The perverted bible: Misquoting Jesus Peace be upon him

English Text By Nov 20, 2009


Misquoting Jesus

by Gart Erman

who shares the department of religions studies at the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is acknowledged by the interviewer as a scholar of the New Test and the early church

The speaker said:

 This is fresh air A Gross. There’s a bumper sticker that reads, “God said it; I believe it.” My guest Gart Erman’s reaction is, What if God didn’t say it? What if the book you take as giving you God’s words instead contains human words?  Earman is the author of the new book Misquoting Jesus. It’s about how the New Testiman was altered by the scribes who hand wrote each copy and in the process made intentional or unintentional changes. Earman shares the department of religions studies at the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’s a scholar of the New Test and the early church. He was born again at the age of fifteen and studied at the moody bible institute. Later, while studying at the Princton theological seminary, he started to have doubts about the literal interpretations of the bible. He now describes himself as an egnostic. Let’s start with how the bible was hand copied for almost fifteen hundred years.

 With the bible we’re talking about a period before there was movable type, and so for books to be reproduced, they had to be copied by hand. So all of the books of the New Testiment and all of the books, in fact, from all of antiquity, were reproduced by hand which is a very slow, painstaking process. To mass produce a book in the ancient world meant that you would give the book to a company that would do these things and they might have five scribes there who would copy the book. So the mass production or the the Kinkos of the ancient world was the little scribal shop on the corner where you might find five guys doing this to make a living. So the books got copied out by hand, and copying a book by hand meant copying it one sentence, one word, one letter at a time. That’s not only a painstakingly slow process, the process it also open for mistakes to be made—either accidental mistakes as the scribe is just being careless or possibly he’s tired or possibly he’s inept. Sometimes the scribes changed the text intentionally—when they think the text ought to say something different from what it does say, they changed the text. Once, of course, they changed the text, the change was made permanent because this was the copy that someone else would use who copied the text later.

Let’s look at one of the classic stories in the New Testiment, that you say scholars say was changed by scribes. This is the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. Tell us the story as we know it.

 Well it’s is a terrific story. It’s found in the Gospel of John chapter 7 and 8. The Jewish leaders caught a woman committing adultery and they bring her to Jesus and they set a trap for Jesus. They ask him, According to the law of Moses, this woman should be stoned to death, what do you say? So Jesus is put in this predicament because if he says, no have mercy on her, as you’d expect him to say since he’s been preaching a doctrine of love and mercy, if he says that, then he’s breaking the law of Moses. But if he says, No go ahead and stone her, then he’s obviously violating his own teachings about love and mercy. And so, what’s he to do? Well, he stoops down and starts drawing on the ground and he looks up and he says, Let the one without sin among you be the first to cast the stone at her. And then he stoops back down and starts writing and slowly one by one, all of her accusers leave until he looks up and sees that she’s alone. He says then to her, is there no one left to condemn you? And she says, no Lord, no one. And he says, neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.

 What’s historically questioned in this story?

 The whole story is a very interesting story for a lot of reasons. Interpreters have puzzled over it for years. One of the leading questions is, if this woman was caught in the act of adultery, where’s the man? Because according to the law of Moses, both of them are to be stoned to death, but apparently, they’ve only come away with a woman.  So there are interesting interpretive questions. The bigger issue is whether in fact this is a story that belongs in the bible or not. As it turns out, even though this is the favorite story of people who read the bible and make movies about the bible for Hollywood, this story was probably not original to the gospel of John. The earliest manuscripts that we have of the gospel of John don’t have this story. None of the Greek writing church fathers—the New testament itself was written in Greek—who comment on the gospel of John include it in their commentaries until the twelfth century—so 12 hundred years after the book itself was written. This shows that the early manuscripts simply didn’t have this story. The question then is, how did we get the story? Well, in the middle ages, apparently a scribe had heard of the story someplace through somebody telling him the story and wrote it down in the margin of the manuscript. Some other scribe came along, saw the story in the margin of the manuscript, and then transferred it into the main script itself in the gospel of John. From then on, that manuscript got copied, and one of the subsequent copies of that manuscript was then used by the King James translators when the translated the bible. So this story has become totally familiar to the people who read English, but it wouldn’t have been known at all to Greek reading Christians reading the gospel of John in the ancient world.

Can you explain a little bit more what might have lead the scribe in the twelfth century to add this story?

