Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus

By Timothy Paul Jones
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2007). 175 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Kelly Osborne
20.1 (Spring 2009) : 111-113

Timothy Jones (hereafter, TJ), senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Rolling Hills, Tulsa, OK, has written a book which, as the title states, responds directly and specifically to Bart D. Ehrman’s (hereafter BE) New York Times Bestseller, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: Harper-Collins, 2005). BE chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, and his book gives the impression that very early on in church history scribes introduced wholesale and major changes into Christian theology as they copied manuscripts of the NT text. He claims that such changes, along with the disappearance of the autograph manuscripts of NT writings, make it impossible for a thinking person to accept the idea that the original texts were ever inerrant or even inspired by God. Furthermore, BE relates enough of his own journey to and then away from what he calls “a bona fide born-again experience” (3), that he thinks he can justify, at least to his own satisfaction, a view of NT texts which treats them as not a whit more authoritative or divine than any other piece of literature in the world (BE, 14-15, 216-18). The misleading impressions and conclusions set forth in BE’s book manifest his hostility to biblical Christianity. TJ has therefore done the reading public in general and Bible-believing Christians in particular a real service by grappling with the issues raised thereby.

After a short introduction in which TJ sets the stage for the reader with important background information concerning BE and his published works, the main section of the book is divided into two parts, the first entitled “Why the [New Testament] Texts Can Be Trusted” (27-77), the second “Why the Lost Christianities W ere Lost” (79-137). TJ’s Concluding Reflections (138-46) are followed by an appendix on the value of Papias’s testimony (147-48), personal acknowledgments and autobiographical details (149-52), as well as endnotes (153-69), subject, name, and scripture indexes (170-76).

In the four chapters comprising Part One, TJ focuses on how the text of the NT was preserved and transmitted up until the time o f the earliest printed editions. His style makes a technical subject readily understandable. A number of text boxes use bold print and offer brief but helpful definitions of term s like “codex” or “uncial” (e.g., 32, 36, 45). Relevant historical background, such as perceptions of Christian practice from both a pagan and a Christian writer of the 2nd century (38), are interspersed in the discussion (21, 35, 46, 47). These text boxes catch the eye and pique the curiosity.

Where it is appropriate, TJ agrees with BE (31), but he also notes clearly the inconsistency or inadequacy of the latter’s argument (e.g., 32, 43, 44, 47, 72-73, 77). The strength of TJ’s discussion lies in chapters 3 and 4 (55-76), where he examines in detail numerous passages in the NT where significant textual variants occur. Contrary to misleading impressions and faulty conclusions given by BE, TJ offers more convincing explanations which give due weight to a broader spectrum of evidence, and he thus shows that no basic doctrine is affected by such scribal changes (54, 70).

At times TJ’s language softens the impact of the conclusions he draws. At key points, he writes “from my perspective,” “[p]ersonally, I suspect,” “[u]nless I miss my guess,” “[n]ot that I can tell” (e.g., 54, 62, 64, 77). Of course, TJ seeks to write irenically and in an informal style, but the kind of deliberate hostility to and tendentious argument against biblical Christianity consistently demonstrated by BE require a clarity that identifies the latter’s position for what it truly is: distortion of the evidence.

Part Two (79-137) outlines why the early church came to regard the books of the NT, and not other writings, as canonical. TJ reviews the material well in many respects, but unfortunately falls into line with much contemporary evangelical scholarship on the Synoptic Gospels, accepting Markan priority and allowing for a dating of Luke as late as A.D. 85 (8 5, 112). This does not vitiate his entire argument, but TJ leaves open the possibility that “the focus of certain stories about Jesus changed from one context to another” (94, emphasis in the original). Although TJ maintains that “a shift in focus of a story because of a change in context, historical circumstances or eschatological expectation is very different … from … disregarding the actual historical events,” he eventually concedes that BE is “unarguably correct that traditions were molded and remolded in light of varying cultural and contextual circumstances” (162 n. 27). On this matter of the origin, transmission and final version of the Synoptic Gospels, then, the difference between the position proposed by TJ and that of BE suddenly becomes one of degree not kind, thus undercutting the critique of BE’s position.

TJ’s treatment of how the NT canon came to be (chapter 8), including the early church’s rejection of the Gospel of Peter and other apocryphal writings (127-37), should be helpful to those who may know little or nothing about the process. But his Concluding Reflections disappoint, because he declares that the message of the good news concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ, i.e., the gospel, is to be accepted for pragmatic reasons (“it simply works,” (138-39). But surely it should be accepted primarily because it is true (Eph 1:13; 1 Thess 2:3-5; John 20:30-31, 21:24)!

Furthermore, it seems to this reviewer that TJ is far too gentle, saying that BE “poses no ultimate threat to Christian faith,” but rather “an opportunity for us [believers in Christ] to ask difficult questions—questions like, What do I really mean when I say that the Bible is God’s Word?” (143) True enough, BE’s twisting of the evidence, whether textual or historical, will not overturn biblical Christianity. Even if only some believers are mislead by the views BE propounds, however, are not such views to be shown for what they really are, namely, deception, and then vigorously opposed like any false teaching (cf. Titus 1:7-16, in connection with Judaizing heresy)?

For those who do not wish to wade through another item in BE’s growing list of publications hostile to biblical Christianity, TJ’s book should prove beneficial, if read with cautions like those noted here.