Having grown up with a strongly religious parent and regularly surrounded by eager Christians, I became familiar in hearing quotations from the Bible and the vicarious way these people would often use them to judge others. Opinions were vociferous and usually black and white (difficult to empathise for someone who thinks in shades of grey) and always backed up by some saying or other in the New Testament. I began to suspect that you could pretty much pick out any one-liner to justify any argument you felt like voicing. Yet despite my developing misgivings, I couldn't bring myself to devote the time to really study a book which I instinctively felt was flawed anyway.
Roll on twenty-odd years and the answer, well, to my prayers arrived and a catharsis in Bart D Ehrman's excellent Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (AKA Whose Word is It? The Story Behind Who Changed the New Testament and Why)
We learn that in the early first century CE, stories were circulating about a man called Jesus who had recently died. These tales and accounts were told and re-told between folk for thirty-plus years until a man put paid to the accumulating effects of 'Chinese whispers' and wrote the first Gospel. He was Mark. Matthew and Luke came a generation or so after that, borrowing from various sources including an intriguing document called Q. The Gospels and many other writings were then copied by hand countless times (no printing presses then), translated, and copied again - a process that went on for several hundred years. Believe it or not the earliest surviving biblical text of any significant volume is no earlier than two centuries after Christ died. By the way, the Gospels were 'named' by the Church in the 3rd century too as they were in fact all written anonymously! Who like me thought some of them were actual Disciples? And who realised that the Bible wasn't fully formed until three hundred or so years after Christ died, a process which involved the rejection and destruction of unknown numbers of other Christian writings?
Then there was the imperfect science of manuscript copying, especially of the original Greek with its tricky characteristic of having no spaces between its words. And then we must consider the reliability of the Bible writers, copyists and translators who were in fact human, and being human had that tendency for error, bias and spin, which Ehrman ably evidences.
So most of us who have read the Bible and indeed those who quote it at will, are ultimately relying on a book which is an English translation of a Latin translation of a Greek copy of a myriad of other 'copies' of written interpretations of decades old local stories of a dead man named Jesus. Depending how blind your faith is will determine how accurate you think that two thousand year process has been.
One of the appeals with this book is the way Ehrman studiously informs and enlightens in such a non-judgemental way. He is respectful of the reader's potential religious beliefs and he doesn't ask you to 'choose a side'. Indeed, and notwithstanding a brief rundown of his Evangelical youth in the introduction, at no point does he let you know his own religious beliefs.
For a subject matter I anticipated to be arduous and heavy, all credit to Ehrman this book was a breeze to read.