The Original New Testament Has Been Corrupted by Copyists So Badly That It Can't Be Recovered
The more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realized just how radically the text had been altered over the years at the hands of the scribes.... It would be wrong ... to say-as people sometimes do-that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them. -Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
Profound skepticism about what the New Testament authors originally wrote is nothing new. This skepticism usually goes hand in glove with a denial of such basic Christian beliefs as the bodily resurrection or the deity of Christ. For example, in Challenging the Verdict, Earl Doherty writes, "We have nothing in the Gospels which casts a clear light on that early evolution or provides us with a guarantee that the surviving texts are a reliable picture of the beginnings of the faith" (2001, 39).
In Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the authors claim:
In A.D [sic] 303 ... the pagan emperor Diocletian had undertaken to destroy all Christian writings that could be found. As a result Christian documents-especially in Rome-all but vanished. When Constantine commissioned new versions of these documents, it enabled the custodians of orthodoxy to revise, edit, and rewrite their material as they saw fit, in accordance with their tenets. It was at this point that most of the crucial alterations in the New Testament were probably made and Jesus assumed the unique status he has enjoyed ever since. (Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln 1983, 368-69)
Here we find echoes of approaches that move in the direction of Jesusanity.
Although such comments might be written off because of the authors' lack of scholarly credentials in the field of New Testament studies, in the past few years some biblical scholars have expressed similar doubts. For example, the members of the Jesus Seminar argue, "Even careful copyists make mistakes, as every proofreader knows. So we will never be able to claim certain knowledge of exactly what the original text of any biblical writing was" (Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar 1993, 6).
Still, Funk and company aren't trained in that special discipline known as textual criticism. Textual critics are concerned with examining ancient handwritten copies of a particular document in order to discover the wording of the original text. Such criticism is necessary because the original documents of almost all ancient literature have been destroyed over time, leaving inexact copies, filled with discrepancies, in their wake. The New Testament is no different from other ancient literature in this respect: the originals have vanished and no two copies are exactly alike.
Unlike Robert Funk or Earl Doherty, however, Bart Ehrman is a man trained in textual criticism. His opinions cannot simply be ignored. And Ehrman seems to give the impression that the original text is unrecoverable:
Not only do we not have the originals, we don't have the first copies of the originals. We don't even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later-much later.... And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places.... These copies differ from one another in so many places that we don't even known how many differences there are. (2005a, 10)
Moreover, Ehrman claims, "We could go on nearly forever talking about specific places in which the texts of the New Testament came to be changed, either accidentally or intentionally.... The examples are not just in the hundreds but in the thousands" (2005, 98). He argues, "The fact that we have thousands of New Testament manuscripts does not in itself mean that we can rest assured that we know what the original text said. If we have very few early copies-in fact, scarcely any-how can we know that the text was not changed significantly before the New Testament began to be reproduced in such large quantities?" (2003b, 219; italics in original).
Three points make Ehrman's comments especially noteworthy. First, not only is he a bona fide New Testament scholar; he is also one of North America's leading textual critics. Second, he is a former "fundamentalist scholar who peered so hard into the origins of Christianity that he lost his faith altogether" (Tucker 2006). And third, he has put forth his claims in the public square most provocatively in his best seller, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.
In short, Ehrman and his views cannot be ignored.
EHRMAN'S SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
Bart Ehrman grew up in an Episcopal church in Lawrence, Kansas. His family was not particularly religious, even though they were churchgoers. But as a teenager, Ehrman had a "born again" experience that changed his spiritual outlook. His keen interest in the Bible prompted him to attend the conservative Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. After three years at Moody, he transferred to Wheaton College, another conservative school in Illinois, where he learned Greek and earned his bachelor's degree. But the questions about the text of the New Testament had only begun to be raised. He wanted more and went to Princeton Seminary for further training. At Princeton, Ehrman earned an MDiv and a PhD, doing his doctoral work under renowned New Testament textual critic Bruce Metzger.
It was at Princeton that Ehrman began to reject some of his evangelical roots, especially as he wrestled with the details of the text of the New Testament. He notes that the study of the New Testament manuscripts increasingly created doubts in his mind: "I kept reverting to my basic question: how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don't have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes-sometimes correctly and sometimes (many times!) incorrectly?" (2005a, 7).