 Well, it’s a terrific story. In the gospel of John right at this point, Jesus is condemning his opponents for not judging one another fairly—for not having a right judgment—and this is a story that in a way encapsulates that idea. That judgment is to be a righteous judgment and that mercy is more important that judgment. This illustrates the point being made in John chapter 7 and 8, and I suppose a scribe was reading John 7 and 8 and thinking about it and thought, this story that I heard in fact fits right in here, and put it in the margin for it later to be copied into the text.

 Do the scribes have that much freedom in the work that they could just add a story?

 Well, it’s shocking; it’s shocking to my students how often these scribes would change their text. In our setting today, when a book is produced, it’s always the same book. So I can go out and buy a copy of the Davinci code, and it doesn’t matter what city in America I buy the copy, it’s exactly the same copy word for word the same. So that’s what we expect of our books. But in the ancient world, they didn’t expect their books to be like that because they knew that these things were always being copied by hand and that mistakes were always being made, so that that very first copy of the book probably had mistakes. Then the person who copied that first copy copied the mistakes and added some of his own mistakes. Then that third copy was itself copied, and its mistakes were then replicated down the line. So, mistakes multiply through the copying process. Some scribes felt completely free to change the texts and would add stories or take out stories, add lines, take out lines. We know this happened. This isn’t just speculation. The reason we know it happened is because we have these thousands of surviving manuscripts, and when you look at these thousands of manuscripts, the striking thing about them is just how different they are from one another.

 What are you suggesting here, that we should just ignore that story of adultery—that that story has less currency than other stories in the New Testament? Or that we should just see that as a story that was added later and take as that? How does that affect your reading of that passage in the bible? What do you make of it?

 It’s a very good question. I think Christians who see the bible as authoritative have to make a decision: What is it that they think is authoritative? Is it the original text as it was originally written, is that authoritative? If that’s authoritative, then we have a problem because we don’t have the original text in many instances. But on the other hand, if someone wants to describe authority as a text that was clearly and certainly added later to the bible such as the story of the woman taken in adultery. If you describe authority to these stories that were added later to the bible, where do you draw the line? Does it mean that anybody can add something to the bible and then it can count as scripture? This strikes me as a very difficult theological problem that theologins probably need to work on a little bit to tell people what actually is the bible that is being trusted as the authoritative scripture.

 You say that scribes also often preferred texts to be easy to understand and non-problematic. What do you mean by non-problematic?

 Sometimes, even today, when somebody will be reading a passage in the bible, it’ll be hard to understand, or it’ll sound like it contradicts another passage, or it’ll sound like it’s theologically unacceptable, and so people will often put a question mark in the margin because they can’t figure out what it means. Scribes had that same situation, but they had the benefit of being able to change the passage so that it wouldn’t be a problem any longer, and that happened on a lot of occasions when scribes would make a passage easier to understand rather than harder.

 You offer as an example of this in your book Jesus meeting the leper.

 Yeah, this is a terrific story in Mark chapter 1. In most of the English bibles available today the way the passage goes is: there’s this leper who comes up to Jesus. He has some form of leprecy. We’re not sure what it is exactly. So the leper comes up to Jesus and says, If you’re willing, you’re able to make me clean. The text then says, Jesus feeling compassion for the man says, I am willing, and he reaches out his hand, and he touched him, and he made him clean. In some of our earliest manuscripts of this passage, there’s a change in the text that’s really quite striking. In these other early manuscripts, instead of saying Jesus felt compassion for the man so he reached out his hand and touched him, it says Jesus became angry and reached out his hand and touched him. Scholars have to decide what the original text probably was. Did Mark originally say that Jesus felt compassion or that he felt angry? The way the argument works (it might sound backwards to some people) is since becoming angry is the more difficult reading to understand, it’s more likely to have been the original reading. The logic is, you have to ask yourself, if you were a scribe changing the text, which text would you have been likely to have changed? If you had the text in front of you that said Jesus became compassionate, would you likely want to change that to say he became angry? ON the other hand, if the text originally said Jesus became angry, would you likely change it to say he became compassionate? As it turns out, there’s other evidence that in fact that is was Mark originally said—that Jesus became angry. That opens up all sorts of possibilities for interpretation. The point I’m making in my book is that the problem existed in the first place.

It’s a completely different interpretation, isn’t it, if you think that Jesus became angry when the leper spoke with him as opposed to Jesus feeling compassionate?

