Another of the spate of books out questioning the traditional view of the Bible is Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus. His book may hold more sway for some because Ehrman studied at Moody Bible Institute, was "born again," but then doubted the Bible's inerrancy. "I kept reverting to my basic question: How does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don't have the words that God inerrantly inspired?" Why is that a problem? Because we only have copies, and copies of copies, and these are filled with copyists' errors. Wheaton College New Testament professor, Gary M. Burge, critiques the case Ehrman makes of these errors:
In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman retraces the common knowledge that scribes transcribed the Bible for 1,500 years until Gutenberg came along. But Ehrman further suggests that not only did the scribes alter the theological message of the texts, but that they also were simply continuing in the tradition of biblical writers such as Matthew and Luke, who shaped Jesus' message to fit their theological agendas.
What Ehrman fails to tell us is that most of the scribal errors he likes to list are incidental. And when they do have substance, the thousands of Greek manuscripts we possess permit us to reconstruct the original by making minute comparisons of their discrepancies. For instance, the shorter version of the Lord's Prayer in Luke 11:2-4 is notorious for its many "variants" (textual discrepancies or anomalies) in Greek manuscripts. However, it quickly becomes evident that scribes were harmonizing this prayer with Matthew's longer version in Matthew 6:9-13.
On other occasions, scribes heard dictation wrong (in Rom. 5:1, "let us have peace" and "we have peace" sound the same in Greek) or they sensed a problem they wanted to solve. Mark 1:2 quotes from both Malachi and Isaiah, but Mark wrote, "As it is written in Isaiah the prophet." Some scribes sought to correct this by amending the text: "As it is written in the prophets." In most cases, scholars can quickly restore the original. To be sure, some textual problems are hotly contested and solving them is thorny (the story of the woman caught in adultery is a case in point, see John 8), but none of these variants jeopardizes a single major teaching of the New Testament.
In another of Ehrman's books, presumes that the circulation of the gnostic gospels was widespread, suggesting that early Christianity was much more pluralistic than thought - a model worthy of emulation today. But Burge points out a fundamental error in Ehrman's argument:
Ehrman writes, "Jewish Christians in the early centuries of the church were widely thought to have preferred the Gospel of Matthew. …" Or: "The Gospel of Peter was known and used as scripture in some parts of the Christian church in the second century."
These sentences carry with them huge historical and theological assumptions. Locating an apocryphal Gospel in antiquity certainly suggests that someone was reading it. But it hardly means that this Gospel was enjoying widespread support and authority, especially among Christians. Such an argument would be the same as someone who finds an example of eccentric Christian or cultic literature today and then concludes that this is "what Christians read." It simply goes beyond the evidence.
Burge helpfully points out that these alternative views of Christianity are "raising a host of questions about the origin of our faith (and our Scriptures) that Christian need to master. The Da Vinci Code has stimulated a great deal of teaching about the history of the church and theology. Let's hope it continues. It would be much better if Christians were equipped ahead of time to understand their faith thoroughly enough that they are prepared for the challenges, rather than responding after the fact.
One excellent source to understand how the Bible was formed, and what role other writings played in the early church, is F.F. Bruce's The Canon of Scripture. And Greg uses a helpful analogy to explain how the scribal errors don't obscure what the original autographs must have said. We may not have the original documents, but we might actually have something better. Rather than one document that could arguably be tinkered with, we have thousands and thousands of manuscripts from widespread geographic areas that can be compared and corrected, attesting to the same original message.