B. Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus”

A critique of Bart D. Ehrman’s

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperOne 2005)
Chapter Six: “Theologically Motivated Alterations of the Text”

by René Salm


Even the avid reader will have a hard time keeping up with Bart D. Ehrman. By my count he’s written twenty-three books and his next, “Did Jesus Exist?” (of particular interest to Jesus mythicists) appears this March. Yet, I have heard it declared that Ehrman has not written many books but has written one book many times. Perhaps I can be excused then for not having read all of his oeuvre, and for critiquing but one chapter of this book, with the modest hope that what I have to say will still be of interest.

Before me is Ehrman’s book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. I have perused it and noted that Chapter Six, “Theologically Motivated Alterations of the Text,” is the heart of the work as far as my purposes are concerned. Having now read it, I offer the following comments.

First, the good news. Bart does a good job regarding his illustrative examples. He is a trained historian who gets the details right but who misses the bigger picture. He is like an arborist who can expertly analyze any diseased tree in the forest, yet who does not realize that the entire forest belongs to a very different master than the one he knows.

Furthermore, the mythicist will find his work comforting, for Ehrman shows that Christian copyists amended their received texts and adapted them in sundry ways to conform with evolving “orthodox” doctrine. I hope Ehrman continues to write books in this mould. They are a boon to rationalists, Atheists, and to all those who do not accept the received tradition. After all, Ehrman is nicely smoothing a broad road by which mythicism will eventually reach the masses.

As everyone knows, Ehrman is not a mythicist. His forthcoming book, Did Jesus Exist? will make this abundantly clear. Lest we are in any doubt on whose side Ehrman’s heart resides, in Misquoting Jesus he emphasizes that those ancient scribes who changed words to conform with orthodoxy were “good” people (p. 175). Some readers may appreciate this, but judging character is the province of the prophet, not the historian. Ehrman explains that what those ancient scribes did was “not necessarily a bad thing, since we can probably assume that most scribes who changed their texts often did so either semiconsciously or with good intent.” This is unfortunate and very weak. I shall ignore the fact that this is an assumption, as also the carefully placed modifiers “not necessarily”, “probably”, and “often”. However, I don’t think anyone in biblical studies has heard this excuse before, namely, that the ancient Christian scribes are to be vindicated because they were semiconscious when they did their work. Perhaps drunk drivers today could use a similar defense before the judge: “Well, your honor, I’m innocent because I was semiconscious at the time of the accident.” Ehrman the historian has now provided us with a new defense for tampering with literary evidence: innocent until proven conscious.

As for assuming that the ancient scribes had “good intent,” a Jesus-mythicist will hardly grant so much. The ultimate abuse of power resides in the ability to define what constitutes “good” and “evil.” It is a self-serving arrogation of power. Church Fathers of yore and of today said and continue to say that whatever promotes the evangelical cause is good, and in this they offer us a circular definition of goodness which is wholly self-vindicating. Ehrman skirts close to this position. At the minimum, he panders to an orthodox readership only too ready to assume the “good intent” of orthodox scribes long ago.

Ehrman straddles the fence. He ferrets out disturbing hard data with expertise, and then covers those data with a sugary coating of benign assumptions and of hopeful speculation in order to sell books, to appease his publisher, and to maintain his position on the fence—talking to both sides. He is at once scientist and preacher, doctor and spin-doctor. In the chapter under consideration Ehrman convincingly demonstrates that the copyists changed words (and that they did so quite consciously) in order to oppose the doctrines of adoptionism and of what he calls “docetism” and “separationism.” He shows that, in each case, the heterodox doctrine was earlier and primary. In sum, his data point toward the inauthenticity of the Catholic tradition, and his work is a boon to mythicists. The denouement can not be far off: Ehrman is himself taking apart the tradition limb-by-limb—while saying he is not.
        I say: Let Ehrman speak!

Some specifics

Bart Ehrman is thoroughly confusing in his treatment of Christian beginnings because his categories are ill-chosen and his nomenclature unfortunate. In one place he defines adoptionists as those who claimed that “Jesus was so fully human that he could not be divine” (155), but that is rather more akin to what Ehrman later calls “separationism.” Adoptionism had to do with the indwelling of the divine spirit (most conspicuously at baptism and in the form of a dove) and also with the corollary that the “power” or “spirit” of God departed from Jesus before the alleged crucifixion. This was the view attributed to Cerinthus, for example. Ehrman does indeed discuss the flight of the divine element, but he does so in a different section on separationism (172). This mish-mash of categories is confusing indeed.

Ehrman then unfortunately links adoptionism with Ebionism and furthermore seems to use Ebionism interchangeably with “Jewish Christianity.” All of these links are subject to debate, as even the basic assumption that the “Ebionites” were necessarily Jews (see Hom 2.52; 8.6). The Ebionites may have been much closer to gnostics than is generally appreciated, and we recall that at least one Church Father (Hegesippus) enumerates them among the ancestors of gnostics. For his part, Epiphanius notes that the Ebionites were what Ehrman calls in one place “gnostic” and in another place “separationist”: The Ebionites “say that God has established two beings, Christ and the Devil. To the former has been committed the power of the world to come, and to the other the power of this world” (Pan XXX, 16).

Ehrman’s second section deals with docetism, a subject he understands not at all. It is high time to re-introduce the meaning of this term lost since late antiquity. Simply put, the docetists were the Jesus mythicists of ancient times. Like Celsus they were convinced that “Jesus of Nazareth” was a fiction foisted upon mankind. They knew better. They said things like “you made him up”, “he wasn’t real”, and “he didn’t come in the flesh.” We interpret the latter clause today to mean that he must then have come “in the spirit.” But that is neither the only, the necessary, nor even the simplest interpretation. It most directly means “He didn’t exist.” Not only were the docetists the Jesus mythicists of ancient times—they were everywhere, as the polemical Catholic literature reveals.

With this in mind, we are in for a wild ride if we try to unpack phrases such as Ehrman’s “Christians known as docetists” (163). For the time being we must let this matter lie, recognizing that the basket term “Christian” is itself no longer very useful.

On the next page Ehrman describes how Tertullian strenuously defended the fleshly existence of Jesus. The correct context for this orthodox theology is the recognition that the saving blood of Jesus on the cross served triple duty for the Church. It not only validated the existence of Jesus of Nazareth (attacked by docetists), but also repudiated dualism (the disparagement of the material) as well as gnosticism (salvation is through gnosis). Assertion that Jesus came in the flesh can be associated with the so-called Pauline kerygma. It was the tradition’s silver bullet, one that slayed many, many foes.

On a positive note, Ehrman is on his own turf when discussing the canonical gospels. His insights regarding the character of the Lukan material are masterful (167).

The third section of this chapter deals with another unfortunate term, “separationism.” Here Ehrman means the division between human and divine. He writes: “According to most proponents of this view, the man Jesus was temporarily indwelt by the divine being, Christ, enabling him to perform his miracles and deliver his teaching; but before Jesus’s death, the Christ abandoned him, forcing him to face his crucifixion alone” (170). This is, in fact, a description of adoptionism which Ehrman attempted to treat in his first section. Its placement here highlights once again the utter confusion of the author’s categories and, it must be suspected, the confusion that reigns in Ehrman’s mind.

Being a Jesus mythicist, I smiled when towards the end of this chapter Ehrman notes that a reading is not original because “it does not correspond to the Aramaic words Jesus actually utters” (173). Now, if Ehrman knows the words that Jesus actually uttered, then he should not claim to be a historian but announce himself as a prophet.

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