Review by D.B. Lee
This book has caused quite a ruckus among Christian fundamentalists who believe in the inerrancy of scripture. Indeed, the bickering was loud enough to attract the attention of
Stephen Colbert, who “debated” Mr. Ehrman on an episode of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. While few seem to question Mr. Ehrman’s scholarship, some apologists are concerned that the book has been aimed at the lay reader, who, unused to the arcane world of religious studies, may end up questioning basic tenets of their faith.
The book has two basic parts. In part one, Ehrman shows us ways in which the Bible contradicts itself. (Just one example: The gospel of Mark says Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal was eaten, while John says he died the day before it was eaten.) We also get a glimpse at very early Christianity, many adherents of which believed in a pending apocalypse so close that, as Jesus predicted, “…this generation will not pass away before all these things (signs of the end of the world) take place. (Matt. 24:32–34) The author also does a good job with the chronology of the early church, pointing out, for example, the relatively long periods of time between the death of Jesus and the accounting of his life and teachings as written by the authors of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We’re then shown the process by which these particular gospels were chosen (at the exclusion of others in common use at the time) by later Christians, to be included in the texts that would eventually be called the New Testament (over three hundred years after the books had been written).
Next, Ehrman attempts to show us how so many contradictions and lesser differences appeared in the texts as they were copied for distribution through the Christian community. There are the basic problems of poor transcription, of course, but very often the changes are the result of outright, intentional alterations, made so that the scripture would more closely match the beliefs and interpretations of the scribe or his employer. The individual reasons for the changes varied widely, but common to most was “…to make them more clearly support orthodox Christianity and more vigorously oppose heretics, women, Jews and pagans.”
No wonder fundamentalists fear this book. It presents a very convincing argument that the scriptures that make up the Christian Canon, rather than being the inspired and unaltered word of God, are instead closer to personal moral and political screeds, written by those who were all too human.