Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Misquoting Jesus Chapter 4

The most significant thought I absorbed from the reading of the book Misquoting Jesus was not stated overtly in Chapter 4, but once I learned this principle it permeated the rest of my reading. Bart Ehrman suggests throughout this work that the writers of the Christian books of scripture each have their own perpectives and valuable things to teach us. Textual criticism can bring us closer to the actual words of the authors and help reconstruct their understanding of the Christian faith. (p.14) Previous to my reading this book I approached the New Testament with a "harmonization" tactic, attempting to fit the ideas of the different authors into a cohesive whole. With Ehrman's instruction I see the value of taking each writer on his own terms and discovering their intent in writing. For example, Luke wishes to present Jesus as full of confidence in his divine mission, never losing control, never in anguish over his fate. (p. 143) This portrayal will necessarily conflict with an author such as Mark, who focuses attention on Jesus' agony. Mark emphasizes Jesus' distress and agitation at Gethsemane, his thrice-repeated prayer for the cup to be removed, and his despair on the cross. (p. 142)
Understanding this paradigm opens one up to studying the writers of the New Testament books with a deeper understanding. Their themes and motivations become more clear despite mistakes in transmission and the changes of scribes to try to harmonize the accounts and clarify the doctrine.

Chapter 4 discusses textual variations in detail. Several conclusions can be drawn from the fact that so many textual differences exist. Ehrman mentions three main conclusions drawn from a faith-based perspective:

1. From the tradition of Richard Simon, a French Catholic author: the Christian faith can not be based solely on scripture but requires the apostolic tradition preserved in the (Catholic) Church. (p. 102)

2 From Daniel Whitby's response to Mill's Apparatus: Errors are a result of the frailties of men, but "God would never allow the text to be corrupted to the point that it could not adequately achieve its divine aim and purpose." (p. 85)

3. Errors exist but textual criticism enables modern scholars to reconstruct the original words, so the foundation of faith is secured. A corollary to this view is that errors exist because of he multiplicity of manuscripts, but variations actually help us to discover more correct readings. (p. 105)

I am interested in these three faith-based perspectives, especially with respect to how the LDS church responds to textual variation. There is no attempt by Mormon writers to deny the existence of variation. The 8th Article of Faith states that we believe the Bible "as far as it is translated correctly," with an understanding that much of it has not been transmitted in it's original form. I've seen conclusions #1 and #2 above promulgated in LDS thought. Although we recognize errors in the scriptures, they are not so dire as to lead members away from salvation. Additionally, the Church has an apostolic tradition which will correct deviations which its membership needs to be aware of.

Besides the example of Joseph Smith, I have not seen any attempt by the Church to embrace textual criticism as a method of reconstructing the original autographs of Biblical authors. (Conclusion #3 above) Joseph did do some work in "reconstructing" texts, mainly by revelation and his understanding of what the texts meant to convey. But since that time I have seen little interest by LDS scholars to utilize textual criticism. Mogget's recent post on LDS Biblical scholarship is a point in fact.

Perhaps some of the others following this book discussion might wish to speculate whether the LDS Church might be able to benefit from textual criticism or what holds them back from doing so. (See also this review, which discusses further aspects important to Chapter 4.)


Johnny said...

Nice job pulling out that point from the text. I find textual variation fascinating as well. The point I draw from it is different than the three points already listed. What is interesting to me is the relationship between textual variation and the orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy debate. If orthodoxy was more important than orthopraxy why would the gospels show determinately different interpretations of the Christian faith? It seems that textual variation would lead one to give orthopraxy a priority.

As far as the question relates to the LDS faith, I think my speculation is relatively unoriginal. Since the LDS church places its authority almost exclusively on their apostolic tradition textual problems become largely irrelevant.

John (with an h) said...

Can't wait to finish the chapter and actually read your comments!

Bored in Vernal said...

Get going then, john.white! And come on back here and comment.

Johnny, I'm interested to know what you think of the post by Mogget that I linked to. IMO it points up the dangers of relying on apostolic tradition and almost completely ignoring textual analysis.

JohnR said...

Bored, I had the same revelation (though not from Ehrman) about our tendency to harmonize the Gospel accounts (and much of our experience of scripture as a whole). We lose much in the process. This realization was transforming, infusing me with a new love for the gospels.

I haven't read chapter four either, so I'm going to read it really quick and return to comment more.

JohnR said...

oops! I was signed in under the Exp2 account (I'm tech support for X2). The previous comment is mine.

Johnny said...


I liked Mogget's post and think she is right that there is a problem in relying upon the apostolic tradition at the exclusion of everything else. But, one of her points is that responsible scholarship involves weighing the sources of interpretation. However, if one has a literal belief in the authority of modern prophets shouldn't their authority almost always carry the most weight?

My point is that it seems that the only way that the apostolic tradition is not given the most weight is if someone has doubts concerning the authenticity of the authorities themselves.

Samuel said...

I think the LDS Church tries to downplay her formidable early heritage and wants to be seen as maintream Christian as possible. Taking the Scriptures as they are goes in that sense. Early Mormon Apostles said they didn't believe in the Creation story as it stands in Genesis while modern LDS leaders have a fundamentalist Christian approach to them. For the same reasons, I am sure that the hymn "Hie to Kolob" will disappear from the Hymn book at some point...

journeygal said...

In tying the thoughts from chapter 4 to LDS doctrine, I'm drawn to your observation of Ehrman's point "that the writers of the Christian books of scripture each have their own perpectives and valuable things to teach us."

Could this same principle be applied to LDS prophets and apostles? Could the sayings/writings of different prophets and apostles be simply their own perspectives, and could each have valuable things to teach us that may not necessarily be harmonized? I think one of the LDS church's Achilles heals - whether intentional or not - is that it likes to portray itself in absolutes, and one of those absolutes is absolutely harmonized. Even when comparing a prophet from the 1800s to a prophet in 2007. Acknowledging that different leaders are teaching from their own unique perspectives could help relieve some of the black and white thinking that seems to exist.

Bored in Vernal said...

Elise, that's an awesome thought! Why have I never looked at it that way before? I want to respond in a longer post when I have some time.

Editor said...

Greeting thanks for the review. I am not Mormon but was thinking of buying the book. A good one on the Old Testament crit. Is "Who wrote the Bible" by Richard Friedman. I found your post interesting and I appreciate your openness and honesty.