Book Review: Misquoting Truth – By Timothy Paul Jones

 

Timothy Paul Jones Misquoting Truth.pngLetter IIn 2007 atheist/agnostic professor Bart Ehrman published his book Misquoting Jesus, which attempted to discredit the reliability of the texts of the Christian New Testament. Misquoting Truth is pastor Timothy Paul Jones‘ response to that book, in which he attempts to point out the errors in Ehrman’s scholarship.

As Jones goes about addressing the various errors of Ehrman’s text, three of his primary points are that most of the changes which Ehrman plays up are minor grammatical changes which disappear when the text is translated, that where there are discrepancies “it’s possible to look at the manuscripts and recover the original wording”, and that contrary to Ehrman’s claims, “the copyists were more concerned with preserving the words of Scripture than with promoting their own theological agendas.”

While going about this Jones also focuses on attacking the philosophical presuppositions which skew Ehrman’s perspective, primarily his dedication to an Enlightenment era devotion to absolute [rational] certainty as the only avenue to truth – that is, rationalism. Jones’ counterargument is to point out the way in which God works through human beings in order to convey is message, that God doesn’t “work around humanity to preserve his words” as Ehrman expects Him to.

Perhaps the most insightful point made by Jones is his note that: “A recent Washington Post article described Ehrman as having ‘peered so hard into the origins of Christianity that he lost his faith altogether’… And yet, it appears to me that the problem was not that he peered too deeply into the origins of Christian faith; it was that he inherited a theological system from well-meaning evangelical Christians that allowed little – if any – space for questions, variations or rough edges.”

All in all, Jones book is a very well written critique of Ehrman’s text.

Memorable Quotes:

“From my perspective, a significant alteration would be one that requires Christians either to rethink a vital belief about Jesus Christ – a belief that we might find in the Apostle’s Creed, for exmaple – or to doubt the historical accuracy of the New Testament documents.”-p.54

“Here’s my point: You cannot absolutely prove that any past event actually occurred.”-p.108

“Many years did pass before Christians agreed concerning which books should compose their sacred Scriptures. And, yet, a definite standard directed this process – a conviction that these writings must be rooted in reliable, eyewitness testimony about Jesus Christ.”-p.136

“… despite the sensational title of Misquoting Jesus, I find only a half-dozen times when Jesus might have been misquoted, and most of these supposed changes simply echo ideas that are found elsewhere in Scripture.”-p.71

Specific Criticisms

As a personal bias, I would have preferred if Jones had gone into greater depth concerning the philosophical presuppositions which undergird Ehrman’s position, however I think he did sufficiently cover the issue for a lay audience. I also think that there are various places where Jones uses words such as “may” or “most” which may be indicative a larger anomaly than he is willing to account for, however I cannot substantiate that, it is merely a suspicion I have when authors use such words without explicitly enunciating the exceptions they are taking.

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Rereading the Faith for Today – Gnostic Tendencies and Defending Against Them

 

Princeton.pngLetter IIn his book The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesterton asserts that “the whole world once very nearly died of broadmindedness and the brotherhood of all religions.”

Chesterton is here referencing the way the early church had to deal with their contemporary culture attempting to bring all religions into one accord; the solution as Chesterton presents it was to formulate a creed, to define the Christian faith against those who pushed for mere assimilation.

One of the groups which Chesterton has in mind here are the early Gnostics. Although early Christianity was able to overcome the threat of Gnosticism in its day there is a perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith, a perpetual tendency for sinful man to read the faith in a way congenial to his own culture. The failure of one attempt, such as the rationalistic Christianity of the Enlightenment, is followed by another, the Gnosticizing relativism of our present day.

When the the stars of cultural tendencies in which people re-read the faith align -as they have done today – the result in something akin to ancient Gnosticism.

This perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith thus gives the appearance of an ongoing gnostic tendency plaguing the church throughout its history. As Nicholas Perrin puts it “The battle between orthodoxy and Gnosticism isn’t over yet and probably won’t be any time soon.”

