Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why ?
By Bart D. Ehrman
Bart D. Ehrman
More than almost anything I’ve ever written about, the subjectof this book has been on my mind for the past thirty years,since I was in my late teens and just beginning my study of the NewTestament. Because it has been a part of me for so long, I thought Ishould begin by giving a personal account of why this material hasbeen, and still is, very important to me.The book is about ancient manuscripts of the New Testament andthe differences found in them, about scribes who copied scripture andsometimes changed it. This may not seem to be very promising as akey to one’s own autobiography, but there it is. One has little controlover such things.Before explaining how and why the manuscripts of the New Testamenthave made a real difference to me emotionally and intellectually,to my understanding of myself, the world I live in, my views ofGod, and the Bible, I should give some personal background.I was born and raised in a conservative place and time—the nation’sheartland, beginning in the mid 1950s. My upbringing wasnothing out of the ordinary. We were a fairly typical family of five,churchgoing but not particularly religious. Starting the year I was infifth grade, we were involved with the Episcopal church in LawrenceKansas, a church with a kind and wise rector, who happened alsoto be a neighbor and whose son was one of my friends (with whom Igot into mischief later on in junior high school—something involvingcigars). As with many Episcopal churches, this one was socially respectableand socially responsible. It took the church liturgy seriously,and scripture was part of that liturgy. But the Bible was not overlyemphasized: it was there as one of the guides to faith and practice,along with the church’s tradition and common sense. We didn’t actuallytalk about the Bible much, or read it much, even in Sunday schoolclasses, which focused more on practical and social issues, and on howto live in the world.The Bible did have a revered place in our home, especially for mymom, who would occasionally read from the Bible and make surethat we understood its stories and ethical teachings (less so its “doctrines”).Up until my high school years, I suppose I saw the Bible as amysterious book of some importance for religion; but it certainly wasnot something to be learned and mastered. It had a feel of antiquity toit and was inextricably bound up somehow with God and church andworship. Still, I saw no reason to read it on my own or study it.Things changed drastically for me when I was a sophomore inhigh school. It was then that I had a “bornagain”experience, in a settingquite different from that of my home church. I was a typical“fringe” kid—a good student, interested and active in school sportsbut not great at any of them, interested and active in social life but notin the upper echelon of the school’s popular elite. I recall feeling akind of emptiness inside that nothing seemed to fill—not runningaround with my friends (we were already into some serious socialdrinking at parties), dating (beginning to enter the mysterium tremendumof the world of sex), school (I worked hard and did well but wasno superstar), work (I was a doortodoorsalesman for a companythat sold products for the blind), church (I was an acolyte and prettydevout—one had to be on Sunday mornings, given everything thathappened on Saturday nights). There was a kind of loneliness associatedwith being a young teenager; but, of course, I didn’t realize thatit was part of being a teenager—I thought there must be somethingmissing.That’s when I started attending meetings of a Campus Life Youthfor Christ club; they took place at kids’ houses—the first I went to wasa yard party at the home of a kid who was pretty popular, and thatmade me think the group must be okay. The leader of the group was atwentysomethingyearoldnamed Bruce who did this sort of thingfor a living—organized Youth for Christ clubs locally, tried to converthigh school kids to be “born again” and then get them involved in seriousBible studies, prayer meetings, and the like. Bruce was a completelywinsome personality—younger than our parents but older andmore experienced than we—with a powerful message, that the voidwe felt inside (We were teenagers! All of us felt a void!) was from nothaving Christ in our hearts. If we would only ask Christ in, he wouldenter and fill us with the joy and happiness that only the “saved”could know.Bruce could quote the Bible at will, and did so to an amazing degree.Given my reverence for, but ignorance of, the Bible, it allsounded completely convincing. And it was so unlike what I got atchurch, which involved old established ritual that seemed moregeared toward old established adults than toward kids wanting funand adventure, but who felt empty inside.To make a short story shorter, I eventually got to know Bruce,came to accept his message of salvation, asked Jesus into my heart,and had a bona fide bornagainexperience. I had been born for realonly fifteen years earlier, but this was a new and exciting experiencefor me, and it got me started on a lifelong journey of faith that hastaken enormous twists and turns, ending up in a dead end that provedto be, in fact, a new path that I have since taken, now well over thirtyyears later.Those of us who had these bornagainexperiences consideredourselves to be “real” Christians—as opposed to those who simply wentto church as a matter of course, who did not really have Christ in theirhearts and were therefore simply going through the motions withnone of the reality. One of the ways we differentiated ourselves fromthese others was in our commitment to Bible study and prayer. EspeciallyBible study. Bruce himself was a Bible man; he had gone toMoody Bible Institute in Chicago and could quote an answer fromthe Bible to every question we could think of (and many we wouldnever think of). I soon became envious of this ability to quote scriptureand got involved with Bible studies myself, learning some texts,understanding their relevance, and even memorizing the key verses.Bruce convinced me that I should consider becoming a “serious”Christian and devote myself completely to the Christian faith. Thismeant studying scripture full time at Moody Bible Institute, which,among other things, would involve a drastic change of lifestyle. AtMoody there was an ethical “code” that students had to sign