Misquoting Jesus

Bart D. Ehrman

This book’s title, like so many, had to be picked by its publishers, not its author, as it seems patently worded to increase sales, rather than to suggest the real purpose of the book. Its author, Bart Ehrman, is a devoutly religious man and a scholar, who has spent his life studying, teaching and defending the New Testament (NT). Misquoting Jesus (MJ) reflects a culmination of decades of studying ancient NT manuscripts and provides thought provoking observations. Ehrman chairs the Religious Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his wife is a medieval scholar at Duke University. He is not attacking anything; he is recounting the results of his studies of old biblical manuscripts, and his findings make a fascinating and informative read.

Erman was raised in the Episcopal Church but became a born-again Christian at age 15 and a leader of the Youth for Christ Clubs, devoting some years to converting others to fundamentalist Christianity, which led him to attend and graduate from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where he majored in Bible theology. At Moody, all students were required to formally renounce, in writing, drinking, smoking, dancing, card-playing and going to movies and to affirm that they accepted the Christian Bible as “the inerrant word of God”. After graduating from Moody, he attended Wheaton College (Billy Graham’s alma mater), receiving a further degree in Greek and English Literature. After graduating from Wheaton, he attended Princeton University’s Theological Seminary, where he studied the oldest known copies of the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Christian Bible (“Bible”), which led him to become one of the world’s most respected scholars on the NT. As one who is personally committed to proving the infallibility of the Bible, when he began to find inconsistencies among NT manuscripts, he wrote volumes to explain and repudiate those variances. After a lifetime of study, he wrote Misquoting Jesus. The book doesn’t attack anything; it simply reports the results of decades of study of the oldest NT manuscripts.

Happily for most readers, Professor Erhman has written MJ in user friendly prose, devoid of any “axe grinding”; it simply reveals what he found in the old manuscripts and the chronological progression by which the NT evolved. While his love for the Christian scriptures remains intact, his academic studies led him, over the decades, to recognize and evaluate the literally hundreds of thousands of discrepancies (estimated by a number of scholars as between 200,000-400,000) among the innumerable NT-manuscripts. He comes to grips with the inconsistencies and uses his own logic to choose among them which is the most likely version on various points. “While most of the variances are minor, some aren’t.” Books (like people and words) have histories, and the history of the Christian Bible is interesting.

There was no “one Bible” for centuries, not one Old Testament and surely no single New Testament. Since 99% of the people were illiterate well into the Middle Ages (including many copyists), the earlier versions of the OT and NT were oral, with bits and pieces being written; illiterate copyists simply reproduced marks on a page, surely making countless errors; others could read some words but not others; so, they simply wrote whatever seemed to make sense. Beginning around 1300 B.C., the OT books evolved from many “letters” and earlier books, written variously on clay tablets, plant leaves, wood, stone and later parchment (animal skins). (Papyrus emerged much later, around Jesus’ time but even then was often too expensive or not available.) Each Jewish synagogue had its own copy of the Torah (first five books of the OT) and the Tanach (all 39 books of OT); thousands and thousands of copies had to be hand made just to supply those synagogues; as the Jews then spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew, most were written in Aramaic. In circa 370 B.C., Ptolemy commissioned a committee of 70 (the Septuagint) to create a mutually-agreeable version of the Jews’ OT (translating it from Aramaic to Greek) for his library; that version was made to please Ptolemy. Then, over centuries, the Jews made their own versions in Hebrew, creating more copies and more inconsistencies with each.

Since neither Aramaic nor Hebrew then had any vowels or punctuation (or even separation between words), the prose was often akin to animal grunts: lvy=I love you; tshllntkll=thou shalt not kill; “l” might also mean “El”, one of the Jews’ many names for God/Jehovah, but, of course, in the alphabet of the ancient language. Even in later translations and copies, when vowels came into use, confusion still reigned: “Godisnowhere” might mean “God is now here” or “God is nowhere.” The potential issues and confusion is mind boggling. The Septuagint applied a majority-rules approach to choosing what to include in the OT and how to rewrite or expand it as needed to reflect what they group speculated was the original intent, and hearsay was still a popular authority for old scriptures, as so many had been lost. Centuries later, clergymen used a similar “voting” process to select which books would be included in the NT.

