Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Misquoting Jesus - Introduction

Though I've volunteered to blog about chapter 7 of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (Plus), I thought I'd try to put down my reactions for each chapter. And I've been delaying my reading of Journeygal and pilgrimgirl's blog entries on the book in order to keep my reactions "pure." And I -really- want to read their entries, so ...

The introduction is a first-person narrative of Ehrman's religious journey and evolving relationship with the Bible. He foreshadows the twist which his path takes by explaining his desire to learn the Bible and memorize passages from it, but the true inflection point of his story comes when he's at Moody Bible Institute, learning the basics of textual criticism (attempting to reconstruct the original texts):

One of the most pressing of all tasks, therefore, was to ascertain what the originals of the Bible said, given the circumstances that (1) they were inspired and (2) we don't have them. - Misquoting Jesus p. 5
What seems to differentiate Ehrman from his peers at Moody is his intellectual curiosity about the original, inspired words of God.

Later at his next stop, Wheaton College, Ehrman continues this intellectual path, realizing that reading the earliest texts surviving today means learning the languages they are in. But that bring other complications into his faith:

... the experience of learning Greek became a bit troubling for me and my view of scripture. I came to see early on that the full meaning and nuance of the Greek text of the New Testament could be grasped only when it is read and studied in the original language...[T]his started maing me question my understanding of scripture as the verbally inspired word of God. If the full meaning of the words fo scripture can be grasped only by studying them in Greek...doesn't this mean that most Christians, who don't read ancient languages, will never have complete access ot what God wants them to know? And doesn't this make the doctrine of inspiration a doctrine only for the scholarly elite... What good deos it do to say that the words are inspired by God if most people have absolutely no access to these words, but only to more or less clumsy renderings of these words into a language, such as English, that has nothing to do with the original words? - Misquoting Jesus p. 6-7
Though I didn't know the technical details of translation, that's always been a source of friction to me. Anyone who knows two languages is aware of the situations where one language will have a word for a concept that takes a while to explain in the other language through context and example. But instead of doing that a lot of time, we'll give a rough approximation which misses subtleties, nuance, and context. Heck, it even happens in the same language across cultures. Try getting someone from the South to explain the word "bubba" and oftentimes they'll just give the one-word synonym "redneck." But I've heard explanations which took almost 5 minutes to give! I always wondered how, for example, the Psalms could possibly be translated yet rhyme. And all of this presupposes having inspired text as the basis, which we know we don't have. But Ehrman keeps searching for the truth as he understands it, no matter where that search might take him.

There's a bit of dissonance when he describes a major change in his thought a bit later on when he lists a series of inconsistencies or just plain mistakes in the text of the New Testament. Despite the previous sections on not having autographs (original writings) he still seemed to cling to the idea that the words were inerrant until studying at Princeton Theological Seminary.

So back to the issue of not having the autographs, he mentions a startling statistic about the differences in various texts we do have:

[T]here are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. - Misquoting Jesus p. 10
Shocking, even for someone like me who hasn't every really held the Bible as a text of mystical importance.

Ehrman concludes on page 11 that a divinity which would have inspired the autographs could have preserved them and provided versions in later languages as well. I have a problem with this kind of analysis since if someone is going to believe in magic, why not also believe in inspired translation or inspired textual criticism?

This type of narrative is something I have to be careful of since it plays into my prejudices: passionate and intellectually rigorous examination of holy books leads us away from a literalist interpretation of them.

I'm very much looking forward to reading the posts others have done and the comments others have made.

1 comment:

  1. I think he meant there are more changes in the canonical texts of all versions and stripes. It's not terribly clear, but I didn't get the impression he is clinging to inerrancy.

    Hope this doesn't spoil it for the bunch, but, in his Fresh Air interview about the book he grudgingly admitted he is now non-theistic (if i recall correctly). So the full power of his personal arc is from fundamentalist evangelical -> what fundamentalist evangelicals would consider a pagan or atheist.