The History Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

A photo by Samantha Sophia.

Our modern Bible, good book as it may be, was written thousands of years ago, copied millions of times, translated into thousands of languages, and therefore can in no way accurately represent the Bible that was originally written.

That’s the conclusion of Bart Ehrman’s best selling Book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Dr. Ehrman is considered by many to be one of the most erudite New Testament scholars in the U.S; he’s overqualified to speak on the topic of “New Testament Textual Criticism,” the discipline of attempting to ascertain the original contents of the New Testament.  I think it’s a must-read, with one qualification.

Dr. Ehrman rightly points out that there are over 5,000 complete copies, fragments, and other parts/pieces/manuscripts of the New Testament, ranging in date from early 100 AD forward (preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work). Some are full copies of the New Testament, some are mere scraps containing a few lines. Scholars have pored over these documents…

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41 thoughts on “The History Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

  • All the stories in the Old Testament were based on old tales from pre-biblical tribes. The Jesus bit was all written after the death of the apostles from recollections. Same with other sacred texts of other religions.
    The word of god it is not – it is the word of many men (and no women) from long ago. Yet people put such great value on every single word. Of historical interest but not what they purport.

    • Have you read any of the scads of books that run counter to your perspective? You don’t have to believe the Bible if you don’t want to, but there’s tons of evidence for early dates of the New Testament texts. It’s always important to be able to articulate both sides of the argument, even if you only agree with one. For me, it’s interesting that people who give the NT docs a late date tend to not give the Bible a second look, and those who give it an early date tend to give it alot of weight. Both sides have a dog in the hunt and as such interpret the evidence differently. Both sides should be studied and considered, otherwise our perspectives are, at best, half-cocked. Edit: sorry if I’m making assumptions – tired and caffeinated over here… Are you learing to fly?

  • This was a clear post and a great read! I’ve read some stuff about how the bible came to be and honestly, I lose interest. This was helpful and not overly technical. Thanks for sharing!

  • This was an AWESOME read. I grew up in the Christian faith and was always taught not to question the word of God. But ummmm, I had to be real at the very least with myself and guess what, “No doubt about it, I got questions!” And when I talk to the Savior I ask them, after all it’s my relationship with him!” I understand some of my questions will likely never be answered in this life, but I look forward to understanding it al, in the next phase of my journey. Much like you, leaving the WORD of God and the road of faith at this point in my life…..NOPE. Time has taught me I have received just as much from my answered prayers as I have from my unanswered prayers. And much of what was written, translated, re-written still rings true. I will keep following and the more I do it with out judgement of others but with the inward reflection of becoming a better person to help and assist others is what matters most to me. I loved reading this.

  • I’m a big fan of Dr. Ehrman as well, and love the art (some say science) of textual criticism. I was just looking at Codex Sinaiticus the other day in London, and have the chance to see some of Qumran–including the magnificent Isaiah scroll in Jerusalem (though my Hebrew isn’t good enough to do the comparisons that others do easily).
    I’ve always been puzzled by this argument of Ehrman, which he began about a decade before Misquoting came out (at conferences and lectures, though that is hearsay by other followers; I haven’t met him). I was thinking about why he came to this conclusion. And then it hit me: a person who landed in a fundamentalist undergrad would look at Scripture this way, i.e., that the God-stuff in Scripture is found in the precision of language.
    As a Bible-following Christian trained in the discipline (who went to an evangelical college for undergrad), I am pleased that this hasn’t limited me, or surprised me.

  • Reblogged this on 61chrissterry and commented:
    I agree with every translation there will be some differences in the text, especially when these are not from the original. The more translations there are from translations the differences could be more extensive. The only way to monitor if there are differnces in each translation is to compare with the original, so if this is not available, no one can be sure how accurate any translation is. Then, when viewing the original if this was possible, how accurate would that be, for to be accurate each should have been written by the person on whose knowledge it is based, for scribes may not always write what is verbaly expressed, even if this is done at the time the events occurred. If the scribing was done some many years later, then who can tell what the original meanings were meant to be. Then in some instances were the happenings from reality or assumed reality.

    However, this should not bring any religion into disrepute, for all religions are beliefs and if these beliefs help and give comfort to the individuals who believe then the religion should not be disputed. This should not minimise the credence of any religion and detract from their beliefs, nor should it detract from believers of different religions or those who for other reasons do not fully believe in the total religion of others. For beliefs should be for each individual and not for others to belittle or force others to act against their beliefs, except where this goes against the law and customs of the country in which they reside.

    We should all be tolerent of each other and learn to live side by side, for then and only then will there be peace within the world.

    • Thanx for your thoughts here. Amen on tolerance – ultimately what we’re doing is not tolerating religions, but people.
      Re scribes, etc., I’d reiterate that there is a ton of evidence that these people were life-or-death committed to accurately copying what was in front of them. Re original texts, can they be restored from what we have? Given the very high degree of agreement within the manuscripts, I’d say yes. A good analogy is the Sistene Chapel ceiling – it was restored from what was there. The fact that portions of it were missing doesn’t mean we can restore it within a high degree of accuracy.

