It takes no small amount of courage to shed a faith, even more to do it publicly. Bart Ehrman depicts his conversion to evangelical Christianity, with its insistence on Biblical literalism. He goes on to explain how studying the Gospel writings led to questioning the wealth of inconsistencies they contain. From there, he realised that by following what others insisted was "Truth", he had avoided what was indeed true. The stories of Jesus simply failed to present what had actually occurred in Palestine in those years. Putting faith in what the Gospels related was misplaced effort. From his studies, he recognised that there are no "original" texts. What had come down to him and others was the work of imperfect or purposely misleading copyists. How this scenario developed is the theme and purpose of this work.
The earliest "gospels" are Paul's letters to various congregations. After establishing many of these groups, he became aware of differences in outlook and practices among them. Many letters must have been exchanged, Ehrman suggests, between individuals and groups. These missives would be copied by those literate enough for the task. It was difficult to understand what the text was imparting since the letters ran together without word spaces or punctuation. With the early texts penned in Greek, many words were easily misconstrued or even changed, some in innocent error, some with a purpose in mind. As the centuries passed, even the role of Jesus was defined in various ways. Those followers who came to be known as "gnostics" [a term Ehrman views with some suspicion], questioned the divinity of the man they venerated. How could a deity be crucified? The opposing camps produced reams of text to support their arguments and oppose that of others. The Christian canon was a long time in development, and when one was finally chosen as "orthodoxy" it was enforced by imperial fiat. Orthodoxy became a legal matter.
The predominance of Roman authority in Western Europe led to the Latin Vulgate bible issued in the Fourth Century C.E. Not for another millennium did a Greek text emerge. It was produced by the Dutch monk, Desiderius Erasmus in the midst of the Protestant Reformation. It lasted for nearly three centuries. More importantly, it was the foundation for the widely used "King James Version" produced in English a century later. Erasmus, in his haste to provide a Greek text, used a "mere handful of medieval manuscripts" which were woefully inadequate as reliable "originals". The copying techiques that had been used were hardly unblemished. The "Greek Bible" thus rested on highly questionable authenticity.
Among the problems raised by Erasmus' version of the Jesus story is that of the "Johannine Comma". This passage is the sole reference in the Vulgate that defines the triune nature of the deity, Jesus and the resurrected "spirit". This definition is missing in the available Greek texts and the nature of the "Trinity" must be derived from a multitude of various passages put out by a spectrum of authors. Since Erasmus didn't include the Johannine Comma text, there was outrage expressed by the theologians of his day. If the concept of the "Trinity" is without foundation, a mainstay of Christian orthodoxy thus collapses. It took another century for biblical scholars to examine and compare the available Greek texts. The result, particularly a study by a John Mill, who spent three decades at the task, to compile a list of thirty thousand variations in the writings. The ensuing scandal exceeded even that of Erasmus' day. With so many errors, how could the texts be "divinely" inspired?
According to Ehrman, most of the errors were simply innocent mistakes. Nodding scribes in monasteries, skipping a passage or reading one twice, poor penmanship leading to "wrong" words and just plain ignorance was often responsible. More serious were those changes imposed by copyists to "correct" a passage. The meaning was incorrect or a citation listed in order to make a point. One significant insertion referred to Jesus' genealogy as coming directly from Abraham. Another is the variations in the portrayal of Joseph, Mary's husband. Or "betrothed" as some scribes depicted him. The difference hinged on whether Joseph was Jesus' biological father, which impacted the concept of "virgin" birth.
Ehrman goes on to describe the rise of the "Higher Criticism" in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Calling this text analysis movement "The Quest for Origins", he describes the work of such scholars as Richard Simon, Richard Bentley, Johann Bengel, Johann Wettstein and others. Each was a serious analyst, bent on devising new analytical techniques. As these methods were successively applied, yet more revelations emerged. Inevitably, some of these were theological, with fresh characterisations of Jesus resulting. Certain texts depicted him as either angry or compassionate in a given circumstance. Others portrayed him in conflicting views of his confronting his end. Some of these depictions again raised the issue of what kind of being Jesus was. In an aside, Ehrman considers how the "gospels" changed the view of Christian society toward its own women and that regarding the Jews. Ehrman notes the irony of Jesus being born and living as a Jew, yet whose life and supposed sayings were tranformed into one of the most Jew-repressing forces in history. It was a simple matter, Ehrman shows, to change texts to present an anti-Jewish orthodoxy.
Ehrman's book, which is derived from an earlier and larger text, is one of the first to delineate the issue of modifying sacred texts. His style is light and conversational. It must be a delight to attend his lectures. Since he documents his sources and explains the changes in the text as far as he can follow them, the book is a valuable resource. That there are those who will condemn him for raising these issues is undeniable. Yet, so is the case he presents. It's a book well worth reading - perhaps more than once. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]