This is the third and last post related to what is known by most Christians about the Bible that ain’t so. While much of this information is reported in Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, the following facts have been well known to well-informed, objective Bible scholars for almost two hundred years:
- We do not have the original writings of the New Testament. What we have are copies of these writings, made years later—in most cases, many years later. And none of these copies is completely accurate since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places. All scribes did this.
- There are more differences among preserved manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
- The twenty-seven books we call the New Testament were not gathered into one canon and considered scripture, finally and ultimately, until hundreds of years after the books themselves were first produced.
- We do not know precisely how old the New Testament is. It could be 1,200 years; we just don’t know. But we do know that it’s not 2,000 years old as I was taught growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness.
- The third-century church father Origen, made the following complaint about the copies of the Gospel at his disposal: “The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.”
- The story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery in John 7:53 – 8:12 is arguably the best known story about Jesus in the Bible. It is a brilliant story, filled with pathos and a clever twist where Jesus uses his wits to get himself—not to mention the poor woman—off the hook. However, to the careful reader, the story raises many questions. To name just two:
- If Jesus did teach a message of love, did he really think that the Law of God given by Moses was no longer in force and should be obeyed?
- Did he think sins should not be punished at all?
- Good questions, but as it turns out, the aforementioned verses were not originally in the Gospel of John. In fact, they were not originally part of any of the Gospels. Scribes added these twelve verses later. This story and these verses are not found in the oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John and the writing style is very different from what is found in the rest of John.
- The last twelve verses in the Gospel of Mark were invented by a scribe many years after it was in circulation, and absent from the two oldest and best manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel. It’s a mysterious, moving, and powerful passage and used by Pentecostal Christians to show Jesus’ followers could speak in unknown tongues. Ironically, it’s also the principal passage used by “Appalachian snake-handlers” who take poisonous snakes in their hands to prove their faith in the words of Jesus.
- Paul did not write verses 34 and 35 in 1 Corinthians 14. They were added by a scribe, possibly influenced by 1 Timothy 2, which we know was written by a follower of Paul, not by Paul. (1 Timothy was forged in Paul’s name by someone living later.)
- The anti-Jewishness of some second- and third-century Christian scribes played a role in how the texts of scripture were transmitted. One of the clearest examples is found in Luke’s account of the crucifixion, where Jesus is said to have uttered a prayer for those responsible: “And when they came to the place that is called ‘The Skull,’ they crucified him there, along with criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’” (Luke 23:33-34) As it turns out, this prayer of Jesus cannot be found in the oldest manuscripts which date back to about 200 C.E. It’s first found in manuscripts produced during the Middle Ages.
- The Christian scribes—whether of the early centuries or of the Middle Ages—not only copied scripture, they changed scripture. Sometimes they didn’t mean to – they were simply tired, or inattentive, or on occasion, inept. At other times, though, they meant to make changes, as when they wanted the text to emphasize precisely what they personally believed about the nature of Christ, or about the role of women in the church, or about the wicked character of their Jewish opponents. (In the 1950s, Jehovah’s Witnesses rewrote the Bible, calling it The New World Translation, to make it fit their unique beliefs. So it should not come as a surprise that this type of thing happened many, many times in the long history of the Bible.)
How the Bible was finalized – a basic history…