October 10, 2008

Nicholas Perrin, Lost in Translation?

Do the words of Jesus that we see in our Bibles today resemble the words that were actually spoken two millenia ago? Or have the Bible's authors, copyists, and translators played fast and loose with them? Bart Ehrman, in his book, Misquoting Jesus, makes a case for the (often systematic) corruption of Jesus' words and of the whole text of the Bible from the earliest times on down to the present. For him, the Bible isn't trustworthy: Jesus words and those of the earliest apostles have been lost in transmission. It is into this discussion that Nicholas Perrin, professor of NT at Wheaton College, enters with this new book.

Let me start by saying that this book is decidedly not academic, by design. Perrin, a NT scholar, could certainly mount academic responses to Ehrman and others on these issues, and other authors have in fact done so. Perrin, on the other hand, seeks to both respond in a way that can be understood, but more than that he seeks to put forth a compelling vision of what our New Testament is and why it's worth paying attention to. This whole discussion is encased in a testimony of sorts, as Perrin talks about his own upbringing and his first exposures to the Bible. His journey of discovery makes a great storyline within which these issues can be explored.

I recommend this book quite highly. He makes a lot of current research in a number of areas, from Jesus studies to textual criticism, highly understandable. His chapters on Jesus and his Jewishness are worth the price of the book, and his summary of the quests for the "historical" Jesus is one of the clearest I've read. Beyond that, he also (selectively and rather quickly by design) refutes a number of Ehrman's central points, and, probably more important, points toward more fruitful lines of inquiry and more authentic approaches to questions of the Bible's integrity.

Perrin's work is full of insights, such as the important assertion that Jesus intended his words be remembered by his disciples, and that, in their Jewish context, it is highly plausible that they would have done so with care. He also makes clear that God chose to impart his revelation into a human context and process, deeming it a sufficient and appropriate vehicle for the intended message. We shouldn't necessarily expect a wooden, flawless, perfect textual tradition, and this fact doesn't lessen the power of God's revelation or diminish it's call on us. In the end, he concludes that "even if that transmission [of Jesus' words] was less than completely perfect, it was faithful" (187). This book has clearly done a service to the church in making some of these discussions accessable. If these are issues that interest you, this book is a great place to start.

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