Tag Archives: Bart Erhman

Is Bart Ehrman Anti-Christian?

did jesus existThe discovery of Bart Erhman’s books has made a major impact on my life. I only wish that I had discovered and read them all sooner. As a former fundamentalist, I find his evidences compelling and his assertions solidly based on those evidences.  While I am still a believer, Erhman is Agnostic. As a result, there are many conservative Christians that discount his works on the basis of his belief instead of trying to refute his facts and sources that provide evidence to what he affirms about the inerrancy and inspiration of scripture.  However, it does not take scholarship to find the discrepancies, errors and mistranslations that the Bible contains. It only takes study – as many of these errors are obvious – and a concordance.

This said, I do quote Erhman a lot on my blog and in my articles. I consider him one of my top two favorite scholars of all time. Because of this, there are fundamentalists that discount my articles and the evidences I quote because they discount Erhman’s expertise and scholarship based on his beliefs. To me, this makes about as much sense as discounting a person’s works based on their gender; which many fundamentalists also do!

Since there are fundamentalists that believe that Erhman is anti-Christian by assumption, I wanted to let everyone hear directly from Erhman regarding what he believes about himself and his view of Christianity and the Bible.

I don’t consider myself anti-Christian. When I tell people this, I often get a disbelieving response: of course you’re anti-Christian. Look at all the ways you attack Christianity!

In my view, the only thing I attack in my writings (and not even directly) is a fundamentalist and conservative evangelical understanding of Christianity. But to say for that reason that I attack Christianity is like saying that if you don’t like raspberry sherbet you don’t like any kind of ice cream. . .

I certainly do not mean to say that I consider myself either a Christian or an apologist for Christian causes. I am neither. But in my writings I have never attacked Christianity itself. I have attacked a particular flavor of it. It is true that in my part of the world, the American South, the flavor I have attacked happens to be the flavor preferred by the majority of practicing Christians. But in a historical and worldwide perspective, highly conservative Protestant Christianity, whether fundamentalism or hard-core evangelicalism, is a minority voice. It is the voice that says that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, with no contradictions, discrepancies, or mistakes of any kind. I simply don’t think this is true. And neither have most Christians over the course of history. . .

But I personally love the Bible. I read it all the time, in the original Greek and Hebrew; I study it; I teach it. I have done so for over thirty-five years. And I don’t plan to stop any time soon. But I don’t think the Bible is perfect. Far from it. The Bible is filled with a multitude of voices, and these voices are often at odds with one another, contradicting one another in minute details and in major issues involving such basic views as what God is like, who the people of God are, why there is suffering in the world, how we are to behave, and on and on. And I heartily disagree with the views of most of the biblical authors on one point or another.

Still, in my judgment all of these voices are valuable and they should all be listened to. Some of the writers of the Bible were religious geniuses, and just as we listen to other geniuses of our tradition—Mozart and Beethoven, Shakespeare and Dickens—so we ought to listen to the authors of the Bible. But they were not inspired by God, in my opinion, any more than any other genius is. And they contradict each other all over the map.

Even though there are innumerable historical problems in the New Testament, they are not of the scope or character to call seriously into doubt the existence of Jesus. He certainly lived, and in my view he too was a kind of religious genius, even more than the later authors who wrote about him. At the same time, he probably was not well educated. He may have been only semiliterate. But he certainly lived, and his teachings have impacted the world ever since. Surely that is one gauge of genius.

Since that is the view I am sketching in this book, I can imagine readers who think me anti-Christian taking umbrage at my refusal to tow their line. And Christian readers may well be pleased to see that even someone like me agrees with them on key points (although they certainly won’t like other things I have to say in the book). My goal, however, is neither to please nor to offend. It is to pursue a historical question with all the rigor that it deserves and requires and in doing so to show that there really was a historical Jesus and that we can say certain things about him. – Bart D. Erhman, Did Jesus Exist?, pgs. 36-37.

So, here we have it. Erhman is not anti-Christian! So, let’s lay that excuse for disregarding his research aside and make it a point to read what he says, evaluate his evidence and, make informed decisions based on those evidences; instead of believing the biased religious teachings of those who provide no evidences, historically or scholarly.   But, some have said that his work is trying to persuade people over to his way of believing! Erhman is out to win everyone over to agnosticism through his books. Therefore, don’t read his books!  Well, let’s let Erhman, in his own words from his book, Misquoting Jesus, dispel that assumption:

Maybe I should point out that I do not see it as my mission in life to convince other people to agree with me on this issue. I’m always happy to talk with people about their beliefs, honestly and openly, and to share with them why I no longer can believe. I don’t think they are lacking in intelligence for believing (my wife is far more intelligent than I, and she’s a believer), and I don’t think that I’m evil for not believing. What we need in religious discussion is a frank and brutally honest sharing of views, not simply an insistence that everyone comes to believe, or disbelieve, what we do.—Erhman, Misquoting Jesus, pgs. 248-249.

