Did They Misquote Jesus?


tothesource: It is rather unusual for someone to write a book entirely devoted to debunking another book. What was it about Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesusthat made you think it deserved a full-length rebuttal?

Timothy Paul Jones: I ran across Ehrman’s work as I researched and wrote The Da Vinci Codebreaker and Answers to The Da Vinci Code. In Dan Brown’s works, the historical errors are so obvious that I had to laugh at them. But Dr. Ehrman’s works are so different in that regard. With few exceptions, Ehrman has his facts completely straight, and his underlying research is solid—it’s what he does with the facts and research that’s the problem. When one reads his books, one is left with the impression that the New Testament Gospels didn’t come from eyewitness testimony, that the New Testament documents weren’t considered to be authoritative until the late fourth century, and that the New Testament has been so thoroughly edited and poorly copied that it’s unclear what the original texts had to say. What’s more, from the fact that there are copying errors in the New Testament manuscripts, Ehrman surmises that God must not have inspired the texts in the first place. In other words, perfect inspiration requires perfect preservation—something that no competent evangelical scholar would claim. Because these erroneous conclusions from Ehrman are embedded in facts that are completely correct, it seemed to me that someone needed to respond to what Ehrman had to say. But I didn’t want the response to be angry or hateful, and I didn’t want it to attack him as a person. I wanted to use his claims as an opportunity to train Christians to think about their faith more thoroughly.

tts: Let’s look at one instance. Ehrman claims that since Christianity is grounded in the Bible, and the Bible exists only in copies of copies of copies that contain error upon error upon error committed by copyists over many centuries, it is a religion built upon a shaky foundation. What is your response?

Jones: In the first place, Christianity is not grounded in the Bible. Christianity is grounded in Jesus Christ, to whom Holy Scripture bears inerrant and infallible testimony. Ehrman moves too quickly from an errant impression that the Bible is unreliable to an errant assumption that Christian faith stands on shaky ground. Even Ehrman admits that it is possible, in almost every case, to get back to the original text by studiously comparing manuscripts with one another. Truth be told, of the 200,000 to 400,000 variances that appear among more than 5,700 manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament, less than one percent are even noticeable in English translations! These variances consist of transposed letters, misspelled words, and skipped letters. Of the remaining less-than-one-percent of differences, only a tiny handful affect anyone’s interpretation of a biblical text, and none of them affect any vital doctrine. It seems to me that what is “shaky” are Ehrman’s assumptions about the nature of inspiration—which, to be fair, he claims that he received from conservative-evangelical believers during his teens and twenties. If “inspiration” is considered to require word-by-word dictation from God to humanity, variations in the texts are indeed a problem—we have, after all, lost a word or letter that God dictated. But let’s think of inspiration and inerrancy more like this: God inspired a truth in the author’s mind, the author wrote that truth in ways and words that were understandable in that culture, and God protected the author’s writing from factual error. If that’s the case, I can claim—and I do claim!—with confident joy that what I read in my New Testament absolutely represents what God inspired, without error.

tts: Ehrman argues that such central beliefs as the divinity of Jesus Christ and the reality of the Holy Trinity, are actually based on scribal errors. How strong is his case?

Jones: It seems to me that, when it comes to these two issues, there is a bit of a difference between what’s claimed on the cover of Ehrman’s book and what he actually wrote. The cover copy gives the impression that our beliefs in Jesus as God and in God as Triune have resulted from scribal errors—which is, of course, utterly false. Ehrman’s case is quite a bit more nuanced. He does say that the New Testament “rarely if ever” attributes deity to Jesus (p. 113) and that later scribes tweaked the texts to make the case for Jesus’s deity even clearer. It’s true that some scribes did make small changes to clarify the deity of Jesus, but they made these clarifications based on undisputed texts wherein the deity of Jesus was clearly affirmed—John 20:28, for example, John 8:58, and Romans 9:6. When it comes to the Trinity, Ehrman spills a whole lot of ink over a very minor issue. One text where some New Testament manuscripts clearly affirm the Trinity is 1 John 5:7. These manuscripts add the words “the Father, Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.” Compare a copy of the English Standard Version, for example, with the King James Version, and you’ll see the difference. Here’s what is important to understand about this: It’s been known for nearly five hundred years that these verses were added later and probably never even existed in Greek until the sixteenth century! And, most important, historically the doctrine of the Trinity has never depended on this text. Belief in the Trinity preceded the existence of this addition, because the Trinity is clearly affirmed in other New Testament texts, most notably in Matthew 28:19, where persons are to be baptized in the name—singular—of the Father, Son, and Spirit. So how strong is the case that these beliefs are based on scribal errors? There is no case for such a claim.

