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Misquoting Jesus February 19, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Faith, Skepticism.

misquoting-jesusIt’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.

Sweating Blood?

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.



1. Adam Heine - February 19, 2009

I’m no expert on this, but as I understand it, the copies we have of the New Testament are (comparatively) more historically reliable than any other document of the time, in terms of number of copies, consistency between copies, and length of time between the historic events and when those copies were written. I wish I had a link to cite. I don’t, and so am probably very wrong. Even if I’m right, it doesn’t change your point very much (i.e. that the Bible is not as accurate as many evangelicals claim/think it to be; it’s not perfect).

I have a question about this: “there are serious impacts to faith due to the fact that the original text has been changed in thousands of ways by scribes.”

Could you talk about what these serious impacts are some more? To my knowledge, the main message of the Bible is still there, even with the inconsistencies. And it wouldn’t be right to say, “What if there are serious errors we don’t know about? Might as well toss out the whole thing.” (For the record, Casey, I don’t think you’re saying this; just covering bases).

I see that there are serious impacts to a literal interpretation, of course (though as you know I’m not committed to that). It also brings into question the traditional ideas about the “divine inspiration” and “perfection” of God’s Holy Word. I see all that, but those things don’t affect my faith personally. Like the dinosaur thing, I think it can be reconciled (happy to talk about that, if need be).

But I’m wondering if Ehrman brings up something I hadn’t considered before. As it is, my faith doesn’t exactly hinge on whether or not Jesus sweat profusely 😉

2. Adam Heine - February 19, 2009

Dang, even when I think I’m being terse, I’m verbose. Sorry.

3. Jim Eckmann - February 19, 2009

For a look at the same topic for us non-readers, please see Jon Stewart’s interview of Bart Ehrman on The Daily Show about two years ago, at http://www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=124514&title=Bart-Ehrman&byDate=true

4. Michelle Wilson - February 19, 2009

Hey Casey!

It’s been a long time. I haven’t had time to read the last several posts, but this one caught my eye and I got sucked back in.

All the above is no secret. All the variations in every available ancient manuscript are very carefully documented. It is true that there are TONS of variations. It is also true that the vast majority of them are completely insignificant, such as spelling of Names and the addition or omission of small words like ‘the’ or ‘and.’

If you can read Greek, you can buy a Greek New Testament which footnotes all the places of any even remote interest where variations exist, writing out all the major versions and citing which manuscripts or families of manuscripts agree with which version, as well as how confident scholars are of which one is preferable and why.

I actually find this rather fascinating, but I think a lot of people just don’t find it interesting since (as Adam mentioned) the discrepancies have so little effect on the overall meaning.


5. caseyww - February 19, 2009

Adam and Michelle-

For the most part I couldn’t agree with you guys more. You’re absolutely right that the majority of the differences between Biblical manuscripts are small and probably insignificant typos. I think I’ve clearly stated that in the post. You’re also right that Erhman’s discussion is not really new information. All of his references and the verses disputed are in any good study Bible. However, I think it is a complete mistake to dismiss all the scribal changes as insignificant to our faith.

For instance, any good study Bible will note that the last 12 verses of Mark are disputed and were not included in the earliest manuscripts. Try reading Mark without them. There is only a promise of Jesus reappearing that never materializes. The women go away confused and afraid and never speak of the empty tomb to anyone. Are you telling me that if a scribe fabricated the last 12 verses because he was as uncomfortable as you and I with such an ending that our faith should not be affected?

Also, I’m not arguing that whether Jesus did or didn’t sweat blood changes the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. That’s missing the point. The scribal change in Luke is a prime example which contextualizes the process that scripture has undergone to reach us today. What it really highlights is that Mark and Luke did not agree on the character of Jesus. Luke may have borrowed many of Mark’s examples but it’s clear that he thought Mark’s portrayal of Jesus in agony or out of control was inappropriate. Luke went to great efforts to rid his Gospel of any references to Jesus being disturbed. The stark contrast of inserting Luke 22:43-44 is an example where scribes invented text in order to help the two characters of Jesus match better. I do think this affects faith…how can it not? How can we claim to have a lock on who Jesus was when not even the early witnesses could agree?

6. Adam Heine - February 19, 2009

Casey: “How can we claim to have a lock on who Jesus was when not even the early witnesses could agree?”

Well, first, we can’t have “a lock” on who Jesus was. He was the Son of God and a human being besides. I don’t even have a lock on who I am, let alone another person, let alone Jesus Christ.

With that, I think the simplest answer to your question is perhaps they are not showing inconsistent images of Jesus, but different aspects of who he was. I think you’re making an assumption when you suggest that Luke thought of Jesus in agony as “inappropriate”. Perhaps it was only inappropriate to his purpose (which is how I read your original post, actually). It’s no mystery that each of the gospel authors had a different purpose and emphasis in their writing, and it shows in the texts. If anything, the different points of view make Jesus more real to me.

Re: the last 12 verses of Mark. If Mark were the only Biblical (or even non-Biblical) account of Jesus’ resurrection, I might agree with you. As it is, I am not bothered either by where Mark chose to end the story or by the scribe that appended it. Rather it makes me interested in knowing why Mark might have chosen to end the story there. What was his purpose or emphasis?

(Also, the words “fabricated” and “uncomfortable” bely another assumption in your argument).

Jim: Thanks for the link. That was a great interview (I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jon Stewart use so few jokes per minute). I was especially interested in their discussion on how, in one sense, this whole thing makes the Bible even more of a “living document.”

7. Emmet - February 20, 2009

I agree with what Adam and Michelle have said so far, and so in an attempt to not repeat what has already been said and to avoid writing a twenty page paper I’ll just touch a few points.

Of course Mark and Luke differed in how they spoke about Jesus, they were speaking to different audiences and were highlighting different aspects of Jesus life in order to touch the relevant issues that their audiences were facing. It is also likely that the author of Mark was Peter and Paul’s companion and was retelling what his friends had accounted to him, while Luke was likely a Greek believer who had interviewed many eyewitnesses and incorporated their stories into his account (if you end up doubting the validity of these texts based on their second hand nature, then you should also discount any and all investigative reports, historical accounts, and biographies). What is impressive is not how they differ but how they align with each other in spite of the differences in time, geography, culture, and audience that separated their origins.

