This book breaks down the long creation process of the New Testament, complete with all the human fallibility and politics.
This is not like a whistle blower account of an insider, however, nor it is a blasphemy attempting to discredit the holy book. Instead, it is a genuine quest of a scholar who loves his religion to discover the real texts of the religion of the book.
The author, Bart D. Erhman, went to a fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute, and then proceeded to continue his bachelor’s degree in a top-rank evangelical college, Wheaton College, before studying with the world’s leading expert in the field, a scholar named Beuce M. Metzger at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Along the way he had to learn Greek (the original languages of the New Testament), Hebrew, and Latin, so that he can read the Bible and its supporting documents in its originally intended wordings. He also learned modern European languages such as German and French, in order to be able to read what other scholars had said about any particular things. And this depth of skills shows in the book.
Erhman remarks, “Christianity from the outset was a bookish religion that stressed certain text as authoritative scripture.” “However”, he continues, “[t]his is a textually oriented religion whose texts have been changed, surviving only in copies that vary from one another, sometimes in highly significant ways.” He then elaborates, “[t]he task of the textual critic is to try recover the oldest form of these texts. This is obviously a crucial task, since we can’t interpret the words of the New Testament if we don’t know what the words were.”
And this, in essence, is what the book is all about.
It is about the many authors, translators, scribes, scholars, and editors of the Bible. It is about what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote and why they wrote it in such ways. It is about the ghost writers using pseudo names. It is about the verses that got inserted into the Bible, and about the many more Gospels that did not make the cut. It is the story from the very beginning to our modern point of time in the likes of NIV Bible and New King James Bible, and the behind the scene evolution in between about what constitute the sacred texts of the faith, which span over hundreds of years.
Central to the debate is of course the teachings of Jesus Christ. However, the birth and the spread of Christianity was actually thanks to Paul. As Erhman explains, “the New Testament is largely made up of letters written by Paul and other Christian leaders to Christian communities (e.g., the Corinthians, the Galatians) and individuals (e.g., Philemon).” And the problem today is, the 21 letters that survive in the New Testament are only a fraction of those written in total. For example, in 1 Cor. 5:9 “[Paul] mentions a letter that he had earlier written the Corinthians (sometime before First Corinthians). And he mentions another letter that some of the Corinthians had sent him (1 Cor. 7:1). Elsewhere he refers to letters that his opponents had (2 Cor. 3:1)”, and none of those referred letters survived today.
Moreover, most people who live in the early era of Christianity were illiterate, while the printing press has not been invented yet until the 15th century. Thus, the vital role of the spread of Paul’s letters lie in the hands of the scribes, who copied the letters word by word into a manuscript. In the early days scribes were only volunteers who can read and write, and not necessarily an informed scholar. Thus the early manuscripts were ridden by so many errors and typos and misinterpretations.
The human shortcomings then continued with the copied manuscripts being copied themselves, while it is also not uncommon that the writings were intentionally altered due to forgery, misquotation, or even inserted with hidden agendas, which dilute the original texts over time and can create discrepancies.
For example, the story of the woman taken in adultery, as it turns out was not originally in the Gospel of John, but instead it was added by later scribes. Another similar example is the last 12 passages of Mark (the elaboration of Jesus’ resurrection), that was also added by a latter scribe. It is also argued that the member of the Apostles were in fact larger than the list of 12 men, with women played a significant role, but was largely edited out.
Furthermore, even a difference of one word in a translation can change the meaning of the story altogether, such as in the story of Mark 1:39-41 where Jesus heals the man with a skin disease. While in one surviving manuscript the translation in the start of the sentence of Mark 41 reads “And Jesus, feeling compassion…. (from Greek word: Splangnistheis)”, scholars found another translation that said “And Jesus, feeling angry… (from Greek word: Orgistheis).” Indeed, the difference between compassion and anger provide an entirely different tone of the story.
Meanwhile, as Christianity progressed to become a major religion, the level of sophistication of the scholars also level up. This was the era when many translations and editions of the Bible emerged, from Jerome’s Vulgate, to the Polygot edition, Complutensian Polygot, the Greek New Testament, translations by Stephanus, by Beza, by Elzevirs, by John Mill, and many more scholars (most of whom are profiled in chapter 4).
And along with the growth, the many theological debates among these translators, scribes, and scholars also become increasingly professional and fascinatingly combative as time progresses, which brilliantly occupies the great latter half of this book.
Perhaps the biggest debate can be found in the 2nd and 3rd century, where there were Christians who naturally believed that there was only one God, but there were also other Christians who believed that there are two gods (the God of wrath and the God of love and mercy), while other such as Gnostic Christians insisted that there are 12 gods, another sect believed that there are 30, others said 365, all of whom insisted that their views were true and had been taught by Jesus and his followers. These different sects as you can imagine wrote different interpretation of the holy texts. And the debates cover a lot more grounds, including whether Jesus was the son of God, if Jesus’ death brought about the salvation of the world or not, and so on.
It is discomforting to conclude that, according to Erhman, “[t]he books we call the New Testament were not gathered together into one canon and considered scripture, finally and ultimately, until hundreds of years after the books themselves had first been produced.” Even the King James Version that is fairly familiar for us, “is filled with places in which the translators rendered a Greek text derived ultimately from Erasmus’s edition, which was based on a single twelfth-century manuscript that is one of the worst of the manuscripts that we now have available to us!” And the newer versions such as the New King James, Revised Standard Version, or the Good News Bible? They are all still based on texts that have been changed in places.
So does this mean that the Bible is a fraud and its integrity is compromised? No, far from it. It is indeed a shocker at first, that reality is never that straight forward, that these holy scriptures were not directly given by God in one piece from the very beginning (perhaps God intended it to evolve this way?). But what Erhman shows is the New Testament is a very human book with all its human flaws, which makes it authentically ours.
This very human problems explain, for example, why there are many Christian denominations today that are filled with intelligent and well-meaning people, who “base their views of how the church should be organized and function on the Bible, yet all of them coming to radically different conclusions (Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Appalachian snake-handlers, Greek Orthodox, and on and on).”
And while the scholarly debates among these different denominations will unlikely to reach a unifying conclusion in our lifetime, one important thing is certain: the many good messages of the Bible remain uniformed and universally applicable. That the basic lessons from Jesus are not lost in the political debates.
So which denomination is the authentic one, which sect is the right one, or which version of the Bible is the correct one? It doesn’t matter what or who the messengers are, as long as the messages are passed on and implemented daily by the good-intentioned Christians. As they say, “love thy neighbour, and the rest is commentary.”