Friday, June 01, 2007

Excerpt from Misquoting Truth


[With the permission of Timothy Paul Jones, author of Misquoting Truth, I post the following extract from his book responding to Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus]

Mark 1:41-43: Angry, Compassionate, or Both?

Most translations of Mark 1:41-42 describe Jesus’ healing of a skin-diseased man something like this: “Feeling compassion and stretching out his hand, he touched him and said, ‘I want to.’ Immediately, the skin disease fled from the man, and he was cleansed.”

So what’s the difficulty? Bart Ehrman believes that the text should not read “feeling compassion” (Greek, splanchnistheis);[1] in his estimation, the original reading of the text was “becoming angry” (Greek, orgistheis). Ehrman goes so far to imply that this reading affects “the interpretation of an entire book of the New Testament.”[2]

Although the manuscript evidence for “becoming angry” is mixed, I find Ehrman’s case for orgistheis to be convincing.[3] It makes far more sense to think that a copyist changed “becoming angry” to “feeling compassion” than for the opposite to have occurred. And, in Greek, the two words neither look alike nor sound alike, so this can’t be an issue of confusing similar terms.[4]

Still, I fail to see how, Ehrman’s estimation, this single word changes our understanding of Jesus or of Mark’s Gospel. With or without orgistheis in Mark 1:41, this Gospel depicts Jesus as a passionate prophet,[5] rapidly crisscrossing Galilee and Judea as he moves toward his impending encounter with a Roman cross. By the third chapter, Jesus has already upset so many religious leaders that they’re making plans to murder him (3:6). He becomes annoyed when people don’t trust him (3:5; 9:23). At the same time, Mark makes it clear that Jesus constantly feels compassion for downtrodden people (6:34; 8:2; 9:22-23). As such, either reading of the text would fit Mark’s presentation of Jesus. Understanding the text to declare that Jesus became angry does not significantly change my understanding of this Gospel.

Bart Ehrman does clearly err at one point in his treatment of this text. Dr. Ehrman claims that, after Jesus heals the man,
he ‘severely rebukes him’ and ‘throws him out’ [Mark 1:43].These are literal
renderings of the Greek words, which are usually softened in translation. They
are harsh terms, used elsewhere in Mark always in the contexts of violent
conflict and aggression.[6]
Although ekballo—the term Ehrman translates “throws him out”—does sometimes appear in Mark’s Gospel in the context of violent conflict, the term does not “always” function in this sense, as Ehrman claims.

In Mark 5:40, ekballo describes how Jesus sent a deceased child’s family from the room where her body lay. I don’t think Mark intended us to envision Jesus grabbing the girl’s parents by the collar and hurling them through the door. It’s possible that ekballo carries such a meaning in Mark 1:12—“the Spirit violently hurled Jesus out into the desert”?—but it’s more likely that Mark simply intended ekballo to convey the vibrant urgency that makes this Gospel so fascinating.

So what actually happened when Jesus healed this leprous man? And, if Jesus was angry, why was he angry? It’s important to notice where Jesus was teaching when this healing occurred. Apparently Jesus was in a synagogue (1:39) where the Jews of the town had gathered to hear God’s Word. If so, this man’s presence could have rendered an entire Jewish community unclean! Although Jesus challenged the traditions that had been added to the Law of Moses, he consistently called his people to live by the laws that God had graciously given them through Moses (see Mark 1:44). According to these laws, the leprous man should have sequestered himself away from his fellow Jews (Leviticus 13). Instead, he placed an entire Jewish community in danger of ceremonial uncleanness. Is it any wonder that Jesus became angry? And still, Jesus healed him.

So was Jesus angry or was he compassionate?


Luke 22:19-20 and Luke 22:43-44: Why Did Jesus Die?

When it comes to Luke 22, Bart Ehrman argues that a later scribe added verses 19 and 20—and he may be correct. Solid evidence does exist to suggest that these specific verses may not have appeared in the first edition of Luke’s Gospel. Various forms of these same sentences do appear, however, in Matthew 26:27-28; Mark 14:22-25; and, 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. So, even if these clauses were missing from Luke’s original writing, this is not a case of “misquoting Jesus”—it’s a passage that was already present in several other places, though perhaps not in Luke’s Gospel.