As for the specific instance of the last chapter of Mark and how it impacts faith, I actually prefer to stop reading at verse eight. If you read or have Mark read to you from start to finish, as it was originally intended to be received, then you see a clear representation of a powerful Jesus who has authority over the elements, evil spirits, illnesses, etc. and repeatedly predicts his own crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. The seeming cliffhanger of 16:8 leaves the reader with the impression of a story that continues and with the impact of an active authoritative Jesus who is continuing to act in the world, “”Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen!…”” 16:6a. This would be a powerful message to a group of believers who had been run out of Rome and whose world was falling apart due to the persecution of Nero. I see no problem with this being divinely inspired and find that it still has a deep impact in me today and does nothing but build my faith. The addition of 16:9-20 is recognized in just about every Bible that I have read and if its addition helps you, then fine, but if not, there is no reason to bother with it.

As for the bigger picture, I think it is important to recognize the difference between divine inspiration and divine dictation. I believe that the first does apply to the Bible and that the human element in the authorship is an important part of the text which can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. Every time I tell a story there are differences in presentation depending on the audience and the impact that I want it to have, that doesn’t discount the fact that each time I tell it it is an accurate representation of what has taken place. Stories, by their nature, are alive and interact with each situation differently; rather than discredit their accuracy, this adds to their beauty.

As for the scribe inspired changes, the very ability to identify them limits or eliminates their impact on the original nature of the documents. In other word’s, knowing that they are there is to a certain extent their own medicine.

The Docetists, and for that matter any number of other gnostic, cult, faction, fiction, and mutation of early christianity, deserves its own discussion. Some were the result of legitimate interaction with the texts and traditions of the early church while others were simply pagan cults that changed their masks as christianity became more prominent. To give them too great a voice in the discussion on the authenticity of the canonical New Testament can, in some cases, be like letting Hitler speak to the historical validity of the Declaration of Independence (I was tired of waiting for someone else to bring Hitler into the discussions, I’ll do my best to bring communism in next).

8. Matt - February 21, 2009

Zero to Godwin in 7 comments. Not bad, but I’ve seen faster. 😛
Casey, I found this post interesting. Not as interesting as the science posts, but interesting. The book looks like a good one to read – I’ll add it to my heap. I particularly liked learning about the chiasmus as a literary device – I’ll keep my eyes open for that in the future.
This topic actually has a very personal application to me. One of my favorite passages in the Bible, if not my absolute favorite, is John 8:2-11. Now in the TNIV Bible that I usually read, this is noted as not being present in the earliest manuscripts. So perhaps it was added by a scribe – I don’t know if all these insertions occur that way, or what. It frankly doesn’t matter too much to me. There is something incredibly compelling in this pericope – to me, it is the entire gospel condensed to ten verses. In it we see a woman who has her shame exposed to the world, and her life in jeopardy. In it we see pious men desperately doing their best to protect their community (the cynics will add “and their privileged position therein”, but I like the Pharisees too much to say that) from a rabble-rouser who would upset the carefully-preserved culture in which they live, if not bring down the wrath of their oppressor upon an already subjugated people. And in it we see a figure who comes to fulfill the traditions that the Pharisees are trying to preserve in a way that perhaps nobody really understood at the time (e.g., the fulfillment of such sentiments as “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6a)). The value and truth of this story lie outside its historicity to me.

9. Adam Heine - February 21, 2009

Matt, did you watch the Daily Show clip linked in comment #3? Ehrman brings up that exact passage as an example. I think his suggestion was that it was an amalgamation of numerous of Jesus’ teachings put into a (possibly fictional) anecdote, but watch the clip to be sure.

10. Emmet - February 23, 2009

Thanks Matt, I’ve never heard it identified as “‘Godwin’s Law” before, I just knew that it had been way too long since someone had made a blatantly oversimplified analogy using a mutually hated historical figure. I’m glad my comment enabled this blog to achieve statistical normality.

11. Bill - February 23, 2009

Matt…loved your post #8…and as long as I read the bible like that, drawing from its wisdom, not from its historicall accuratness then I glean immensley…also when I am able to put aside the fundamentalist version of it, and say to myself “look, inside of this passage lays something of wisdom, something old that has been with us as human beings for a very long time, a teaching on lust, or greed, or forgiveness and charity.
I know too as Michelle has stated that this is perhaps the most picked apart book on the planet, it has been thouroughly researched by scholars for ages now, and for the bulk of it holds up quite well.
It is just when it is applied as “absolute” that it begins to dissipate for me.
Also something that bothers me is this….I hear constantly from the “church goer”….”I love this book, it is Rama to me”, “this book is breathed by God himself it is my life”, “I read and memorize it daily, it speaks to me”,….and yet (my estimate) 80% of christians people are ignorant of its historocity…how can you proclaim love for something, and be ignorant of its inseption. Most christians have no idea of even how the book was put together at the Council meeting of Laodacia nor have they studied it enough that when challenged they can argue their position from a historicall vantage point.
For me it has become a book of wisom…not a black and white verbatim story…it is filled with grays and hues of color. It covers the years. The Psalms are still relevent to me, and speak in tones that bring me peace.
Has it been misquoted…have the words of Jesus been mangled to fit our social mode, and our American version of “church” most definatly! But are their still portions of it that make it far under my fallow ground and cause me to ponder…oh let it always be so.

12. Antony - February 23, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to respond to this post. (This is a way to apologize for its serious length!) I’m really struck by the fact that many of the commenters here were quick to accept this as ‘well known’ and to dismiss that it has any impact on their faith.

First, I think the scribal additions are even greater than we can identify since we don’t have the original copies of anything. What changes happened early that we have no idea about? If nothing else, one’s faith must admit to uncertainty when saying something like: “Jesus says…” or “St. Paul says…”

It seems to me dismissive to suggest that the scribal changes don’t really challenge faith. In fact, the example Casey uses – Jesus sweating blood – is put there in order to challenge the faith of certain early Christian groups. So the changes are not meaningless, your faith is a product of these changes – even if you today can say that it doesn’t matter. They were put there to settle a fight. One party was victorious; therefore your faith is able to take the relatively anti-Docetist form that it takes.

Second, it makes the larger point that the Bible is a human document. So not only is it the scribes but also the eyewitnesses, those who carried their stories, and the writers of the books who were also open to error. There were serious mistakes at each stage. Misrememberings. Willful reinterpretations. Etc.