While he was in the master's program, he took a course on Mark's gospel from Professor Cullen Story (one of the more conservative faculty members at the school). For his term paper, he wrote on the problem of Jesus' speaking of David's entry into the temple "when Abiathar was high priest" (Mark 2:26). The passage is problematic for inerrancy because, according to 1 Samuel 21, the time when David entered the temple was actually when Abiathar's father, Ahimelech, was priest. But Ehrman was determined to work around what looked to be the plain meaning of the text in order to salvage inerrancy. Ehrman says Professor Story's comment on the paper "went straight through me. He wrote, 'Maybe Mark just made a mistake'" (2005a, 9). This was a decisive moment in Ehrman's spiritual journey. When he concluded that Mark may have erred, "the floodgates opened." He began to question the historical reliability of many other biblical texts, resulting in "a seismic change" in his understanding of the Bible. "The Bible," Ehrman notes, "began to appear to me as a very human book.... This was a human book from beginning to end" (2005a, 11).
Ehrman's spiritual journey has struck a chord with many readers. The combination of his self-revelations, his status as a worldclass textual critic, and his eminently readable and engaging style of writing have turned a book on the arcane discipline of textual criticism into a New York Times best seller. Even seminary students have not been known to show a great deal of interest in this discipline. No one could have predicted the incredible success that such a book would have in the marketplace.
Since its publication on November 1, 2005, Misquoting Jesus has stayed in the stratosphere of book sales. It's a publisher's dream come true. Ehrman's TV appearances, radio shows, and newspaper interviews have contributed significantly to the public's awareness of this tome. Within the first two months of its release, Ehrman appeared on two of NPR's programs (the Diane Rehm Show and Fresh Air with Terry Gross). Within three months, more than one hundred thousand copies were sold. When Neely Tucker's interview of Ehrman in the Washington Post appeared on March 5, 2006, the sales of Ehrman's book shot up still higher. Nine days later, Ehrman was the guest celebrity on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Stewart said that seeing the Bible as something that was deliberately corrupted by orthodox scribes made the Bible "more interesting ... almost more godly in some respects." Stewart concluded the interview by saying, "I really congratulate you. It's a helluva book!" Within forty-eight hours, Misquoting Jesus was perched on top at Amazon.com. Later in the year, Ehrman appeared for a second time on The Daily Show, this time in the Colbert Report. His book "has become one of the unlikeliest bestsellers of the year," said Tucker (2006).
The success of Ehrman's book has brought a number of questions to the frontal lobe of the public square. In particular, what do the original New Testament manuscripts actually say? Did scribes bury the original message by sloppy copying practices over the centuries? Has the text changed over time so that what we today would call "orthodox" is actually foreign to the original writings?
Misquoting Jesus is, in many respects, a popularization of Ehrman's 1993 book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, which Ehrman considers to be his most significant contribution to biblical scholarship to date. But Misquoting Jesus goes beyond Orthodox Corruption in two ways: first, Ehrman has evolved in his views in the past dozen years, moving farther away from a conservative understanding of the Christian faith; second, by putting his views out in the public arena, he has caused quite a stir among lay readers who have little framework in which to place his statements.
One of the problems in analyzing a book such as Misquoting Jesus is that it functions on two levels. First is what Ehrman actually says. On this level, not much is shocking or unsettling. Indeed, quite a bit of the book is an extremely helpful introduction to the field of New Testament textual criticism. But second is the impression that most readers will no doubt get from the book even if such an impression is neither explicitly stated nor perhaps even intended by the author. (We will return to the issue of Ehrman's intentions at the end of this chapter.)
Ehrman's argument can be summarized as follows: (1) the handwritten copies of the New Testament come from long after the New Testament was written, leaving us in doubt as to what the original text actually said; (2) there is a massive number of differences in the wording of the manuscripts, especially among the oldest documents, suggesting that the text has hardly been copied very carefully; (3) "orthodox" scribes have, in fact, altered the text of the New Testament, even changing its basic message in several significant ways.
