Who changed the Bible and why? Bart Ehrman’s startling answers

| October 22, 2006 | 689 Replies

How often do we hear people “explaining” religious beliefs by stating “The Bible says so,” as if the Bible fell out of the sky, pre-translated to English by God Himself?  It’s not that simple, according to an impressive and clearly-written book that should be required reading for anyone who claims to know “what the Bible says.”

The 2005 bestseller, Misquoting Jesus, was not written by a raving atheist.  Rather, it was written by a fellow who had a born-again experience in high school, then went on to attend the ultraconservative Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.  Bart Ehrman didn’t stop there, however.  He wanted to become an evangelical voice with credentials that would enable him to teach in secular settings.  It was for this reason that he continued his education at Wheaton and, eventually, Princeton, picking up the ability to read the New Testament in its original Greek in the process.

As a result of his disciplined study, Ehrman increasingly questioned the fundamentalist approach that the “Bible is the inerrant Word of God.  It contains no mistakes.”  Through his studies, Ehrman determined that the Bible was not free of mistakes:

We have only error ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.

(Page 7).  At Princeton, Ehrman learned that mistakes had been made in the copying of the New Testament over the centuries.  Upon realizing this, “the floodgates opened.”  In Mark 4, for example, Jesus allegedly stated that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds on the earth.”  Ehrman knew that this simply was not true.  The more he studied the early manuscripts, the more he realized that the Bible was full of contradictions.  For instance, Mark writes that Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal (Mark 14:12; 15:25) while John says Jesus died the day before the Passover meal (John 19:14).

Ehrman often heard that the words of the Bible were inspired.  Obviously, the Bible was not originally written in English.  Perhaps, suggests Ehrman, the full meaning and nuance of the New Testament could only be grasped when it was read in its original Greek (and the Old Testament could be fully appreciated only when studied in its original Hebrew) (page 6).

misquoting-jesus-bart-ehrman

Because of these language barriers and the undeniable mistakes and contradictions, Ehrman realized that the Bible could not be the “fully inspired, inerrant Word of God.”  Instead, it appeared to him to be a “very human book.”  Human authors had originally written the text at different times and in different places to address different needs.  Certainly, the Bible does not provide an an “errant guide as to how we should live. This is the shift in my own thinking that I ended up making, and to which I am now fully committed.”

How pervasive is the belief that the Bible is inerrant, that every word of the Bible is precise and true?

Occasionally I see a bumper sticker that reads: “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”  My response is always, what if God didn’t say it?  What if the book you take as giving you God’s words instead contains human words.  What if the Bible doesn’t give a foolproof answer to the questions of the modern age-abortion, women’s rights, gay rights, religious and supremacy, western style democracy and the like?  What if we have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting up the Bible as a false idol–or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with the Almighty.

(Page 14).  Ehrman continues to appreciate the Bible as an important collection of writings, but urges that it needs to be read and understood in the context of textual criticism, “a compelling and intriguing field of study of real importance not just to scholars but to everyone with an interest in the Bible.”  Ehrman finds it striking that most readers of the Bible know almost nothing about textual criticism.  He comments that this is not surprising, in that very few books have been written about textual criticism for a lay audience (namely, “those who know nothing about it, who don’t have the Greek and other languages necessary for the in-depth study of it who do not realize there is even any “problem” with the text).

Misquoting Jesus provides much background into how the Bible became the Bible.  It happened through numerous human decisions over the centuries.  For instance, the first time any Christian of record listed the 27 books of the New Testament as the books of the New Testament was 300 years after the books have been written (page 36).  And those works have been radically altered over the years at the hands of the scribes “who were not only conserving scripture but also changing it.”  Ehrman points out that most of the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among the manuscripts were “completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance.”  In short, they were innocent mistakes involving misspelling or inadvertence.

On the other hand, the very meaning of the text changed in some instances.  Some Bible scholars have even concluded that it makes no sense to talk about the “original” text of the Bible.  (Page 210).  As a result of studying surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, Ehrman concluded that we simply don’t have the original words constituting the New Testament.

Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals.  We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.  What we have are copies made later-much later.  In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later.  And these copies all differ from one another, and many thousands of places . . . Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts and there are words in the New Testament.

