Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

The book “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed The Bible and Why” from Prof. Bart Ehrman can be described as an introduction to New Testament textual criticism for beginners, in which he explains the subject in the context of his own background, relating his journey from being an Evangelical Christian to becoming a world renowned New Testament scholar. Besides D. C. Parker’s “Living Text of the Gospels”, Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” seems to be the only book on textual criticism designed specifically for the non-expert readers.

In short, Ehrman explains the copying practises of the earliest period and how the texts of the New Testament writings were corrupted as they were copied and recopied. He begins by introducing the diverse writings produced by the early Christians, such as gospels, Acts, apocalypses, Church orders, apologies etc. Briefly, the formation of the canon is also discussed and we are informed about the literacy level among the early Christians. Thereafter we are introduced to the world of the copyists and Ehrman explains how the early scribes copied texts, the different types of errors that were made (intentional and unintentional) and the problems associated with the copying of texts.

It is quite interesting to learn that even pagan critics of Christianity, such as Celsus, were quite aware at an early date that the Christian writings were being corrupted by the scribes and even Origen had to complain about the numerous differences between the gospel manuscripts. Marcion, an early Christian, corrupted the text of certain New Testament writings available to him and Dionysius is quoted who complains that his own writings have been modified just as “the word of the Lord” had been tampered. Marcion, of course, accused other Christians of corrupting the texts. In an earlier writing, “The Orthodox Corruption of Scriptures”, Ehrman demonstrated in detail how proto-orthodox Christians corrupted the New Testament writings on occasions. It seems that the early Christians were quite aware that the writings in their possession had undergone corruption and were still being corrupted and they frequently accused each other of tampering with the texts.

I was amazed to learn how statistically small additions or deletions within texts could change the entire meaning of passages and even books. Ehrman discusses at length certain examples in this regard and shows that even unintentional changes can result in changes that alter the meaning of texts. To quote Ehrman (pp. 207-208):

“It would be wrong, however, to say – as people sometimes do – that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them. We have seen, in fact, that just the opposite is the case. In some instances, the very meaning is at stake depending on how one resolves a textual problem: Was Jesus an angry man? Was he completely distraught in the face of death? Did he tell his disciples that they could drink poison without being harmed? Did he let an adulteress off the hook with nothing but a mild warning? Is the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament? Is Jesus actually called the “unique God” there? Does the New Testament indicate that even the Son of God does not know when the end will come? The questions go on and on, and all of them are related to how one resolves difficulties in the manuscript tradition as it has come down to us.”

The above are just a few problems. Another interesting problem is whether the doctrine of the atonement is taught in the gospel according to Luke? Further, there are immense textual problems within passages such as the sayings on divorce and remarriage in the gospelsThis was not discussed by Ehrman but addressed in detail in D. C. Parker’s “The Living Text of the Gospels” and the Lord’s Prayer among others.

It is important to realize that Ehrman is not the first person to have discovered these textual problems. Instead, textual critics are quite familiar with them but seldom are these textual difficulties discussed in books aimed at the lay readers so that many people continue to adhere to the mistaken belief that there exist no significant textual problems within the New Testament effecting important theological matters. Clearly, shoddy apologists such as Giesler and Josh McDowell have done a lot to propagate a false image of the textual preservation of the gospel text – misleading countless around the globe. Ehrman sets the record straight. In another recent book, co-authored with Bruce Metzger, we read:

“Nor are these variant readings, taken as a whole, of little consequence. On the contrary, many prove to be critical for questions relating to the New Testament exegesis and theology.”Bruce M. Metzger & Bart D. Ehrman, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2005, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, p. 284

Thus it would appear that scholars are now beginning to discuss the difficult issues more openly.

It seems clear that the Gospels are not so well textually preserved as some people would have us imagine and that there exist many variations which have profound effects and bearings upon the meaning of texts and theological issues. Some may refer to the “the oldest Christian manuscripts” and how these are “most reliable”, not realizing that Ehrman, and others, have pointed out numerous times that the earliest manuscripts are precisely the most problematic – revealing the most variations, which indicates that the texts of the gospels were in a state of flux in the earliest period of their transmission.

A detailed discussion of the manuscripts of the New Testament, based on writings of scholars such as Prof. Ehrman and others, is to be found here.

Moreover, the problem of the “original text” is also discussed by Ehrman and he states that many textual critics are now beginning to doubt even if there is such a thing as an “original” to be restored. He explains the problematic nature of the issue and why we cannot get back to the “original” text itself in light of the copying practises of the first three centuries. Therefore, we can only hope to recover early forms of the text, not the “originals,” and hope that these early forms are relatively close to the lost “originals”.

