Tag Archives: Bart Ehrman

Take Aways: Misquoting Jesus

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How do millions know what is inthe New Testamnet?  They “know” becasue scholars with unknown names, identities, backgrounds, qualifications, predilections, theologies, and personal opinions have told then what is in the New TEstament.  But what if the transaltors have translated the wrong texts?

The King James is based almost entirely on a Greek text derived from a single twelve-century manuscript that is one of the worst that we have available to us

Mythbusters: The Uniqueness of Jesus

In the first century CE, there was a man born in a remote part of the Roman empire, who’s life would later be described by his followers as “miraculous”.

Before he was born, his mother had a visitor from heaven tell her that her son would be no mere mortal, but in fact divine.  His birth was accompanied by unusual sign in the heavens.

As an adult he left home to begin his preaching ministry.  He went from village to town, telling all who would listen that the should not be concerned about their earthly lives and their material goods; they should live for what was spiritual and eternal.  He preached to both the common peasants and the elite.

He gathered a number of followers around him who became convinced that he was no ordinary human, but was the Son of God.  He did many miracles that confirmed their beliefs: healing the sick, casting out demons, raising people from the dead.

All was not well however, as he aroused opposition from the ruling class of Rome and was eventually put on trial.  He was accused of receiving the worship that is due only to God.  He was sentenced to death.

They may have killed his earthly body, but they could not kill his soul!  He ascended into heaven where he lives to this day.  But to prove that he lived, he appeared to one of his followers doubting followers.  This followers later wrote books about him which we can still read today.

The man’s name was Apollonius.

He was a polytheist and a renowned philosopher who came from the town of Tyana.  His followers thought that he was divine and immortal and worshiped him long after his death.  What is know about him comes from the works of his devotee Philostratus.  Philostratus’s book was written in eight volumes in the third century.  He had done considerable research for his book, and his stories were largely based on the accounts of eyewitnesses and companions of Appollonius himself.*

If this all sounds strikingly similar to the account of Jesus, there’s a very good reason for that.

Myths are stories that are based on tradition.  Some may have factual origins, while others are completely fictional.  But myths are more than mere stories and they serve a more profound purpose in ancient and modern cultures.  A myth taps into a universal cultural narrative, the collective wisdom of man.  An excellent illustration of the universality of these themes is that so many peoples who have had no contact with each other create myths that are remarkably similar.  So, for example, cultures worldwide, from the Middle East to the distant mountains of South America have myths about great floods, virgin births, creation, paradise, the underworld, the afterlife, etc.  These commonalities are known as archetypes – universally symbolic patterns.  True to their universal nature, archetypal characters and stories appear again and again in myths across many diverse cultures.

The account of Jesus as described in the Gospels is one such story.   As we’ll see , the myth of Jesus follows a very old and familiar literary pattern familiar to nearly all hero legends. “We should not think of Jesus as unique”, states New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, “if by that term we mean that he was the only one ‘like that’ – that is, a human who was far above and very different from the rest of us mere mortals, a man who was also in some sense divine.  There were numerous divine humans in antiquity.”

The similarities between Jesus and Apollonius are striking, but they are far from unique; there were many stories that followed this archetype in the ancient world.  This is because they both follow what is often referred to as the “Hero’s Journey”– the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.  Also referred to as monomyth, examples of this can be found throughout the history of literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  

A more specific version of hero’s archetypes is the Rank-Raglan mythotype which are narrative patterns that lists different cross-cultural traits often found in the accounts of heroes, including mythical heroes.  Raglan developed a 22-point myth-ritualist Hero archetype to account for common patterns across Indo-European cultures for Hero traditions.  These points are:

