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There are a lot of misquotes out there.
Famous people are routinely credited (or saddled) with things they never actually said.
Albert Einstein, for instance, never declared, “Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe,” even though it sounds wonderfully Einsteinian. Winston Churchill is widely associated with the quip, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else,” but historians are pretty sure that was actually said by a man named F.E. Smith. Marie Antoinette, when confronted by starving peasants during the opening days of the French Revolution, almost certainly did not say, “Let them eat cake.” No one remembers her saying such a thing, and the line had been around since before her birth.
Tracking down misquotes is an interesting exercise. But it doesn’t make much difference in our lives. I mean, why should anyone lose their head just because historians have taken away a quotable quote from Marie Antoinette?
But things get a lot more interesting – and unnerving – when historians begin to subtract quotes from beloved and trusted religious leaders.
If you’re betting your life, for instance, that Jesus actually told his followers to forgive their enemies and to stop worrying about tomorrow, it would be a very big deal if someone tried to cast doubt on whether he actually said such things.
University of North Carolina professor Bart D. Ehrman wrote just such a book in 2005. Shortly after Misquoting Jesus hit America’s bookshelves, it rose to the top of the nation’s religious bestseller list. Ehrman has devoted his life to studying the original Greek text of the New Testament. When he speaks, people listen.
He writes, “The more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realized just how radically the text had been altered over the years at the hands of scribes… In some instances, the very meaning of the text is at stake.” Ehrman points out that there are somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 variants in the manuscripts that we currently possess. How big is that number? There are only 138,162 words in the entire Greek New Testament. Ehrman acknowledges that coming to grips with this fact contributed to his abandonment of Christianity and his embrace of agnosticism.
That definitely got his readers’ attention.
It also gave a number of them flashbacks to the childhood game of Telephone. Maybe you’ve played it. Everyone gets into a line. Someone whispers a sentence into the ear of the first person, who them whispers it to the second, and so on down the line. The fun is revealing what the last person hears compared to the original message. The more people who play, the crazier the distortions become.
The odds are pretty good that if you’ve ever held a Bible in your hands, you’ve wondered if you’re holding nothing more than the “final product” of a first century game of Telephone – the semi-garbled reconstruction of an original message that can never be satisfactorily recovered.
It’s widely known, after all, that the original manuscripts of the New Testament’s 27 books – scholars call them the “autographs” – are long gone. All we have are copies. Actually, copies of copies of copies. And when we compare many of those copies, as Bart Ehrman points out, we find hundreds of thousands of discrepancies.
Can we ever really know what Jesus actually said, since so many scribes had their hands on those manuscripts?
It would seem that skeptics have a slam-dunk case for agnosticism when it comes to the biblical text.
But there are other things to consider.
For instance, the Jewish scribal tradition was astonishing for its integrity. Copyists took great pride and care in the reproduction of documents. Why, then, are there so many textual variants?
Some scribes did indeed “doctor” the text. The evidence shows this was almost always an attempt to provide clarity – usually with regard to spelling. It’s estimated that more than 80% of the textual variants in our existing New Testament manuscripts are variations in how words are spelled – the equivalent of changing “colour” to “color” if one was copying a British text for an American audience. It’s worth noting that if the exact same spelling variation appears in 2,000 texts, scholars count those as 2,000 variations – even though it involves just one word.
Ehrman writes, “In some instances, the very meaning of the text is at stake.” Yes, that’s true – but only with regard to about 1% of the variations. And scholars agree – as do all the skeptics, when pressed – that not a single core doctrine of the New Testament is in doubt because of textual variants.
In other words, only a few minor details are up for grabs. The essential messages of Luke, Paul, Peter, John, Matthew, and the other New Testament writers are textually intact.
But let’s return to the game of Telephone.
Things would be very different (though not nearly as much fun) if we changed one of the rules. What if the first person was free to move down the line and occasionally listen in on what was being reported? The first person could interrupt and say, “Yes, you’ve got that part right, but I definitely never said this.” There is every reason to believe that’s what happened during the earliest years of the church. Recent research on the phenomenon of oral tradition in the Middle East has revealed that a community committed to keeping alive an important story would take great pains to preserve the key details of that story.
Even to this day, in small villages in the developing world, there are certain respected members of the community who are empowered to say, “Yes, that is how the story goes, but these details are not quite right.” Studies show that such a self-correcting mechanism in an oral culture is like the ancient world equivalent of Xerox. It ensured that the right things were remembered for the right reasons.
We should also note that scholars currently have an astonishing 5,800 New Testament manuscripts, many of them produced within the first few generations of the church.
So, for example, if you’re trying to establish the original text of the gospel of Mark, imagine that instead of going to the last person in line in the game of Telephone and asking, “So what did you hear?” you can go to the end of, say, 1,000 such lines and then compare them to each other – an exceptionally helpful way of working backwards to piece together the original narrative.
In the end, does all this really matter?
If the words of Jesus matter to us, it does.
If you’re wondering whether to bless someone instead of telling them where to get off, to visit someone in prison instead of pretending they don’t exist, or to invite a neglected outsider to dinner instead of the same old crew who are in lockstep on every controversial issue, you had better know if Jesus really said such things. And if he meant them.
Yogi Berra, that most quotable of sports stars in our lifetimes, once said, “I didn’t really say everything I said.” We’re pretty sure what Yogi meant was, “Just because someone claims they heard me say something funny or memorable doesn’t mean it actually came from me.”
When it comes to Jesus, we definitely want to find out if his quotable quotes are actually his quotable quotes.
That’s because it’s worth hanging onto his every word.
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