What We’ve Gotten Wrong about the Bible, and Why We Need to Reconsider

It’s a crazy book to be sure, and crazy people love to beat non-religious people over the head with it, despite the fact that Jesus (in the Bible) told His followers not to do that.

It’s an ancient book too. Our modern Bibles are copies of copies of copies – spanning thousands of years. The people who made these copies sat at a table, with a pen, and a candle, and were sure to make mistakes, and press their own agendas.

The most popular book ever written about the origin of the Bible (to my knowledge) quickly became a bestseller, mainly because it told us what we wanted to hear – the Bible we have today doesn’t represent, with any reliable degree of accuracy, what was originally written. Toss it. It’s garbage.

Eat that, crazy religious people.

The problem is that the archaeological evidence doesn’t support this book’s conclusions, neither does a book that the same author co-authored some years before writing Misquoting Jesus.

You can say that the Bible is a crazy book, and reject it, and I’d totally understand, and we could still be best friends.

But you can’t say that what we have today doesn’t represent what was first penned.

I know, I’m an Evangelical, and this smacks of me trying to defend my tribe at all costs. But I swear to all that is holy that I’ve done my homework here. I’ve considered as many sides of the argument as I can. And while this might sound like it’s going to be a boring, nerdy blog post, there’s an interesting story here. Hang tight for a bit.

The Dead Sea Scrolls.

Sometime in the mid 1900’s, a shepherd tending his flock near the ancient settlement of Khirbet Qumran threw a rock into a cave to scare out one of his sheep that had wandered in. He heard a crash, then entered the cave to investigate. His rock had broken a jar containing what he thought to be a bunch of old leather – a portion of it was sold to make shoelaces until someone got a clue that these were very old, very valuable religious documents.

Among these manuscripts was a complete copy of the Old Testament book “Isaiah,” dated around 125 BCE (the actual book was penned around 700 BCE).

At the time, the oldest copy of Isaiah known to be in existence was penned around 1000 CE.

There was a stretch of almost 2000 years between what was originally written and what we had in our hands. It was widely believed, understandably, that the 1000 CE copy of the Isaiah scroll could be nothing like the original. Too many scribes (and others) had gotten their hands on it – surely it was corrupted beyond restoration.

And now we could prove it. We had a copy of this scroll that was penned somewhere in the middle between the original and the 1000 CE version. Everyone knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that when the 125 BCE version was compared to the 1000 CE version of the Isaiah scroll, they’d be different, proving that the people who made all these copies, changed them – over and over again.

Here’s what happened, and it turned everyone’s understanding of the Bible on its head – for awhile.

When the 125 BCE Isaiah scroll was compared to the 1000 BCE version, there were differences. Here’s an example of one place where these two scrolls diverged – from Isaiah 53:3, what many scholars believe to be a prophecy of the coming Messiah:

  • He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 1000 BCE version
  • He is despised and rejected of men and man of sorrows, and he knows grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; and despised him, and we esteemed him not. 125 BCE version

Of all the differences now catalogued between these two versions, 95% of the time, they’re not a big deal, and don’t change the meaning of the text. Sure, there’s an occasional “big deal” change that was made by ancient scribes, but a) it doesn’t happen very often and b) modern scholars are really good at comparing all the manuscripts we have and getting at the original – sort of like people who restore old paintings, they can tell what’s missing by what’s there.

What the Dead Sea Scroll taught us was that, somehow, a bunch of ancient, different, unrelated people managed to transmit a very lengthy document for 1000 years with an alarming level of accuracy.

Misquoting Jesus

The same holds true for the scads of New Testament manuscripts that we have in our possession. There are differences – legions of them, but the vast majority are “small deal” differences; something akin to “see spot run” vs. “see spot hasten.”

For example, one copy of Galatians 1:4 reads “… who gave himself for the sake of our sins” while another reads “… who gave himself to atone for our sins.” Someone changed something, but both say the same thing.

To be sure, there are “big deal” changes that were made, something akin to “see spot run” vs. “see spot read,” but they don’t happen very frequently (liberal scholars put it at 5%, some say less), and again, there are folk trained in the fine art of getting close to the original based on what they have.

In the popular book I mentioned above, Misquoting Jesus, Dr. Ehrman only offers “big deal” examples of the changes scribes made. He doesn’t mention the fact that these don’t happen very often. This leaves the reader with the impression that every time a scribe changed something, it was a huge change that significantly diverged from the original meaning of the text.

It’s easy to read Misquoting Jesus and walk away believing that our modern Bibles are garbage.

But in an earlier book that Dr. Ehrman co-authored, the facts are more clearly stated – 95% of the time, scribes got it right, for thousands and thousand of years. For some reason, he left that out of Misquoting Jesus, which is a good thing if you’re trying to sell a book about the Bible to our modern culture.

Word of God?

Bart Ehrman’s spot-on. Scribes changed the Bible – they got sleepy, left out some things, added others. Sometimes they got uncomfortable with what they were reading. Sometimes they added explanations and qualifications, either in the margins or directly into the text. But, at worst, 95% of the time they did it right – no technology, no governing body, nothing to keep them in check, save the fact that they thought they were copying the very words of God, and they might get in a world of trouble if they screwed up.

You can say that the Bible is utter hogwash, or that the people who wrote it were crazy, but the belief that we can in no way recover what was originally written, or that our modern Bibles are a collection of horribly corrupted manuscripts has no sound evidence.

For me, the Bible has saved my keester on many occasions. In it, I’m commanded to unconditionally forgive, to invest in the lives of people who are poor, folk who are hurting. It paints the picture of a God who doesn’t fuck around, yet also loves and forgives without limit or qualification.

This book has taught me to give myself and everyone around me a break, which has brought a level of peace to my life that no other book has.

And when another Bible-believing brother or sister tries to convince me of things that are “un-Biblical,” like “fight the gays!” and “God’s a Republican!” I’ve been formally trained to use the Bible to straighten them out.

There are some things in the Bible that are difficult to reconcile, and hard to understand. If there is a God who can know and do much more than us, His truths will seem weird, even crazy at times. So I go with the stuff that seems clear to me, and leave the rest to the mercy and love that the Bible has led me to count on.

3 thoughts on “What We’ve Gotten Wrong about the Bible, and Why We Need to Reconsider

  • Spot on! Bart Ehrman is a gifted writer with deep insight into the history of religion, but misses not only the point that the essential message of the Judeo-Christian message holds up very well with ‘all’ the redactions, but that one can still be a Christian without believing every statement of scripture to be literally true.

  • Wow Mark great thoughts again! And I strongly agree with what Matt says! What I don’t understand is how with the incredibly busy life you have that you have the time to think these thoughts through to this level! Impressed! I am beginning to realize just how “out there brilliant “ my wonderful nephew is and I am hoping I can open a conversation with you though a “private message “ that may help me deal with issues I have in this area in my own crazy head! You know those things that keep one up all night trying to make sense of? I will be attempting to try to start that road to understanding them through you if you are willing and have the time? If you can not I totally understands! I would attempt to try this with your dad but I would not stand a chance with him as I have tried and just don’t speak his language!! Lol. Otherwise if you cannot I totally understand and will continue to look forward to these wonderful weekly blogs! PS you still owe me from “saving “ you from that Camp Wilkes” experience!! Yes?? Rolf but again no pressure!! Love my nephew!!

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