Lost in Transmission? What Can We Know About the Words of Jesus?
Nashville, TNA: Thomas Nelson, 2007.
Available from Amazon.com
Nick Perrin is Associate Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, formerly N.T. Wright’s research assistant, and has engaged in studies of the Gospel of Thomas in relation to other second century Christian literature. In this volume Perrin engages Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus in order to demonstrate the integrity of the Christian Bible. All of the chapters begin with a paragraph quote from Ehrman's book and Perrin gives a short biographical illustration and then engages Ehrman’s remark in each chapter.
By his own admission, Perrin is not a textual criticism specialist and he deals only “indirectly” with many of Ehrman’s claims. Much of the book is autobiographical of Perrin’s journey in faith from a non-Christian background to faith in Jesus (including his stint as a Christian Buddhist). He starts off by comparing Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus with John Lennon’s song Imagine: Imagine there’s no heaven and imagine that we don’t have the actual words of Jesus – both take us to realities without God. One of his criticisms of Ehrman is that while Ehrman may have rejected his fundamentalist Christian faith he has not for the most part changed his epistemology. Perrin charges him with judging the Bible according to the standards of Platonic idealism rather than according to the Bible’s own standard of truth which is Jesus Christ.
In another chapter, Perrin deals with the view that either Jesus did not exist or else that Christianity evolved out of some kind of hodge-podge of Greco-Roman myths. In chapter three, Perrin delves into post-enlightenment perspectives on Jesus. He likens modern Jesus research to a three-ring circus featuring H.S. Reimarus (sceptic), G.E. Lessing (liberal), and J.M. Goeze (orthodox). In Perrin’s mind, they epitomize how more recent Christian believers and doubters make sense of the Gospels. Perrin makes a good point that much of the scholarship that goes on assumes an epistemological dualism between absolute certainty and thorough-going scepticism. In his view there is nothing to say that truth is ‘a risk-free venture’ and this leaves room for faith, faith as impacting epistemology as well.
Perrin minces no words in attacking religious pluralism as essentially intolerant of any kind of particularism and in turn he wonders what Jesus would have made of the claim that he himself did not necessarily have the exclusive backing of God. He also engages the issue of the historical Jesus and proposes that we should seriously consider Jesus as a figure in Palestinian Judaism rather than in a Hellenistic context, and also that Jesus was a type of movement founder. These remarks are set against the background of the quest for the historical Jesus. He goes on to discuss how Gospel scholars mine the Gospels for the actual words of Jesus through the various criteria of authenticity and he contrasts the form critical approach to the Gospels (e.g. Bultmann) with the Scandanavian approach (e.g. Gerhardsson). Perrin is convinced that the Gospels do provide accurate accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings but he is fairly nuanced in his approach and warns against complete harmonizations. He also contests Ehrman’s claim that the later Evangelists ‘wrote over’ Mark.
Perrin maintains that the four Gospels, as Irenaeus said, were a fourfold testimony to Jesus by the Evangelists and not a cacophony of mutually exclusive portraits as Ehrman charges. This means that Jesus can not be reduced to a system of beliefs or propositions devised by the Gnostics. On the transmission of the text of the NT, Perrin suggests that the Christian context in which the texts were copied probably contributed more to their preservation than to their corruption. The NT was a sacred text for these scribes and they were self involved readers who cared a great much about its detail. He states: “If the original text of the New Testament can be compared to a plush law of grass and textual corruptions to weeds, then I am saying that the hired gardeners (the scribes down through the ages) have generally been quick to identify the weeds” (p. 140). Perrin points to a glaring inconsistency in Ehrman’s book. Ehrman keeps talking about the corruption of the text and proceeds to talk about what the original autographs looked like.
The following chapter deals with the Gnostic Gospels and why they lost out. Perrin is pretty much right here, but he is wrong when he argues that Romans did not take to persecuting some Gnostics because some Gnostics were martyred (p. 161), but on their whole their spiritual practices were much more indigenized in the Greco-Roman world. After this Perrin talks about the relation between our Bible translations and the original texts (along the way he notes that he was discipled by the navigators and used the NAV Topical Memory System which I also used as a young Christian and am now passing on to my daughters). He compares Scripture to the mathematical construct of pi: “If pi was derived in order to ascertain the area of a circle, then the Scriptures were derived from God in order that we might know this God and make firm our salvation and obedience. God is far more interested in our responding to the knowledge of his revelation than in our refining it. Sometimes we just have to draw the circle, even with an imperfect knowledge of our pi” (pp. 178-79).
In the final chapter, Perrin talks about his conversion at a Navigators conference which became the occasion for his appointment with God. Against Ehrman, Perrin gives an analogy with the moon landing. Although it is frequently said that John Armstrong got his lines wrong, “One small step for … man” when he meant to say, “One small step for a man”. Whereas most people thought that Armstrong stuffed up his one and only scripted line, recent computer analysis has shown that static interrupted the transmission and Armstrong did say what he intended to say in the first place. In other words, Jesus’ voice is preserved in transmission even if we sometimes miss out the details because of the static.
This book is not an academic response to Ehrman. It is more for lay readers who want to know what all the fuss is about concerning early Christianity. This book would be better to give to lay people who have read the Da Vinci Code or Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus and want some easy non-technical responses. For me the highlights were the biographical cameos that feature from Perrin’s life that make him a narrator we can sympathize with. It is enjoying to listen to him tell the story of God because it is a story that he is consciously self-involved in.