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Misquoting Jesus

The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

Bart Ehrman

If one wants to insist that God inspired the words of scripture, how does that work given that we don't have the original words, and in many cases we can't work them out. If God had wanted his people to have his words, then surely he would have given them to them in a language they could understand, rather than in ambiguous languages like Greek and Hebrew. The fact that he didn't preserve the words meant that he didn't perform the miracle of preserving them. And if he didn't perform that miracle, there seems to be no reason to think that he performed the earlier miracle of inspiring those words.

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The Bible is a human book from beginning to end. It was written by different authors at different times and in different places to address different needs. many of those authors probably felt they were inspired by God to say or write what they did, but they had their own beliefs, their own perspectives and understandings, and these affected what they thought and said.

Bumper sticker "God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it". But what if the Bible isn't some foolproof instruction manual giving the answers to all the questions of the modern age?

Christianity began with Jesus, who was himself a Jewish rabbi (teacher), who accepted the authority of the Torah, and who taught his interpretation to his disciples. The first part of the NT was the gospels, accounts of Jesus' life and teachings, interpreted through the OT.

After Jesus' death, Paul established churches throughout eastern Mediterranean, mainly by convincing people that Jesus was the Son of God, according to the Jewish OT, and that he would return soon to pass judgement on everybody. After he had started a church in one place he would move to the next and begin again. But he would need to write letters to his previous churches to sort out arguments and keep them on the right path. A number of these letters survived and became incorporated into the NT.

Several other types of books - the Acts of the Apostles (the lives of his followers after J's death), Apocalypses (predictions of doom), instructions on how to run churches (once it became apparent that J wasn't coming back real soon) etc etc.

Sometimes the new teachings contradicted the old. Jesus says "You have heard it said that whoever divorces his wife should give her a certificate of divorce {a command found in Deut 24:1}but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife for reasons other than sexual immorality makes her commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

Many Christians today think the books of the NT simply appeared shortly after the death of Jesus, but this is simply not the case. There were centuries of debate and argument as to which books should be in and which shouldn't. It was 367AD when we have the first record of a list of the same 27 books that make up today's NT.But even then, the list was not settled - continued to argue over it in following centuries.

Until the modern period, only a very small minority could read and write. It made no economic sense to spend the time learning to do so when there was no financial advantage, and when every waking hour was needed to scratch a living. The only ones who could read were the religious orders, the scribes and the few men with wealth for leisure.

Early Christians, being largely made up of lower classes, were even less likely to be literate. Most of Jesus' disciples are simple peasants. Peter and John are explicitly said to be illiterate in Acts(4:13).

Especially in the first 300 years, copyists made many changes to the texts - some just mistakes, some to 'correct' what they believed were other's mistakes, and some to deliberately 'make clear' a passage which 'heretics' were misusing.

Some stories added later. The Woman Taken In Adultery John 7:53-8:12(what happened to the man, since she was taken 'in the very act of adultery'?) lot of evidence that it was added in later (very different writing style from rest of John, especially the verses before and after, and includes a large number of words and phrases that bare found nowhere else in the Bible). But main reason we know it's an add-on is that it doesn't appear in the earliest manuscripts of the NT. Other scribes inserted it in different places - after John 21:25, and after Luke 21:38. Leaves readers with a problem - if it wasn't in the original Bible, should it be considered part of the Bible or not?

Similarly the ending of Mark has been tacked on. In the two earliest copies, Mark ends with the women fleeing the tomb and not telling anyone "for they were afraid". This is a problem, because how did the disciples learn of J's resurrection? So the new bit about seeing signs, speaking in tongues and laying hands on the sick was added on later. Scholars postulate that the original copy of Mark lost a page with the true ending, and later scribes fixed the lack of ending with one of their own.

There are multiple cases where we have different versions of the same text - sometimes just a key word, sometimes whole phrases. One of these must have been changed. Question then is, which one has been changed, and why? In some cases, the 'why' helps understand which is the altered version. Can't just look to the 'oldest' manuscript, because all surviving manuscripts are copies, so a 'newer' manuscript may be a copy of an older version.

So suggestion is that the most difficult reading is likely to be the original, on basis that a scribe is not going to 'fix' a text by making meaning more difficult to understand; he will in fact do the opposite, So if have a 'hard' meaning and an 'easy' meaning, the first is more likely to be the original.

For example, Mark's story of Jesus healing the leper:

It has two manuscript versions - one has him 'feeling compassion'(Gk splangnistheis) and another has 'becoming angry' (Gk orgistheis). The compassionate version is the easiest to follow - we prefer the idea of a compassionate Jesus - and this is the one most modern translations follow. But scholars suspect this version partly because it is more popular. It is far more likely that scribes would have changed 'angry' to 'compassionate' than the other way round.

We don't have any manuscripts of Mark until end of 4th century, 300 years afterwards.But we do have two authors who copied this story just 20 years after it was written - Matthew and Luke copied it almost word for word, until they got to Jesus' reaction, and then they left the word out altogether. But if Mark had used word 'compassion', wd expect M and L to use it as well, as they do in all other Mark stories which mention J's compassion. But Mark describes J's anger in other places, and each time M and L change the story to remove the reference.

Mark's J doesn't appear as the meek and mild good shepherd of the stained glass window. Mark begins his gospel by portraying J as a physically powerful and charismatic authority figure who is not to be messed with. he does battle with Satan and wild beasts in the wilderness. The only time he shows a compassionate J is when he heals Simon Peter's mother-in-law who is sick in bed (but only, as some have observed, so that she can get up and make them dinner). In Mark's gospel J gets angry whenever someone doubts his healing powers.

