We are going to take a more in-depth look at Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus than we have in our other “Answering the Critics” posts. We will take the book one or two chapters at a time.
Bart Ehrman begins his Misquoting Jesus in a very different way than one might expect—with an introduction which tells the story of Ehrman’s interactions with the Christian Church as he was growing up. Ehrman was raised in a “churchgoing but not particularly religious” family. When he was a sophomore, Ehrman had what he calls a born-again experience. (p.2ff) Later, Ehrman attended Moody Bible Institute, which advocates verbal inspiration. “Verbal Inspiration” is the idea that every word in the original manuscripts of the Bible is inspired by God. Ehrman eventually came to see a problem with the idea of “verbal inspiration” though—we no longer have the original manuscripts. Ehrman continued from Moody Bible Institute to Wheaton College, where he learned Greek and majored in English Literature.
These two ideas—that the Bible was verbally inspired in its original manuscripts and that we no longer have the original manuscripts—are the building blocks for the basis of Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman wrestles with this question time and time again throughout the whole book, and specifically here in the introduction. Put these two ideas together, Ehrman says, and the idea of inspiration is a moot point. (p.10) If the original manuscripts are inspired but we no longer have them, then what we have is not inspired. It does not matter if the original manuscripts were inspired, if we no longer have the original manuscripts.
Indeed, Ehrman’s logic is correct here. Given the premises, the conclusion is true. If the original manuscripts were verbally inspired and if we no longer have the original manuscripts, then what we have is not inspired and inspiration is a moot point. The logic holds up. Unfortunately, the first premise does not.
What if there is another form of inspiration? The type of inspiration Ehrman addresses is verbal inspiration, but what if that is not the only type of inspiration? What if it is not the individual words that are inspired but the thoughts behind those words? If the Bible is inspired by thought instead of by word, what does that do in relation to Ehrman’s argument? If every thought in the original manuscripts was inspired instead of every word, then it seems that Ehrman’s argument no longer holds up. The force is taken out of Ehrman’s critique. Ehrman’s argument has essentially been that if we do not have the original words, we do not have inspiration. Now, I’m not necessarily convinced that we do not have at least most of the original words. Ehrman himself admits that “most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant.” (p.10)
But let’s give Ehrman the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that there are cases where we do not have the original words. If the Bible was inspired thought by thought, does it matter if we no longer have all of the exact original words? I would argue that we can know an author’s general intent without knowing all of the exact words he used. We can know the whole thrust of the story of God’s interaction with humanity without knowing exactly what words each author used. Indeed, if this were not the case, we could not translate Scripture at all–we’d need to keep it in the original language in order to have the original inspired words!
In the introduction we have learned that Ehrman sets up this problem with the words of Scripture being inspired while we no longer have the original words. Because of this, says the argument, inspiration is a moot point. As we continue throughout the book, we will keep applying this proposed solution that it is not the words themselves but the thoughts behind the words that are inspired in order to see how this affects Ehrman’s argument.