Misquoting Jesus | From a Mormon Perspective

Bart D. Ehrman is a distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Ehrman completed his M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees at Princeton Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. An expert on the New Testament and the history of Early Christianity, he has written or edited thirty books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. Five of his books have been on the New York Times Bestseller list: Misquoting Jesus; God’s Problem; Jesus Interrupted; Forged; and How Jesus Became God.

I am using his book Misquoting Jesus as the basis of this post. The case laid out by this book is basically this: We do not have the original manuscripts that make up what we today call the Bible. There are serious issues with describing the Bible as inerrant or even true to the writings of the original authors. The study of original documents (or the earliest copies of copies, which is what is available) and it’s attempt to produce a text as closely as possible to the original is called textual criticism. It attempts to answer important questions such as:

  • Which of the many versions is authoritative?
  • If there are varying accounts of an event or a doctrine, should the first version, or the latest version be authoritative?
  • What do we do when there are new stories or doctrines added to later manuscripts but are not found in the earliest versions of the Bible?
  • Did the original author dictate to a scribe or write down their message own message, and does that matter?

One of the earliest church critics, Celsus, said in the second century, “Christians changed the text at will, as if drunk from a drinking bout.” His believing contemporary Origen, speaks of the “great” many differences among the various manuscripts of the Gospels. As I will point out these changes are not merely misspellings or writings out of order, but have important doctrinal consequences. Consequences such as, the divinity of Christ, the nature of Christ, the Atonement, the treatment of women, and the treatment of Jews.

These textual and subsequent differing beliefs began to be a problem for the church in the early centuries. Near the end of the fourth century the Catholic Pope Damasus commissioned the greatest scholar of his day, Jerome, to produce an official Latin translation of the Bible. This translation was known as The Vulgate. This version was thus used for centuries as authoritative and lives on to this day. But, as we will see, there were important differences found in various contemporary manuscripts. Some written in Greek, Coptic, and Syriac.

The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid 1400’s accelerated the scrutiny of the origins of the Bible. The Vulgate was the first major work to be completed by Gutenberg and took all of 7 years to complete. For the next two to three hundred years other scholars worked out Greek copies of the Bible along with Hebrew. It is worth noting that the church at the time preferenced Latin on the basis of the prejudice for the offshoot of Roman Catholicism, the Greek Orthodox. This prejudice biased many scholars against the earliest Greek manuscripts until a groundbreaking publication by an English scholar named John Mill in 1707. Mill devoted 30 years to finding the original and earliest Greek manuscripts along with what early church leaders had been quoted as saying and studying the earliest Syriac and Coptic versions and applied textual scrutiny while attempting to reproduce a Greek New Testament. His book outlined some 30,000 variations he found from the contemporary translations and the older source materials. Ehrman says, “If one did not know which words were original to the Greek New Testament, how could one use these words in deciding correct Christian doctrine and teaching?” (pg 84)

During this time other scholars were making their case as to the reason for differences. Richard Simon, a french Catholic scholar, attempted to solidify the Catholic authority by denouncing the earliest Greek manuscripts by positing St Jerome as the authority in correcting the corrupted originals. He argued:

The great changes that have taken place in the manuscripts of the Bible… since the first originals were lost, completely destroy the principle of the Protestants… who only consult the same manuscripts of the Bible in the form they are today. If the truth of religion had not lived on in the Church, it would not be safe to look for it now in the books that have been subjected to so many changes and that in so many matters were dependent on the will of the copyists.”

Simon is arguing for the serious consideration of errors in the Bible. In so doing he argues that in place of the authority that was previously placed on the Bible, you should be placing your confidence and trust in the Catholic church as the authority of God’s will on earth. This is significant from a Mormon perspective because it touches on the foundational doctrines of the church. So foundational, one of the articles of faith taught by Joseph Smith says, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” This teaching has been used to discredit the Bible in any way that it contradicts Mormon theology. I will unpack this further later, until then, back to the history of the Bible.