Besides the above issues, Ehrman provides a fascinating discussion of how the various New Testament editions were produced, particularly the one by Erasmus based on a handful of late manuscripts, and how Christians reacted when certain individuals here and there stumbled across variant readings. The story of the interpolation of 1 John 5:7 (the only clear formulation of the Trinity) is amazing ? the way it was inserted into the text and the reaction of some when it was removed. Moreover, Ehrman goes on to explain how he eventually came to the conclusion that the New Testament writings were not inspired based on his evaluation of the New Testament text and its transmission.

We would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn about the textual criticism and transmission of the New Testament writings. If the reader does not know anything about this complex subject, then this is where the reader should start. After going through “Misquoting Jesus,” it should be much easier for the reader to read books aimed at those who already know something about the subject. Book Review of Bart Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why" 1 






12 responses to “Book Review of Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why””

  1. Junaid Avatar

    RS, your logic does not quite flow. Why is it “incorrect” to say that “even when many Western scholars display no doubts” towards the Quran BECAUSE a New Testament scholar, Ehrman, has not studied the Quran? This makes no sense. But sure, let me rephrase my original statement and make it more guarded: many Western scholars of Islam tend to be rather modest in their assessment of the authenticity of the Quran, accepting the basic/main outlines adopted by Muslim scholars. This would include scholars such as Motzki, Watt, Burton, Waines, Whelan, Neuwrith, among others. Their main conclusions and general arguments do not diverge much from the general Muslim position and are largely in harmony with it. As far as Uthman is concerned, however, then his honesty is accepted as such by Western scholars in general. The unwarranted skepticism displayed by Nabiyl and Marcus is known as hyper-skepticism and based heavily on circular and a priori considerations.

    Yes, I agree there are also Western scholars who doubt the integrity of the Quran. I did not deny this and pointed towards this reality in my previous comments with my use of the word “general” and “most”, thus suggesting the presence of contrary viewpoints. I did not claim that ALL Western scholars accepted the authenticity of the Quran in its entirety. So you need to read very very carefully the next time you decide to “respond” to my comments. You mistakenly took my reference to “Why I am not a Christian” as a “counter argument” to Watt/Bell’s introduction to the Quran! However,I had only mentioned it in response to the parading of Ibn Warraq’s “Why I am not a Muslim” by your friends, as if it was an authoritative and balanced account on Islam.

    Your statement that had Ehrman etc. written a similar book on Muhammed, then they “would meet the same response to the Cartoons in Jylland Posten” is nothing more than your wish, desire, and pure speculation. In fact far worse books have come out in the past, present, and continue to roll out on Islam by Western writers which have not attracted the “cartoon reaction.” The vast majority of anti-Islamic books do not generate such reaction from Muslims. So the cartoon issue was a somewhat unique event. But your hidden assumption needs to be exposed in this exercise of speculation: that “Misquoting Jesus” was a lowly polemic and a mere “attack” on Christianity. This is false. “Misquoting Jesus” is a scholarly and sober account of textual criticism for the lay readers by a prominent scholar on the subject, and a very good one at that. The hoopla is merely surrounding Ehrman’s “coming out” story, in which he explains why he no longer deems himself to be a Christian.

    Finally, absolutely, one should read counter responses to Ehrman as well and not just accept anyone’s viewpoint merely because it supports our viewpoints. All viewpoints need to be considered and only then one should attempt to arrive at a conclusion. I would suggest the following title as a good starting point for counter arguments: Craig A. Evans: Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels.

    While your call for balance is commendable, I very much doubt that you would be willing to extend the same courtesy to of balance to Islam. Do you agree that when it comes to Islam we should also avoid acting out of typical biases and avoid accepting something merely because it suits our prejudices?

  2. RS Avatar

    The basic fact is western Scholars like Ehrman have not studied the Koran the same way they have studied the Bible. So mr. Junaid, it is incorrect to assert that ” even when many Western scholars display no doubts” abt the Koran. Had they studied and came out with a similar book abt Muhammad, they would meet the same response to the Cartoons in Jylland Posten. there are many westerern sholars who doubt the Koran the same way they doubt the Bible.I tis a matter of culture in the west to doubt things. There will also be some ppl who will doubt his arguments and will contest his claims, the same way the book ““Why I am not a Christian” is some sort of counter argument to Introduction to the Qur’an” by Bell and Watt, and “Why I am not a Muslim” by Ibn Warraq. The only concern now is whether Muslims will read the views of other scholars abt Ehrman’s work or will they act out of typical bias they have against Christians,tht is only to listen to Ehramn’s view simply because it suits they prejudiced views against Christianity.