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Book Review: Misquoting Jesus – Bart D. Ehrman

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Letter Tisquoting Jesus is author Bart Ehrman‘s account of the origins of the Christian New Testament, specifically as involves the transmission of the text and the formation of the canon. While Ehrman claims to have originally had a strong belief in the Christian faith, as he dove deeper into the text this faith faltered, till he found himself as an agnostic due to not feeling he was able to trust the words of Scripture as reliable. This book is an attempt to detail his reasons why the Scriptures that we have today cannot be seen as transmitting the truth.

Perhaps the quote which best sums up Ehrman’s argument against the canon is one which asks “… how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes – sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times) incorrectly. What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways” (p.7). This is Ehrman’s argument, that due to errors made by scribes – either unintentionally or deliberately to push some agenda – that the New Testament texts are unreliable accounts of whatever was originally written.

Ehrman makes his argument by appealing to grammatical errors made by scribes, to changes made to the original text (such as the long ending of Mark or the story of the woman at the well), and to the idea that rather than having been seen as authoritative from the get-go, those texts which made it into the New Testament were simply the “one group eventually ‘won out’ in these debates” (p.153).

In essence, Ehrman’s text revolves around subtly putting forth a handful of presuppositions which exclude the authority of the text, and then barraging the reader with numbers and overplaying the significance of changes to make it appear that the changes he is pointing out actually matter on the grander scale. In fact, they don’t. As Ehrman himself says in another of his books “In spite of the remarkable differences among our manuscripts, scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the oldest form of the words of the New Testament with reasonable (though not 100 percent) accuracy” (Lost Christianities, p.221), which is echoed by scholar Timothy Jones when he makes the statement [in reference to Ehrman’s ‘changes’] that “In each of these cases, however, it’s possible to look at the manuscripts and recover the original wording” (Misquoting Truth, p.71). 

The problem for Ehrman is that he is purely a product of his time, and is trying to interpret the Bible through the lens of Enlightenment modernism – that is, rationalism, a system that insists on 100% certainty (either through reason or science) for any truth claim. This rationalism is a philosophy which was dominant throughout the Enlightenment into the early 20th Century, and – while Ehrman ascribed to Christianity early on – the type of Christianity he was brought up in was also one swamped in this philosophy (that is, fundamentalism). Both are systems which want absolute certainty, just the bare facts, no interpretation, etc. The problem is, these things are simply impossible, regardless of the field of study. In the words of Nicholas Perrin “History cannot prove anything” and “To observe is to interpret” (Lost in Transmission, p.93, p.10). Ehrman wants to have proofs for believing the Bible, but this sort of rationalism is inapplicable.

When Ehrman finds that rationalism fails – as it does inevitably in any field it is applied – he ends in despair (that is, he follows the typical route from modernism to postmodernism) and embraces relativism. Thus he argues that orthodoxy were merely the winners, and that ‘heretics’ were just as much Christians as the rest; i.e. “Eventually, some of these Christian books came to be seen not only as worthy of reading but as absolutely authoritative for the beliefs of Christians. They became Scripture” (p.29). In order to do so he blatantly ignores biblical evidence to the contrary (such as 2 Peter 3:15-16 or 1 Timothy 5:18), or the many places Paul condemns those who change the gospel presented to them, and makes up his own story.

There are a few good portions of this book. It does enlighten one to the problems of textual criticism, and helps one understand the way in which the Bible came into its current form. It even is helpful – and truthful – in the way it handles some of the texts which were added into the Scriptures.

Yet, overall, Ehrman is skewing the facts in order to push his agenda that the Bible is unreliable; an agenda not founded upon the evidence, but upon a false adherence to rationalism (even when it fails). Not only this, but even if every example that Ehrman gives were to be taken at face value, it still wouldn’t matter, the chief reason being that none of the changes he notes actually change any central tenant of Christianity, or even a minor one. The doctrines found in the changed areas are all born out elsewhere in Scripture, so even if one were to remove all the changed areas, Christianity would remain the same. Thus, the worst part about the book is that it is an irrelevance playing at importance. It is, in a word, sensationalism. 

