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Shows the diversity humming inside the bible if you look...
on August 15, 2001
This book is about one group of Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries who, writing before the canon had been set, fought heatedly against sects of Christians it considered heretical. This group - the 'proto-orthodox' - modified its scriptures to avoid alternative interpretations of Jesus, and in so doing, ironically corrupted its own sacred texts.
'Corruption' sounds negative, but it's a technical term. It just means that the original text has been modified. Ehrman is not trying to make swiss cheese out of the New Testament. He states that "by far the vast majority of [textual variants] are 'accidental'." But some of them have too much relevance to the intense theological disputes of the pre-canonical period to be random error.
The 4 heretical positions discussed are 1) adoptionism, 2) separationism, 3) doceticism, and 4) Patripassianism.
Adoptionism is the belief that Jesus was a man who was 'adopted' by God to carry out one of his plans. When God adopted a man, the man became a 'Son' only at that moment to the Father. When an adult David was crowned king, he was adopted by God. When Jesus is declared 'Son of God' at his baptism - it did NOT mean he was himself divine, although he certainly had a special relationship to God. Jesus was not divine- just a great man in God's eyes, chosen for a task.
Separationism is a Gnostic view that Jesus was a man, and the Christ was a divine spirit - and that at Jesus' baptism (again!) the Christ entered him, empowered him to accomplish miracles, and then left him on the cross (helps make sense of Mark 15:34). Jesus the man was thus separable from the Christ, a divine spirit.
Docetism is the view that Jesus only appeared to have a real, fleshly human body, but being God, really did not. Jesus' body is more like a phantom or temporary body, a rental. This sounds strange - but surely Jesus couldn't have an erection, or defecate? The discomfort we might feel here shows the docetic in all of us. Gnostics were VERY big on docetism - since they thought that the material realm was tainted and evil.
Patripassianism is the belief that the trinity is false, that there is only ONE god. So this entails that Yahweh HIMSELF was crucified, arrested, beaten, etc.
Most of the corruptions are surprisingly subtle and minor in appearance - most of them are a change in one or two words in a single passage. For example, changing a reference from reading 'Jesus' to 'Jesus Christ' was born in a manger affirms that Jesus was divine from BIRTH, that he was UNIFIED in his being as well. This one corruption could be used by orthodoxy to maintain an interpretation that resists adoptionist or separationist attack. .
But the four heresies are, after all, pretty simple to grasp. For a book that can be meticulous and involved in its argument, the basic ideas are straightorward. In fact, there are only 6 chapters - an intro, a chapter for each heresy, and a conclusion. Very simple organization. Each chapter has substantial footnotes that can be very interesting to read themselves, as well as sources for further information.
Ehrman's book is not dry, but it is detailed and involved in parts. I don't know New Testament Greek, but he frequently quotes Greek phrases with a translation. However, there are numerous cases where he does NOT translate, and that gets a bit rough. I had to reread perhaps 5 of his passages several times to get the flow of his argument. Once he sets it up, most of the corruptions are easy to see coming. In fact, sometimes it gets a little tedious. He presents an argument for each corruption, some of them truly fascinating, though. Many of them are speculative in nature, and he acknowledges that.
The most crucial class of corruptions are the ones that Ehrman thinks have made it into the canon. These he argues very carefully, and the context he provides is terrific. Some examples are 1) the adoptionist hints in Luke 3:22 (baptism again!), Jesus' bloody sweat (Luke 22:43-44), Luke's version of the Last Supper (22:19-20), Peter's visit to the tomb in Luke 24:12, and the title 'Son of God' in Mark 1:1.
The vast majority, however, of the corruptions he lists have NOT made their way into the modern bible, at least not the NSRV Oxford bible that I own. He gives his reasons for each of these in full.
Importantly, none of the corruptions themselves were carried out in a systematic way - the orthodox church never seemed to have a policy of corruption. Ehrman is careful not to attribute any malicious intention to the orthodox scribes, as well. Rather, it comes off that a scribe here and there would see the potential misreading, and then insert his own modification to 'clarify' what (he) thought was obviously already there in the text.
Interestingly, some of the corruptions themselves cause further problems! A corruption that helps emphasize Jesus' humanity, and thereby removes a docetic threat - can also open the text up to adoptionist readings. One can't help see the tighrope walk involved for the orthodox - and Ehrman hints that this refusal to yield to either side's heresy forced the orthodox sect to embrace that paradoxical understanding of Jesus' nature - all God AND all human, one god BUT three 'aspects.' (This helped explain to me, at least, the bizarre Trinity. It's always seemed like a construct - trying to have one's theological cake and eat it too.) Learning to spot those ancient heresies helped me read the bible more carefully. Far from being a unified, flawless block of dead doctrine, the New Testament now brims with the tensions and questions of its overlapping and also competing Christological perspectives. The bible is a complex collection of writings - Ehrman's book helped the New Testament become much more of a living book to me.