February 8, 2023
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Scholar discusses how Bible changed from inaccurate copying

The Bible is not as immaculate as many believe it to be. It is a work that has evolved over thousands of years, spread across the globe and been translated into more than a thousand languages. Its history is marked by a series of mistakes, both accidental and intentional.

Ithaca community members learned about the complex history and controversies surrounding the development of the New Testament at a talk by scholar Bart Ehrman on Nov. 13 in the Roy H. Park School of Communications Auditorium.

Ehrman, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recently published a book titled “Misquoting Jesus: Scribes Who Changed the Scriptures and Readers Who May Never Know.” His talk was part of the Distinguished Speaker in the Humanities Series, set up by the School of Humanities and Sciences in 2000. The event attracted approximately 130 people.

Ehrman began his talk by describing the way he starts his first day of classes at UNC. He said he gives his students an 11-question quiz regarding the history of the New Testament, and that if any student answers even eight questions correctly, he buys them dinner at a local grill. He said last year he had around 240 students and bought only one student dinner — a remark that elicited laughter from the audience.

“[My students] know virtually nothing about the New Testament,” Ehrman said. “They are far more committed to the New Testament than they are knowledgeable about the New Testament, which becomes very clear in the course of this quiz.”

Ehrman then delved into the complicated origins of the New Testament, using the Gospel of St. Mark as an example. Ehrman said the book was first written in approximately 70 C.E., a time when the literacy rate was only 10 percent. He said all books were copied by hand and not always by trained professionals, resulting in mistakes.

“Presumably, [the copier] wanted to copy it correctly,” Ehrman said. “Unless maybe he thought the story was wrong in a few places, so he changed it. He probably made mistakes. But then somebody copied the copy that he made. … You copy the mistakes, and you make your own mistakes. And then what happens when someone copies the copy of the copy?”

Ehrman then presented a photograph of the oldest copy of the Gospel of St. Mark. The photograph portrayed a yellowish document written in Greek with no complete pages or spaces between the words. The entire page is “the size of a credit card,” Ehrman said.

Over the course of his talk, Ehrman explained the vastness of potential mistakes present in the existing 55,000 different manuscripts of the Bible, the idea of accidental versus intentional mistakes and the prevalence of those mistakes. He gave multiple examples of significant discrepancies between texts and talked about the importance of difficult language barriers — the Bible is an English translation of Greek text recording the words of Jesus, who spoke Aramaic.

Ehrman also emphasized that not all of these mistakes are significant.

“Most of the differences are completely unimportant, immaterial and matter for nothing other than to show that scribes in the ancient world could spell no better than my students can today,” Ehrman said. “[But] some of these changes affect how you read an entire passage or how you read an entire book.”

Ehrman said as a result of these mistakes over time, there are some passages where it will never be known what the text of the New Testament originally said, which can be troubling to those who are committed to every word of what the authors wrote.

Rachel Wagner, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, said one of the greatest qualities of Ehrman’s work is its accessibility. She also cited his appearance on many national news outlets, including the History Channel, National Geographic, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” NPR and BBC.

“Bart Ehrman’s scholarship has so informed the way that I teach,” Wagner said. “The ideas are really complicated, but he makes them comprehensible. He sort of invites everyone in. He makes people think about something that they take for granted.

Junior Cavan Mulligan, one of the students who attended the event, said she found Ehrman’s presentation fascinating.

“It’s interesting how every copy is different — that no matter how hard you try, there are going to be a lot of differences,” Mulligan said. “It’s kind of interesting to think about what the original really would have been like.”

John Lis, a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Cornell University, came with some faculty members of Ithaca College and said he decided to attend because of his interest in “information transmission.”

“I’m fascinated by how error, or noise or whatever, gets into the text,” Lis said. “I liked the anecdotes. He had good examples about a general phenomenon — a specific, easily understandable case.”

After finishing his talk, Ehrman held a short Q&A session and then went outside to sign and sell copies of his new book. The event was live-streamed through the college’s website.

Annika Kushner can be reached at akushner1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @aekushner