tts: In one of Ehrman’s other books, Lost Christianities, he argues long and hard that what we call Christian orthodoxy was merely the one Christian doctrinal faction that happened to survive by mere politics. If things had gone another way, we’d all think Jesus was merely human, or another, that he was only divine rather than truly incarnate as a man.  What do you make of that?

Jones: In one sense, he’s correct. There were many sects that made many different claims about Jesus. Otherwise, why would Paul argue for the bodily resurrection against a group that evidently denied this tenet of faith? Why would John demand that Christians recognize Jesus as having come “in flesh”? But the real question is not whether there were variant understandings of the nature and identity of Jesus Christ—there were and there are. The real question is, “Which understanding of Jesus Christ was and is rooted in eyewitness testimony of the real events of Jesus’s life?” Only the New Testament documents were written early enough to have any valid claim of originating while eyewitnesses were still alive.

tts: Obviously much of Christian faith rests on the assumption that the Gospels are really eyewitness accounts of the events they describe—a view that Ehrman happily rejects. Is Ehrman right? Are the Gospels second and third-hand Good News?

Jones: I believe and confidently confess, based on overwhelming historical evidence, that the Gospels represent firsthand Good News. If any other ancient document happened to be as well-attested as these documents, no historian would question their authenticity. But the Gospels made incredible claims, claims that call persons to a new way of living and to faithful confession of specific truths. So, there is resistance to the claims of the New Testament Gospels. Here’s some of the evidence that the Gospels represent eyewitness testimony: In the first place, it’s clear that the Gospels were in wide circulation while eyewitnesses were still alive. John Rylands Papyrus 457 (sometimes known as P52) is a fragment of John’s Gospel that was copied in Egypt. The fragment comes from the early second—maybe even the late first—century. This is clear from the style of handwriting in the document, which is strikingly similar to a letter—known as Papyrus Fayyum 110—that can be precisely dated to A.D. 94. For John’s Gospel to be copied in Egypt around A.D. 100, it must have been in circulation for some time by that point. Furthermore, there’s early testimony, from Papias of Hierapolis writing around A.D. 100, suggesting that Matthew’s Gospel and Mark’s Gospel were already connected to apostolic eyewitnesses. Matthew’s Gospel came from the apostle Matthew, and Mark’s Gospel is rooted in the eyewitness testimony of Simon Peter. Around A.D. 160, the author of the Muratorian Fragment is aware not only of the four Gospels but also of the fact that authoritative Christian writings must come from eyewitnesses and that Luke’s and John’s Gospels have a strong apostolic pedigree. In the A.D. 170s, Irenaeus of Lyons recounts the same eyewitness origins for the New Testament Gospels that we find in the Muratorian Fragment and in the writings of Papias. Irenaeus seems to have received his information from Polycarp of Smyrna, who learned these truths at the feet of the elder John from eyewitnesses of the events of Jesus’s life. What’s more, the most essential information in the New Testament Gospels—the Good News of death, burial, and resurrection—is attested beyond the New Testament Gospels. There’s an oral history of these events, which emerged in Judea in the Aramaic language very quickly after the crucifixion, that Paul recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. The essential events of Jesus’s life are widely attested in words that bear every mark of originating in firsthand testimony.