Misquoting Jesus

It's an article of faith among conservative Christians that the Bible, especially the New Testament (or, as we Witnesses called it, the Christian Greek Scriptures) is the infallible, inerrant Word of God. Conservative Christians aren't generally the best educated folk. I'm not saying that they're stupid--I am saying, however, that fundamentalists don't have a history of higher learning. That was the case for the early disciples according to the Gospels, and frankly, it's true today. Fundamentalist christianity has always pulled from the poorest and least educated of society (as do fundamentalist sects of all religions).

When I was a Witness, I believed that about the Bible as well. It was in all our literature--that the Bible had been copied down letter by letter by faithful scribes who were inspired of God to make sure that the copies were accurate. The Dead Sea scrolls, we were told, more ancient than any yet found, were exact replicas of later manuscripts, from which our very own Bible, the New World Translation, had been painstakingly been translated into modern English.

I left the church long before I discovered the many problems inherent in translation, and before I discovered just how untrue the claims about manuscripts really was. It was education that did me in--during my first semester as an undergrad, I stopped going to meetings, started smoking, found out my wife was cheating on me, and said to hell with it all. Fundies talk about being born again--that was my experience with it.

And in the nearly 12 years since that fateful semester, I've discovered dozens of other ways in which the Witnesses were either deliberately or ignorantly lying to me and millions of others worldwide about the natural world, about the history of the church, about the Bible itself, about all of it. Some of that came in the natural course of my education--evolution, once explained, made a whole lot more sense than creation, no matter how the Witnesses spun it (they're a cross between young earthers and vanilla creationists); while studying translation, I discovered (brutally--I was accused by a contest judge of having committed atrocities against the French language) that it's not so simple to say that you've made a definitive and exact and accurate translation from one language to another, especially when you're dealing with language shifts over the centuries.

Which brings me to the title of this post: Misquoting Jesus, by Bart Ehrman. To say it was enlightening is to give it short shrift. It is an amazing book, and perhaps one reason I am so drawn to it is because Ehrman and I have made similar treks through our faith--from believers in the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God to appreciators of it as a cultural snapshot of an unique moment in time and space.

Most of the things he discusses in this book are no surprise to scholars in the field. He says as much. But to the lay person who is curious--wow! It's an extraordinary text. It's also interesting to me that the people who have criticized his book have done so based on his arguments about theology, not about his discussion of textual variation. But the point they never address is this:

If the Bible is inspired of God, and is to be considered the inerrant word of God, then why do textual variations appear in the first place?

You see, if you're a person who is more concerned with the philosophy than the dogma, then textual variations matter very little. But if dogma is everything, then they matter greatly, which is why fundamentalists do everything they can to hide the fact that there are real questions about who wrote which books, and why there are numerous contradictions between the gospel accounts.

Here's an example of how persuasive Ehrman is: The apostle Paul has been rehabbed, to some extent, in my eyes. For years now, I've looked at him as the guy who ruined Jesus' message while trying to save it, in large part by making misogyny a part of the early church. Turns out that Paul wasn't quite the woman-hater he's made out to be. His followers, however, the ones that wrote Hebrews and the Timothy Letters and Titus, well, they were the founders of the he-man-woman-haters club today known as the religious right. Paul wasn't a women's libber, by any stretch, but he wasn't quite a dick either.

If the early church and the questions inherent in translation interest you, get the book. It's an acquired taste, I admit, and it gets slow in a couple of spots, but overall, it's a great read about how education slays fundamentalism.

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