This is where I think the point about misquoting Jesus really comes in. It’s popular to say that the different accounts of Jesus (the gospels and Paul) confirm Jesus in their differences. But that is an absurd statement.

Think about it as witnessing a car accident. If we get 5 eyewitnesses who give us different stories about what happened and who was at fault, then we end up being able to confirm only one basic fact – there was a car accident. We can’t say anything too much meaningful about it.

The differences between the gospels read much more like this than most Christians seem willing to admit. I’m not interested in the obvious issues like the nonsense of the genealogies. But I’d like to take seriously the deep differences between the gospels and the very different pictures of Jesus that they paint because our faith is based on the dishonest gospel-smashing technique, where we pretend they all fit in one narrative, and they just don’t.

One example I’ve been thinking about is Jesus raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44). Are we supposed to believe that if Jesus raised a man – his dear friend – from the dead that Peter would have omitted telling Mark about it? Or that Mark when selecting which of Peter’s recollections to include would think that the Lazarus story wasn’t important enough? Here Mark’s silence speaks volumes. Where does the writer of John get this story? It seems to point towards the fact that the writer of John – or someone in his community – invented this story to show something about the way he interpreted Jesus.

John’s Jesus shares some things with the other gospels, but the differences are real and they matter to what you think it is that Jesus was doing. The divine-human of the Gospel of John is a far, far cry from the healer-teacher of Mark.

It’s these issues that keep me wrestling with the whole idea of the New Testament. It’s these concerns that challenge my faith and force to me to take a critical look at the texts to figure out what really matters about this person Jesus about whom many people said many different things…

13. Philip - February 24, 2009

I second what Antony said. With one caveat, I *do* think one can be okay with the discrepancies, scribal errors, etc. if one is only interested in the thematic concept of the Gospels. That is, the basic story of human redemption and love persists despite the inconsistencies.

But it sounds like, from what many of the others have said here, that there is something above and beyond this that they retain in spite of the human erros, i.e. there is a historical Jesus who did certain things, taught certain things, etc. Here, I just don’t see a defensible position. To claim that the book has faithfully retained a remarkable degree of consistency across generations of copies is not really a testament to much but that the book has been copied a lot and for a long time. There’s no comparison set to evaluate how faithful it’s been to “the original.”

I have to point out here, too, since it was only mentioned w.r.t. Hitler and Docetists, that the early church was completely torn apart by what scriptures to include in the canon. Just as Casey discussed the political and theological implications of the bleeding Jesus, there were huge political and factional disputes over what gospels to include. I see those two things as being intimately connected. Just as humans have motivations to include certain words or perhaps, which are perhaps incidental or innocuous from our current perspective, those same motivations almost certainly guided the inclusion/exclusion of key books of the bible.

14. Adam Heine - February 24, 2009

To claim that the book has faithfully retained a remarkable degree of consistency across generations of copies is not really a testament to much but that the book has been copied a lot and for a long time. There’s no comparison set to evaluate how faithful it’s been to “the original.”

Actually the number of different copies, and consistency between them, is one of the comparisons historians use to evaluate how faithful a document is to the original. (If there were no such comparisons, we’d have to throw out most of our ancient historical documents as “potentially unreliable”). On that scale, the New Testament is more reliable than any other document we have from that time period, by quite a lot. That is not to say that everything in it is historically accurate, rather the documents we have can be trusted to be reliably close to the originals.

The issue here is not historical reliability, but infallibility – the idea (widespread among evangelicals) that the Bible is perfect and without error. That, I believe, is what Casey is bringing into question. That’s not to discount your other points, which are good.

Antony, I really liked your response (esp. the point about how our faith takes from the faith of the “victors” in these interchurch squabbles). I have too much to say, so I’ll cut most of it and say these two things:

(1) These sorts of things do challenge my faith in the sense that they clarify what it is I believe in. I think when I say that my faith is not “impacted”, I mean that the core of my faith holds true – only the details change. For example, 20 years ago I didn’t believe in miracles or healing, now I do. That’s a pretty big detail, I’ll admit, but the core of my faith – a God who loves me, whom I rebelled against, and who sent his son to die for my rebellion in my place – is unchanged.

So I didn’t mean to sound like I was dismissing the problem, I only mean to say that the supposed infallibility of the Bible is not one of the things that my core beliefs hinge upon.

(2) If 5 eyewitnesses give testimony about a car accident, we actually can’t confirm anything about what really happened without outside evidence. We can, however, be reasonably certain of a number of details. To whit: (1) details that are agreed upon by all eyewitnesses, (2) details that are brought up by one or more eyewitnesses and not directly contradicted by the others, and (3) to a lesser extent, details that seem to contradict but have a reasonable explanation as to the differing reports (e.g. different points of view, different use of language (e.g. one person calls it a gray car, another silver), etc.).

Assuming the witnesses are honest and well-meaning, we can use (1), (2), and (3) to get a reasonable idea of what really happened. We do it in courtrooms and history books all the time.

15. Antony - February 24, 2009


1. Reliability & what is at stake. I disagree that the target here is the evangelical ‘infallibility’ belief. I mean, it is the first to go, but it seems that is a pretty uncontroversial thing here. Nobody steps up to defend it.

I think that it’s more along the lines of what the ‘original’ we are concerned with is. So yes, we have more reliable copies of the texts of the NT than many other historical texts. But I think Philip is right, that the tendency in the thread here has been to parlay THAT historical reliability in copying to the reliability of what the text itself claims – that is, these are accurate accounts of the life of the historical Jesus. So for me (at least), the question is historical reliability – but not of the copies of the text, but of the substance of the text itself.

2. I liked your response to the car accident analogy. I think you are right about that. I cut it short in the last post because I’m too wordy as is. But you’re right, there are different standards to come closer to what happened in the accident.

And I think that there is actually quite a bit that we can say about the ‘historical Jesus’ being as certain as we can ever be about ancient history. But these of course are historical details and about the reception and early interpretations of his teaching.

You say that the core of your faith – loving God, your rebellion, and him sending his son (Jesus) to die for our sins – is unchanged. I guess my question is what could challenge this core of belief? Does what Jesus claimed about himself challenge how you understand him? Does it matter if Jesus is divine and part of the Trinity (which has no grounding in reliable scripture as far as I know)? Could he simply be the teacher of teachers, having unlocked the key to God’s heart – that is, the Father that he himself prays to – but all human all the time.

