One of my favorite Teaching Company videos is Dr. Bart Ehrman’s on the New Testament, where he goes into what I now understand is the historical–critical analysis of the books of the New Testament. The lectures provide a fascinating insight into the books, along with background into when they were created, what they mean, and how they were changed throughout history.
These two books cover the same ground. The first focuses on what we know of the history of changes and alterations to the texts going back to our earliest copies, which are still removed by hundreds of years from the very first versions. The second focuses more on the differences between the texts, with Ehrman insisting that we consider what each author has to say standing alone, and recognizing that they might well be contradicting each other, and why that might be the case.
The claim that every word of the Bible is correct as it sits today is not one that I was brought up with, but Ehrman presents the case – which is well recognized in most Christian seminary and theological institutions today – that that claim simply is not sustainable, and that whether approaching the texts from an analytical or a devotional perspective, a reader benefits from understanding how the texts started and how they were changed – sometimes unintentionally and sometimes quite deliberately throughout history.
I thoroughly enjoy and think I benefit from understanding the different viewpoints of the different authors, and why they might disagree on certain points. It is also helpful to know that many of the beliefs that I hold were not in fact part of Jesus’ teachings during his lifetime, and instead reflect decisions in the early years of the church regarding doctrines that Jesus did not express opinions on. Or – and this is one of Ehrman’s points – we don’t know whether he did or not since we have no way of knowing everything that he taught, and in many cases whether what we are told he said is correct.
Now there are ways of sussing out what’s more likely true than not true that are very helpful – for example no new religion in its right mind would make up a boast that its leader who was executed as a common criminal. Or have a leader be baptized by an inferior, or grow up in a one-horse town like Nazareth. But this is what makes these things likely to have actually occurred. On the other hand, additions or changes to writings are less likely to be correct in general. So much of the books deal with these sorts of questions – what can we say about what Jesus actually said and did given the contradictions and changes.
But these are my favorite kinds of books. I learned a lot, and gained a better understanding of an area I want to know more about.