  1. Mother is a royal virgin
  2. Father is a king
  3. Father often a near relative to mother
  4. Unusual conception
  5. Hero reputed to be son of god
  6. Attempt to kill hero as an infant, often by father or maternal grandfather
  7. Hero spirited away as a child
  8. Reared by foster parents in a far country
  9. No details of childhood
  10. Returns or goes to future kingdom
  11. Is victor over king, giant, dragon or wild beast
  12. Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor)
  13. Becomes king
  14. For a time he reigns uneventfully
  15. He prescribes laws
  16. Later loses favor with gods or his subjects
  17. Driven from throne and city
  18. Meets with mysterious death
  19. Often at the top of a hill
  20. His children, if any, do not succeed him
  21. His body is not buried
  22. Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs

A Hero’s tradition is considered more mythical the more of these traits they hold.  Popular characters who make the cut include Romulus, Heracles, Dionysos, Apollo, Zeus, Joseph, Moses, Elijah, King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Alexander the Great.  How many points does Jesus get?

One can clearly see that the story of Jesus follows the Hero’s tradition.  Is this merely a coincidence?  The number of points the Jesus story gets and the close resemblance to other deities makes it a tough point to argue.


One popular internet meme would have us believe that Christianity is superior because of the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

Those who share this meme should spend a little more time studying the history of religion and ancient mythology.  Gods rising from the dead was commonplace in ancient cultures and examples are plentiful:

Attis –  born of a virgin by unusual means, gruesome death, death involved a tree, resurrected/eternal life, celebrated annually in spring season

Adonis – born of royal blood, unusual conception and birth, gruesome death, resurrected/ascended to heaven/eternal life, celebrated annually in spring season

Osiris – son of royalty, became king, taught his people a new way of living, traveled to teach others, was murdered by someone close to him, resurrected, became a god

Dionysus – born from a union between a god (Zeus) and a human (Semele), traveled to spread his message, had disciples, brought people back from the dead, gruesome death (dismemberment), brought back to life, celebrated in spring

Tammuz – parents were divine, had power over nature, foreshadowing of death, descended into the other world but was brought back to life, celebrated in the spring

All of these example proceeded the life of Jesus, some by thousands of years.  You’ll notice some other similarities that I included as well, again, examples of the hero mythology archetype.

Speaking of rising from the dead, some have tried to argue that Jesus’s resurrection is proof of his divinity.  Yet, according to the Bible people being brought back to life, while considered a miracle, was not unusual.  Elijah and Elisha both raised people from the dead.  In fact, Elisha’s powers continued after death as someone was even resurrected simply by touching his bones.  Jesus raised Lazarus, the daughter of Jairus, and the son of the widow on Nain.  Peter raised Dorcus and Eutychus was raised from the dead by Paul.  In a scene straight out of a zombie movie, we hear of whole cemeteries opening up and saints wandering the streets after the crucifixion (Matt. 27:50-53).  Are we to consider all of these people divine as well?


Interesting similarities can also be found between Jesus and Buddha, who pre-dates Jesus by 400-500 years.  Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) was:

  • Born to a royal family
  • Birth foretold in dream
  • Visited by “wise men” shortly after birth
  • Prolonged fasting before starting ministry
  • Renounced worldly riches and required his disciples to do so also
  • Taught that true riches are not material
  • Extensive traveling to spread his message
  • Had disciples who traveled with him
  • Performed miracles, such as curing blindness and walking on water
  • Dispatched disciples, shortly before his death, to spread his message

Some have claimed that what set Jesus apart were his teachings, yet while Jesus’s message was certainly counter-cultural, it was nothing original.  As with Apollonius, Buddha taught many of the same principles that we find in the Gospels.  Here are a few examples:

The Golden Rule

Buddha
Jesus
“Consider others as yourself.” (Dhammapada 10:1)
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31)

Love others

Buddha
Jesus
Let your thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world.” (Sutta Nipata 149-150)
“This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

Love your enemies

Buddha
Jesus
Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good. Overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar by truth. (Dhammapada 1.5 &17.3)
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6.27-30)

Turn the other cheek

Buddha
Jesus
“If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon any desires and utter no evil words.” (Majjhima Nikaya 21:6)
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” (Luke 6:29

