Aug 05, 11
In the last few decades, and especially in the last few years, books about Jesus aimed at popular audiences have become quite common. The arguments presented vary, but there is a general picture that emerges. Whereas classical Christianity tells of a Jesus who as a divine Redeemer heals a broken relationship between God and man, who as Prophet, Priest, and King is properly an object of worship, what the authors call "Jesusanity" is the modern portrait that has a high regard for Jesus as a teacher who points the way to God, or more properly speaking, a way to God. He would belong in a religious hall of fame but he is not unique when compared to other religious leaders. The authors engage six specific claims which appear in the various books on Jesusanity. Any of these claims, if true, would radically alter our understanding of not only Jesus, but also of God and mankind, of Creator and creation, of sin and forgiveness. I am going to focus on the first of the six claims, because if it turns out to be true, it is open season on traditional Christianity and there is no effective way to counter any of the other assertions brought forward in the spirit of Jesusanity.
The first claim is not really a new one, that the text of the New Testament as we have it now has so many mistakes and deliberate changes in it that we have no way of recovering what the original text said. What is new is that it is coming from the pen of a bona fide textual scholar, Bart Ehrman, who has written a huge bestseller, "Misquoting Jesus" in which this is his main thesis. And yet the point is made less by direct argument than by inference and misleading statements. Indeed, according to the authors, apart from these statements much of the book is an "extremely helpful introduction to the field of New Testament textual criticism."
He tells us that there are actually about 400,000 textual variants in the New Testament, and since there are around 138,000 words, this makes for three variants for every single word in the New Testament. But he is being very misleading in his use of numbers. To start with, 99% of all variants do not impact the meaning of the text: variations in spelling and word order make up the vast bulk of the variations. So now we're talking about 4,000 meaningful variants, which translates to one every three pages.
Although this looks a lot better, the meaningfulness of the numbers still need to be clarified. It is important to realize that the more manuscripts we have, the more textual variants there are. So if we had only one manuscript, there would be zero textual variants, but we would also have no confidence that it would reflect what was originally written. There are 5700+ catalogued Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, the average of which is 200 pages long. That means there are approximately 1.2 million pages of handwritten text. 4,000 meaningful variants in 1.2 million pages of text - now you start to get the meaning of the real sense of the numbers. This actually reflects an amazingly accurate history of transmission.
Ehrman says "we don't even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals." This makes it sound like the text was transmitted in a manner similar to the "telephone game", a party game in which a message is whispered from person to person in a line, in order to see how garbled it gets at the end. But that is not how the New Testament was transmitted. Not only are written documents much less liable to corruption that things whispered in the ear, but more than a single line of transmission was involved. New Testament books were transmitted in multiple streams because they were sent to multiple locations. Mistakes in one stream can often be detected and corrected by comparison to other streams.
Ehrman appears to be more forthcoming in some places and less in others about the true state of textual variants. The authors observe that "one almost gets the sense that it is the honest scholar in Ehrman who admits that the meaningful textual problems are neither as meaningful nor as plentiful as he would want us to think, and the theological liberal in Ehrman who keeps such admissions to a minimum" (p. 60). The bottom line is that less than one percent of the variants are really significant, but even then never to the degree that a doctrine hangs in the balance. Whatever caused Ehrman to lose his faith, then, it was not the discipline of New Testament textual criticism. An interesting observation is that the man he considers his mentor, indeed, the man to whom he dedicated the book Misquoting Jesus, Bruce Metzger, has come to the opposite conclusion, seeing his faith strengthened by a lifetime of study in this area.
Bart Ehrman was twice a guest on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I'm pretty sure that Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace, the two authors of this book, never will be. Modern portrayals of Jesus are much more attractive to the non-Christian world than what has traditionally been the message for two thousand years. For it allows mankind to reshape God and Jesus into whatever image is pleasing to him. Gone is any accountability of creature to Creator, and also any ability of the Creator to communicate to his creatures what he expects of them. Man becomes autonomous and sin, judgement, and the need for repentance and the Cross are done away with. Jesusanity is popular because it is easier, but if it is allowed to go unchallenged, it is absolutely fatal to biblical Christianity. Bock and Wallace have done a thorough job of meeting these claims head on and showing that they do not stand up under scrutiny.