Here are my notes on Misquoting Truth by Timothy Paul Jones
Jones discusses Bart Ehrman’s book, Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman believes that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not the authors of the New Testament and that we have only “error-ridden copies” of the New Testament. Jones disagrees and affirms his belief that the New Testament gives an accurate account of Christ’s words and deeds.
Jones also admits that certain themes in Christianity are not original. The Persians worshipped a god called Mithras, who was born of a virgin and who was worshipped by shepherds and wise men. The Egyptians had gods who rose from the dead (Oriris, Adonis, Attis, and Horus). However, Jones does not believe this debunks Christianity, but it only serves to strengthen it. He points to C.S. Lewis who believed that parallels in other religions only show that humans and faith systems have always yearned “for one true God who enters into death and triumphs over it”. Lewis believed that lack of such parallels would be a “stumbling block”. Christianity isn’t a myth among many others, rather it is the fulfillment of all historical myths.
Chapter 1 & 2
Ehrman’s argument is that we have only error ridden copies of the New Testament. Jones admits that we no longer possess the original copies of the New Testament and that the copies of the New Testament that we do have differ from one another in thousands of instances but that “the inspired truth of Scripture does not depend on word-for-word agreement among all biblical manuscripts or between parallel accounts of the same event”. Jones also admits that not all New Testament texts were copied perfectly and that some changes were not accidental.
Ehrman points out that the 5,700 New Testament manuscripts we possess differ from each other in 400,000 places. Jones argues that 99% of these fall into the category of unnoticeable variants, which include differences in spelling (ex. hemeis meaning you versus hymeis meaning we), word order, and the relationship between nouns and definitive articles (ex. Jesus versus the Jesus). Jones argues that the remaining 1% are still not significant and do not change any central Christian teachings.
Jones also points out that through the science of textual criticism, one can determine which copies of ancient manuscripts are closest to the original document. Textual criticism relies on the premise that all copyists do not make the same mistake at the same time. Since changes occur gradually, it’s possible to uncover when and where the errors occurred.
To demonstrate textual criticism, Jones provides the example of John 1:6, which reads “There was a man, having been sent from God, whose name was John”. However, in the manuscript known as Codex Bezae, it reads “There was a man, having been sent from the Lord, whose name was John”. Codex Bezae is made of vellum and not papyrus. It also uses Latin in addition to Greek. From these two facts, it can be determined to have originated around 500 AD. Additionally, two other manuscripts concur with “having been sent from God”. These manuscripts were written in different times and in different places.
Jones also notes that copyists wanted to hand down the same New Testament that they had received. Jones believes that alterations were not exception, not the rule. He points to the fact that when wording in Codex Vaticanus was changed, a later copyist rewrote the original and noted “Fool and knae! Leave the old reading, don’t change it!”.
Jones argues that when different versions do exist, the differences are no significant. He states that alterations reinforce the truth present in the New Testament, and that non alter our fundamental beliefs about Jesus.
Jones gives several reasons for why different versions exist. First, he discusses what he terms “over-zealous copyist”. Here he gives the example of Matthew 1:16. It reads “Jacob was the father of Joseph husband of Mary, out of who is called Messiah – was born.” But one copyist made the change of “to whom was betrothed the virgin Mary”. The copyists wanted to stress the point that Mary was a virgin, even though this was already taught elsewhere. Here copyists are trying to make explicit what is already implicit in the Bible.
Second, Jones discusses what he terms “adding scripture to scripture”. In the late first or early second century, a group of Christian (likely from Syria) added a piece of text from Chronicles 29:11 to their recitation of the Lord’s Prayer: “For yours is the kingdom and power and glory forever. Amen”. Eventually this become commonplace and copyists actually added it in to the Lord’s Prayer.
Third, Jones discusses what he calls “copyists who knew too much”. Take for example John 5:3-4. One copyist adding wording to explain why physically disadvantaged people came to the pool called Beth-zatha. They wrote “They were waiting for the water to move, because an angel from the Lord went down at certain times into the pool and stirred the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of any diseases”. They felt the need to add this because people living far from the area may not have understood the reference.
Jones discusses two instances were Ehrman claims alternations are “highly significant”. The first comes from Mark 1:41-43, which tells the story of Jesus healing a skin-diseases man. It says “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 cleaned.” Ehrman believes the text was originally “becoming angry”, and Jones agrees. Jones points out that this is still consistent with the image of Jesus in the Bible, who becomes annoyed when people do not trust him (Mark 3:5, 9:23). Additionally, Jones argues that Jesus had a reason to be angry: the man was in a synagogue with other Jews, and he could have made them unclean. This was stated in Mosaic Law, which Jesus upheld (he upheld the laws given to Moses by God, not the additions to the law).
The second comes from Luke 22:19-20 and 22:43-44. Ehrman believes that the former verse may have been added by a copyist. Jones admits he may be correct. Ehrman believes this original omission shows that the author of Luke did not view Christ’s death in the same way as the other Gospels. Ehrman argues that Luke viewed Christ’s death as what makes people realize their guilt before God, not as an atonement. Jones believes that because Luke’s audience was the Greeks, he did not stress the atonement because the Greeks would not have been as impressed with Christ suffering for sin as they would have by the fact that he was divine/righteous and agreed to live and die as a human.