Help others

Buddha
Jesus
“If you do not tend to one another, then who is there to tend you? Whoever would tend me, he should tend the sick.” (Vinaya, Mahavagga 8:26.3)
“Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25:45)

Do not judge others

Buddha
Jesus
“The fault of others is easily perceived, but that of oneself is difficult to perceive; a man winnows his neighbour’s faults like chaff, but his own fault he hides.” (Dhammapada 252.)
“Judge not, that you be not judged… And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1–5)

Disdain wealth

Buddha
Jesus
“Let us live most happily, possessing nothing.” (Dhammapada 15:4)
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)

Do not kill

Buddha
Jesus
“Abandoning the taking of life, the ascetic Gautama dwells refraining from taking life, without stick or sword.” Digha Nikaya 1:1.8)
“Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Spread the word

Buddha
Jesus
“Teach the dharma which is lovely at the beginning, lovely in the middle, lovely at the end. Explain with the spirit and the letter in the fashion of Brahma. In this way you will be completely fulfilled and wholly pure.” (Vinaya Mahavagga 1:11.1)
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Does mean that the writers of the Gospels simply copied the story of Buddha?  Trade routes between India and Middle East were well established at that time and goods, as well as ideas, certainly traveled back and forth between them.  While it is certainly possible that the Gospel writers knew of Buddhism, it’s doubtful they simply retold the Buddha myth to match that of Jesus.  I bring up the similarities to once again illustrate how common the Hero archetype was and how influential it was on religious mythology of the time.

While some have argued that Jesus was not an actual historical figure, the majority of scholars and historians would believe that he was.  However, while these scholars would agree that a religious leader named Jesus likely existed, the stories surrounding him are most certainly the product legend and mythology; a story retold over time to fit the hero’s narrative. 

This poses a problem for Christianity, as it depends on the mythology of Jesus.  Without the immaculate conception, miracles, death and resurrection, Jesus is just another ancient religious figure.  As Bob Seidensticker explains: “Strip away any supernatural claims from the story of Alexander the Great, and you’ve still got cities throughout Asia named Alexandria and coins with Alexander’s likeness. Strip away any supernatural claims from the Caesar Augustus story, and you’re still left with the Caesar Augustus from history (and a month in our calendar named after him). But strip away the supernatural claims from the Jesus story, and you’re left with a fairly ordinary rabbi. The Jesus story is nothing but the supernatural elements.”  This is why it is not hard to find apologist desperately attempting to explain away evidence like what I have presented and insisting the Jesus was more than just a teacher/philosopher, but in fact was God, and has to be God.

So, where does all of this leave us?  For me, understanding the true nature of the Jesus story, it’s origins, and how similar it was to other narratives, was part of what led to my de-conversion.  It is yet further evidence that Christianity is a man-made religion, following a similar pattern of mythology, allegory, and legend-making that can be found in all religions.  Christianity is not unique, it is not special, and it certainly isn’t the one true religion as most of its followers would like to believe.

I do, however, admire the central teachings of Jesus and wish more people, specifically his devotes, would actually follow them as it would make the world a much better place.  The practice of treating others as equals, helping others, being slow to anger and judgment, and avoiding materialism, are principles which everyone should embrace.  Whether these principles are coming from Jesus, Buddha, Gandi, MLK, or a host of others; they are universal in nature and lead to a more civil, progressive, and humane society.  It’s when these principles are replaced by religious dogma that we see social progress slow down or even move backwards.  It’s time that the myth of Jesus be put in it’s rightful place so that we, as a society, can move forward.

Thanks for reading.

 

*The story of Appolonius was taken from Bert Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God”

**Some apologists have argued that the claims regarding ancient figures such as Adonis and Dionysus can’t be proven to be historically accurate.  It can’t be proven that Jesus was born on Dec 25th either, yet his followers universally celebrate that date.  The same holds true for the gods the preceded Jesus – little may be known about their actual existence (if they had one), but we can make certain claims regarding what their followers believed and how they worshiped.