Memorable Quotes:

– “This oldest form of the text is no doubt closely (very closely) related to what the author originally wrote, and so it is the basis for out interpretation of his teaching.”-62

– “The reading that best explains the existence of the others is more likely to be original.”-132

– “The King James Version is filled with places in which the translators rendered a Greek text derived ultimately from Erasmus’ edition, which was based on a single twelfth-century manuscript that is one of the worst of the manuscripts that we now have available to us!”-209

Specific Criticisms

One minor nitpick is Ehrman’s statement that “By this period it was widely believed among pagans that the gods were not subject to the petty emotions and whims of mere mortals, that they were, in fact, above such things” (p.201) He doesn’t offer any citation for this statement, furthermore, the entire point of the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro is that the gods are petty, and therefore piety can’t be based upon ‘what is dear to the gods’. Then again, perhaps Ehrman is aware of a source documenting a change from Plato’s stance.

“All of this, of course, is rank speculation” – or, 3 Main Problems with Modern Scholarship’s Account of the Early Church

manuscript.jpgWhen the average Christian take up their Bible and reads, the assumption is generally made that what is being read is the inspired word of God. Yet in popular contemporary scholarship there is a rising tendency to re-interpret the history of the early church in such a way that the average Christian would no longer be able to have this same assurance.

The primary goals of this new scholarship are twofold: on the one hand the integrity of the Scriptures is called into question, the argument being that it is impossible to know what those texts actually taught due to intentional and unintentional changes to the original texts; on the other hand the argument is being put forward that rather than one Christianity there were actually various competing ‘Christianities’ – with the orthodox position being merely the position which won the struggle for supremacy – such that there is no true and unified Christian tradition that has been transmitted from the time of the apostles onward.

Thus, not only is the trustworthiness of the Scriptures questioned, but so also is the reliability of the canon, which then allows for a wide number of ‘Christianities’ to find credence.

This tendency is rooted in a number of errors in the way this type of scholarship approaches the early church. These errors include (1) the presuppositions of modernism and postmodernism skewing the perspective taken by the scholars, (2) failing to take into account the Biblical data (in part due to an insufficient understanding of Scripture, which flows from the aforementioned presuppositions), and (3) potentially operating off of a deliberate bias to reinterpret and/or misrepresent the standing narrative.

False Cultural Biases – Rationalism

The greatest influence upon much of contemporary scholarship’s flawed interpretations of early church history boils down to these scholars allowing the social and cultural presuppositions of the last hundred years to play too much a part in determining how they view history. Two scholars whom this is most readily visible in are Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels.

In the case of Bart Ehrman, the presupposition which most heavily impacts him is that of modernism; that is, both in his religious upbringing and in his intellectual assumptions he is dedicated to the philosophy of rationalism (even when it fails). When an individual takes up the lens of rationalism they are then forced to dismiss all those things which cannot be verified for certain via reason or scientific experimentation; accompanying this quest for scientific certainty is a desire to study only the facts of history, and thereby to try and apply a similar objectivity to history as is present to an extent in science.

The way that this plays itself out for Ehrman is that because he cannot verify with absolute certainty the authorship, the original texts, or the authority of the Scriptures, he then calls the legitimacy of all of these things into question.

This sort of approach can be seen all throughout Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus when he laments that modern scholars “have only error-ridden copies” of the New Testament due to the ways in which scribes altered the texts both intentionally and unintentionally. This brings Ehrman to the conclusion that it does little good to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God “if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired.”

If these ‘errors’ were of any significant import, Ehrman might have a point; unfortunately for him – and as he himself admits – these errors don’t actually change anything about the Biblical message. His qualm, instead, is that no uncertainty can be allowed at all (even when that uncertainty has no practical or theological import or relevance).

