A Book Review – Whose Word Is It?

The Story Behind Who Changed the New Testament and Why

by Bart D Ehrman

Ehrman is an eminent biblical scholar and is currently the James A Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina who according to his Wikipedia entry is one of North America’s leading scholars in his field which focuses on textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus and the development of early Christianity. I think it is safe to say that the words of Ehrman have enormous gravitas and must be taken seriously.

Whose Word Is it? is the antidote for anyone who believes that the modern bible as we know it today is the inerrant word of God. Indeed Ehrman in his book presents a strong case for reappraising many of the cherished and widely held beliefs concerning the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity and divine origins of the bible itself stem from intentional and accidental alterations by scribes – alterations that shaped the bible we know today.

Assuming that Jesus was in fact a real person it becomes clear early in the book that no original documents from Jesus are extant – no writings of any kind in fact. This revelation alone (‘scuse the pun) should be enough to cause concern for what this means is that de facto what followed was at best – at the very best – second hand and it soon becomes apparent that evidence and careful analysis shows that second hand is nowhere near to being accurate. It is convincingly argued by Ehrman that the reality is that the documents forming the basis of Christianity were many times removed from being second hand and the reasons for this are quite clear and are also so obvious that perhaps they have been overlooked until Ehrman pointed them out.

Christianity as explained was a religion founded on books – The Old Testament – but the majority of followers of the new Christian religion were illiterate so matters of religion tended to be addressed and answered by letters written and distributed to early christian communities by leaders. The letters of Paul the apostle being amongst the earliest and best examples. In the rapidly growing religion of christianity there were other forms of writings disseminated to early christian communities such as the early Gospels, early Acts of the Apostles, Apocalypses, Church Orders, Apologies, Martyrologies and so on, mostly written in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE (Common Era for non-christians). These writings or teachings were important to the growing number christian communities and were a unifying force being used to guide them in their faith and practice – often against differing views from other teachers who had different interpretations of the life of Jesus. Ehrman expalins how these writings or books about the life of Jesus eventually began to assume an authoritative nature for the beliefs and practices of faith and formed the basis of what would become the Christian Canon.

The most obvious point Ehrman makes and one which, in our age of printing and mass distribution thereby making every copy identical in every detail – well almost – is that early texts were individually copied by hand and were therefore unique and different. As today differences can emerge for example when translating from one language into another thus differences emerged in early Christian texts between transcriptions from Aramaic, Greek or Hebrew. Early Christian documents were copied and recouped by scribes time, a process which naturally lead to deviations from the original. Divergences of texts which started out as supposed copies of one letter sent to Christian communities who spoke different languages could end up being quite different. Copy errors could be made by simple textual mistakes – confusing one word for a different but very similar word – other times as a result of differing interpretations of the text, sometimes from differing interpretations of difficult or incomprehensible passages or indeed sometimes to suit the religion leanings of the scribes doing the copying or nuances of the target audience. Christian communities in the western Roman Empire were not the same as those in the Byzantine east.  Another point made is that early scribes weren’t professional they were more likely to be literate members of a community who would copy texts in their spare time or literate slaves of wealthy masters. Professional copiers were still a few centuries in the distant future of these communities.

Furthermore Ehrman explains that in earliest times there were numerous sects – Ebionites (adoptionists), docetics, gnostics, proto-orthodox all with differing interpretations of the religious texts and often these were altered or adapted to fit their particular beliefs and prejudices. In modern parlance each sect had their own spin. Such beliefs and practices changed over time and included such topics as the role of women in the church who in the early years often assumed high ranking and significant roles within the churches but who by the Middle Ages became suppressed and marginalized by later scribes who altered earlier Christian copies of texts (examples of name changes from feminine to masculine exist showing the male centric bias of the later church) to suit milieu of the day; the King James 6th edition Ehrman convincingly argues was not given by God but was a 17th century translation by a group of scholars based on a faulty Greek text yet all modern bibles continue to transmit what are probably not original texts e.g. Luke 22:43-44 and in some places we don’t even know what the original texts were.

Ehrman writes with authority and in a style which makes Whose Word Is It? an effortless, enjoyable, enlightening and a thoroughly absorbing read. It can be read and enjoyed by anyone with even the vaguest passing interest or question in their mind about how The Bible came to be and he tackles in an entertaining way deep questions about the integrity of the scriptures which people read today. Those who hold The Bible to be the inerrant word of God may find this close textual analysis threatening but the arguments and conclusions presented are logical and inescapable.