Today’s review is on Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Ehrman is one of my favorite authors on the subject of religion and I was happy to find this book at the local library. Ehrman is considered one of the leading authorities on the New Testament (NT), and his wealth of knowledge and experience comes through in all his books. In Misquoting Jesus, we take a close look at the history of the NT, who wrote the individual books, how and why they were edited over time, and how the 27 books that now make up the NT came to be canonized. As the title suggests, the crux of the book is on the many, many changes that were made to the books of the NT throughout the centuries, why they were made, and how they influenced Christian doctrine.
A couple important points to start with. You will often hear believers talking about various Bible translations being better than others because of how close the are to “The original Greek and Hebrew” texts. This is misleading because there are no original Greek or Hebrew texts in existence. All that we have are copies of copies of copies. And speaking of copies; apologists will often claim that the large number of copies we have of the NT are evidence to the Bible’s reliability. While, it’s true that there are thousands of copies of NT books, virtually no two copies are the same. In fact, there are more discrepancies between the different copies of the NT then there are words in the entire NT. Regarding these discrepancies:
Of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, or not any real importance other than showing that scribes could not spell of keep focused any better than the rest of us. It would be wrong however to say -as people sometime do – that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts means or on the theological conclusions one draws from them.
Because of all the mistakes and alterations, and due to the fact that we do not have the original manuscripts, it is virtually impossible for us to know what the original authors’ true words were. This poses a big problem for those who claim that the Bible is the “inspired word of God”. Even if God had inspired the writers of the original text, we have no way of knowing what that text actually said. If God was so concerned about preserving his words, why not ensure that they were passed down, unaltered, throughout the generations?
It would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place. If he wanted his people to have his words, surely he could have given them to them (and possibly even given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew).
Some have argued that the people making the copies took great diligence to ensure that the manuscripts were as unaltered as possible. This is also false; the scribes copying were largely not religious scholars, but people outside the religious community:
Texts were typically copied either by professional scribes or by literate slaves who were assigned to do the work within a household. That means, among other things, that the people reproducing the texts throughout the empire were not, as a rule, the people who wanted the text.
We need always remember that the copyists of the early Christian writings were reproducing their texts in a world in which there were not only no printing presses or publishing houses, but also no such thing as copyright laws. How could the authors guarantee that their texts were not modified one put into circulation?
As mentioned above, most of the mistakes found throughout the various copies are relatively insignificant. However, sometimes the changes were more drastic. Many manuscripts have whole sections that have been altered, added to, or taken out all together. A couple of well-known examples are Mark 16:9-20 and the story of the adulterous women found in John 7:53-8:12. Both of these accounts are not found in the earliest copies that we have, and were added later. Sometimes only a single word was changed, but these deliberate changes could have significant impact on the overall message of the text, as we will see shortly. Often the texts were changed to suit the views of whichever scribe happened to be copying to better fit the prevailing “orthodox” view at the time.
We see this in regards to how women were viewed, and their role in the church. For example, I Cor 14:26-33 directly contradicts what Paul says in chapter 11:5 regarding women prophesying, and was likely added later on. It also contradicts the many times that Paul recognizes female prophets, including Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2), Phoebe (Rom 16:1), Priscilla (Rom 16:3), and Junia (Rom 16:7). In regard to the last example, many texts purposeful changing of the word Junia to Junias. This is problematic however, as Junia was a common women’s name, but there is no evidence in the ancient world for “Junias” as a man’s name. Many modern English translations of the Bible still carry this error.
The alteration was no doubt made by a scribe who was concerned to emphasize that women should have no public role in the churches, that they should be silent and subservient to their husbands.
During the second century, hostilities between Jews and Christians were rising, and many Christian leaders wanted to put a real emphasis on the fact that it was the Jews who killed Jesus, and God would not forgive them for it. Some manuscripts are missing Luke 23:34, most likely because certain scribes didn’t like the idea of Jesus forgiving the Jews. Also, in one of the earliest complete manuscripts, the Codex Sinaitus, Luke 23:25 reads that Pilot “handing him over to them [i.e. to the Jews] in order that they might crucify him”, thus emphasizing who was really responsible for crucifixion of Jesus.
One of the most controversial subjects in early Christianity was the nature and divinity of Jesus. Texts were often altered to match the particular Christology of whoever happened to be copying the manuscripts. For example, John Wettstein noticed that the Codex Alexandrinus had been altered in I Timothy 3:16. The original manuscript had been altered from saying Christ “who was made manifest in the flesh” to say “God made manifest in the flesh”. Also, we can see in the books of Luke and Acts that there seems to be a discrepancy regarding when Jesus became divine. The author states Jesus as Son or God, but did he become the Christs (Luke 2:11), at baptism (Acts 10:37-38), or at resurrection (Acts 2:38)?
So how did the Bible come to be as it is? It was well-known early on that there were a great amount of discrepancies amongst the early manuscripts. As Ehrman notes:
Already in the second century, the pagan critic Celsus had argued that Christians changed the texts… his opponent Origen speaks of the “great” number of differences among the manuscripts of the Gospels; more than a century later Pope Damascus was so concerned about the varieties of Latin manuscripts that he commissioned Jerome to produce a standardized translation; and Jerome himself had to compare numerous copies of the text, both Greek and Latin, to decide on the text that he thought was originally penned by its author.
The simple answer is this: “The group that established itself as ‘orthodox’ then determined what future Christian generations would believe and read as scripture.” As time went on, and certain groups rose to power, they decided how the Bible was to be read and understood. They altered the texts to match their particular theology, and much of that theology has been passed on to present day.
The Bible is a collection of the work of men, with all the biases, mistakes, and corruptions that we would expect from a work that has been touched by countless hands. It’s time people start treating the Bible for what it is, rather than what they want it to be, and stop basing their beliefs on what ancient men wrote down, and future men edited.
Thanks for reading.