Truth and Meaning As It Relates To History
Bart Ehrman, in Misquoting Jesus,1 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus; San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005 intends to explain New Testament textual criticism. One theme Ehrman uses to explain textual criticism is that the scribes, copyist, and the people of power who controlled the early Church did not preserve the New Testament but slanted the New Testament texts to read as they believed and collected the books that agreed with the theology of the people in power. For Ehrman, there is no true theology and no historically true Christian doctrine. He alleges the New Testament is a collection of books preserved and collected because the group of people who controlled the early Church agreed with the theology in these texts. Ehrman believes the New Testament canonical books are not the work of God and so preserved, distinguished, and used by the early Church because they were true and corresponded with the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ; nor were the writers directed by the Holy Spirit to teach, instruct, and rebuke the Church. According to Ehrman, the Bible is not based in history, because there is no history.
The Evangelical world traditionally has held a particular view and understanding about the fact of history. Evangelical understanding is that history is what corresponds to the facts about events of the past. This idea does not rule out people twisting the facts they recorded to make themselves look good or the fact of people being blinded by their sin nature. Most historians would agree that many of the inscriptions made by the Egyptians about their battles and conflicts were intended to make the pharaoh look good even if the pharaoh had lost the battle. But, we must remember that we only can make such a statement about the Egyptians historians if there really are historical facts that do not line up with what the historian has recorded. A true base of what really happened must exist in order to state that people have changed the facts to suit their purpose. History must have a factual foundation before anyone can say recorded history is true or false.
Ehrman’s history is defined to be a collection of people’s perspectives about what happened with no foundation for historical truth to say this happened and this did not happen. No truth exists to be recorded about the events of Christ’s earthly ministry. Thus, the Gospels are personal opinions about the events recorded in them and what the Gospel writers thought motivated Jesus to do what he did. As well, any event may be modified to suit the purpose of the writer to build a “moral truth” as they saw it.
Ehrman comes to this conclusion because his understanding of meaning and reality has been shaped by agnosticism. Having no basis for truth and meaning, Ehrman’s hermeneutic cannot help but be skewed by postmodern thought.2What if we have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting up the Bible as a false idol—or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with the Almighty?; Ehrman, 14 For Ehrman, the only truth is personal belief. Truth must be redefined to what one believes is history rather than what corresponds to the reality of history. In Ehrman’s world, the Bible only can be a collection of religious thoughts about God by various people and at various times. Ehrman explains:
Just as human scribes had copied, and changed, the texts of scripture, so to had human authors originally written the texts of scripture. This was a human book from beginning to end. It was written by different human authors at different times and in different places to address different needs. Many of these authors no doubt felt they were inspired by God to say what they did, but they had their own perspectives, their own understandings, their own theologies; and these perspectives, beliefs, views, needs, desires, understandings, and theologies informed everything they said.”3 Ehrman, 11-12
Any person left to employ personal truth as the gauge for truth will end in relativism. The consequences of this are moral deconstruction, historical deconstruction, literary deconstruction, and biblical deconstruction. Scripture soundly renounces these positions:
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
As Creator, Jesus has not only defined the physical world, but He—as the Word—has also defined Scripture. Jesus is the connection between words and actions. Jesus—as Creator—has defined truth and meaning.
The philosophical movement—Post structuralism (PS)—has gathered steam over the past 40 years. PS removes any certainty to the reading and meaning of a text. This can be termed the “death of the writer” and “the birth of the reader.” The reasoning is: Time, social situations, and a host of other elements change the meaning of a text. Thus, when a reader comes to the text, they come with a list of their own interpretive ideas. Each reader has a personal hermeneutic. The intent of the author is trumped by the understanding of the reader. Listen to Columbia History of Western Philosophies examination of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida:
Given Derrida’s assertion of the radical indeterminacy of all signification that follows from his investigation of language, his proclamations of the inevitable and unavoidable instability of meaning and identity portend the evisceration of metaphysics. He mounts this radical critique of metaphysics, identity, and meaning by pushing it to the very level of signification and challenging the possibility of stable meanings or identities on the basis of their reliance on a metaphysics of presence …
“Deconstruction thus purports to expose the problematic nature of any—that is to say, all—discourse that relies on foundational metaphysical ideas such as truth, presence, identity, or origin to center itself.4 Richard H. Popkin, Columbia History of Western Philosophy; Columbia University Press, New York: 1999; 739
Ehrman’s position is similar:
And so to read a text is, necessarily to change a text.5Ehrman, 217
Ehrman’s problem is, thus, threefold. First, there is no true history to be recorded, so the New Testament is a record of people’s “truths.” Second, the New Testament as we have it today has the theological view of those people and scribes that collected and edited the New Testament. So, orthodoxy is not a reflection of truth. Lastly, were there a true history to be recorded and were that history to be handed down to us in the New Testament, we still would have no idea of what is true because we—the reader—and not the author are lord of the meaning of the text. However, all meaning is lost without God. God has given all men the light of Creation, the light of conscience, and a basis for understanding of truth (moral and otherwise).6 Romans 1 This allows men to think, make sense of reality, and draw closer to God. Man, in his depravity backs away from this moral calling of God to renew the mind (Romans 12:2) in favor of becoming his own god and having his own truth.
