CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A review of Lost in Translation? By Nicholas Perrin.

Mar 31, 2008

Thomas Nelson, 2007. (Available in Australia from Koorong Books)

It is common today to question not only what we know about Jesus, but how we know about Jesus. The critics and sceptics argue that we can’t really know the real Jesus, because whatever he said and did has been lost in translation. The early followers of Jesus have so corrupted the original words and deeds that they are beyond knowing.

Many have been taking this line of late. One who has had a New York Times best seller in this regard is Bart Ehrman. His 2005 volume, Misquoting Jesus, has sought to argue that we are left with only doubt and uncertainty about the real Jesus.

Perrin, a lecturer in New Testament at Wheaton College, and former research assistant to N.T. Wright, takes on Ehrman in particular and the sceptics in general in this useful volume. He does so by offering an easy to read account of various themes: history, theology, hermeneutics and textual criticism.

Image of Lost in Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus
Lost in Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus by Nicholas Perrin Amazon logo

Perrin notes that his journey of faith is the opposite of Ehrman. Perrin started off an agnostic but eventually became an evangelical Christian. Ehrman began as an evangelical but is now an agnostic. Perrin describes his spiritual journey, and along the way shows how most of the major themes of Ehrman and the sceptics are simply mistaken.

Consider the nature of the four Gospels. Are they selective accounts of the life of Jesus? Yes. Does that mean they are therefore unreliable? No. Perrin reminds us that all historians are selective, and therefore interpretive. There is no such thing as purely objective history. But being interpretative does not equate to being fast and loose with the facts of history.

The Gospel writers clearly wrote with a theological purpose in mind. But they also wrote with a high view of history. Theological and historical purposes can combine in the Gospel accounts, with no loss of factual accuracy.

Ehrman tries to make a false dichotomy between seeing the Gospel writings as either the words of God or the words of men. But Christians have always held that they are both. The biblical understanding of inspiration contains both elements, just as does our understanding of the person of Jesus as being both fully human and fully divine.

Perrin also looks briefly at the claims of some radicals who doubt that Jesus even existed. These claims are quickly dismissed. First, no serious New Testament scholar anywhere denies the existence of Jesus. Second, the claim of critics that Christianity simply borrowed from other pagan mystery religions is fraught with danger.

Borrowing always takes place to some degree, but that does not minimise the truth claims of Christianity or imply bare dependency. If Christianity is in fact true, we would expect the faith to “resonate with the deepest longings of humanity,” says Perrin, “using some of the very same imagery that humanity has latched onto in order to express those longings”. Third, the similarities are at best superficial, not deep-seated.

So too are the supposed similarities between the various Gnostic gospels and our canonical Gospels. The biblical Gospels were all penned within the first century, just decades after the life of Christ. The Gnostic gospels were primarily second and third century documents.

The Gnostics taught that the body was bad, and the spirit had to be liberated from it. The Christian Gospels teach the importance of the body, and the fact that God became flesh (the Incarnation). Gnosticism teaches salvation by special knowledge and ideas. Christianity says salvation comes by God coming in the flesh, and living among us, dying and rising again.

Perrin argues that Ehrman not only exaggerates the frequency of textual corruptions, but the implications of those as well. For example, we have serious questions about less than one percent of what Jesus said in the Gospel of Mark. And textual criticism is helping us to continue to get a better handle on the original texts. The transmission of the words of Jesus may not be perfect, but it is certainly adequate.

In sum, the journey from the words of Jesus to the Bibles we have today is undeniably a long and complex one. But we can still argue that the words and deeds of Jesus are for the most part faithfully contained in the New Testament writings. There is some static between what Jesus originally said and what we read today. But, as Perrin demonstrates, “Jesus’ voice is preserved in the transmission”.

This is not a detailed rebuttal of the Ehrman book. For that one should consult Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’ (IVP, 2007). Instead it offers a much broader look at the issues involved. It is a helpful volume both for believers and unbelievers. Although brief (just under 200 pages), it gives both groups some solid material to use in considering what Jesus is like and what he said, and how we can know that with a high degree of confidence.

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11 Responses to A review of Lost in Translation? By Nicholas Perrin.

  • Thanks Bill. Your review of that book is an interesting read. Nicholas Perrin certainly knows what he’s talking about.