The New Testament (NT) didn’t start as book either, but, rather, as a collection of letters (summarizing his sermons, with 13 from Paul alone plus some from others and many which were later discarded by The Church – even though Paul had commanded his followers to read some of them, such as “the epistle of Laodicea”, Col. 4:16, but that epistle and many others were eliminated) and random stories by many persons. These various manuscripts weren’t even compiled as one book (the NT) for several hundred years after Christ died. While Paul was literate and a man of great learning, many of these “writers” (like Peter and John and 99% of the populace) were illiterate; they dictated their thoughts to allegedly literate persons and hoped that their words, and not the copyists’, were recorded – and that the copyist could write enough words to do so. There were Gospels by Phillip (one of the 12 disciples), another by Jesus’ brother, Judas Thomas, and by Mary Magdalene, and others that were also deleted. Yet, most scholars believe that Mary Magdalene was closer to Jesus than any other person. Acts (of the Apostles) made the cut but other Acts (by Paul, Peter and disciple-Thomas) did not. Some of these appeared in the 14 books of the Apocrapha, which was printed as form of prologue with many Christian Bibles for centuries (and is included in The Lovett Family Bible , 1876), but the Apocrapha, too, has been deleted from most Bibles. Copies of these deleted manuscripts survive, but they have been eschewed. There are dozens of such books kept in Nag Hammadi in a museum in Egypt. Still others survive only in fragment-forms.

Indeed, I have dozens of different Bibles, and one of them (which is The Lovett Family Bible) must weigh 50 pounds! It is bound in a half-inch thick binder; the pages are gold leafed; there are dozens of beautiful color illustrations, often with gold paint; the dedication in the front is “To Laura Gilson from Grandma”. Laura Gilson was my father’s mother, who is remembered in my middle name. There is no publication date on this priceless family heirloom, but it was likely printed near the birth of my grandmother, circa 1860! This Bible includes “The Apocrypha”, which includes 14 books that were still then accepted by all Christian Churches. Later, the Apocrypha was discredited as fallacious, as it provided data that contradicted some of the more recent dicta of the clergy. Still, it is as historically accurate as the what remains of our Bible today and so makes interesting reading.

Apocalypses were a popular topic among Christian writers, but most were excluded: e.g., those of David in the OT and Enoch in the Apocrypha, and Peter in the NT. Circa 300 A.D., The [Catholic] Church commissioned “The Vulgate Bible”, which was written in Latin and mainly by a great scholar named Jerome, but Jerome wrote his own version of The Gospels which varies greatly from earlier copies. Still, The Vulgate became The Common Bible; it was to earlier Bible-versions what the still dominant King James Version (KJV) became to those that preceded it. Interestingly, in correspondence among copyists, the copyists freely (and disturbingly to Ehrman) admit altering the text of their copies.

One renowned Church leader, Father Origen, in the latter part of the 3rd Century, wrote:

“The differences among manuscripts have become great through negligence or perverse audacity…They make additions or deletions as they please.”

Some of the most relied-upon copies contain notes in the margin attacking the copy as altered. Since so few could read, who could challenge the latest “authoritative” and “inerrant” version? Layers upon layers of mistakes and alterations had to sometimes pass unnoticed.