Is there any truth in religion? Is there any truth in Christian orthodoxy? Or, as with “history,” the group who ultimately wins the battle of supremacy gets to define “orthodoxy” as Ehrman explains. The Christian understanding of orthodoxy is no different than her understanding of truth. Orthodoxy must correspond with reality. Orthodoxy is not a matter of taste or feeling. Orthodoxy is the foundational truths of the Christian faith as taught by the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the writers of the New Testament as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit to remember the teaching of Jesus or lead by the Holy Spirit to record the nature of God, man, and the Church.
Ehrman contrasts this understanding of truth and orthodoxy:
Each and every one of these viewpoints—and many others besides—were topics of constant discussion, dialogue, and debate in the early centuries of the church, while Christians of various persuasions tried to convince others of the truth of their own claims. Only one group eventually ‘won out’ in these debates. It was this group that decided what the Christian creeds would be: the creeds would affirm that there is only one God, the Creator; that Jesus his Son is both human and divine; and that salvation came by his death and resurrection.7Ehrman, 153
Ehrman also states:
The group that established itself as ‘orthodox’ (meaning that it held what it considered to be the ‘right belief’) then determined what future Christian generations would believe and read as scripture.8Ibid. 154
The idea that there is one God, as Ehrman explains, is not based on what is true but on who won the struggle for power. The ideas recorded in the Christian creeds are not true but are a literary snapshot of the political situation in the late Roman Empire. Orthodox teaching is a record of what group outwitted their rivals for power and in so doing preserved their theological ideas as well. Ehrman’s usage of the word proto-orthodox9Ibid. 169, 171, 173 helps us to understand his twist or definition of the term orthodoxy.
Paul and all the New Testament writers, in the eyes of Ehrman, did not write about truth but about what they believed. This is in complete contradiction to what Scripture has to say about itself.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16)
The position of Ehrman and Scripture are in logical opposition to one another—both cannot be true.
Scripture is authoritative because it is divinely inspired—another idea Ehrman rejects. The ideas found in the pages of the Bible came not from man, but from God. An important point in the orthodox understanding of inspiration is that inspiration refers to the original writings. Manuscripts whether written in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English, or any other language are copies of the original inspired works, and as such, most contain minor errors.10It is possible to have a manuscript that is an exact replica of the original. However, we are aware of no current consensus of scholars who claim to have such a copy.
Ehrman traces his loss of faith in the Bible as he left Wheaton College and began studying at Princeton. His own words speak how his view of inspiration changed:
… I began seeing the New Testament as a very human book. The New Testament as we actually have it, I knew, was the product of human hands, the hands of the scribes who transmitted it. Then I began to see that not just the scribal text but the original text itself was a very human book. This stood very much at odds with how I regarded the text in my late teens as a newly minded ‘born-again’ Christian, convinced that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God and that the biblical words themselves had come to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.11 Ehrman, 211
His critique of the orthodox view of inspiration can be summarized as follows:
- Meaning only can be found in the original language. (p.7)
- We do not have the original manuscripts. (p.7)
- We do have “error-ridden copies”. (p.7)
- The authors also made errors. (p.11)
- The Bible originated in the mind of men. (p.11)
Ehrman hardly gives a logical argument. For instance: In point four, he gives no defense for his conclusion that the original authors made mistakes. How does he know they error when we do not have the original writings—the very thing Ehrman points out again and again! Ehrman suggests that a simple cough during the recitation of the original author to a scribe could have occurred, and thus, a mistake in the original would have resulted. He gives no evidence to support his theory. Ehrman seems to have faith in events for which there is no record.