In Misquoting Jesus Bart Ehrman spells out the ways in which several critical passages of the New Testament were changed or concocted.  They are startling examples:

A.) Everyone knows the story about Jesus and the woman about to be stoned by the mob.  This account is only found in John 7:53-8:12.  The mob asked Jesus whether they should stone the woman (the punishment required by the Old Testament) or show her mercy. Jesus doesn’t fall for this trap.  Jesus allegedly states “Let the one who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.”  The crowd dissipates out of shame.  Ehrman states that this brilliant story was not originally in the Gospel of John or in any of the Gospels.  “It was added by later scribes.”  The story is not found in “our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John.  Nor does its writing style comport with the rest of John.  Most serious textual critics state that this story should not be considered part of the Bible (page 65).

B) after Jesus died, Mary Magdalene and two other women came back to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, according to Mark 16:1-2).  They were met by a man in a white robe who told them that Jesus had been raised and was no longer there.  The women fled and said nothing more to anyone out of fear (16:4-8).  Everyone knows the rest of Mark’s Gospel, of course.  The problem with the remainder of the story is that none of it was originally in the Gospel of Mark.  It was added by a later scribe.  Those additions include all of the following:

Jesus himself appeared to Mary Magdalene.  She told the eleven apostles (minus Judas) about this vision, but they did not believe her.  Jesus then appeared to the apostles, chastising them for failing to believe.  He tells them that those who believe will be saved and those who don’t will be condemned.  Then follows a critically important passage of the Bible.

And these are the signs that will accompany those who believe: they will cast out demons in my name; they will speak in new tongues; and they will take up snakes in their hands; and if they drink any poison, it will not harm them; they will place their hands upon the sick and heal them.

Jesus is then allegedly taken up into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, while the disciples go forth into the world to proclaim the Gospel in miraculous fashion.

Without the above passages (which, again, were not written by Mark) the Pentecostals lose their justification for speaking in “tongues.”  And the Appalachian snake handlers have no basis for their dangerous practices.

C) John 5:7-8 is the only passage in the entire Bible “that explicitly delineates the doctrine of the Trinity (that there are three persons and God but that all three constitute a single God):

There are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Spirit and these three are one; and there are three that bear witness on earth, the spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.

Ehrman cites strong evidence that this Trinity passage was entirely concocted and foisted upon Erasmus by outraged theologians who needed support for their prized theological doctrine (page 81).

Ehrman reveals numerous other difficulties with the popular assumption that the Bible was perfectly handed down from its original written expression.

Many believers rely fervently on the King James version of the Bible, for instance.  They sometimes even say “If the King James was good enough for St. Paul, it’s good enough for me.”  Ehrman points out many problems with the King James version, warning that “we need to face up to the facts.”

The King James was not given by God but was a translation by a group of scholars in the early 17th century who based their rendition on a faulty Greek text.

(Page 209).

So what should we make of the Bible?  Ehrman argues that the attacks of the New Testament are not simply collections of obvious, self-interpreting words.  It’s the same problem we have with other important documents, such as the United States Constitution:

Texts do not simply reveal their own meanings to honest inquirers.  Texts are interpreted and they are interpreted (just as they were written) by living, breathing human beings, who can make sense of texts only by explaining them in light of other other knowledge, explicating their meaning, putting the words of the text “in other words.”

(Page 217) The scribes changed the original words of the New Testament by putting them in other words.

In my experience, many people who cherry pick excerpts from the Bible as the proper way to determine what is moral are in utter denial that we don’t have accurate copies of the original writings.   Most of them refuse to acknowledge that current popular versions of the Bible contain numerous discrepancies, even compared to the earliest manuscripts we do have.  This is on top of the fact that their are hundreds of patent contradictions in the English version of the Bible.  To most believers, none of this matters.  Stay the course!  In fact, in my experience most believers rarely read what the consider to be God’s own inspired word.

