Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus
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Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus

by Nicholas Perrin

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In Lost in Transmission? Wheaton New Testament professor Nicholas Perrin takes on Ehrman and others who claim that the words of Jesus have been corrupted beyond recovery. Perrin not only gives us a compelling layperson's guide to the story behind modern Jesus scholarship, but also tells his own story, a journey from secularism to Buddhism to orthodox Christianity. For


In Lost in Transmission? Wheaton New Testament professor Nicholas Perrin takes on Ehrman and others who claim that the words of Jesus have been corrupted beyond recovery. Perrin not only gives us a compelling layperson's guide to the story behind modern Jesus scholarship, but also tells his own story, a journey from secularism to Buddhism to orthodox Christianity. For Perrin, both stories are necessary to illuminate the detailed subtleties within - and the philosophical assumptions behind - Ehrman's critiques. According to the author, history provides evidence and assurance that the Gospels can, indeed, be trusted.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Perrin, a professor of New Testament at conservative Wheaton College in Illinois, addresses his first book as a response to Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus. He hopes evangelical readers will not simply ignore the controversy (or the gnawing doubts it may create) but will understand both Ehrman's critique and the many reasons Perrin argues for surety. Rather than going through questions about New Testament Greek word-by-word, Perrin approaches the topic more philosophically, offering a history of textual criticism and of liberal and conservative views. His main assurance stems from the focus of Jewish culture on preserving text and the motivation of biblical authors and scribes to record everything accurately. He also meets Ehrman's personal story of walking away from faith with his own journey from secularism into Buddhism and eventually Christianity as a searching, party-loving college student. There are both great strengths and weaknesses here-Perrin's overview is simple to read and quite helpful at placing the debates within context, but skeptics will find him occasionally dodging tough questions with statements like "being Christian does not also require us to be rationalists." In the end, he concludes that the four gospels contain "equivalents and approximations, but they are indeed the words of Jesus." (Jan. 8)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Perrin (Wheaton Coll.), who writes knowledgeably about analytical New Testament (NT) scholarship, responds here to the 2005 New York Timesbest-selling Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the New Testament and Why, in which Bart Ehrman argued that the NT has been altered to such a degree over the centuries that it no longer accurately reflects Jesus's actual words and actions. Countering Ehrman's claim, Perrin assures the Christian layperson and others interested in exploring the faith that the NT is, in fact, a reliable document and can be trusted. He correctly notes that Ehrman took in his book a very skeptical stance toward the biblical text and that many scholars would not agree with his position. He also provides a broader discussion about the NT, covering such areas as form, source, and redaction criticism. However, rather than simply addressing the issues raised in Misquoting Jesusin a logical and factual manner, Perrin argues vigorously against the work, giving his own book a polemical quality. Recommended for theological libraries.
—John Jaeger

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Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2007 Nicholas Perrin
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ISBN: 978-0-8499-0367-0

Chapter One


The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied, and changed, the texts of scripture, so too had human authors written the texts of scripture.... Many of these authors no doubt felt they were inspired by God to say what they did, but they had their own perspectives, their own beliefs, their own views, their own needs, their own desires, their own understanding, their own theologies; and these perspectives, beliefs, views, needs, desires, understanding, and theologies informed everything they said.... Occasionally I see a bumper sticker that reads: "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it." My response is always, 'What if God didn't say it? What if the book you take as giving you God's words instead contains human words?" -Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus


It was evening and my wife and I were bustling around in the kitchen, putting the plates on the table, filling the glasses with ice, getting the silverware and napkins out. Everything was just about ready. A few minutes passed.

"Dinner!" The call went out again, this time with a little more force and urgency, even irritation. Now the steam was rolling off of the open dishes that were by this time set out on the table. We were short one family member, one who happened to have his friend over.