Further, point one is false. Objective meaning is transcendent of any particular language. Language only describes reality; it does not create it. As an example, let’s say my daughter Kayla tells a young Mexican boy, “Jesús te ama.” I turn to ask her what she said to the boy. She tells me she said, “Jesus loves you.” I do not have to understand the originating language to understand what Kayla meant. All I needed was a translator. That is precisely what Hebrew and Greek linguistic scholars aim to do—translate the original language into the common vernacular without losing the meaning.
A deduction made by Ehrman, as he looks at the manuscript evidence, is that the Bible is not inerrant. He states that some scholars claim 400,000 or more variants.12Ibid. 89 He uses this evidence to support his idea that the Bible is error-ridden. But is this the case? It should be noted that when textual critics count errors, they are looking at a multiplicity of manuscripts.13The very thing that brings increasing accuracy to our translations, namely the vast and growing number of manuscripts available, Ehrman uses to point out inconsistency and error Drs. Norman Geisler and William Nix note in their book A General Introduction to the Bible that:
There is an ambiguity in saying that there are some 200,000 variants in the existing manuscripts of the New Testament because those represent only 10,000 places in the New Testament. If one single word is misspelled in 3,000 different manuscripts, it is counted as 3,000 variants or readings. Once this counting procedure is understood … the remaining significant variants are surprisingly few in number.14 Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 468
Ehrman, himself, seems to concede this point:
To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.15Ehrman, 207
However, Ehrman gives many examples of passages that he believes supports his conclusion of an error-filled text. We shall choose three of those passages to examine.
First is the passage Luke 11:2-4. Ehrman suggests that this passage was originally truncated and at a later time scribes “harmonized” the passage by adding length and content to make it similar to Matt. 6:9-13.16Ibid. 97
We shall look at this from two sides of the inerrancy coin. On one side we must ask, “Is inerrancy challenged if Matthew recorded the entire prayer of Jesus and Luke penned only a portion of the prayer? Did Luke make an error?” To suggest that Luke errored in not recording the entire prayer of Jesus would be to misunderstand inerrancy. Inerrancy does not necessitate that all Gospel writers record an event in the exact same words, for to do so would make three of them unnecessary. Inerrancy only necessitates that what is written is true.
Authors today have different audiences and themes they write to and about. Take, for example, the topic of steroids in baseball. A sportswriter might focus on whether Barry Bonds should be credited as passing Hank Aaron on the all-time-home-run list if he used steroids. A medical writer would be interested in communicating the details of the different types of steroids Bonds allegedly used. And a legal writer may investigate if Bonds did anything illegal. It was no different for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each had a unique audience and a specific focus for their writings. Matthew may have chosen to include “… Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10), because it was important to Matthew’s goal of explaining the Kingdom of God to his Jewish audience. In particular, His Kingdom has a heavenly aspect and an earthly one.
The other side of the inerrancy coin is that not all English versions of the Bible handle this passage in the same manner. The KJV and the NKJV do, indeed, contain the lengthened version. However, the ESV, NASB, and NIV chose the shorter version. This shows that since we have an increasing number of manuscripts our translations are continually improving in their quality. It may be the case that certain scribes—those producing the Majority Text—added to the original writings. But, one does not need to conclude, as Ehrman does, that Scripture is in error. As we have already noted: If Luke did record a few less words of our Lord’s Prayer, it does not make him wrong. Further, if we accept Ehrman’s hypothesis that the Alexandrian manuscripts are more accurate, albeit fewer in number; isn’t it plausible to conclude that the KJV and the NKJV reading is less preferred since they tend to give priority to the Majority Text rather than the Alexandrian texts?
Applying textual criticism rules suggested by Professor Gleason Archer further supports the original Lukan reading as to containing the “shortened” version of the Lord’s Prayer. Archer notes that the older and shorter readings are to be preferred.17Geisler and Nix, 478 Older manuscripts are preferred, because they are closer to the original; and in the case of the Alexandrian manuscripts, they were transcribed by better scribes. The shorter reading is preferred because scribes tend to “add to” the text rather than reduce it. So, Ehrman may be correct when he says that scribes “added to” Luke, but he gives no evidence to support his assertion that Luke made a mistake.
