Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Celebrity scholarship

Bart Ehrman is all over various media outlets recently. The author of Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman's work was recently profiled in the Washington Post and last night on the Daily Show. It will be replayed 600 times someday, so I would recommend catching it.

Ehrman is a very provocative and well-known scholar in academia. His work on text criticism, though controversial, is imminently influential. If you are an undergraduate student taking NT introduction at a secular college, his textbook is probably in your hands. Most of the time, scholars laboring in the obscure field of text-criticism do not become regulars in the media spotlight; the dusty job of collating ancient manuscripts is not exactly the stuff of late night television or the evening news.

However, what Ehrman has achieved may be telling to the future of the study of religion. In much the same way as Elaine Pagels has done in her work, Ehrman's faith journey is equally the subject of his popular work as is his revelation that text criticism challenges the naive notion that we have the NT as it was in its inception. A recovering fundamentalist, he intertwines his own struggles with the academic insights of text criticism and in doing so enlivens an area of study unknown to many people.

The fact is that there are thousands of NT manuscripts spanning the ages. We have 4th century scraps of papyrus (i.e., ancient paper) and rather intact codices (i.e., bound books) from the 8th century containing the whole of the NT as we know it today. What we do not have are Paul's or Mark's "autographs," those pieces of papyrus which first contained the letter to the Romans or the gospel narratives.

(On an aside, we might even doubt the existence of "an original" text as if the writers sent the final draft to the printer and that was that. The circulation of letters and narratives in early Christianity suggests that editing and sharing was an ongoing process; at what point do we declare a piece of writing original? Think about, for example, the work of Shakespeare as David Parker has suggested in The Living Texts of the Gospel. What would we deem the "original" of any of his plays. They were constantly edited by his own hand and later received the stage notes. At what point is the process of composition complete?)

What we also do not have are manuscripts that agree with one another completely. The majority of the errors are relatively minor: spelling mistakes, skipping lines, switching the order of words. Nevertheless, there are significant divergences which ought to cause us pause.

This is where Ehrman has stepped in and extended a tradition of scholarship that started examining textual variants and asking, "Why?". Instead of envisioning robotic scribes, Ehrman sees the scribes as active interpreters, trying to make sense of cryptic texts; their changes to the text are motivated by concerns for orthodoxy.

While his thesis is not unchallenged, Ehrman may signal with his work a new avenue for the popular distribution of the academy's work. What if we remove the facade of objectivity and admit that the work we do in our offices and libraries is of existential import, not just to people sitting in the pews but to those sleeping in on Sunday mornings? Even more, what if we leave the protective cocoon of scholarship and dare to make our work comprehensible to people outside of the guild?