First, Ehrman argues, "Not only do we not have the originals, we don't have the first copies of the originals. We don't even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later-much later" (2005a, 10). Certainly, the sense one gets from reading such a statement is that we ought to despair ever getting back to the wording of the original text. In Lost Christianities, Ehrman contends, "The fact that we have thousands of New Testament manuscripts does not in itself mean that we can rest assured that we know what the original text said. If we have very few early copies-in fact, scarcely any-how can we know that the text was not changed significantly before the New Testament began to be reproduced in such large quantities?" (2003b, 219; italics in original).
Second, there are countless differences in wording (technically known as textual variants) among the existing manuscripts. Ehrman is fond of noting that "there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament" (2005a, 90)-a point he seems to repeat in virtually every interview about the book. He gives the estimate as high as four hundred thousand but clarifies this number: "These copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places.... These copies differ from one another in so many places that we don't even know how many differences there are" (2005, 10). Such bald statements certainly make the recovery of the wording of the original a bleak prospect.
Third, the major changes that have been made to the text of the New Testament have been produced by "orthodox" scribes. They have tampered with the text in hundreds of places, with the result that the basic teachings of the New Testament have been drastically altered. Ehrman devotes three chapters to these orthodox corruptions of Scripture. At the end of his Misquoting Jesus, he summarizes his findings: "It would be wrong ... to say-as people sometimes do-that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them ... In some instances, the very meaning of the text is at stake, depending on how one resolves a textual problem" (2005a, 208).
The cumulative effect of these arguments is not only that we can have no certainty about the wording of the original text, but that even where we are sure of the wording, the core theology is not nearly as orthodox as we had thought. The message of whole books has been corrupted in the hands of the scribes; and the church, in later centuries, adopted the doctrine of the winners-those who corrupted the text and conformed it to their notion of orthodoxy.
THE RELIABILITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT MANUSCRIPTS
Many who have become post-Christian through similar disillusionment can relate well to what Ehrman is saying. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that they feel they have been deceived by Christian teachers who are hiding certain embarrassing facts about the Christian faith. Many, if not most, theological liberal scholars have backgrounds as fundamentalists or evangelicals. And all too often, they were indeed presented with a truncated view of the evidence, leading to fragile theological constructs that required only a little investigation to topple. (For an insightful look at several liberal scholars and their fundamentalist backgrounds, see Evans 2006, 19-33.) As one evangelical scholar has lamented, "[Ehrman's] evangelical faith died by way of a hardening of the categories; and his self-reported post-mortem stands as a warning to evangelicals, from whom he inherited some of that hardening of categories" (Gundry 2006). But all too often those who make the switch from fundamentalism to liberal Christianity swing the pendulum too far, holding to a view that is even more untenable. Such may be the case with Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus.
ARE ALL COPIES LATE?
Ehrman's sweeping statement that we don't have even third- or fourth-generation copies, but only copies that were made much later, gives a misleading impression on several fronts. For one thing, how does he know what the earliest generation of copies really is? We do have between ten and fifteen copies from within a century of the completion of the New Testament: is it not possible that some of these are third- or fourth-generation copies or were copied from even earlier manuscripts? Now, to be sure, they are all fragmentary copies, but some of them are fairly substantial. Elsewhere, even Ehrman acknowledges that a particular manuscript may be virtually a direct copy of another from hundreds of years earlier (Metzger and Ehrman 2005, 91).
But let's suppose that Ehrman is right that no third- or fourth-generation copies exist. If so, this argument makes the transmission of the New Testament sound very much like the "telephone game." This is a game every child knows. It involves a line of people, with the first one whispering some story into the ear of the second person. That person then whispers the story to the next person in line, and that person whispers it to the next, and so on down the line. As the tale travels from person to person, it gets terribly garbled. The whole point of the telephone game, in fact, is to see how garbled the original message can get. There is no motivation to "get it right." By the time it gets to the last person, who repeats it out loud for the whole group, everyone has a good laugh.
Excerpted from Dethroning Jesus by Darrell L. Bock Daniel B. Wallace Copyright © 2007 by Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace. Excerpted by permission.
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