Once again, Erhman is not like the fundamentalist Christians that I have associated with for the last 20 years. He is not interested in converting others to agnosticism; while, most Christians that I know ARE interested in converting others to Christianity. This may be the reason that many Christians are unable to be brutally honest and share differing views without getting angry and attacking. If they weren’t so interested in converting people, it would be easier to discuss differing views. On the other hand, it could just be a lack of real education in the area of biblical literacy and history that leads to this anger.  Today, because I no longer hold to the fundamentalist views, I can discuss differing views and beliefs rationally and intelligently, oftentimes, learning new information that has been helpful in the process of the discussion. I have come to realize that an opposing view can be a good thing; especially if that view is rooted in facts as well! I have not had one single person that has opposed my views that I have not learned something insightful from. I am of the mindset that I will discuss, listen and learn. It would be nice if others would have that same mindset. Instead, there are certain groups of Christians that do not want to hear, or put up with, a different belief or view. Anyone opposed to what they believe is labeled as a “heretic,” “dissenter” or “of the devil.”

Now, let me throw out some seeds for thought on inerrancy and inspiration of scripture. First of all, I would think that what God inspires should be PERFECT, because God is PERFECT. Whatever the Holy Spirit of God inspires will be without contradiction and error. Yet, the Bible is full of contradictions and errors! Think about this. Does one think a PERFECT God will produce an IMPERFECT product riddled with imperfections that could lead to wrong beliefs? What about a product that would lead to abusive attitudes and behaviors toward women and children?

Does the Bible contain truths? I believe so. Do these errors mean that we should discount the known truths because of the errors? I don’t believe so. These errors and contradictions show the humanity of the authors. They were not perfect human beings and therefore, they could not produce a perfect work. If these authors were inspired by God, then their works would be perfect because God is perfect. However, if they were inspired like any other writer is inspired, then one will find mistakes. There is a difference between these two types of inspiration, wouldn’t you think?

One more area of thought I would like to mention is that many Christians discount known facts based on what they are taught instead of research and evidence. Also, what about the known errors, changes, insertions and deletions that the translators made to the manuscripts in order to lean the scriptures toward their already biased views?  Scholars have known for centuries about these changes and biases.

So, does one discount the inerrancy and inspiration based on the mistakes and changes (known facts), or, does one adhere to its inerrancy and inspiration based on the  opinions of preachers and Bible theologians of the 20th century that made these claims that, heretofore, were not made?

What discovery transpired during the 20th century with all the manuscripts in existence that suddenly moved conservative Christians to propound that the Bible was inerrant and inspired? If nothing transpired with the manuscripts, then could it have been a dispute that happened because different factions disagreed on a theological doctrine? If it is not based on facts, then one would think that it would be foolish to make such a presumption that for centuries had not been made or even considered. I believe it happened as a result of a dispute between religious factions.

These are just some of my thoughts on this subject as I continue to study and learn.  But more importantly, I wanted readers to know that Erhman is not anti-Christian. Instead of making assumptions and discrediting his work based on his belief, wouldn’t it be better to make an informed decision based on evidences and facts? Of course it would! That’s what Erhman does.  If everyone would do this, it would prevent a lifetime of living, believing and propagating lies. As a result of the lies that many fundamentalists proclaim as truth, lives are being destroyed; as many of these teachings lead to abusive attitudes and behaviors toward women and children. The stories on my blog are a testament to this fact.

My desire is that everyone would do their due diligence to search out if what they have been taught is true using outside sources instead of biased sources from within their own sects. The truth is that getting an unbiased education will prevent much of the animosity and conflict that proliferates throughout Christianity against those that believe differently or disagree. It also allows for sound reasoning between different belief systems without the anger and vitriol being spewed.  Study. Find evidence that supports the truth of a matter. Think on it. Make decisions regarding it. Don’t believe blindly what you are told is truth.

Gospel Forgeries

forgedWhat is very important for people to understand is that during the early centuries there were MANY different beliefs regarding Christ. Today’s Christian beliefs regarding Christ were NOT the majority belief during the early centuries. What we have today is the result of centuries of fighting and forgeries. The opponent with the biggest material resources and secular arm of power to enforce their agendas was the opponent whose beliefs won the battle and paved the way for what is believed as “orthodoxy” today.  Just as we have countless theological beliefs and differences today, so it was then. What makes the difference between then and now is that we have copyright laws that prevent people from forging books in other people’s names. Back then, forgery was a huge problem. Historical evidence attests to this fact and, scholars agree on this point. Whenever the disputes over doctrine collided, it was a simple fix – they forged documents that leaned toward their theological views and wrote these forgeries in the names of well known people. The debates over what was the “right belief” were prevalent and heated back then just as they are today.

