But Jesus never said that

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.

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