In about 700 A.D., The Church commissioned another version of the Bible and Church hierarchy “voted” on which books to include, revise or alter. Guttenberg’s printing press in 1450 offered a version of The Bible as its first publication. Gutenberg spent six years making a composite of earlier versions. In the early 1500’s, Dutch scholar Erasmus, translated The Vulgate from Latin back into Greek (“The Greek New Testament”), as it seemed more authentic, but his version was very different than The Greek Septuagint’s (as, indeed, Greek was a very different language by then), but Erasmus’ version has still been widely used. “The Complutensian Polyglot Bible” (a multi-language version) was published in 1520, but it only compounded the issues. By the time that the first KJV was done (1600-1625), few knew what to read or believe, as the variances among versions were so great as to present very different “Bibles”. Agreements had to be reached, lest few would believe any of the texts. The KJV, as since revised many times, used Erasmus’ version as its primary source material, and has been the primary Christian Bible ever since. John Mill, an Oxford professor and biblical scholar, spent 30 years doing his own study of old manuscripts (in Coptic, Syrian, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin), and to the shock of many, this renowned scholar uncovered 30,000 inconsistencies. His work was attacked viciously by Church leaders, but, as Ehrman reluctantly concedes, the inconsistencies were never refuted. Mill worked from some 100 old manuscripts. Since Mill, we have uncovered roughly 5,700 more Greek manuscripts or fragments of same, including The Dead Sea Scrolls, which take us now to some 10,000 copies of old manuscripts. Biblical scholars have now expanded the number of inconsistencies from Mill’s 30,000 to “200,000 to 400,000”. “There are more variants among our [NT] manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” (MJ, p. 90).

There are endless reasons for these variances, including: accidental changes; spelling errors; eye errors (skipping words and lines); sound errors (where the copyists misheard the word); translation errors; intentional changes (as made by the copyist or as dictated by the clergy to present words believed closer to the original intent or to change same to provide whatever view was then desired). In addition, the greatest challenge of all comes from language itself. (Even this very year, I have not been able to translate a simple contract from English to Spanish without creating legions of arguments among those involved!) Language evolves every day. Chaucerian English is as unintelligible to most speakers of English today as is Latin or Chinese; yet, Chaucerian English is our mother tongue. In short, languages evolve constantly, experiencing infancy through senility.

When one thinks of the task of an illiterate copyist, or a semi-literate one, or even the greatest scholar of the day, struggling mightily to translate ancient languages (languages that were never the first language of the translator) into a different contemporary one, the mind can only boggle.

We must give all these copyists, editors and revisionists an “A” for effort (and not blame them for inserting their own view as to what was written, intended or even might be better) and be done with it. In recent decades, to compound all of the above issues and flawed copies, various leaders of Christian sects print their own versions (a profitable exercise) and do their own subtle tweaking, all of which are represented to accepting devotees as “the inerrant word of God” and, even if not, that their Bible is the most accurate one. Since most will never read any other Bible, they’ll never know the difference.

The two-volume treatise, The New Testament in Original Greek”, by Westcott and Hall (c. 1875) is among the most respected presentations on the NT. Twenty-eight years in the writing, it proved the precept, “Identity of reading [material] implies the identity origin.” Westcott and Hall concluded that there are four families of NT manuscripts: Syrian/Byzantine (late medieval), which are close to each other but very different from earlier manuscripts; Western (from the 1st and 2nd Centuries), which involve “wild copying practices”; Alexandrian, where the Greek scribes were well trained and accurate but corrected grammar and homogenized styles to make them flow better; and Neutral, which tried to avoid alterations.

Ehrman believes that the translations used in the most commonly available Christian Bibles are based upon the wrong manuscripts. (MJ, Ch. 5) In evaluation the credibility of a manuscript, modern scholars use two primary techniques: external evidence (i.e., the earlier the source, the more reliable) and intrinsic evidence (the more stylistically consistent, the more likely it is to be unaltered). The sheer quantity of copies of one version does not demonstrate authenticity by itself, as they may have been based on a flawed source; whereas there may be less copies of less flawed copy.