Second is the passage Mark 1:2a where Mark writes, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet … .” Mark has made a mistake according to Ehrman. That mistake is that Isaiah did not write the quoted Old Testament words that follow in Mark 1:2b-3. And according to Ehrman:
“… there can be little doubt concerning what Mark originally wrote: the attribution to Isaiah is found in our earliest and best manuscripts.”18Ehrman, 95
What Ehrman is suggesting is that Mark got it wrong, and the scribes got it right by correcting Mark 1:2 to attribute the Old Testament sayings to “the prophets.”
A suggested resolution to this apparent mistake is given by John Grassmick, contributor of the Bible Knowledge Commentary:
Mark prefaced this composite quotation from three Old Testament books with the words: It is written in Isaiah the prophet. This illustrates a common practice by New Testament authors in quoting several passages with a unifying theme. The common theme here is the ‘wilderness’ (desert) tradition in Israel’s history. Since Mark was introducing the ministry of John the Baptist in the desert, he cited Isaiah as the source because the Isaiah passage refers to ‘a voice … calling’ in the desert.19Walvoord, John F., Roy B. Zuck, and Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-c1985; Emphasis in the original.
It also should be noted that when referencing the thoughts of another individual, ancient writers, as well as modern writers, do not always quote verbatim. Different words may be chosen to convey the same idea. It is a mistake to hold New Testament writers to a standard that was not present then nor today. While it is the case that exact quotes are often used in research work such as what you are presently reading, it is not necessary to do so. Mark need not quote Isaiah verbatim and, yet, still attribute the saying to Isaiah. Concerning this passage, the authors of Hard Sayings of the Bible agree:
When we accuse him [Mark] of inaccuracy, far from pointing out a reality in Mark, we are exposing our own lack of knowledge about how he and other ancient authors used Scripture.20 Walter C. Kaiser and others, eds., Hard Sayings of the Bible Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996, 404
Third is an apparent discrepancy as to where Paul went after his conversion on his way to Damascus.21Ehrman, 10 Galatians 1:16-17 tells us that Paul went to Arabia, while Acts 9:26 states that Paul went to Jerusalem. Galatians 1:17 clearly states, “nor did I go up to Jerusalem … ,” but that he went “… to Arabia … .” In contrast, the Acts narrative places Paul in Damascus, and then describes that he “… came to Jerusalem …” in verse 26.
However, this is not a contradiction. It is like the husband who tells his wife that he went to the local hardware store after work, and he tells is son that he went to the golf course after work. Do his stories contradict one another? No. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that he stopped by the hardware store to pick up some materials, and then he continued on to play a round of golf. He did both after work.
A similar reconciliation can be given to these two passages. Paul went to Arabia and Jerusalem after leaving Damascus. It is important to note that the charge leveled against Scripture by Ehrman is that “the first thing he [Paul] did after leaving Damascus” was to go to Jerusalem. The narrative of Acts does seem to indicate a quick progression of Paul’s locality from Damascus to Jerusalem. However, in Acts 9:23 Luke uses the phrase, “When many days had elapsed … ,” which indicates a span of time occurred between verses 22 and 26. What happened during those “many days?” Concerning this passage, the late Oxford Professor and Archaeologist Sir William M. Ramsay offers this:
Moreover, Luke divided Paul’s stay in Damascus into two periods, a few days’ residence with the disciples (9:19), and a long period of preaching (9:20-23). The quiet residence in the country for a time, recovering from the serious and prostrating effect of his conversion (for a man’s life is not suddenly reversed without serious claim on his physical power) is the dividing fact between the two periods.22William M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen, Revised and Updated, ed. Mark Wilson; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001, 47
Paul, himself, gives us some insight in his letter to the Galatian churches. In recounting the days and years after his conversion, he notes that he did not “… go up to Jerusalem …” (Gal. 1:17) but rather he “… went away to Arabia …” (Gal. 1:17) and then “… returned once more to Damascus” (Gal. 1:17). So, it seems a reasonable conclusion to understand Paul’s post-conversion sojourning to include an initial trip to Damascus proclaiming in the Synagogue the identity of Jesus as the Son of God (Acts 9:20). From Damascus he traveled to Arabia (Gal. 1:17) for some unknown amount of time, and then he returned to Damascus for “many days …” (Acts 9:23). His second stay in Damascus ended with him being lowered over the wall in a basket (Acts 9:25). From there, he traveled to Jerusalem (Acts 9:26). So, Luke and Paul were both correct. After his conversion, Paul went to Arabia and Jerusalem. Contrary to Ehrman, this is not a case of a mistaken biblical author. The Bible once again shows that it can be trusted. In Ehrman’s vigor to find errors in the Bible, he overlooks a very plausible explanation to the text.
