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The Shirtale Review: Bart D. Ehrman - "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture"
By Kerry A. Shirts
Bart D. Ehrman - "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament", Oxford Univ. Press, 1993, 314pp.
This book will simply have to be reckoned with eventually by all Christians as well as we Mormons. For now I want to share what caught my eye, both interesting and challenging with this erudite and intelligently argued book. I am convinced that I'll have to read everything this guy writes. I was astounded because I have found challenges here that excite me, bother me, enlighten me. Fundamentalist Biblicist Christianity has had the death toll struck on their erroneous conception of a perfect Bible, both as to preservation and as to every original word of God being in the Bible. Ehrman's analysis of the history of not only the changes to the manuscripts, but *why* those changes took place is an intellectually exciting yet challenging concern for all of us as I'll demonstrate. I do not pretend to be exhaustive in my analysis, but there is more than enough here to keep many of us hopping for quite some time, were we to take it on.
I have always maintained that the Dead Sea Scrolls, among other documents, have helped demonstrate that Joseph Smith's conception of the Bible was more correct than most Christians' understanding of an infallible and perfect Bible. Smith claimed there were parts that were left out, parts that were changed by designing men. Ehrman certainly demonstrates this, but goes further in noting that much has been added to the Bible that was not there originally. This was the most interesting part of Ehrman's thesis in my view.
His main thesis is crystal clear: "Scribes occassionally altered the words of their sacred texts to make them more patently orthodox and to prevent their misuse by Christians who espoused aberrant views." (p. xi). Ehrman does an admirable job at showing this with the evidence from the manuscripts themselves. What most interested me was also seeing the reasons why scribes changed their texts. Who they were combatting, and what sorts of doctrines they were disagreeing with and later changing the Bible to refute.
We have seen Christians claim that most changes in the Bible are simple grammatical changes, with not very much theological changing going on. Ehrman destroys this wishful thinking by concentrating on the controversies over just who Christ was, what he was, why he was what he was, etc. The main changes in the manuscripts have been theological which have centered on Christ, the central core of all our Christian faith! On some points I believe that Joseph Smith's ideas are supported with the information Ehrman has brought forth. On other points, we Mormons have an interesting challenge here, not to mention the Christians themselves. Instead of ignoring what challenges we have, I feel it far more conducive to faith and learning as well as to a more rounded out understanding to see just what the issues are, and perhaps have better ideas of what to research and study in order to come to a higher, more complete, and realistic understanding of what the Bible is, what the Bible is not, etc. This review will not simply be a head-in-the-sand-review concerning the issues that this book brings up for us. As uncomfortable as it may be, ignoring it, in the long run, will only do more damage than good, for both Christians as well as we Mormons. I am writing this review in the spirit of B.H. Roberts, as devil's advocate, utilizing the other view of opponent stature that perhaps may be used against us, in order to facilitate our own studies in these crucial areas. As Sun Tzu argues, the best way to defeat your opponent, is to know what your opponent knows, that way, there are no surprises. Now with all that belaboring the point that I am uncomfortable with it, let me get on with it.
Ehrman, perhaps better than any other scholar to date, shows that the manuscripts of the Bible were written and copied and recopied, not by emotionless machines, but by living breathing human beings "who were deeply rooted in the conditions and controversies of their day." (p. 3). They could not have approached their task objectively, as they went about rewriting the Bible manuscripts to say what they already felt that the Bible meant! "...theological disputes, specifically disputes over Christology, prompted Christian scribes to alter the words of scripture in order to make them more serviceable for the polemical task. Scribes modified their manuscripts to make them more patently "othodox" and less susceptible to "abuse" by the opponents of orthodoxy." (p. 4). "...it was the perception of their opposition that led scribes of the proto-orthodox party to change the sacred texts that they transmitted." (p. 14). Ehrman shows how the term "heresy" was sometimes the original Christianity which later orthodoxy fought! And in the first three centuries there was not an "orthodox" *original* Christianity, rather, there were various sects all claiming original "Apostolic" teachings! The various sects fought each others' views and claimed their own was the "original" and all others were "heresy". In other words, it won't do to just simply label the Gnostics as the heresy and throw out their beliefs, anymore than it will do to say the "orthodox" are the correct Christian teachings! Orthodoxy was in later times, what the earlier heresy used to be, and vice versa! It is an amazingly complex and utterly fascinating issue which most of us are completely unaware of. We Mormons particularly would do much better to acquaint ourselves further with the history of early Christianity. I say this more for my own benefit than for others, as I hold quite high standards for my own level of learning.
He reviews the history of the various heresies, which I will simply outline.
