Friday, January 23, 2009

Guest book review: Misquoting Truth

My thanks both to IVP for a copy of Timothy Paul Jones's Misquoting Truth. A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus and to Samuel Ciszuk for his review.

With the basic teachings of Christianity more or less constantly under fire and its demise proclaimed by a multitude of experts for what seems to be a host of different reasons for decades –at least here in the West, one should by now have expected inflation in the appeal of books proclaiming the end of Christianity being nigh. Perhaps at least one should expect people in general and Christians in particular to have become blasé by alarmism and approach their critics a bit more sceptically and patiently. Not so, it seems, as those attacking the validity of Christianity's basic tenets still seem to have a huge opportunity to impact believers', who allow their doubts to be fed and the carpet of trust in the basic tenets of their faith being pulled from underneath them, while not applying at least the same level of questioning against the critics themselves as they apply to their own faith.

One who did not panic when faced with serious questions, but paused for thought and then wrote a book to answer some of the latest claims of fallacy levied against the New Testament (NT), is Timothy Paul Jones, who in his "Misquoting Truth, A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus" (2007, IVP Books), gives a strong defence against claims from a fellow textual criticism scholar, Bart Ehrman. Ehrman claims that so many mistakes have entered the NT and so many different versions have been put together, that the NT of today has very little in common with what the eyewitnesses of Jesus and the apostles originally wrote. His book "Misquoting Jesus", made discussions within the highly technical field of textual criticism accessible to lay readers, explaining much of the field's intricacies, while forcefully putting forth his revisionist thesis about the validity of the NT and his –to the lay reader often shocking claim- that "there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the NT". Because of Ehrman's accessibility, his book became something as rare for a textual criticism tome as a bestseller, thereby taking the place as perhaps the only book on the subject read by many a believer -struggling to deal with the book's message- or indeed un-believers, inoculating them safely from coming to view the Bible as any reliable source of truth and authority. Jones' "Misquoting Truth" therefore fills a deeply needed void, in that it continues on Ehrman's path in making textual criticism even more accessible to readers without formal theological schooling, while systematically addressing the allegations of textual fallacy raised by Ehrman.

Jones does not spare energy on gracefully meeting Ehrman's contentions head on, chapter by chapter allowing Ehrman to speak for himself through numerous and often lengthy quotations, before attempting to paint a picture of what actually more-or-less is the broad consensus among scholars and going through the evidence which testifies against Ehrman's claims. Jones goes through the facts surrounding the original NT manuscripts in chapter 1, placing them into their historical context and also explaining how they were handled in the early church. In chapter 2 he delves into an assessment of the copyists, who copied and preserved the original texts, describing their stringent standards and meeting Ehrman's questioning of their abilities. In chapter 3 Jones meets Ehrman's criticism about the truthfulness of the Gospel full on, exposing the flaws in his reasoning and laying bare the facts which actually are widely agreed upon within the international body of NT contextual criticism scholars. First in chapter 4 does Jones takes his argument further, from defending the NT against Ehrman's charge and into scrutinising Ehrman's questions themselves, demonstrating how they seem bourn out of a will to find fault with the Gospel, rather then out of a fair will do research eventual textual discrepancies. In the second part of the book, Jones outlines and introduces the concept of oral history, the Gospels' authors, the concept of historical eyewitness testimony and how the books now forming the NT were originally chosen, in their respective chapters, informing and educating the reader, while continuing to undermine the basis for the relevance of Bart Ehrman's questions. The book is finally tied up with some more personal remarks from the author, tying his personal journey through theology and contextual criticism in with Bart Ehrman's and reflecting on their respective different outcomes.

Throughout the book, Jones meets Ehrman's charges of fallacy against the NT in a highly gracious way. Perhaps he is even too gracious, given how successfully he appears to not only defend the NT, but also expose Ehrman's questions as being the wrong questions -posed out of an initial will to discredit the relevance of the Gospel, and therefore exploiting a lack of detailed knowledge among readers in order to seem relevant, rather then to base them on anything even remotely close to objectively defined problems.

