Misquoting Jesus

by Bart D. Ehrman

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 12, 2024
Misquoting Jesus
Misquoting Jesus

What are the big ideas? 1. Complex origins and spread of Christian texts: This book emphasizes the complex ways in which early Christian texts were produced, transm

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What are the big ideas?

  1. Complex origins and spread of Christian texts: This book emphasizes the complex ways in which early Christian texts were produced, transmitted, and revised over time. It highlights the importance of understanding the historical contexts that influenced the development of these texts and the role of scribes in shaping their transmission.
  2. The social worlds of textual alterations: The book explores how textual alterations were motivated by societal concerns, such as theological disputes and social conflicts. This perspective adds depth to our understanding of the historical contexts that shaped early Christian texts and sheds light on the ways in which these texts reflected and responded to their cultural milieus.
  3. The significance of monastic communities in text preservation: The book underscores the crucial role of monastic communities in the preservation, transmission, and dissemination of early Christian texts. This insight contributes to our appreciation of the historical importance of these religious institutions and illuminates their impact on the development and spread of biblical texts.
  4. Distinctive methods for textual criticism: The book introduces specific techniques used in textual criticism, such as comparing manuscripts and using statistical analysis to determine the most likely original text. These methods demonstrate the rigorous approaches scholars employ to reconstruct the earliest forms of biblical texts and underscore the importance of evidence-based research.
  5. Textual changes' impact on New Testament interpretation: The book emphasizes how textual changes made by scribes can significantly influence the meaning of a passage, making it essential for interpreters to consider these variations when understanding the New Testament. This perspective encourages readers to approach biblical texts with a nuanced understanding of their historical complexities and the role that human agents played in shaping their transmission.




  • The Bible is a human book: It was written by different human authors at different times and places, each with unique perspectives, beliefs, understandings, and theologies that influenced their writings.
  • We do not have the original copies of the Bible, only later copies with differences and errors.
  • Textual criticism is a field of study to analyze and reconstruct the original texts based on these later copies.
  • Scholars apply rigorous methods to compare and analyze these copies to determine which readings are more likely original.
  • Understanding textual criticism can help us appreciate the Bible as a historical and cultural phenomenon while acknowledging its human origins.


“Hawthorne, like most of my professors at Wheaton, was a committed evangelical Christian. But he was not afraid of asking questions of his faith. At the time, I took this as a sign of weakness (in fact, I thought I had nearly all the answers to the questions he asked); eventually I saw it as a real commitment to truth and as being willing to open oneself up to the possibility that one’s views need to be revised in light of further knowledge and life experience.”

“If one wants to insist that God inspired the very words of scripture, what would be the point if we don’t have the very words of scripture?”

“The Bible, at the end of the day, is a very human book.”

“What if the book you take as giving you God’s words instead contains human words?”

“What if we have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting the Bible up as a false idol—or an oracle that gives is a direct line of communication with the Almighty?”

“All of these authors are trying to understand the world and their place in it, and all of them have valuable things to teach us. It is important to know what the words of these authors were, so that we can see what they had to say and judge, then, for ourselves what to think and how to live in light of those words.”

CHAPTER 1 The Beginnings of Christian Scripture


  • Early Christianity was a highly literary religion despite being mostly made up of illiterate believers.
  • Books were read aloud in community settings for the benefit of the illiterate population.
  • The origins and spread of Christian texts are complex, involving various means of transmission and reproduction.
  • Manuscript copies of texts were produced by scribes, who could make errors or intentionally alter the text.
  • Early Christians valued the authenticity and accuracy of their texts, which led to efforts to preserve and correct them.
  • The development of the codex as a standard format for books facilitated the mass production and dissemination of Christian texts.
  • Monastic communities played a significant role in the preservation and transmission of Christian texts through copying and dissemination.
  • Early Christian texts underwent various stages of revision, correction, and translation over time.
  • The study of textual criticism and manuscript studies has helped scholars identify errors, variants, and interpolations in early Christian texts.
  • The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls provides important context for understanding the production and transmission of biblical texts in antiquity.


