Let’s Ask a Scholar

QandAOne of the areas of religion that garners the most controversy with fundamentalist church leaders and lay people in the fundamentalist sect I came out of is, “original” text and “inerrancy” of the Bible. Throughout Christianity there are various sects that teach that we have a certain translation of the Bible that is inerrant and contains no mistakes; that it is inspired completely and in its very words — “verbal, plenary inspiration. (Bart Erhman)”

Some of these religious sects have Bible colleges where they not only teach this, but they also require all students and faculty that attend or teach at their colleges, to ascribe to this belief! My son went to two fundamentalist colleges that taught this view.  My daughter also went to a fundamentalist college that taught this view. The churches I raised my children in, taught this view.  I was taught this view!

To embark on this topic of discussion was, and IS, explosive within the fundamentalist Christianity I was involved in for over 18 years.  Many of these fundamentalists will get angry and hurl insults at anyone that dares to say that the Bible is not inerrant or is not infallible.  Sadly, this is because they believe what they are told within their respective religious institutions and churches; it is not because of higher secular education and scholarship. Anyone that dares to expose the errors, lies and corruptions in their teachings or Bible translation will come under attack and be the recipient of a nasty, but swift, character assassination. I have witnessed this tactic many times in the fundamentalist sect I came out of. I have even been on the receiving end of it. This is a sad testimony to the kind of “Christianity” that I was a part of for most of my life. It is quite embarrassing that a good number of the fundamentalist Christians, resort to name-calling, insults and character assassination instead of weighing out the evidence and being respectful, gracious and kind, to those they disagree with. It makes me wonder if there are any fundamentalist Christians out there that can “agree to disagree” without hurling the insults and bashing the authors! Why do many fundamentalists feel the NEED to do their best to discredit and malign those they disagree with by twisting scripture to suit their point of view? I have witnessed so much viciousness from people that call themselves “Christian” that it makes it hard to even be associated with that name! This type of behavior should not be happening amongst those that claim His name. One can disagree with someone without attacking their credibility and character! To do so, would be the CHRISTIAN thing to do and, many Christians fall short of their Christianity when it comes to opposing beliefs. They would rather leave their opponents character and credibility lying in the dust. (Please feel free to read my article Handling Opposing Beliefs.)

All this said, there are countless multitudes of people that believe that there are “original” manuscripts of the New Testament out there, when in fact, all we have “are copies of these writings, made years later–in most cases, many years later. Moreover, none of these copies is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places. All scribes did this. So rather than actually having the inspired words of the autographs (i.e., the originals) of the Bible, what we have are the error-ridden copies of the autographs (Bart Erhman, Misquoting Jesus, pgs 4-5.).”

Because I cover this topic in some of my articles on this blog and, I quote Bart Erhman in them, what I would like to do today is present some questions that were asked of him and answered in his book, Misquoting Jesus. Believe it or not, but question  number five is the number one question I get asked and, I always answer by telling the person what Erhman recommends and I quote his answer as it’s given below.  Before we get started, however, it is important that you know about the scholar that will be answering the questions!

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Who is Bart D. Erhman?misquoting jesus

(From Bart Erhman’s website)

Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Professor Ehrman received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-four books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews.

Among his most recent books are a Greek-English edition of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press), an assessment of the newly discovered Gospel of Judas (Oxford University Press), and four New York Times Bestsellers: Jesus Interrupted (an account of scholarly views of the New Testament), God’s Problem (an assessment of the biblical views of suffering), Misquoting Jesus (an overview of the changes found in the surviving copies of the New Testament and of the scribes who produced them) and Forged (discusses why some books in the New Testament are deliberate forgeries). His books have been translated into twenty-seven languages.

Among his fields of scholarly expertise are the historical Jesus, the early Christian apocrypha, the apostolic fathers, and the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.

Professor Ehrman has served as President of the Southeast Region of the Society of Biblical literature, chair of the New Testament textual criticism section of the Society, book review editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature, and editor of the monograph series The New Testament in the Greek Fathers (Scholars Press). He currently serves as co-editor of the series New Testament Tools, Studies, and Documents (E. J. Brill), co-editor-in-chief for the journal Vigiliae Christianae, and on several other editorial boards for journals and monographs in the field.

Professor Ehrman lectures extensively throughout the country. Winner of numerous university awards and grants, he is the recipient of the 2009 J. W. Pope “Spirit of Inquiry” Teaching Award, the 1993 UNC Undergraduate Student Teaching Award, the 1994 Phillip and Ruth Hettleman Prize for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement, and the Bowman and Gordon Gray Award for excellence in teaching.

Professor Ehrman has two children, a daughter, Kelly, and a son, Derek. He is married to Sarah Beckwith (Ph.D., King’s College London), Marcello Lotti Professor of English at Duke University. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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For a list of books published by Bart Erhman, click here: Books Published by Bart D. Erhman.  I highly recommend all of his books to anyone interested in furthering their knowledge and education in an area that very few endeavor to embark upon.

