Most people in nominally Christian societies (apart, that is, from Biblical literalists) realize that the New Testament has been extensively copied and recopied in the course of its history and that there are consequently questions about the reliability of the text at certain points. Indeed, some editions include variorum readings. However, Ehrman demonstrates that the uncertainties are greater than most non-specialist readers suppose. The information he provides in his book is familiar to scholars in the field but, as he explains at the outset, he is writing for a general audience.
In his introduction Ehrman provides an autobiographical sketch, in which he tells us that when he was a student he was a literalist. He assumed naïvely that what he read in his Bible was exactly what the Gospel writers wrote. Gradually he came to understand why that could not be the case, and he went on to become a New Testament scholar. Today he is chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina.
Many of us, I suppose, have a mental picture of the Bible being copied by monks in the Middle Ages. This did happen, of course, but there was an earlier period of copying by "non-professional" scribes in the early centuries of the Christian era, before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine. Not only did some of these early amateur scribes make errors, but they also altered the text in various ways in order to bring out what they thought were its correct theological implications.
When scribes became professionals, in the Middle Ages, fewer changes of this kind were made but still the same kinds of errors and alterations continued to take place. (Incidentally, the tendency to make mistakes in copying that he discusses in his book seems to have come to roost in the text of his introduction: a line is omitted at the bottom of p.12 and a couple of lines are duplicated at the top of p.14.)
Many of the changes that were made, inadvertently or on purpose, were trivial, but some were not. Ehrman cites two in particular. One is the story of the woman taken in adultery. This appears only in John and it was not there at all originally. So should it be there now? Most scholars, apparently, think it should not, which is a pity, given that it is one of the best stories in the New Testament (which is no doubt why it is still there).
Another change concerns the last 12 verses of Mark, which describe the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. These are a later addition; without them, the story ends with the women fleeing the tomb and saying nothing to anyone because they were afraid. So did the disciples never learn of the resurrection, and did Jesus never appear to them? Presumably the verses were added because the scribes felt that the narrative was incomplete as it stood.
At the end of the fourth century Western Christianity adopted Jerome's Latin translation of the Scriptures known as the Vulgate, still used by the Catholic Church today. Eastern (Orthodox) Christians, being Greek-speaking, were able to read the Greek texts. The Greek New Testament became available in the West in 1515, when Erasmus's edition was published. It became the standard form of the Greek text for the next three hundred years.
The manuscripts Erasmus used were not particularly good; they included the story of the woman taken in adultery and the concluding 12 verses of Mark, and also contained the only passage in the entire Bible that mentions the doctrine of the Trinity. None of these can be found in the oldest and best manuscripts. "They entered into the English stream of consciousness based on manuscripts that Erasmus just happened to have handy to him, and one that was manufactured for his benefit."
Throughout the Middle Ages the text of the New Testament was not questioned, but in the seventeenth century scholars began to recognize that there were problems with it and made attempts to establish an authentic version. Ehrman looks at these developments in some detail, which admittedly becomes a little tedious at times, and then considers what it all means for our understanding of the New Testament.
One might reasonably conclude from Ehrman's account that it is simply impossible to get at the "original" version, but Ehrman thinks that would be too pessimistic. However, he concedes that the problem is very difficult and uncertainties will inevitably remain. But his position is that interpretation is always intrinsic to reading any text, even when its "correctness" is not an issue, as in the case of books that were first published in printed form. The scribes "changed scripture the way we all change scripture, every time we read".
Evangelical Christians frequently say that the Bible is inspired by God, and this was Ehrman's own position at the outset. As a result of his explorations of the text he came to see that it is composed of thoroughly human documents. At first he thought this just in relation to the versions copied by scribes, but then he realized that the same must be true of the original text itself.
… I came to think that my earlier views of inspiration were not only irrelevant, they were probably wrong. For the only reason (I came to think) for God to inspire the Bible would be so that his people would have his actual words; but if he really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words. Given the circumstance that he didn't preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inevitable to me that he hadn't gone to the trouble of inspiring them.This book is not only a readable introduction to the field of biblical scholarship for the uninitiated, it is also an appealing account of one man's personal quest for truth.
See also Ehrman's Lost Christianities
7 April 2006