The scholar, Ehrman, concludes that, contradictory copies do not alter the key point: Jesus was a loving egalitarian, as he is depicted in his Sermon on The Mount, rather than the

angry man as he is elsewhere depicted. Erman flatly rejects the negative quotes that are attributed to Jesus, that depict an angry, arrogant or murderous man. As goes the famous quote from Gal. 3:27-28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor male nor female, for all of you are one in Jesus Christ.” Such was Christ’s statement, according to Paul (who, again, is the alleged author or dictator of 13 of the 27 books of the NT). In Rom. 16:7, author-Paul cites Junice (a woman) as “foremost among the apostles”, a statement that so troubled anti-female Christians that it was removed from later copies of Romans. In Acts 17:4, Paul speaks of “prominent women” who were converted to Christianity, but, since women could not be “prominent” to some Christians, this verse, too, was challenged, altered or deleted by later copyists. Yet, despite these writings by Paul of Christ’s view of the equality of the sexes and people in general, Paul’s view (or that of those who edited his writings later) was contradictory, holding that women should keep their heads covered in church to show that they are “under authority” (1 Cor. 11:3-16) and slaves should not seek to change their status (1 Cor. 7:17-24), since “the time is short” until “the coming of the Kingdom,” (no doubt pleasing the largest donors to his church), which view Mohammed adopted in his Koran. Paul (or his editors) add, “Let the women keep silent…it is not permitted for them to speak…if they wish to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home for it as it is shameful for a woman to speak in church…” (1Cor.14), and women should “learn silence with full submission … permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man…to keep silent…yet she will be saved through childbearing…faith and her holiness and modesty” (1 Tim 2:11-15). These proclamations of women’s subservience made half of mankind into slaves, more or less, all based on Eve – being created from man’s rib, for falling prey to the serpent, and for beguiling the malleably weak-minded Adam to eat the apple (from the Tree of Knowledge), proving that women are easily duped by the devil and will lead men astray.

In the end, Ehrman, a devoutly religious academic who has spent his adult life studying ancient NT manuscripts, concludes that the Christian Bible is a collection of discretely selected books and letters, “a very human book”, but not “the inerrant word of God” and that, if its original books were in fact divinely inspired, we do not have even one of those original books. We have copies of copies of copies, all of which contain literally “more variances than there are words in the New Testament”, some of which are simple errors of eye, sound, spelling, grammar, illiteracy, translation, or language idiosyncrasies that defy exact translation, while other variances reflect intentional revisions, material omissions and deletions that alter the text to suit the then contemporary views and cultures of those reproducing the books in their respective eras. (See fn. 1.) In short, Jesus has been misquoted to the point of egregious misrepresentation. To Ehrman, Jesus remains a loving egalitarian and the Christian Bible a fascinating chronology of evolving ancient cultures and mores, although the degree of its connection to the words of its authors (known and unknown) is, at best, questionable.


1. Thousands of examples of inconsistencies fill his book: E.g., John 14:12 and 15:25 states that Jesus was crucified after the Passover meal, while John 19:44 says that he died the day before it. Did Jesus ascend the day after his resurrection or 40 days later? The first manuscripts that contain the story of Jesus cleansing the leper appear some 400 years after Christ, meaning that, for 300 years or so, the manuscripts did not contain any version of that story. Mark is believed by most to be the first-written of the four Gospels and Matthew and Luke are believed to have used Mark as a reference source for their own versions; however, in Mark, Jesus is said to be “angry” at the leper, but in Matthew and Luke is said to have been “compassionate”. (The OT has similar issues: Mary was a “virgin” in some manuscripts, in others “a young woman”. In some, Joseph was said to be Mary’s husband and Jesus’ father, in others Mary’s finance and not Jesus’ father. In others, it states that “a dove “impregnated Mary, in others “the wind”, while some ignore the issue totally.) Was Jesus “the only son”, “the unique son” or “the begotten son” of God? Was Jesus the son of God or God himself? The majority of the oldest and most reliable manuscripts refer to Jesus as the son of God but not as God. The story of the adulterous woman (which gave rise to Jesus’ statement, “Let him who has not sinned cast the first stone” and his admonition “Go and sin no more”) does not exist in the early manuscripts; it first appeared hundreds of years later, which was also the case for the late-appearing story of the leper, wherein some versions characterize Jesus as “angry” and others as “compassionate”. Whether such later additions are accurate or not, there can be no doubt that they were not written by the authors of the books in which they appear. The examples of contradictions are literally endless.