Culture At Large

When it comes to Bible texts, are you a Bruce or a Bart?

Nathan Bierma

There is no original copy of the Bible. That's partly, of course, because the Bible wasn't a single book until the fourth century after Christ. But it's also because all we have of the original manuscripts of the Bible are copies - actually, copies of copies of copies - and hardly any of them are exactly alike.

Imagine a handwritten letter going through 1,000 different copy machines and how poor the document quality would be by the end. Now imagine that letter going through 1,000 scribes, each one re-writing each word by hand, and you can suppose that the process had its moments of imprecision.

Soon you might be able to search these textual differences one by one in a groundbreaking online database. That's the goal of a laborious project by the Center for New Testament Textual Studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. A recent article about the center's mammoth undertaking to document textual variations among all available ancient manuscripts says Philippians and 1 Peter will be ready this fall, with the rest of the New Testament completed over the years to come.

We shouldn't overstate the differences among ancient copies of biblical manuscripts. Most estimates say that manuscripts agree on over 90 percent of the text and that arguably little in the remaining 10 percent is crucial to any major theological question.

Still, it's more than a little disconcerting to think that something as sacred and authoritative as the Bible was subject to such alterations and discrepancies. Even though most variations involve merely different words or added phrases (or, in one notorious case, an accent mark), the most famous cases are where entire verses and stories were added apparently long after the original gospels were written. The story of the angry mob who caught an adulterer, in which Jesus told them that anyone without sin should cast the first stone, isn't in any early copy of the gospel of John. Luke apparently didn't say that Jesus sweat blood in Gethsemane, though that later insertion has succeeded in framing the Gethsemane story for us and reminding us of Jesus' humanity (the reason, presumably, it was added).

It's hard to imagine that scribes faithfully scrawling the words of Scripture, out of devotion to the sacredness of the text, could make such improvisations, but they did.

Armed with this historical knowledge about the text of the New Testament, you can do one of two things: You can become a Bruce Metzger, or you can become a Bart Ehrman.

Metzger literally wrote the book on New Testament textual criticism. Metzger, who died in 2007, was arguably the most knowledgeable scholar of the New Testament text in the world. He was the driving force behind the New Revised Standard Version (which begins with his excellent preface). His fascination with the intricacies of different biblical manuscripts seems to drive him deeper into Scripture, deeper into its meaning, deeper into its history. What resulted was a palpable love for the words of the Word.

Ehrman was Metzger's student and then co-author. After a fundamentalist upbringing that stressed the inerrancy of Scripture, Ehrman was intrigued by the checkered history of biblical manuscripts, but eventually his interest resulted in him losing his faith. In 2006 he wrote a book with the "Da Vinci Code"-like title: "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why" and has since written a few more, most recently "Forged: Writing in the Name of God - Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are."

Ehrman is too good a scholar to think that the Bible is actually a fraud foisted on an unsuspecting public; he knows how the writing and transmission of any ancient manuscript works. He just seems to enjoy poking holes in the balloon of fervent fundamentalists' inerrancy (and most days, so do I). However, his studies have seemed to cause a very real personal crisis of faith for him; he now says he's an agnostic.

I don't think most Christians have seriously wrestled with the textual history that Metzger and Ehrman have studied and that the new database at the Center for New Testament Textual Studies will document. But I can imagine some of these uncomfortable realizations moving believers in either direction: towards Bruce or towards Bart.

You could be a Bruce - furthering your appreciation for Scripture's deep and deeply human history and marveling that God speaks to us through words that have been on such an eventful journey of transmission over the centuries. Or you could be a Bart - bitterly casting off the simplistic assumptions of your younger faith and concluding that the whole thing is a manipulative concoction.

Which way will you choose?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Faith, Theology, News & Politics, History, North America