Misquoting Truth

Article by   December 2007

When Bart's Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus hit the shelves, the media went nuts. There were NPR interviews, appearances on John Stewart's The Daily Show and the Diane Rehm Show, plus praise from the Washington Post and The Dallas Morning News. The result was Ehrman's book landed a spot on the New York Times bestsellers list. All the craze seemed to be over the controversial subtitle, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.

Such a provocative claim lent itself to a quick and decisive evangelical response, and that's exactly what happened. Scholars like Darrell Bock, Daniel Wallace, and Craig Blomberg all weighed in with their comments and reviews. Especially classic was Wallace's line "One almost gets the impression that he [Ehrman] is encouraging the Chicken Littles in the Christian community to panic at the data that they are simply not prepared to wrestle with."
However, even with the assessment of such distinguished evangelical exegetes, pastors and laypeople still awaited a full rebuttal. The wait is over with Timothy Paul Jones' Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus. In an engaging style, peppered with personal anecdotes and humor, Jones takes Ehrman's claims head-on and shows them to be grossly lacking.

In the Introduction, Jones tells us firstly why he wrote the book. After thinking about the soaring status of Ehrman's book, over 100,000 copies sold, he said, "it occurred to me that most of these 100,000 readers were probably not biblical scholars. If it had required so much effort for me--with a firm grasp of biblical languages and degrees in the New Testament, church history and spiritual formation--to glimpse the errors in Ehrman's writings, his books could quite easily convince hundreds of thousands of others that the New Testament's testimony about Jesus Christ is unreliable" (p.13). Jones vehemently disagrees with Ehrman's conclusions; therefore, while thanking Ehrman for raising the issues, he aims to show Ehrman's errors in his claims and his reading of the evidence.

After the why of the book, Jones recounts his existential journey in parallel with Ehrman himself. Both men came to a crisis of faith, and yet they came out with radically different conclusions. Ehrman rejected the faith and now claims to be a happy agnostic; whereas, Jones came to a deeper understanding and conviction over the inerrancy of the biblical text. How can Jones hold such a position? He shows us in the two parts of the book: Part One: Why the Texts Can Be Trusted; Part Two: Why the Lost Christianities Were Lost.

In Part One, Jones first addresses the Truth About the Originals That Matter. Ehrman asserts that since we only have error-ridden copies of the New Testament, then the word of God cannot be inerrant. Of course there's a presupposition behind that assertion; namely, "these manuscript differences...demonstrate that the New Testament manuscript does not represent God's inerrant Word" (p.31). The problem with this assumption is the doctrine of inerrancy does not rest on word-for-word manuscript agreement.

While Ehrman understands that inerrancy rests upon the autograph (the original manuscript), and not upon the various manuscript copies, he supposes that if God did not keep the manuscripts from error, then He did not inspire the original. Jones, on the other hand, though rightly acknowledging manuscript differences, asks if the "available copies of the New Testament manuscripts are sufficiently accurate for us to grasp the truth that God intended in the first century? I believe that the answer to this question is yes" (p.33).

Jones then explains the process of copying, collecting, and binding papyri, which leads him into his second chapter Truth About the Copyists. Here Ehrman's boldest claim about "highly significant" textual changes is addressed. Jones first untwists Ehrman's use of the 3rd century critic Celsus, and presents three facts Ehrman downplays: the minor nature of most manuscript differences, the value of textual criticism in reconstructing the original text, and the concern of copyists to preserve the words of Scripture. At the end of the day virtually every manuscript difference is unnoticeable, and "none of the differences affects any central element of the Christian faith" (p.44). Therefore, Ehrman's "significant changes" is an overstatement at best, not supported by the evidence.

The irony of Ehrman's position is that he believes scholars can reach near 100 percent certainty in reconstructing the oldest manuscript tradition; yet because God didn't preserve the copies without mistakes, he thinks God must not have inspired them. Ehrman evidently wants to be a good textual critic while at the same time denying the validity of his textual-criticism.

