Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

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Christianity is a religion based on the Bible, unlike many other religions that are based on tradition, which is why it has been called a religion of the Book and revered by the two billion Christians of the world today.

Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman combines research done previously by this prolific writer and New Testament scholar but written for the layperson. Chair of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, he has become a leading authority on the early church and the life of Jesus. He amply fulfills the promise to reveal the truth behind the many mistakes and changes that can be found throughout the Bible, particularly the Kings James Version, still the one used by most Christians today.

In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman summarizes how the translation process happened, and what he reports can be unsettling. First, the lack of professional scribes led to Christian copyists as the source for all manuscripts copied during the first three or four centuries of Christianity. While these Chrisitan copyists were dedicated, they were largely unskilled, so numerous errors were made as each copy was made, with each copy becoming prone to mistakes that only multiplied each time a new manuscript was completed. This process accounted for a large number of errors during these four centuries. Later professional scribes continued producing handwritten portions and by comparing the earliest original Greek manuscripts with one another, these mistakes are readily seen.

Later, there were actual textual changes, additions, or deletions that cannot be readily accounted for. Textual critics have been able to determine with relative certainty a number of places in which manuscripts that survive do not represent the original texts. The story of the woman taken in adultery is an example. It appears in only one passage (John 7:53-8:12), and it appears not to have been original even there. As it turns out, it was not originally in the Gospel of John. In fact, it was not originally part of any of the Gospels but was added by later scribes. The writing style is very different from what is found in the rest of John and includes a large number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel. This leaves readers with a dilemma: if this story was not originally part of John, should it be considered part of the Bible?

Another example is found in the last twelve verses of Mark (16:9-20) where the style varies from elsewhere in Mark, and Mary Magdalene is introduced in verse 9 as if she hadn’t been mentioned yet, even though she is discussed in the preceding verses. These verses, absent from the two oldest and best manuscripts, convince nearly all textual scholars that these verses are an addition to Mark.

Another thorny issue that Erhman discusses in depth is the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is now a fundamental belief, although it was not affirmed and voted upon until the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Yet this most important doctrine is based solely on 1 John 5:7-8, a passage that is not found in the vast majority of Greek manuscripts. Since it is the only passage in the entire Bible that explicitly delineates the doctrine of the Trinity, this inconsistency is troubling. In the Latin Vulgate 1 John 5: 7-8 reads: “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.”

The Greek manuscripts instead reads: “There are three that bear witness: the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.” This is the way it appears in some of the newer translations such as the Revised Standard and Jerusalem.

Another variant is found in 1 Timothy 3:16, long used in support that the New Testament itself calls Jesus God. Most manuscripts refers to Christ as “God made manifest the flesh, and justified in the Spirit.” However, the original reading of the manuscript, reads Christ who was made manifest in the flesh." Christ is no longer explicitly called God in this passage.

Further chapters illustrate theologically motivated alterations of the texts comprising our Bibles today. Ehrman summarizes his thesis that “translations available to most English readers are based on the wrong text.” For anyone who desires to probe further into the origins of his Christian belief, this book cannot be too highly recommended. All serious Bible students need to know and understand the findings Ehrman presents.

And, regardless of whether or not one agrees with all of Erhman’s findings, understanding how the translation process happened is crucial to understanding how we got the Bible. When this process is understood, it will affirm that our approach to all Scripture should always be with humility, realizing that we can never be absolutely certain of either sayings or acts that were reported long after the events happened. This should help eliminate the arrogance sometimes shown when conversing on scripture.

Elaine Nelson writes from Fresno, CA where she has lived for 45 years, although she grew up in the deep South where her father was a circuit-riding Adventist evangelist. She decided to complete her college degree after putting her husband through medical school, graduating with her older daughter. Twenty plus years later she completed work for an M.A. in liberal studies, majoring in religious history.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/204