    Thing about lost in translation, I believe that translations of the Bible do lose some of the meaning, due to differences in the languages e.g. we have one kind of love in English; and we treat righteousness and justice as different things. Not to mention differences between the way our society operates and Biblical societies not being properly captured in translation in some cases. However these problems can generally be overcome by instruction from people with good knowledge of the Biblical languages and societies.

    Matthew Mulvaney

  • Thanks Bill.
    Is he related to Norman Perrin?
    I noticed that – Bart Ehrman, author of “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question – Why we Suffer”, has given his reasons for his new found atheism.

    He was asked if, for him to keep lecturing, on his subjects, now, displayed any inconsistency. He replied ‘no’. Interestingly, he said he taught for 20 years in the University, and had ‘not once’ discussed his own personal beliefs with other lecturers!

    A prime example of how theology, done outside of Christian community, can soon become an inauthentic exercise. All true theology, is doxology. His was not.

    Trevor Faggoter

  • Thanks Trevor
    No the two are not related.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,
    I think Ehrman is a good example of intelligent orthodoxy vs believing faith. Too many think an intellectual belief is the same as believing with the heart. Unfortunately it doesn’t produce true faith.
    Steve Foltz

  • Too many think an intellectual belief is the same as believing with the heart. Unfortunately it doesn’t produce true faith.
    Victoria Demona

  • Thanks Steve and Victoria

    Yes Biblical faith is always more than mere intellectual assent (the devil believes, intellectually), but it is never opposed to genuine intellectual understanding. Faith has content. Faith is not subjective feelings, or faith in faith, but faith in Jesus as he is revealed in Scripture. That means propositional truth and content must be part of our belief system. Thus there is intellectual content to our beliefs. So the use of the mind is an important part of our faith. We are to love God with our minds as well as our heart and soul, as Jesus said. And we are transformed by the renewing of our mind, as Paul tells us.

    So we need to hold both together: we have a rational faith, and we love God with all of our being, including our mind.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The devil lacks saving faith because he doesn’t believe that Christ died for his sins, an essential part of saving faith according to 1 Cor. 15:1–4. Compare the late Gordon Clark book Faith and Saving Faith.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • For some reason my first comment didn’t post properly but in any case I wanted to just say that I agree with Steve Foltz and also yours too, Bill.
    Victoria Demona

  • Just to add to the discussion on the intellectual component to our faith, I believe that there are far too many Christians that do not use their brain when talking about faith. Although faith is a spiritual thing it is too an intellectual thing, God has created humans with a brain so of course we are expected to use it, even in regards to our faith in Him.

    This is especially true if we are engaging with someone who has thought intellectually how they cannot have a faith in God, there is no way we can expect them to believe if we are not able to converse on the same intellectual level as them! If only Christians today would embrace this, rather than dismiss it, I believe we would see many more come into God’s kingdom!

    Rachelle De Losa

  • I agree with Rachelle wholeheartedly that too often Christians neglect the use of their intellectual minds when it comes to faith. I believe this is mainly due to ignorance and even fear of what they might find if they did some research. As a student currently studying Biblical Greek, learning about the origins and meanings of words Jesus spoke has only strengthened and increased my faith, as I am gaining a greater understanding of who Jesus is and the infallible truth He spoke.
    So instead of ignoring our intellectual ability, which indeed is God-given, we should embrace the development of our minds, and have substance to our faith. It is a very Biblical principal to use our minds: “A wise person is hungry for knowledge.” (Proverbs 15:14 NLT) We should definitely embrace knowledge, but we should also not become puffed up with knowledge alone. The coupling of knowledge and wisdom leads to greater understanding. It’s all about balance.
    Teagan Russell

  • The underlying issue here is not regarding whether or not Jesus’ early followers corrupted his original words and deeds, the real issue here is a critic clutching at straws because he cannot disprove a Christians faith. So what do critics like Ehrman try to do is instill doubt in a believers mind through using intellectual arguments. Perrin’s personal encounter with God should be encouraging. To think that an agnostic discovered the reality of Jesus and no-one, not even Ehrman can refute his personal experience! It is a Christian’s faith that compels them to delve deeper into understanding the true meaning of God’s word, the deeper one delves the stronger their knowledge becomes which only cements their faith in God even further.
    Mel Davies

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