off on: nodrinking, no smoking, no dancing, no card playing, no movies. Andlots of Bible. As we used to say, “Moody Bible Institute, where Bible isour middle name.” I guess I looked on it as a kind of Christian bootcamp. In any event, I decided not to go halfmeasureswith my faith; Iapplied to Moody, got in, and went there in the fall of 1973.The Moody experience was intense. I decided to major in Bibletheology, which meant taking a lot of biblical study and systematic theologycourses. Only one perspective was taught in these courses, subscribedto by all the professors (they had to sign a statement) and by allthe students (we did as well): the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Itcontains no mistakes. It is inspired completely and in its very words—“verbal, plenary inspiration.” All the courses I took presupposed andtaught this perspective; any other was taken to be misguided or evenheretical. Some, I suppose, would call this brainwashing. For me, itwas an enormous “step up” from the milquetoast view of the Bible Ihad had as a socializing Episcopalian in my younger youth. This washardcoreChristianity, for the fully committed.There was an obvious problem, however, with the claim that theBible was verbally inspired—down to its very words. As we learnedat Moody in one of the first courses in the curriculum, we don’t actuallyhave the original writings of the New Testament. What we haveare copies of these writings, made years later—in most cases, manyyears later. Moreover, none of these copies is completely accurate,since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionallychanged them in places. All scribes did this. So rather than actuallyhaving the inspired words of the autographs (i.e., the originals) ofthe Bible, what we have are the error riddencopies of the autographs.One of the most pressing of all tasks, therefore, was to ascertain whatthe originals of the Bible said, given the circumstances that (1) theywere inspired and (2) we don’t have them.I must say that many of my friends at Moody did not consider thistask to be all that significant or interesting. They were happy to reston the claim that the autographs had been inspired, and to shrug off,more or less, the problem that the autographs do not survive. For me,though, this was a compelling problem. It was the words of scripturethemselves that God had inspired. Surely we have to know whatthose words were if we want to know how he had communicated tous, since the very words were his words, and having some other words(those inadvertently or intentionally created by scribes) didn’t help usmuch if we wanted to know His words.This is what got me interested in the manuscripts of the New Testament,already as an eighteenyearold.At Moody, I learned the basicsof the field known as textual criticism—a technical term for the scienceof restoring the “original” words of a text from manuscripts thathave altered them. But I wasn’t yet equipped to engage in this study:first I had to learn Greek, the original language of the New Testament,and possibly other ancient languages such as Hebrew (the languageof the Christian Old Testament) and Latin, not to mention modernEuropean languages like German and French, in order to see whatother scholars had said about such things. It was a long path ahead.At the end of my three years at Moody (it was a threeyeardiploma),I had done well in my courses and was more serious than ever aboutbecoming a Christian scholar. My idea at the time was that there wereplenty of highly educated scholars among the evangelical Christians,but not many evangelicals among the (secular) highly educated scholars,so I wanted to become an evangelical “voice” in secular circles, bygetting degrees that would allow me to teach in secular settings whileretaining my evangelical commitments. First, though, I needed tocomplete my bachelor’s degree, and to do that I decided to go to a toprankevangelical college. I chose Wheaton College, in a suburb ofChicago.At Moody I was warned that I might have trouble finding realChristians at Wheaton—which shows how fundamentalist Moodywas: Wheaton is only for evangelical Christians and is the alma materof Billy Graham, for example. And at first I did find it to be a bit liberalfor my tastes. Students talked about literature, history, and philosophyrather than the verbal inspiration of scripture. They did this froma Christian perspective, but even so: didn’t they realize what reallymattered?I decided to major in English literature at Wheaton, since readinghad long been one of my passions and since I knew that to make inroadsinto the circles of scholarship, I would need to become wellversed in an area of scholarship other than the Bible. I decided also tocommit myself to learning Greek. It was during my first semester atWheaton, then, that I met Dr. Gerald Hawthorne, my Greek teacherand a person who became quite influential in my life as a scholar,teacher, and, eventually, friend. Hawthorne, like most of my professorsat Wheaton, was a committed evangelical Christian. But he wasnot afraid of asking questions of his faith. At the time, I took this as asign of weakness (in fact, I thought I had nearly all the answers to thequestions he asked); eventually I saw it as a real commitment to truthand as being willing to open oneself up to the possibility that one’s viewsneed to be revised in light of further knowledge and life experience.Learning Greek was a thrilling experience for me. As it turnedout, I was pretty good at the basics of the language and was alwayseager for more. On a deeper level, however, the experience of learningGreek became a bit troubling for me and my view of scripture. I cameto see early on that the full meaning and nuance of the Greek text ofthe New Testament could be grasped only when it is read and studiedin the original language (the same thing applies to the Old Testament,as I later learned when I acquired Hebrew). All the more reason, Ithought, for learning the language thoroughly. At the same time, thisstarted making me question my understanding of scripture as the verballyinspired word of God. If the full meaning of the words of scripturecan be grasped only by studying them in Greek (and Hebrew),doesn’t this mean that most Christians, who don’t read ancient languages,will never have complete access to what God wants them toknow? And doesn’t this make the doctrine of inspiration a doctrineonly for the scholarly