A Jesus Book for Christmas

I think I know what I want for Christmas. Even though he describes himself as a “happy agnostic,” Bart Ehrman’s recently published book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, promises to be a good read. Interviewed today on the Diane Rehm Show, Ehrman discussed some of the basic concepts familiar to anyone who has taken an academically sound course on the New Testament. (Dr. Ehrman is the chair of the religious studies department at UNC-Chapel Hill.)

In particular, Ehrman pointed out that from Christianity’s earliest days there have been many significant differences between the various texts that ultimately were compiled and accepted as the “canon” of scripture Christians recognize today. This compilation and acceptance did not happen over night, nor did it happen without controversy. Through those very human activities of discussion and argument, conflict and resolution, give and take, reflection and refinement, the current New Testament canon slowly emerged until its present form in the late fourth century .

The “human factor” that went into deciding what gospel narratives or Pauline letters were to be considered “sacred” and “inspired” is usually not acknowledged by biblical fundamentalists. These folks tend to think the texts of the New Testament one day miraculously appeared, as if suddenly composed by a human scribe taking divine dictation. These are the God/the-bible-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it folks who seem to think the original biblical authors spoke Shakespearean English a la the KJV (King James Version). In my own Catholic Tradition, however, we recognize that the only texts that can be called “inspired” are the original texts, such as we know them; thus acknowledging the truth of the Italian saying, “traddutore, traditore” (every translator is a traitor).

Ehrman also noted that context is everything. In order to understand what the scriptures mean today, whether in whole or in part, one must first understand what they meant meant to those to whom it was originally delivered. This is the activity of understanding and interpretation, or hermeneutics, as the scripture scholars call it. It recognizes that different authors had different purposes, different reasons for writing. The Christians at Corinth were different from the ones at Ephesus, and their communities faced different challenges. Understanding what they meant then is the first step to understanding what they mean now.

Ehrman also has a book scheduled for relase in the spring of 2006. That one is called, Peter, Paul, and Mary. I think it comes with a CD of “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”!

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