Essay / Misc.

Professor Soundbite: Text Crit for the Masses

text crit 18th c
What’s a book about textual criticism, textual criticism of all things, doing on the NY Times bestseller list?

Don’t get me wrong, I find textual criticism fascinating, but that’s because it’s already far too late to save me from bookwormhood. I’m also gripped by the history of concordances, and have been known to read etymological dictionaries for kicks. I’m not embarrassed about that, but I don’t expect a lot of people to join me in my passion. And I don’t expect to find text crit books in the airport bookstore between Tom Clancy and Stephen King. Granted, the vocabulary of text crit consists of some of the coolest-sounding scholarly words you’ll ever hear: The Complutensian polyglot, Codex Cantabrigiensis, haplography, etc. And pioneers in the field include Indian Jones types with names like Constantin von Tischendorf. Who wouldn’t love that? Still, it’s hardly the stuff of bestsellers.

But along comes Bart D. Ehrman, with his new book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. This book sells like ipods (faster than hotcakes, you know) and gets Prof. Ehrman on CNN, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, NPR’s Fresh Air, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show –okay, that last one is pretty odd. Text criticism (“Complutensian polyglot!” –not a good punchline) on The Daily Show (see it here). What’s going on?
Professor Soundbite Biting Sound

What’s going on is that Ehrman, having done his gold-standard technical work at an expert level for years, has figured out how to boil his scholarship down to a series of short, quotable bits. He has morphed into Professor Soundbite. Ehrman is nearly as good a public communicator as he is a scholar, and anybody who wants to get their ideas out into the marketplace could learn from him. Just watch how he works his six minutes on The Daily Show:

1. Start with a good story: Stewart is following the lead of the book (and the publicist’s talking points) when his opening question is about Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. Ehrman dives straight into the story instead of setting up a careful description of the methods of his discipline. He’s competing with the remote control, and knows that more viewers will change channels if they hear more “palimpsest” than “prostitute.”

2. Pick stark examples and make them even starker. With the story of the woman taken in adultery, you’ve got a complete story which is totally missing from the best manuscripts. This is not a mis-spelling, or a verb tense, or an elision of adjacent letters: This is an event. Then Ehrman magnifies it, describing it as “the most popular story in the gospels” (odd description that), and then double-underlines it: It “not only didn’t happen probably, it also wasn’t originally in the Bible.”

3. Ehrman’s got a great tone of voice. To de-emphasize a point, he speaks more deeply, somewhat more rapidly, and uniformly. But then he brings home his point with a higher pitch, a louder voice, and drawn-out words. “The problem is that when scribes were copying these texts, they made mistakes (de-emphasize this:) –Sometimes they would just mis-spell a word, or make some other accidental mistake– (and then go for the punchline:) but sometimes they would actually change the text and make it say what they wanted it to say.”

4. The sound bite proper: “We have over 5,000 of these manuscripts, but no two of them are exactly alike.”

5. Wrap the message around your personal journey. Again, Stewart follows the book’s lead when he starts the line of questioning, “You were someone who went through a period of discovery?” Thus Ehrman’s own story enters, and this is no longer merely academic but existential. It’s existential for Ehrman, and it should also be for you, is the message. (A widely-read Washington Post article picked up on this and ran with it.)

6. Leverage your professorial authority. Mention the years of graduate study and the language acquisition, then summarize your findings. “The more I studied, the more I saw there’s an enormous problem, we don’t have the original Greek copies of any of these books, all we have is these thousands of manuscripts from centuries later, that have all these changes in it –that had quite a profound effect on my faith that these words had been given by God.”

7. Keep it short. Six minutes is the longest Jon Stewart has spent thinking about the Bible all month, so don’t expect that this is going to open up into an extended dialectical quest for truth between commercials.

Bart Ehrman headshot
For his skill at taking his scholarship to a popular audience, Ehrman is a model. Would that all Bible scholars could work a book tour this well! The reason I outlined his Daily Show strategy was because I have a lot to learn from it.

But there is a problem with Professor Soundbite. The problem is that his soundbites are misleading. They give an impression that is not true. It’s not that Ehrman is directly lying, but he is making unethical rhetorical maneuvers that amount to hi-tech sophistry. This is not about his scholarly work, nor about his decision to popularize it, but about the techniques and strategies he has developed in his work as a popularizer. Somewhere between his research room and the microphone, he distorts his own message. (If one wanted to engage for a moment in the jargon of the discipline, one could say that the Erhmanian Uberlieferungsgeschichte its own kritik, with the added irony that this traditore is his own traditioner and traitor in one person. Ho ho, that’ll crack ’em up at the annual conference!)

