The Greatest Story Never Told

By Jeremy Fejfar, October 28, 2012

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

If you ask the average Christian for something Jesus is known to have said, it is likely this verse will come up. It is from the story of a woman caught in adultery, and Jesus famously shows her mercy (John 7:53-8:11). There is just one problem: This exchange almost certainly never occurred.

In his book “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,” biblical scholar Bart Ehrman takes many things that are common knowledge among scholars and disseminates it to the layman.

In the first two to three centuries of the church, Christian texts were copied not by professional scribes, but rather by the few church members who were literate. Because of this, mistakes in transcription were common. This is understandable as the ancient Greek text used no punctuation marks, no capitalization of letters and no spaces between words. If this didn’t make it difficult enough, scribes commonly used abbreviations, which were easily misread by subsequent scribes who were often barely literate themselves.

This was such a problem that third-century church father Origen wrote, “The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.”

In fact, Revelation 22:18-19 seems to be a direct warning against those who would alter the scriptures: “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book;

And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life …”

When John Mill wrote his new testament in 1707, he noted 30,000 variants among the 100 manuscripts available to him at that time. We now have more than 5,700 Greek manuscripts, ranging from the size of a credit card to that of several books. Scholars estimate that the number of variants among them is between 200,000 to 400,000 — more differences than there are words in the entire New Testament.

While the majority of the deviations among the manuscripts are accidental — omissions, additions, misspellings — some passages important to Christian dogma also come into question.

But don’t take his word for it. The evidence is right there in the Bible collecting dust on the shelf. Preceding the aforementioned story of the adulteress is this disclaimer in the New International Version Bible: “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not contain John 7:53-8:11.”

The concept of the Trinity, for example, is only supported by one passage in the Bible. “For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one” (1 John 5:7-8).

This is the way the verse appears in the King James Bible. However, the oldest manuscripts read, “For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.”

The modified version that supports the Trinity does not appear in any Greek manuscript before the 14th century. It appears that a scribe at some point added content to this verse to support a particular sect’s belief in the Trinity. Likewise, John 1:1-18, John chapter 21, and Luke 23:34 appear to be later additions.

Similarly, the book of Mark originally ended at Chapter 16, verse 8. The concluding 12 verses found in current Bibles are not in the oldest manuscripts. These added verses give biblical basis to those who speak in “tongues,” snake-handlers and faith healers. They also state that Christians can drink any poison without harm.

Mark Wolford, a Pentecostal preacher, died this year as a result of a snake bite he received while following this particular scripture. One wonders if he would have partaken in these rituals had he known this verse was not in our oldest manuscripts?

Ehrman is one of the most distinguished scholars in the field, and his conclusions are representative of scientific biblical studies. He points out that because we don’t have any of the originals of the New Testament writings, it’s impossible to know if any given verse had been altered. Truly, if the verses mentioned here are not in our oldest copies, as significant as they are to modern dogma, what verses could possibly be above reproach?

Ehrman gives many other examples in his book, which I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about how the Bible as we know it came into existence, how scholars determine what was originally written and who changed the Bible and why.

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