elite, who have the intellectual skills and leisureto learn the languages and study the texts by reading them in the original?What good does it do to say that the words are inspired by Godif most people have absolutely no access to these words, but only tomore or less clumsy renderings of these words into a language, such asEnglish, that has nothing to do with the original words?’My questions were complicated even more as I began to think increasinglyabout the manuscripts that conveyed the words. The moreI studied Greek, the more I became interested in the manuscripts thatpreserve the New Testament for us, and in the science of textual criticism,which can supposedly help us reconstruct what the originalwords of the New Testament were. I kept reverting to my basic question:how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word ofGod if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired,but only the words copied by the scribes—sometimes correctly butsometimes (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that theautographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals!We have only error riddencopies, and the vast majority of theseare centuries removed from the originals and different from them,evidently, in thousands of ways.These doubts both plagued me and drove me to dig deeper anddeeper, to understand what the Bible really was. I completed my degreeat Wheaton in two years and decided, under the guidance of ProfessorHawthorne, to commit myself to the textual criticism of the NewTestament by going to study with the world’s leading expert in thefield, a scholar named Bruce M. Metzger who taught at PrincetonTheological Seminary.Once again I was warned by my evangelical friends against goingto Princeton Seminary, since, as they told me, I would have troublefinding any “real” Christians there. It was, after all, a Presbyterianseminary, not exactly a breeding ground for bornagainChristians.But my study of English literature, philosophy, and history—not tomention Greek—had widened my horizons significantly, and mypassion was now for knowledge, knowledge of all kinds, sacred andsecular. If learning the “truth” meant no longer being able to identifywith the bornagainChristians I knew in high school, so be it. I wasintent on pursuing my quest for truth wherever it might take me,trusting that any truth I learned was no less true for being unexpectedor difficult to fit into the pigeonholes provided by my evangelicalbackground.Upon arriving at Princeton Theological Seminary, I immediatelysigned up for firstyearHebrew and Greek exegesis (interpretation)classes, and loaded my schedule as much as I could with such courses.I found these classes to be a challenge, both academically and personally.The academic challenge was completely welcome, but the personalchallenges that I faced were emotionally rather trying. As I’veindicated, already at Wheaton I had begun to question some of thefoundational aspects of my commitment to the Bible as the inerrantword of God. That commitment came under serious assault in my detailedstudies at Princeton. I resisted any temptation to change myviews, and found a number of friends who, like me, came from conservativeevangelical schools and were trying to “keep the faith” (afunny way of putting it—looking back—since we were, after all, ina Christian divinity program). But my studies started catching upwith me.A turning point came in my second semester, in a course I was takingwith a much revered and pious professor named Cullen Story. Thecourse was on the exegesis of the Gospel of Mark, at the time (andstill) my favorite Gospel. For this course we needed to be able to readthe Gospel of Mark completely in Greek (I memorized the entireGreek vocabulary of the Gospel the week before the semester began);we were to keep an exegetical notebook on our reflections on the interpretationof key passages; we discussed problems in the interpretationof the text; and we had to write a final term paper on aninterpretive crux of our own choosing. I chose a passage in Mark 2,where Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees because his disciples hadbeen walking through a grain field, eating the grain on the Sabbath.Jesus wants to show the Pharisees that “Sabbath was made for humans,not humans for the Sabbath” and so reminds them of what thegreat King David had done when he and his men were hungry, howthey went into the Temple “when Abiathar was the high priest” andate the show bread, which was only for the priests to eat. One of thewellknownproblems of the passage is that when one looks at the OldTestament passage that Jesus is citing (1 Sam. 21:16),it turns out thatDavid did this not when Abiathar was the high priest, but, in fact,when Abiathar’s father Ahimelech was. In other words, this is one ofthose passages that have been pointed to in order to show that theBible is not inerrant at all but contains mistakes.In my paper for Professor Story, I developed a long and complicatedargument to the effect that even though Mark indicates thishappened “when Abiathar was the high priest,” it doesn’t really meanthat Abiathar was the high priest, but that the event took place in thepart of the scriptural text that has Abiathar as one of the main characters.My argument was based on the meaning of the Greek words involvedand was a bit convoluted. I was pretty sure Professor Storywould appreciate the argument, since I knew him as a good Christianscholar who obviously (like me) would never think there could beanything like a genuine error in the Bible. But at the end of my paperhe made a simple onelinecomment that for some reason wentstraight through me. He wrote: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” Istarted thinking about it, considering all the work I had put into thepaper, realizing that I had had to do some pretty fancy exegetical footworkto get around the problem, and that my solution was in fact a bitof a stretch. I finally concluded, “Hmm … maybe Mark did make amistake.”Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened. For if thereCould be one little, picayune mistake in Mark 2, maybe there could beMistakes in other places as well. Maybe, when Jesus says later in Mark4 that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds on the earth,”maybe I don’t need to come up with a fancy explanation for how themustard seed is the smallest of all seeds when I know full well it isn’t.