Ehrman notes that Christian apologists often argue that Christ was a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. Ehrman believes that there was a fourth option, and that Christ was a legend.
To address this claim, Jones begins by stating that in the ancient word, unlike today, spoke narratives were more important than written records. People believed in memorizing. Plato believed that one should only write things down to serve as a reminder when they begin to forget things at an old age. This was the case because very few people knew how to read and write at an early age.
This explains the fact why three decades passed before Christ’s death and the writing of the first Gospel (the Gospels were written between 65-95 A.D.).
Ehrman argues that since the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, the stories circulated for years before they were written down, and the stories were likely changed, much like what happens during a game of telephone. Jones offers a proof against Ehrman’s argument by describing how Jewish teachings were preserved. He notes that important Jewish teachings “were told in rhythmic, repetitive patterns so that students could memorize key truths”. He states that rabbi’s oral teaching “remain amazingly consistent from one generation to the next”. Jones provides proof that the Gospel stayed the same. It involves Paul’s visit to the city of Corinth. However, Jones does a poor job of explaining it and his point is lost on me.
Ehrman believes that the authors of the Gospel’s were anonymous. Jones notes that the accuracy of the Gospels does not depend on who first wrote them. Jones admits it’s impossible to prove with certainty who wrote the Gospels, but he argues that one can make a probable case for who did.
Ehrman believes that the authors wouldn’t have put their names in the titles of the books. Jones notes that that isn’t necessarily true, given that many authors did that at the time, so it’s perfectly legitimate for one to expect books to be called “the Gospel according to Matthew”.
Jones also admits that many manuscripts do ascribe different names to the Gospels (ex. “The Holy Gospel According to Matthew” or the “Divine Beginning of the Gospel According to Matthew”). Jones believes these titles came about when people from one town who had one of the Gospels received a visitor from another town who spoke of another Gospel. Needing a way to distinguish the original Gospel from the new Gospel, they assigned the new Gospel a name. Each town may have described a slightly different name. More importantly, Jones notes that what changes is the exact form of the title, but the identification of the author does not. Jones also argues that it is highly unlikely that different groups of readers from different areas would all ascribe a book to the same author.
Jones points out two of the Gospels specifically claim to be based on eyewitness reports: The Gospel of Luke claims to be the testimony of “those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning” and the Gospel of John states “The one who saw this has testified – his testimony is true”. The Gospel of John is based on the eyewitness testimony of the apostle John.
Additionally, early church leaders (Papias of Hierapolis, Irenaeus of Lyons) believed Mark and Matthew were also based on eyewitness testimony. Mark was believed to be based on eyewitness testimony of Simon Peter, and the apostle Matthew was responsible for the Gospel that bore his name.
To support the claim that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, Jones points out that when Mark’s first Gospel began circulating in 70 A.D., that it’s almost certain that people who had seen the risen Jesus were still alive.
Ehrman argues that the Gospels were not based on eyewitness testimony because Christ’s followers spoke Aramaic and not Greek, were illiterate, and were from the lower-class. Jones notes that although the Bible does state that Peter and John were agrammatoi, meaning “unschooled”, this may have only meant that they were unschooled in Jewish law. Jones notes that Matthew was a tax collector, and tax collecting was a profession that required reading and writing, and that Luke was a physician, and it is unlikely that he was illiterate or uneducated. Jones concedes that Ehrman may be right that Mark and John were illiterate, but notes that it was common for people to hire professional scribes in the first century AD.
Ehrman argues that the canon of the New Testament wasn’t settled upon until hundreds of years after the death of Christ. He believes the 27 books of the New Testament were determined as authoritative in 367 A.D. by “the powerful bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius”. Jones disagrees and believes that “the primary standard for deciding which books were authoritative emerged long before the fourth century”. That primary standard was that testimony of eyewitnesses were considered authoritative among early Christians.
Jones gives the example of a popular book circulating around the early church called The Shepherd. One Christian wrote the following regarding the book: “Hermas composed The Shepherd quite recently – in our times in the city of Rome…while it should be read, it cannot be read publicly for the people of the church – it is counted neither among the Prophets (for their number has been completed) nor among the Apostles (for it is after their time)”.
Christians did argue for generations about which writings were authoritative. However, these arguments were based on which writings could be traced to eyewitnesses of Jesus, and were not based on politics.
Take for example the Gospel of Peter, which describes the cross as talking and describes Jesus as feeling no pain, which some have interpreted to mean he had no physical body. Serapion, the church leader of Antioch in Syria, rejected this Gospel. Ehrman claims he rejected the book because it didn’t fit his preconceived notions about Jesus. Jones argued that Serapion compared the Gospel of Peter to “writing handed down to us” and found inconsistencies between it and Mark’s Gospel and Peter 1, which were oral traditions linked to Simon Peter. It was on this basis that he rejected the book.
Jones also argues that as early as the second century A.D, about 20 of the 27 books were already agreed upon as being part of canon, and that these books contain the main teachings about Jesus.