Wednesday, September 05, 2007

An Interesting Read

I read Misquoting Jesus by Bart Erhman last night. It was good enough that I couldn't put it down until I finished it and good enough to mention here, though it might have been nice if it went into a bit more detail on the subject.

Things I learned/had duh! moments on after reading the book (if you already knew these things, congratulations):

  1. There are more textual differences between the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament (between 200,000-400,000 differences). Most of these differences are forgotten or transposed words. Occasionally scribes changed wordings to (it is claimed) correct what the scribe thought was an error, to make a passage more consistent with some other passage, or to give further support to what the author calls the proto-Orthodox view of Christianity.

    One example of this from the book is 1 Timothy 3:16 in the Codex Alexandrinus, one of the earliest, most complete manuscripts surviving today. What one reads on the parchment today is approximated by the King James translation (published in 1611) of this verse:

    And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.

    What someone discovered in 1715 was that the Greek word for God was quite clearly not the original word written on the page. The original word was who. Someone had modified who to look like the abbreviation for God commonly used in Greek manuscripts. The wording prior to modification is approximated by the more modern American Standard translation (published in 1901):

    And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness; He who was manifested in the flesh, Justified in the spirit, Seen of angels, Preached among the nations, Believed on in the world, Received up in glory.

    A minor detail, but the first version presents much stronger evidence of Jesus' divinity than the second. This was probably useful when arguing against people who claimed Jesus was not God.

    And obviously there's no one original Greek that we have today. So when someone tells you such and such is in the original Greek, the first words that come out of your mouth should be which original Greek?

  2. The Greek manuscript used for the King James translation of the New Testament was from the 12th century and is (according to the author) one of the worst manuscripts we have today. See above for one example.

    I had a friend in high school who claimed the King James translation was superior to all others because, in his words, it was translated by 50 righteous men. Guess it's one of those garbage in, garbage out situations which 50 righteous men can't solve.

  3. The time when it was most important that we have consistent and accurate transcriptions of the various manuscripts making up the New Testament -- when the church was figuring out what Orthodox Christianity was going to be -- was the time when the least accurate copies were made. Professional scribes weren't regularly used to copy manuscripts until the 300's, after Constantine became a Christian and Christianity started entering the mainstream (for those keeping score, that's 270 years after Jesus died). Before that, it was semi-literate and literate Christians who made copies of manuscripts in their free time.

    This was a duh! moment for me, but it made me kinda upset. Growing up going to a Christian school, they teach that you can trust that the copies were accurate because the monks would throw away a page and rewrite it if it contained more than three errors (don't know if it's true, but that's irrelevant). That's great, but the damage (if you want to call it that) was already done by the time monks entered the picture. I'm going to add that one to the lies by omission column.

The discussion of deliberate word changes was pretty interesting, as was the discussion on how Bible scholars attempt to determine what the original text was. There's nothing in the book earth-shattering that would make you change your mind on the Bible (though this study did cause the author to lose his faith as he went deeper into his post-grad and doctoral work). For me, it's further evidence that the Bible was not an inspired work but rather the Wikipedia of its time: everyone (well, everyone semi-literate) could edit it, most people did so honestly, but some people made changes to suit their purposes. Only difference is, Wikipedia lets you see all the revisions and lets you easily see what changed between them (and no one claims Wikipedia inerrant, nor do they claim it authenticates itself). For a Protestant, none of the changes are major enough to invalidate Sola scriptura (and if pressed I'd probably agree that that's true of what was presented in this book). For a Catholic, it's further proof that Scripture is not a sufficient basis for Christian faith and morals and that the Church (in the capital-C Catholic sense of the word) is the final arbiter of those things.

One thing I hope anyone who reads this book (and indeed I recommend it to anyone who's read this far into the post) takes away from reading the book is that one needs to be careful when using an argument that depends on the specific wording of a specific verse. It's possible that this wording wasn't what the author originally wrote. If your argument is a big-picture one based on your interpretation of the overall feel or theme of a chapter or book, you're probably on much safer ground.

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