The second and third centuries were period of extreme diversity of Christianity. There were groups that were sure they were Christians, but that professed beliefs which would have them run out of any church today.

God: Some believed there was just one, the Creator of everything. Others insisted there were two - the wrathful God of the OT and the God of love and mercy of the NT. Others had more gods - 12, or even 365.

Scriptures: Some thought that the Jewish scriptures came from the one true God, others thought those were from the inferior God of the Jews, not the true God.

Jesus was both completely divine and completely human; he was completely divine and not human, he was human and and not divine at all, and others that he was actually two beings.

As yet there was no NT to consult - all the books had been written, but there were lots of other books as well, each with different perspectives. The NT itself emerged out of these conflicts, as one group got more converts, and decided which books should be part of the canon.

And the winning group, 'tidied up' the NT to support their viewpoint.

Ehrman focuses on dispute as to J's divinity. One group, the 'adoptionists' believed there was only one God, and so J could not be a god as well, so thus he was born normally and God adopted him because he was so holy. But their readings have been purged by orthodox scribes who held that Mary was a virgin and God was J's father (and thus he was human but divinely conceived).So the earliest manuscripts have (Luke 2:33) Joseph and Mary as J's 'father and mother', but later versions changed to "Joseph and his mother were marveling .." And again, when the 12 yo J is left behind in the Temple "his parents did not know about it ... " gets changed to "Joseph and his mother did not know it ..." Then when Mary finds him, three days later, she tells him off "Your father and I have been looking for you." The scribes fixed this problem by just changing it to "We have been looking for you."

At the other extreme to the adoptionists were the Marcions. They thought the God of the OT was the one who created the world, chose the Hebrews to be his people and gave them his harsh laws. When they broke them, as they all do, he punishes them with death. Jesus came from a greater God, sent to save people from the wrathful God of the Jews. Since he did not belong to this other God, who created the material world, he could not be part of the material world. This means that he could not have a material body, he was divine.By appearing to die, the God of the Jews accepted him as a sacrifice. Anyone who believes this will be saved from this God.

Paul's apparent injunction in 1 Corinthians 14 (that women keep silent in church, for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church, and if she wants to learn anything she should ask her husband) is almost certainly a later insertion. It gets inserted in the text in different places in different manuscripts, implying that it started out as a marginal note. The passage doesn't fit well: verses 26-33 Paul is telling Christian prophets how to behave in church, then we get v33-4, the anti-women injunctions, and then v36-40 he's back to talking to the prophets again. But main problem is that earlier in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul has given instructions that women are to wear veils when prophecising in church. If he's accepted that women are speaking in church, it's hard to see how he would ban it. So either Paul's contradicted himself in space of 3 chapters, or someone else has inserted the second passage later.

Other places where older texts give women prominence were also modified. Romans 16 v7 woman Junia is described as an apostle; this upset scribes who changed it to a man named Junias. Acts 17 'prominent women' became 'the wives of prominent men'.

So, there were debates about the role of women in church, and the debate spilled over to the scribes, who 'fixed' the manuscripts where they didn't clearly agree with their position.

One of the ironies of early Christianity is that Jesus himself was a Jew who worshiped the Jewish God, interpreted and lived by the Jewish law, and was seen as the Jewish messiah. And yet, within a few decades of his death, his followers moved from a Jewish sect to an anti-Jewish religion.

Early Christians who called Jesus Messiah had a problem because everyone knew that J wasn't a powerful warrior, he was just an itinerant preacher who got into trouble with the authorities and was executed. And if he was the Jewish messiah then Christians had to be able to claim the OT as their own, because that's where J was predicted.

So they began to insist that the since the Jews refused to recognize J as messiah, they had misinterpreted the Bible. And that of course explained the destruction of the temple in 70AD - God was punishing the Jews for killing Christ.

This leads us to Luke 25 where he quotes J on the cross saying "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." This text is omitted from several important early manuscripts, so there has been lot of argument as to whether it was original, and then excised, or whether it was a later addition. Ehrman thinks it was original, and that some scribes left it out because they couldn't see why J would ask for the Jews to be forgiven, since they were clearly wrong, and especially since God obviously didn't forgive them (the Temple).

Ehrman sums up:

Basically we do not know for sure what the Bible originally said. Interpretations have been made by competent, well-meaning, highly intelligent scholars who often come to opposite conclusions when looking at the same evidence.

Millions of people "know" what's in the NT because scholars with unknown identities, backgrounds, qualifications and personal beliefs, have told them what's in the NT. But what if they have translated the wrong texts?

It has happened before. The King James Version is filled with places where the translators rendered a Greek text derived ultimately from Erasmus's edition, which is based on a single 12th century manuscript that is one of the worst that is available to us today. So many modern translations vary from the KJV, and many traditionalists cling firmly to it still, on the basis that God inspired the KJV (rather than the actual Greek texts).

All the changes that have been made - the tens of thousands of unimportant minor errors, as well as the hundreds of deliberate changes - emphasise that this is a human book. Even if God inspired the original words, we didn't have the original words. And it doesn't make sense to believe that - because if God thought it was important that we have his words, he would have made sure that they were available to every generation. Given that he hadn't gone to the trouble of preserving them, the conclusion is inescapable that he hadn't gone to the trouble of inspiring them in the first place.

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