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Response to Misquoting Jesus – II

I found the second chapter of Misquoting Jesus generally very helpful. I can summarize my response to the chapter by saying that there is nothing very radical about its contents, and that it contains material everyone should consider.

Ehrman has to go light on some things simply because of the size of the topic as opposed to the reasonable size of a popular book on the subject. For a little more background on critical methodologies and the process of composition, let me refer to my pamphlets What is Biblical Criticism? and Understanding the Search for the Historical Jesus.

Canonization is another topic that is often viewed in extremes. On the one hand we have those who picture the folks who put together the orthodox canon sitting around in back rooms cynically decided what would be scripture and what would not, and often arranging the death of those who disagreed. On the other hand we have those who assume that there was a list of criteria, and that every piece of literature that fit got into the canon, while all those that did not were left out.

The truth is somewhere between. There were plenty of shameful episodes in which one Christian leader was involved in the death of another. There were also criteria, at least in principle. But in fact there were certain books that had become standard in Christian worship, and these were going to be “in” no matter what the evidence. So to some extent canonization was a popularity contest with a number of serious twists and turns. Ehrman gives a pretty good summary.

Ehrman does make one comment that sets me to thinking, and I hope to find some time to do reading on this. On page 18 he says:

For modern people intimately familiar with any of the major contemporary Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), it may be hard to imagine, but books played virtually no role in the polytheistic religions of the ancient Western world. These religions were almost exclusively concerned with nonoring the gods through ritual acts of sacrifice. There were no doctrines to be learned, as explained in books, and almost no ethical principles to be followed, as laid out in books. . . .

I’m not precisely certain what he includes under “Western world” in this case, but my feel for the ancient near east suggests that certainly Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Egyptian religion depended to a great extent on texts. Israelite religion made the texts much more the province of the people as opposed to just the priests, but that was an incremental change. I’m wondering if there was such a substantial break between Greek and Roman religion and the eastern portions of the empire, even after a great deal of syncretism. I haven’t done any adequate study on this, so this is just a question this chapter raised for me.

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