Just finished Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperCollins, 2005), a review of the current scholarship on the textual state of the New Testament. The author, Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill, has written an eye-opening but amazingly readable presentation detailing just how much damage early scribes did to the text of the New Testament. Any Mormon who has an Evangelical every-word-of-the-Bible-is-true neighbor or work colleague who gives them a hard time about the Book of Mormon ought to consider this book as a Christmas gift. Their criticisms will likely become decidedly more restrained after they read it.
In the Introduction, Ehrman recounts his personal journey from born again Christian to New Testament scholar:
In short, my study of the Greek New Testament, and my investigation into the manuscripts that contain it, led to a radical rethinking of my understanding of what the Bible is. This was a seismic change for me. Before this ... my faith had been based completely on a certain view of the Bible as the fully inspired, inerrant word of God. Now I no longer saw the bible that way. The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book.
You have to commend Ehrman for being very open right up front about his personal perspective on the New Testament. The seven chapters of the book flesh out the details of what led him to modify his view of the New Testament. Chapter 1, "The Beginnings of Christian Scripture," shows how quickly early Christians came to use written accounts and documents to advance the new faith, and how the Christian canon emerged. Ironically, most early Christians were illiterate. They "read" early Christian documents not by themselves but by hearing a public reading of, for example, a letter from Paul, probably at a Christian worship service. A literate Christian who could read in church on Sunday was as valuable to those early congregations as a talented pianist is to Mormon meetings today.
Chapter 2, "The Copyists of the Early Christian Writings," goes through how the early manuscripts were prepared. Every Christian congregation naturally developed their own collection of writings (for public readings) and would try to obtain copies for writings they wanted but did not possess. Copying by hand was not cheap, so rather than hire professional scribes (the kind that didn't make mistakes), educated Christians did the job themselves. Think a "ward copyist" calling.
Because the early Christian texts were not being copied by professional scribes, at least in the first two or three centuries of the church, but simply by educated members of the Christian congregation who could do the job and were willing to do so, we can expect that in the earliest copies, especially, mistakes were commonly made in transcription. Indeed, we have solid evidence that this was the case ....
In Chapter 3, "Texts of the New Testament," Ehrman reviews the various manuscripts of New Testament writings that have come down to us. The King James Version is based ultimately on the Textus Receptus, the first Greek New Testament published by Erasmus in the early 16th century. The problem is that Erasmus relied on a 12th-century manuscript that (we now know) was not a particularly good manuscript in terms of what we now see in the earliest or most reliable manuscripts. Modern translations don't just use updated English — they start with a much more reliable Greek text (or, more accurately, they have access to a much more extensive collection of Greek manuscripts, permitting the careful scholar to determine the best or most defensible reading of a disputed phrase or passage).
Chapter 4, "The Quest for Origins," reviews the work of several scholars who, over the centuries, developed the tools of textual analysis that permit modern scholars to use existing manuscripts to (in some cases) work backwards to what is likely the original text. There are gaps and disputes: the process requires inferences and results in probablilities, not certainties, for many passages. Chapter 5, "Originals That Matter," continues in this vein, showing how external evidence (comparing various manuscripts and determining which are the most reliable for a given passage) and internal evidence (what the author, such as Paul, would likely have said or not said on the topic, and what a copying scribe would likely have been motivated to change) can be brought to bear on the textual choices that must be made in order to settle on a Greek text and translate it into a modern language.
Chapter 6, "Theologically Motivated Alterations of the Text," gets to the heart of the matter. This is Great Apostasy stuff. Ehrman reviews three particular theological issues that motivated changes in scriptural texts:
- Antiadoptionist changes — Adoptionists argued that Jesus was a man that was, at some point, "adopted" by God to become the Son of God. Antiadoptionists saw this as an attack on the full divinity of Christ, and bolstered their position by changing passages such as 1 Timothy 3:16, Mark 1:11, and John 1:18 that were relied upon by adoptionists.
- Antidocetic changes — If adoptionists were seen to view Jesus as too human, docetists were seen to view Jesus as not human enough. The term is from the Greek term dokeo, to seem or to appear, and docetists argued that Jesus only appeared to have human attributes such as feeling hunger, thirst, or pain. Ehrman argues (with reference to manuscripts) that Luke 22:43-44 — where Jesus was praying, in deep anguish, and "his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground" — is an antidocetic addition to the text. In other words, he argues that scribes added this passage to show in unmistakable terms that Christ really did suffer pain and anguish and that docetists were therefore wrong in their belief to the contrary.
- Antiseparationist changes — Separationists believed that Jesus and Christ were two separate beings, and that Christ the spirit dwelt in Jesus the man during his life, then conveniently left his body just before the crucifiction. Some Gnostics held these separationist beliefs. Texts of interest here are Hebrews 2:9 and Mark 15:34 ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?").
Chapter 7, "The Social Worlds of the Text," covers more cases where what are essentially doctrinal concerns motivate scribes to change the texts they copy and transmit. Here, what motivates the change are less strictly theological disputes than social concerns: the role of women in the early church; how Jews were portrayed in the early texts; and how pagans related to the texts. Did Paul really forbid women from speaking in church in 1 Cor. 14, or did a later scribe make that addition? Did the crowd of Jews really exclaim, "His blood be on us, and on our children" (Matt. 27:25) or did a later scribe add it to the account?
In the Conclusion, Ehrman mellows his criticism of scribes a bit by noting that texts really do not speak for themselves. Every reading of scripture involves an act of interpretation, and the interpretation that readers do every day when reading the Bible is not that different from what scribes did when making changes or additions to the text they were copying: they were interpreting the passages according to their own best understanding. Christians reading the Bible today understand hundreds of passages in diverse and different ways. We're all scribes today, Mr. President.
I'll close with a paragraph from Ehrman's Conclusion:
[W]e need to face up to the facts. The King James was not given by God but was a translation by a group of scholars in the early seventeenth century who based their rendition on a faulty Greek text. Later translators based their translations on Greek texts that were better, but not perfect. Even the translation you hold in your hands is affected by these textual problems we have been discussing, whether you are a reader of the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Version, the New King James, the Jerusalem Bible, the Good News Bible, or something else. They are all based on texts that have been changed in places.