Finally, I got up from the table, walked into the next room, and found two boys deeply engrossed in a video game with zombie-like concentration. I told the one boy it was time for him to go. I told the other it was time for dinner. On the way back to the kitchen, I asked, "We have already called you twice. Why didn't you come?"

"I didn't hear you," he said.

Apparently, something was lost in transmission. There was only one thing to say: "Mmmm."

Lost in transmission. It can be a powerful defense. As any lawyer knows, there is no such thing as a binding contract unless there has been a successful meeting of the minds. If it can proved that the terms of the contract were ambiguously conveyed, then the contract itself can be invalidated. To the young woman receiving an unwanted cell phone call from an ex-boyfriend, the sound of a bad connection is a sweet one. "Hello? ... Hello? ... I'm losing you.... We might as well hang up" means the end of conversation and, if all things go as she intends, maybe even the final conversation. When Neil Armstrong was accused of botching his line when stepping onto the lunar surface for the first time (saying, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," instead of "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind"), NASA defended its man on the moon by claiming that the sound of "a" was lost to outer space.

For better or for worse, rightly or wrongly, the claim of "lost in transmission" has the power of putting us in the clear. It declares that the attempt toward communication was abortive. The unsuccessful transfer of ideas is like a tree that falls in the forest. Sure, it might make a sound. But if the human ear does not pick up on the sound with at least some recognition, what difference does it make? Human communication demands a closed loop, and when the loop is demonstrably still open, all bets are off.

This is because communication is intrinsic to relationship. We all have known marriages-maybe you feel you're part of one-that involve poor communication. Such marriages tend to be difficult. The communication of one's hopes, goals, intentions, fears, memories, expectations, perceptions, judgments, joys-all these contribute to strengthening and rejuvenating the marital relationship. But without such communication, the partners each lose a sense of the other and they slowly drift apart. Eventually, the only thing left on the horizon is the isolated self. Interpersonal relationship is ultimately impossible without communication.

But in some cases there is something appealing about failure in communication. More precisely, sometimes we want communication to fail, when we as receivers realize that the content of the communication is potentially burdensome or disturbing. This is true when it comes to knowing things and knowing people. Some mail you open right away; other mail, like the credit card bill, you leave unopened for a few days, maybe a few weeks. Sometimes you just don't want to know because you don't want to be disturbed. The same can apply to interpersonal communication. Whatever it was that someone was hoping, expecting, or demanding that you do or be, the lost-in-transmission plea is a virtual guarantee of absolution from obligation or guilt. After all, no one can expect you to fulfill a request that never really registered with you. And so you can go on free as a bird with your good name, clear conscience, and personal agenda unruffled.

Of course the Christian claim that the God of Israel has revealed himself to the world through Jesus Christ can be profoundly disturbing, deeply unsettling. Had orthodox Christianity asked us to deal only with the deist god, a far-away god who got creation started but whom we haven't heard from since, we would be dealing with a god who ultimately gives nothing to us and asks nothing from us. Or had Christianity called us to imagine a god who was so closely identified with creation that he or she became creation itself, including ourselves, this god, too, could not be capable of a personal relationship. Nor can the romantic and existential god-as-Infinite-Being bear the burden and promise of a meaningful interpersonal interchange. Such gods could not communicate in a way that would bear even remote analogy to human communication. The god of deism, the god of pantheism, even the god of philosophical existentialism-such gods are hardly disturbing at all. Such gods do not require that we be in contact with them. In fact, interpersonal communication with these gods is in the nature of the case impossible. But if the god revealed by Jesus Christ is the true god (that is, God), this means that the Creator is a personal God and has in fact initiated a kind of relationship with humanity that obliges all people everywhere to respond with their lives.