“In some ways, though, Judaism was distinctive. All other religions in the empire were polytheistic—acknowledging and worshiping many gods of all sorts and functions: great gods of the state, lesser gods of various locales, gods who oversaw different aspects of human birth, life, and death. Judaism, on the other hand, was monotheistic; Jews insisted on worshiping only the one God of their ancestors, the God who, they maintained, had created this world, controlled this world, and alone provided what was needed for his people. According to Jewish tradition, this one all-powerful God had called Israel to be his special people and had promised to protect and defend them in exchange for their absolute devotion to him and him alone. The Jewish people, it was believed, had a “covenant” with this God, an agreement that they would be uniquely his as he was uniquely theirs. Only this one God was to be worshiped and obeyed; so, too, there was only one Temple, unlike in the polytheistic religions of the day in which, for example, there could be any number of temples to a god like Zeus. To be sure, Jews could worship God anywhere they lived, but they could perform their religious obligations of sacrifice to God only at the Temple in Jerusalem.”

“books played virtually no role in the polytheistic religions of the ancient Western world.”

“As I have indicated, Paul (along with other apostles) taught that Jesus was soon to return from heaven in judgment on the earth. The coming end of all things was a source of continuous fascination for early Christians, who by and large expected that God would soon intervene in the affairs of the world to overthrow the forces of evil and establish his good kingdom, with Jesus at its head, here on earth.”

“As Christianity grew, it eventually converted intellectuals to the faith, who were well equipped to discuss and dismiss the charges typically raised against the Christians. The writings of these intellectuals are sometimes called apologies, from the Greek word for “defense” (apologia). The apologists wrote intellectual defenses of the new faith, trying to show that far from being a threat to the social structure of the empire, it was a religion that preached moral behavior; and far from being a dangerous superstition, it represented the ultimate truth in its worship of the one true God. These apologies were important for early Christian readers, as they provided them with the arguments they needed when themselves faced with persecution.”

“By the second half of the second century, apologies had become a popular form of Christian writing.”

“At about the same time that apologies began to be written, Christians started producing accounts of their persecutions and the martyrdoms that happened as a result of them.”

“Books were at the very heart of the Christian religion—unlike other religions of the empire—from the very beginning. Books recounted the stories of Jesus and his apostles that Christians told and retold; books provided Christians with instruction in what to believe and how to live their lives; books bound together geographically separated communities into one universal church; books supported Christians in their times of persecution and gave them models of faithfulness to emulate in the face of torture and death; books provided not just good advice but correct doctrine, warning against the false teachings of others and urging the acceptance of orthodox beliefs; books allowed Christians to know the true meaning of other writings, giving guidance in what to think, how to worship, how to behave. Books were completely central to the life of the early Christians.”

“Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife should give her a certificate of divorce’ [a command found in Deut. 24:1], but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife for reason other than sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” It is hard to see how one can follow Moses’ command to give a certificate of divorce, if in fact divorce is not an option.”

“The decisions about which books should finally be considered canonical were not automatic or problem-free; the debates were long and drawn out, and sometimes harsh.”

“Many Christians today may think that the canon of the New Testament simply appeared on the scene one day, soon after the death of Jesus, but nothing could be farther from the truth.”

“The books we call the New Testament were not gathered together into one canon and considered scripture, finally and ultimately, until hundreds of years after the books themselves had first been produced.”

“Christians came from the ranks of the illiterate. This is certainly true of the very earliest Christians, who would have been the apostles of Jesus. In the Gospel accounts, we find that most of Jesus’s disciples are simple peasants from Galilee—uneducated fishermen, for example. Two of them, Peter and John, are explicitly said to be “illiterate” in the book of Acts (4:13). The apostle Paul indicates to his Corinthian congregation that “not many of you were wise by human standards” (1 Cor. 1:27)—which might mean that some few were well educated, but not most. As we move into the second Christian century, things do not seem to change much. As I have indicated, some intellectuals converted to the faith, but most Christians were from the lower classes and uneducated”

“In short, the books that were of paramount importance in early Christianity were for the most part read out loud by those who were able to read, so that the illiterate could hear, understand, and even study them. Despite the fact that early Christianity was by and large made up of illiterate believers, it was a highly literary religion.”

“If communities of believers obtained copies of various Christian books in circulation, how did they acquire those copies? Who was doing the copying? And most important for the ultimate subject of our investigation, how can we (or how could they) know that the copies they obtained were accurate, that they hadn’t been modified in the process of reproduction?”