 Absolutely. It’s a completely different view. One of the exercises I give my students here at Chapel Hill in my New Testament class is, I have them read through the first six chapters of Mark’s gospel and to do a kind of character analysis of who Jesus is. They’re really surprised because in these chapters of Mark, Jesus does not come off as the good Shepard of the stain glass window. Jesus seems to be getting angry a lot, he ignores his family, he rips his followers away from their own families, he’s associated with the wild man in the wilderness—John the Baptist himself is driven into the wilderness by the spirit of god where he does battle with the demons. He commands illnesses and commands demons. He seems to be a very charismatic and powerful figure that isn’t to be messed with. This idea of him getting angry when this leper came up to him fits in perfectly well with the way Mark portrays Jesus in these chapters.

 How does it fit it?

 In these chapters, whenever anybody questions Jesus’s ability or authorization to heal, he gets upset. So the next story where this happens is in chapter 3. He’s in the synogoue and there’s a man there with a withered hand. The people are watching him to see what Jesus is going to do about it because it’s the saboth. It says Jesus looked around with anger at them. He told the man to come forward and he healed this man’s hand. So once again, you have Jesus getting angry in the setting of the healing story. Throughout Mark’s gospel healing stories, Jesus gets angry for a variety of reasons, so this leper is the first instance of that.

 We’re talking about how the scribes seemed to have changed passages in the bible for various reasons, and another reason that you offer is theological disputes—that there were theological disputes in different periods of history that may have affected how scribes relayed the story that they were transcribing in the bible. An example of that that you give is what Mark vs. what Luke has to say about Jesus on the cross. What’s the difference between the two stories?

 There are several differences between the two stories. Mark’s gospel is quite gripping I think because Jesus has been rejected by the leaders of his people, one of his own followers has betrayed him, another follower has turned him in as a traitor. All the other followers have fled. Jesus is silent throughout the entire proceeding of being crucified, and at the end, when he’s hanging on the cross, he says nothing until the very end where he cries out, “Ellwi…” “My God, my God, why  have you forsaken me?” and he dies. It’s as gripping story of Jesus in complete agony with hints of him actually doubting why he’s going through this. When you read Luke’s account of the same event, you have a very different portrayal. In Luke’s account, Jesus isn’t silent on the way to being crucified. He sees some women by the side of the road weeping for him, and he turns to them and says, Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for me, but weep for yourselves for the fate that’s to befall you and your children. While being nailed to the cross in Lukes’ gospel, Jesus isn’t silent. Instead, he prays, Father forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing. While being cruicified in Luke’s gospel, as opposed to Mark, in Mark you have both robbers mocking Jesus. In Luke, one of the robbers mocks Jesus and the other tells him to be quiet because Jesus hasn’t done anything to deserve this. Then this robbers turns to Jesus and says, Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom, and Jesus replies, Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise. This is very different. Jesus knows exactly what’s happening to him, he knows why it’s happening to him, he knows what’s going to happen to him after it happens to him. The most telling thing of all is at the very end, rather than crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus in Luke’s gospel cries out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” and he dies. In Luke’s gospel, what you have is a Jesus who’s completely calm and in control until the very end knowing perfectly well what’s happening to him and why, as opposed to Mark where Jesus is in complete anguish and in shock in the face of his crucifiction.

 You suggest that these two different interpretations of the story reflect theological differences of the time.

 I think Mark and Luke have different theologies of the cross. They have different understandings of what it means that Jesus died, and different understandings of Jesus’s attitude going into his death. What’s particularly striking is that the scribes who copies these accounts sometimes changed the accounts to illuminates some of these differences. And some of the time when they changed these texts they did so because of theological issues in the scribe’s own world that were going on. I can give you a couple of examples of this. One of the most interesting changes in the manuscript of Luke’s gospel takes place just before the crucifiction scene when Jesus is in the garden praying. In Luke’s account, (remember Jesus is calm and in control and is not bothered at all except for two verses when Jesus is praying before his arrest. Jesus is off with his deciples  and he sends them away. He takes just Peter, James, and John with him and he goes off to pray. In some manuscripts, we’re told that he went into great agony and he starting sweating great drops as if of blood and an angel came down to minister to him. These verses sound very strange  in Luke because in Luke, Jesus isn’t in great agony. But these verses portray him as being precisely in great agony. It’s striking that these two verses are missing from our oldest and best manuscripts of Luke. It looks like scribes have added them in in order to show that Jesus really did suffer. That’s significant because when these verses were added in the second century was a time period when Christians were debating whether Christ could have actually suffered or not. If he was divine, if he was in some sense God, then he obviously couldn’t really suffer. But, some Christians said no, Jesus had to suffer because Jesus was the son of God whose suffering brought about salvation, so if he didn’t suffer, there’s no salvation. So, it appears that some scribes who really wanted to emphasis that Jesus did suffer put in these two verses about him sweating blood.

