- We do not have the original manuscripts of any of the books in the New Testament, but only copies - over 5000 copies, just in the Greek language in which these books were originally written.
- Most of these copies are centuries removed from the originals.
- All of these copies contain mistakes both great and small, as scribes either inadvertently or intentionally altered the text.
- The vast majority of these changes are insignificant, immaterial, and of no importance for the meaning of the passages in which they are found.
- Other, however, are quite significant. sometimes the meaning of a verse, a passage, or an entire book depends on which textual variants the scholar decides are "original."
- As a result, there are many passages of the New Testament where scholars continue to debate the original wording. And there are some in which we will probably never know what the authors originally wrote.
Ehrman explores the reasons for these mistakes and alterations. Some of the mistakes are accidental - scribes miswrote words or skipped lines. These mistakes were then copied by other scribes which led to series of manuscripts that differed from others. Some mistakes changed the meaning of the text by creating nonsense or by altering meaning. (some manuscripts have John 5:39 saying that the scriptures are sinning against Jesus and other manuscripts say that they bear witness to Jesus). Other changes are more intentional. If a scribe came upon a verse that just didn't make sense to him, he might alter it to something more comfortable assuming that a mistake had already been made and that he was correcting it. Other intentional alterations involved using the scripture to promote one theological view over another. For example in order to combat the Docetic heresy (which claimed that Jesus only seemed to be human but really wasn't "fully man"), scripture was altered to stress the humanity of Jesus. Passages that didn't include strong statements of humanity had them added in - like the lines about Jesus "sweating blood" in Luke. Changes were also made to make the scriptures more acceptable and relevant to the surrounding cultures. To the Pagans who scorned a "Son of God" who was common, poor, and convicted as a criminal, certain verses were changed to portray Jesus in a less base manner (saying he was only a son of a carpenter and not a carpenter himself as the text originally had it.)
Example after example is given over debates over which manuscript has the more original meaning. Ehrman discusses the historical search for accurate manuscripts and the process which scholars use to determine which version is closest to the original (all the while admitting that we will never fully know what exactly the originals said.) I found it a fascinating process to see how the politics, bickerings, and human conditions produced such different texts of scripture. And while we at this point have very good manuscripts to make translations from, I am fully aware that there are still politics and debates that influence what words appear in our English translations. Living in a area full of publishing houses and bible translators, I have heard from those translators or staff the often painful stories of how we get our most popular translations. Stories of committees who were overruled in their translation by a powerful big name who had a differing interpretation. Or of translation houses who have board members who are very very outspoken against women which results in those translations including the restrictive translations of the passages involving women. As Ehrman writes, "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 the texts only by explaining them in light of their own knowledge, explicating their meaning, putting the words of the texts "in other words.""
So how do we respond? Did any of the examples given shock you or shake your assumed faith? Do the examples help you understand the Bible more or less? How do you feel about the Bible being altered to be relevant to discussions that mean little to most people these days? Does knowledge of textual criticism leave you wanting to learn more or does it overwhelm you?