Because Erhman’s works have had a life-changing affect on my life,  I felt that it would be very important for him to answer some questions that you may have or, that I may have.  After reading Misquoting Jesus, I was so appreciative that Erhman took the time to put some questions and answers at the end of his book. Some of these questions below are from his book, while the last two questions are ones that I have that he answers in the back of his book.  I sincerely hope that these few questions can open a door of understanding for readers and allow them to think beyond what mainstream religion has taught them. If you wish to read more of his questions, or his book, please feel free to purchase a copy of it. It will be a life-changing book for any reader. At the end of the Q & A, I have a video of Erhman that would be worth watching for anyone interested in hearing how the Bible was changed.

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Questions for the Scholar

 1. Why do so many people—including some ultraconservative scholars with full access to the manuscript record—insist that the Bible is without error? And why is the inerrancy of Scripture the supposed foundation upon which all other Christian beliefs stand or fall?

Actually the view that the Bible is inerrant is a completely modern idea—it is not the traditional “Christian” view since time immemorial. Many Christians especially in my part of the world, the American South, don’t realize this, but simply assume that belief in the Bible has always been the central tenet of the Christian faith. But that’s not true. In fact, the views of inerrancy held by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians today were developed less than a century ago, in a set of conflicts in Christian circles in the United States.

I tell my students that there are two approaches that one can take toward the question of whether the Bible is inerrant. One approach—the approach I took as a late teenager—is simply to presuppose that it is inerrant. If you take this approach, then anything that looks like an error in Scripture is obviously not an error (since the Bible cannot have any errors). I no longer find this approach satisfying. This presupposition about Scripture as without error is a modern invention of fundamentalist theologians; it is not the traditional Christian view of the Bible. And if we simply want to presuppose a belief (about God, Christ, the Bible), rather than rationally thinking about it—what good is it to have a mind to think with? Some people object to this, saying, ”How can you question God?” My response is that I’m not at all questioning God; I’m questioning your opinion about God.

The other approach to the question of inerrancy is to remain neutral on the question of whether the Bible (or any other book) has any mistakes, and simply read it for yourself to see. If there are errors in it, then it is not inerrant!

Once you open yourself up to the possibility that there can be inconsistencies, contradictions, geographical mistakes, historical misstatements, scientific errors, and so on in the Bible, you will certainly find them. They are in there, all over the place.

In short, I think it is best to approach Christianity (any kind of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, mainstream Protestant, evangelical, or any other kind), or any faith, with an open mind—making sure to use the mind! Those who believe in God surely think God gave us a mind to think with. And so no one should check their brains at the door when they enter through the portals of their religion.

2.  You once viewed the Bible as encapsulating the very words of God. Then, during your time at Princeton, you came to regard the Bible as “a human book from beginning to end.” Why does it have to be one or the other?

Actually, I don’t think that it does have to be one or the other. In fact, most Christian thinkers whom I know think that the Bible is both: a book containing the Word of God and a book shaped by human hands.

When I started out as a believer in high school, though, I thought (and was taught) that the Bible was unsullied by human hands, that it was completely divine, down to its very words. This was the view taught at Moody Bible Institute, where I went to college; we called it the “verbal plenary inspiration” of Scripture. Inspiration was verbal (down to the very words) and plenary (complete from beginning to end).

Now I realize that most Christians throughout history—in fact the vast majority of Christians—have never thought any such thing about the Bible. And most Christian thinkers today do not think so. The Bible is understood in many, many ways (by many, many different Christians); but for most Christians it in some sense contains or conveys the Word of God, even though this word comes through the human words of the text, written by human authors.

That was more or less the view I adopted when I stopped being an evangelical Christian, and began associating with more mainline Christian denominations (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian), during my graduate student days and later.

I eventually came to think, however, that I could no longer subscribe even to this broader understanding of the inspiration of Scripture. In large part this was because of my studies: I came to see that the Bible was a book written by human authors, and if it was “inspired,” it was in the way that other sacred books (the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Christian apocrypha) and other great literature (Shakespeare, Milton, John Donne) were inspired. Many of the books of the New Testament (for example, Mark, John, and Galatians) are works of religious genius, and sometimes we just have to stand back in reverential awe at their beauty and power. But in  my opinion, they are human books nonetheless. They are filled with human biases, perspectives, opinions, and ideas, and often one book stands completely at odds with the views of another book (as I have tried to show in some of my other writings). That’s why it is a problem answering the question, “What does the Bible say about X?” Often the Bible will say many different things about “X.” And about “Y” and “Z” as well!

3. All study Bibles, across the full range of translations, include notes that identify verses with questionable historical accuracy. Why do you think that most people are unaware of these New Testament problems that you reveal in the book?

This is a great question, and it’s one that I’ve often wondered about. My guess is that there is a simple answer: most people don’t read the footnotes!

The facts that I explain about the New Testament in Misquoting Jesus are not at all “news” to biblical scholars. They are what scholars have known, and said, for many, many years. These are the facts: we have thousands of copies of the New Testament in its original Greek language, written over a period of centuries; these copies all differ from one another in ways great and small; most of these differences are significant—some of them slightly significant for understanding an author’s nuances, others of enormous significance affecting the interpretation of an entire passage, or even a book.

