Misinformation About 'Misquoting'
the Bible

Did early scribes really change the original text of the Bible? Not nearly as much as some of today's scholars claim.

Did early scribes really change the New Testament and "misquote" statements by Jesus, Paul, and others? Scholar Bart Ehrman has written two books claiming that scribes with conservative agendas revised the Bible, and many readers have taken notice. But perhaps conservative scribes are not the only ones with an agenda.

In reality, most scribes did their job--copying scripture--faithfully. The New Testament’s meaning may strike us un-PC today, but that is no reason to believe that the original text was distorted. Some scribes certainly did make changes, but not of the kind Ehrman implies. Indeed, the Bible most of us have on our shelves is as accurate as any ancient text we have.

Let's look at the discussion of women in "Misquoting Jesus." Ehrman cites examples of individual scribes who changed the text in light of theological concerns about women's roles. I agree with his discussion about such changes by individual scribes in Acts 17, on Priscilla and Aquila, and in Romans 16. But the full array of manuscripts and a careful look at the texts themselves allow us to determine the likely reading of the original text. When we consider all of the evidence, we can eliminate the impression of damaging or intentional distortion.

Take the example of Acts 17:4. One manuscript (called "manuscript D" by scholars), along with manuscripts in an old Latin translation, make the change Ehrman notes: "prominent women" becomes a reference to "wives." But numerous other manuscripts, including our oldest and best ones, do not make this change. So we are confident that the author of Acts meant to point out prominent women. In this case, the testimony of the manuscripts as a whole overrides one manuscript's aberration.

A more significant and complex example is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which says that women should be silent in church. Ehrman notes, again correctly, that the verses are shuffled into a different order in some manuscripts. Manuscripts D, F, G, and a few manuscripts from the Latin version have the "keep silent" verses after what is now v. 40: "all things should be done decently and In order." However, Ehrman fails to point out that: (1) most manuscripts, including the earliest ones, have the "keep silent" verse at the point of v. 34, and (2) no known manuscript that has this entire passage lacks the "keep silent" verse in chapter 14.

So, while Ehrman infers that the "keep silent" passage was placed into the text early and in two different places by renegade scribes intent on suppressing women, he has no good external (that is, manuscript) evidence for his claim. He must infer that a change was made and made early--which is possible, but highly unlikely, since no trace was left in any manuscript we now have.

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