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Not as overwhelming as the title suggests
on 27 May 2010
As a former-evangelical who's faith has cooled somewhat - much like Ehrman himself, though for different reasons - I thought this would be a useful book to get a more rounded view on why the Bible is a product of men rather than God. I finished feeling rather underwhelmed.
For one thing, Ehrman makes what I think is a chief error at the outset by labeling Christianity a "religion of the book". Having studied church history in some depth, I think this is highly incorrect; Christianity did not become a religion of the book until Martin Luther proclaimed "sola scriptura" as the final authority of faith. Until then, apostolic tradition was a co-equal force in determining orthodoxy, and was appealed to by the "proto-orthodox" writers at least as much as scripture.
Secondly, on a related note, Ehrman seems to think he's really pulling the rug out from under Christianity by highlighting textual variants in the manuscripts. Actually, the only faith that is having the rug pulled from under it is the kind of fundamentalist Christianity that tried to sift through the text with a fine-tooth comb and squeeze implausible amounts of significance out of specific wordings - the kind of Christianity that things we can know what the "middle verse of the Bible is". For most sensible brands of Christianity, Ehrman's revelations will scarcely be troubling; especially the Catholic and Orthodox churches which continue to recognise Tradition as a vehicle of revelation.
Thirdly, I must complain that Ehrman seems to repeat the fundamentals of his case infuriatingly often. Phrases like "on occassion the debates made an impact on the text being copied, as passages were changed to reflect the views of the scribes reproducing them" appear at the start of almost every chapter, and several times throughout. So often I found myself thinking "Yeah, you already said that, get on with it!"
Fourthly and finally, whilst Ehrman gives an excellent and accessible overview of the history of textual criticism and it's methods, I found myself wondering if modern scholarship assumes too much about the motives behind textual changes. Is it really reasonable to assume that the scribes producing the manuscripts were involved with the theological debates of their day? Can it really be said for certain that the change of a theta to an omicron in 1 Tim 3:16 - such as to render it "God made manifest" rather than "who was made manifest" was made to counter 'adoptionist' interpretations, when verses in the gospels in which Jesus says "the Father is greater than the Son" are left intact?
There are some pretty major points that come out of the book, such as the probable absence of some important Bible passages from the original autographs, but overall I think that Ehrman doesn't have as major a revelation as he thinks, and if he had originally found faith in a Catholic or Anglican theological college rather the Moody Bible Institute, I rather suspect his faith would never have been rocked by what he learned.