This was beginning to dawn on me very early on in my first reading of Mark. In the first verse we read: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Fifteen verses into this gospel, we find Jesus saying: "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." For me there was something both inviting and scandalous about this proclamation. Jesus' reference to a spiritual reality was strangely comforting because it was outside of and bigger than myself. Yet-and here is where the scandal comes in-if this kingdom transcends me and my interests, then this same kingdom also likely will involve my deferring to that transcendent reality at different points, perhaps even on an ongoing basis. Jesus' choice of metaphor, the kingdom of God, sounded so all-encompassing. It suggested that to be involved with this kingdom meant subordinating one's life to this exterior reality. If I were to follow through, it would mean the end of me as I have known me.

There's no getting around the fact that every relationship has its own terms and conditions. Your friends, family, coworkers, and other relations might not necessarily spell out those terms explicitly, but there are terms. Every relationship has its own boundaries as to what goes and what doesn't go. I realize today that it's no different with God's relationship with humanity. I realize, too, that in my first take on Mark's gospel I was right about the demanding nature of Jesus' kingdom invitation, more right than I knew. If Jesus Christ was truly who he claimed to be, if Jesus Christ was truly what his first followers claimed him to be, this has very weighty implications that impose themselves on every human individual. Deism (the belief that god is far away and isn't about to come back) and pantheism (the belief that god physically indwells everything everywhere) limit the freedom of god but preserve the absolute freedom of the human person. Such an arrangement, where god is constrained and we are free, does not approach the human-divine relationship portrayed in Scripture. When god is equated with an "intimation of immortality" (Wordsworth) or a "feeling of absolute dependence" (Schleiermacher), this may leave room for awe of the holy or the thrill of mystical escape, but this, too, should not be confused with the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

What the God behind the gospel of Mark was requiring was-if I had the word for it at the time-worship. And by this term I do not mean simply the act of going to church. Worship, biblical worship, is not only our way of responding to God's self-revelation but also our way of surrendering our very selves, even as the same God lays claim to us through revelation. The act of worship is the truest expression of our humanity. One is never more human than when one worships in response to God. If we do not sense this immediately, it is because something within us resists our coming to terms with our true humanity. The implications of the self-revelation of Jesus Christ do not necessarily make life more convenient for us as individuals, but at the time I was unwilling to entertain the possibility that God was seeking something more profound and long-lasting than my convenience.

Having used the term "revelation" a few times now, let me explain what I mean. When Christian theologians talk about revelation, they are usually talking about one of two things. In the first place, revelation refers to the "Christ-event": Jesus of Nazareth's appearance on the stage of history, what Jesus said and did in time and space. This is the Jesus as he actually was, the Jesus whose image and voice, had you a video camera, could have been caught on tape and preserved for all of posterity. Scholars call this Jesus the "historical Jesus" or the "pre-Easter Jesus."

But revelation also refers to what his followers under inspiration wrote down of what he said and did. This is not the flesh-and-blood Jesus but the church's description of the flesh-and-blood Jesus. It is important to distinguish between the two. I would never deny that a picture of me wasn't "me." But a picture of a person is not the same thing as the person's self; it is instead a visual representation. The same goes for the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John): they are literary representations of Jesus.

One of the more interesting implications of this dead-obvious fact is that the gospel accounts of Jesus cannot claim to be exhaustive. In fact, when John says that even the whole world would not contain the books that could be written about the deeds of Jesus, he underscores that his story of Jesus is a limited, selective story (John 21:25). When you are selective, as any biographer or historian must be, this entails a certain degree of interpretation. What to include? What to leave out? These are the sorts of questions tied up with one's interpretation of one's subject. Thus, it would be foolish to argue that the four gospels are anything less than interpretations of Jesus. Scholars call the Jesus depicted in these interpretive accounts the "Christ of faith" or the "post-Easter Jesus."

But it would be a grave mistake to surmise, as many do at this point, that interpretative accounts-because they are interpretive-play fast and loose with the facts of history. To imagine that objective historiography (history writing) and interpretive historiography are mutually exclusive undertakings is to fall into the illusion that the facts of history speak for themselves. But do they really? And if they do, where do they speak for themselves? Where do we find purely objective history?

