Recently, Bart Ehrman, a highly respected scholar of the New Testament and early Christian literature at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) was interviewed on PBS about his new book, just released in November, which is provocatively titled Misquoting Jesus: The Story About Who Changed the Bible and Why. In the radio interview, Ehrman used the obvious but long-ignored discrepancies in the stories of the conception and birth of Jesus as prime example of how early Christians "cooked the books", to make their case for the divinity of Christ.
While this new book sounds like a more popular version of the themes aired in his earlier The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 1995), there can be little doubt that this latest book by Ehrman, who describes himself as having grown up as an "Evangelical Christian" but now as a contented "agnostic" could have a disturbing effect on a lot of Christians -- much more than The DaVinci Code, a mystery novel that only pretended to be based on historical facts. Ehrman is a serious scholar with some ten books to his credit, and his conclusions, although sometimes arguable, are based on recognized evidence.
Should devout believers be disturbed by such scholarly work? Perhaps we should be. Certainly the new pope, who seems to have great reservations about the effects of modern biblical scholarship, seems concerned. Even the late pope John Paul II openly complained about Catholic theologians who fail to adhere to what he called "the canonical interpretation of Scripture". By this he meant that they were paying too much attention to the scripture scholars and neglecting scripture as it has been traditionally interpreted by the Church.
But need the choice be between biblical fundamentalism and/or Catholic traditionalism (which increasingly seem to be bed-partners) as against serious biblical "criticism" or scholarship? Does one either end up either as "true believer" or else as an agnostic (at least when it comes to Christian claims) or even worse, an atheist? I really don't think so. If the scriptures have been tampered with, all the more that we need to get cut through the veneer of cherished misconceptions and pious beliefs that have obscured what one Catholic theologian, Johann Metz, has called the "dangerous memory" of Jesus and the impact these "memories" should have on the world.
Why "dangerous"? I think it is because if we really discovered who Jesus really was, and even more, if we actually became serious about living the way he said we should live, there would be a real revolution -- not just moral/ethical, but even political-economic, because ethics, put into practice could not but affect everything else). Why the continual recurrence of war, of systematic violations of human rights, and the unjust hoarding of the world's goods, even by those who claim to be "Christians", that fails to alleviate widespread poverty, homelessness and hunger. While not every cause of human misery can be eliminated, so much more could be done! In fact, to the extent that Christianity or the distortions of Christianity have contributed to the mess we now have in this world, it is imperative that we go back to its beginnings reexamine and rethink what Jesus really was about. Otherwise I fear that what that great Christian apologist and writer, G. K. Chesterton, said about not blaming Christianity because "it has never been tried" will turn out to be more a curse than an excuse.
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