These differences between the Mark and Luke versions are pretty big—whether Jesus was on the cross in a kind of transcendent way or whether he was suffering. That’s a really vast difference in the message you would take away from that.

 Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were writing books that they thought had integrity as books. So, when Mathew wrote his gospel of Mathew, he wasn’t planning on you reading that next to the gospel of Luke and interpreting what he had to say in light of what Luke had to say because he might have been saying something in fact quite different. What people do though is that they read all four of these books and then they mash them together and pretend that they’re all saying the same thing. This happens ever Christmas during a Christmas pageant when people take the story of Jesus’s birth in Matthew and the birth of Jesus in Luke and smash them together so that now you have the Christmas story, when in fact when you read Matthew, he has a very different account from the account of Luke. Both of the details of what’s said and differences that are discrepancies, they’re impossible to reconcile with one another if you look at them carefully.

 I want to get back to the passage you were describing in which there were two different versions of it in the bible, where Jesus is on the cross and in one version he is asking God why He has forsaken him and in the other version he seems much more calm and transcendent. Where do the scribes figure into this discrepancy?

 Scribes changed their texts in almost every passage and including in these passages—sometimes by trying to make these passages more alike and sometimes by trying to modify some of the statements of these passages . One of the most famous changes in one of Luke’s account of Jesus on the cross is his prayer for forgiveness. When he’s being nailed to the cross, only in Luke’s gospel you have this prayer, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” People today might think that he’s praying for the Romans who were after all crucifying him. But we read Luke’s gospel very carefully and luke’s like Jesus is in fact praying for the people who are responsible for his death who were the Jewish leaders. In the early Christian church, that was the way the verse was interpreted. Early Christian interpreters thought that Jesus was praying for the Jews. This was a problem for many Christians because in the second and third centuries, Christians had come to believe that God had not forgiven the Jews for anything they did to Jesus, that in fact God had destroyed the city of Jerusalem in the year 70 because he was punishing Jews for the way they treated his Christ. This is when you get these awful charges of Jews being Christ killers. Precisely during that time that Luke’s gospel gets changed by scribes and they changed it by taking out the prayer. So that in some manuscripts made in the second and third centuries, Jesus no longer prays, Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing. The reason for the change is pretty clear: it’s because these scribes didn’t believe that Jesus ever did pray for forgiveness and of course that God himself had never forgiven the Jews for what they did.

 So is it deleted during some periods and then added again later?

 Some scribes omitted it and then later some scribes the were copying the passage and saw that it was omitted, occasionally a scribe might add it back in or the scribe might just leave it as it is. So you end up with some manuscripts that don’t have the prayer, some manuscripts that do have the prayer. Then you’re left with the historical decision, did Luke have it orginially or did Luke not have it originally? So then the scholars argue which form of the text was the older form of the text. In this case, there’s not much doubt; originally Luke had the prayer and then some scribes took it out.

 Let’s look at another passage in the bible that you question, and that is the Lord’s prayer as we know it—the popular version of the Lord’s prayer.

 This is one of those passages that occurs in two different versions in the New Testament. It’s a passage that’s found in the gospel of Matthew and it’s found also in the gospel of Luke. This is one of those places where the two passages –the passage in Matthew and the passage in Luke—disagree with one another with respect to the wording of the text. If you were to read Luke’s version of this thing, you’d be surprised because it doesn’t sound like the version that you know in the gospel of Matthew. When you read Luke’s version, it goes like this (this is from Luke chapter 11): Father, ___ be your name, may your kingdom come, give us each daily bread, and forgive our sins for we forgive our debtors and do not lead us into temptation, and that’s it. If you’re familiar with the Lord’s prayer, it sounds about half of it is missing, and in fact, it is missing. Matthew gives the fuller version of the Lord’s prayer, but even Matthew doesn’t give us the version of the Lord’s prayer as people say it today. Matthew’s form of the Lord’s prayer ends by saying: Do not lead us into temptation but deliver us from evil. And that’s the end of the prayer. What’s happened over the years is when scribes were copying Luke’s version of the prayer, it would sound truncated to them just as it does to us. So, they would change what Luke had to say by adding phrases from Matthew. So when the scribes got done with the Lord’s prayer in Luke’s version, it sounded almost identical to Matthew’s form of the Lord’s prayer. This is a kind of change that scholars have called Harmonization (when scribes take two different accounts in two different gospels and harmonize them with one another so they don’t stand at odds with each other any more.)

