Misquoting Jesus. What did Jesus really say?

Part of my never-ending quest for enlightenment takes me down a lot of religious rabbit holes.  The Bible, certainly, is proving to be the deepest rabbit hole yet.   I was raised Catholic, so I was never battered over the head with the fundamentalist belief that the Good Book is the perfect, exact word of God which must be taken literally. Catholics are fairly comfortable with a more metaphoric reading of Genesis.  I’ve even heard priests suggest that Moses might have parted the Red Sea by showing up during the dry season, and then Pharaoh’s army, which took up hot pursuit not just a few hours later but a few months later, showed up during the rainy season.  There was always room for debate in my family about whether Jonah really got swallowed by a whale, or whether the story is an allegory for man’s attempt to go against God’s will.  But what about The New Testament.   Christians put a lot of power in some of the things that Jesus said.  Did he really say them?  Not always…

Of course, the first issue we have to deal with regarding The New Testament is the fact that it is chocked full of miracles that we know are not scientifically possible.  And just like with The Old Testament, some readers have invented stories to explain these.  Lazarus was buried alive and Jesus showed up just in time to point this out.  What about the wedding at Cana?  Did Jesus always keep a few jugs of good wine on hand (underneath his brown bathrobe) just in a case a party got boring?  No wonder so many people liked him.  To be honest, neither skeptics nor believers can do much about the miracles—you either believe them or you don’t.  We can’t go back and check Lazarus’s pulse or the quality of the wine Jesus kept in his bathrobe.

But the words.  What Jesus said is true, right?  All those nice little stories and aphorisms.  That’s true, right?  Even the most out-there liberal Christians probably think that when the Bible says “Jesus says” that’s what he said.

Well, not really.

My recent religious rabbit hole is an obsession with finding out how the New Testament was pieced together, why it was, who actually wrote it, when, and who passed it down.  Many of us have the impression that these books were written by his four apostles, Matthew, Mark, and crew, and we now have what they wrote.  The story is a lot more interesting and complicated than that.  And for people who take their Religions seriously, I think it’s a story worth telling in Sunday school, especially if you are going to sing songs that say, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Bart Ehrman’s great book, Misquoting Jesus, lays out some of the problems with the Bible’s text. Ehrman’s book is great not just because he’s a Duke professor and a world renowned expert in the field of historical religious studies; it’s great because it’s personal.  He starts out with his own story.  He was a fundamental Christian who believed the Bible was the inerrant word of God.  He believed it so devoutly that he decided he needed to become an expert on it.  He went down the rabbit hole, learned all sorts of old languages, including Greek, the original language of the Bible, studied thousands of ancient manuscripts, and many years and a PhD later, he came to the conclusion that it would be impossible to read the Bible as the exact, dictated word of God.

Misquoting Jesus deals with one central issue regarding the Bible, and that is the issue of how the Bible was transmitted to us over the years.  Assuming that Matthew, Mark and crew wrote the story down exactly as it happened (which is already almost impossible considering the differences in their stories—and no, it was not the actual Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John who wrote it), how were these stories given to us?  They certainly weren’t originally in English and bound in a book.  Problem one.  No printing press.  So most original versions of the New Testament were hand copies.  And in the beginning, before professional scribes and monks took over the job, they were copied by the original Jesus enthusiasts—most of whom were illiterate.  So our Bible today comes from copies of copies of copies of a lost original.  And here’s what really surprised me:  there are different versions.  There’s not just one Mark or Matthew in the back room of the Vatican—there are thousands in all sorts of different languages.  And they are not all the same.  Words have been inserted, lines changed, either by mistake or intentionally (to make one’s personal theology a little more acceptable).  So what do you do with one hundred (or thousand) different versions of the same book?  You try to discern which is the original.  And that’s what Ehrman gets paid to do.  For me, it was just enough to know how much debate there still is over parts of the Bible.  Entire stories we know and love about Jesus were arguably inserted into later versions of the four Gospels.

Problem two, the translation.  Jesus did not speak American.  He spoke Aramaic.  But the story about him was written in Greek.  Quickly it moved into Latin.  In fact, many of the oldest versions of the Bible are Latin translations.  So what’s more accurate, an older translated Latin copy or a more recent Greek copy?  Which one reflects the exact words of Jesus?  These are the debates the scholars have.  Taking just one famous case, Ehrman points out that the beloved King James Bible was translated from a “bad” version of a Greek Bible which had used a less than accurate Latin Bible as it’s source (which of course was translated from an original Greek manuscript).  It’s starting to look like a never-ending game of telephone, the one where kids sit in a circle and whisper messages in each others’ ears and the end result is always completely different.

So what did Jesus really say?  It’s not always easy to know.

So what’s the point then?  For Ehrman, the point was life changing.  He had to rethink his view of The Bible as the perfect word of God.   He realized The Bible was a very human book, full of mistakes and biases.  He conceded that if God had wanted to give the world a single book for us all to live by, God was big enough and smart enough to send us a single, exact copy so that we would not have to fight so much.  I agree.

For me, it’s another step in the direction of expanding my faith beyond the borders of one religion.  This concept we call God is so vast, I’ve always felt It’s too big for one book.  As I’ve said before, if a Higher Power did create the world, He certainly appreciated diversity.  Why else make, like, a billion kinds of bugs—so we should appreciate diversity too–diversity of religions (check out my post on The Religious Diversity Problem).  Maybe if Christians could see The Bible as a human book, perhaps inspired, but still full of human imperfectness, they could let go a little and expand.  Seriously, it seems a little ridiculous, after reading Ehrman’s story, to think that most churches in the U.S. use the same book week after week, over and over, when there’s so much other good stuff out there.  Take a break from The Bible and read the The Tao Te Ching for a few weeks, or The Bhagavad Gita.

And just for fun, the next time a fundamentalist quotes you the Bible and says, “God said it, so I believe it,” ask him to quote you the Greek just for clarity’s sake.  And then ask him which original version of Matthew or John he is referring to.

As always, if there is a God, She’s much bigger than what we can imagine—so why are we always trying to make Her so small and simple.

If we could all Give Up and Die a little, especially to our ingrained biases and beliefs, the world would be a better place.