Ehrman proposes the absence of these verses as proof that the author of Luke’s Gospel didn’t view Jesus’ death in quite the same way as the authors of the other Gospels.
Luke … has a different understanding of the way in which Jesus’ death leads to
salvation than does Mark (and Paul, and other early Christian writers). … It is
not that Jesus’ death is unimportant. It is extremely important for Luke—but not
as an atonement. Instead, Jesus’ death is what makes people realize their guilt
before God.[7]
From Ehrman’s perspective, although Luke used Mark’s Gospel and perhaps Paul’s letters as sources—a logical assumption based on Luke 1:1-3—Luke changed wordings that might suggest Jesus died for people’s sins. Later copyists, Ehrman claims, added verses 19-20 to Luke 22 to emphasize the flesh-and-blood humanity of Jesus. (Though I’m open to his point that later copyists added these two verses, Dr. Ehrman’s rationale for the change is quite unlikely. The physicality of Jesus is already emphasized in Luke 24:24-43, not to mention in Luke’s narratives of Jesus’ birth and childhood. It’s more likely that copyists included these verses because they had become familiar the context of Christian proclamation or worship.)

So did Luke really disagree with Mark and Paul and other writers about the death of Jesus?

Dr. Ehrman is correct that Luke’s Gospel doesn’t emphasize Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice for people’s sins. The idea of sacrificial atonement for sins was, after all, more prominent in Jewish theology, and Luke was probably writing for an audience that had been heavily influenced by Greek and Roman culture. For Luke’s readers, what was most meaningful wasn’t that Jesus would suffer as a sacrifice for sin. What would impress Hellenized persons was the fact that a person so righteous and so divine would submit himself not only to live in human flesh but also to die the darkest possible death.[8]

This does not mean, however, that Luke did not view Jesus’ death in terms of atonement. Neither does it mean that the sacrificial aspect of the crucifixion didn’t interest Luke. It simply means that sacrificial atonement was not the aspect of Jesus’ death that was most meaningful to Luke’s audience. So, Luke focused on Jesus as a divine martyr—a different emphasis, to be sure, but not at odds with other New Testament depictions of Jesus. Simply put, different emphases do not amount to contradictory understandings of the same event.

The same point may be made when it comes to Luke 22:43-44. Here, some unknown copyist added a couple of clauses to emphasize Jesus’ passionate prayer in Gethsemane. Ehrman argues that only in these verses did Luke portray Jesus in dread or distress:

Rather than entering his passion with fear and trembling, in anguish over his
coming fate, the Jesus of Luke goes to his death calm and in control. … It is
clear that Luke does not share Mark’s understanding that Jesus was in anguish,
bordering on despair.[9]
It’s true that Luke’s Gospel doesn’t emphasize the dread Jesus seems to have felt in the Garden of Gethsemane. And it’s true that Luke’s focus changed due to the differences in his audience. But did Luke actually “not share Mark’s understanding” of Jesus’ suffering, or did Luke simply highlight a different aspect of Jesus’ death? Once again, different emphases do not amount to contradictory understandings of the same event.

Who Was Really Misquoted?
The promotional copy for Misquoting Jesus claims that “Ehrman makes the provocative case that many of our cherished biblical stories and widely held beliefs concerning the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, and the divine origins of the Bible itself stem from both intentional and accidental alterations by scribes.” And, supposedly, Bart Ehrman makes this case “for the first time.”[10]

As I examine Misquoting Jesus, I find nothing that measures up to the title or to the promotional copy. What I find is a great deal of discussion about a handful of textual variants—none of which ultimately changes any essential belief that’s presented in the New Testament. What’s more, despite the sensational title of Misquoting Jesus, I find only a half-dozen times when Jesus might have been misquoted, and most of these supposed changes simply echo statements that are found elsewhere in Scripture.

And, so, returning to our initial questions: Have the New Testament manuscripts changed over the centuries? Without a doubt! But are the changes in the manuscripts “highly significant”? And do any of them “affect the interpretation of an entire book of the New Testament”? Not that I can tell.