CHAPTER 2 The Copyists of the Early Christian Writings


  • Manuscripts of biblical texts have survived in large numbers since antiquity, making it possible for scholars to compare them and identify differences.
  • Differences between manuscripts can be due to accidental errors (scribal errors) or intentional changes (scribes adding, deleting, or altering words or phrases).
  • Textual criticism is the process of determining the original text based on comparisons among surviving manuscripts.
  • The Gospel of Mark has two well-known passages that most scholars agree are additions made by later scribes: the passage about the woman taken in adultery and the ending of the Gospel (Mark 16:9-20).
  • Textual criticism is important for interpreting biblical texts, as it helps establish the original wording, which can affect meaning. It also shows the complex history of the transmission of these texts.


“One of the problems with ancient Greek texts (which would include all the earliest Christian writings, including those of the New Testament) is that when they were copied, no marks of punctuation were used, no distinction made between lowercase and uppercase letters, and, even more bizarre to modern readers, no spaces used to separate words. This kind of continuous writing is called scriptuo continua, and it obviously could make it difficult at times to read, let alone understand, a text.”

“sometimes their motives were as pure as the driven snow. But the changes were made nonetheless,”

“(Think of all the sermons preached on the basis of a single word in a text: what if the word is one the author didn’t actually write?)”

CHAPTER 3 Texts of the New Testament: Editions, Manuscripts, and Differences


  • The New Testament text has been transmitted through thousands of manuscripts and fragments, some dating back to the early centuries CE.
  • Scribes made mistakes when copying texts due to similarities in spelling or pronunciation (homoeoteleuton) or when they skipped lines with identical endings (periblepsis).
  • Intentional changes were made for various reasons, including theological considerations, liturgical reasons, or to correct perceived errors.
  • Modern scholars use methods such as comparing manuscripts and using statistical analysis to determine the most likely original text.
  • Accidental changes can often be identified by their lack of sense in context or by their inconsistency with other manuscript evidence.
  • The history of textual criticism shows that there are many differences between manuscripts, but scholars have developed methods to reconstruct the earliest form of the text.


“There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”

“One common type of mistake in Greek manuscripts occurred when two lines of the text being copied ended with the same letters or the same words. A scribe might copy the first line of text, and then when his eye went back to the page, it might pick up on the same words on the next line, instead of the line he had just copied; he would continue copying from there and, as a result, leave out the intervening words and/or lines. This kind of mistake is called periblepsis (an "eye-skip") occasioned by homoeoteleuton (the "same endings"). I teach my students that they can lay claim to a university education when they can speak intelligently about periblepsis occasioned by homoeoteleuton.”

CHAPTER 4 The Quest for Origins - Methods and Discoveries


  • The textual criticism of the Bible, specifically the New Testament, began in earnest with Erasmus's edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516.
  • Bengel identified three stages in the development of texts: the authorial text (Vorlage), the textus receptus (received text), and the critical text.
  • Erasmus based his text on a single manuscript, which introduced many errors due to its late stage in transmission.
  • Tischendorf's discovery and study of Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus led to significant advances in New Testament textual criticism.
  • Westcott and Hort's work in the late 19th century established the principles of identifying textual families based on agreement among manuscripts (identity of reading implies identity of origin).
  • They identified four major textual families: Syrian (Byzantine), Western, Alexandrian, and Neutral.
  • The Neutal text is considered the most reliable representation of the original texts, with Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus being the leading witnesses.
  • Modern scholars have refined and expanded upon Westcott and Hort's work, but their methodology remains influential in New Testament textual criticism.


“Moreover, his view was precisely the one that many English Protestants feared would result from a careful analysis of the New Testament text, namely that the wide-ranging variations in the tradition showed that Christian faith could not be based solely on scripture (the Protestant Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura), since the text was unstable and unreliable. Instead, according to this view, the Catholics must be right that faith required the apostolic tradition preserved in the (Catholic) church.”

CHAPTER 5 Originals That Matter


  • In each of the three cases considered, there is an important textual variant that affects the interpretation of a passage: Mark 1:41 (Jesus feeling compassion or anger), Luke 22:43-44 (Jesus calm or distressed), and Heb. 2:9 (Jesus dying by God's grace or "apart from God").
  • The variant "apart from God" in Heb. 2:9, which is less attested but makes more sense in its context, likely reflects the original reading of this Epistle.
  • The textual changes made by scribes can significantly impact the meaning of a passage and should be taken into account when interpreting the New Testament.