While successfully meeting a large swathe of charges against the validity and trustworthiness of the NT, the book is also a wonderfully easy and concise introduction to the history, background and treatment of the Gospels, as well as the field of contextual criticism. It is full of "fact sheets" and "know more"-boxes, for everyone needing to get a quick background on everything from parchment, to characters like Marcion of Sionpe. The will to make all jargon and terms understandable to all is perhaps taken too far occasionally, slowing down the narrative somewhat. Also, I might have found the narrative a little bit too personal and chatty at times, although that arguably is a question of taste. While, luckily, not all of us have struggled with these issues, I would clearly recommend the book to everyone. Not having given these issues any particular attention, I was rapidly drawn in by the book and it is my firm belief that any reader's respect for the Gospel and for the early Christians will be strengthened by it.

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At 1/24/2009 1:49 AM, Anonymous said...

Thanks for your review, Chris. I'm glad you mention his graciousness. I am turned off by the cover (as it mocks the cover mistake on Ehrman's book) and title, which to me seem too confrontational and a bit mean-spirited. Don't judge a book by its cover, I guess.

At 1/24/2009 1:52 AM, Anonymous TimothyPaulJones said...

... and recognize that authors rarely (if ever) get to choose covers or titles. :-)

At 1/24/2009 4:25 AM, Anonymous James F. McGrath said...

The issue of the title came up when I mentioned the book on my blog a while back. When one ceases to read the book expecting a point-by-point response to Ehrman, it comes across as quite a fair and balanced treatment of the subject, as I recall.

I often get the feeling that Ehrman, even though he apparently spent some time in a liberal Christian context before ending up an agnostic, still shares much of the all-or-nothing outlook that fundamentalism tries to instill in its adherents and its detractors alike.

At 1/24/2009 4:31 AM, Anonymous Angie Van De Merwe said...

It seems that with many validating post-modernity's critique of modernity, that we each must find our way to understand our faith.

It will not come out the same, as there is no universal faith, only the universal in men's hearts that seek Maslow's heirarchy of needs...These are found in social structures, which all really point beyong themselves, if we are looking to see beyond them. So, without realizing it, atheists are believers, just unbeknownst to them, because they do find 'community'. We all have the capacity to worship when we see or hear something beautiful to us, and we do, whether there is a label attached to the worship. or not...

What Ehrman has recognized is that jump was too much to pay for his rationality, and his experience. History doesn't prove with certainty anything, especially ancient history. So, Ehrman has faith, just not the same faith as someone who chooses to fill in the gaps differently.

What is faith anyway? It can be understood differently...

At 1/24/2009 8:17 AM, Anonymous steph said...

As for authors rarely (if ever) choosing their titles or covers, I don't know about IVP but I know other publishers who have let their authors make their own decisions about art (when there is art) and titles: WJK, T&T Clark, CUP. I'd guess, at the very least, this author approved of the wrap.

At 1/24/2009 8:28 AM, Anonymous steph said...

except whoops I now realise that the author has commented here and perhaps suggested that he didn't approve. :-) IVP eh?

At 1/24/2009 4:57 PM, Anonymous TimothyPaulJones said...

Okay, I suppose I need to clarify: First off, IVP is an outstanding group of people with whom I loved working. Competent and honest through and through--which is all too rare in Christian publishing.

And yes, there is a final approval by author on covers, but in my experience with other books that's little more than a rubber-stamping of what's already been decided and created. In this case, I actually liked the cover that they created. I viewed it as a lighthearted inside joke for those who noticed the upside down Hebrew on Ehrman's cover. On other books (not with IVP), I've disliked the covers, protested, and been overruled.

In the case of the subtitle, it was a question of "What is likely to sell books?" versus "What best expresses the content?" My original title was Why The Lost Christianities Were Lost: An Evangelical Reappraisal of Bart Ehrman's Lost Christianities and Misquoting Jesus. This gradually--from agent to marketing to editing--morphed into the title that you see. Which, yes, I signed off on, but which represented a balance of marketing necessities and the book's content. With my original title, the book would likely have sold to a handful of scholars and interested laypeople. With the changes, the same content reached tens of thousands of ordinary people.

I did not intend to give the impression that authors have no say whatsoever--simply that the choice is rarely the author's alone and that it's influenced by a significant number of other factors.

At 1/25/2009 1:08 AM, Anonymous steph said...

In my recent experience authors have been able to invent their own titles and even choose the art with a bit of discussion with the publishers. As for the cover of Jones' book in question - I don't see anything offensive or mean spirited about it. Despite what I think of the book, the cover makes its point well and is excellent in my opinion.

At 2/02/2009 8:22 PM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...

See also these recent reviews of "The Jesus Legend" which demonstrate how many questions remain concerning Jesus stories in the Gospels:


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