Photo credit: Left - The recto of Rylands Library Papyrus P52 from the Gospel of John. Date: 2nd Century CE.
When I was moderating our local “Ask an Atheist” forum recently, one or two of the religious attendees in the audience attempted to underscore their opinions through quotations from the Bible. Many people believe that quotations from their "holy book" represent the definitive authority for their belief. I don’t - I dismiss all these references as the opinions of man, not god.
But to many, the Bible is the inerrant and perfect word of god, to be taken as literally true. Other believers consider the Bible to be more of a manuscript from which interpretative references can be derived to support their vision of “truth”. Or more succinctly, to some Genesis means the world was created literally in six 24-hour days. To others Genesis refers to a more metaphorical creation period – a day being “millions of years” perhaps. The controversy that arises between these two interpretations, however, is that both can’t be right.
As I have studied more about the origins of the Bible it has become extremely clear to me that this is a book of mythology concocted entirely by man. I checked out a couple of books from my local library written by historical scholars regarding the origins of the original text of the Bible. I must admit, they were a little too advanced for my level of academic training.
However I bought an excellent book written for the lay person by a “textual critic”. Titled “Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why” by Bart D. Ehrman, this book clearly lays out how collected manuscripts evolved into the many versions of the Bible that exist today. More specifically through having been copied countless times (by hand) over the centuries, both accidental and intentional changes have radically altered this book that so many wrongly believe is the timeless and inerrant word of god.
If you ask most Christians today who they believe wrote the Bible, they might answer “god”; yet the most honest answer would be "I don't know". For a good portion of my life I had, as well, been under the mistaken assumption that the first books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had been written by those apostles. In actuality, biblical scholars really do not know who the true authors of these texts are.
Actually, the little fragment of Bible pictured above, and most all the known remnants of the early manuscripts, were written in Greek. Yet the principle language of people of ancient Jerusalem during that time was instead Aramaic. In either case, it is most likely that the apostles, allegedly recruited from common laborers, could neither read nor write. Public schools are a very recent modern concept.
One must appreciate that during this time in history, writing and reading was the Information Technology (IT) of its day. Often only the educated slaves or men of substantial wealth and power were literate; keeping tight control over the dissemination of information. The ability to write in Greek was a highly sought after skill of the day. Knowledge was power and those who wielded power were very cautious about into whose hands this technology was entrusted.
The earliest known writings concerning Jesus were the Letters of Paul, dating to approximately 37-40 AD. These epistles focus mainly on the crucifixion and resurrection stories but mention very little of the other familiar legends (virgin birth, magi, miracles, etc.) that later were incorporated into the first four books of the New Testament.
"Textual Critics” such as Bart Ehrman meticulously compare all the known surviving documents to determine if they can trace back, as closely as possible, to the oldest (and therefore supposedly most accurate) versions of the New Testament. They are Biblical CSI scientists. In comparing the accuracy of copies over time, subsequent documents reveal changes, some subtle, others significant, which sometimes completely changed the interpretation of the scripture.
Ehrman’s book is particularly interesting in view of his personal story of how he became a Biblical scholar. As a young man in college, Ehrman became a devout Evangelical Christian. He (as have other Biblical scholars) lost his belief when his study of the texts revealed how men promoting specific self interests have “corrected”, fudged or outright fabricated passages in the Bible that many today ignorantly hold to be the infallible word of god.
Some New Testament passages were added centuries later. For example, one of the more notable stories from the Bible, Jesus forgiving the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11) does not appear in any of the earlier versions until the 4th century. The motivations for someone to concoct tales about the life of Jesus remain can only be speculated.
Christians cite the testimony in the Bible as “evidence” of the divinity of Christ. However it must be noted that none of these testaments is written in the first-person. Mark doesn’t say, for example “… I went to the tomb and saw personally that the stone was rolled away”. The testament reports what someone says that someone told them what they claim to have witnessed. In today’s legal terms, such testimony would be considered hearsay which would be completely inadmissible in a court of law.
Conversely, Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith’s account supposedly is first-person testimony. Smith declares that the angel Maroni appeared in his bedroom, telling him directly where he could view and transcribe the golden plates (written directly by god) which form the content of the Book of Mormon. Is Smith’s testimony more reputable than that of the unknown authors of the Bible? Does that make the Book of Mormon more credible than the Bible? Followers of Mormonism might argue yes.
But if you don’t believe the Book of Mormon is the true word of god, there is even less basis for the divine origins of the Bible. To believe incredible tales which were not committed to writing until decades after their supposed happening about events that defy reason and logic, and most importantly, have been revised and altered over the past 20 centuries, requires a monumental leap of faith.