The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible
by Bart D. Ehrman
by Mitch Finley
the title of this book startles you even a tiny bit, that’s
just what the publisher wanted. Nonetheless, the contents of
this clearly written, competently fashioned tome constitute anything
but a news flash. In fact, the historical-critical principles
upon which it depends have been around for a good long time,
and virtually everything between its covers is very old news,
readers most likely to be shocked by this book are biblical
fundamentalists, but they are also the least likely
to read it. So how did this book land on the best-seller list?
Based on the runaway popularity of The Da Vinci Code,
no shortage of readers looking for a good conspiracy, especially
one that questions the sources and content of the Bible.
Jesus author Bart
Ehrman chairs the Religious Studies Department
at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
His earlier books run in
the same vein as this one, namely, casting knowledge that biblical scholars
have taken for granted for several generations now in such a way as to
grab the attention of the person on the street. They include Lost
Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We
Never Knew and Lost
Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into the New Testament. While
the curious reader may find Ehrman’s work helpful, anyone with knowledge
of twentieth century Bible scholarship will be hard pressed to stifle a
method in this book is to first explain the origins of the
Christian scriptures, beginning with the use of the Hebrew
by the first Christians.
If this part of the book carries a particular weakness it would be the
failure to include any discussion of the connection between the early
Christian writings and the faith experience of the early Christian communities—what
Roman Catholic scholars refer to as Sacred Tradition. This is puzzling
because, since the Oxford Movement in England, Catholic and mainline
scholars have been moving toward unanimous agreement on the importance
of this connection. Ehrman’s failure to recognize it makes one
wonder if he is doing serious disservice to the general reader.
then discusses how the work of early copyists affected the manuscripts
that have come down to us through more than twenty centuries. This
section of the book passes along information that, again, uninformed
will find interesting. Ditto for the section that discusses efforts
Ages to respond to textual differences between various scriptural manuscripts,
and ditto for the chapter on methods scholars have used to decide which
variant to use when translating the Bible. The
fact that this book is a best seller
clearly indicates that the Church could have done a better job of educating
its own with regards to the Bible’s evolution. Perhaps more knowledge
in the pews would have spilled out onto the sidewalk as well.
the book discusses “theologically motivated alterations of
the text,” the
information doesn’t misinform or even mislead. But Ehrman neglects
to point out that, in fact, the original writers of the New Testament
were, themselves, “theologically motivated.” Indeed,
each of the authors of the four Gospels had unique theological motives.
is a point where, once again, a connection could have been
made with a balanced
theology of Sacred Tradition—but wasn’t. A more helpful
tactic might have been to weave into this part of the book a responsible
theology of divine inspiration
and how it may interact even with the work of “theologically
New Testament writers–and copyists. Again, this capable, though
secular educator is leaving the Church with some catch-up work to
Jesus remains on solid ground when discussing the social
and cultural impact on scribes who copied the scriptural documents.
out that copyists—like the first writers of the documents—were
of their time and place, and this had an impact on how they approached
their work. Hence some attitudes in some New Testament documents
toward women, Jews,
and pagans strike some today as unhelpful.
author insists that differences—usually insignificant,
sometimes significant—between various ancient New Testament
manuscripts are “radical” in
nature. Says Ehrman:
more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament,
the more I realized just how
text had been
altered over the years at the hands of scribes, who were not
only conserving scripture but also changing it.
The “radical” questions
Ehrman offers as examples of the significance of some textual
variances have caused few if any ripples among mainline Protestant
and Catholic New Testament scholars, and reasonably well-informed
Yet for Ehrman, and presumably for his readers, they seem to
constitute an alarming swell.
are questions such as, “Was
Jesus an angry man? Was he completely distraught in the face
of death? Did he tell his disciples
that they could drink poison without being harmed? Did he let
an adulteress off the hook with nothing but a mild warning? Is
the doctrine of the Trinity
explicitly taught in the New Testament? Is Jesus actually called
God’ there? Does the New Testament indicate that even the
Son of God himself does not know when the end will come?”
these subjects have spawned debate, but for a person of faith,
their most radical aspect is the
level to which they
are elevated. Questions such as these should be taken seriously
because they are seen as such by the numerous readers uninformed
and unaware of Christianity’s essential story and message.
Thus Ehrman has done the Church a service. The status of his
book illustrates in concrete terms that when the Church fails
to explain its origins and core beliefs, it will be characterized
and explained from the outside looking in.
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