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Ehrman's book can be described as an introduction to New Testament textual criticism for the beginners, in which he explains the subject in the context of his own background, relating his journey from being an Evangelical Christian to becoming a world renowned New Testament scholar. Besides D. C. Parker's "Living Text of the Gospels," Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus" seems to be the only book on textual criticism designed specifically for the non-expert readers.
In short, Prof. Ehrman explains the copying practises of the earliest period and how the texts of the New Testament writings were corrupted as they were copied and recopied. He begins by introducing the diverse writings produced by the early Christians, such as gospels, Acts, apocalypses, Church orders, apologies etc. Briefly, the formation of the canon is also discussed and we are informed about the literacy level among the early Christians. Thereafter we are introduced to the world of the copyists and Ehrman explains how the early scribes copied texts and the problems associated with the copying of texts.
It is quite interesting to learn that even pagan critics of Christianity, such as Celsus, were quite aware at an early date that the Christian writings were being corrupted by the scribes and even Origen had to complain about the numerous differences between the gospel manuscripts. Marcion, an early Christian, corrupted the text of certain New Testament writings available to him and Dionysius is quoted who complains that his own writings have been modified just as "the word of the Lord" had been tampered. Marcion, of course, accused other Christians of corrupting the texts. In an earlier writings, "The Orthodox Corruption of Scriptures", Ehrman demonstrated in detail how proto-orthodox Christians corrupted the New Testament writings on occasions. It seems that the early Christians were quite aware that the writings in their possession had underwent corruption and were still being corrupted and they frequently accused each other of tampering with the texts.
I was quite surprised to learn how statistically small additions or deletions within the text changed the entire meaning of passages and even books. Ehrman discusses at length certain examples in this regard and shows that even unintentional changes can result in changes that change the meaning of texts. A previous disgruntled reviewer said that "all of the basic beliefs of the faith are clearly outlined throughout the New Testament and are not in any way in question." However, Ehrman lists a number of theologically important issues which rest upon textually uncertain passages. To quote Ehrman (pp. 207-208):
"It would be wrong, however, to say - as people sometimes do - that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them. We have seen, in fact, that just the opposite is the case. In some instances, the very meaning is at stake depending on how one resolves a textual problem: Was Jesus an angry man? Was the completely distraught in the face of death? Did he tell his disciples that they could drink poison without being harmed? Did he let an adulteress off the hook with nothing but a mild warning? Is the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament? Is Jesus actually called the "unique God" there? Does the New Testament indicate that even the Son of God does not know when the end will come? The questions go on and on, and all of them are related to how one resolves difficulties in the manuscript tradition as it has come down to us."
The above are just a few problems. Another interesting problem is whether the doctrine of the atonement is taught in the gospel according to Luke? Further, there are immense textual problems with passages such as the sayings on divorce and remarriage in the gospels (not discussed by Ehrman but addressed in detail in D. C. Parker's - The Living Text of the Gospels) and the Lord's Prayer among others. Therefore, it seems clear that the Gospels are not so well textually preserved as some people would have us imagine and that there exist many variations which have profound effects upon the meaning of texts and theological issues.
The previous reviewer - who is clearly upset at some Muslim reviewers and thus provides a link to an irrelevant polemical article in frustration - also talks about the "the oldest Christian manuscripts" and how these are "most reliable" not realizing that Ehrman, and others, have pointed out numerous times that the earliest manuscripts are precisely the most problematic - revealing the most variations, which indicates that the texts of the gospels were in a state of flux in the earliest period of their transmission. A detailed discussion of the manuscripts of the New Testament, based on writings of scholars such as Prof. Ehrman and others, is to be found here:
Moreover, the problem of the "original text" is also discussed by Ehrman and he states that many textual critics are now beginning to doubt even if there is such a thing as an "original" to be restored. In particular, Ehrman explains the problematic nature of the issue and why we cannot get back to the "original" text itself in light of the copying practises of the first three centuries. Therefore, we can only hope to recover early forms of the text, not the "originals," and hope that these early forms are relatively close to the long lost "originals".
Besides the above issues, Ehrman provides a fascinating discussion of how the various New Testament editions were produced, particularly the one by Erasmus, and how Christians reacted when certain individuals here and there stumbled across variant readings. Ehrman also goes on to explain how he eventually came to the conclusion that the New Testament writings were not inspired and that their authors were non-inspired writers.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn about the textual criticism and transmission of the New Testament writings! If you know nothing about this complex subject, then this is where you should start. After going through "Misquoting Jesus," it should be much easier for you to read books aimed at those who already know something about the subject.