J.J. Wettstein was a biblical scholar in the 18th century. He was aware of the variations between early text and current bibles, but argued that the readings, “can have no weakening effect on the trustworthiness or integrity of the scriptures.” This is because God, “has bestowed this book once and for all on the world as an instrument for the perfection of human character. It contains all that is necessary to salvation both for belief and conduct.” However, during his studies of the Codex Alexandrinus he found conflict with an important verse that previously had established Jesus as God. Upon inspection, 1 Timothy 3:16 originally said “Christ, who was made manifest in the flesh” instead of referring to Jesus as “God made manifest…” After finding this and other errors Wettstein began to question why so many scriptures that had explicitly called Jesus God were not in the original documents? Wettstein “became attuned to the problem that the New Testament rarely, if ever, actually calls Jesus God.” (pg 114)

In 1844 a biblical scholar named Lobegott Friedrich Constantine von Tischendorf made one of the most important discoveries. He found, in the Convent of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai, a basket full of parchments which contained the then earliest recorded manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments in Greek. It became known as the Codex Sinaiticus and is dated to be from the 4th century. Codex Sinaiticus is only rivaled in age and authenticity with the Codex Vaticanus. These manuscripts introduce many textual changes to the contemporary Bibles. These changes further illuminated the possible inaccuracies of the current New Testament, namely the King James version. Using these early manuscripts to compare to the modern Bible, we are able to deduce where the more interesting variations are, then try and puzzle out why they were changed.

In some cases it is clear that scribes were theologically motivated to alter the sacred texts. Before there was the Bible as we know it today, there were many writings and interpretations of said writings. This led to many differing theologies among the same people claiming to be Christian. For instance, there appeared to be three main camps of thought on the nature of Jesus. The adoptionists believed that Jesus was fully man and was ‘adopted’ to be God’s son at baptism. The docetic camp believed Jesus was fully divine and that he only ‘seemed’ or ‘appeared’ to be human. Docetic comes from the Greek word ‘to seem’ or ‘to appear’. Finally, the separationist camp, or sometimes referred to as Gnostic, were Christians that believed that you needed secret knowledge that could only be imparted by a divine being sometimes found within ones self. Their belief went as far as to say that Christ was a separate divine being that entered into the mortal Jesus at baptism and left him at the cross as evidenced by Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Imagine if you ‘knew’ (whatever that loaded statement means) that your separationist belief was the one true belief and you were charged with copying a sacred text, do you think you would be tempted to alter the text to persuade others to believe the true doctrine?

The great unification of theology came when the Roman emperor Constantine legitimized the religion by converting to it and subsequently making it popular among the rich and influential. Once the state became involved in Christianity there was a practical need to amilerate the various beliefs into a complete orthodoxy. This new group decided on the creeds of the religion. These newly agreed upon creeds directly influenced the scribes as they were copying and translating scriptural text. Again, it is important to point out that the texts that were being copied were done so by scribes that had their own doctrinal controversies and thus likely changed important pieces up to when the Roman Catholic church was formed, and certainly after it. The following are examples of important differences followed by commentary:

  • Scriptures that refer to Joseph as the father of Jesus are altered to say “Joseph and his Mother” rather than, “His Parents”
    • Was Jesus really born of a virgin?
  • “You are my son, today I have begotten you” instead of “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” Luke 3:23 and Mark 1:11
  • No one has seen God at any time, but the unique Son who is the bosom of the Father instead of “the one and only Son” (John 1:18)
    • Unique in Greek means, one of a kind
  • It is likely that the reference to Jesus praying so fervently his “sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground” was added later as it is not consistent with Luke’s style of writing and does not flow in the chiasmus initially created in the verse (Luke 5:43-44)
    • This is important to the doctrine that Christ is both fully divine and fully human
  • During the last supper the words “this is my body, which has been given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” And saying, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you.” was likely added later as the earliest documents do not include that language
    • This is important to the doctrine that Christ is both fully divine and fully human
  • Luke, the writer of Luke and The Acts never mentions in his writings that the death of Jesus brings atonement for sins. Luke rather emphasizes that the death of the perfect Jesus is what makes people realize their guilt before God. Once they recognize their guilt they turn to God for repentance
    • This adds controversy to the idea that faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus is what saves
  • Luke 24:12 is likely added after the fact. “But Peter, rising up, ran to the tomb, and stooping down he saw the linen cloths alone, and he returned home marveling at what had happened.”
    • This bolsters the claim that the resurrection really happened, that Jesus own burial linen was found in the tomb without being attached to the dead Jesus
  • In Luke 24:51 the words “and he was taken up into heaven” were added. The strange thing is this happened on the same day he was resurrected, which later was contradicted in Acts when the same author (Luke) says Jesus ascended forty days after being resurrected.
  • Hebrews 2:9 originally stated Jesus died, “apart from God” and not “by the grace of God”
  • Many Greek and one Latin manuscript has Jesus saying at the end of his crucifixion, “ My God, my God, why have you mocked me?” instead of “why have you forsaken me?”

These important changes refer to the divinity or the lack of divinity if Jesus Christ. This has enormous implications. I think there is little dispute to the actual historicity of Jesus’ life. However, there are very meaningful gaps in the history of how Jesus became divine and what his divinity actually means.

