Bart D Ehrman is arguably the world’s most influential Bible sceptic. As the James A Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he is a gifted communicator widely sought as a speaker and debater.
When we open up the book we find that by far the biggest “changes” Ehrman writes about are the end of Mark (Mark 16:9–20) and the passage about the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11), which are of course points of manuscript variation noted in most modern Bible translations (and probably circulated in hundreds of millions of copies). Based on the content provided in the book Ehrman could equally well have entitled it “The Story Behind Who Changed Small Parts of the New Testament and Why”, though I guess that might not sell so well.
The ideas of change, deceit and cover-up in earliest Christianity are regular themes as we see from other titles by Ehrman:
Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (2003)
Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics (2012)
How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (2014)
Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (2016)
There’s often a major disconnect between the dramatic title and the contents of the book. After all, in an appendix to an early edition of the US paperback of Misquoting Jesus Ehrman admits that if he and his teacher, Professor Bruce Metzger, one of the main editors of the popular Greek New Testament published by the German Bible Society, were editing the Greek New Testament together “there would be very few points of disagreement — maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands.” In other words, what Ehrman would produce would differ little from what stands behind modern English Bible translations. But how many readers of the subtitle The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why would conclude that Ehrman might only be talking of a small number of changes to wording across the entire New Testament?
A recurring theme in Ehrman’s work is that of distance. Whether it’s the distance in time between the New Testament manuscripts and the original authors, or the distance between the original authors and Jesus, Ehrman has a whole array of ways of creating the impression of a huge gap between the New Testament and us.
Ehrman’s story runs like this. Yes, there was a Jesus, who was a preacher who expected the end of the world within a generation, but who didn’t think of himself as the Son of God. He came from the rural “hamlet” of Nazareth, taught in Aramaic and his words were heard by Aramaic-speaking illiterate peasants. Any stories and teachings from Jesus which arrived at the highly literate and educated gospel writers had been through many stages of transmission within an oral culture (and we know oral cultures aren’t even aware how much their traditions change). The gospels were written in the late first century and are probably not by the people whose names they bear. They lived well away from Roman Judaea and wrote 40-65 years after the events.
The best analogy for the way the message was corrupted is what in the US is called the Telephone Game (or, as it rather insensitively used to be known in the UK, Chinese Whispers), the party game in which a message is whispered round a circle of people and the message is easily corrupted as it passes from one person to another.
All this corruption could occur because there weren’t that many people passing on the message. By the year AD 100 there were only about 7,000 to 10,000 Christians in the entire world. The likelihood that an individual in the Roman empire would actually know a Christian personally was relatively slim.
But with more consistency with the evidence one could tell a completely different story. Jesus has as many biographies of him as the most famous person alive at the time, the emperor Tiberius. In these sources he repeatedly indicates that he is uniquely God’s Son.
The names of his disciples reflect the trilingual context: Greek (Andrew, Philip); Aramaic (Bartholomew, Thomas); and Hebrew (John, Matthew) — so that whatever language Jesus taught in there’s no reason to think his teaching could not be correctly handed down in Greek. After the first Easter, Christianity spread like wildfire as reflected in the numbers given in the Acts of the Apostles: 3,000 came to believe (2:41), then 5,000 men (4:4), then more and more (6:7; 11:21; 16:5); people claimed that Christians had turned the Roman world upside down (17:6) and were wrecking the Ephesian silversmiths’ trade (19:24-27); the numbers of Judaean believers alone numbered in their tens of thousands (21:20).
The stress on the large numbers of Christians is something which similarly comes through the reports of Tacitus and Pliny. The book of Acts would have looked completely implausible if, as in Ehrman’s model, it were claiming the Roman Empire were being overrun by a group hardly anyone had ever encountered. There were many people who had seen and heard Jesus. In the four gospels we have two accounts by eyewitnesses (Matthew and John), and two by non-eyewitnesses, but based on eyewitness testimony (Mark using Peter, and Luke interviewing many).
Ehrman’s work is significant because he is so widely read and because he also has developed a comprehensive secular explanation for early Christianity. His position results from an accumulation of choices of more sceptical interpretations of the evidence, but many of these choices are wide open to challenge and indeed are actively challenged by other scholars.
Dr Peter J Williams is Principal of Tyndale House.