- We only have copies of copies of the New Testament books
- These copies have hundreds of thousands of minor errors
- They also contain major errors and changes which affect our interpretations of Christian doctrines and the authors' intents (e.g. the Comma Johanneum and the Pericope Adulterae weren't part of the original text)
- In some cases, we may never know what the text originally said
If God didn't properly preserve his words in the Bible, why should we think he inspired them in the first place?
From there, he moves on to a summary of the early church. He points out that, far from being handed down to us from on high, the New Testament is the result of doctrinal battles between several early sects. Here are Ehrman's descriptions of the main groups that made up the early Christian church:
- Ebionites: The Old Testament laws are still in effect; God is strictly a single being; Jesus was human and not divine
- Marcionites: The wrathful OT God and the merciful NT God are separate beings; Jesus was divine and only appeared to be human
- Gnostics: Many divine beings exist; secret knowledge of oneself and the origin of the world is required for salvation; Jesus (human and temporarily inhabited by the divine Christ) came to impart this knowledge
- Proto-Orthodox: God is a single being in three persons; Jesus was fully human and fully divine; his death brought salvation
The process of establishing the official NT canon was long and painful. The first known attempt at a canon wasn't until around 170 CE (at best), the precise canon as we know it wasn't even suggested until 367, and it didn't become fully accepted until around 500. So what factors allowed the canon to form? Ehrman describes three tools that the proto-orthodox church used to stifle opposing views:
- The clergy: The proto-orthodox were the only Christian group with a centralized power structure. Church deacons had near-total control the congregation, telling them precisely what beliefs were true and which were heretical.
- The creed: Church leaders eventually settled on a single set of beliefs that had to be held by all congregants, written out in the form of the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed.
- The canon: The creeds were based on canonical holy books. Older books were given higher priority, as were books in widespread use. More importantly, they had to (claim to) be written by an apostle or an apostle's companion, and they had to conform to the proto-orthodox's existing views.
So the debate about the NT canon raged on and on, until finally it was settled... nearly five centuries after Jesus' death. This was a messy, human process during which church leaders were more concerned with tradition and conformity than truth. That this particular group emerged with this particular canon is a quirk of history based on factors that have nothing to do with God's guiding hand. Lastly, I'd like to point out that various fragments of the church disagree on the Old Testament canon even today. Why is it that God is so unable to communicate his message to those who earnestly seek him? Could it be because he was never there at all?