Misquoting Jesus February 19, 2009Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Faith, Skepticism.
It’s easy to mistake the Bible for a Stephen King novel. I’m tempted to try and construct an elaborate argument for how Misery was really an allegory for the obsessive tortured love that is the relationship between man and divinity. Would Kathy Bates be God or mankind in that scenario? Luckily, I’m not going there. Instead, the mistake we are prone to make isn’t a plot based one (at least not the mistake I want to discuss this week) but is in our assumption about the origin of the text itself.
What I mean is that as 21st century readers we are justified in assuming that when we order a book from Amazon, say Misery, we will receive a copy that exactly matches King’s original published version. Barring the random typo, misprint or abridgement we are reading the exact thoughts of the author as they first appeared for print. Further, if we ever discover a discrepancy between your version and my version of Misery we should be able to refer to the publisher’s original manuscript to settle the question of King’s true intent. We have an unspoken connection with authors, endowed by the reliability of the printing press, which bolsters our confidence that we are reading accurate copies of text.
In Misquoting Jesus – The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why Bart Ehrman explains why it’s a mistake to treat the Bible with similar confidence. Ehrman, a biblical scholar and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, concentrates on the New Testament in this book and explores the history that separates our copy of the Bible from that originally penned by the early church. In Misquoting Jesus he focuses exclusively on the changes made to scripture by scribes copying the text. The premise here is simple but often overlooked by modern believers. From the time the books of the New Testament were written in the 1st and 2nd century until the invention of the western printing press in 1439 every copy of the Bible had to be hand copied. Ehrman argues that this roughly 1500 years of transcription has left us with “error-ridden” copies of text which have been heavily influenced by the social context, personal bias and often ineptitude of those who were doing the copying.
…we have thousands of copies of the New Testament in its original, Greek language, written over a period of centuries: these copies all differ from one another in ways great and small; most of these differences do not affect the meaning of the text, but other differences are significant – some of them slightly significant for understanding an author’s nuances, others of enormous significance affecting the interpretation of an entire passage, or even a book.
Ehrman gives a rather thorough genealogy of biblical manuscripts available to us today but the real fun lies in the methodology textual critics use to discern which copies best reflect the original. Let’s look at an example where Ehrman argues that most Biblical scholars have it wrong, that is, where a commonly accepted verse is not original but instead was added by a scribe.
The Gospel of Luke gives an account of Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives before being arrested and crucified (Luke 22:39-46) which contains a hotly debated passage (vv. 43-44), which was probably not penned by Luke but by a later scribe. In it Jesus sweats blood (or sweats drops like blood) due to the agony of anticipating His impending death.
39Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.”
41He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed,
42“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
43An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
45When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow.
46“Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”
In this specific case the earliest and most reliable manuscripts do not generally include vv.43-44, however, the passage is widespread in the later manuscript tradition. That is, there are more copies of manuscripts with the passage included but quantity certainly does not prove quality in this instance.
First off, the structure of the passage gives us an important clue. If we were to omit vv.43-44 the passage forms what textual scholars refer to as a chiasmus (where the first section is related to the last, the second relates to next to last, etc.) with the focal point occurring right in the middle. In the above passage the outer brackets (vs.40 and 46) are both instructions to the disciples to pray in order to avoid temptation. The next brackets include Jesus kneeling (vs. 42) and then conversely rising up (vs.45) and the pinnacle of the passage occurs with Jesus’ ultimate prayer of submission.
To understand the importance of vv43-44 breaking the chiastic structure we must also understand the overall theme of the Gospel of Luke. Luke’s portrayal of Jesus is unique in that he goes to great lengths to always show Jesus in complete control of every situation, confident and calm. This is proven by the many verses that Luke borrows from Mark’s (earlier) gospel but modifies to support his view that Jesus was imperturbable. (Quick example: Mark has Jesus wailing in despair from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” while Luke changes the scene to read, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”) Ehrman emphasizes that Luke has a specific purpose in slanting the story of Jesus’ crucifixion:
Luke’s Passion narrative, as has long been recognized, is a story of Jesus’ martyrdom, a martyrdom that functions, as do many others, to set an example to the faithful of how to remain firm in the face of death. Luke’s martyrology shows that only prayer can prepare one to die.
So what happens when we inject the contested verses about Jesus sweating blood into the passage of Luke 22? The entire moral of the chiasmus is destroyed. Instead of focusing us on the calm sustaining power of prayer the passage focuses on such deep anguish that supernatural intervention is needed. Earnest prayer does not bring comfort; instead Jesus’ despair deepens to the point of sweating blood. Verses 43-44 not only interrupt a convenient literary structure they plainly undermine the entire character of Jesus that Luke is trying so hard to build.
The nail in the coffin is that three key words in the disputed verses (agony, sweat and drops) don’t occur anywhere else in the author’s vocabulary (neither in the Gospel of Luke nor in Acts). “It appears that the account of Jesus’ “bloody sweat,” not found in our earliest and best manuscripts, is not original to Luke but is a scribal addition to the Gospel.”
But why would a scribe decide to insert such an odd verse into the passage in the first place? Ehrman explains that often textual additions were used as ammunition in theological debates. The early church was broiling with disagreement over who Jesus actually was. We often lose sight that Christianity is not a homogenous set of beliefs and never was this truer than in the early church. One group of early dissenters were the Christian Docetists who held that Jesus was purely a spirit and only seemed to have a material body. In their context Jesus only appeared to suffer and appeared to die as God could not have, in reality, taken on human form.
Proto-orthodox church leaders who wanted to remove any textual support that benefited Docetists needed to address the Gospel of Luke specifically as it painted the most transcendently calm and ‘least human’ account of Jesus’ passion. Second century apologist Justin Martyr shows his cards by explaining that the account of Jesus sweating blood showed “that the Father wished his Son really to undergo suffering for our sake” so that we “may not say that he, being the Son of God, did not feel what was happening to him and inflicted on him.” Motivation for scribes to modify the text of Luke lies in their need to settle an argument over whether Christ really suffered or not.
This may seem relatively benign to us now, but we must also consider that similar arguments were raging over a wide range of topics from the role of women in leadership to a growing anti-Semitism through later centuries each leaving their own scar on the text through scribal modifications. For those interested, here’s some other examples of verses that Ehrman notes were scribal additions to the Bible and not original: 1 John 5:7, John 8:7, John 8:11, Luke 22:20, Mark 16:17, Mark 16:18, John 5:4, Luke 24:12 and Luke 24:51.
Erhman only briefly discusses why books of the New Testament were canonized and avoids tackling whether the original texts themselves were an accurate description of Jesus’ life in the first place. However, even without vetting these problems, Ehrman shows that there are serious impacts to faith due to the fact that the original text has been changed in thousands of ways by scribes. One impact is to start treating the books as of the Bible as the very human books they are, shaded by biases and personalities, error prone and faulty. Arguments over the divine inspiration of the original text become irrelevant because we don’t even have the originals. The evangelical penchant towards a literal Christ narrative ought to be tempered by the fact that we are seeing Him not only through the faulty lens of the Gospel authors but also through the lens of every scribe whose hands those accounts passed through.