Beyond the divinity, or lack thereof, of Jesus, there are also important textual changes made related to social issues. Issues like the role of women. Women were very much part of Jesus ministry. They were much more a part of scripture then they had been represented historically. Paul taught that once you were baptized there is “not male or female, for all of you are one in Christ” (Gal 3:27). Paul also preached the time was short at hand; that Jesus would be returning soon, and advised that the social order should not be upheaved. He maintained the charge that women should remain in their limited roles and that slavery should remain the way it was until Jesus returned (1 Corinthians 7).

The book of 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 are thought of as not written by the apostle Paul. In these verses women are admonished to:

  • Learn in silence with full submission
  • Not teach
  • Not have any authority over men
  • Be known as the first to be deceived by Satan (you can’t trust women to teach you anything because they were the ones that were duped by Lucifer in the first place)
  • Bare children
  • Be modest
  • Learn from “their own husbands at home. For it is shameful to for a woman to speak in church”

Because of the belief from most scholars that these verses likely did not come from Paul they likely came from a scribe or leader that wanted to clarify their views on the role of women in society.

Furthermore, in Romans 16:7 Paul speaks of a woman Junia as “foremost among the apostles.” This is problematic because it places women at the same level as the most important, and most authoritative men in the Church, as an apostle. In Acts 17:4 the text of Paul converting “a large number of prominent women” was changed to, “along with a large number of wives of prominent men.” As a final example of changes to highlight the role of women happens in Acts. There are two converts that are mentioned as husband and wife. In the earliest texts the wife is mentioned first. This most likely meant she had an important role in the church. Subsequent copies have her mentioned after her husband.

Another topic that has been scrutinized is how the followers of Jesus, who were all Jewish, became to form another religion that became anti-jewish. In recent years, scholars have attempted to label the historical Jesus as “a rabbi, a social revolutionary, a political insurgent, a cynic philosopher, an apocalyptic prophet, and the list goes on.” (187) Jesus was, by all accounts, a first century Palestinian Jew. Near the end of his life, and certainly after his death, his followers began to think of him as the messiah. The problem with this is the Jewish messiah was prophesied to be powerful, that he would raise an army and destroy the enemies of the Jews and set up a state governed by God himself. Jesus did not fit this description. This became an issue when converting Jews and others. It was in the best interest of the Christians to clearly expose and delineate the Jews as the religion that killed its own messiah. It is reported that the story of Jesus on the cross, when he says, “forgive them Father, for they know not what they do” was omitted from some of the earliest manuscripts. It is said to be because the Christians did not want Jews to think they could be forgiven for killing the messiah.

In conclusion, we know that the King James Bible, the one that Joseph Smith used, and the one that many Christians use today, was translated using mostly the Greek text derived from the Erasmus edition which was based on one of the now known worst copies of the New Testament. If God wanted us to have his inspired words why were there so many errors committed by scribes over the centuries which eliminate the ability to trust in the inerrancy of the Bible? If he did not inspire those that preserved the record to preserve it in its original form then how can we say that he inspired the original writers in the first place? How do we know the writings in the Bible are literal and not just the wishful thinking of believers?

The Mormon theology that was established by Joseph Smith was explicitly suspicious of the veracity of the Bible. As a prophet, Joseph commanded scriptural authority on contemporary matters as much as he did with the historical writings of the Bible. It is common for followers to preach that the Bible had become corrupted and needed a revision or another account to clarify important doctrine (i.e. the Book of Mormon). In fact, the Book of Mormon itself explicitly states the Bible had become corrupted in 1 Nephi chapter 13:

28 Wherefore, thou seest that after the [Bible] hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church (Catholic), that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God.

29 And after these plain and precious things were takenaway it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles; and after it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles, yea, even across the many waters which thou hast seen with the Gentiles which have gone forth out of captivity, thou seest—because of the many plain and precious things which have been taken out of the book, which were plain unto the understanding of the children of men, according to the plainness which is in the Lamb of God—because of these things which are taken away out of the gospel of the Lamb, an exceedingly great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them.

This is how I viewed the people I was teaching on the mission. “These people just don’t get, they are trying to be good, but Satan has power over them because they are confused about what and where the true gospel actually is.” This immoral behavior only existed because of the teachings of the Book of Mormon and leaders of the church.

Interestingly the early Mormon leaders, especially Joseph Smith, were hyper-sensitive to textual scrutiny because they were participating in it so openly. Mormon scholars point this out in an article named Scriptures by W.D. Davies and Truman Madsen. They say, “The title page of the Book of Mormon says, “If there are faults they are the mistakes of men.” For some such admissions strengthen rather than weaken the respect for true revelation. This position avoids both the doctrine of verbal inerrancy and the naturalistic position that the Bible is a thoroughly human document, and an obsolescent one at that.”

