on 2 November 2008
There's a joke about a new monk at a scriptorium innocently asking an older monk about a particular word. The old monk has been happily copying from copies for years, but humours the novice by going into the cellar to check the original. Hours go by and nobody sees him. Eventually, they hear sobbing and descend to find the old monk slumped over the original text. They ask what's wrong, and in a choked voice he replies, "The word is celebrate."
Many Christians throughout history have believed that "the Bible is the inerrant word of God" and that it "contains no mistakes". Even if that were true, in the sense that the original words were inspired by God, the problem is, we no longer have those words. In this brilliant book, Bart Ehrman explains why - unlike in the joke - checking the Bible against the originals will forever remain a fantasy. He explores the many ways in which changes have been introduced, gives a crash course in textual criticism, and arrives at the startling conclusion that "the translations available to most English readers are based on the wrong text".
We are so used to the printed word and the reliability of modern mass manufacturing that we usually ignore the processes by which the spoken word or a writer's thoughts come to be recorded on the page. Occasionally, we may notice a typo, but that rarely interferes with meaning. Our strong impression is that, while we might not agree with the message, we can trust the medium. This trust, however, proves to be spectacularly misplaced when it comes to the ancient collection of texts known as the Bible.
Whatever you believe about the historical figure of Jesus and the existence of the Christian or any other god, someone, somewhere, wrote down for the first time the story of, say, the wedding at Cana. The manuscript thus produced was the autograph. Where is it now? Gone. Along with all the autographs for every other Bible passage! Oh dear. If you believe those were the words of God, that the production of those autographs was inspired by God, and that the truth of the stories contained within them is guaranteed by no less an authority than God, then failing to preserve them must come as quite a blow.
Thank goodness, therefore, someone made a copy. Some sensible person made a backup, and this is what we are reading, two thousand years later.
Alas, it's a little bit more complicated than that. Before computer hard drives, before printing presses, the only way things got copied was by hand. Ehrman puts it bluntly: "The more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realized just how radically the text had been altered over the years at the hands of scribes". Naturally, being human, scribes made mistakes, misspelling a word here, leaving out a line there, even bungling whole sentences. Surely, proofreading would pick up pretty much everything? Proofreading, however, implies the ability to read, and early on in the movement most Christians were "uneducated" and "illiterate". Not the scribes, surely? Sometimes, even the official local scribe - for example, Petaus, from the village of Karanis in Egypt - couldn't read "the simple words he was putting on the page."
Still, it was all sorted out "soon after the death of Jesus"? Hardly. It took until the year 367 for Athanasius to formulate the canon. That's over three centuries for an often amateur, illiterate, haphazard scribal tradition to transform the autographs into the "twenty-seven books" of our New Testament. Scribal competence is not the only issue, however. Scribes were not impartial robots; they sometimes modified the text deliberately, "for theological reasons." There was no orthodoxy, and many questions were being asked for the first time. Competing groups of Christians each claimed they possessed the truth about Christ. Appeal to scripture became crucial and what could be more tempting than for a partisan scribe to alter a text so that it supported his own position?
Does it matter, for example, that the Bible has "been altered in such a way as to oppose an adoptionistic Christology"? Does it matter that this change was made "to counter a claim that Jesus was fully human" or that scribes transformed another passage so that "Christ is not merely God's unique Son, he is the unique God himself!"? The possibility that the divinity of Jesus was a scribal invention ought to be of some interest to Christians, but how many pay the slightest attention to textual criticism?
"Christianity from the outset was a bookish religion that stressed certain texts as authoritative scripture... however, we don't actually have these authoritative texts." In the end, "we can't interpret the words of the New Testament if we don't know what the words were." That, of course, hasn't stopped many Christians down the ages from reading the scripture and claiming to know God's will. Much suffering has resulted from their overconfidence. That medieval Christians did not know what we know is one thing, but every modern Christian has a duty to reflect upon Ehrman's simple, yet profound, question: when people quote the Bible, which Bible are they quoting? Not which modern edition, of course, but which manuscript lies at the root of the text? Faith has often found fertile soil in ignorance. Given what we now know about the origins of scripture, the assertion that the Bible is the unadulterated word of God can itself only survive as an article of faith.