[1] Ehrman incorrectly transliterates this word as “splangnistheis” (MJ 133).
[2] MJ 132.
[3] The presentation of evidence for orgistheis in MJ does not really do justice to Ehrman’s argument as it is presented in “A Leper in the Hands of an Angry Jesus,” in New Testament Greek and Exegesis, ed. A.M. Donaldson and T.B. Sailors (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003) 77-98—one of Ehrman’s best articles.
[4] The two words do sound similar in the Syriac language and, to a lesser extent, in Aramaic. However, since there is no evidence that Mark originally circulated in written form in either of these languages, any argument based on these possibilities would be sheer speculation.
[5]Peter Jones pointed out to me two additional examples of Mark’s presentation of Jesus as a passionate prophet—the use of the two powerful verbs epitimao (also used to describe silencing of demons) and phimoo (more commonly used to describe the muzzling of a wild beast) to describe Jesus’ calming of the storm in Mark 4:39.
[6] MJ 136.
[7] MJ 166-167.
[8] “Dying-for” is a distinctly Jewish concept, while the noble death of a hero predominates in Greco-Roman traditions (Martin Hengel, The Atonement: The Origins of the Doctrine in the New Testament [London, UK: SCM, 1981]).
[9] MJ 142-143.
[10] MJ dust jacket, hardcover edition.
Excerpts taken from Misquoting Truth by Timothy Paul Jones. ©2007 by Timothy Paul Jones. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.


  1. The "throw" root of ἐκβάλλω need not be taken in a harsh sense in every case. One could think about περιβάλλω which suggests nothing more than putting on clothing in a normal fashion.

    Imagine if we interpreted Math 9:38 in light of a harsh ἐκβάλλω:
    "Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to throw (violently) workers out into his harvest field."

  2. Or, for that matter, James 2:25 ("Rahab ... had violently thrown out the spies"?) and Revelation 11:2 ("violently throw out the courtyard"?). In the book, I used only examples from Mark's Gospel because of Dr. Ehrman's explicit claim that ekballo "always" functions in that Gospel in the senses of violent conflict or hurling out.

  3. To read the Introduction and Study Guide from Misquoting Truth, you can go to IVP's website for the book.

  4. A couple of points. Interesting to see that there is no disagreement on Ehrman's text-critical conclusions. Rather striking actually considering the slim evidential basis in both these cases. I wonder if this is the tone of the whole book: 'Oh, I agree with Dr Bart on this variant, but it surely is not so significant and theology-shattering as he implies.'

    a) "Although the manuscript evidence for “becoming angry” is mixed ...". "mixed" is an interesting term; basically means "slim (extremely)".
    b) "Solid evidence does exist to suggest that these specific verses may not have appeared in the first edition of Luke’s Gospel." Interesting to know what this "solid evidence" actually is.
    c) I didn't find the explanation of Luke's lack of atonement theology (influence of hellenistic audience for whom sacrifice was not of interest) convincing.

  5. Dear Peter, i am looking at your comments 4:47PM and the one from the blog where this book was introduced a couple of week ago and for the second time, for some reason, i feel some condescendance in them! am i wrong? if not why this attitude toward a brother in Christ who is trying to contribute to this issue?

    serge poirier

  6. Hi Serge,

    Thanks for the comment. I wasn't meaning to be condescending. I think you'll find that I interact like this with many issues on this blog. I suppose I could just ignore issues or let them slide because Jones is supposed to be on the good guys side and Ehrman is supposed to be on the bad guys side. Except that in these two cases they are actually on the same side (textually speaking).

    Nevertheless, I would have expected a popular level work on this subject to be a bit more straightforward about the evidence for the readings adopted. That was the point I believe I was highlighting in my comment.

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  9. With reference to Mark 1 ...
    I do find Ehrman's case for orgistheis to be more believable than other explanations for its appearance in Codex Bezae. The emergence of the variant orgistheis due to translations through Latin or a Semitic language strikes me as more strained than admitting that, in this case, Bezae may have preserved an authentic reading---especially in light of the ommissions of "anger" language in Matthew and Luke when working from Mark as a source. And it should probably be noted that this is hardly an "Ehrman-ism," as a cursory survey of commentaries and journal articles reveals. William Lane and R.T. France comment on orgistheis with approval, with Kirsopp Lake approving the less-attested reading but trying to apply it to the leper.

