Misquoting Jesus is both Bart D. Ehrman’s spiritual autobiography and an introduction to textual criticism of the New Testament. The same quest for certainty that drew the teenaged Ehrman to “born-again Christianity” and faith in “verbal, plenary inspiration” of the Bible ultimately led him to believe that the New Testament is essentially a “human” book—written, copied, translated, and interpreted by human beings.

Ehrman initially describes the process and problems associated with formation of the early Christian canon, pointing out the role of liturgy and the need to refute early heretics and pagan critics. Demonstrating that Christianity, like Judaism, is a “textually oriented religion,” Ehrman illustrates problems of textual reliability confronting the church of the first three centuries, when few members were fully literate and most copyists were not professional scribes. Some difficulties arose from the scripto continua Greek manuscript style (which used no punctuation, no distinction between uppercase and lowercase letters, and no spacing between words); in other instances, entire passages appear to have been added in an attempt to incorporate additional stories that were part of a parallel Christian tradition.

While praising accurate copying by some early scribes (those in Alexandria), Eherman observes that truly professional copying became the norm only after the conversion of Roman emperor Constantine. Near the end of the fourth century, the Greek manuscripts were translated into an official Latin version known as the Vulgate (Common) Bible. Until the fifteenth century, texts continued to be copied in two versions: Greek (Byzantine) in the East and Latin (Vulgate) in the West. While there soon were fifty printed editions of the Vulgate, a printed Greek version was not attempted until the early sixteenth century. In the most influential Greek text (1516), Erasmus attempted to...

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Sources for Further Study

Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Extended discussion of issues raised in Misquoting Jesus, providing detailed analysis of specific forgeries, discoveries, heresies, and orthodoxies.

Komoszewski, J., et al. Reinventing Jesus: What “The Da Vinci Code” and Other Novel Speculations Don’t Tell You. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2006. More orthodox religious scholars provide an opposing interpretation, answering most of Ehrman’s major textual objections.

Metzer, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Develoment, and Significance. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1997. Described by Ehrman as the standard authoritative scholarly account of canonical development and extensively cited by other scholars.

Meyer, Marvin. The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Overview and analysis of papyrus manuscripts discovered in Egypt in 1945, emphasizing significance for modern readers.

Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979. Analytical study of diversity in early Christianity, emphasizing Gnostic interaction with orthodoxy and implications for studying Christianity’s origins.

Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. 3d rev. ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1988. One-volume translation of papyrus manuscripts discovered in Egypt, edited by the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity.