Thursday, June 2, 2011

Whose Word is it?

Bart Ehrman explicated an argument in his masterful book Misquoting Jesus which I take to be something like this:

1. If God inspired the words of the Bible, he would have preserved the words of the Bible.
2. God did not preserve the words of the Bible.
Conclusion: God did not inspire the words of the Bible.

The conclusion follows from the premises, so the only the thing we need to worry about is whether or not the premises are correct.

That "God did not preserve the words of the Bible" is undoubtable, since the words of the original New Testament manuscripts weren't preserved at all, as thousands upon thousands of changes were made to the New Testament as it was copied again and again.

The only thing one may question is premise 1: If God inspired the words of the Bible would He preserve them? Evangelicals have cautioned us on this. Not so fast, they say. By far most of the changes that occurred when the New Testament was copied are trivial (such as a spelling error) and it is dubious to claim that God would have preserved everything down to the very letter. God would preserve the original meaning of the text, of course, but to claim God would preserve more than that is not a reasonable or warranted expectation. Besides, evangelicals tell us, scholars have a vast number of manuscripts to look at and are able to deduce what the original text said. So according to evangelicals, the words were (kinda sorta) preserved.

A few caveats: There were at least a few significant interpolations. Example: In Mark 16 everything after verse 8 is an interpolation. No biggie, say the evangelicals, we know that because the earliest manuscripts lack those verses, so we still have access to the originals. Besides, there were no doctrinal changes.

And Scholars are not able to reconstruct "the original" version of the book, they are only able to reconstruct the common source that all of the manuscripts we now have were copied from. Is that a problem? Well, the common source for all of our manuscripts was probably not more than a few generations of copying away from the original (i.e. the common source was a copy of a copy of a copy of the original) so there wasn't much time for interpolations to occur. Then again, some scholars believe that there were lots of interpolations that occurred back in those early days (Richard Pervo commented in The Mystery of Acts that during the early days, every new copy was "a new edition" and if I recall correctly it was because of his study of the Q document). Richard Carrier has even made the point that interpolations would be more likely to occur in the early days because there were few manuscripts around and the odds were thus better that you wouldn't get caught if you added something.

All that leads to an important question: what if one of the books of the New Testament was altered early on in a way that seriously changed the meaning of the text, or affected some core doctrine of Christianity? As far as I knew, no one could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this had happened and thus the argument wasn't really a serious hurdle for Christians.

Up until now I was basically in agreement with the Evangelical point of view in that I didn't think Ehrman's argument falsified Christianity. I thought it created some problems: Namely, because every non-fragmentary manuscript we have of the New Testament dates well over 100 years after the books were originally written, we can't really know for sure if any changes concerning substantial issues were made in that time frame. Further, for those who argue for the resurrection of Jesus, it is tricky to make the case when your only evidence is the New Testament, a book that could have been (and probably was) altered in all kinds of ways that you'll never even know about. But let us put these concerns aside for a moment.

On reading Richard Carrier's blog recently I discovered that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is an interpolation. Let's take a look at the passage in question:

"Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church."

How do we know it's an interpolation? Carrier explains the reasons on his blog, and I would only like to add that Philip Payne's article (which presents evidence that this passage was missing from some manuscripts) is located on his website for all to read.

The church that I went to as a kid always forbid women to speak during services AT ALL because of this passage, which, as it turns out, was fabricated. Ehrman's argument shines with new force.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you want an even more devastating argument go read what Hector Avalos says about text criticism in The End of Biblical Studies. Bart Ehrman is being too conservative according Avalos.