1. Doceticism: The belief that Jesus only "Seemed" or "appeared" to be human. In fact, Jesus was just a phantom according to this doctrine. Any scriptures dealing with the humanity of Jesus were changed by the proto-orthodox in order to combat what they thought was a heresy about Jesus. In other words, the proto-orthodox felt that Jesus was "really" human, so they changed their Bible manuscripts to emphasize their view of the human Jesus.
2. Adoptionist Claims: Several scriptures were changed because they were directed against the adoptionist factions of Christians who were claiming that Jesus only became God at his own Baptism. Jesus was not born as God, but later was adopted as God's son, during his own baptism. This was another claim that was fought against by the proto-orthodox faction of Christianity.
3. The Gnostic Separationist claim - That Jesus was one person, while Christ was another person. In fact, the Valentinian Gnostics claimed that there were many Christs. In order to combat this the proto-orthodox changed scriptures to emphasize the unity and full name of Jesus Christ as one person.
4. The Patripassianism claims: That Jesus came down to earth as God the Father, not as a Son. So God the Father came down as flesh among men according to this doctrine.
Naturally, the theological debates carried on about Christ by the various factions of Christianity, his humanity, his divinity, his unity, the very nature of Christ caused all sorts of contradictions in the scriptures. Some were ironed out, others remained. Many of the scriptures dealing with these direct issues concerning Christ, none other, were corrupted by the orthodox in order to say what they meant, as against how their opponents interpreted the scriptures dealing with Christ. As Ehrman puts it:
"Some "heretics", like the Ebionites and the Theodotians, claimed that Christ was a "mere man" and therefore not at all divine; in response, the proto-orthodox insisted that he was God. Others, like Marcion and the opponents of Ignatius, claimed that Christ was completely God and was thus human in appearance only; the proto-orthodox responded that he was a real man of flesh and blood. Yet others, like the Valentinian Gnostics, maintained that Jesus Christ was two beings, the man Jesus and the divine Christ; the proto-orthodox argued to the contrary that he was a unified person, "one and the same." The proto-orthodox Christology, then, emerged as a direct response to these alternative perspectives and was distinguished by the paradoxes of its pedigree: Jesus Christ was both God and man, one indivisible being, eternal yet born of the Virgin Mary, an immortal who died for the sins of the world." (p. 275).
Now I'll turn to a few specific examples of why I say we have some interesting challenges, both us Christians and we Mormons when dealing with these Bible manuscripts and the Christological controversies in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
First off, it is important to understand that Ehrman notes the vast accumulation and the constant production of forgeries in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, some of which even the proto-orthodox accepted! There was no unifying canon whatsoever before the 4th century (pp. 22-25). Letters by the hundreds were forgered in the names of various Apostles, which, of course, included doctrines, which any of the various sects of early Christians could utilize as proof of their own doctrines. Many, many texts were changed. Were these mistakes? Many were, to be sure, but many were not. "The copyists were warm-blooded Christians, living in a world of wide-ranging theological debates; most scribes were surely cognizant of these debates, and many were surely participants. Did their polemical contexts affet the way these Christians copied the texts they construed as scripture? I will argue that they did, that scribes of the second and third centuries in fact altered their texts of Scripture at significant points in order to make them more orthodox on the one hand and less susecptible to heretical construal on the other." (p. 25).
Lets examine a few of the more shocking changes that most of us apparently are completely unaware of.
Concerning Jesus' birth and who his father was, we find that Joseph is twice called Jesus' father in Luke's birth narrative (2:33, 48). The majority of Greek manuscripts, however, along with a number of Old Latin, Syriac, and Coptic witnesses, have changed the text to read "Joseph and his mother began to marvel." The change makes perfect sense, given the orthodox view that Joseph was in fact not Jesus' father. The majority text represents a corruption rather than the original reading. (p. 55). In three examples Ehrman shows how corruptions have occurred in the manuscripts making sure that Joseph is never misconstrued as Jesus' father directly. The most widely attested instance occurs in Luke 2:43 where "his parents" is changed to "Joseph and his mother." (p. 56). In other words, Jesus parents, according to the earliest manuscripts were Joseph and Mary, quite rather matter of factly, with nothing about God being Jesus' father. A most interesting challenge.
Given the adoptionists understanding that Christ became God only at his baptism (some claimed only at his resurrection), it is utterly fascinating to know that Mark 1:1 "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God", that the end of the phrase "The Son of God" is *missing* in most of the earliest manuscripts! This was added later on (Ehrman examines at length the information - pp. 72ff) in the 2nd century, so that originally Mark may not have even understood Jesus to be the Son of God! Most interesting!