  • Very well put together, simply and concisely stated. Though no great scholar I have also read up somewhat on these topics and reached the same conclusions. I would add as you hinted that the greatest proof of the Bible’s authenticity is that it works!
    I do still have some questions regarding the inclusion of some of Paul’s anti women statements which seem at odds with the gospels. (The New Testament Bible was composed from many manuscripts, some included some not – a matter of choice on the part of the governing church body of the time.) Paul never lived with Jesus and had a very conservative Pharisaical background so may have been a little “off” in some respects. While he delivers wonderful sound explanations of love and the old and new covenants I sometimes wonder if some of his less inspired messages were included to reinforce the predominant male supremacy of his time? I’d be interested of any thoughts on the matter.

  • No research will ever prove God is less than sovereign, even over the many years of revisions of the Bible without any departure from who God is and what God’s plan is for us. He knows exactly what He wants written, who He wants to write it, and what He wants us to read.

    Great post!

  • Good stuff! The fact that over such a long period of time a people developed the insight that there was only one God and that people were important to him is a sure sign of grace.

  • Thanks Mark. Every once in awhile the Spirit prompts me to look at a scripture in several translations and then in either the Hebrew or Greek. The free eSword application has allowed me to do that easily – with some 31 free translations and several free commentaries and dictionaries (Strong’s and Thayer’s). There are many scriptures where the translation suggests an institutional bias – people who earn a living from the gospel certainly have a vested interest in translating original texts in such a way as to support the profitable business of religion.

    And yet, Yeshua said “freely you have received (from Me), freely give (to others).” And Paul boasted of preaching the gospel without charge and in several places in his letters, exhorted others to imitate him. How then can people take the words of Yeshua, or Paul, and make them say “the worker deserves his wage”, so pay me? BTW, the word sometimes translated “wage” actually means “meat” and goes back to the OT tithe, which was food. The tithe was never money / wages.

    I guess that means, the real translation occurs in the mind of the reader. So in reading the scriptures, is the reader looking as though an attorney hoping to find an advantageous clause to bind God to do his or her bidding? Or looking for a loophole through which to wriggle out of actually having to do what scripture says?

    Or does one read scripture as a seeker, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Father and Son, lurking behind those ancient words? How well I remember the days of trying to live by some kind of ‘word faith’ – the name it and claim it ideology – or blab it and grab it as some call it. And then came the day I saw it – not the words themselves that have power, but the authority behind the scripture. Simple really – “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” becomes “there is no condemnation … because Jesus” …

    The other thought occurs to me – while there are some who are gung-ho for 1 particular translation – the KJV 1611 crowd comes to mind – there are far more of us who value multiple translations for what they can show us. Where we are accepting of so many english translations, why can’t we wrap our heads around the Scribes doing a little translation of their own? And why would we assume their motivations in altering the text are sinister / deceiving? Might they have been led by the Holy Spirit to make a change that better revealed the One to Whom scripture points? Or is the word of God (truth) so frail that it can’t hold up to some light-handed editing for the sake of clarity?

    Dad likes to tell the story of driving from Seattle to Kansas City in the early 60’s. He used a half-dozen fan-fold maps to get us there. When we arrived, he stuffed them in the glove-box and we enjoyed the summer we spent there. Isn’t it somewhat like that when a seeker (by scripture) finds the One to whom scripture points? Not to say that we never read scripture again, but that it takes on a different meaning after meeting Him. Having met Him, I’m not at all alarmed by the different translations, nor get worked up at differences in the ancient manuscripts. My belief is no longer based on the scriptures, it’s based on relationship with the Father and Son through the Spirit.

    Sorry if I’ve rambled Mark. I’m getting to that age. 😉

    All the best! Jack

  • I love this post. The optional excerpt is perhaps the most necessary thing to say during a wedding to encourage marriages as well as for the newly weds. You are right though newly weds don’t listen but it becomes valuable advice later on. My first year of marriage I spend numerous nights wondering if I made a mistake. As my second year is coming to an end, I have allowed God to put the right people and books to encourage us. My recent read Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas has been of great insight for a godly marriage. How God uses our marriage to make us godly and pleasing to our Lord. I look forward to your posts ! God bless !

  • Not too technical at all, and pretty accurate, as far as I understand. There is a wealth of material available to review that addresses the issues that Bart Ehrnan raises. Interestingly, I just watched a video in which Ehrnan indicated that he stopped considering himself a Christian believer not because of his textual research and analysis, but because of the problem of evil (how can a good God allow bad things to happen to good people). In my opinion, his candid admission, which I admire of him, suggests that his textual criticism is informed by his posture toward God. The same thing can be said of believers, I might add, but that should not prevent any of us from doing our best to be rational, objective and to maintain integrity.

  • I attribute the general consistency in translations over time to the supernatural intervention of God in the writing, and in the reading/understanding by the next translator/interpreter. Truly miraculous. I like your style.

  • I was in English literature major in college. When I took a religion class we read the texts from the major religions. The thing I noticed about the Bible, which was the first time I ever read it, was how intricately woven and incredibly held together it is. When I realized that it was written over 1500 years by 60 some different people, I was struck by the fact that only a divine hand could have woven such a fabric as the Bible. I was not a believer in Christ at that time, but that reality impressed me.

  • I’m no scholar and tend to keep things basic. A comment came up that I often hear.
    The very real question of; “How can a good God allow bad things happen to good people?”. I think it goes back to one of the first great gifts that God gave to his people. Choice. Bad things can come our way through what other people do or what can happen in the natural world. Good things happen in those ways also. We choose how we react and what we believe. That is what defines each of us.

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