No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.
About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament. (That’s the same amount of time between the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and today.) The first books of the Old Testament were written 1,000 years before that. In other words, some 1,500 years passed between the day the first biblical author put stick to clay and when the books that would become the New Testament were chosen. There were no printing presses beforehand or until 1,000 years later. There were no vacuum-sealed technologies to preserve paper for centuries. Dried clay broke, papyrus and parchment crumbled away, primitive inks faded.
Back then, writings from one era could be passed to the next only by copying them by hand. While there were professional scribes whose lives were dedicated to this grueling work, they did not start copying the letters and testaments about Jesus’s time until centuries after they were written. Prior to that, amateurs handled the job.
These manuscripts were originally written in Koiné, or “common” Greek, and not all of the amateur copyists spoke the language or were even fully literate. Some copied the script without understanding the words. And Koiné was written in what is known as scriptio continua—meaning no spaces between words and no punctuation. So, a sentence like weshouldgoeatmom could be interpreted as “We should go eat, Mom,” or “We should go eat Mom.” Sentences can have different meaning depending on where the spaces are placed. For example, godisnowhere could be “God is now here” or “God is nowhere.”
None of this mattered for centuries, because Christians were certain God had guided the hand not only of the original writers but also of all those copyists. But in the past 100 years or so, tens of thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament have been discovered, dating back centuries. And what biblical scholars now know is that later versions of the books differ significantly from earlier ones—in fact, even copies from the same time periods differ from each other. “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” says Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, a groundbreaking biblical scholar and professor at the University of North Carolina who has written many books on the New Testament.
Most of those discrepancies are little more than the handwritten equivalent of a typo, but that error was then included by future scribes. There were also minor changes made by literate scribes centuries after the manuscripts were written because of what they decided were flaws in the accounts they were recopying. For example, an early version of Luke 3:16 in the New Testament said, “John answered, saying to all of them.…” The problem was that no one had asked John anything, so a fifth century scribe fixed that by changing the words to “John, knowing what they were thinking, said.…” Today, most modern English Bibles have returned to the correct, yet confusing, “John answered.” Others, such as the New Life Version Bible, use other words that paper over the inconsistency.
But this discussion is about something much more important than whether some scribe in the Middle Ages decided God had not been paying attention while guiding the hand of Luke. Indeed, there are significant differences in copies that touch on far more profound issues. Scribes added whole sections of the New Testament, and removed words and sentences that contradicted emerging orthodox beliefs.
Take one of the most famous tales from the New Testament, which starts in John 7:53. A group of Pharisees and others bring a woman caught committing adultery to Jesus. Under Mosaic Law—the laws of Moses handed down in the Old Testament—she must be stoned to death. The Pharisees ask Jesus whether the woman should be released or killed, hoping to force him to choose between honoring Mosaic Law and his teachings of forgiveness. Jesus replies, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.’’ The group leaves, and Jesus tells the woman to sin no more.
It’s a powerful story, known even by those with just a passing knowledge of the Bible. It was depicted in Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ and is often used to point out the hypocrisy of Christians who denounce what they perceive to be the sins of others. Unfortunately, John didn’t write it. Scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages. It does not appear in any of the three other Gospels or in any of the early Greek versions of John. Even if the Gospel of John is an infallible telling of the history of Jesus’s ministry, the event simply never happened. Moreover, according to Ehrman, the writing style for that story is different from the rest of John, and the section includes phrases that do not appear anywhere else in the Bible. Scholars say they are words more commonly used long after that Gospel was written.
For Pentecostal Christians, an important section of the Bible appears in the Gospel of Mark, 16:17-18. These verses say that those who believe in Jesus will speak in tongues and have extraordinary powers, such as the ability to cast out demons, heal the sick and handle snakes. Pentecostal ministers often babble incomprehensible sounds, proclaiming—based in part on these verses in Mark—that the noises they are making show that the Holy Spirit is in them. It’s also a primary justification for the emergence of the Pentecostal snake-handlers.
But once again, the verses came from a creative scribe long after the Gospel of Mark was written. In fact, the earliest versions of Mark stop at 16:8. It’s an awkward ending, with three women who have gone to the tomb where Jesus was laid after the Crucifixion encountering a man who tells them to let the disciples know that the resurrected Jesus will see them in Galilee. The women flee the tomb, and “neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.’’
In early copies of the original Greek writings, that’s it. The 12 verses that follow in modern Bibles—Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and the Disciples and then ascending to Heaven—are not there. A significant moment that would be hard to forget, one would think.
The same is true for other critical portions of the Bible, such as 1 John 5:7 (“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one”); Luke 22:20 (“Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you”); and Luke 24:51 (“And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven”). These first appeared in manuscripts used by the translators who created the King James Bible, but are not in the Greek copies from hundreds of years earlier.
These are not the only parts of the Bible that appear to have been added much later. There are many, many more—in fact, far more than can be explored without filling up the next several issues of Newsweek.
The Bible: So Misunderstood It's a Sin
By Kurt Eichenwald / December 23, 2014