 What’s the earliest version of the bible that you’ve every read or read the translation of?  I know you can read several languages. Can you read Aramaya?

 Yeah, the earliest copies that we have are in Greek, and the earliest piece of a manuscript that we have dates from around 125, so about 30 years after the gospel John was written, we have this small fragment. It’s about the size of a credit card. It’s in the John Rilin’s library in Manchester, England. And it has a few verses of John, chapter 18 written on the front and on the back. So, I’ve held this thing in my hand and read it. It’s really quite remarkable. As time goes on, we start getting larger fragments and then entire books fo the New Testament and what’s striking about these earliest copies that we have is that they differ from one another a lot more than the medieval copies differ from one another. This shows that early on in Christianity you don’t have professional scribes copying the text. Probably the people copying these texts were simply the literate people of the congregation. Most people in the ancient world were of course highly illiterate; so if there were somebody in the Christian church who could read and write, they were the one called and told to copy down this gospel. So, they would do it. They may not be skilled for that. They probably ended up making a lot of mistakes as a result.

 The translation of the bible that’s best known to us today as the King James version, you say there are kind of unique problems involved with the King James translation. What are some of the those issues?

 The one that’s most directly related to my book is that the King James translators had access to only late medieval manuscripts of the bible when they were doing their translation. These late medieval manuscripts are different in many ways from the earlier manuscripts that had been discovered since the 17th century when the King James translators were at work. Now we have much older and many  more and much better manuscripts available to us, so that we know there are passages that the King James translators included that weren’t originally in the bible. One of the key examples is one of the more interesting stories in the history of bible translation. There’s only one passage in the entire New Testament that explicitly affirms the doctrine of the trinity. In other words, that explicitly states that even though there are three persons in the godhead, there’s only one god. This is a passage in first John chapter 5 verses 7 and 8 where you can read in some translations like the King James bible, there are three that bear witness in  heaven: the father, the word, and the holy ghost, and these three are one. That ‘s an explicit statement of the trinity. Without that explicit statement you have to fish around throughout various texts and scripture to come up with the idea that there’s a trinity—a godhead made up of three persons even though the godhead is one. When the bible first got published in Greek in the 16th century, the first publisher to come out with a copy of the New Testament was an editor named Arasmus, the famous humanitarian from Roderdam. When he published his Greek New Testament he did not include this verse, and this sent the theologians crazy. The started accusing him of heresy, said he was trying to get rid of the doctrine of the trinity. They tried to ban his book all because he left out this one explicit reference to the trinity. Arasmus replied that he hadn’t found it in any Greek manuscript. It was in the Latin bible, in the Latin vulgate that had been used by medieval scholars through the ages, but it wasn’t in the Greek manuscripts. He challenged them and said if you can produce a Greek manuscript that has this in it I’ll include it in my next edition. So, as the story goes, they actually produced a Greek manuscript with it in it. In other words, they had somebody copy out the Greek New Testament by hand. When they got to this point, he inserted the verse in Greek and then completed this manuscript. They turned it over to Arasmus and he was true to his word. Because now it was found in a Greek manuscript, he included it in his next edition. And as it turns out, that was the basis of the King James translation. So that’s why that verse about the trinity is found in the King James bible—simply this kind of accident of history.

 Now that you have written this book about how scribes have changed the bible over the years, it also addresses some of the discrepancies between the different gospels in the New Testament, what does the bible mean to you now? When you were a young man and you were an evangelical Christian, the bible was the inherent word of god, you now longer believe that. What does the bible mean to you? You still spend your time studying it and teaching it, so it must still mean a lot to you.    