This claim is so profound that I feel as if it flies over the head of most members. In the title page of the Book of Mormon, which compilation was attributed to the ancient prophet Mormon, it gives men the golden key to deflect any errors, misconceptions, or serious critical inquiry. If there are problems, it is because of men and not of God. Very convenient. Here are a few scriptures that condemns being critical of the scriptures.

Mormon 8:17 And if there be faults they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire.

Ether 12: 23 And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them;

24 And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them.

25 Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words.

26 And when I had said this, the Lord spake unto me, saying: Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness;

Mormons have an incredible totalitarian position on scripture. Within the framework of scripture, two main principles emerge in defining what is to be regarded as scripture. First, one knows whether another is speaking with the authority of the Holy Ghost only by the influence of the Holy Ghost. Thus, the burden of proof for scriptural status is placed upon the reader and hearer (Brigham Young, JD 7:2). Latter-day Saints teach that all are entitled to this assurance and testimony. This means that when there are contradictions it is your responsibility to pray and receive a spiritual witness that there really is not a real problem. This is gas lighting. The only way to receive an answer is by praying and receiving a feeling that the doctrinal problems you are concerned with are not really concerns as long as you get butterflies in your stomach to tell you it is not a problem. If you do not get an answer, keep trying.

The Second, the President of the Church and those associated with him as prophets, seers, and revelators have received a special spiritual endowment and jurisdiction. Above the authority of the written record stands the authority of the living prophet and, beyond him, the supreme authority of the Lord himself. “You may hug up to yourselves the Bible,” said Joseph Smith, “but except through faith in it you can get revelation for yourself, the Bible will profit you but little” (Osborne 1892). Further, “the best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching” (TPJS, pg 191). Brigham Young asserted that “I would rather have the living oracles than all the writing in the books” (cited in CR, Oct. 1897, pp. 22-23).

A whole constellation of meanings attends the concept of the living word coming from a living prophetic voice. This is another clever technique in Mormonism. The teaching is, “read your scriptures, listen to the words of the modern day prophets, and you’ll know they are true by the power of the Holy Ghost. Without us you would not be able to interpret the scriptures the way God wants you to understand them.” The idea is, “the range of possible misunderstanding is significantly increased when one has only the written word, trust us, we speak to God, we know.” Crimestop in it’s finest. Ultimately, Mormons trust in the inspiration of the spirit, as long as it aligns with what our common ape leaders say God tells them. (Encyclopedia of Mormonism – Scripture)

I’ll leave you with this simple quote by author A. Gary Anderson in his teaching of Scriptures: Words of Living Prophets

The inspired utterances of the President of the Church become binding upon members of the Church whether formally accepted as part of the written canon or not. The living prophet’s inspired words supersede and become more important to Latter-day Saints than the written canon or previous prophetic statements (D&C 5:10). The salvation and exaltation of members of the Church depend upon their adherence to this divine inspiration through the living prophet, which comes as a voice of warning to the world (D&C 1:4-5).

Latter-day Saints accept the doctrine that what God declares, “whether by [his] own voice or by the voice of [his] servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38). On the other hand, prophets have the right to personal opinions; not every word they speak is therefore regarded as an official pronouncement or interpretation of scripture. Only when they are inspired to speak to the Church by the Holy Ghost do they speak scripture. In order for a hearer to determine whether a prophet speaks thus, the power of the Holy Ghost must testify to the individual that the message

Bart Ehrman opened my eyes to the idea that Jesus may not have been divine according to the original text of the Bible. If the Christian proponents could invent the myth (a both fully human and fully divine Christ that was raised from the dead and belief in him would give you salvation) a couple hundred years after Jesus life and create a world dominating religion from it, it is easy to see how Joseph Smith could have as well by using the same techniques. Namely co-opting the authority of all scripture, even to place himself above and beyond reproach of any previous scripture, scholar, or church leader. This authority gave him more religious power than any other human on earth. The core of the Mormon theology is totalitarian. I find this ideology to be profoundly immoral. As Christopher Hitchens liked to say about religion, “[Mormonism] is a sort of divine North Korea.” Like North Korea, Mormons have no choice but to believe everything their leaders profess. If Christians could realize their holy scripture is not without error, Mormons can also realize their scripture, and as a matter of inference, their leaders profess error, even profound foundational errors. Talk back your critical thinking faculties. Break free!

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