When Mark put the words of Isaiah 40:3 on the lips of the Baptist, he, or his source, modified the LXX [Septuagint - the Greek Old Testament] text with an interesting Christological result. Whereas the LXX had said "prepare the way of the Lord, makes straight the paths of our God," Mark's modification allows for a distinctively Christian understanding of the passage: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his [i.e. Jesus'] paths" (1:3). John is portrayed here as the forerunner of Jesus, who is presented in this Gospel as the "Kurios" (2:28, 11:3; cf. 12:36, 13:35). But Mark, standing in good company with most of the other New Testament authors, does not call Jesus God, either here or elsewhere in his narrative. Later scribes, however, saw both the opportunity and the importance of reading Jesus'divinity into this text. The opportunity was provided by the LXX, the importance by the controversy over Jesus' divine status. The result: Now even prior to his baptism Jesus can be called divine. (pp. 82f).
I can multiply examples for literally dozens of areas concerning Jesus, which has become rather uncomfortable, but the most devastating, in my opinion, for all of us involved is right at the very heart of the matter, textually speaking.
Ehrman discusses virtually every scripture and the changes wrought on them dealing with Christ's birth, his relation with his parents, his baptism, whether the dove was really there or not, the very name of Jesus Christ, the titles as Judge, Son, Advocate, etc., literally none of this going unchanged in the 2nd and 3rd centuries! The major argument over Christ at this time was that the proto-orthodox argued that Christ was really a man, that he was really born, really did suffer, shed blood, die, and that this passion was salvically efficacious. This emphasis on the true humanity and suffering of Jesus became the hallmark of the orthodox opposition to docetism throughout the 2nd and 3rd centuries (p. 183).
Through a rather long, and in what I think is the most convincing argument I have ever read, discourse (over 8 pages), Ehrman demonstrates that in Luke's account of Christ sweating great drops of blood, that Jesus' bloody sweat, was *not* in the original text of Luke! It was added later on in the 2nd century as the debate was ragin over whether Jesus was human and could suffer or not. This addition was included to refute the Docetism of the 2nd century. "The story of Jesus praying in yet greater agony, being strengthened by an angel from heaven, and sweating great drops as if of blood, did not originate with the author of the Gospel of Luke. It was inserted in the Third Gospel some time early in the 2nd century (prior to Justin) as part of the anti-Docetic polemic of the orthodox Christian Church." (p. 194). Ehrman shows that the Last Supper of Christ had nothing to do with his body and blood which was to bring salvation. This was also added later on! The long ending is the corruption of a much shorter original manuscript. (p. 197ff).
Luke 22:19-21 wherein we read "And taking bread, giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body *that is given for you. Do this in my remembrance. And the cup likewise after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood that is poured out for you.* The part between the 2 *'s is a later addition! It is not in the original manuscripts! And for the next dozen pages Ehrman analyzes why exactly it is not what was original! His conclusion: "It is precisely the emphasis on Jesus' giving of his own flesh and blood for the salvation of believers, as represented in the physical elements of the bread broken "for you" and the cup given "for you" that made the longer text of Luke 22:19-20 so attractive to the proto-orthodox heresiologists of the 2nd century." (p. 209). Ehrman goes on to point out "a number of textual corruptions scattered throughout the tradition lay a comparable stress on the salvic necessity of Christ's suffering and death by interpolating such stock phrases as "for us", and "for the sins of the world," as well as "for the forgiveness of sins", into passages that originally lacked them." (p. 211).
I'll skip the corruptions of the text dealing with the resurrection at this point, as this is getting too long. The whole idea here is that the divinity, the agony, the salvation offered by Jesus *are missing* in the *original manuscripts*, and through textual analysis and historical detection work, Ehrman traces all these additions - that is "corruptions" - to the 2nd century. As Christians this is simply alarming!
So we Christians and Mormons have our work cut out for us. I bring these points up because it is stimulating to work through puzzles. It is truth that it takes honest, hard, serious, prayerful work, to gain and keep our testimonies, and hiding from problems will just not do. Not in this day and age of information. Now, the assumptions of Ehrman are that the texts were changed to combat heresies. In every instance a change was found however, the reasons were logically plausible that it was to combat a heresy that the proto-orthodox were fighting at the time of the change in the manuscripts. The evidence, from Ehrman's view (I have yet to find any other reviews of his work, which may be refuting him) is more negative than positive concerning our theological understand of Jesus Christ. We Mormons have additional witnesses by way of the BofM, the D&C and the PofGP. In most instances though, I understand them to have the 2nd century proto-orthodox understanding of Christ. On the other hand Christians have only the Bible, which, if Ehrman is correct, is not enough to sustain the damage of analyzing the early manuscripts and their total lack of Christ as divine or working out our salvation for us! This then is the challenge for all of us involved. Just who and what was and is Jesus Christ?