religion · March 5, 2006

Hand copying leads to a flawed Bible

The problem of camel / rope
In the famous parable of the Rich Man entering Heaven, (Matthew 19, 23-26) Jesus says:

19:23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven! 19:24 Again I say, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God.” 19:25 The disciples were greatly astonished when they heard this and said, “Then who can be saved?” 19:26 Jesus looked at them and replied, “This is impossible for mere humans, but for God all things are possible.”

People have argued about this quote for centuries. It really makes Jesus sound like a comedian instead of a prophet. You can almost imagine Jesus doing a Rodney Dangerfield impersonation, “And that camel! Talk about no respect! They let HIM into Heaven!”

Some people have argued that Jesus was really talking about a gate into Jerusalem called, “The Needle’s Eye.” This gate was supposed to be a narrow (or low) gate that would allow pedestrians, but exclude pack animals. A sort of primitive analogy to those steel posts outside of Best Buy stores that prevent people from driving their truck through the plate glass window, but allow shoppers on foot access to the doors. But the problem in this convenient answer is that the Needle Gate wasn’t actually spoken of until the Middle Ages, centuries after the death of Jesus.

Others have argued that Jesus was actually speaking of a rope. The Greek words are very similar, kamilon is rope, and kamhlon is camel. In Aramaic the word gamla means both rope and camel, since the original (lost) text was translated into Greek from Aramaic, it might be possible that the word rope was intended. It is usually said that ‘late witnesses’ will use the word for rope instead of camel, and in fact some Bible translations use the word ‘cable’ in this parable. But it seems that the word camel is the earlier translation.

The Syriac Bible uses the word ‘rope’, as does the much more modern, “Holy Bible: From the Ancient Eastern Text” translated by Dr. George Lamsa. The King James version (1611) and the New English Translation both use the word ‘camel’.

The Babylonian Talmud seems to indicate that there was a tradition to exaggerate that may account for using the word ‘camel’; it mentions an elephant going through the eye of a needle – a concept that wouldn’t translate well in Jerusalem, where they had camels, but no elephants. Perhaps the metaphor was translated? Exaggeration was often used in biblical times, and recorded in the Bible is another example of exaggeration in Matthew 7:3:

7:3 Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own?

The point to all of this is that translations of the Bible, old and new, will waffle on this word. Bible apologists will often try to emphasize that the reader should pay attention to the message, and not try to denigrate Christ’s words. This is in odds to those fundamentalist Christians who claim that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. If it’s inerrant, then why the confusion? If the Bible is errant here, then what ELSE is also errant?

Dr. Bart Ehrman
The problem is that the Bible has a lot of errors that can be attributed to the traditional process of hand copying. This word might have been rope, it might have been camel – in reality, we probably won’t ever know for sure. But there are other instances where we DO know that mistakes of hand copy exist in current Bibles.

Dr. Bart Ehrman is the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a deconverted fundamentalist Christian, currently an Agnostic. His fundamentalism lead him to study the Bible and its origins deeply. He learned to read biblical texts in their original language, and in fact read original scrolls from which the Bible is translated.

Dr. Ehrman points out that the Bible is deeply flawed due to the copy process that existed before moveable type. Scribes made errors in copy because they were bored, inattentive, or even because they disagreed with the text. Today we live in a society who regularly makes accurate copies of entire books – we expect this. In the middle ages, no one expected a word-for-word copy of a book – it was unheard of!

His work lead him to realize that the Bible is not inerrant, as he was taught in his church, and that it could be the work of man – not God. Even Jesus is suspect. As Dr. Ehrman said in a recent Washington Post interview:

“Sometimes Christian apologists say there are only three options to who Jesus was: a liar, a lunatic or the Lord,” he tells a packed auditorium here at the University of North Carolina, where he chairs the department of religious studies. “But there could be a fourth option — legend.”

At one point in his life, Dr. Ehrman believed that the Bible was inerrant. From the Amazon.com preview to his book, “Misquoting Jesus : The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why:

The Moody (Bible Institute) experience was intense. I decided to major in Bible theology, which meant taking a lot of biblical study and systematic theology courses. Only one perspective was taught in these courses, subscribed to by all the professors (they had to sign a statement) and by all the students (we did as well): the Bible is the inerrant word of God. It contains no mistakes. It is inspired completely and in its very words – “verbal, plenary inspiration.” All the courses I took presupposed and taught this perspective; any other was taken to be misguided or even heretical. Some, I suppose, would call this brainwashing. For me, it was an enormous “step up” from the milquetoast view of the Bible I had had as socializing Episcopalian in my younger youth. This was hard-core Christianity, for the fully committed.

Later, when Dr. Ehrman studied at Princeton Theological Seminary, he specialized in reading ancient manuscripts that are the basis of the modern New Testament. He found a huge amount of minor changes in grammar, but he also found major differences in manuscripts that have a profound impact on the beliefs of Christianity. From the Washington Post interview:

Another critical passage is in 1 John, which explicitly sets out the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). It is a cornerstone of Christian theology, and this is the only place where it is spelled out in the entire Bible — but it appears to have been added to the text centuries later, by an unknown scribe.


Time to do some research
Today is the first time I’ve heard of Dr. Ehrman. His name was brought to my attention through the Pharyngula blog by P.Z. Myers. But from what I’ve learned about him points to an excellent reputation as a scholar who is admired by his peers. I listened to his NPR interview and was very impressed with his knowledge.

I’ve already added his books to my Amazon wish list, “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,” and “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament.” I plan to order the first book in my next book order – and I’ll blog what I think about it then.