In the third chapter of Part One: Truth About "Significant Changes" in the New Testament Jones progressively works through some of the texts Ehrman said display significant change. While Ehrman is right that it's difficult to be certain about a few passages because of the variants, it's quite a leap to say these difficulties represent significant changes. Jones says, "In every case in which two or more options remain possible, every possible option simply reinforces truths that are already clearly present in the writings of that particular author and in the New Testament as a whole; there is no point at which any of the possible options would require readers to rethink an essential belief about Jesus or doubt the historical integrity of the New Testament" (p.55). Part One then closes with the chapter Truth About "Misquoting Jesus," where Jones shows that Ehrman's whole premise does not hold water.

In Part Two, Jones turns to address the question of divergent or "unorthodox" Christianities. Ehrman asserts that the "proto-orthodox" Christians won the doctrinal battle, and thus rewrote the historical record. Again, however, Ehrman misses the real question. The question is not were there divergent Christianities, there were, but "Which understanding of Jesus represents authentic, historical testimony about Him" (p.81)?

Jones, with chapters entitled Truth About Oral History, Truth About the Authors of The Gospels, Truth About Eye Witness Testimony, and Truth About How the Books Were Chosen, systematically displays how Ehrman's claims are not historically justified; rather, they evidence a scholar with an ax to grind.

Informing us of the history of oral history, Jones helpfully shows us how a fixed tradition of truth concerning Jesus' birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection emerged under three years after Jesus' crucifixion (see 1 Cor 15). He also teaches us about the oral tradition attached to the four gospels, a tradition set in historical record by Papias of Hierapolis, a second century church father. And after providing the evidence for eye-witness testimony, and displaying Ehrman's statement that the traditional authors of the Gospels were "uneducated, lower-class, [and] illiterate" (p.119) to be smoke, Jones closes Part Two undercutting Ehrman's misleading implications about the biblical canon. The standard for canonicity didn't emerge in the late fourth century, and that standard wasn't established by a powerful bishop; rather, the standard was set very early, and its basic idea rested on "testimony that could be connected to eyewitnesses of the risen Lord" (p.124).

Lastly, Jones wraps up the book with Concluding Reflections in which shows Ehrman's acknowledgement of consistency in the biblical witness, and yet his continued rejection of the Bible's historicity. His problem seems to rest on an inability to grapple with the humanness of Scripture; for as Robert Gundry put it "Ehrman has so hardened the categories of humanity and divinity that since the Bible is a 'very human book,' for him it can't also be divinely inspired" (p.144). Yet, in spite of the attack on inerrancy, Jones says we can give thanks for Ehrman's questions; for they led us back to the Scriptures that we might more ably defend the truth. Quoting J.I. Packer, Jones says "The best defense of any doctrine is the creative exposition of it" (p.145).

All in all, Jones' book is a witty, clear, logical, and devastating critic on Ehrman's views. The book reaches it aims, aptly equipping Christians to intelligently defend inerrancy, and doing so without being overly technical. I commend this book to layperson, pastor, and scholar alike. What's particularly helpful about the book for the layperson are the definitions and clarifications Jones provides in the "Know More" and "Think It Out" boxes in each chapter. For the Pastor, Jones is a model of clarity in exploring difficult issues, while forcing us not to shy away from them. As I pastor myself, I've found Jones' book stimulating in how to equip every Christian with an understanding of biblical criticism. How many Christians really understand our view of inerrancy? Without a proper understanding, we leave them open to the attacks of the wolves. For the scholar, Jones' book is great because, though not overly-technical, it is thoroughly footnoted; therefore, if you wanted to probe deeper into any of the issues raised, you have the resources with which to do so. I thank Timothy Jones for his scholarship and instruction. Tolle lege!

Timothy Paul Jones / Downers Grove: IVP, 2007
Review by David Gilbert, Minister of Second Presbyterian Church, Yazoo, MS

 

 


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