I recently reviewed Bart Ehrman’s excellent book Misquoting Jesus (here) where he uses historical fact to argue that the New Testament as we hold it is not the same book that first century Christians would have held.
His argument is two fold. The first and most clear fork is based on textual criticism or the science of textual forensics. This is where extant copies of ancient manuscripts are compared in an attempt to determine and locate changes from earlier copies. That such a science exists is problematic for Christians. It exists only because we do not have any – nary a one – original document pertaining to Jesus and the development of the first century church. In Misquoting Jesus Ehrman methodically steps through errors, omissions, and additions in our manuscripts. He explains – amazingly – that not one manuscript, from thousands, however big or small, matches any other. In fairness, he explains that most errors are obviously editorial but, just as obviously, many are additions or deletions in order to make the story better.
Historically the church has dealt with this in two ways. Roman Catholics and Orthodox churches have mostly skirted it via ex cathedra where church leaders are able to definitively and divinely understand the mind of God. In fact, they argue that because we do not have original manuscripts, and because extant manuscripts contain errors, we need a mechanism to lay down judgment on what the Bible means. In a real sense, for Catholics and Orthodox believers, sacred writings are subservient to official decree. This is an often irreconcilable wedge between groups. Where believers in an inerrant and literal Bible see their truths as eternal and unchanging, other groups are able to evolve, such as when the Mormon Church, based on new revelation, voted to allow Blacks to join the priesthood in 1978.
The second prong of Ehrman’s argument is much more organic and interesting to me: left to themselves people can’t be trusted. Not in a bad way but simply by nature. We’ve all played the telephone game where we sit in a circle and someone starts by whispering something into the ear to their right. “Circles are red.” Each person passes it along in a whisper. After ten or twenty iterations the last person repeats aloud what they were told: “Clouds haven rotten.” Everyone laughs but it gives real insight to how oral messages area transmitted – poorly.
Imagine that you are in Rome. It’s the year 60 and someone named Jesus has been dead now for thirty years. Every now and then you run into people who claim to have known him or who follow him. Some say he was god himself. Other say he was a man favored by god. Others say he didn’t even have a real body! It seems that some followers are Jewish but follow Jesus too. This is the telephone game writ large. But it is worse than that. There have been some people who have purposefully tried to sway and shift the argument. Certainly Paul did. Listen to him here, from First Corinthians:
For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?…
Clearly here we see how groups or sects can naturally develop. It’s easy to imagine different churches rising up out of this. The First Church of Paul. Madison Avenue Church of Appolos. And why not? People were mostly uneducated and illiterate. Stories moved through towns and region orally, each taking on a local flavor. Would these stories have been embellished? Of course. What’s interesting about pulling a loaf of bread out of your knapsack? Nothing. But when you keep breaking off enough bits to feed 5,000 people? Now thar’s a tale!
As we move through early church history we see this happening again and again. Faith in Jesus was a stew of competing beliefs. This is the reason for church councils, meetings, priests, and popes: to create and maintain one orthodoxy.
How in the world does this tie in the the movie Selma?
A couple weeks ago I tweeted a well known talking head about Selma. She had just seen the movie and squealed that the movie was so wonderful she wanted to stay and see it again. (For clarity let me say that I am paraphrasing all tweets.) I sent a quick question, asking her what she thought of the historical questions about the film. She never answered but a few of her followers did and I should have just asked something sensible like whether she preferred pistols or rifles for murder.
The hounds were in full cry. “How dare you ask such a stupid question!” “What? Just leaving the KKK meeting?” “Are you Black? If not you have no right to even ask the question!” I was stunned but should have known better than to expect real responses.
I finally got a few reasoned answers. Most people shrugged and said it’s a movie, not a documentary. Others took pains to explain MLK’s importance to me. It was clear to them by my question that I didn’t know who he was. Meanwhile streams of derision flowed in like lava.
Human nature was at work here with some insight into the development of any historical memory.
Forty years after the death of MLK and it’s easy to see certain camps evolving. One is historical: stick to the facts. We’ve got recordings, newscast, and interviews. That’s the entire story. Others see him as a great man – a leader with an important message. And I met a few folks on Twitter who don’t give one flying damn about history. They’ve got a story and that’s the final word. If you don’t agree with them then that just proves that you would have shot the man yourself.
I make no claim here that any religion is growing around MLK though not much about religion surprises me. Instead, I think it’s fascinating to see how movements within movements develop. How a group can rise within a group and begin to define orthodoxy. Recently I re-blogged a post regarding free speech. I have a libertarian view of free speech: you are free to say what you will as long as no one is put in immediate physical peril. But within some groups who have traditionally supported free speech it is being redefined to exclude speech that makes people feel badly, especially in regard to gender and sexual orientation. This is wrong to me. All ideas must be put on the table and judged on their merit, even uncomfortable ideas. It’s the only way for culture at large to win out over popes, despots, and ‘protectors’ of right thinking.