Rationalism of this sort ultimately finds its roots in the Enlightenment, yet Ehrman was also influenced by the traces of rationalism which had found their way into the fundamentalist background in which he was raised. In regards to this Timothy Paul Jones in his book Misquoting Truth makes the observation that “[Ehrman] inherited a theological system from well-meaning evangelical Christians that allowed little – if any – space for questions, variations or rough edges.” Ehrman describes this journey himself in the introduction to his book Misquoting Jesus, where he explains how he came to discover discrepancies in the various source texts, and in turn began to doubt the inerrancy of Scripture – that is, because he found that he could not verify such things with 100% certainty, what faith he had in them was removed.

When Ehrman’s attempts to prove the authority of Scripture failed under rationalistic standards, his system crumbled. His system crumbled not because of any fault in the integrity of Scripture, but due to the faults in the rationalistic system through which he attempted to analyze it.

As Wheaton scholar Nicholas Perrin points out in his book Lost in Transmission: “The notion that we believe the Bible to be God’s Word on certain proofs is not a biblical notion; it is a notion of fundamentalism inherited from the scientific age.”

Both the quest for certainty – especially in the realm of history – and the quest for absolute objectivity are inherently doomed to failure. As Perrin again notes: “To observe is to interpret… Balance is a fine ideal, but purely objective history, something else entirely, is an illusion.”

In this sense Ehrman’s journey followed the same general trajectory as all of contemporary scholarship between the age of modernism and that of postmodernism; when they found themselves unable to verify things with absolute certainty during modernism, they plunged into the relativism and subjectivism of postmodernism.

Despite the failure of rationalism, it is this assumption which lies at the foundation of the flawed worldview that plagues contemporary scholarship. Indeed, it is the failure of rationalism, coupled with a devotion to the tenants of rationalism as the only avenue to truth, which results in the aforementioned relativism; when the supposed only avenue to truth fails, it is assumed that there is either no avenue to truth or that they are all equal.

When this sort of relativism is applied to the division between orthodoxy and heresy scholars such as Ehrman and Pagels cease speaking about Christianity and instead move on to speaking of Christianities, assuming that these are all valid forms of the faith. In order to account for the prominence of orthodoxy they then rely upon their devotion to relativism – and therefore a disdain for authority – to create a narrative in which the proto-orthodox were the “victorious party” which “rewrote the history of the controversy.” Rather than being ‘correct’, the orthodox are seen as those who simply powered their way to the front and as the winners rewrote history. It is merely taken for granted that whoever ‘won’ must have rewrote the story to suite themselves, with all concerns of whether the winners were actually ‘correct’ being pushed to the side.

Ignoring Textual Testimony – Failing to Account for Biblical Data

Apart from the basic presuppositions which accompany a reliance upon (and the subsequent failure of) rationalism, another factor which plays a large part in the way contemporary scholarship misinterprets the early church is by failing to take into account the Biblical data.

Perhaps the most pointed example of this comes from Ehrman when he states that:

We need always to remember that these canonical Gospels were not seen as sacrosanct or inviolable for many long years after they were first put into circulation; no one, except possibly their own authors, considered them to be the “last word” on Jesus’ teachings and deeds.

In one swoop Ehrman is thereby able to assert the early church did not take the authority of the Gospels seriously and – knowing that the Biblical testimony contradicts this – dismiss this contradiction as merely the biased opinion of the authors.

That the early church didn’t take the texts seriously is thereby not reached as a conclusion, but is used as a starting point around which the rest of Ehrman’s narrative can be built, as it is only be ignoring the actual words of the Biblical writers that one could assert that they did take their texts as being sacrosanct.

Yet, Ehrman does not quite clear himself by simply noting the personal bias of the individual authors, for various Biblical authors cite one another as authoritative, such as in 2 Peter 3:15-16 where Paul’s letters are cited as ‘Scripture’, and Paul in 1 Timothy 5:18 quoting Luke as Scripture. Thus, it is only by ignoring the actual testimony the Scripture itself that such scholars can take the view that they do.

