Bart Ehrman was a first-year student at Princeton Seminary when a professor’s remark about a Bible passage changed his life. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells a story about King David when Abiathar was high priest. But Abiathar was not high priest at that time, according to the Old Testament. His father Ahimelech was. Ehrman wrote a thirty-page paper arguing that Jesus didn’t really say that Abiathar was high priest. He made several points, including how Greek words have more than one meaning. It was a convoluted but clever argument.
“My professor liked the paper,” Ehrman recalls. “I got a good grade, but at the end he wrote, ‘maybe Mark just made a mistake.’”
This shook Ehrman’s whole world. Before this, he had thought the Bible was without error.
“After all this fancy footwork trying to interpret away this problem, the simplest solution is that it’s just a mistake,” he says. “This opened up the floodgates. Once you acknowledge there could be mistakes, you start finding them everywhere.”
Ehrman embarked on a twenty-five-year journey, both scholarly and personally, that culminated in his new book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.
Turns out there are thousands of errors in the New Testament, Ehrman says, and several places where passages were added to early versions of the Bible.
Remember the classic story about the woman taken into adultery? She’s about to be stoned before Jesus confronts her accusers: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The men say no more and walk away. Jesus looks up and asks the woman, “Is there no one who condemns you?” The woman says, “No one, Lord.” Jesus finishes the scene: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” It’s the ultimate story of forgiveness and compassion. Too bad the passage doesn’t exist in the earliest versions of the Bible, Ehrman says. It was added much later by scribes. Why? “A scribe heard the story, and thought that it exemplified Christ’s forgiving nature,” Ehrman says. “Maybe a scribe originally wrote it in the margin, and a later scribe thought that the story had been left out.”
But is the passage in the original Bible? No one knows because there is no original Bible. We know that it was written on papyrus, and that the original language was Greek. “I think people read them so much that they just disappeared,” Ehrman says. Subsequent copies, also written on papyrus, were heavily used and then lost to history. “We don’t even have copies of the originals, or copies of the copies, and so on,” Ehrman says. Most early Christians probably thought duplicates were sufficient, he says, but didn’t think about human error, or worse, a scribe’s desire to change or add passages. The original version of Revelation, though, actually contains a verse warning against adding passages to the Holy Book. It is commonly thought that John, the author of Revelation, wrote the passage as a testament to the completeness of Christianity or prophecy. But Ehrman and most textual critics say that John was simply trying to tell future scribes to leave his version alone.
Included in the things copyists added is the only passage that explicitly affirms the trinity. It reads, “There are three in heaven that bear witness — the father, the word, and the spirit. And these three are one.” It is not in early Greek versions, so sixteenth century humanist Erasmus left it out of his first edition.
“The theologians went ballistic,” Ehrman says. But Erasmus said he would include the passage in his next edition if theologians could show him a Greek manuscript that contained it. They copied one of their Latin versions into Greek and gave it to Erasmus, who was true to his word. The King James Bible and subsequent English versions were based on this second edition. It’s not clear if Erasmus knew what the theologians had done.
Still, Ehrman says, we have 98 or 99 percent of what the New Testament authors wrote. “The problem is that one or two percent winds up mattering,” he says. Sometimes, a one hundred-word passage contains one important error. Ehrman points to a story in the Gospel of Mark about Jesus feeling compassion before healing a leper. Some of the earliest versions, though, say Jesus felt angry. Scholars can’t say why Jesus would’ve been angry — at the man, disease, or society — but the meaning of the passage changes because one word is altered.
Ehrman’s book is full of similar examples, but he says he’s not out to dismantle Christendom.
“The ultimate goal of the book, contrary to what people have suggested, is not to destroy anybody’s faith,” he says. “The goal is to give people information about something they are interested in, or should be interested in, because the Bible is the most important book in the history of our civilization.”
The truth is that the Bible is a very human book that has been changed many times, Ehrman says. “This should give people pause when they want to argue for their points of view based on a literal reading of the text,” he says.
Literalism, then, is Ehrman’s target.
Ehrman wasn’t raised in a particularly religious environment. His family revered the Bible for its ethical teachings and stories, but not as something to be mastered. For him, that changed when he attended Christian youth meetings during his sophomore year of high school. He says he had “a bona fide born-again experience” that launched his life in a new direction. He attended Moody Bible Institute, where faculty and students had to sign a statement that said the Bible was the inerrant word of God, completely and divinely inspired, and with no mistakes.
It was there that Ehrman learned that the original Bible doesn’t exist. This didn’t bother most students, Ehrman says, but it stuck with him.
After Moody’s three-year program, he finished his bachelor’s degree at Wheaton College, where he began to study Greek. Questions about the text surfaced because Greek and English are very different languages, in which similar words have various meanings. If that’s the case, then how could the words be understood in their literal sense? Ehrman wondered if believers had to be Greek-reading scholars to understand the Bible literally.
These questions led Ehrman to Princeton to study textual criticism. After his professor’s off-hand remark about the mistake in the Gospel of Mark, Ehrman sought and found many other inaccuracies. If the Bible is strewn with errors, how can it be interpreted literally?
Of course, even literalists see Biblical metaphors. “The trick is separating metaphors from literal truth,” Ehrman says. “Literalists make decisions to their advantage.” When literalism is put into action, he says, fundamentalist deeds are often the result — the Inquisition, the KKK, oppression of women, slavery, suicide bombings. Same goes for religious ethical teachings. When those are played out in deeds, good things usually result.
Interestingly, Ehrman says, New Testament scribes were not literalists. Neither was Paul, who interpreted the Old Testament allegorically and spiritually. “That should be a lesson to modern Christians about how the text should be interpreted,” he says. “You can see that the text has some kind of authority behind it without urging a literalistic interpretation of it.”
Ehrman also says that there were many forms of Christianity in the early days, just as there are today. “I think recognizing this ought to make people a little more tolerant toward other forms of belief, because even in the early Church, nobody had a corner on the truth.”