Think about the challenge he’s taken up: How do you popularize the subject of New Testament text criticism? It’s difficult. The state of knowledge in the general public is quite low. The man on the street probably knows more about quantum physics than about text crit. Get a microphone and go ask people how the Bible got from the first century to us. The snapshot you’ll catch is something like this:

It was written in one language, then translated, then they lost the originals and translated the translation. This happened about a dozen times. Somewhere in the dark ages, a bunch of drunk, sexually-repressed monks got together and added a lot of Catholic stuff, took out the parts about women’s rights and recycling; then they burned all the earlier versions and murdered the witnesses. Somehow Constantine and Mary Magdalene got involved, and the Knights Templar. Then it was copied about a hundred times, introducing so many more mistakes that you can never tell when you’re looking at a verse if it’s right or not. The net result is that anything the Bible says might really mean the exact opposite of what your version says, especially the stuff about homosexuality.

How should a text critic behave when speaking to a public with such wild misconceptions of the basic facts in the field? How should a scholar respond to an interviewer whose questions betray a “drunk monks” theory of text transmission? Ehrman has decided that since his primary task is to use the data of text criticism to undermine confidence in Scripture, that he will leave such misunderstandings in place, and capitalize on them.

An interviewer asks: “If we don’t have the original texts of the New Testament –or even copies of the copies of the copies of the originals– what do we have?” Ehrman responds, “We have copies that were made hundreds of years later –in most cases, many hundreds of years later. And these copies are all different from one another.” (From an interview in the Charlotte Observer in 2005, here).

Here’s the paradigmatic Ehrman soundbite: “Put it this way: There are more variances among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” Is this a true statement? Yes. But what impression does it give? That the New Testament as we have it must be a totally garbled string of unsequenced letters and word fragments, no more readable than alphabet soup.
ehrman  s improbables

After watching Ehrman’s full-court press tour for the last couple of months, I’ve noticed his basic move. He provides a lot of information, trying to amass the largest numbers possible (400,000 variants, more variants than words, 5,000 manuscripts, 15 centuries, copies of copies of copies of copies), but he postpones all evaluation of this information until the big climax of his argument. For example, when he says there are 400,000 variants, he doesn’t encourage evaluation of them such as “98% of them are accidental, leaving a small number of intentional modifications.” He gets the biggest number out there and associates it with the worst case, the intentional modification. Another example (and this actually vitiates his scholarly work somewhat) is that he piles up all the manuscripts (FIVE THOUSAND!!!) without making a simple provisional distinction like “some of which are late, pervasively unreliable, or demonstrably downstream from other identified manuscripts.” No, for the sake of inflating the numbers for maximum impact, a manuscript’s a manuscript. Ehrman rushes his reader or listener past all those micro-judgments, massing them without discriminations. Then, having accumulated the greatest possible mass, he suddenly brings forth a critical mega-judgement: Jesus has been distorted beyond recognition by his followers.

Leaving out critical details like this enables Professor Ehrman to control what his audience knows at every step, and positions him as the authority whose judgments we should accept. Here Ehrman interposes his own personal and academic authority, with his biographical message of “I tried being a fundamentalist and it turned out to be a belief system that could not withstand the decades of scrutiny I gave it. You should consider not believing the Bible either.”

What I’d like to say we can learn from the Ehrman phenomenon is that evangelical text critics should learn the art of popularizing. Yes, we do in fact have evangelical text critics, lots of them –this is actually a field we’re pretty good at. And guess what? They not only haven’t lost their faith as a result of studying this discipline, but quite the contrary, they’ve found this hard, patient work on the text of the New Testament to be enriching and strengtening.

But the fact is, Ehrman is taking text crit to NPR and Comedy Central not just because he’s a good communicator, but because he’s got a message these venues are in the market for. They’re not doing disinterested academic inquiry any more than Ehrman is, they’re doing advocacy and activism. To be cynical about it, they’re all engaged in the great quest for a religious left that will make a difference in 2008, and the six-minute version of Ehrman’s work can be pressed into service for that. Dumbed down, it can create a space for people to be spiritual but not religious, where they can follow a Jesus who has been misquoted, and express respect for a Bible that makes no reliable claims because it has been changed by the drunk monks.

As for Christians who are not professional scholars but who are making it their business to grow in their knowledge of God’s word over the course of their lifetime, they should in fact learn as much text crit as they can. They should at least pick up a few of the basics, enough to sketch a counter-hypothesis to the drunk monks caricature. To bring good out of evil, you could start with evangelical responses to Ehrman’s PR blitz. The best is probably Dan Wallace at, who’s got enormous credibility on this issue because of how hard he’s worked at educating the church on text crit. Fish around for intro articles to the whole discipline, you’re bound to find something that scratches your own itch. I also like this Michael Kruger review of the book, and Craig Blomberg’s.

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