Would that be a detail or would it challenge the assumptions of the Christian core you set down there? Why? And if so, how can one begin to critically engage these assumptions without either discarding faith totally or using faith as a blocking mechanism (Beyond here, none shall pass!)?

I don’t mean to sound like I’m grilling you, Adam. It’s a broader question to people; you happen to be the one that prompted this thought from me 🙂

16. bear - February 24, 2009

Will someone tell me where does personal experience and narrative fit into all of this? I am loving this conversation.


17. bear - February 24, 2009

I suppose the narrative aspect would be the car accident analogy…

18. caseyww - February 24, 2009

Adam (and others)-

I didn’t before, but I think I might now, ask you to support your assertion that “On that scale, the New Testament is more reliable than any other document we have from that time period, by quite a lot.” Where is that coming from? It’s my understanding that the Bible is no more accurate and reliable than any other ancient text.

You also say, ”If there were no such comparisons, we’d have to throw out most of our ancient historical documents as “potentially unreliable””, which I actually think is right on the mark. Historical texts should always be regarded as ‘potentially’ unreliable, the Bible especially. Because we as Christians have such a vested interest in it being true and we are likely to succumb to confirmation bias when judging this particular book’s reliability we should be more critical of it than other documents. However, historical documents in general are really only useful for a tentative picture of the past and are almost useless when being used as proof of extraordinary happenings. What I’m trying to say is that I think it’s quite different to accept collaboration between historical texts for an “unsurprising natural occurrence” (ie. Jesus ate dinner with the Pharisees) and an “unexpected supernatural occurrence” (ie Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead). In either case the historical documents are pretty poor evidence, however, in the first we might be content with accepting the truth of the claim on less evidence.

Lastly, on the car accident example. I actually think to use it in the context of Biblical history we need to change it quite a bit. 5 witnesses may exist but instead of 5 independent witnesses there should really only be, let’s say 2 (the other 3 will have heard the story from the original 2 so their collaboration should only be seen as a remnant of having a common source.) Also, all 5 should have a motivation (perhaps different for each) to see the accident in a specific way. Perhaps 1 witness is a brother of the driver who was killed and another witness is the daughter of the offending driver. Yet another witness is the lawyer who will get paid only if the car was “grey” instead of “silver”. These may be analogous to the disciples’ motivation to protect their reputation, seek eternal life, or even just favoring the story of an old friend. Each motivation skews their interpretation no matter how honest or well meaning they may try to be.

19. Emmet - February 24, 2009

So much to say… trying not to fall into verbal diarrhea… deep breaths… deep breaths… okay, feeling better.

I’ll try to post tomorrow when I get my thoughts better organized, but I wanted to fire a shot on the “no grounding in reliable scripture” statement about the Trinity (post 15). This is an argument that Unitarians make and it has been at the heart of a lot of conflict/discussion throughout the history of the Church. The truth is that Christianity would be a much easier religion/belief to defend on an intellectual level if it wasn’t for that whole “Divinity of Jesus” thing, and while you would be right in saying that the word “Trinity” isn’t established in the New Testament, the concept of the Divine Christ is unavoidable. Starting in the Gospels and continuing through the letters the concept of the Trinity, the divine community and interaction of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is unavoidable. It was a defining aspect of the faith and was taken for granted by the early believers. It wasn’t until forms of gnosticism began working their way into the church and bringing with them the dualistic concept of a strictly divided spirit realm and physical realm, in which Jesus was either an enlightened human or a spirit that only appeared to be human, that the previously assumed standard of divine Christ, Son of God, perfect and complete revelation of the creator being began to be hammered out into what we know know as the doctrine of the Trinity. Like most doctrinal debates, it wasn’t an issue until it was an issue. Weather or not you believe in the divinity of the historical Jesus is a valid discussion point, to say that the divinity of Jesus and the foundation for the Trinity is not found in scripture is to ignore what was written, what was implied, and how it was responded to by the early believers and the critics/adversaries of Jesus and his followers.

A lot of people like the moral and social teachings of Jesus but don’t like the God Jesus concept because it challenges their belief/identity/independence paradigms and so they try to step around that aspect of Christianity with a bunch of fancy foot work. The problem is that the scriptures and traditions (even the Holy Spirit, if you allow it to be brought into the discussion), which are the foundations of what we now know as the Christian faith do not allow for the division of Christ from his divinity or humanity. How the canonical texts were chosen and who Jesus actually was are separate discussions from who the New Testament claims Jesus to be.

20. Antony - February 24, 2009

Emmett –

As you gather your thoughts for what will be the post of posts (yes, building the hype, putting on the pressure), let me say a few things.

I think you’re right about a few things (how’s that for disarming!)… and wrong about the rest (that’s more like it!)…

Trinity. I think you are right, there are scriptures that if you have some idea of the Trinity seem to confirm it. But the idea of a God in three persons is nowhere in the NT as far as I know. The one example (which I seem to have lost – in John I think) is actually one of those scribal additions.

I would argue that John seems to operate on something close to a Trinitarian perspective, but I don’t think that holds for the other gospels. And that is more my point. Not that the scriptures in general don’t make claims to the divinity of Jesus. I indeed think that some of them are very explicit about that (John 3:16 for example). But my point is that some of the scriptures in the NT (and some left out) are not all that clear about the nature of Jesus (man, spirit, god) and I think it’s wrong to just assume that they were operating with what became doctrine when the fight broke out about the Trinity.

To assume that the silence beforehand was due to total agreement on a subject is wrong. Perhaps the nature of Jesus was not all that important to certain early communities. So the silence is that they never thought of asking the question. Maybe there was a general agreement that he was ‘sent by God’ – now that can cover a lot of different opinions – a beautiful compromise to stop early doctrinal squabbling.

My point was a more limited one – not that the divinity of Jesus is unknown in the NT – but that I think it’s actually debatable whether that’s one of the settled things about Jesus. From my remembering (this is 10 years ago now), most of the things that we seem to be reasonably certain belong in the earliest tradition of Jesus or to the historical Jesus himself are more the moral teachings with some of the apocalyptic language. But even if Jesus said he was the ‘Son of Man’ – that itself had several contemporaneous interpretations – some of which were about divinity, some which were not. Plus, in drawing on Isaiah’s servant, Jesus was clearly interested in subverting the meanings of that word anyway, making it much harder to tell what he meant when he used it…

Long story short. I reverse your final charge. Whereas, I think you’re right – there are people – of which I am one – who want to step around the Jesus as God stuff because it does challenge their paradigms about what it means to be human, to strive for salvation, and all around to live. And yes, that means that parts of the NT are problematic.

