Monday, February 5, 2007

Misquoting Jesus - Chapter 1

This post is part of John Remy's Mind on Fire bookgroup, which is reading Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus. Though I've volunteered to cover chapter 7 for the group, I'm blogging my reactions to every chapter.

I was originally going to hold back my chapter reactions until after the "assigned" book group member's reaction was posted, but we seem to not be doing that in order. Oh well.

My guilty confession is that I bogged down on chapter one for well over a year after I read the introduction. Only the reading group has really motivated me to continue, and I'm glad I did. As someone who has never formally studied the Bible, I've often felt lost about the structure and origin of the various pieces of the New Testament. This chapter helped me understand the back-story which helped me understand why they might be included in Canon at all. Looking back at the chapter, I can see why Ehrman thought to structure it the way he did, but I might have benefited from a better "executive summary" at the top of the chapter.

It starts with a discussion on the Judaic roots of Christianity, and the "bookish" character of Judaism as a unique characteristic in the history of the world to that point. It's important to understanding the roots and writing traditions of early literate Christians and why they would turn to the written word as a tool. Early Christian Letters, the first discussion of Christian writing, was eye-opening for me in seeing that the various founders of Churches (namely Paul) struggled with keeping separated populations of people synchronized in their belief systems. Letters were an attempt to solve that problem. Interestingly, we still do that today. The next few subsections, Early Gospels, Early Acts, Apocalypses, Orders, Apologies, Martyrologies, etc. helped me to a deeper understanding behind the motivation behind writings which eventually became Canon. Another constant theme is the number of lost texts which fall into one of these categories. Martyrologies struck a cord with me after having recently read about the "martyr complex" of early American Quakers in Daniel Boorstin's The Americans: The Colonial Experience.

The next section is on the formation of Canon. It really only whetted my appetite for information on this process, and pointed to another Ehrman book (among others) for the full story.

Next is a discussion of literacy rates in the early Christian populations (low) and what literacy even meant to the population of the time. This dovetails with a discussion of the tradition of public readings of scripture (so the illiterate know what's going on).

Ehrman closes with a series of questions all this raises. What was the infrastructure behind production of books in these pre- printing-press times? What was the infrastructure behind distributing them? Who was doing the copying and how do we know it was accurate?

I found the chapter to be slow going at first, but it got better and better. Part of my experience is reading in a way that I'll be able to discuss the chapters in these posts, which is a different kind of reading for me.

Onward! Ruth Reichel and Barbara Ehrenreich are whispering in my ear, and I don't want to fracture my attention (even more than it is).


  1. I like this window that Ehrman provides into the first century information culture in the Mediterranean. It's interesting that reading and writing were important to so many people who weren't empowered to read or write for themselves. I've read elsewhere that common folk relied heavily on local scribes for tax receipts, litigation, labor contracts, and even private correspondence.

    I wonder how they blogged back then?

  2. Totally agreed. After reading some more, it's interesting how slowly the written word worked it's way down to universality. No offense meant to the non-literate out there who read my blog.

  3. John,

    I enjoyed your take. I finally got around to writing my assigned review -- three months later! I too have had a difficult time getting into the book. Thanks for picking-up the slack.

    mel (aka the blogger formerly known as "Watt")

  4. mel, I read your post, which has re-energized me. I really like your reactions, and I'll think about it a bit before commenting.