JESUS MAY HAVE SAID lots of things -- but we have no clue what they are -- at least that's what University of North Carolina religion professor Bart Ehrman's books say. Dr. Ehrman is making quite a name for himself publishing books which contend, if you boil them down to their essence, that you can't trust the Bible, the New Testament or the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.
Why not? Variant readings are the problem. Now, I don't know much about variant readings -- but the New Testament is the best established document from ancient times -- by far.
If you cannot trust the New Testament to say essentially what it says, then we know nothing of any document from that time or before, nothing of Plato, Aristotle or Socrates And you can kiss your Iliad goodbye.
Ehrman's skepticism has inspired me to write a book. It says Martin Luther King, Jr., never gave the "I Have a Dream" speech. You heard me. Martin Luther King never gave the speech he delivered on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. The crowd of 200,000 attending never heard it and hundred of millions of readers never read it.
I know because I read a scholarly article on variant readings of the "I Have a Dream" speech. I actually did. Does that mean it didn’t happen or we can’t know what was said? Is that what you would think if there were no motion picture cameras at the event? Not me.
If variant readings determine whether something was said then many popular sayings never got said. If you don't believe in God, perhaps you do believe in Google. Take any famous quote and put it into the Google search engine (in quotes so as to find the exact quote) and see what comes out. Then vary the quote in simple but logical ways. It is likely you will discover that what you thought was said never was said -- but people are quoting it. You will also discover that many similar things apparently were also said -- according to someone.
You could do this for the words of Jesus but I think for fairness sake that we should go to another spiritual tradition and use the enlightened words of another great yogi. I am thinking here, of course, of Yogi Berra.
Yogi -- supposedly -- said something about dining, or not dining, at a fashionable restaurant. Now before you read on, try to remember the quote. Write it down. Now you may continue reading.
Here's what I thought Yogi said: "That place is so popular nobody goes there anymore." But Google says, via the many interpreters of Yogi, that he said many similar things which have been quoted very many times, tens of thousands of times, but only three measly quotes agreed with me.
I was about to lose my faith in Yogi when I started looking less carefully and more sensibly at his words. Despite the variant word orders, despite the variant punctuation, vocabulary and even spelling, one thing remained: the essence of Yogi. In all of its garbled forms, the truth of Yogi remained.
And, you know what? If we really cared to determine exactly what Yogi said, the first time he said it, if we cared as much as many have for centuries about the words of Jesus, we could. For the words of Yogi, not many care. For the words of Jesus, many have, many do -- and that leaves us with modern translations which are some of the most reliable historical documents known to mankind.
Ehrman’s new religion is an innovative synthesis of two divergent strains of religious thought -- that of the Pharisees and that of the Sadducees. We have nit-picking legalism combined with a doubt and denial of almost any manifest reality of God. Ehrman has done what Jesus could not do, bring these two together.
I don't know if I should say this, but I have prayed earnestly for Dr. Ehrman, because reading his books and watching interviews with him, made me sad -- sad for him. He has lost his way -- and now he is looking for followers.
Gary D. Gaddy has a doctorate from the University of North Carolina, thankfully, not in religion.
A version of this column was published in the Chapel Hill Herald Thursday April 2, 2009.
Copyright 2009 Gary D. Gaddy