But (here’s the reversal), I think that there are people – of which I’m guessing you’re one – who find the divinity of Jesus so central to their beliefs that they avoid the parts of the NT that seem to point away from understanding Jesus as divine because to take them seriously would be a challenge to their paradigms about what it means to be human, the source and meaning of salvation, and how to live. Of course, the Jesus as human-divine is made easier since the community choosing the ‘canon’ held something like that belief.

21. Antony - February 24, 2009

Sorry, Emmet, a typo – I added an extra ‘t’ to your name…my apologies…

22. bear - February 24, 2009

In my perfect world, Emmet, you will respond to the last paragraph of 20, first 🙂

23. caseyww - February 24, 2009


In my perfect world you would respond to the last paragraph of 20 too 🙂

24. Adam Heine - February 24, 2009

Casey (18). I’ll try again to be clear on what I mean when I say “historical reliability” vs. “historical accuracy”. A document is reliable if we can trust that it is true to the original source. A document is accurate if we can trust that it accurately represents the reality of what happened in history.

My claim is that the New Testament, even with changes and errors, is more reliable than any document we have of the time. I’m basing this claim on, among other things, the number of copies we have available, the various sources of those copies, and the relative consistency between the copies. They aren’t perfect, but we have more, and more consistent, copies of the New Testament than any other historical document of the time period by an order of magnitude (i.e. something like 5,000 copies of the New Testament; something like 5-600 copies of The Iliad).

The topic of historical accuracy has, believe it or not, only recently come up in the comments with Antony and Bear. I don’t think I’ve said much yet on the accuracy of the New Testament because to me that wasn’t the issue here.

The third issue (the one of the post) is infallibility. This is similar to accuracy, but not quite the same. Infallibility means that every word we have is perfect and exactly as God meant it to be. That’s hard to argue what with scribes changing things, which is why I haven’t argued it.

I hope that answers your question. Your extended car analogy is closer to the truth of what we have, except I wouldn’t include the guy who gets paid for a certain outcome. Until Constantine (which the original documents all were), nobody was getting paid for writing these. They were getting killed.

25. Adam Heine - February 24, 2009

Antony (15). Your question (what could challenge my core belief) is the best question. What I quoted as my “core” was kind of off the top of my head, but maybe it will hold up.

The existence of a loving God can’t really be challenged because it’s not a historical fact, but an assumption I’m bringing to the evidence. My rebellion is common sense (or perhaps another unchallengable assumption) implied by the loving God, combined with our messed up world. These might actually be places where “none shall pass” (though maybe not, I’ll have to think about it more).

So we’re talking about the historical accuracy (see #24) of God sending his son to die for my rebellion. That relies on the facts that (1) Jesus claimed to be divine, (2) Jesus could back up that claim, (3) Jesus died, (4) Jesus rose again.

The New Testament (which is made up of multiple, reliable (see #24) historical documents) backs up all of these. There are other, even non-Christian, historical sources that back these up as well (though admittedly not as many, and not as reliable).

The fact that some or all of the New Testament writers had reason to write things the way they did does not necessarily mean they made things up – that is, it doesn’t prove the NT is inaccurate, only supports the possibility.

The short amount of time between the events and documents in question also makes it less likely that these were fabrications, as does the fact that Christians were heavily persecuted at this time for saying the things they did. This also isn’t proof, just support.

Hm, so now I’m thinking maybe we can’t prove the accuracy or inaccuracy of the New Testament at all. Wouldn’t that be great (sarcasm)? If it were all based on faith one way or the other? That would mean there’s no proper answer to your last two paragraphs of #20; that’s just the way it is.

Or is this where I bring up personal experience?

26. Philip - February 24, 2009

Just a brief note about reliability of text, based on when Adam said that the NT “is more reliable than any document we have of the time.” My original point is that I can’t evaluate this claim as a scientist (although it may well be true). Adam presents the following evidence for this claim: (1) we have more generational copies of it than any other book; (2) there are fewer inconsistencies across generations.

The first point should be tossed out immediately, because having many copies of something should not be evidence for its reliability. The second point is the important one. Here’s what I don’t get: Adam says there are fewer inconsistencies . . . than what?

Adam brings up the Iliad, but it’s not a fair comparison. To really make this comparison, we’d need a sample of books written at about the same time and place as the bible, with the same number of copies produced. Then we could say whether there’s a significant increase in reliability in scribal reproductions of the bible. If not that, we’d need a huge sample of books and copies from various points in history and model textual reliability, including region, technology, time intervals, and other factors in the analysis. This might all seem glib or overly technical, but my point is there’s really no scientific basis for saying the bible has been more reliably transcribed than any other book. Given that we don’t even know what the originals really looked like, we can’t even begin to make such an assessment in this case.

What we *could* do is estimate an average mutation rate from one copy to the next, if we knew the order that the manuscripts came in. That could then be compared to mutation rates for other documents. I don’t know if such a study has been done, but I would bet that other manuscripts from similar eras of scribal copying have fewer mutations.

27. Adam Heine - February 24, 2009

Philip, there are methods for determining the reliability of a copy of a historical text. By those methods – the same methods we use to determine the reliability of other historical documents – the New Testament is as reliable, if not more so, than any other document we have from the time.

The number of copies does matter, but not as much as the number of different sources that copied the document in question. It’s true that having 20,000 copies of something would be pretty meaningless if they were all copied by the same person who made the same textual change. But having 5,000 copies from hundreds of different sources can give us a pretty good picture of what the original said. That’s what we have of the New Testament.

The comparison to The Iliad is perfectly fair in this sense as it is a document for which we have no original and many copies. I chose it because we have (to my knowledge) more copies of The Iliad than any other historical document of that time period except the New Testament.

28. bear - February 25, 2009

I just have to say….Dead Sea Scrolls. Nobody has mentioned this yet.