Rhetoric Over Evidence – Misrepresentation of the Facts

A final problem with contemporary interpretations which must be noted is the apparent deliberate misrepresentation the standing narrative; that is, in some instances, modern scholars – who are themselves not Christians – act off of an agenda to try and discredit the faith.

Such harsh accusations should no doubt not be made without warrant, but in this case it seems that such accusations are warranted, primarily through clear misrepresentations of the source material. Such clear misrepresentations of the source material can be seen perhaps most clearly in the internal discrepancies in the texts of these authors.

As an example, in his book Misquoting Jesus Ehrman plays up the thesis that we have only error-ridden copies of the New Testament, and that because of scribal errors and because of intentional changes to the text, the question of inerrancy is irrelevant; yet at the same time in his book Lost Christianities he makes the assertion that in spite of these various differences “scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the oldest form of the words of the New Testament with reasonable (though not 100 percent) accuracy.” These two assertions seem wholly at odds, that the texts can be so riddled with errors that one must ask what good it does to speak of the originals as inspired when we do not have the originals, and yet the oldest forms of the New Testament can be constructed with reasonable-if-not-100% accuracy.

Similarly in Lost Chritianities Ehrman can be found stating that “most scholars think that 1 Timothy is pseudonymous,” which is immediately followed with a firm assertion that it is no wonder the early church was “forging documents in Paul’s name condemning the practice of having women speak in church (1 Timothy).” This is a subtle move taking the reader from a state of possibility to one of certainty.

Other such tactics can be seen when Ehrman asserts that “almost all of the ‘lost’ Scriptures of the early Christians, were forgeries” and then claims that those canonical texts which are of uncertain authorship are forgeries; yet it is a long jump from ‘uncertain authorship’ to ‘forgery’. Ehrman can also be seen starting with the assertion that the church “gained” a doctrine of the Trinity, and that someone “decided” which four Gospels would be canonical, and that there were a ‘diversity’ of Christianities. All of these are subtle assertions which serve to push the bias of Ehrman before he has actually proved his thesis.

In Pagels, this bias presents itself in her book The Gnostic Gospels by assuming ulterior motivations – primarily political – for each advancement of orthodoxy. Each of these is stated as a premise rather than arrived at as a conclusion in the locations they appear, and so while it does seem nitpicky to point such things out, it does show the underlying bias which is in effect in such writings – a bias which seeks to instill the conclusion at the outset which the text is supposed to be arriving at.

So what?

In analyzing these three areas one may come to a fuller understanding of that which has had the greatest influence on contemporary interpretations of the early church.

Due to the dedication to the Enlightenment standard of certainty, contemporary scholars necessarily misinterpret the history of the early church, for the seek certainty where none may be found and strive for rationalism where it cannot be had; as Nicholas Perrin notes: “our being Christian does not also require us to be rationalists.”

When this rationalism necessarily fails, contemporary scholarship embraces the same relativism as the rest of contemporary culture, and in turn read the current struggle for tolerance and incredulity toward authority back on the early church. Due to not being able to verify the Scripture by rationalist standards they then fail to take into proper account Scripture’s testimony of itself, which causes them to leave out crucial source of data in interpreting the early church. Finally, there is a blatant bias and agenda present in the scholarship done which comes across as an attempt to undermine Christianity rather than arrive at any truth.

In order to realign itself contemporary scholarship must realize these hidden underpinnings to its endeavor. Until it gives up on its Enlightenment devotion to scientific certainty – which necessarily leads to a wall between the spiritual and the material worlds – it will be impossible for contemporary scholarship to describe itself using any other words than those of Ehrman regarding himself, that “all of this, of course, is rank speculation.”

Indeed, the rank speculation of relativism is all that is left when the rationalistic system has failed and that same failed system remains being seen as the only avenue to truth.