Sunday, April 22, 2007

Misquoting Jesus

I've read two books for fun this semester. The Last Temptation of Christ and Misquoting Jesus. I realized the other day that this makes me a geek par excellence, but hey, if that shoe fits, I can deal with wearing it.

I basically finished up Misquoting Jesus this morning. I say basically because I would up skipping a few sections that were things I already knew from classes and so on and so on. Anyhow, this book was written by Bart Ehrman, a well-respected Biblical scholar. I had read some of his more scholarly works for other classes, and given that I never know when a family member is going to corner me with, "well, why don't you believe X" (where X = belief that is supposed as clear as crystal from a certain Biblical passage), or that I'm going to give in to the temptation to once again pick internet fights with fundamentalist, evangelical Christians, I thought it might be interesting to see if I can toss an easily availiable and accessible book out as a suggestion for further reading.

Misquoting Jesus is certainly accessible. The reader doesn't need much, if any background in textual criticism, historical criticism, or even Christian history. Ehrman doesn't assume that anyone is familar with the various controversies that were floating around early Christianity, so he neatly sums up things like Arianism or Gnosticism in one or two paragraphs. My thought, as a geek and lover of Gnostics was -- wow, what an oversimplification! Then I remember that not everyone has the time or the desire to slug through various non-canonical texts or Kurt Rudolph's Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, and that in all reality a complex understanding of Gnosticism was not necessary to understand Ehrman's point. So, my second thought was he does a very nice job at summing up these controversies.

Ehrman also introduces the reader to the principles of textual criticism, with which I'm not all that familiar. I found his explanations of textual criticism to be clear, concise, and imminently understandable.

I was struck at some points by the humor in the writing -- recognizable to me as religious studies geek humor. In scholarly articles, this humor is sometimes present, but it's normally limited to titles or footnotes. I suspect that Ehrman enjoyed writing in a more relaxed genre. I enjoyed reading in a more relaxed genre. To me, the process of reading this book was more like attending a class taught by a professor with whom I'm familiar than it did anything else. (Having never attended a lecture by Ehrman, I can't guess whether his writing style reflects his lecture style or not.)

The most interesting parts of the book, for me, are the autobiographical bits in the introduction and the supplementary material in the back of the book. Ehrman outlines his personal journey from mainstream protestant, to evangelical, to happy agnostic. It's an interesting story, and it functions nicely to pull the reader into the importance of the matter. The personal touch of the book also keeps it from becoming a "dry" scholarly read.

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