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Mon, Nov. 18

New book examines changes in the Bible

People now have a lively interest in the life of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity.

The recently authenticated document called the Gospel Of Judas is receiving worldwide publicity. Several new books about Jesus and early Christianity are in the bookstores. One that I find fascinating is titled "Misquoting Jesus," by Bart Ehrman, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. Dr. Ehrman is a world-recognized authority on the texts of the New Testament.

Because none of the original writings for the books of the New Testament exist today, not even one, Bible scholars have long struggled with the task of trying to determine what the original writings said. It becomes a real detective story.

Many people accept the doctrine that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God. The problem is that we do not have the words that God inspired, only the words that scribes copied repeatedly over many centuries, with thousands of mistakes and deliberate changes.

The first New Testament book written was the first letter from Paul to the Thessalonians, followed by other letters from Paul to friends and new churches. Various gospels also took written form during this time. Some of them are part of the New Testament; some are not.

Christians wanted to know about the life and teachings of Jesus, so several Gospels that scribes wrote, Including Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are part of the New Testament. Mark's came first, and later it provided a reference for the writing of Matthew and Luke. Gospels attributed to Philip, Thomas, Judas, Mary Magdalene and others exist, but didn't become part of the New Testament.

The only way to circulate and keep these writings was to make copies by hand. For the first two centuries the copiers were any Christian who could read and write. They did it in their spare time, and made innumerable mistakes. Later, professional scribes did a better job but they still made mistakes. And once one scribe made a mistake other scribes often copied it later.

If you see photos of the much-publicized Gospel of Judas, you'll notice that all of the characters are evenly spaced on the pages, without any separation into words or sentences. That was the way they wrote back then, and it led to confusion and errors. As an example, the English letters "godisnowhere" could mean "God is nowhere," or it could mean "God is now here." The same problem existed in the original languages.

Every time a scribe translates writing from one language to another, the meaning may change a little, and that's why Bible scholars must be able to read the old languages. Our differing English translations were "best efforts" at the time scribes copied them, but that's all they could be.

Most of the scribes' mistakes were carelessness, but sometimes they changed a text because they thought it should be different ­ perhaps assuming that an earlier scribe had made an error which needed correcting, or to make the text fit the scribe's personal belief. Fourteen centuries of copiers' alterations took place before the invention of the printing press, then it continued for a while after that. A professor at Oxford University spent 35 years comparing texts, and concluded that "some 30,000 places of variation" exist among the surviving manuscripts.

Ehrman gives many examples of different wordings for the same verse, and tells how the "textual critics" (which he is) go sleuthing to make an informed opinion about which version is closest to the original. Because none of the originals exist and thousands of differing copies do exist, informed opinion is about the best anybody can do.

I offer no opinion. You can decide for yourself whether this melange of mistakes affects your thinking about the Bible.

The Prescott Library has one copy of "Misquoting Jesus," but you may have to wait awhile. It currently has 37 "holds" on it.

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