Why is it that this came as “news” to many readers of Misquoting Jesus? In large part because scholars (and Christian pastors and teachers) have been reluctant or unable to communicate the message to a broad audience. But this is information that readers of the New Testament have the right to know! It should not simply be tucked away in footnotes, but should be loudly proclaimed in Christian education classes, by Christian leaders and educators, in books about the Bible, and in editions of the Bible. It should be proclaimed from the rooftops and taught on the ground. This is information that is crucial for our understanding of the Bible, the most important book—whether looked at religiously or culturally—in the history of our form of civilization.

4. Do the same kinds of textual mistakes show up in the Old Testament as well? What about the Koran?

The Hebrew Bible is filled with lots of textual problems—as we have come to realize, for example, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where copies of the Hebrew Bible a thousand years older than our previously earliest copy turned up. Even though Jewish scribes were incredibly meticulous and exacting in the Middle Ages, in earlier centuries (for example around the time when Christianity arose, and earlier) scribes made numerous changes in their texts. You can see this simply by looking at a good modern translation of the Hebrew Bible, such as the New Revised Standard Version, where in the footnotes to books like 1 and 2 Samuel there are numerous passages where translators are not sure what the original text was. And this is not counting those intriguing passages, such as a number in the book of Job, for example, where translators are not even sure what some words mean because they are so rare!

One difference with the Hebrew Bible is that there are far, far fewer original manuscripts than for the New Testament. The standard editions of the Hebrew Bible, in Hebrew, depend on the readings of one manuscript that was produced around the year 1000 CE. With the New Testament, the standard editions are based on thousands of manuscripts that date all the way back to the second century. It appears that when Jewish scribes of the Middle Ages copied their texts, they destroyed the manuscript they were copying. Christians didn’t do that, so there are many more manuscripts for the New Testament: and the more manuscripts there are the more errors you will find.

After I wrote Misquoting Jesus, I started getting a lot of e-mails from all sorts of people. One common kind of e-mail was from people who wanted me to know that even though the New Testament had textual problems, the books that they revered were absolutely perfect, with no mistakes and no textual errors. Most commonly these emails came from people who wanted me to convert to follow either the Book of Mormon or (on the other side of the religious spectrum!) the Koran.

My own view is that every piece of religious literature is produced by human hands, and that human hands are never perfect. Anyone who claims that a religious book is perfect is making a statement of faith, not a statement of fact. People believe that their own sacred texts are perfect, but very few of these people (including the kindhearted ones who have sent me e-mails) have actually engaged in the kind of detailed textual study of their texts that I, and others like me, have engaged in with respect to the New Testament. If they did so—what would they find? My hunch is that they would find that all the works of religious genius are produced by human hands, and they all have the imprints of those hands still upon them.

5. Is there an English translation that comes closest to preserving the “original” text instead of the text as changed by scribes over the years?

Looking back, I see that I certainly should have expected the question. The reason I didn’t is because I know full well–as does every other scholar in the field–that all modern translators are thoroughly aware of the textual problems posed by our manuscripts, so that all modern translations attempt to get back to the original text (this isn’t “news” to the translators!)

Still, it is an important question, and so I can here indicate the answer I have almost always given: my own preference, in terms of a modern English Bible translation, is the New Revised Standard Version, which I especially like in a study Bible format, such as the Harper Collins Study Bible. I think this is a highly judicious translation, done by some of the world’s best biblical scholars, who come from a range of religious and theological persuasions, so that it is not biased toward one theological point of view over another.

6. Is the information that you cover in your book, “new?”

One of the striking things about Misquoting Jesus is that it contains information that scholars have known for a long, long time. Centuries even. But most non-scholars have never heard of it. And that was the reason I wrote the book in the first place, to explain such information to the nonscholar . . . to average, normal, ordinary readers of the Bible who do not have access to the ancient languages (Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, etc.) in which it was copied, but are nonetheless interested in knowing–and are entitled to know–where the New Testament came from and how it was copied over the centuries, down to the present day.

7. Do the textual differences really make that much of a difference?

. . . If you change what the words say, then you change what the passage means. Most textual variants have no bearing at all on what a passage means. But there are other textual variants that are crucial to the meaning of a passage. And the theology of entire books of the New Testament are sometimes affected by the meaning of individual passages.

From my point of view, the stakes are rather high: Does Luke’s Gospel teach a doctrine of atonement (that Christ’s death atones for sins)? Does John’s Gospel teach that Christ is the “unique God” himself? Is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity ever explicitly stated in the New Testament? These and other key theological issues are at stake, depending on which textual variants you think are original and which you think are creations of early scribes who were modifying the text.

Where I differ from some critics is on the other differences, the ones that do matter. Some of these are in fact highly significant. Some of them affect how a verse is to be interpreted; others affect the meaning of an entire passage of the New Testament, or even an entire book of the New Testament. That strikes me as something that is important to know.

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