Ehrman’s book points out numerous troublesome issues that demand attention even assuming that the original writers of the Bible accurately reported the events described in their original writings (whatever those writings were).   The elephant in the room, however, is that none of the authors of the Gospels ever claimed to witness any of the events they were reporting.  Further, the extraodinary nature of Biblical claims demands extraordinary proof that ancient self-contradictory writings are simply incapable of providing, except to those of us who believe that the Bible is completely true “because it says so in the Bible.”

For all of those people who continue to go around clentching and thumping those Bibles they bought at Wal-Mart, and for all the rest of us who want to get the story straight, Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus should be required reading.

[Administrator’s Note: More than 540 comments were quickly contributed to this post, making this page too long to download and display. Therefore, on March 23, 2007, I closed off new comments. Last night (February 4, 2009), I discovered a WordPress plugin that allows me to paginate comments, thereby protecting the site from the sudden and repeated load of 540 comments.   Here’s the good news, then.   Anyone who has not yet had his or her say on Bart Ehrman’s book may now jump in at the original post and post a comment.   That’s right!  If none of the 540 comments that have come before you didn’t address an important aspect of Bart Ehrman’s book, you may now remedy that omission, right here in the comments to this original post.  Godspeed. ]

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Category: American Culture, Education, History, Reading - Books and Magazines, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (689)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Larry points us to http://www.whatabeginning.com/ObDec.htm. The article on that page is a discussion of Revelations 13:18, which is about 666 being the number of the Beast. How does that article relate to any thread in this post?

  2. grumpypilgrim: “The Bible explicitly says that its god never deceives…that all deception comes from the Evil One…”

    Can you provide a reference for that assertion?

    “7 For every one of the house of Israel, or of the stranger that sojourneth in Israel, who separateth himself from Me and setteth up his idols [false concepts of a god or the Creator] in his heart, and putteth the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and cometh to a prophet to inquire of him concerning Me, I the Lord will answer him by Myself.

    8 And I will set My face against that man and will make him a sign and a proverb, and I will cut him off from the midst of My people; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.

    9 And if the prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the Lord have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out My hand upon him and will destroy him from the midst of My people Israel.” EZ 14

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Larry asked: “Can you provide a reference for that assertion?”

    According to the Bible, deception of humans began with the serpent in Genesis and continued right through Revelations. See, e.g., Gen. 3 and Rev. 12:9 “…that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world….” Here are a few more of the many examples:

    Deuteronomy 32:4 “He is the Rock, his work is perfect…a God of truth and without iniquity….”

    Psalms 25:10 “All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth….”

    Psalms 31:5 “…thou hast redeemed me, O LORD God of truth.”

    Psalms 33:4 “For the word of the LORD is right; and all his works are done in truth.”

    Isaiah 65:16 “That he who blesseth himself in the earth shall bless himself in the God of truth; and he that sweareth in the earth shall swear by the God of truth….”

    John 1:14 “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.”

    John 14:6 “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth….”

    1 John 5:6 “And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth….”

    1 Corinthians 14:33 “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace….”

    Throughout the Bible, deception and confusion are associated with false prophets and sinners.

  4. Larry J Carter says:

    “Throughout the Bible deception and confusion are associated with false prophets and sinners.” So you should avoid listening to false prophets and those who abide in sin. We are all sinners, but some will not be satisfied until they are free of lawlessness (1 John 3:4).

    God is not a tyrant. He allows people to be deceived and confused if they FIRST insist on it, as the verses in Ez. 14 make clear. The elders of Israel were not obeying the first commandment to have no other rulemakers. They were simply coming to the prophet to add what God had to say to what their idols had to say and then they could pick and choose what THEY wanted to do. The consequences of such behaviour is not readily apparent (Eccl. 8:11).

    Your contention that the GOD of the bible never deceives comes from man-made religion. If God wanted everyone to avoid being deceived He could have eliminated the Adversary long ago. The deceiver serves as a sorting mechanism to separate the sheep from the goats. But because they received not a love of the truth He sends them a strong delusion. If lies are good enough for you, you will be allowed to believe them. If you hunger and thirst after righteousness God has promised you will be filled.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Larry wrote, “Your contention that the GOD of the bible never deceives comes from man-made religion….”

    It is not *my* contention that the god-of-the-Bible never deceives, it is the Bible itself that makes this assertion, as demonstrated by the many quotes I provided.

  6. Larry J Carter says:

    grumpypilgrim: You are correct in insisting the deception began with the serpent. The verses you quoted did not use the word deceive once, nor was deception the subject of any of them.

    Who created the serpent and therefore is responsible for what the serpent does? IOW – the serpent that deceives the whole world is responsible but not sovereign. God created him and is responsible, ultimately.

    Is Ezekiel 14 part of the Bible? If Ezekiel 14, specifically verse 9, is part of the bible, as I believe, how do you reconcile what it says about God allowing people and their prophets to be deceived by their own idols (preconceptions/misconceptions of God) which they will not renounce when confronted with the Word of God?

    http://www.gods-kingdom-ministries.net/teachings/books/creations-jubilee/chapter-13-the-tension-in-creation/

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Larry wrote, “You are correct in insisting the deception began with the serpent. The verses you quoted did not use the word deceive once, nor was deception the subject of any of them.”

    I fail to see why it matters that the Bible (in the one, of many, English translations that I happened to use) fails to use some particular word Larry expect it to use. Plainly, there are many verses that insist that the god-of-the-Bible is a god of truth, which stands at odds with any suggestion that our Universe (which appears to be many billions of years old) is just a few thousand years old.

    Larry continued, “…If Ezekiel 14, specifically verse 9, is part of the bible, as I believe, how do you reconcile what it says about God allowing people and their prophets to be deceived by their own idols….”

    Let me quote the phrase to which Larry refers: “And if the prophet is enticed to utter a prophecy, I the Lord have enticed that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and destroy him from among my people Israel….”

    I fail to see what connection there might be between the “prophet,” as used in that verse, and the scientific evidence that shows our Universe to be billions of years old. Lacking such a connection, that verse is not relevant to this discussion. Perhaps Larry could explain the thinking on this?

  8. Larry J Carter says:

    We were discussing whether or not the God of the Bible allows people to deceive themselves, Some have deceived themselves by believing that there was no creation while others deceive themselves that the creation is only six thousand years old. T7he possibility that both are wrong is seldom, if ever, considered.

  9. grumpypilgrim says:

    Larry wrote, “We were discussing whether or not the God of the Bible allows people to deceive themselves….”

    If the Bible misleads large numbers of serious readers, then the Bible is to blame, not the readers. Likewise, if the Bible is the revealed word of its god, then that god is also to blame.

    In another one of Bart Ehrman’s books, he points out the odd fact that the god-of-the-Bible put so little effort into clearly and unambiguously transmitting “His” word. We would expect such sloppiness from the (mostly) illiterate people who wrote the Bible, but it is contradictory for an infallible deity to do so.

    • Larry J Carter says:

      It is listening to other gods that mislead the people, not listening to God’s Word. When they come with preconceived ideas and will not let falsehoods go, their own idols mislead them. Do you think God should force them to accept the Truth? Would that really help?

      A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.

    • Edgar Montrose says:

      “When they come with preconceived ideas and will not let falsehoods go, their own idols mislead them.”

      I always chuckle when people of faith admonish others for holding preconceived ideas and not letting falsehoods go.

  10. What qualifies you to judge “serious”?

    Perhaps God is a better judge of what constitutes seriousness than you. Have you considered Matthew 13:10-17 or Isaiah55? Seems to me the Word of God is accomplishing exactly what it is meant to accomplish.And, of course, God takes credit for all.

    If God wanted to save everyone, now, why not just save them as He saved Saul? If God wants to save everyone, eventually, could/would He do it?

    http://www.gods-kingdom-ministries.net/teachings/books/if-god-could-save-everyone-would-he/

    Do you really consider the first verse of the bible to be a work of “sloppiness”? Or are you just going to ignore that?

    http://www.whatabeginning.com/Misc/Wonders/P.htm

  11. Larry J Carter says:

    Edgar: it is okay to chuckle as long as you are aware you are looking at a caricature.

    • Edgar Montrose says:

      “Caricature” is not the word that came to my mind. I will refrain from mentioning the word that did. Instead I’ll just make reference to a pot and a kettle.

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