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.

Furthermore, if we look at internal evidence--that is, if we do a close reading of the passage itself--it is not clear why a later scribe would selectively introduce the change in the first place. Why commit women to silence in just this portion of 1 Corinthians 14 when other parts of this epistle have women speaking?

Remember, the claim is that this long addition was made by a scribe who wanted women silent. It’s an odd claim if we consider that 1 Cor. 11:3-15, which is about women being covered while they speak, was not removed. It is more likely that a scribe, sensing a break in sequence of thought, rearranged the text for stylistic reasons. Since almost all of the manuscripts that move the text belong to the same "family tree" of manuscripts, other scribes simply followed him in copying it.

Still, what are we to make of the "speak and not speak" idea between 1 Corinthians 11 and 14? First Cor. 11 allows women to pray and prophesy; they are simply told to wear a first-century cultural sign (probably a veil) to show that their speaking was not out of turn. 1 Corinthians 14 treats a different scenario. Here a woman is not to speak up and ask questions during a prophecy. Why? Because her speaking would interrupt an "orderly and decently conducted" service (see 14:40 as a summary of the key concern ). The instruction makes sense in light of Paul’s desire for an orderly service. Also, we should remember that Paul is writing from a first-century context--and with regard to Old Testament law about what was appropriate for women.

A final example is Romans 16:7, which raises the question of what the term "apostle" might mean when referring to a woman named Junia. In this text, does "apostle" mean an office like the twelve apostles? Almost certainly not. That was a very limited and special group of ministers (Acts 1:15-26). Rather, in Romans 16 we see a more common, generic use of the term "apostle," where the woman is "one commissioned by the church" for ministry--a ministry about which Paul gives us no more detail here. This is something I think did happen in the earliest church. Junia, a female, would be an example of such an "apostle."

Ehrman may well be right that some scribes, perhaps misreading “apostle” as carrying more weight than it did, tried to make sure a woman was not described as having such a role, and thus changed Junia to the male name Junias. But once we determine what the wording of the text is, we must also then work to specify that text’s meaning. The bulk of our manuscripts reveal the Junia/Junias change as an aberration; most use the feminine name. In practical terms, the overall impact on the reading of the Scripture we possess is nil.

The fact that a few scribes “misquoted” certain words does not mean the Bible we have today is filled with misquotations. When it is translated from the mass of manuscripts and on the basis of each text’s contextual argument, the Bible is consistent, stable, and faithful to its original meaning. Ehrman makes a valid point about individual cases in verses here and there, but that should not lead us to believe that our Bible today is a distortion of the original.

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