This past Thursday, Phi Beta Kappa, an honor society for the liberal arts and sciences, hosted a talk titled “Misquoting Jesus: Scribes Who Changed the Scriptures and Readers Who May Never Know,” given by Professor Bart Ehrman from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The lecture was held in Tyrell Hall and the main room was completely filled well before 7:00 p.m. when Professor Ehrman began talking. In his talk, Professor Ehrman focused on examining how the New Testament came to be through a historical lens.
After a brief explanation of what his talk would center on, Professor Ehrman began by examining the Gospel of Mark. He explained that most biblical scholars agree that Mark was first written around 70 AD, about 40 years after the death of Jesus. Our oldest surviving copy of Mark is from around 220 AD, 150 years after it was first written. The copy was called P45 and about half the pages were missing, and those that remained were torn.
The first complete record of Mark is from the 4th century, 300 years after the original Mark was written. This is not an uncommon story among many of the books of the New Testament. This poses a question: is a copy of Mark from 300 years after it was first written still accurate, and are the other books accurate to the source material as well?
To answer this question, Professor Ehrman called our attention to all the Greek manuscripts we had of the Bible. Professor Ehrman focused on the Greek manuscripts because Greek was the language the New Testament was originally written in, and as such our oldest copies are all in Greek. There are around 5,500 surviving copies of these Greek manuscripts. 94 percent of these copies were made after the 9th century.
Mistakes were obviously made when copying these manuscripts throughout the generations. That is not in debate among scholars. After all, there were no printing presses or printers to easily produce accurate copies. Instead, manuscripts were painstakingly copied by hand. This led to human error, but how much and how serious was it?
Today, there are more differences in manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. A vast majority of those mistakes are inconsequential spelling errors or errors that don’t come through in modern day translations. However, there were some serious blunders, such as entire missing lines or paragraphs.
Since all of these manuscripts were copied by hand, a mistake in an older version would be repeated in all newer ones. However, by comparing the different manuscripts, many of these differences can be resolved. More serious errors were not mistakes at all, but intentional changes or removals.
Some examples of intentional changes given by Professor Ehrman were John 7:53 to 8:11 and the last twelve verses of Mark. The passage of John is about Jesus defending the woman taken in adultery, by saying “he that is without sing among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” The last twelve lines of Mark say that Jesus appeared to many of his followers after his death, that believers who have been baptized will be saved, those who don’t believe will be condemned and that Jesus ascended into Heaven.
Both of these passages appear nowhere in the oldest complete records of Mark and John. Because of this, most scholars are in concurrence that these passages were added in later and were not in the original texts.
Professor Ehrman concluded by saying that there are some passages which we know to have been altered, added or removed, many passages that scholars continue to debate and some we may never know about.
He explained that this does not have to challenge whatever faith you may hold, unless it is a purely fundamentalist one. The content of his lecture is common knowledge among all biblical scholars, many of whom are still staunch believers.
Professor Ehrman said whether or not the New Testament is the inspired word of God, it is an undebatable fact that it has been altered and changed over time by human hands. This is a fact that should be acknowledged and accounted for.
But as Professor Ehrman pointed out, the fact that it has changed over time does not destroy its validity. All of our ancient texts, such as those of Plato and Aristotle, have undergone this same process. One should simply be aware of the factors that affected the New Testament we possess today.