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...
(The entire section is 795 words.)