29. whytey - February 25, 2009


I think your question to be Emmet may be far too general. I also think it’s a little bit… well, I’ll stick with unfair here. To assume that to believe in a divine Christ is to avoid the text is just as presumptive as it would be for me to assume that your issues are based on an inability to deal with the text. I have no doubt that you have wrestled with the text (unless you proved otherwise or disagreed with me). Certainly there are individuals who avoid difficult passages to validate belief. But, I don’t think that’s the case for everyone. And I certainly don’t think that’s the case for Emmet based on my experience (though I certainly can’t speak for him). What I might ask is that you refine your question. What texts, specifically, in the NT do you believe work against the context of a divine Christ? From that starting point we can wrestle with those texts. This is certainly not a new discussion and we may very well end up on the same side of the fence afterwards, but it could be fun/interesting/valuable to have.

30. Antony - February 25, 2009

Whytey, you’re absolutely right and I owe Emmet an apology. I re-read what I wrote in the last paragraph of #20, and it does sound accusatory. That was not my intention…it was meant to be challenging, not accusatory…

I wrote it in parallel to the previous one (where I indict ones like myself), and I don’t want to suggest that folks like Emmet must necessarily be avoiding parts of the text. The point is that I think the NT is complex and presents many viewpoints that I think don’t agree on a lot of things and I think that all of us naturally have a tendency to lean on what confirms what we want to believe, and we marginalize or forget the texts that seem to push against what we want to believe.

Okay, I think a comments thread is the last place to start a full blown list of scriptures I have problems with and/or point to my understanding of the gospel, but I’ll give one to give those who want something concrete to start from.

Mark 1:1

New American Bible (Catholic translation): “The Beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [the Son of God].”

Okay, the “Son of God” is in brackets because, as the footnote says, it’s missing from some ‘important’ (read: early) manuscripts. This is confirmed by the literal translation of the Markan Greek given in Robert Miller’s “The Complete Gospels” – there it reads –

“The good news of Jesus the Anointed begins..”

Note a couple of things here. (1) To actually translate the word “Christ” is important. It means “The Anointed” (which many Christians know) but for us the word Christ immediately suggests divinity, and we forget that it merely means ‘anointed’ – which can have any number of significances. And this is clearly the case because some early scribes felt the need to add: (2) “the Son of God” because Christ does not make the divinity clear. Furthermore, it seems that you need to put this in Mark at the start because it’s not there. Jesus gets apocalyptic, but I can’t remember where he claims divinity (on this I could be wrong, it’s been many years and I trust others will bring to light my oversight).

So, unless I’ve forgotten something in Mark, I think the only honest conclusion is that Mark does not claim Jesus’ divinity. This doesn’t necessarily tell us what Mark thinks of Jesus’ status. His silence holds many possibilities…one of which is that Mark doesn’t think of Jesus as divine. Blessed (Anointed), for sure; but divine? Maybe.

So that’s one place. I hope it begins to give you, Whytey, something to start talking from because as you said, even if all said before, saying it one more time can be interesting and valuable.

31. Emmet - February 25, 2009

Okay, her is the post you were waiting for Antony, I hope you have time.

Well, as for the last paragraph, you are partially correct to put me in that category. I do find the divinity of Jesus central to my faith and I do read both the Old and New Testaments with Jesus as the anchor of my understanding of God. As for the shying away from the problematic texts, quite the opposite is true. I believe that a strictly human Jesus would go a long way to simplifying Christianity (not having to struggle with the nuances of the Trinitarian debates, not having to consider his words as absolute truths, even if they did come through potentially corruptible mediators, etc.), to making christianity more politically correct, less socially offensive, and a lot easier to interact with on an pick and chose basis. A good friend of mine became a unitarian and spent hours and hours trying to convince me of the strictly human nature of Jesus. He even had some seemingly good scriptural basis, that was until I actually read the texts that he was quoting and reading up on what the Biblical scholars have come to accepted as correct understanding of the Greek, context, setting, etc. When I say “correct” I don’t mean according to what the church has agreed it means, I mean that is what it actually says to the best unbiased scholarly understanding of the text. A perfect example is 2 Peter 1:1 where “God and Savior, Jesus Christ” actually means, as defended by the Granville Sharp rule, which has stood against 200 years of failed attempts to dislodge it, Peter meant to say that Jesus Christ was both God and Savior. All of my friend’s scriptural arguments for the strictly human nature of Jesus were left without foundation as my own understanding grew and I had to accept the fact that if I was going to believe the Bible, I was going to have to believe that Jesus was God. But that is my story and a bit less important to this discussion than a bunch of other stuff.

One place to start is to look at John 1:1-18, Colossians 1:15-20, and Hebrews 1:1-13. The interesting thing is that the three authors of these three books were writing to different groups of people, on different topics, for different intentions, and it is entirely possible/likely that there were unaware of the other authors positions, yet they each came to the fundamental conclusion that Jesus was at the center of creation, holding everything together, and was in fact God (at least as far as they were concerned).

In order to dodge New Testament authors who mad at least one clear statement as to the divine nature of Jesus, you would have to avoid all books written by John, Peter, Paul, the author of Hebrews, Luke, Jude, James, and Matthew. There are probably other ones also, these are just the ones that I took the time to look at. What is interesting is that within this list are eye witnesses, companions, and suspected brothers of Jesus.

As to the general understanding of the early Church, it was Jesus humanity and not his divinity that was most often challenged. To some extent this is still true today. Jesus as God was the standard position to a community of monotheistic Jewish believers, and continued to be so as Greeks and other gentile believers joined the community of the early church. These were people who had first hand experiences with a man who walked a talked with them, healed them, cast demons out of them, defended them against the religious leaders, was crucified in front of their eyes, was buried by their own hands, whose eyes had seen the empty tomb, and who had again walked and talked with him. In the early church, the divinity of Christ was assumed. You can argue that Jesus didn’t do any miracles and that he wasn’t raised from the dead, but from a historical basis, this was the foundation of the faith and the stimulus for its growth and perseverance through later persecution.

As for scriptures that seem to contradict the divinity of Jesus, the ones that I have struggled with are Mark 13:32 and its sister verse Matthew 24:36, which is where Jesus essentially says ‘no one knows when the end will be except the father, not even the Son’. The thing is that in Matthew, this comes on the coat tails of 22:21-46 where Jesus challenges the Pharisees with the knowledge that the messiah is fare greater than they believed and was in fact both God and man. It is here that we come back to the often overlooked ‘humanity’ of Jesus. Philippians 2:6-8 responds to this with the comment that Jesus essentially emptied himself and took on human nature. Weather or not you want to go outside the same author in order to explain a potentially challenging point that is up to you, but as I relate to these passages, they are easily folded into the human nature of Jesus and no longer challenge his divinity for me. There are a few other passages that raise questions in a similar vein, but rather than contradict the divinity of Jesus, as Unitarians believe, they actually affirm the humanity of Jesus within the text and contradict the modalist position.

As for Mark, you are correct to point out that the first line is believed to be an addition, but if you continue to read through 1:11 you will find that Jesus as the unique and beloved Son of God is not a foreign concept to the original text of Mark. Granted, Mark seems to be less concerned with establishing the divinity of Jesus, through statements like “Jesus is God”, rather, he establishes Jesus authority over many aspects of creation and ends with the empty tomb and the angel saying that he rose from the dead just like he said that he would. While Mark is not John, he is a far cry away from holding to Jesus being only human.

As to the issue of the canon, you are again correct is stating that a few hundred years after the life of Jesus the church in an attempt to standardize the authoritative accounts of Jesus they established the “Canon” of the New Testament, and that they chose texts which agreed with their beliefs (this is my expansion of your statement, if you disagree with it please let me know). It just so happened that the texts tat they chose happened to be the ones which were written by the eyewitnesses of the events and those involved in the community immediately following Jesus death, the “stories” of his resurrection and the expansion of the faith. Excluded were gospels, epistles, and apocalyptic texts that were for the most part written long after the deaths of their supposed authors, were gnostic in nature, or were completely disconnected from those people who were actually there. In many cases these texts were even more blatant in the assertion of Jesus deity. A few exceptions to these rules were canonized into the writings of the Church Fathers, and in some cases made it into the Catholic Canon; however, these are not as reliably due to the dates of origin. Had most of these other extra-canonical texts been included in what we now know as the New Testament, the Bible would be much more aggressively criticized and attacked by historical scholars.

At the end of the day, the divinity of Jesus is central to the Christian faith, and is unavoidable within the New Testament. How people choose to respond to that information is another story. I have accepted it and embraced it in my own faith, due in part to my reading of the Bible, but also due to experiences over my last 32 years. I don’t know if the Bible would have been enough for me, but it was nice to talk with some ex-Muslims who were visited by Jesus while in a Mosque and essentially confronted in the same way that Paul was on the Damascus road. The fact that there were 30 of them and that it ruined their lives went a long way in convincing me that they weren’t making stuff up. I don’t know if that last bit belongs in this discussion, except to give you a better idea of where I am coming from.

I think that that is all I had to say… at least for now.

32. Antony - February 25, 2009

Emmet, it is late my friend. I read through it and have a lot to think about before I respond…for now let me just say that “Suspected Brothers” is an awesome band name…


33. Emmet - February 26, 2009

Thanks Antony, I have others… but not for this blog.

34. Matt - February 26, 2009

Great googly moogly. You can’t come and go with this blog, you have to devote your life to it. If you don’t, you go away for a few days and come back and Emmett has written a freaking dissertation, on top of the other dozen posts that have been made.
I always wanted to have a band or an album (or both!) named “Fundamental Discontinuity”. On the cover, we’d have a graph of 1/x.

35. caseyww - February 26, 2009

Okay, I can see once we get into sharing band names that it’s my cue to post something new and interesting. I’m working on it!

36. aaron - February 26, 2009

Great comment Emmet.

I am trying to figure out how to contribute usefully because a few of the regular commenters on this site have encouraged me to weigh in on this thread.
I am trying to make sense of the format here and would appreciate any corrections.
The original post amalgamated and added emphasis and slant to excerpts from a book (which itself is not non-problematic) discussing the textual transmission of the NT then cited conclusions not drawn by the author of the book. This is followed by several people who are not textual critics trying to comment on relatively technical issues in textual criticism and demonstrating a lack of foundation in the field. Then there is a shift to NT content, a topic that seems from the discussion more accessible. And somewhere in there is a somewhat superficial discussion on the coherence/nature of “inspiration.”
I don’t by any means intend to harsh on anyone, I am just naturally blunt and am trying to figure out what the point of the discussion is.
There appear to be two main groupings of commenters in this and the other threads that I have read through: those who agree with Casey’s apparent shift from antagonism toward fundamentalist Christianity into fundamentalist antagonism toward Christianity and those who disagree with this shift. Is this the real discussion and why the surface level discussions tend to slide past each other? Or is this slide effect more likely a result of a pervasive mistaken adherence to foundationalism, manifest in the tendency to confound explanation and reality?

37. aaron - February 26, 2009


Maybe I should have deleted that comment before accidentally clicking the “say it!” button.

While the well-accepted (at least by those on this thread) points that Ehrman makes about the history of the text of the NT may or may not make a difference to the faith of people today it is completely irrelevant to the earliest Christians since they had no NT to discuss. All they had was their shared memories and stories and a completely different sort of life explained in their writings as a life of being indwelt by the same Spirit of God that they recognized from seeing Jesus. They didn’t even have a solidified OT. I wonder if this has any bearing on the current discussion.

38. Adam Heine - February 27, 2009

Regarding what Aaron said in #36, early on I said I’m not an expert in textual criticism, though later I may very well have begun acting like one. I do apologize and would love to be corrected on the technical details of anything I said. I’m no expert, but I am an extremely interested amateur.

Re: #37, I think that’s a really good point about what the earliest Christians had at their disposal. It’s something I haven’t really thought about in this discussion.

39. Benjamin - February 27, 2009


I found this website helpful as a good summary to biblical manuscript history.

As for Ehrman, he lost me at “…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…”

40. whytey - February 27, 2009


I apologize if I came across as ragging you for what you posted. I was more looking for clarity and I think I came across as a little caustic and for that, I apologize. I will respond to your question… when I have more than 15 seconds to do it. Thanks for being willing to respond and for being so responsive to my question.

41. bear - February 27, 2009

My comments during this post have been invaluable.


42. Antony - February 28, 2009

Re #31

Emmet –

You do not disappoint, mon ami. I’m afraid my comments are going to be choppy, almost an outline. Forgive the length…

(1) You claim that the human Jesus makes Christianity ‘easier.’ In important ways you’re right, it does make it easier, but that’s because it puts Christianity back into the realm of humanity, which is something we as humans have a chance to grasp. To say that Jesus is divine-but-human is ‘mysterious’ is only to claim that it does not make sense. Now I’m not arguing that makes it untrue, but it certainly doesn’t add to its truth.

