A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Misquoting Jesus: Chapter Five (6 of 9)

Originals that Matter

In chapter five of his book, Ehrman discusses the methodology textual critics employ in order to discover the original form of the New Testament text, at least, the “oldest attainable form.” It is his contention that “the translations available to most English readers are based on the wrong text, and having the wrong text makes a real difference for the interpretation of these books” (127).

Ehrman chooses what he deems to be three important variants in the New Testament because “each of them is critical for interpreting the book it is in” (127), but first he outlines the methods used for determining the original reading of a text, which fall into one of two categories: external evidence and internal evidence.

External evidence refers directly to the manuscript evidence. It involves such questions as, “Which manuscripts attest the reading?” “Are those manuscripts reliable?” and “Why are they reliable or not reliable?” (128). Choosing between variants does not always involve which reading has greater attestation. The age of the manuscript is important based on the assumption that changes in the text happen more often as the text is copied, although other things must be taken into account as well, since it is entirely possible that a later manuscript might reflect an older reading. “And so, age does matter, but it cannot be an absolute criterion” (129).

Another important factor in weighing the internal evidence is geography. Is the variant limited to one family of manuscripts, say from the area of Rome, or is the variant found in manuscripts reflecting a wider geographical area? This is a factor to consider as scholars tend to believe that certain families of manuscripts, such as the Alexandrian family of texts, are more reliable than others (e.g. The Byzantine texts).

All of this evidence must be weighed together and carefully before a decision can be made as to what reading should be preferred.

Internal evidence involved two different things: intrinsic probabilities, the “probabilities based on what the author of the text was himself most likely to have written” (131), and transcriptional probabilities, which involves the inquiry as to which variant was a scribe likely to have created.

Ehrman states, “In short, determining the original text is neither simple nor straightforward! It requires a lot of thought and careful sifting of the evidence, and different scholars invariably come to different conclusions—not only about minor matters that have no bearing on the meaning of the passage…but also about matters of major importance, matters that affect the interpretation of the an entire book of the New Testament” (132).

To illustrate the latter, Ehrman chooses three significant variants found in the New Testament: Mark 1:41, Luke 22:43-44 and Hebrews 2:8-9. In the discussion of each I will put the variants next to each other in italics. I will wait to evaluate Ehrman’s argument until the end of this post.

An Angry Jesus (Mark 1:41): This variant is found in the story of Jesus healing a man with an unidentifiable skin disease. The choice is between two readings: “And a leper came to him beseeching him and saying to him, ‘If you wish you are able to cleanse me.’ And feeling compassion (Greek: splangnistheis)/becoming angry (Greek: orgistheis), reaching out his hand, he touched him and said, ‘I wish, be cleansed.’”

While most of the English translations prefer the first reading that Jesus had compassion, which is found in most of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, Ehrman suggests that the correct reading is the one less attested: that Jesus became angry when the man asked Jesus to heal him. Ehrman notes several reasons for his position: 1) the likelihood that a scribe would have changed the reading from “becoming angry” to “feeling compassion,” since the former is the more difficult reading; 2) Matthew and Luke, who using Mark, quote the story almost verbatim from Mark, but leave out the word for how Jesus was feeling altogether. If the word were “compassion” Matthew and Luke would probably not omitted it since both refer to Jesus’ compassion elsewhere, but both Matthew and Luke would have been inclined to leave out that Jesus was angry, as they do with other accounts where he becomes angry. “In sum, Matthew and Luke have no qualms about describing Jesus as compassionate, but they never describe him as angry” (136); 3) Mark, one the other hand, has no trouble in stating that Jesus was angry. In fact, he does so in several places.

Why would Jesus have become angry? Ehrman finds the conventional explanations unsatisfying (e.g. Jesus is angry at fallen state of the world that brings suffering and disease, or he is angry because the person with this “leprous” skin condition would have been ostracized from society). Ehrman sees in these explanations “the desire to exonerate Jesus’s anger and the decision to bypass the text in order to do so” (137).

In analyzing the immediate literary context of the passage in Mark and the broader context of the book itself, Ehrman notes that Jesus becomes angry when “someone doubts his willingness, ability, or divine authority to heal” (138). Given this, the story of Jesus has a completely different feel when one contrasts the angry Jesus of Mark with the compassionate Jesus of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

The Imperturbable Jesus (Luke 22:43-44): Ehrman notes that Luke’s Jesus never loses his composure except in one place—in the Garden of Gethsemane. After Jesus’ prayer in the Garden, we read in Luke: “And an angel from heaven appeared to him, strengthening him. And being in agony he began to pray more fervently, and his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground.”

Was this account of Jesus’ bloody sweat written by Luke or inserted into the text later? The earliest and best manuscripts do not contain the passage, but it is found in other early witnesses and widely disseminated throughout the whole manuscript tradition. Thus Ehrman asks and then states, “So were they added by scribes who wanted them in or deleted by scribes who wanted them out? It is difficult to say on the basis of the manuscripts themselves (140).

Ehrman concludes that these verses are not part of the original for two reasons: the insertion of this passage completely ruins the chiastic literary structure of the larger story and changes the focus of the story from Jesus’ prayer to his agony, and more significantly is the fact, according to Ehrman, Luke does not portray Jesus in such an out-of-control fashion. “Quite the contrary, Luke has gone to great lengths to counter precisely the view of Jesus these verses embrace. Rather than entering his passion with fear and trembling, in anguish over his coming fate, the Jesus of Luke goes to his death calm and in control, confident of his Father’s will until the very end” (142).