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In recent years, Bart D. Ehrman has made a reputation for himself as an accomplished history and religion scholar who is able to write reader-friendly books for non-academic audiences without dumbing down the content. In 2003, it was LOST CHRISTIANITIES, a look at the diversity of belief that flourished in the first centuries after Christ. Last year, it was TRUTH AND FICTION IN THE DA VINCI CODE, in which he pointed out the historical flaws in Dan Brown's novel. This time around, it's the New Testament --- specifically, from the perspective of a textual critic.
Simply put, textual criticism is the attempt to restore the wording of a manuscript whose original no longer exists. For New Testament scholars, that means taking the various fragments and manuscripts that do exist --- none dating before the fourth century --- and recreating the text as closely as possible to whatever the original version may have been or, perhaps better, to discover the best possible version. As Ehrman points out, that's a monumental undertaking, given the many discrepancies between the manuscripts and fragments that have survived.
Throughout the book --- which was originally titled THE MONK AND THE MESSIAH --- Ehrman explains why so many discrepancies appear in what Christians consider to be the Word of God. Some are innocent enough: fatigue, a mishearing or misreading on the part of the scribe or the monk, and the not-so-minor problem created by a form of writing that included no punctuation and no spaces between words. Others, though, are more problematic: a monk forced to choose between two distinctly different meanings for the same word would likely be inclined to choose the meaning that best represented his own beliefs. Still others were blatant errors or additions that were introduced to alter the meaning of the text. Ehrman offers clear and compelling examples of each kind of error, enough that even a skeptical reader would be hard-pressed to argue that what we have today is what was written in the first century.
One amusing graphic is a reproduction of a page from a fourth-century manuscript in which one scribe wrote this in the margin, apparently blasting a previous copyist: "Fool and knave, leave the old reading, don't change it!" It's amusing, that is, until you consider the many battles Christians have fought with each other over the accuracy of the biblical text.
So many are the discrepancies that Ehrman states bluntly, "There are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament." Scholars have estimated that there are between 30,000 and 400,000 differences in the text --- a wide range, for sure, but that just shows how complex the field of textual criticism is.
One of the most fascinating insights Ehrman offers is an explanation of the literacy rates at the time of Christ and later, particularly what it meant to be "literate" --- which sometimes meant little more than the ability to copy words. Yet, before the rise of monasticism, it often fell to a "literate" Christian in a given town to copy the gospels or the letters of Paul or other letters and writings of New Testament authors. The potential for error was great, and that did not go unnoticed either within the church or without. Origen, a third-century church father, complained about the many mistakes he had found, while a pagan critic of Christianity wrote that Christian scribes had done their work "as though from a drinking bout." Good reading, this book of Ehrman's.
Despite all my praise for MISQUOTING JESUS, I confess I had a tough time reading past page 13, for what may seem to some readers to be an insignificant reason. But there, right on the page, Ehrman refers to the "Timothy LeHaye and Philip Jenkins series Left Behind." Do I need to point out all the errors in those few words? One, it's LaHaye, not LeHaye. Two, I'm guessing no one's called him Timothy since his baptismal certificate was signed; he's been known as Tim for at least the nearly 40 years he's been a published author. Three, Philip Jenkins? Philip Jenkins? I have to believe that a scholar of Ehrman's stature, a professor who pores over ancient manuscripts with exactitude and precision and accuracy, is not the one who made that mistake; I'm going to assume it was a well-meaning editor. Philip Jenkins is a religion professor at Penn State, and I'm sure Ehrman is well-acquainted with his work. LaHaye's co-author is Jerry Jenkins, not Philip. Oh, and "Timothy" was given the last name of LaHay on page 110, but in the index, it was back to LeHaye. Should I even mention that Hal Lindsey's name was spelled "Lindsay" in that same sentence on page 110?
Maybe those mistakes are intentional. Maybe the editor, or Ehrman himself, was winking at us by underscoring the various ways errors can creep in to a manuscript. Somehow, I think that's not the case. Ironic that an Editing 101 error --- getting the names right --- should appear in a book on misquoting Jesus.
Those errors aside, Ehrman has done an exceptional job of translating complex findings by New Testament scholars not only into language we can understand but also into an absorbing narrative. I'm already looking forward to his next release --- the intriguingly titled PETER, PAUL, AND MARY --- in May.