Do we find such objectivity in the classical historiographers like Thucydides? Hardly. Thucydides would have winced at the thought that he should have written his account of the Peloponnesian War as if he were an aloof spectator. What about modern historical treatments such as Barbara W. Tuchman's A Distant Mirror (Knopf, 1978) or Bruce Catton's Grant Takes Command (Little, Brown and Company, 1969)? Are these purely objective? They may be balanced, but they cannot be said to be objective. What thinking and feeling soul can begin to write a history of the papal schism or the American Civil War without certain assumptions and prior value judgments regarding each of those events? What about television media reports on domestic or international happenings? Shouldn't these journalists strive as professionals to tell the story without any trace of interpretive bias? If you think so, you should probably seriously consider disconnecting your cable or satellite dish.

At the end of the day, it is impossible to contemplate the recollection of past or contemporary events without the selection, orientation, organization, and representation of those events somehow coloring or interpreting the facts. To observe is to interpret; to observe out loud is to interpret out loud. There is no such thing as interpretation-free history. Balance is a fine ideal, but purely objective history, something else entirely, is an illusion.

Therefore, there should be no embarrassment or backwardness in affirming that the gospel writers in a very human way interpreted the Jesus they were writing about. After all, the only thinking being who can get away with not interpreting reality is God himself. The gospel writers knew they were interpreting Jesus, and I believe that they rejoiced in this fact. Much as a painter rejoices because his or her medium is able to convey a certain impression that other media (portrait photography, for example) cannot, so, too, I suspect that the gospel writers, fully aware that they were approaching their subject from different angles, exulted in the variety of their takes on Jesus. The fact that the canonical gospels are four in number and not just one doesn't impoverish our understanding of Jesus. Rather, it enriches it.

The gospel writers also knew that they were writing with specific purposes in mind. Of course, when you think about it, you probably wouldn't want it any other way. (Have you ever caught a college professor talking about that great student paper that also happened to be written with no perceivable purpose in mind? I don't think so.) At times, the gospel writers are less than explicit in conveying their purpose; at other points, they are more so. John mentions that he writes his gospel "that you may believe" ( John 20:31). Luke writes his gospel for Theophilus, "that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed" (Luke 1:4). The gospel writers are no disinterested parties. Their relationship to their focal interest is anything but dispassionate, detached, or casual. The Jesus they write about is the Jesus they want us to believe and embrace.

This point, which is hard to miss, has been the source of stumbling for many a New Testament scholar. Such scholars read the New Testament and conclude that the biblical authors' theological agenda-their "beliefs, views, needs, desires"-was overwhelming inducement either to distort the facts or, less self-consciously, to be lax regarding the truthfulness of their report. Like the desperate preacher inventing an illustration allegedly drawn from personal experience, the first Jesus storytellers are thought to sacrifice the facts of the matter on the altar of a good homiletic story.

For many who see the Gospels this way, the absence of historical factuality does serious damage to the theological value of their message. For others, the perception of compromised historical accuracy does not detract from the writing's theological significance in the least. On the contrary, they might say, to treat the Gospels as history is to distract from what the ancient writers were trying to do: "Of course the New Testament writers were not attempting to write history. They were theologians, for goodness' sake!" In either case, the unspoken assumption is that homiletics (writing a good sermon) and history (getting the facts right) are mutually exclusive endeavors. Since the biblical writers had theological goals, we are told, they cannot be trusted as reliable conveyors of the Jesus tradition.


Excerpted from LOST IN TRANSMISSION? by NICHOLAS PERRIN Copyright © 2007 by Nicholas Perrin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Nicholas Perrin PhD, Marquette University, is Franklin S. Dryness Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Between 2000 and 2003 he was Research Assistant to Nicholas T. Wright. He is author of numerous books, including Thomas: The Other Gospel, Lost in Transmission, and Jesus the Temple.

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