  3. Junaid Avatar

    I am glad I succeeded in removing your suspicions david. Let me also remove a disinformation: the “Bible” is not God’s “unchangeable” word “according to the Quran.” The primary purpose of the Quran is towards the guidance for mankind and to bring people close to God.

    Thank you also for a typically irrelevant “response.”

  4. Junaid Avatar

    What Nabiyl and Marcus have done is introduced irrelevant issues into the discussion to draw attention away from the original topic: the textual integrity of the NT. This method is used commonly by people when they do not wish to discuss a topic and have the urge to deflect attention to some other issue. The problem with this approach is that even if we suppose that Nabiyl and Marcus are right in their claims about the Quran, that does nothing to disprove what has been said about the NT. Marcus said in his first post, “God has said that HE will preserve his word and not leave it up to man!” Where is this “said”?? And since we know for sure that the words have not been entirely preserved, what do we make of this supposed statement? The rest of his comments were a personal attack upon Ehrman (a recognized authority on textual criticism) and an irrelevant polemic on the Quran to draw attention away from the NT. Then jumped in Nabiyl who did pretty much the same…

    Nabiyl correctly pointed out that Uthman ordered the official collection of the Quran and but he then ended with an unrelated and unsubstantiated assertion, that “This leaves open the possibility that the Qur’an today is not necessarily the same Qur’an that Muhammad supposedly got from God.” But the same historical reports which relate the story of the compilation of the Quran also mention that this was done on the basis of the earlier documents and, subsequently, the compiled copies were compared with the existing material and recited publicly and only then distributed to the provinces. This has been omitted by Nabiyl. He also remained quite with regard to the fact that it was Muhammed’s companions who were involved in the compilation process, and Uthman enjoyed widespread public support, notwithstanding the occasional opposition from Ibn Masud. If there were copies of the gospels which were known to have been composed/compiled by the very followers of Jesus, his disciples, would Nabiyl be doubting their integrity and remain skeptical? I doubt that.

    Nabiyl wants readers to read “Why I am not a Muslim” by Ibn Warraq, but I am sure he would not want them to read “Why I am not a Christian” as an introduction to Christianity and the Bible. He refers to the scholarly study by Bell, which was subsequently updated by Watt. But I doubt he would endorse Watt’s modest conclusions, among them his conclusion that Uthman acted honestly and that there is no reason to doubt the general integrity of the Quranic text – Watts conclusion. Of course, I do not agree with all of Watt’s arguments, but his conclusions are far different from Nabiyl’s.

    It is interesting that Christians such as Nabiyl become skeptics on matters relating to the Quran even when their unreasonable skepticism is not shared by many Western scholars, but in the case of the NT they will become unreasonable and naive apologists, who will defend fantastic claims even when the evidence is entirely lacking. I am sure that Nabiyl and Marcus will entertain no doubts about the integrity of the NT writings despite the numerous textual problems we encounter therein, despite the increased variations in the earliest sources (patristic and manuscripts alike). They will entertain no doubts whatsoever about the integrity of the Jewish Bible despite the documentary hypothesis pertaining to the composite nature of the Torah, and its very late mss tradition – the earliest being the dead sea scrolls, removed from the originals by centuries and centuries, and showing increased variations as compared to the later manuscripts. But, in the case of the Quran, even when many Western scholars display no doubts, Nabiyl and Marcus will remain radical skeptics.

  5. Nabiyl Avatar

    Khaibar Warrior.

    Sorry to disappoint you but Marcus is right. During his rule Caliph Uthman commissioned a standard version of the Qur’an. Copies were made of it and were distributed to the various provinces. All other versions were then destroyed, though I can’t necessarily say burnt. This leaves open the possibility that the Qur’an today is not necessarily the same Qur’an that Muhammad supposedly got from God.

    Check out, “Introduction to the Qur’an” by Bell and Watt, and “Why I am not a Muslim” by Ibn Warraq.

  6. Nabiyl Avatar

    Kaibar Warrior,

    I hate to disappoint you but Marcus is right. It seems that the first official collection of the Qur’an was ordered by Caliph Uthman as various readings of the Qur’an were causing disputes amongst the troops in the various provinces. Zayd ibn-Thabit was commissioned by Uthman to come up with an official version. Copies were made of it and then distributed to the various provinces. All other non-official versions of the Qur’an were destroyed (though I can’t say necessarily burned). Make of this what you will but it does leave open the possibility that the present version of the Qur’an is not the one that Muhammad claimed he got from God.

    Also your understanding of Christianity is incorrect. There is absolutely no evidence that Saul of Tarsus had a Satanic vision of Jesus, or hated Jesus’ disciples. After his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus Saul later visited Jesus’ disciples. He was accepted by them and given the commission to spread the Gospel to the gentiles. This he did. It is all recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. I think you should read it. [And Christians do follow the teachings of James the Just. If you had bothered to check, his letter is to be found in the New Testament.]

