For part of my ‘Holy Week’ observance, I went to hear Bart Ehrman debate Craig Evans in Overland Park, Kansas. Dr. Erhman is the author of the best selling book, Misquoting Jesus. He wrote the book as a result of thirty years of biblical scholarship which began when he became an evangelical Christian as a teenager in Lawrence, Kansas, took him to the Moody Bible Institute where he studied the bible in it’s original languages moved onto Wheaton College for his undergraduate degree, and eventually earned a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. Ehrman is now a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I read Misquoting Jesus on Easter Sunday a few days after the debate. It is an interesting and easy book to read despite it’s heady material.
Both the book and the debate centered on the ‘textual variants’ in the bible. ’Textual variants’ is a fancy phrase for mistakes in ancient biblical manuscripts. Due to a severe lack of copy machines in ancient Rome the books and letters in the New Testament were hand copied. The scribes made mistakes. They skipped lines. They were occasionally lazy or incompetent and sometimes they even made changes in the texts of the bible to fulfill a personal agenda. There are literally hundreds of thousands of textual variants among the hundreds of ancient biblical manuscripts still in existence and no one has ever found an original copy of any of the books in the bible.
One of the most striking examples of textual variants as told in Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus is the story of the woman caught in adultery. This story contains the famous line of Jesus “whosoever among you is without sin, let him cast the first stone”. Virtually all textual scholars of the bible agree that the riveting story of the adulterous woman being drug in front of Jesus where he utters the famous line and finally intones – ‘go your way and sin no more’ was added to John long after the gospel had been in circulation. Why do biblical scholars think this? The story’s word usage and phrasing is very different from rest of the book as if it were written by a different author and the story doesn’t appear in the earliest copies of John that are still in existence.
Another gut wrenching textual variant or mistake in the bible includes the last twelve verses of the gospel of Mark. This passage contains the verses describing Christ’s followers as being able to ‘cast our demons, speak in tongues, handle snakes, and drink poison without harm’. Without these final verses the gospel of Mark ends strangely and abruptly, yet it is obvious to textual critics that these twelve verses were added at a later date.
The debate took place in a massive church called First Family in Overland Park, Kansas. Despite it’s name, I don’t think this church has anything to do with Michelle and Barack Obama. Overland Park is located in Johnson County which comes in third in the amount of disposable income per capita in the US. By the look of the church, much of that disposable income is getting dumped into the offering plate at First Family. In fact, the ushers at First Family passed the plate twice during the debate, once before and once after and it wasn’t even a plate! It was a velvet bag with wooden handles (retails for $49.99 ). Right before the debate began, the audience was instructed to try and remain seated throughout the debate as it was being filmed by three huge cameras on fifteen foot pivoting booms. Several burly men stood around the perimeter of the church throughout the service, guarding the doors. This directive and the guarded doors made me feel strangely panicky.
The debate began. Erhman answered each of the seven questions first, allowing Dr. Craig Evans, his opponent to tidily sweep up the sticky problems he presented among the various ancient manuscripts as well as among the four gospels. Evans, a Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College of Acadia University, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada did his job heroically often receiveing resounding applause after he assured the crowd that yes – there might be a few problems in the ancient texts of the New Testament, but nothing that changes the major points of Christianity.
Ehrman countered again and again saying that if the bible has clearly been added to, subtracted from, and edited throughout it’s first thousand years, can it really be called the inerrant word of God? And if there is clear indication that the bible has been manipulated for a variety of reasons including everything from incompetent scribes to political maneuvering – should it really be treated as holy writ and have such a massive influence on society today? Should it influence public policy and school text books? Should it determine who is a sinner and who isn’t? And should it be used to deny certain individual rights based on one’s gender or sexual preferences?
Ultimately, I suppose it depends on what a person considers to be a critical variant (or mistake) in the bible.
If the bible is inerrant – is even one textual variant enough to make it scarily questionable?
What about two textual variants?
What about 200,000 textual variants?
What if some of these variants concern the doctrine of the trinity?
What if they don’t agree about the details of Christ’s birth?
What if they don’t agree about the details of Christ’s death?
What if they don’t agree about his resurrection?
At what point do these textual variants become so problematic as to make Christianity just one more myth on the mountain of religious myths that have long plagued humankind?
Here are a few photos from the debate…
Just one small wing of the massive church.
On my way to the sanctuary, I walked by an indoor ‘play place’ and two coffee shops!
The man in the striped tie is Dr. Craig. Standing beside him is the pastor’s son who is currently studying something very holy-ish that involves staring in awe at ancient copies of the bible at Oxford.
Bart Erhman is the one with the water bottle. The pastor and his son are at the plexiglass podium.
Whenever Dr. Ehrman was speaking, the pastor and his son tended to look like they wanted to beat him up.
Smile boys! You asked him to come!
Dr. Ehrman stood off to one side of the stage and hung his head. He was kind of the Christ figure in this particular story.
And the pastor and his cronies were kind of like the thugs who clamored for Jesus’s death.
There’s Bart… I mean Jesus.. I mean Bart - islolated, alone and alienated from the religious bigwigs who claim to have special knowledge about who God is and how his instruction manual should read.
See how Jesus… I mean Bart seems to know that he is doomed?
Finally, Jesus… I mean Bart was escorted off the stage by some of those burly usher types and the love fest continued without him.
The men on stage had a lot of patching up to do to make sure that the congregation understood that Erhman’s arguments were full of holes and that they could all be explained away in a few upcoming talks.
I was hoping to purchase an autographed copy of one of Dr. Ehrman’s books after the event. I hunted around the huge church for a while looking for a table full of books and a line of autograph seekers. I saw one young man carrying around a copy of Misquoting Jesus and I followed him to a room off the sanctuary. The door to the room was being guarded by one of the burly usher types. A few of us waited outside the room, but after ten minutes, it didn’t seem that Ehrman was going to come out and since I didn’t have a book to autograph and there didn’t seem to be any available, I left.
I guess I can see why a church would not allow an author to sell a book in their massive lobby that questions their entire belief system, but it was kind of parsimonious not to allow a few fans to get an autograph from a best-selling author. Perhaps they could have arranged a meet-up for the fans of Ehrman at a nearby bar?
Or maybe that is asking a bit too much.
I would think a church with it’s own play place and TWO coffee shops would not be afraid of the occasional obtuse absurdity.
Judge for yourself.
The Ehrman/Craig Debate at First Family