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Wednesday, December 21, 2005                                                                                       View Comments

Did Jesus really say that?


Bart Ehrman, head of the religious studies department at UNC Chapel Hill, has written a new book, "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why."

Reading Life editor Jeri Krentz talked to him about the book's premise -- that ancient scribes changed the Bible and distorted Jesus -- and what it means to Christians. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

Q. You start your book with a story about your journey in understanding the Bible. It sounds as if you had an epiphany at Princeton Theological Seminary when your professor suggested that "... maybe (the gospel writer) Mark made a mistake."

The more I studied the Bible, the more I realized there were discrepancies in it. My faith -- based on the inspired words of the Bible -- came under assault. That was especially true when I realized that in many cases, we don't have the original words.

Q. If we don't have the original texts of the New Testament -- or even copies of the copies of the copies of the originals -- what do we have?

We have copies that were made hundreds of years later -- in most cases, many hundreds of years later. And these copies are all different from one another.

Q. These changes to the manuscripts: Will you tell us why they may have happened?
There are two main reasons. Scribes sometimes just made mistakes because they were sleepy or incompetent or they weren't paying attention.

But there are also places where it looks like scribes intentionally altered the text because they didn't like what it said or they thought it could be worded better.

Q. Tell us about some of the changes.

One of the most famous is the story of the woman taken in adultery in John, Chapter
8. It's the favorite story of everybody who does the Jesus movie in Hollywood and probably one of the best love stories of the New Testament. But it originally wasn't in the Gospel of John and it wasn't in the Bible at all. It was added by later scribes.

Q. What else?

There's only one verse in the New Testament that explicitly states the doctrine of the trinity (that there are three persons in the godhead, but that the three all constitute just one God).

It's 1 John 5:7-8. You'll find the verses in the King James Bible, and they've always been used as an explicit statement of the doctrine of the trinity. But those verses aren't found in any of the Greek manuscripts down to the 14th century.
And in the Last Supper...Jesus says, "This is my body which has been given for you; do this in remembrance of me." And he gives the cup and says, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you."

But those verses are missing from some of the oldest and best manuscripts of Luke's Gospel. Without those verses, Luke nowhere else talks about Jesus' death as being an atonement, a sacrifice for the sake of others.

It also turns out that the account in Luke about Jesus sweating blood as he prays in the garden is missing from our oldest and best manuscripts.

I think scribes added that because there were debates in the second and third centuries as to whether Jesus was fully human or not. These verses were inserted to show he really was human and really did suffer.

Q. So you say, "It's a bit hard to know what the words of the Bible mean if we don't even know what the words are."

That's right.

Q. What translation of the Bible do you recommend?

The New Revised Standard Version.

I'm a bit prejudiced: When I finished my Ph.D., I worked as the research grunt for the committee that produced it. But the reason I like it is it doesn't have any particular theological bias.

Q. What do you tell Christians who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God?

Even people who say the words are inerrant need to realize ... they're reading English translations and something always gets lost in translation. And the translations ... are translations of Greek words, some of which may not be originals.

So my personal opinion is that it's very hard to have the view of the Bible's inerrancy once you know the facts about the history of the Bible.

When I talk about the hundreds and thousands of differences, it's true that a lot are insignificant. But it's also true that a lot are highly significant for interpreting the Bible. Depending on which manuscript you read, the meaning is changed significantly.

Q. What do you hope readers take away from your book?

I hope they come to realize that the Bible, even though it may be the most important religious and cultural set of books that we have, is still a very human set of books. The differences that we find among our manuscripts show just how human the book is.

The Bible has a wide range of points of view. I'm hoping it shows that the earliest Christians were diverse and they weren't all saying the same thing.
That's important to me because I think Christians today need to be more tolerant of difference. People with different points of view have always been a part of Christianity.

Bart Ehrman
• Grew up in Kansas.
• Attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Wheaton College and Princeton Theological Seminary.
• Has taught at UNC Chapel Hill since 1988.
• His books include "Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew" and "Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine."

Excerpt from `Misquoting Jesus'

From "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why", by Bart D. Ehrman.

"My study of the Greek New Testament, and my investigations into the manuscripts that contain it, led to a radical rethinking of my understanding of what the Bible is.

This was a seismic change for me. Before this -- starting with my born-again experience in high school, through my fundamentalist days at Moody (Bible Institute in Chicago), and on through my evangelical days at Wheaton (College) -- my faith had been based completely on a certain view of the bible as the fully inspired, inerrant word of God.

Now I no longer saw the Bible that way. The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied, and changed, the texts of scripture, so too had human authors originally written the texts of scripture. This was a human book from beginning to end. It was written by different human authors at different times and in different places to address different needs. Many of these authors no doubt felt they were inspired by God to say what they did, but they had their own perspectives, their own beliefs, their own views, their own needs, their own desires, their own understanding, their own theologies...

Among other things, this meant that Mark did not say the same thing that Luke said because he didn't mean the same thing as Luke. John is different from Matthew.... Paul is different from Acts. And James is different from Paul....

(This book) is written for people who know nothing about textual criticism but who might like to learn something about how scribes were changing scripture and about how we can recognize where they did so. It is written based on my thirty years of thinking about the subject, and from the perspective that I now have, having gone through such radical transformations of my own views of the Bible.

In many ways, then, this is a very personal book for me, the end result of a long journey. Maybe, for others, it can be part of a journey of their own."