As for the additional claims about a human Jesus being more politically correct and less socially offensive, I think that is nonsense. I think we can let ourselves off the hook if Jesus is God. Our redemption is assured before we do anything and we only have to be Jesus-like – a much lower standard than actually being as Jesus.

(2) I agree with you that there are many places in the NT that testify to Jesus’ nature as being divine and human. I can quibble here and there – for example, I think that 2 Peter is a bad place to go since it’s generally agreed that (despite what it says in the first verse) it was not written by Simon Peter and probably is the last of the NT texts to be written – and therefore, unsurprisingly, it has a pretty developed theology about Jesus’ nature.

(3) Gnostics and a Solely Divine Jesus. It’s a good point about the issue of Jesus’ nature. One of the early conflicts (although not all that early) is about those who wanted to deny that Jesus was human at all. I suppose this is ‘easier’ too. If Jesus is God, then his perfection is assured, and you end up with a crucifixion narrative as in Luke. Cool, collected, certain, and under control. (I know Luke is not a gnostic, but deifying Jesus pushes you in that direction).

On the other side, you have the horrible suffering of an all too human Jesus in Mark’s narrative. His last words there are about being abandoned by God the Father. That seems hard to reckon with an idea of Jesus as sharing in the godhead. I think you point this type of issue with Mark 13:32.

Point is, I think you’re right to add the gnostic deification of Jesus into the discussion, but not to drop out the human question. It was not a binary conversation, but multivocal with many views on how the issues of Jesus’ humanity and his relationship to divinity were connected.

That the received Christian view mixes the two together seems, to me, ‘easier’ – this way, everything can be explained as fitting together. It’s not clean, but it all fits together ‘mysteriously’…

Passage A about Jesus’ divinity is just emphasizing that aspect (not denying the humanity).

Passage B about Jesus’ humanity is just emphasizing that aspect (not denying the divinity).

Suddenly all the NT agrees because the position taken chooses not to resolve the conflict but to adopt the conflict as a solution.

Now, this doesn’t make it wrong necessarily…but I think it makes it questionable…

(4) Responsiveness. I agree with you – to read the NT is to have to face the idea of Jesus’ divinity, as it is also unavoidable to face his humanity. And the responsibility on each of us is to use everything we have at our disposal to make sense of it all. And I think a big step in this is to recognize the NT as being like other texts by multiple authors. It is multivocal, and you can’t agree with all of them. You have to do your best by figuring out what seems honest and valuable to you without ever falling into the trap of being certain that you’re right.

43. Antony - February 28, 2009

Re: 36-7

Aaron –

Two quick responses. (1) I think that it’s absurd to argue that the people in this conversation are not textual critics or evolutionary biologists, etc. You’re absolutely right, most or all of us are not those things, but this does not mean that we can’t have an intelligent and thoughtful conversation about these things. To reserve conversation for specialists is essentially to deny our individual responsibility by claiming personal ignorance.

I think the conversation here is interesting, and yes, the ‘two sides’ (more on that in a second) often slide past one another. But that’s not a novel observation. The fact that there is this sliding past says something important about the way that we wrestle with these issues. It doesn’t make the conversation useless unless you’re here to convert others.

(2) You conclude:

There appear to be two main groupings of commenters in this and the other threads that I have read through: those who agree with Casey’s apparent shift from antagonism toward fundamentalist Christianity into fundamentalist antagonism toward Christianity and those who disagree with this shift.

First, I think that misses Casey’s project. The premise is that questioning the tenets of one’s faith is not being ‘antagonistic’ – it’s critically engaging what one believes. For Casey (at the very least for myself), a belief is not truly held if it cannot face the hard questions. A skeptic is not a cynic. Cynics are antagonistic. Skeptics are curious and value that which can respond to questioning.

Second, I think that splitting the contributors to the blog into these two camps has very limited usefulness. The conversation is interesting and matters to me because most people here lie somewhere along the spectrum. This is not a blog about believers v. nonbelievers. Or those antagonistic towards Christianity v. the Christ-affirming.

44. Emmet - February 28, 2009

Thanks Antony, a solid response.

1. I think I’d like to have that conversation sometime about the political correctness of a divine or human Jesus, it could be interesting to see where it went. I initially brought it up more from a personal journey perspective rather than a factual statement, so it’s interesting to hear you weigh in on it.

2. It’s a fair statement on 2 Peter, If I was trying to establish the actual divinity of Jesus to someone who doesn’t accept the Bible as authoritative I would have started somewhere else. I mentioned it because it is the most blunt statement of the divinity of Jesus within the NT and so had a place in the discussion of what the NT says.

3. Yup, there are tensions to balance and ‘mysteries’ to relate to, and how you do this greately determines how you relate to Jesus. It was within this tension that The Doctrine of the Trinity was established, and I think it is the only way to honestly account for all the different things that the NT says and implies about Jesus. By honestly I mean without excluding passages/books or ignoring what they actually say.

I think that the intended audiences have a major impact on the differences between Mark and John’s image of Jesus, and though that doesn’t take all of the tension out, it goes a long way in that direction.

4. For some people this tension/mystery builds faith while for others it complicates and challenges it, and I think we are on the same page here. It’s taken me a long time to go from blind acceptance, to challenged, to not 100% certain, to yup I believe it and am blown away by it (though the nuances of how the Trinity functions are still flexible in my mind). So I sure wouldn’t fault any one for falling into any of those or a dozen other categories, especially when my own story figures so authoritatively into my beliefs.

…hey, am I missing something, or do we agree with the basics on this one, even though we relate to it differently?

45. aaron - February 28, 2009

I AM sorry about post #36. I would have deleted it if I knew how. It was just working through a fever hazed mental process. I don’t think that it contributes really any value and am truly sorry it is here.
#37 is all I want up here for its limited value.

46. Antony - February 28, 2009

Emmet – Yeah, I think that’s about right. We do agree on the basics for the most part. I think, as you said, we just relate to it differently.

Aaron – I appreciate your re-emphasis on wishing #36 wasn’t there. I responded (knowing you weren’t 100% behind it) because I wanted to make sure that since it was up there for others to read, that at least someone countered it. Because I often fear that silence is consent.

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