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Alleged: Journalistic malpractice in early Christianity

by Jordan Green

The young man rose in the balcony pew of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Greensboro at the end of the religious studies professor’s talk. He wore a look of concern bordering on anguish on his face. He said he had recently converted to Christianity and was trying to become a better person.

‘“Everything you’re saying to me is really dangerous to me because it’s slandering what I’m trying to believe in,’” he said.

‘“How old are you?’” the professor asked.

‘“Twenty,’” he said.

The professor paused a moment, then looked him the eye.

‘“You’re old enough to handle this then,’” he said. ‘“My view is that knowledge is never harmful. Knowledge can never hurt you. Ignorance is harmful. What I’m giving you is not interpretation. What I’m giving you is the facts.’”

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why was published last year. Its author is Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. The book has caused ripples within parts of the Christian community. One Kansas woman reportedly stopped attending Catholic mass after reading the book because its major finding ‘— that scribes imperfectly copied sections of the gospels that provide an account of the life of Jesus, and that the authors of the gospels contradict each other ‘—’ undermined her belief in the inerrancy of the word of God.

The book has prompted other Christians to examine their faith more critically. Local members of the Christian clergy, along with some Jewish clergy and religious studies students, filled most of the pews at the Church of the Covenant on April 3 to hear Ehrman’s message.

Ehrman, once a fundamentalist Protestant, found his own faith tested when he first started examining the roots of Biblical scripture. He said he took comfort in the words of St. Augustine, who wrote that whatever is true is of God.

‘“God is not the author of lies,’” Ehrman said. ‘“I pursued truth in whatever direction it took me.’”

Ehrman said by the time the version of the Bible used by the orthodox church was compiled more than 5,000 manuscripts in Greek and thousands more in Latin ‘— all copied by hand ‘—’ were floating around.

‘“There were accidental and intentional changes,’” Ehrman said. ‘“Sometimes scribes were incompetent. Sometimes they got lazy. Sometimes they got sleepy. Accidental mistakes would be made where a scribe would leave out an entire line. Most of those changes don’t matter, and often the changes are easy to catch.’”

Other changes appear to have been made to lend theological cohesion to the scriptures.

For instance, in chapter 2 of the Book of Luke when Jesus is found by Mary and Joseph in the temple and Mary says, ‘“Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you,’” Ehrman said some scribes changed the line to ‘“Joseph and I have been anxiously searching for you’” to protect the notion of the virgin birth.

‘“There are a hundred thousand to four hundred thousand variances in existence,’” Ehrman said. ‘“I tell my students that there are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.’”

Other changes would have dire consequence s for relations between Christians and Jews living in the Roman empire, Ehrman suggested.

Some versions of the Bible removed the line of the Gospels in which Jesus is supposed to have asked God the father to forgive his persecutors just before he was crucified.

‘“There are scribes that are caught up in the anti-Semitic thing going on in their day,’” Ehrman said. ‘“They took out ‘“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’” because it refers to the Jews. They considered the Jews ‘Christ killers’ and you can’t have God forgiving the people who were responsible for Christ’s death.’”

Another passage, cherished by many Christians, appears to have been added to the Bible long after the death of the original author.

The passage, in chapter 8 of the Book of John, involves a woman accused of adultery who the Pharisees wanted to stone to death, in accordance with the law of Moses. Jesus is supposed to have told the Pharisees, ‘“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’” In turn, Jesus is supposed to have told the woman, ‘“Go and sin no more.’”

‘“No Greek scholar writing a commentary on the Gospel of John even mentions it until the twelfth century,’” Ehrman said. ‘“My guess is that someone heard the story and liked it, and stuck it in the margin of the manuscript. And the next scribe saw it in the margin and said, ‘Oh, this story got left out.””

Ehrman’s research changed his faith, the professor said.

‘“I gave up my fundamentalism when I realized we didn’t have the original words,’” he said. Coming to see the scribes and writers of the gospels as human he became a liberal Christian.

Something more elemental caused him to lose his faith altogether.

‘“How do you explain the pain and suffering if there’s a benevolent God?’” he asked. ‘“It’s the problem of suffering. I am an agnostic now, but I describe myself as a happy agnostic. If everybody had what I had I would be a firm believer in God.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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