament we are reading an exact copy of Jesus’ words or St. Paul’s writings.  Yet, for almost fifteen hundred years these manuscripts were hand copied by scribes who were deeply influenced by the cultural, theological and political disputes of their days.  Mistakes and intentional changes abound in the surviving manuscripts, making the original words difficult to reconstruct.

        Ehrman reveals when and why these changes were made.  He had a ‘born again’ experience in high school, and attended Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, concentrating on Greek; the more he studied Greek the more he became interested in the manuscripts that preserve the New Testament for us.

        Studies took him to Princeton, where studies in Mark suggested that there were mistakes (eg a mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds; was Jesus crucified on the day after the Passover or on the day before?).  To hold to the theory of scriptural inerrancy when a study of the manuscripts showed ‘mistakes’ was proving impossible; most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant.

        Ehrman is interested in seeing how we got our New Testament, seeing how the words occasionally get changed and how we might reconstruct what these words really were.  Eg the King James version was not given by G-d but was a translation by a group of scholars in the early seventeenth century who based their rendition of the Trinity (eg 1 John 5:7,8), the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11) and Mark’s conclusion (16:9-19) on faulty Greek texts.

        ‘The scribes tried to understand what the authors wrote while also trying to see how the words of the authors’ texts might have significance for them and how they might help them make sense of their own situations and their own living’ (p 218).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.