While many of the facts Ehrman records are true, it is the conclusions from these facts that we reject. His spiritual situation—agnosticism—causes truth in all forms to cascade into a deconstruction of meaning, history, and orthodoxy. This leaves him with no basis for truth beyond personal experience. This understanding of truth and orthodoxy has modified his ability to look objectively at the text.
Commenting on orthodoxy Ehrman writes:
Each and every one of these viewpoints—and many others besides—were topics of constant discussion, dialogue, and debate in the early centuries of the church, while Christians of various persuasions tried to convince others of the truth of their own claims. Only one group eventually ‘won out’ in these debates. It was this group that decided what the Christian creeds would be … 23Ehrman, 154
Commenting on hermeneutics, Ehrman writes:
For the more I studied, the more I saw that reading a text necessarily involves interpreting a text. I suppose when I started my studies I had a rather unsophisticated view of reading: that the point of reading a text is simply to let the text ‘speak for itself,’ to uncover the meaning inherent in its words. The reality, I came to see, is that meaning is not inherent, and texts do not speak for themselves. If texts could speak for themselves, then everyone honestly and openly reading a text would agree on what the text says.24Ibid, 216
Is this how Ehrman wants his reader to approach his text? If Ehrman’s conclusions about text and meaning are to be accepted, then the reader is perfectly justified in concluding Ehrman’s acceptance of orthodoxy to be true and inerrancy of Scripture to be real. But, this is precisely what Ehrman rejects. This view is logically inconsistent. As an example of the incompatibility of Ehrman’s idea, think of the automobile driver. Would we drive our cars if traffic signs were understood at the discretion of the reader? Chaos would most certainly follow. Ehrman’s idea is completely unlivable.
Ehrman may confuse the existence of truth with the difficulty of discovery of truth. When looking at a biblical passage, there are possibilities of disagreement. For instance, if person A and B disagree on the understating of a text there are several possibilities. Both A and B are wrong, A is right, and B is wrong, or B is right and A is wrong. What is not possible is that A and B are both right. This goes against the Law of Non-Contradiction. [Editor’s note: See July/Aug. 1996 MCOI Journal article: “Do All Paths Lead to God?” for more about this law.]
The book does not live up to its billing. Inferred within the title—Misquoting Jesus—is some factual knowledge of Jesus’ own words—the exact idea Ehrman rejects! He cannot consistently claim that Jesus was misquoted and say that we do not have the original text. How can one know that Jesus was misquoted if we do not know what he actually said? There must be a real, objective truth before one can claim something is false. He has rejected the basis necessary to claim that Jesus was misquoted.
Something is only false if it does not correspond to reality. Christian orthodoxy was God-inspired and revealed through Jesus. If Jesus is misquoted, there was a truth in what he taught.Ω
Randall Birtell and Randal Ming were the Scranton, KS Branch Directors of MCOI and they also were completing their Master’s Degrees in Apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC at the time this article was published.
© 2020, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used if full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.
End Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus; San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005|
|2.||↑||What if we have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting up the Bible as a false idol—or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with the Almighty?; Ehrman, 14|
|4.||↑||Richard H. Popkin, Columbia History of Western Philosophy; Columbia University Press, New York: 1999; 739|
|9.||↑||Ibid. 169, 171, 173|
|10.||↑||It is possible to have a manuscript that is an exact replica of the original. However, we are aware of no current consensus of scholars who claim to have such a copy.|
|13.||↑||The very thing that brings increasing accuracy to our translations, namely the vast and growing number of manuscripts available, Ehrman uses to point out inconsistency and error|
|14.||↑||Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 468|
|17.||↑||Geisler and Nix, 478|
|19.||↑||Walvoord, John F., Roy B. Zuck, and Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-c1985; Emphasis in the original.|
|20.||↑||Walter C. Kaiser and others, eds., Hard Sayings of the Bible Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996, 404|
|22.||↑||William M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen, Revised and Updated, ed. Mark Wilson; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001, 47|