There was one book that always caught my eye when I walked past it in the bookstore: Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. It has such an intriguing and controversial topic that even though I was tempted to read it I feared my soul might be in danger for reading such heresy. Now, I feel completely moronic for all the fear I had over an incredibly illuminating book. At that point in my life I was afraid to ask hard questions about my religious beliefs. I was afraid of being wrong. I was afraid that the book would make sense, and it did. This book is a basic introduction to the field of textual criticism, a field that most Christians are not familiar with. The very reason for this is noted in the field's name. How many Christians do you know that would take a fine tooth comb through their Bible?
Textual criticism is a branch of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts. Ancient scribes often made errors or alterations when copying manuscripts by hand. Given a manuscript copy, several or many copies, but not the original document, the textual critic seeks to reconstruct the original text (the archetype or autograph) as closely as possible. The same processes can be used to attempt to reconstruct intermediate editions, or recensions, of a document's transcription history. The ultimate objective of the textual critic's work is the production of a "critical edition" containing a text most closely approximating the original.We do not have the original manuscripts to anything found in our New Testament. All we have are copies of copies of copies of copies. Because we lack the originals the best we can do is look through all the manuscripts we do have and find the earliest and most reliable witnesses (manuscripts) to get a glimpse on what the originals said. There are over 5200 Greek manuscript fragments that have survived the tests of time and collectively share over 200,000 differences. Differences do not mean errors, but they have differences which begs the question: if all 5200 Greek manuscripts contain differences how do we know which set of manuscripts contains the least amount of errors?
I won't go over the process here but Ehrman explains it in his book. This is a scientific way to look at our text and find what was originally said. The main defense that Christians take to textual criticism is that God was in control of the canonization process and the Bible is exactly how He wanted it. This is perfectly fine to accept and live by as long as it is making you a more loving person but looking into the history of the Bible should not offend anyone. If something is found that proves that someone added or changed a line in the original inspired word of God because either 1) they thought what was originally written was wrong so they corrected it or 2) they have a political agenda so they changed a line to fit their theology, wouldn't you want to know about these changes? Do you honestly believe that if 1 person adds a few lines about keeping women as subordinates that this is God's Will? As I said before, if this leads you to your Creator and your acceptance of the Bible, as it is, helps you to become a more loving person then please continue as you were. But the fact that there are anomalies in the manuscripts should be enough for us to take a second look at our holy text.
These are not Atheists and Agnostics with an axe to grind, Christians have been examining the manuscripts for hundreds of years and now we can look at our earliest and best manuscripts to weed out the verses that weren't originally there. In fact, my NIV Bible contains the occasional footnote throughout the New Testament stating that these verses were removed because they were not found in our best witnesses.
So what does this mean for the average Christian? How can one balance the truth found in the Bible with reality? How does this set someone "free"? The freedom I talk about is a freedom from reading the text as literal. I believe that if you read spiritual texts in a literal fashion it suffocates the spiritual message and the ability to Reason. Holy texts should be read in a manner that brings the reader closer to God and His attributes (Love, Compassion, Justice, etc.). It should be a matter of the spirit. Spiritual maturity and growth doesn't care if the world was created 6000 years or 14 billion years ago. This has nothing to do with matters of the heart but with scientific inquiry, and vice versa on scientific issues. If we were to prove (and some say we have) that the Israelites wrote the Old Testament as a collection of tales of tribal morality and myth then this should not affect matters of the spirit.
Books like Misquoting Jesus are not set out to disprove that God exists but to prove that man can make mistakes, and that anything that man handles has the possibility of being fowled up. This is a very challenging topic to millions of people and if you sat and read my entire post without fuming in anger then I applaud you. If you did become angry then there's nothing wrong with you, it is human to get upset when someone challenges your view on reality. I am not saying my view on reality is any more correct than anyone elses, but that analyzing how you see the world is a healthy practice. As Humans, with the God-given ability to reason, let us remember that we are brothers, all of us. Although we are surrounded by difficult questions we should not let our answers to these questions divide us, but that we should transcend our answers and never forget our brotherhood.