The Forsaken Jesus (Hebrews 2:8-9): The reading in question and the variant is as follows: “For when [God] subjects to him all things, he leaves nothing that is not subjected to him. But we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we do see Jesus, who, having been made for a little while lower than the angels, was crowned with glory and honor on account of his suffering of death so that by the grace of God/apart from God he might taste death for everyone.”

Most of the extant manuscripts contain the former reading “by the grace of God,” nevertheless the latter reading, “apart from God” was known to Origen in the early third century and is quoted by various church leaders to the eleventh century. Yet, it is the internal evidence that persuades Ehrman to prefer the latter reading. First, it is the more difficult reading, and second, it is more consistent with the theology of Hebrews that “says not a word about God’s grace as manifest in Christ’s work of atonement. It focuses on Christology, on Christ’s condescension into the transitory realm of suffering and death” (148).

Ehrman concludes the chapter by emphasizing why this analysis is significant: It is important to know whether Jesus was compassionate or angry, calm, cool, and collected or in distress as he faced his death, and whether he died with or apart from the grace of God.

Observations and Critique:

There are larger theological issues that are called to mind as I think about Ehrman’s argument in this chapter, but I will resist the temptation to deal with them until the final post. Allow me simply to make some comments on his analysis of the three examples he discusses.

First, his discussion concerning Jesus’ anger in Mark once again reveals lack of nuance in his argument. It is surely the case that Mark emphasizes Jesus’ anger more than Matthew and Luke, and in fact the reason he gives for Jesus’ anger in Mark I find to be compelling, but Matthew and Luke do indeed portray Jesus as angry (e.g. Matthew 7:5; 15:7; 23:27; Luke 12:56; 13:15). It is not an insignificant point that Matthew and Luke lack mention of Jesus’ emotional disposition in parallel passages with Mark, but a reading of Matthew and Luke will not allow Ehrman’s claim that “Matthew and Luke have no qualms about describing Jesus as compassionate, but they never describe him as angry” (136). A superficial reading of all four Gospels presents to us a Jesus who, in fully human fashion gets angry and feels compassion; dispositions, by the way, that the Old Testament ascribes to God as well. If Mark emphasizes Jesus’ anger more than Matthew and Luke, it is simply that—a matter of emphasis. This is a point that has been long noticed.

It is also somewhat unfair for Ehrman to suggest that scholars trying to make sense of Jesus’ anger in Mark 1:41 have a desire to “exonerate Jesus’s anger and the decision to bypass the text in order to do so” (137). Any scholar of the Gospels knows well that Jesus became angry and when he did, rightly so. The larger picture in all the Gospels that Ehrman needs to take account of is that Jesus so angered the authorities they finally strung him up on a cross. That did not happen simply because he was “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” I do agree with Ehrman that the variant stating Jesus’ anger should be preferred, but I do not see why this creates such a huge problem for the interpretation of Mark’s Gospel, let alone Matthew and Luke.

Second, Luke 22:43-44 is a hotly contested variant for the reasons Ehrman identifies, yet, Luke does record Jesus’ entreaty to take the cup of his suffering from him if possible, thus acknowledging that Jesus had some sense of turmoil within him. Also not to be forgotten is his weeping over Jerusalem in Luke 19:40-42. This is hardly a picture of the imperturbable Jesus who never loses his composure. And if 22:43-33 is a reading inserted later, so what? The manuscript evidence reveals this is a problem and it hardly casts doubts upon Luke portrayal of Jesus.

Finally, in reference to the forsaken Jesus of Hebrews 2:8-9, neither reading is a problem for the theology of the New Testament. There is quite a tradition in the New Testament in reference to Jesus’ death as a revelation of the grace of God and a rejection by God. Indeed, both Matthew and Mark refer to Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22:1, “My God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew27: 46; Mark 15:34). Scholars have long noted that such quotations were meant not only to recall the particular verse recited, but the entire context of the passage. Psalm 22 not only refers to being forsaken by God, but also to the presence of God in the midst of death: “For he has not despised or ordained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (Psalm 22:24). If true, the primary intent of the quotation may be to emphasize Christ’s forsakenness, but clearly the grace of God is also in view. Only the most narrow-minded theological perspective would see both these claims as contradictory. And again, if “apart from God” is the preferred reading, what is the major point? It is more in keeping with the theology of Hebrews, yes, but it is not an earth-shattering problem for the theology, and more specifically, the christology of the New Testament. Ehrman has failed to demonstrate that the difference these readings makes are of ultimate significance.

If Ehrman is to make his point in a convincing way, he needs to come up with better examples. He ends his chapter with a view to the next when he states that he will attempt to demonstrate “how scribes who were not altogether satisfied with what the New Testament books said modified their words to make them more clearly support orthodox Christianity and more vigorously oppose heretics, women, Jews, and pagans” (149). This is quite a claim. We will have to see if Ehrman can make good on it.


Anonymous said...


Once again a fine post. Really helps see through Ehrman here, I believe. I mean, he proceeds to a hypothesis based on what? Thanks.

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