    With reference to Luke 22 ...
    I don't think Ehrman is correct in the omission of Luke 22:19b-20, but I do consider Codex Bezae to constitute a witness that should be taken seriously (hence "solid," though not "strong"---and my statements that I'm "open" to his point and that he "may" be correct). Though a somewhat freer text than others, Bezae is not a careless text (to give credit where it's due, I think I'm drawing there from some terminology in David Parker's book on the codex). The intentional pattern of argument in my book is to state, in essence, "Okay, let's grant the areas where Ehrman may be correct. Even if these are granted, his evidence does not bear the weight of his implications and inferences." This is a book for laypeople that neither pretends nor attempts to provide exhaustive text-critical evidences ... which, though admittedly important, the intended readership might find to be beyond their capacities. In short, this isn't aimed at text-critics but at the hundreds of thousands of ordinary folk who have read Ehrman's book and now feel unwarranted concern about the reliability of Scripture based on the gross overstatements found in Ehrman's text.

    With reference to Luke's supposed lack of atonement theology ...
    I'm afraid we simply differ on that point. Certainly, there are additional reasons that both of us could list for the different emphasis in Luke's Gospel---that I do not deny. Again, I neither pretended nor intended to have presented an exhaustive analysis of my knowledge or of the potential issues surrounding Ehrman's arguments. There are other works on which I'm working that are intended to be scholarly in content and scope---this book's intent was to assist and to assure the person in the pew whose education may have ended with high school.

    Thank you, however, for your comments! "As iron sharpens iron ..."

  10. PMH said:
    "I wonder if this is the tone of the whole book: 'Oh, I agree with Dr Bart on this variant, but it surely is not so significant and theology-shattering as he implies.'"
    TPJ said:
    "The intentional pattern of argument in my book is to state, in essence, 'Okay, let's grant the areas where Ehrman may be correct. Even if these are granted, his evidence does not bear the weight of his implications and inferences."

    So, PMH was right.

    Also this is an interesting strategy. Basically it affirms Ehrman's basic method and approach (indeed supports it in various ways), and only challenges the exaggerated conclusions and implications.

    Their are obvious risks to this strategy. It'll be interested to see how it works out.

  11. Peter,
    This is essentially how I responded to Ehrman in my initial review of MJ. While I did not grant that his choice of readings was correct, I think I chose not to dispute any of them. After all, if his argument does not stand up even if he is correct in his choice of readings, a fortiori it does not stand up if he can be shown to be wrong on some.

    I purposely chose the extract from MT that dealt with Mark 1:41 since I thought it raised interesting issues.

  12. I didn't say it was a bad strategy!

  13. Peter Head,

    Well, I'm happy to chime in to say once again that Dr. Ehrman (and Vincent Taylor, and the NEB and TNIV) is incorrect about Mk. 1:41, as I explained in the section of my critique of "Misquoting Jesus" at .

    Thinking it over once again, I like more and more the idea that the "orgistheis" reading has its roots somewhere in the tendrils of the Diatessaron, in Syriac. A scribe heard "ethraham" but thought he heard "ethra'em," and the mistake trickled down from there into part of the "Western" transmission-stream that affected some Old Latin mss and Codex Bezae.

    In other news:
    I'm wondering about something.
    In "Misquoting Jesus," I got the impression that Dr. Ehrman's departure from faith was the result of a professor's comment about Mark 2:26 -- "Maybe Mark just made a mistake," or something like that. This, it seemed to me as I was reading, is what caused the floodgates of agnosticism to open and overwhelm the author.
    But in a recent interview in BAR, Dr. Ehrman relates that he lost faith because he could not deal with the problem of evil. So now I wonder how much impact the problem with Mk. 2:26 really had.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.
    Minister, Curtisville Christian Church
    Tipton, Indiana (USA)

  14. Jim,
    I don't think the accounts are hard to harmonize: Mk 2:26 marked his break with biblical authority, evil, his break with Christian faith more generally.

  15. PJWilliams,

    You are correct about the harmonization of Ehrman's two accounts. His loss of faith in the Bible's inerrancy---i.e., from his perspective, the specific form of inerrancy that he claims to have inherited from Moody Bible Institute---was triggered by the perceived error regarding Abiathar the high priest. His loss of faith occurred later, while teaching a class on the problem of suffering at Rutgers University.

  16. By the way, my impression is also that Dr. Ehrman did view the Bible as generally historically reliable---though not inerrant---between the Mark 2 incident and the semester at Rutgers.