But Jesus never said that.
In my last post on Jürgen Moltmann, I pointed out that the passage he relies on so heavily, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani) appears in only two of the four gospels. In Luke, Jesus seems calm and in control of his own death. The same applies in John, where Jesus says that the power to crucify him comes from God, not man (19:11). The conclusion I draw is that one cannot rest an entire argument on a single verse from the Bible, especially if (as in this case) different gospels quote Jesus quite differently.
The problem arises because the gospels were written forty to sixty years after Christ’s death. They rely primarily on second generation oral tradition, a source called Q and Mark. The first to write about Jesus was Paul, who wrote the letter to the Corinthians about 53-54 CE, a little over twenty years after Christ’s death. But Paul, who was concerned with missionary matters, never wrote about Christ’s crucifixion.
The problem runs deeper than this. It’s not just a question of which gospel, but which of the hundreds of copies of the book in question are we going to rely on, each a little different, and sometimes a lot, from the other. We possess no autograph copies, as originals are called. We possess only copies of copies of copies of copies. The first copies of Mark (the first gospel) that we possess are fragmentary, and were written around 200 CE. Others come later.
How many differences?
In the early eighteenth-century, the theologian John Mill published a version of the New Testament with notes indicating about 30,000 variations in about 100 different manuscript copies he had drawn upon. Recently, Bart Ehrman, in Misquoting Jesus, estimates there are between 200,000 to 400,000 variants, based on 5,700 Greek manuscripts, and 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and other ancient translations (pp 87-89). Other estimates run higher, though it’s important to note that most of the variations are minor, and do not change the meaning of the text. But some do.
John Mill was criticized heavily, and with a little thought it’s easy to see why. The Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther had as its motto sola scriptura, by scripture alone. We don’t need priests to tell us what God says. Trouble is, which scripture, which copy, when? If there is no single authoritative scripture, does sola scriptura have any meaning at all? Catholic critics quickly seized on this weak point, and the problem has never completely gone away.
The great changes that have taken place in the manuscripts of the Bible…since the first originals were lost, completely destroy the principle of the Protestants…, who only consult these same manuscripts of the Bible in the form they are today. If the truth of religion had not lived on in the Church, it would not be safe to look for it now in books that have been subjected to so many changes and that in so many matters were dependent on the will of the copyists (Richard Simon, quoted in Ehrman, p 102)
Principles of selection
Let’s not exaggerate the problem. Most of the textual variants are minor, and most are easily explained, such as the transpositions of a pair of letters, or a dropped line, when a copyist skips a line of text. Ancient Greek texts were difficult to transcribe. No capitals, no periods, and no space between words, one word running into another. It was an invitation to error.
Nevertheless, there are principles of selection. The most important may seem counterintuitive: the earliest copies produced by non-professional scribes who were prone to error are actually more reliable than later texts produced by professional scribes.
Non-professional scribes made lots of little errors. Professional scribes, working in later centuries, were more likely to have a theological agenda, transforming texts in order to fit that agenda. In other words, it was the orthodox who were more likely to make changes, amending their copy to fit an emerging Christian theology. Non-professionals make more mistakes; professionals make bigger and more consequential ones (Ehrman, p 54). Add to this that later texts were even further removed from the original copies, introducing still more opportunities for error.
Differences that matter
Another principle of selection is also counter-intuitive. The most “difficult” reading, the one that sounds odd or out of place given Christian theology, is more likely to be the original reading. This is based on the idea, says Ehrman, that scribes are more likely to correct or harmonize passages which they regard as contradictory, in order to bring the theology of the text into line with their own (p 128).
Consider four examples
- In Mark 9:23, Jesus seems annoyed when his power to exorcise a demon is questioned. Is this the self-giving Jesus we think we know? Jesus acted as if he were a charismatic authority who doesn’t like to be disturbed (p 135). Because this does not fit with the overall portrayal of Jesus as infinitely self-giving, but instead like a great man with his own agenda, this is likely to be an authentic passage. It is not what we expect of Jesus, so no “harmonizing” is going on.
- In Mark, Jesus is tormented at the thought that he must die by crucifixion (14:33-35). In Luke, Jesus is generally calm, as though he is in control of events. There is one exception to this portrayal however: at Luke 22:43-44, where Jesus is rendered as “sweating like drops of blood,” and an angel must appear and strengthen him. It doesn’t fit the rest of Luke’s portrayal, and so one might be tempted to dismiss it. But on the principle that “the more difficult reading” is more likely to be authentic, Ehrman and almost all Bibles retain it, even though it makes Luke’s representation of Christ’s passion (suffering) less coherent.
- A significant textual variant is over the question of whether Jesus died “by the grace of God,” or “apart from God.” It depends on how one reads similar Greek words in Hebrews 2:8-9. Although most of the surviving manuscripts state that Jesus died for all people “by the grace of God” (χάριτι θεοῦ); several state that he died “apart from God” (χωρίς θεοῦ). Ehrman, along with some others, thinks that the more difficult reading, “apart from God,” is likely to be the original one. Christians in the early centuries, especially, regarded Jesus’ death as the supreme manifestation of God’s grace. “To say, though, that Jesus died `apart from God’ could be taken to mean any number of things, most of them unpalatable.” (p 142) Unpalatable means not in accord with church doctrine. Ehrman explains why the latter reading makes as much sense as the former, but that’s not the issue here.
- The Holy Trinity is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament. Or is it? 1 John 5:7-8 in some versions contains a reference to the Trinity, but the NIV as well as other translations point out that this reference comes from a late translation from a less reliable source (Latin Vulgate). It makes a difference whether the Trinity appears in the Bible or not. But perhaps not as much difference as one might think, once you recognize that the text of the Bible evolved along with church teachings in the first centuries of the Common Era.
Other familiar passages are widely considered later additions, such as the well-known story of the woman taken in adultery. Should she be stoned ask the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus? Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone, replies Jesus (John 7:53-8:11). Only he didn’t say it. Certainly not in John. About this there seems like controversy today according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.
At first, I was shocked to learn that the Bible isn’t the Bible, and that it’s not just a matter of which English translation you use. In too many cases there is no cast iron scriptural evidence to rely on, and the translations often don’t even tell you that. All that is solid disperses into a hundred different leaves of papyrus.
After thinking about this a little more I’ve decided that this is about what one should expect, especially when most of the changes are from heterodox interpretations to more orthodox ones, in line with the church teachings of the times. After spending thousands of hours copying the Bible, wouldn’t a professional scribe, with theological convictions of his own, be hard pressed not to “correct” previous copies that appeared to make theological errors? Which is exactly why the more difficult, out of place translation is likely to be the original one.
The moral I’ve drawn is that one cannot base an argument on a single passage, verse, or even chapter of the Bible. Context is everything, along with a little knowledge of how the Bible we read today came to be.
Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. HarperCollins, 2005.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross. Oxford University Press, 2005.