CHAPTER 6 Theologically Motivated Alterations of the Text


  • Scribes occasionally altered their texts based on historical context, including theological disputes and social conflicts.
  • Alterations in response to theological controversies included changes to counter adoptionistic, docetic, or separationist Christologies.
  • Social conflicts that led to textual alterations include debates over women's roles in early Christian churches, opposition to Jews, and defense against attacks by pagans.


“Christian scribes of the second and third centuries were involved with the debates and disputes of their day, and occasionally these disputes affected the reproduction of the texts over which the debates raged. That is, scribes occasionally altered their texts to make them say what they were already believed to mean.”

CHAPTER 7 The Social Worlds of the Text


  • Early Christian texts underwent various changes during the process of copying and transmission.
  • Some of these changes were likely due to scribal error or misunderstanding, but others may have been motivated by apologetic concerns, especially in response to criticisms from pagans and Jews.
  • One example is the alteration of Mark 6:3, where Jesus is described as a carpenter, to "the son of the carpenter," in order to downplay the implications that Jesus's working-class background might have for his divinity.
  • Another example is the change in Luke 23:34 from "Two others also" to "Two others, who were also criminals," to clarify that it was not Jesus himself who was a criminal.
  • Other changes may have been made to ensure consistency with Old Testament references or to align more closely with Christian theological beliefs.
  • The motivations for these alterations are not always clear, but they suggest that early Christian texts were influenced by the social and historical contexts in which they were copied and transmitted.


“[...] Romans 16, in which Paul speaks of a woman, Junia, and a man who was presumably her husband, Andronicus, both of whom he calls "foremost among the apostles" (v. 7). This is a significant verse, because it is the only place in the New Testament in which a woman is referred to as an apostle. Interpreters have been so impressed by the passage that a large number of them have insisted that it cannot mean what it says, and so have translated the verse as referring not to a woman named Junia but to a man named Junias, who along with his companion Andronicus is praised as an apostle. The problem with this translation is that whereas Junia was a common name for a woman, there is no evidence in the ancient world for "Junias" as a man's name.”

“Some scribes also had difficulty with ascribing apostleship to this otherwise unknown woman, and so made a very slight change in the text to circumvent the problem. In some of our manuscripts, rather than saying "Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and fellow prisoners, who are foremost among the apostles," the text is now changed so as to be more readily translated: "Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives; and also greet my fellow prisoners who are foremost among the apostles." With this textual change, no longer does one need to worry about a woman being cited among the apostolic band of men!”

“When things did not go well, when there were threats of war, or drought, or famine, or disease, this could be taken as a sign that the gods were not satisfied with how they were being honored. At such times, who would be blamed for this failure to honor the gods? Obviously, those who refused to worship them. Enter the Christians.”

“On the latter point, it was sometimes noted that Christians gathered together under the cloak of darkness, calling one another "brother" and "sister" and greeting one another with kisses; they were said to worship their god by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of God. What was one to make of such practices? If you can imagine the worst, you won't be far off. Pagan opponents claimed that Christians engaged in ritual incest (sexual acts with brothers and sisters), infanticide (killing the Son), and cannibalism (eating his flesh and drinking his blood). These charges may seem incredible today, but in a society that respected decency and openness, they were widely ac­cepted. Christians were perceived as a nefarious lot.”

“Some believers, as though from a drinking bout, go so far as to oppose themselves and alter the original text of the gospel three or four or several times over, and change its character to enable them to deny difficulties in the face of criticism. (Against Celsus 2, 27)”

Conclusion: Changing Scripture - Scribes, Authors, and Readers


  • The Bible is a collection of texts written by various authors with unique perspectives, worldviews, and contexts.
  • Each author put the traditions they inherited in their own words, changing the text as they did so.
  • Scribes who copied these texts also changed them, sometimes intentionally to clarify meaning or correct errors, but often unintentionally due to human error.
  • Textual criticism is the process of comparing manuscripts and determining the most likely original wording based on external evidence and internal consistency.
  • Interpretation involves putting a text in other words and making sense of it within one's own context and beliefs, which inevitably changes the text.
  • The scribes changed scripture in the same way that readers do when they interpret texts, but their changes were more tangible as they altered the physical words on the page.


“We might mean different things. How can you tell? Only by reading each of us carefully and seeing what each of us has to say—not by pretending that we are both saying the same thing. We’re often saying very different things.”


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