Yeah, it is very important to me and I think to our society. Even as our society moves toward or away from religion, the bible continues to be the best selling book in the English language and it’s a huge cultural and historical artifact. My view of the bible is that it lies at the very heart of our form of civilization and you can’t understand our form of civilization without understanding the bible. I don’t look on it purely as a religious book. I look on it as absolutely fundamental to our civilization. What I personally think about the bible is that the bible is made up of a large number of books written by a large number of authors who all had spiritual insights, and these insights don’t agree with one another. There are differences among them. Sometimes they actually contradict one another. John’s view of Jesus isn’t the same as Mark’s view of Jesus and it’s not the same as Paul’s view of Jesus. The book of revelation doesn’t agree with Paul. Just go down the line. There are marked differences among these various authors, but they all felt they had a message, and this message is still worth hearing today. There are various messages worth hearing today. I don’t think we hear the messages very well when we pretend that all the authors of the New Testament or all the authors of the entire bible were saying the same thing. In fact, they’re all saying very different things, and it’s important for us to recognize what these differences are if we’re to understand these books.

 How do you resolve finally the differences between the gospels? How do you resolve it historically, literary, or religious way?

 My view of it is that we should not try to resolve the differences—that we should let the differences stand—that Mark was writing to a particular audience at a particular time for a particular reason, and it’s worthwhile to see what that time, purpose, and reason were. Mark may have a message for the modern day, and it may not be the same message the Luke has for the modern day. Luke was writing at a different time with a different purpose, different reason, different audience. I think one needs to read Luke for what Luke has to say, and Mark for what Mark has to say, and all of the authors what they have to say—recognizing them as people who have spoken to Christians down through the ages and can still speak today. But the message they speak today won’t be the same message they spoke to their audience in the first century because we are different people from the people they were writing to, and we have different assumptions about the world, different beliefs, different practices, different perspectives, different world views, and all of that has to be taken into account when we read these books.

 In a different article that you wrote you said that you consider yourself and agnostic. What was the turning point for you from actually deciding that that’s what your were, an agnostic?

It was a long process for me because I went from being a fairly social Episcopalian to being an ultra conservative Evengelical. I guess basically I was a fundamentalist for a several years. But then my view started changing. I moved into liberal Christianity, and then I started doubting just about everything—not just the bible, but even the things the bible talks about. I had an experience when I taught at Rutgers Univesity where I was teaching a class called The Problem of Suffering in the Biblical Traditions where we dealt head on with how the bible explains the problem of misery and suffering the world. And this got me thinking about problems of suffering. Eventually, after thinking about issues for  years and years and knowing the problems in the bible, and knowing that my faith had been rooted in the words of the bible which I couldn’t  trust any longer because I wasn’t sure that we even had the words, all of these things combined eventually to make me think that maybe I didn’t believe any more. It was only 7 or 8 years ago I think when I started calling myself an agnostic. But as I tell people who ask, I’m a happy agnostic. In other words, I think that in fact that what I understand about the world now is better than what I understood when I was an evangelical Christian, and I have a happy life. So, it’s not a sad thing necessarily.

 In what way is your understanding better?

 It’s better because I no longer believe something I know to be false. The words of the bible are not the inherent words from God. There are discrepancies in the bible that cannot be reconciled, and we don’t even have the original words themselves. So, basing one’s life on words that we don’t even have doesn’t seem like the best way to go.

 What do you think in the current political debate when you hear people quote the bible to defend or explain their views on the issues of the day whether that’s abortion, war, homosexuality?

 I usually find it extremely frustrating because knowing the bible well, I realize that they’re quoting a particular passage when there are other passages that take just the opposite point of view. So quoting the bible as an authority ends up being somewhat disingenuous because it’s a rhetorical move designed to win an argument. The bible seems to get quoted a lot in the congress or a justification for going to war or gets quoted in debates over gay rights or abortion rights, and I think that in fact that’s just simply ripping passages out of context in order to justify one’s own point of view. The reality is the people in the ancient world didn’t have our view of abortion or homosexuality or western imperialism. These are our points of view. To quote an author writing two thousand years ago who didn’t have these points of view I think doesn’t really work.

 As an agnostic, what does Christmas mean to you?

 Christmas is still, I have to admit, my favorite time of year. I love Christmas trees and I love the giving of gifts, and I love the cheer of the season. I’m completely optimistic about it unlike a lot of people I know who actually dread the season. I love the season. As with most religious truths, I demythologize the meaning of Christmas. The ultimate Christmas story is god sends his son to the world for salvation and eventually his son is going to give  his life for the sake of others. This is a religion about giving and I think it’s a lesson for all of us that we all need to be more giving and this is a season whose religious truths teaches that.

 Thank you very much for talking with us.

 Thank you for having me.

 Bark Earman is the author of Misquoting Jesus. He chairs for the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.