Bible scholar considers errors in the "inerrant"

On the first day of a new term, Professor Bart D. Ehrman, author of the controversial Misquoting Jesus: Scribes Who Altered Scripture and Readers Who May Never Know, asked his students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill a series of questions:

"How many of you would agree the Bible is the inspired word of God?" he asked. Hands shot up.

"How many of you have read The Da Vinci Code?" He got the same reaction.

Then he asked how many had read the Bible cover to cover. "Scattered hands," he said.

Ehrman said the incident illustrated one of the paradoxes of living in the heart of the Bible Belt. "I can understand you wanting to read Dan Brown," he told them. "But if God wrote a book, wouldn't you want to read what He had to say?" Ehrman spoke Wednesday evening to a packed, standing-room-only crowd in Cubberley Auditorium as part of the Heyns Lecture Series, sponsored by the Office for Religious Life.

Ignorance is one of the many reasons that the Bible is "one of the most misunderstood books," as well as "the most important book in the history of Western civilization," Ehrman said.

A former evangelical Christian, Ehrman insisted that the Bible's importance goes beyond an immediate circle of believers, since it is used to determine widespread social attitudes about "gay rights, abortion, whether to go to war with foreign countries, how to run society."

The trouble, Ehrman contends, is that we rely on copies and translations of long-lost original manuscripts, which often were worn out or thrown out when scribes made newer copies. We rely on the work of these fallible scribes "copying by hand, one word at a time, one letter at a time," reproducing texts in an era of "no Xerox machines, no desktop publishing, no PDF files, no carbon paper."

Scribes made changes inadvertently because they were "tired or sleepy or distracted." They also made deliberate changes to reconcile inconsistencies as theology evolved with the centuries.

"It's not unique to the New Testament—it's true for every book from the ancient world," Ehrman said. However, the plight with the New Testament is trickier because there are so many copies (5,700 in Greek alone), and the errors were multiplied through so many centuries.

Today, he said, "most Christians never realize there are differences."

He notes that the earliest and most reliable versions of the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the Gospels, ends on a bleak note, with the women seeing the empty tomb of Jesus, fleeing in fear and saying nothing to anyone. In an apparent attempt to prevent the Gospel of Mark from ending on such an abrupt and theologically unsettling note, 12 verses were inexplicably added.

The powerful, moving account of the woman taken in adultery, a famous episode recounted "in all the Hollywood movies," occurs only in the Gospel of John—but it's in none of the earliest and best texts of the Gospel, Ehrman said. Tellingly, no commentaries mention the incident before the 10th century. Moreover, although it fits into the thematic pattern of contrasting Jesus' teaching of "love and mercy" with "breaking the law of Moses," it's written in a style of Greek that differs sharply from the rest of the Gospel text.

Ehrman said people usually overlook serious discrepancies between the Gospels because they read them "vertically"—that is, beginning to end—rather than "horizontally"—that is, comparing accounts.

When reading horizontally, "You start finding enormous differences—it's quite striking with the resurrection narrative." The Gospels diverge markedly in their accounts of Jesus' behavior.

"In Luke, he's completely in control"—for example, admonishing a group of women as he carries the cross and teaching those who were executed with him. In Mark's "powerful and gripping" account, by contrast, Jesus is silent, mocked and abandoned. Ehrman noted that the public, and Hollywood, often responds with "the life of Christ in stereo," cobbling the various accounts together, but the problem, Ehrman said, is that "you're writing your own gospel."

Ehrman favored several criteria for figuring out which account is the "true" one:

First, ask, "What kinds of theological, ideological motives are there for changing text?" For example, Mark 1:40-41 recounts the healing of a leper. The King James account says: "And Jesus, moved with compassion," healed him. In alternative versions, however, the text claims "and Jesus got angry."

"Which text is a scribe more likely to change into the other? The reading that is most difficult to understand is probably the original." In other words, Ehrman votes for the angry version.

Second, Ehrman also votes for authenticity when "some things make more sense in Aramaic than in Greek." The muddled passage where Jesus says, "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath" (Mark 2:27-28) is obscure in Greek. "What is the 'therefore' there for?" asked Ehrman. The meaning is a play on words lost in Greek, and therefore in subsequent translations into other languages.

On the other hand, when Jesus said (in John 3) that a man must be "born again," the meaning hinges on the Greek word that simultaneously means "from above" and "a second time"—hence Nicodemus' bafflement when he asks how a man can return to the womb, and Jesus corrects his misunderstanding. However, the passage is of dubious authenticity because it relies on a double entendre that cannot be reproduced in Aramaic.

Ehrman said the usual reaction from evangelical scholars is: "This isn't news! We've known this for hundreds of years!"

"But no one's tried to tell this to a general audience," Ehrman added. He conceded that few have succeeded: "The reality is that most academics don't know how to talk to a normal human being."

Ehrman's lecture was followed by audience questions about The Da Vinci Code, the Gospel of Judas, Gnosticism, the Emperor Constantine and other controversies and illusions.

Answering contentions that Jesus spent his "lost years" in India, Ehrman said, "Most historians agree that he did what any Jewish lad in a small hamlet would have done: He was working every day. He probably had a hand-to-mouth existence. There are no ancient sources that say anything about him going to India."

Confronted with claims that Constantine tampered with early theology or that early church councils eliminated references to reincarnation, Ehrman advised, "Don't read those books!"

"Look at the credentials of the author," he advised. Seek out "scholars from reputable institutions with reputable degrees." Books from academic publishers get thoroughly vetted; others may be unreliable. When dealing with "independent" researchers, "look at the footnotes."

Asked if Jesus' teachings may have been accurately preserved by an oral tradition, and then transcribed years later, Ehrman said that once-credible idea "has run into trouble." Our attitudes about precision are themselves a byproduct of a written culture, he noted. Moreover, studies of oral cultures have shown that storytellers change detail and presentation to accommodate different audiences.

During an impromptu book signing afterward, Ehrman continued to be besieged by questions. How do we know that now-lost copies are not the sources for the contradictions he cites? "I think it's perfectly possible that a 13th-century manuscript was copying a fourth-century manuscript that is now missing," Ehrman answered.