In his books, scholar Bart Erhman covers this issue of forgeries excellently and, brings to the forefront of reasoning, the questions that most Christians either REFUSE to ask, or CHOOSE to overlook. It simply frustrates me that Christians tend to believe blindly what they are told regarding the Bible and scripture, as well as doctrine and belief, without doing their own due diligence and research on the issue. As a matter of fact, it is not just Christians that are guilty of not doing their due diligence on their religious teachings and scriptures — other religions have the same problem. Countless followers do not research to find out if what they are being taught is true.  Because religious people tend to ACT on their beliefs in unethical and immoral ways to hurt others that believe differently (in the name of their religion or God), it morally behooves us to search out if what we are being told by religious leaders IS TRUE. What type of godly testimony do we have if we ignorantly believe what we are told? What does this tell the world? That we are NOT going to do the research; that we do not CARE what the REAL TRUTH is; that we are too AFRAID to find out if we have believed a lie? What IF you have believed a lie? Wouldn’t you WANT to know? What IF those lies are destroying the relationships within your family and your marriage? WOULDN’T YOU WANT TO KNOW?

I was handed lies my whole Christian life about the Bible and doctrine. Those lies led to abuses and strife in the home, destruction of my marriage and family, isolation, fear of government, fear of authorities and other religions, fear of the church and religious leaders. Today, because of an honest effort to find out if what I was taught was true, I have been freed from the bondage to the lies I once believed. If you are in bondage to ANY religion that has attached to it FEAR of retaliation for not conforming, then my guess is that you are believing lies too. Just my honest opinion. There is no FEAR in TRUTH.

Whatever you are being taught needs to be challenged with the utmost effort and research! I believe that this journey into truth requires character, humility and, a heated desire that will enable one to not only uncover the lies, but once uncovered, discard them for the right beliefs based on the FACTS presented. It’s time to NOT take mans word that truth is truth! Why? Because men lie to further their own agendas; and when they do propagate lies, it brings abuse and suffering to those that are weaker or slighted by their dogmas and rules.

I will simply leave the following quotes from Bart Erhman’s book, Lost Christianities, as the thoughts to ponder in hope that those who read them, will decide to embark on that journey into truth that will either validate their beliefs, or damn them as lies.

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Gospel Forgeries

“Almost all of the “lost” Scriptures of the early Christians were forgeries. On this, scholars of every stripe agree, liberal and conservative, fundamentalist and atheist.” – Lost Christianities, Bart Erhman

“That Christians in the early centuries would forge such books should come as no surprise. Scholars have long recognized that even some of the books accepted into the canon are probably forgeries. Christian scholars, of course, have been loathe to call them that and so more commonly refer to them as “pseudonymous” writings. Possibly this is a more antiseptic term. But it does little to solve the problem of a potential deceit, for an author who attempts to pass off his own writing as that of some other well-known person has written a forgery. That is no less true of the book allegedly written to Titus that made it into the New Testament (Paul’s Letter to Titus) than of the book allegedly written by Titus that did not (Pseudo-Titus), both claiming to be written by apostles (Paul and Titus), both evidently written by someone else.” — Lost Christianities, Bart Erhman

“Other books, however, are widely regarded as forged. The author of 2 Peter explicitly claims to be Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus, who beheld the transfiguration (1:16-18). But critical scholars are virtually unanimous that it was not written by him. So too the Pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus: They claim to be written by Paul, but appear to have been written long after his death.” — Lost Christianities, Bart Erhman

“How could forgeries make it into the New Testament? Possibly it is better to reverse the question: Who was  collecting the books? When did they do so? And how would THEY have known whether a book that claims to be written by Peter was actually written by Peter or that a book allegedly written by Paul was actually by Paul? So far as we know, none of these letters was included in a canon of sacred texts until decades after they were written, and the New Testament canon as a whole still had not reached final form for another two centuries after that. How would someone hundreds of years later know who had written these books?” — Lost Christianities, Bart Erhman

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If scholars know about forgeries in the Bible, and have known about them for centuries, why do Christians fight against that knowledge? Why aren’t they addressing this reality and fighting for the truth to be made known and/or corrected in Scripture? My guess on that question is a simple one and, possibly, a hated one. Here is my opinion on that question, if you don’t like it, just agree to disagree with me:

I believe that the changes that were made to scripture were done in order to:

  • Give men pre-eminence and dominance over women.
  • Proliferate inequality of the sexes
  • Allow for sexual dominance and control
  • Afford men power, control and prestige in religion and the world

If one just reads the countless articles on this blog that expose these truths scripturally and historically, these points that I give will become obvious. Why else would male-dominated religions wish to use, and tout as infallible and inspired, corrupted texts that have been altered by MEN to oppress and suppress women and, bring the masses into bondage to FEAR of their God, their rules? Why else would religious leaders defame, attack, label and “name-call” those women and men who bring these facts to light?  It wasn’t women that made the forgeries, keep that in mind. Inequality always leads to abuse. Just my opinion based on the evidence uncovered. Read my blog articles yourself and form your own opinion. BUT, You don’t have to believe me. Afterwards, go on your own quest for TRUTH. Let the FACTS guide your thought processes and build your foundations — not hear-say and opinion from fallible men who have agendas to uphold.

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.