This kind of realization coincided with the problems I was encounteringthe more closely I studied the surviving Greek manuscripts
entire history of the church have not had access to the originals, making
Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant.A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquitycould spell no better than most people can today (and they didn’t evenhave dictionaries, let alone spell check). Even so, what is one to makeof all these differences? If one wants to insist that God inspired thevery words of scripture, what would be the point if we don’t have thevery words of scripture? In some places, as we will see, we simply cannotbe sure that we have reconstructed the original text accurately. It’sa bit hard to know what the words of the Bible mean if we don’t evenknow what the words are!This became a problem for my view of inspiration, for I came torealize that it would have been no more difficult for God to preservethe words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspirethem in the first place. If he wanted his people to have his words,surely he would have given them to them (and possibly even giventhem the words in a language they could understand, rather than
In short, my study of the Greek New Testament, and my investigationsinto the manuscripts that contain it, led to a radical rethinkingof my understanding of what the Bible is. This was a seismic change
was at Moody Bible Institute, one of the most popular books on campuswas Hal Lindsey’s apocalyptic blueprint for our future, The Late GreatPlanet Earth. Lindsey’s book was popular not only at Moody; it was, infact, the bestsellingwork of nonfiction (apart from the Bible; andusing the term nonfiction somewhat loosely) in the English language
My personal theology changed radically with this realization, takingme down roads quite different from the ones I had traversed inmy late teens and early twenties. I continue to appreciate the Bibleand the many and varied messages that it contains—much as I havecome to appreciate the other writings of early Christians from aboutthe same time and soon thereafter, the writings of lesser knownfiguressuch as Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, and Barnabas ofAlexandria, and much as I have come to appreciate the writings ofpersons of other faiths at roughly the time, the writings of Josephus,and Lucian of Samosata, and Plutarch. All of these authors are tryingto understand the world and their place in it, and all of them havevaluable things to teach us. It is important to know what the words ofthese authors were, so that we can see what they had to say and judge,then, for ourselves what to think and how to live in light of thosewords.This brings me back to my interest in the manuscripts of the NewTestament and the study of those manuscripts in the field known astextual criticism. It is my conviction that textual criticism is a compellingand intriguing field of study of real importance not just toscholars but to everyone with an interest in the Bible (whether a literalist,a recovering literalist, a never in your life would I ever be a literalist,or even just anyone with a remote interest in the Bible as ahistorical and cultural phenomenon). What is striking, however, isthat most readers—even those interested in Christianity, in the Bible,in biblical studies, both those who believe the Bible is inerrant andthose who do not—know almost nothing about textual criticism. Andit’s not difficult to see why. Despite the fact that this has been a topic ofsustained scholarship now for more than three hundred years, thereis scarcely a single book written about it for a lay audience—that is,for those who know nothing about it, who don’t have the Greek andother languages necessary for the indepthstudy of it, who do notrealize there is even a “problem” with the text, but who would be intriguedto learn both what the problems are and how scholars have setabout dealing with them. 2That is the kind of book this is—to my knowledge, the first of itskind. It is written for people who know nothing about textual criticismbut who might like to learn something about how scribes werechanging scripture and about how we can recognize where they didso. It is written based on my thirty years of thinking about the subject,and from the perspective that I now have, having gone through suchradical transformations of my own views of the Bible. It is written foranyone who might be interested in seeing how we got our New Testament,seeing how in some instances we don’t even know what the wordsof the original writers were, seeing in what interesting ways thesewords occasionally got changed, and seeing how we might, throughthe application of some rather rigorous methods of analysis, reconstructwhat those original words actually were. In many ways, then,this is a very personal book for me, the end result of a long journey.Maybe, for others, it can be part of a journey of their own.