    And there are other mistakes you make. True Christians do not commit fornication, neither do they engage in ‘blind faith’. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is referred to as the Logos which in Greek philosophy meant “Ratio” or “Reason”. Christians therefore should be rational. Their faith is a rational response to the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. But certainly Christians do eat swineflesh. This is allowed to them as they are under the New Covenant of God’s Love rather than the Old Covernant of the Jews. To this day Jews still avoid swineflesh but for no good reason.

    I hope that this has been of some help to you.

  7. Khaibar warrior Avatar
    Khaibar warrior


    Uthman burning the Quarn ? Common, get a life Marcus…..
    In the 7th century, Uthman burned the false HADITH, not the Quran.Don’t be such an idiot.The Quran and the hadith is two different things . The hadith is a bit like the bible,it contains the sayings,the teachings , the stories and the actions of prophet muhammad.It is something like the bible where it has narration and writers point of view. Some of them is true and some of them are frogery.Uthman burned the hadith whcih are frogery and lies told by the ex-enemies of Muhammad.

    The Quran is a totally preserved recitation.It is a total word of god. The Quran couldn’t be written by Muhammad because there is one verse in the Quran where God told Muhammad not to discriminate in preaching about Islam only to the aristocrate of the Quraisyh,but also to the blind and weak people.Muslim might remeber the part when Muhammad preach to a a Quraisyh aristorcrate and suddenly a blind man came to him,want to hear what he preches.Suddenly his face turn red and that’s the time where God send a revelation telling him to not only preach to the very important people, but also to other people who wants to learn and understand.

    The Quran isn’t suppose to be a book, it should be memorised according like an oral tradition and passed on to the next generation. That’s how it was like during those days Marcus. The Quran is like a divine poem that is to be memorised. If you alter the word in the Quran, the recitation of the poem is uncoherent with the arabic text and it sounds awful..Remember the arabic text are connected and link to each alphabets.It is not like hebrew which is seperated andmore flexible…

    Marcus, If you read the book of Jeremiah, you will find that Jeremiah condemned “the scribes who wrote the scripture make turn into into a lying pen”. to the Muslims out there, I really encourage you to read the book called “THE JESUS DYNASTY” written by Dr James Tabor. Eventhough the book have somes ceptism about the virgin birth of Jesus, still this Professor who done a lot of archaeological research have found out that the in the new testament there is a jigsaw puzzle which we can extract and use to construct an original gospel which is known as the “Queleche” or the “Q-Source”.
    By the way,Christians today didn’tknow that they actually follow Saul of Tarsus,the man who is actually arrogant and hated all the disciple of Jesus. He actually received a “satanic vision” of Jesus, The vision of the “pagan Christ”,the “SUN OF GOD”. The true successor that all the christians need to followtoday if they want to be safe is Jesus’s own brother “JAMES THE JUST”.

    Christians should abandoned their idolatry of eating “swineflesh,fornification and not to forget blind faith”.

  8. marcus Avatar

    God has said that HE will preserve his word and not leave it up to man! I don’t understand why certain groups always try to dicredit Jesus’ deity. A stronger argument could be made with the Quran and how Uthman burned almost all the Qurans in the 7th century. Do you think that the muslims have a Quran that is without error? Do they have all the original autographs? I don’t think so. B. Erhman is going to have a lot of answering to do when his time is up….as well as everyone else who believes this nonsense/blaspheme

  9. Rezart Avatar

    I read the book, and I think that is a very good book. Very useful to the muslim, and to all the people who seek for the truth.
    For this reason, I translated this book in Albanian language,to make this book available to all Albanian people.

    God willing the book will be publish very soon.

    Pray for us.

  10. Imran Avatar


    brother Menj, this authour has written another book that will be released in May i think.

    The Transformation of Jesus: How a Jewish Prophet Became God (Hardcover)


  11. danny Avatar

    Hello Kyw

    Just a short comment, it’s not a matter of “translations”, the problem lies in the originals – the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. The New Testament, as you would know, was originally written in the Greek language.

  12. kyw Avatar

    When Christ spoke he did so in the context of his times, using the sybolism and vocabulary that made sense to a particular people in a particular period of history.

    He began with their beliefs and using their references tried to lead them into freer realms of understanding.

    With each translation, the Bible has changed its meaning.

    Our particular society has set up such an artificial division between intuitional and intellectual knowledge that only the intellectually apparent is given credence.

    With all of their dire faults and distortions, religions have at least kept alive the idea of unseen, valid worlds, and given some affirmation to concepts that are literally known by the cells.

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