Best-sellers take on the New Testament

DALLAS -- Christians filled churches this Easter season to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, as reported in the New Testament. But outside church walls, sacred Christian texts are under attack from scholars and in the popular culture.
From the fictional juggernaut of "The Da Vinci Code" to the historical account of the Judas gospel to the scholarly critique of "Misquoting Jesus," best-sellers are making a case that the New Testament isn't the last word. Maybe not even the first word.
Should Christians believe everything in their Bibles? Even those who think so have different ways of saying "yes." And faith aside, scholars disagree about the authenticity of some texts.
"The Scriptures are both a human and divine reality. They are not divine words that were dropped out of heaven or forced into a person to write down," said the Rev. Timothy A. Friedrichsen, a New Testament professor at Catholic University in Washington.
A Southern Baptist theologian offered a more absolute response.
"Southern Baptists are adamant about the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Bible," said Malcolm Yarnell, director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Even conservative Bible scholars admit to uncertainties in the texts, though.
Newer versions
Most modern translations, for instance, carry an asterisk near the end of the Gospel of Mark, where the writer deals with the Resurrection. The note in the evangelical New International Version is typical: "The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20."
The disputed verses include details of Jesus' ministry after his Resurrection. The passage includes Mark's version of the "Great Commission," telling his disciples to "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation." The section ends with Jesus' ascension into heaven.
How did those verses -- which don't show up in the earliest and best manuscripts of Mark -- get there? Were they in the original but lost for a while? Or added by a later scribe?
Long-ago arguments
Critics sniped at parts of the New Testament even before the canon -- the accepted list of books -- was set in the fourth century. The criticisms have generally focused on two questions: Are the texts authentic -- the same words originally penned? And are the stories true -- describing the events as they actually occurred?
For many, faith offers answers enough: If the Bible says it, it's true. But modern scholars wield tools of science and history in a quest for certainty.
Text experts have studied thousands of pieces of ancient, handwritten Scripture. (Gutenberg created the first printed Bible in the 15th century.) And almost every book, fragment or scrap includes typos, errors or changes compared with the others.
"Most of the differences don't matter, but some of the differences are huge," said Bart Ehrman, chairman of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina and the author of "Misquoting Jesus," a book that suggests sections of the New Testament were changed over the early centuries of Christianity.
Ehrman admits, however, that no major tenet of mainstream Christianity rests solely on disputed texts. Most of the details in the disputed last verses of Mark, for example, are found elsewhere in the New Testament.
But original versions of some passages support different interpretations of the nature and mission of Jesus, he said.
"In some instances, the choice affects the meaning of an entire passage, or even an entire book," he said.
For example, in "Misquoting Jesus," he cites Luke's account of John baptizing Jesus. Modern translations have God saying, "You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased." But Ehrman says the original said something quite different: "You are my son. Today I have begotten you."
So was Jesus eternally God's son or was he in some sense "begotten" on the day of his baptism?
Established tenets
But even the largest differences are not so huge, said Darrell Bock, a professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and the author of "Breaking the Da Vinci Code," one of many recent books identifying historical or theological errors in the novel.
"Every central doctrine of the faith is well established," he said. "Even if you take out all the readings he [Ehrman] has suggested in his book, you have not altered Christianity as a whole."
Enough people find these kinds of queries interesting to spawn a library full of books, and at least one potential blockbuster movie.
Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" is the best-known recent work that argues that the texts aren't true, whether or not they're authentic. (The movie, starring Tom Hanks, is scheduled to open May 19.)
Brown, who does not grant interviews, has coyly marketed the truthiness of his novel, claiming that biblical scholarship supports a central plot element in the book: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had children whose descendants walk among us, but that a conspiracy still hides the truth.
Some of that theme was borrowed from the work of Michael Baigent, whose book "The Jesus Papers" has just been published. But even Baigent -- who unsuccessfully sued Brown for plagiarism in London -- admits that his premise is largely based on documents he has never seen or cannot produce.
Judas factor
A different kind of challenge to the truth of the Bible as we know it today comes from the Gospel of Judas. The recently translated ancient text portrays Judas as a hero who helped Jesus fulfill his destiny. The National Geographic Society published two books about the Judas text last week, coinciding with the release of a TV special.
The Judas gospel is one of many Christian texts that were well known 1,700 years ago but didn't make it into the Bible. Church leaders excluded the Judas "gospel" from the New Testament canon in a winnowing process that involved almost 200 years of argument and debate. Books supported by a minority, even in their day, didn't make the final cut if they clashed with the theology of the winning side.
"It's pretty clear why the early church said this is fringe literature," said Friedrichsen, the Catholic University scholar.
The Judas text and Brown attack the truth of the New Testament. But Ehrman's scholarship doesn't take a position on truth. Instead, he's questioning whether modern translations are authentic, faithful versions of the original texts.
In "Misquoting Jesus," most of the differences he targets do not relate to modern hot-button issues such as abortion or gay marriage. But some of the verses he challenges do speak to the role of women in the church.
For instance, Ehrman writes, the first letter to Timothy, which declares a woman can have no authority over men, was probably not written by Paul, but rather by one of the next generation of church leaders.
Ehrman, who was hired by National Geographic to help authenticate and market the Gospel of Judas, also takes on the Book of Revelation in his book.
The original books of the New Testament were written in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. The work was eventually translated into Latin, and versions in the original languages were all but lost for centuries.
A complete version in Greek was published in the mid-1500s by Desiderus Erasmus, using a few fragmentary Greek texts. But none included the last six verses of Revelation, so Erasmus had to create his own Greek "original" from the Latin.
This flawed Bible was prime source material for the translators who created the King James Version a century later, Ehrman said. Which became the standard Bible still found in millions of homes.
Differing views
How important is this history to the faith of modern Christians?
Important, claims Ehrman.
"If you have a belief in the very words of the Bible, and all your faith is based on having these words, and suddenly you realize you don't have these words, it has a cataclysmic effect on your faith," said Ehrman. He added that his own study of the Bible helped move him from being a conservative Christian to an agnostic.
Not so important, claims Friedrichsen.
"We [Catholics] do not teach verbal inerrancy," he said.
The Holy Spirit guarantees the portions of the Bible that speak to eternal truths, but human frailty may have affected other passages, he said.
"It's always hard to hold those two principles together, the human and the divine," he said.
But Yarnell, of Southwestern Baptist, finds nothing but God in his Bible. Critics who question the Bible, he said, risk muddying divine truth with human error.
"Southern Baptists," he said, "believe that the best way to avoid perverting the Gospel is by avoiding the errors which come from barnacled traditions, fallible experiences, and delusive rationalities."

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