The ancient world had no access to printing press. Consequently it depended
on scribes to copy a book by hand. This resulted in many versions of the same
book due to simple scribal errors or deliberate deletions or insertions on doctrinal grounds. There are for example 5700 manuscripts of the New Testament books available. (Of course this also
resulted in many books being lost for ever, books for which there was no demand or books that were suppressed by the Christian church, and so never copied by scribes. There is for example only 1 manuscript of the first half of the history written by the famous Roman historian Tacitas.) All these 5700 New testament manuscripts differ from one another due to either scribal errors or due to deliberate omission or insertion on theological or doctrinal grounds.
There was also no system of copyright in the ancient world. This resulted in many books which were outright forgeries. For example the Pauline epistles, 1Timothy, 2Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalions which are supposedly written by the Apostle Paul are accepted by most modern scholars to be pseudepigraphical, i.e., they are not considered to have been written by Paul. Nothing is known about the real authors of these Pauline epistles. Biblical scholars do not like to use the term forgery to describe the authors of New Testament books, hence the use of the euphemistic term 'pseudepigraphical'. About 25 % to 50 % of the 27 New testament books are accepted as forgeries.
Another problem in the interpretation of the canonical Gospels is that no original copy has survived. All we have is copies of copies of copies ….of the originals.
The earliest complete Gospel manuscript copy dates around 200 ce more than 100
years after these were written. (The gospel of Mark, which is considered to be
the earliest Gospel by a majority of scholars, is dated around 70 ce, the Gospels of Mathew and Luke around 85 ce and the Gospel of John around 95 ce.) The existence of a number of variant manuscripts filled with errors and deliberate changes made by the scribes over the centuries and the lack of originals makes it impossible to accurately gauge the doctrines of the original gospels and even their characterization of Jesus Christ. So even if the gospels are inspired by God, there is no way to be certain of the intention of God by reading these corrupted manuscripts.
A Short List of Problems
I have given below some problems with Christian doctrine and characterization of Jesus Christ unveiled by lower textual criticism of the Bible.
1. Doctrine of Docetism
39: And he came out, and went, as he was wont, to the mount of Olives; and his
disciples also followed him.
40: And when he was at the place, he said unto them, Pray that ye enter not
41: And he was withdrawn from them about a stone's cast, and kneeled down, and
42: Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless
not my will, but thine, be done.
43: And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.
44: And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it
were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
45: And when he rose up from prayer, and was come to his disciples, he found
them sleeping for sorrow,
46: And said unto them, Why sleep ye? rise and pray, lest ye enter into
Luke 22:43-44 is a powerful argument against the doctrine of docetism which says
that Jesus was completely divine and not human and so did not have a flesh and
blood human body. It was in the council of Nicea in 325 ce that Christian Bishops voted to establish the doctrine that Jesus was both God and fully human. The oldest and best manuscripts of Luke do not, however, have the lines 22:43-44. So the Council of Nicea doctrine depends crucially on the manuscript of Luke used.
2. Doctrine of Atonement
19: And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them,
saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.
20: Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament
in my blood, which is shed for you.
The Christian doctrine of atonement is based on Christ giving his body to others, i.e., his death is for others. These lines are not present in other manuscripts. Hence the doctrine of atonement depends on the version of manuscript used.
3. Is Jesus unique God?
18: No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the
bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
The idea that Jesus is uniquely God is based on this line which is not present in other manuscripts of John.
4. Did Jesus say this?
34: Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.
This is not there in other old manuscripts of Luke.
5. Was Jesus angry or compassionate?
40: And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him,
and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.
41: And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and
saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.
42: And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him,
and he was cleansed.
Some old manuscripts of Mark say that Jesus was angry with the leper. Modern
Bibles usually follow manuscripts which say Jesus was compassionate!
6. Did jesus ascend to heaven on the day after he was raised from the dead or
only forty days later?
1: The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both
to do and teach,
2: Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy
Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen:
3: To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible
proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining
to the kingdom of God:
51: And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and
carried up into heaven.
Whether Jesus ascended heaven immediately or 40 days after being raised from
death depends on Luke 24:51 since there is a contradiction between Luke and Acts. There are old Luke manuscripts which do not have this line.
7. Doctrine of Adoptionism
21: Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also
being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened,
22: And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a
voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well
Did the voice from heaven at Jesus' baptism in Luke indicate that this was the
time in which God had "begotten" Jesus as his Son, or did it merely reaffirm
that God was well-pleased with him as his son? The answer to this question
depends on which manuscript of Luke you follow. This question is crucial for
Christian theology which says that Jesus Christ has always been God.
8. Gospel writers are not known
The Gospels, unlike many other New Testament books, are not forgeries and are
considered by most scholars to be anonymous texts. This is because the oldest
and best Gospel manuscripts do not have the names of the authors. The current
names like Gospel of Mark were inserted by Christian scribes in later manuscripts in order to make the claim that Gospels are eye witness reports. The historicity of Jesus Christ depends crucially on the accuracy of the canonical Gospels. Christian Bishops have claimed, for example, that Mark the author of the Gospel of Mark was the secretary to the Apostle Peter. Lower textual criticism of the Bible has punctured that claim.
The non-existence of original New Testament books, the fact that a large number of New Testament books are forgeries and that the Gospels are not eye witness reports make it impossible to know the Divine intent and also about Jesus Christ. Lower criticism of the Bible is pure poison to Protestant Christianity which depends only on scripture and not on Apostolic teachings. I shall show later that higher criticism of the Bible is devastating to both Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity.
The books I used for this article are mentioned in the End notes.
The New testament: a historical introduction to early Christian writings
by Bart Ehrman
Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed scripture and why
by Bart Ehrman
More posts by this author:
- Higher Criticism of the Bible: Comparing the Four Canonical Gospels
- Lower criticism of the Christian Bible
- The strength of the universalistic Hindu position
- Crucifixion or CruciFICTION?
- Did Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda say that all religions are same?
I did my school, college and parts of my University education in Kolkata. I got my M.Sc degree from Kolkata University. I went to USA in 1979 and got my M.S and Ph.D in Physics from University of Pittsburgh in 1984. I did my Post Doctorate in University of Southern California, Los Angeles and then worked as a Research Scientist in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Space Sciences Center of University of Southern California. My scientific work includes heavy ion-atom scattering, multiphoton ionization and heliosphere data analysis of Pioneer 10/111 and Voyager 1/2 deep space spacecaft and analysis of solar extreme ultraviolet data obtained from SOHO spacecraft. I have been a National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) Principal Investigator from 2002 – 2007. I have been a member of a NASA awards committee to decide allocation of money to different scientists. I have also refereed scientific articles submitted to Journal of Geophysical Research and Astrophysical Journal.