Rewriting the Bible

Besides the continual criticism of Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus and God’s Problem among other books, journalist Chris Hedges threw in his two cents at a recent book event to promote his latest work I Don’t Believe in Atheists. When I mentioned the innovative ministry of social justice advocate and Evangelical Christian Jim Wallis, Hedges said he has one major problem with Wallis: Wallis believes the Bible is inspired by God.

He proceeded to list a number of reasons why it’s ridiculous to believe the Bible is inspired by God:

  1. It was rewritten by Christians over time and especially at the Council of Nicea.
  2. The Bible is anti-Semitic.
  3. The Bible is bigoted toward homosexuals.
  4. The Bible supports genocide, especially in the case of the Canannites.

Ehrman would no doubt agree for the most part with this list, especially the first point that has been his bread and butter as a former Evangelical turned agnostic due to his heavy reliance of inerrancy and the subsequent problems he found in the various manuscripts of the Biblical text. If you do a search of my blog, you’ll find a few other articles written in response to Ehrman, but now I’d like to focus on the some of the charges leveled by Hedges. I’ll start with his claim that the Bible was rewritten by Christians with an agenda.

I’ll start with the obvious point that no Biblical scholar will deny that we have a hard time piecing together the various manuscripts of the Bible to produce a 100% copy of the original documents. In fact, there are even two versions of the Greek Bible that arrange the various manuscripts in different ways. The scribes made errors and in some instances, yes, they even made some deliberate chagnes. However, did this interference negate the value of the Bible as our sacred text? Moreover, did their mistakes or changes result in a rewriting of the Bible and a completely different kind of meaning than the original authors intended?

At some points the matter does not look good for Christians. The various books of the Bible were copied and spread all over the Mediterranean world. If you pass something along enough it may very well become very distorted.

However, keep two things in mind here. First of all, the writings of scripture are only part of the story here. The early Christians placed a tremendous amount of authority on apostolic succession, ensuring that they ultimately looked to the teaching of the apostles as their final authority. This helped them wade through the various views clamoring for air time in the Christian church.

Secondly, the heresies that arose between 140 and 190 A.C.E with Marcion and Donatus. strongly suggest that very specific books had risen above the rest in status and authority. In other words, even the heretics knew that they had to focus on particular books if they wanted their beliefs to gain ground. Shortly thereafter the church father Origen wrote extensively and further revealed that the Christian canon or specially inspired books had hardened.

By the time the church gathered at Nicea, the canon was essentially in place and the major doctrines of Christianity had long been established.

Perhaps some scribes tried to tip the balance in the favor of orthodoxy, but these findings are nothing new to Christian scholars. We’ve been dealing with these texts for centuries, and the main problem that stems from any inconsistencies is tied more with Ehrman’s method and interpretations.

I’d like to end with a lengthy statement by Robert Gundry:

“Ehrman also hardens the categories of literary genre, quotation, and copying to such a degree that he seems to think divine inspiration of the Bible would necessarily have produced historicity without admixture of unhistorical elements, quotations that always conform to originally intended meanings, and errorless copying. There’s no room for nuance, free play, or ambiguity. For scriptural inspiration to have worked, everything would have to have been cut and dried. As Ehrman says, “Given the circumstance that [God] didn’t preserve the words [which have ‘been changed and, in some cases, lost’], the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn’t gone to the trouble of inspiring them.”

If you take that line of reasoning further, divine inspiration would also have required errorless translations of the Bible or—since there’s always some slippage of meaning in translation from one language into another—different Bibles, all equally inspired, in every human language; and also again—since one and the same language is in a continuous state of flux—a newly inspired Bible for all human languages every passing moment (compare Ehrman’s statement that “if [God] wanted his people to have his words,” he would “possibly even have given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew”). And since Ehrman one-sidedly avers that “meaning is not inherent and texts don’t speak for themselves” and that therefore readers “can make sense of the texts only by explaining them in light of their other knowledge,” to understand God’s word would require inerrantly inspired interpretation as well as inerrantly inspired writing, copying, translation, and updating. No wonder, then, that Ehrman’s “journey” from evangelicalism came to what he calls “a dead end.” His evangelical faith died by way of a hardening of the categories; and his self-reported post-mortem stands as a warning to evangelicals, from whom he inherited some of that hardening of categories.”

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